(Another) One Fallen Too Soon

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Last week my cousin died. Her name was Melissa Zygadlo Thomas. She was 40 years old and leaves behind a dear husband and two young children.

Cancer.

Damn cancer.

I was glad I got to return home to Ohio to be at Melissa’s funeral. It was good to be there, to be with the family.

This was the first death in my generation on my dad’s side of the family. My cousins Michael and Phillip, who both died in their twenties, were on my mom’s side of the family.

So it was important to be there with and for my dad and brother and the others.

“It’s good to see you,” everyone always says at funerals, and we mean it more dearly than ever for the present loss magnifies how precious we are to one another, “but I wish it was under different circumstances,” we are always quick to add.

Different circumstances…I wish the circumstances were different–that our restoration to one another was not at Melissa’s expense.

I hate death.

I feel no need to cancel out or console this hatred of death. My grief will not be undone by some supposed higher consciousness of “death as part of life.” No, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth–real, and raw, and painful–because death is the end of life as we know it. And life as we (I) know it is all I know in any tangible way.

Oh, yes, there is the here-after, there is the resurrection of the dead, and there are all of the great promises of something else, more, better in the time to come. These promises run through the scriptures I cling to, the faith I hold dear. Yet these promises are of little consolation in the actual here-and-now of living this life as we know it without Melissa as we knew her…or Elaine as we knew her…or Phillip as we knew him…or Michael as we knew him…or grandparents and great-grandparents and Amos & Opal as we knew them…

I think I feel this inconsolable sense of loss–this hatred of death–most keenly with these cousins of mine–Melissa, Phillip, and Michael–because they died so young. I think of these as untimely deaths.

But, truth be told, I wasn’t ready for any of them. The world doesn’t make sense anymore since Elaine died and she was in her 80s–not so very young, but still she is gone too soon.

And Opal…I have not written nearly enough about Opal…her passing was far, far too soon.

Opal too died of cancer.

Damn cancer.

I still hate that Opal is gone from this life as I know it…that loss was decades ago…but even all these years later, there is still an Opal-shaped hole in my heart, my life.

Opal and her husband, Amos, were like grandparents to me in a time when my grandparents and great-grandparents had either passed away already or lived too far away. I could ride my bike to Opal & Amos’s house…my brother and I would go there and play checkers with Opal and drink Coca-Cola, poured from glass bottles into Tupperware tumblers–nearly as tall as the bottles themselves–which we first filled with crushed ice from the mystical phenomenon of a freezer with an external ice-dispenser!

And I don’t remember stories about Opal so much as just the unconditional love that radiated from her. My heart knows who she was to me and that memory of her is so deeply a part of me. But I don’t know if I can ever, ever capture her importance in words.

This is the hole that death leaves. Ones so dear, yet nothing we can say or recall–even if we had kept detailed journals of their lives as we knew them–nothing can resubstantiate who and what they were.

I’m still in my mind and in my heart pondering the stories I want to tell about Melissa. If I’m counting right, she was closest to me in age of all my cousins (on both sides of my family)–Melissa was closer to me in age than even my own brother who is only two years older than I am.

There were “girly” toys we played with together–things my brother turned his nose up at. There were chats about school, and boys, and make-up. There was this extended family that we shared that we tried together to make sense of.

When we were both grown and had become mothers, we had a few occasions to talk about parenting. I admired how at-ease Melissa was in her role as a mother. With my son a few years older than her firstborn, I was still trying to recalibrate life as a mom, but she was a natural. She told me once that she didn’t see much use for a lot of parenting books, but that she would just trust her instincts. But oh, how I myself had poured over so many books!

Yet, Melissa’s instincts and all of who she was as we knew her are laid to rest.

And even as I try to remember what I need to remember about her, the memory of her is all there is.

I know there is something else, more, better for Melissa, Elaine, Michael, Phillip, Opal…

As the appointed leader of a congregation, I have had occasion to conduct two funeral services for members of the church where I’m serving. And in these times, it is my job to point the people to the life that really is life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus. And I believe it full well. It’s just that I’m not afraid of the hope and grief commingling–neither diminishes the other.

Hope isn’t some salve we put on our grief to make it go away. True hope in the God of the universe doesn’t fill in the grief-shaped hole. The hole remains. Hope doesn’t need to fill in the hole in order to function.

And the hole has plenty of its own work to do and is not at all interested in swallowing hope.

Really, if anything, the hole–holding that loved-one-shaped place in our hearts–can be for us a well, reflecting back to us the glimmer of light and life and love of the one we’ve lost.

I just wish it were under different circumstances.

Still, it is something–even if not tangible.

And even cancer and death cannot take away the glimmer–even if our words fail us to do justice to the life of the ones we have lost–the glimmer of their memory is as real as breathing.

Oddly, it is in hating death–in feeling it so hard and true and real and deep–in despising death I can begin to love life harder and truer and realer and deeper.

I hate death because it takes what is precious–life–the lives of those we love.

I despise these circumstances because I love life.

And if life is worth loving, and worth living, if lives are worth remembering (and they are!) it is because the Author of Life–the Creator of all things in heaven and earth has made life good.

And the Author of Life knows every story that I’m forgetting–and even those I never knew–about Melissa, and Opal, and Elaine, and Phillip, and Michael.

I may not have Melissa’s motherly instincts in which to trust, but I do trust in God–my God, the Lord of Life. And my hope in the Lord of Life abides alongside my grief.

I trust that Jesus is greater than anything we can experience in our living, in our loving, or even in our losing and dying. It is as Jesus promises, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Oh God, into your hands I commit life as I knew it, life as I know it now, and life as I can’t imagine in the yet-to-come. Into your hands I commend the lives of those I have loved and lost too soon.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sarah on March 27, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    This is timely…. My grandmother (90+) died a month before I made my cross country move. The same week , my sister in law was married. Life is odd sometimes. I am grieving her now more than I did then, partially because the weather — the slant of the light and the smells and the sounds– remind me of her, of playing outside near her garden, of swinging with her in the big porch swing in their yard, listening to her sing songs from her era. And it is though I am a little girl again. And my heart aches.

  2. Posted by catherine on March 27, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    Seems like perhaps a good time to visit CS Lewis “A Grief Observed.” Love to you.

  3. Posted by oma500 on March 29, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you, Jennifer. It is good to know that you understand grief. I have too many holes in my heart to count, but each represents a precious person in my sight and a precious soul in God’s.

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