I watched a family lose a beloved matriarch last week.
She was a family friend, and here in the South, that means she was more family than friend. Which made her family my family, too. Like those relatives you love but get to see only on rare occasions. Like weddings. Or bedside vigils. Or lottery winnings.
As it so happened, I had gone to the hospice where she was living out her last remaining moments. I wanted to check in on her daughter, who is in my ragamuffin support group called a Sunday School class. Her granddaughter is the resident clown/leader-in-disguise in my youth group. And I went because I’ve been there and I get it. I know the sting of death all too well. That’s a blog post for another day. Or maybe a book.
When I got to the hospice, I made the rounds with family members, casually making jokes and trying to break the monotony of watching someone die. That’s another blog post, too. When someone is in hospice, you know the End is near, but only God knows how near the End actually is. With that framework in mind, I’d intended to stay a bit and encourage as I could. Offer my prayers. And my feet. Run to Cracker Barrel. Get tissues. More Diet Coke.
But then, as life often does, life happens. Or in this case dying happens.
Within an hour, I witnessed the Matriarch’s family standing around her bedside, tears of grief mixed with relief and joy as she took her last breaths. The agony of losing a part of yourself. The relief that suffering didn’t win out and her pain was gone. And joy knowing that she was meeting her Savior face-to-face at that very moment.
It was a sacred, holy experience.
And it still hurt like h-e-double hockey sticks. That’s the Southern way to say hell, in case you’re still working out the grammar.
Even in the visitation and funeral, I kept bouncing between the holy and sacred to “this really sucks.”
I envisioned the Matriarch meeting my father-in-law, who no doubt was planning a practical joke while she was in hospice. I envisioned her meeting my friend, Sara, who passed away all too recently. I thought about my mom, who died from cancer, too. But most of all, I kept wondering what the Matriarch was experiencing. Since none of us knows on this side of heaven what it’s really like on that side of heaven, we are all left wondering. I could only imagine. (Cue Mercy Me song here).
I wondered and I ached. I ached for the family who would no longer see her smiling face or curly hair. For the grandchildren who could only rely on pictures and stories to know her. For my friend who can no longer talk to her mom every day. I ached for myself and my own losses. Her death was a painful reminder of them, too.
Watching someone pass from this life to the next is a sacred, mysterious moment, when deep beauty dances with gut-wrenching, take-your-breath-away sadness. I have felt both in the last week. And I can say with certainty (most days) that when the music stops and the dance is over, even when the grief threatens to suffocate you, life still wins out.
Maybe not right now, but someday.
Until then, I grieve and I hope.
And I eat a lot of chocolate.