Today is six months since my mother’s passing on August 24 from a suddenly appearing aggressive brain cancer. I normally wouldn’t focus on stuff here that’s so personal, but perhaps my working out of some of these things may be helpful to folks in similar situations or who know people affected in this way.
Even though it’s been half a year, it’s still hard to figure out just how to process her loss. There’s not been any clear emotional “release” for me in the mourning. Watching other people mourn, I get the impression that I’m supposed to have big emotions (not that anyone has said anything to me about it), but I suspect that perhaps my incongruity here is because the processing has no obviously linear path to follow. I’m beginning to have a few ideas as to why this is.
The first thing that occurred to me is that this is partly because it’s been some 11 years since I lived near my parents. And while some adult children are on the phone with their parents every day, I’ve just never been that way. My mother hasn’t been a daily part of my life in a long time. So her loss for me is more as an unavailable presence than as a present loss.
There is also the difficulty of being a clergyman. One of the odd things I experienced while in Colorado both for my final visit with my mother and then later for her funeral was the feeling of multiple internal “hooks” being pulled at once. On the one hand, I was her son and also a brother, nephew, cousin, etc., and experiencing the events in those ways, but also all my training and experience with death as a priest came to the fore. Especially since there was no one present acting as a priest (I’m honestly not sure what the norms surrounding impending death are for my parents’ church), I often got the feeling that I needed to be the one in the room who was emotionally steady and providing context, etc.
At first, I tried to separate out these two roles, familial and clerical, but then I realized that that would have been pretense on my part. I’m still all those things. I didn’t need to try to pastor my mother or family, but I also didn’t need to try to pretend that I haven’t already seen a lot of death.
All told, though, I think it makes it harder to process for me in the long term, because like most clergy I’m now well-practiced in the skill (and it is a skill) of getting through death in the short term without breaking down.
What may be the most difficult, though, is that my experience at processing death has been almost entirely within the context of the Orthodox Church. Prior to my conversion to Orthodoxy, I didn’t go to many funerals, and no one really close to me had died. All that really only started after my 1998 reception into Orthodoxy. So for me, dying, death, funerals, memorials, etc., are all Orthodox and liturgical.
But with my mom, the process of her death was only slightly touched by the Orthodox tradition, in that it was brought to bear in the prayers that I myself provided at her bedside, when I took my turn speaking briefly at her funeral, and then again at her graveside. While I wouldn’t intrude upon what was the norm for her church, I did find myself wanting something more. So my sense of what death normally looks like, especially in terms of the accompanying prayer, didn’t quite line up with what took place in Colorado last summer. That is not to offer any criticism — it was all meaningful and appropriate — but this is my experience of how to work through all these things.
All that said, the touchstone of the experience for me which not only brings all these concerns and complications together but also provides a roadmap for continuing the mourning process throughout the rest of life (mourning never really ends) are words that my mother spoke again and again to any who came near her during her final weeks:
The love of God is beyond all measure.
God is saying something to you. He has so much for you to do. It’s very important for you to listen.
In the Orthodox tradition, we pray often for “a Christian ending to our life, and a good defense at the fearful judgment seat of Christ.” It is clear to me that my mother had the first. Who could ask for more than an ending so filled with love and a clear message of hope?
As for the second, I hope very much that my mother will help to provide my own defense when that great and fearful day comes.
May your memory be eternal, Mom. May you pray for us as we pray for you.