Friday, December 20, 2013


Three things always surprise me about death and grief.

1. The humor.  I remember when my nephew Leonard died suddenly the grief and shock were like a suffocating cloud.

I didn't think I would laugh again for a very long time, if ever.  Yet down in Mom and Dad's basement in the days that followed we found the most idiotic things funny and collapsed in laughter.

Later I wondered, were our options down to a)laughing or b)going crazy?

With Mom's death, we experienced an entirely different sort of grief but again had these moments of stifled laughter behind the scenes.

None of us were on the ball like we should have been with getting Dad's suit cleaned before the funeral, which caused some complications, including calling back to the house right before the viewing for the stragglers to bring the right pair of pants, which turned out to have a rip in the seam in the seat.  My sister Rebecca has a purse that can handle any emergency like the time Ben and Zack crashed their bikes at a park in Salem and out came bandages and ointment, which is a whole other story, but in this case she magically produced a sewing kit.

There is nothing quite like huddling with your sister in the bathroom of a rented Evangelical Free church out in the country on a wild winter evening, stitching up your dad's pants so he can be presentable when all the relatives arrive.

Then there was the moment in the receiving line when my sister Margaret looked at the doorway and the first arriving crowds and exclaimed, "Why it's Aunt Ennie."  I turned to her and hissed, "Aunt Ennie is dead!" and suddenly I was laughing so hard I thought I would choke, and my sisters joined me, and we plopped down on the front pew and tried to look like we were crying.

It was actually my cousin Katie, Ennie's daughter who looks like her mom.

In Margaret's defense, it was hard to stay in touch with those aunts and uncles after we were grown and gone, and we all kind of lost track of who was still alive and who was gone.

Then there was another bathroom episode.

We had brought winter gear to wear to the burial and stowed it in the restroom.  I had a suitcase full of coats and gloves and scarves.  Others just had piles.

One of the two toilets was obviously malfunctioning so we didn't use that.  After the burial, when we were back in the bathroom shedding our layers and getting ready for the lunch, my cousin Anna Fern's voice came from the remaining stall.  "Is it safe to flush this?  It doesn't look too good."

I thought it would be ok.

She flushed.

Suddenly she made an alarmed noise as the water rose higher and higher.  We snatched the plunger from the other stall and first she shoved and then I did, but it did no good.

The water began to spread across the floor as we all grabbed armfuls of boots, coats, and trailing scarves off the floor and fled.

Anna Fern had the presence of mind to grab large wads of paper towels out of the garbage and throw them onto the pool to keep it contained.

It was funny in a terrible, what-else-could-go-wrong sort of way.

Later I saw a man walk by with his hands full of cleaning supplies.  I said, "Are you the. . . pastor?"  He said yes.  I said, "Are you heading for that mess in the bathroom??"

He said, "I found when I took this job in September that if you pastor a country church, you do a lot of things that were never on your job description."

Which brings me to surprise 2.  How kind everyone is.

The pastor cleaning up the ladies' restroom.  My friend Anita inviting me over for tea so I could debrief from the emotional highs and lows of the last weeks.

My columnist friend Bob Welch wrote in his column that my mom had died and he encouraged people to email me.  They did, in droves.  Perfect strangers who just wanted to be kind.

People texted, called, offered to help pay for plane tickets, sent flowers, brought food, sent cards, gave me hugs, prayed for us, posted sympathies on Facebook, and gave me lots of grace.

It was astonishing.

3. The uniqueness of grief.

Losing Mom was very different from losing my nephew which was very different from losing Paul's dad or my friend Marilyn.

Much of the grief for Mom was before she passed.  Much of the pain over the years was from that terrible helplessness and inability to make it all better as she lost one ability after another.

One leg of Mom's black nylons somehow came home in our suitcase. It is full of runs and holes.   Mom was always frugal, so when one leg of a pair of pantyhose got a run, she cut off the good leg and saved it.

This worked pretty well when she could see and think ok and throw out the salvaged legs as they also developed holes.

As she got older, it didn't work so well. Dressing up to go somewhere involved a long and frustrating process of digging blindly through tangled black hosiery and trying to find a pair that matched and were still good.

I would have loved to go buy her half a dozen new pairs of black stockings that she could put on with confidence after we threw out all the old ones.

She very emphatically didn't want me involved in this.

Now, I wonder a lot of things, about this issue and many more.  Was preserving her independence really the important thing?  Should I have been more pushy?  Was there a magic way I could have made this stocking issue easier for her without making her feel like I was taking over?  Was it all about me being the rescuer?  Did it matter, really?

Or do I think about stockings because I know I could have rescued her from that inconvenience?  Because I most certainly couldn't rescue her sight, her hearing, her health, or her mind.

And that was truly painful.

 "Everyone grieves in their own way," says Anita.  "It's ok."


  1. The only important thing is the way you loved her and that always comes through loud and clear.

  2. I am grieving of the loss of my dad in a car accident 8 years ago today. I've had a sad day and your post helped me remember a couple of ridiculous things we found funny during that stressful time. It brought a smile to my face. Thank you...

  3. My Grandpa King died after a long and wearisome decline. Our family was gathered and for some reason everyone was on the floor of the living room trying to stand on our hands, heads, tip over cassette boxes with our noses- when the Mennonite Bishop arrived with his wife and a casserole. We all scrambled to chairs and assumed the solemnity required when accepting casserole and condolences.

    Allen King

  4. My brother Merle delivered a perfect message at the funeral of our 18 year old son. He and Edith came over afterward and spent the evening with us. He had a book we looked through (something about what you didn't learn about the Mennonites in instruction class)and we laughed ourselves silly. I was embarrassed about how we were laughing after such a devastating experience but couldn't stop. Later, I realized it was as much of a tension release as the tears. I'm glad it happened here at home rather than in public! His message and his book were both helpful though on opposite ends of the see-saw.

  5. It happens - absurd things take on a life of its own with its ridiculousness becoming funnier. When my uncle died last year I was standing in line visiting with my cousin. We talked about how he could turn an ordinary observation into something very funny. I asked Betty what do you think he would say if he could see himself lying there in that coffin? She thought and thought and said in PA Dutch, "Ach, just looks like a dead man!" Oh, my, did we ever laugh - about never did get done! And I think uncle would have approved. :-)

  6. I told Dad about the "humor" items and he enjoyed them. He also reports that he talked to Jerry M. on the phone, who said that Paul had a devotional at the funeral and it was "very good".

    May you continue experience comfort and healing as you adjust to the loss of your mother. -- LRM

  7. I can so empathize with your columns about your mom's passing. I so appreciate you putting into words what I felt at my own's mom's death last year. Sending you prayers of peace and grace and hoping you'll keep sharing your thoughts and feelings here.

  8. I too am a mennonite in a different town. I was not raised mennonite and have only two cousins so when I married 36years ago I thought I'd never learn all aunts snd uncles and cousins names. So I can relate to the confusion if who's alive and not alive on earth. Love your stories and also understand as we recently lost my mother in law of thst generation and had to go through her years of belongings and things she saved (why)? Also lots of tears and joys. Blessings to you