It’s six months today since we moved house.
It’s also six months today since my father died.
It would have been his 75th birthday last Sunday, so Facebook, in its cheery manner of wanting us all to get along, threw up a photo from his 74th birthday telling us all to be happy. And we were, three of us lads standing around dad’s bed chair laughing, with dad giving as much of a grin as he could muster too.
You’d think a trigger warning from Facebook might be appropriate these days. No one dies in Facebook photos, they just get stored away, ready to pop up again on some anniversary you’d forgotten about, or were perhaps trying to suppress.
I turn fifty in a few months. So I’ve been tracking dad in terms of quarter centuries. Always just one behind him, up until now. Indeed it’s been a year of milestones. 21 years married. A daughter turning 16. 500 years since the Reformation (no seriously, it matters to be committed to a non-purgatory understanding of the after-life).
I have spent the six months since, grieving or thinking about grief. Among other things. In our busy culture grief – or thinking about it – has to fit into the nooks and crannies of the rest of life. And it did so for me.
Except for March. January was a flurry of activity; working out funeral arrangements, prepping a funeral service (I conducted, and spoke at it), trying to fit a holiday in there somewhere and tidying up the house we had lived in for seventeen years whilst sorting out the new rental.
March found me in a funk. In March, with Perth’s summer heat cooling off and church getting into a rhythm for the year, I found my brain less distracted by small stuff and pushing back into big stuff. My mood lowered, my reflective side kicked in, I stared aimlessly; I listened to Sufjan Stevens’ glorious and gutting ode to his dead mother, Carrie and Lowell, on endless Spotify rotation. And I shed a few tears, more than I shed since the day he died.
So I settled in for a period of grief. While cooking dinner. Writing a sermon. In the car. Watching an HBO series. Overseeing the kids play in the park. Out for a walk (never when out for a run as the only sound I listen to when I run is my breathing and the whoosh of blood in my head).
Death did as it should to me. As it should do to all of us before we die. It made me reflect on my own death; the need to be prepared; the brevity of life; the ageing process; the fact that the dementia time-bomb in Dad’s head may also have been smuggled into my own by some genetic terrorist bent on biomass destruction.
It found me simultaneously praising God for delivering us from the sting of death, which is sin, and grieving over death’s certainty for us all. Death is not the sting, a common misunderstanding and misreading of 1Corinthians 15:56. Sin is. Somewhere in God’s plan a transition from this age to the age to come was planned for untainted humanity, a well-done-good-and-faithful-servant-reward.
But sin soured it, turning it from a reconnecting transition to a separation transition. That’s what it means for the sting of death to be sin. And that’s why it’s so important to remember that the well done you will receive on the last day is not on the basis of your righteousness, but that of Christ’s, the second Adam who to the rescue came.
So March was a grief month. Not that the other months went blithely by as if, as with so many other things, I’d ticked off grief from the list of things to do. I would say out loud in the car from time to time “I can’t believe my dad is dead!”, only to realise I wasn’t alone when Declan would say from the back seat, “Don’t dad, it makes me sad.”
I don’t grieve as those who have lost loved ones cut off in their prime. It was downhill for dad. I continue to watch the very public ongoing grief of a Facebook friend who lost a young son tragically, and I feel the shudder myself. I watch as he longs for the age to come in a way I can only begin to imagine, despite my theology telling me it is my hope.
Last week my mum and my parents-in-law visited dad’s grave on his birthday. We’re yet to sort out the headstone yet. We’ve been slow off the mark with lots of post-death matters as we regroup as a family. We also had a wedding for my half-brother a few weeks back, a mix of the joy of gaining and the grief at what had been lost. It’s a complexity that the hyper-reality of the consumer culture cannot countenance.
Mum took this photo on dad’s birthday as she waited for Jill’s parents to arrive to pick her up to take her to the graveside.
Mum’s a good evangelical of the no nonsense type, but she felt a sense of joy when she saw this. Our hope will come from above. It will not take us above, because this creation matters, but it will come from above and flood the creation with Life, sweeping away death forever.
And, by God’s grace we see glimpses of that hope in the here and now. So my mum and my dad’s second wife only met on his death bed for the first time, but have had meals together to talk and understand each other since. There’s been more than rapprochement, there’s been forgiveness. Sin, that nasty sting of death, is being drawn -even in this age – due to the death that ended all deaths, that of Christ.
And that’s something that, even in the land of mourning – should it enter a second six months for me – is a matter of great joy. It feels like mourning, mourning for this particular death, has broken and I am in another phase now.
Yet experience tells me there is more mourning to come; unforeseen and foreseen deaths, as well as the general mourning we experience as we watch the whole creation suffer, a suffering of which our own is but a painful, poignant microcosm.
And our ultimate hope is Revelation 21:4, where God, in his role as our great Comfort, leans over our final tears of mourning and grief and, like the true Father he is, says “Let me get that for you.” And mourning will be broken for good.