Cultural Vignettes at the End of a Life

I’m still going through some of the materials from a recent course I took on death and dying, and reflecting on the lessons I learned, especially as I engaged much of this course around my deepest experience with death–the passing of my grandfather in 2010.

I previously spoke about how this shaped me personally and vocationally, and how I often felt I was on the outside looking in, taking in the scene at my grandparent’s house almost as an observer. No doubt this retreat into my mind was protective, for better and worse.

But one thing this granted me was the chance to look at this from a bird’s eye view and observe some of the subtle cultural dynamics here, ancient and modern, and their collision with human tendencies around death and grief.

Death–awaiting it, grieving it, and even approaching it ourselves–is wrapped up in a myriad of cultural forces that shape our inner and outer lives. One could even argue that most (perhaps all) of our cultural rhythms are a response to mortality: a denial of it, a distraction from it, outliving it, or an attempt at delaying it.

My grandfather passed passed away the day after Christmas, so our grief and vigil in that last week happened against the backdrop of the holiday (and my birthday, which was another odd dynamic). It was an unusual paradox, to say the least.

The decorations were up, we made the family recipes, opened presents, told stories, and made jokes. My aunt read the Christmas story for the kids, and we watched as they played and danced and fought on the floor before us. But every once and a while someone would break into tears, or go to the back room to spend time praying or talking with Peep. People would show up to visit the house and everyone would start crying again.

Having studied both ancient and modern Middle Eastern grieving practices in seminary, I saw similarities here in the cross-cultural rhythms of awaiting death, telling stories, pressing into spirituality, and the surges of collective grief and emotion. The same would have happened after Lazarus’ death, and Jesus’.

After my grandfather breathed his last, a tension was broken in the house and everyone let out a collective breath. The waiting, watching anticipation may have taken more of a toll than the moment of death itself, though a different kind of grief and pain subsequently arose in the days, weeks, and months. This is fairly normal.

It’s also normal that we found some relief and some life in the weird mercy of all those practical decisions that have to be made immediately after a death: people to call, obituaries to write, certificates to sign, a body to move, a viewing to prepare, and a funeral to plan.

I know these can sap what little energy is left from already-drained people, but at least in my observance at this time and others, it seemed like there was relief in feeling productive and being somewhat distracted by having something to do again other than sitting and just waiting for your worst fear to happen.

My wife will tell you (much to her frustration at times) that I don’t so much remember things in a linear fashion, or in terms of each thing that was said, but more in sense memories, glimpses, images, flashes. In this case, my own wiring and the unique cultural moment of my family and the world lent itself to some oddly specific memories.

First, I remember getting the call and hearing the news about my grandfather while I was driving around the Philadelphia Art Museum. I don’t remember the flight to Texas at all. I just remember the awkwardness when I was picked up by family members who had been in Texas for days prior and I had no idea how to discern the emotional space of everyone in the car nor how to occupy such a space.

Once I got to my grandparent’s house, though, I remember feeling such immense gratitude that I was able to be there in the final hours of my grandfather’s responsiveness so I could be confident he knew I was there.

2010 was also when I and others had their very first smartphones and we were just starting to develop the cultural psychology of getting lost in one’s phone in moments of anxiety. I also remember inexplicably feeling guilty and embarrassed when calling my job to tell them I would be away longer due to funeral scheduling.

One interesting memory: at the suggestion of my aunt, I lied to my grandfather, saying that my girlfriend at the time and I were now engaged. The family felt he would feel more at peace knowing that most all his grandchildren would be married after he was gone. If God is real and there is an afterlife, I’m sure my grandfather is going to want to talk to me about that.

Lastly, I can still feel where the shame sat in my chest for a long time because I turned down a request to speak at the funeral. I hadn’t spoken much in front of others and felt very uncertain in it. I very much regret that. I am very glad, however, for having taken as many moments as did to go sit in the back bedroom with my grandfather to speak to him, pray over him, and sit in silence with him.

It is helpful, therefore, to have an eye turned towards vignettes like this to see where we go in such moments–humor, our phones, menial tasks, deception, shame. With that knowledge we can either give gratitue for those gifts and graces in such moments, or push back on the tendencies that lull us to sleep to ourselves and the world, long before it is our time to finally do so.

Because as long as we are here, we ought to be here. Awake, alive, present to the world and people around us, and to our very souls.

Art Credit: “Infinite and Solitary” by Christine Kim

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