Vigil & Vocation: My Grandfather’s Death & My Life

Two weekends ago was the birthday of my late grandfather, who died a decade ago. I just finished a social work class on end-of-life issues, and that class had me thinking a lot about him, the impact of his death, my own life and legacy, and how that has all changed and morphed over these past ten years.

So I’m going to spend a few posts reflecting on this. Today I wanted to share how the experience of his death shaped my life personally and professionally.

But first, a little about him. Due to a mispronunciation by the first grandchild, we called my grandfather “Peep”; and Peep and Mammaw’s house was where the entire family came for weekly dinners and holidays. He was the quintessential man of his age: the quiet, stoic, Texas man’s man. He was my mother’s father, the patriarch of the family, and exerted a great centrifugal force in the system. His death left a large hole which I don’t know we’ve recovered from, honestly.

In the middle of December 2010, Peep experienced complications with throat cancer and a subsequent fall, and when it was clear the end was coming, our family traveled back to Texas to spend his final days standing vigil. He was placed in a hospital bed in the bedroom he had shared with my grandmother for decades, accompanied by constant hospice care.

While that entire side of the family lives in the Dallas area, my parents moved to Virginia when I was 10; and in the 15 years between our move and Peep’s death, we went back maybe three times? This meant that when the end came, I felt somewhat like an observer, on the outside looking in.

While there’s some shame in admitting that, it also gave me a certain distance that allowed me to support others there, especially my grandmother. Others were not able to attend to her due to their own grief and pain. But I was able to spend moments holding or hugging her, asking about her experience and processing. She’s a from a generation that never spoke much about their emotions, so these talks were the first time I felt like I really saw my Mammaw and her inner life and thoughts.

Now, while everyone in my family was a (mostly) practicing and believing Bible Belt Southern Baptist, there was a strong impulse to not be “weird” or too open about it. So I’ve always sort of been the odd one in that group, wearing my faith more openly on my sleeve, seemingly carrying on the legacy of my great-grandmother: a fiery charismatic who put the urgency of her faith in everything she ever said, however mundane.

So I was the one given space to be present with others and to serve as a sort of “family chaplain”, called upon for the moments when “that sort of thing” seemed appropriate, where no one else had developed a vocabulary or openness with their spirituality to do so.

I was asked to pray with different family members and over meals, offer Scripture and encouragement, and pray over Peep’s body in the seconds after he died and Mammaw began her hardest sobs. It was there, in those acts and moments and days in Dallas, that I really felt present in a unique way, like I was doing what I was wired to do, and what I would dedicate my life and vocation to doing.

Even though the grief is still real over the loss of Peep, I really value having had those moments with my family. Not only for the meaning and connection with those family members, but also for how it shaped my life with and for others.

I had long before then discerned my draw to a helping profession–knowing since I was in middle school that I wanted to be a counselor–and by then I had moved to Philadelphia to go to seminary for a pastoral Divinity degree. But it was there, during the Christmas season of 2010, living alongside my dying grandfather, that I became the counselor and pastor I feel called to be today.

It seemed that, in those moments of deepest stress and grief, I was able to be non-anxious, open presence for others, offering what I could of connection and peace, both human and divine.

Part of this service on my part was self-protection, to be sure; part of it was confusion—defaulting towards helping others because I had no idea how to understand or situate myself. But I hope (and believe) part of it was a genuine ability to find life and meaning in being present to another person’s grief.

My path since then has taken some detours, hit some speed bumps, inflicted and received pain, and gone through re-evaluation. But now, as I am (finally) getting my Masters of Social Work and my church goes through it’s biggest ever changes, I feel a new vitality, energy, rededication, and vision for this.

This class on death and care, as well as reflecting on my grandfather’s life and death, have made the gravity and meaning of this work all the more apparent in these recent days. I am grateful and humbled–and excited–to know what I am here to do with my life, and to have experienced such a potent sense of call and confirmation all those years ago.

What about you? Have you ever experienced a moment where you felt you were truly and fully doing what you were made to do? Are you living in that call now?

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One thought on “Vigil & Vocation: My Grandfather’s Death & My Life

  1. Pingback: Cultural Vignettes at the End of a Life | the long way home

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