The first time I saw my father cry was in 1963. I was nine years old. We had gotten word the day before that my mother’s oldest sister had been murdered while working in her husband’s law office. A stranger came in off the street and killed her in a deeply brutal manner. It became news across the state for nearly a year. I remember stepping into my parent’s bedroom. My father was lying on the bed, face down, and sobbing into his pillow like a child. I stepped back in awe.
The funeral was beyond somber. On the day of the visitation, I was left with my Dad’s sister-in-law. Sometimes having a kid tag along is just too much. My aunt who was looking after me that day, however, actually paid attention to me. She told me the story of how she found her own father dead, the victim of a suicide. We talked about feelings that I had no words for. I felt forever bonded to her and grateful.
Years later, when I was an Episcopal priest, we received word that a cousin had been shot to death in a chance event in his local 7-11. When the family gathered in my uncle’s home, we sat in stunned silence. The grief was beyond thick. Occasionally, some one would get up from their chair and go to the bathroom to throw up. There were no words.
I have seen many deaths, most of them natural. The grief from an accident is strong. The grief from a suicide is horrific. The grief from murder, though, seems to go beyond everything else.
Years later, again while serving as an Episcopal priest, a parishioner who was a social worker, came to me with a proposal. She said that she knew a number of people who had endured deaths in their families. A number of them were the victims of drunk drivers. Others were murdered in various circumstances. All the families, she said, had stopped going to church in the aftermath of these deaths. She wondered if I would be willing to host a meeting for these families at the Church, just to listen to their stories.
We did it. We used the small chapel of the parish. I opened the meeting by sharing my own story and my family’s experience. Around the room the stories went. There was anger and bitterness. There were plenty of tears. It was one of the longest afternoons of my life. At the conclusion, I asked if I could celebrate the Eucharist. There were questions, and a general agreement.
I celebrated the Eucharist.
Over the next year, I heard from various families who had attended that day. One family asked me to preside at a wedding. Others let me know that they had returned to Church. The truth was that they had already returned to Church the day of that meeting. There, God heard their pain and the sound of their unresolved grief. No one (certainly not me) offered any well-meant words of comfort, and certainly no attempts were made to explain what cannot be explained.
There were thoughts. There were prayers.
The woman who set the meeting up was deeply involved in a program to support legislation for dealing with drunk drivers.
Someone needed to just listen and to pray. She knew her work was important, but that there was something else for which there are no guidelines, no legislation, no words.
For me, as a child, that moment came with an Aunt who shared her story and listened to mine. I think that it was in my 10th year (another aunt died of Lupus a few months after my first aunt died) that I made a fundamental decision about God. My thought was that either there was a God, or there was no meaning at all. Ten year-olds are not supposed to have such thoughts yet – but they’re not supposed to be exposed to murder, either. My faith wavered off-and-on over my teen years, but never my sense that there was Someone there. He listened and He cared. I did not need words or explanations.
Over the years, I have been at the bedsides of hundreds of deaths (particularly in the years I served as a hospice chaplain). Each one was precious. Each one was a meeting of earth and heaven, a revelation of the One-Storey Universe. I have stored them all in my soul and remember them in my prayers before God.
God sits among us in our grief. The good God who loves mankind wept at the death of His friend.