My father died unexpectedly in October 2012 and, in the days that followed his death, I wandered around in a fog. I went through the motions of helping my family arrange his funeral and I did what I could to put my grief aside to help the Fruit Loops manage their shock and hurt. I answered the door as flower arrangements arrived in droves and mindlessly ate lukewarm slices of lasagna that had been reheated by someone I can’t remember. I hugged his colleagues numbly as they cried near his casket and told me wonderful stories about an office life of which I knew very little. I stared unbelievingly at his casket in the vestibule of the church and I concentrated on the pinch in my shoes as the priest processed into the church, my father’s body close behind.
I gave my father’s eulogy in front of his family and friends as a knot in my stomach threatened to spill over onto the pulpit. I steeled myself from my emotions and begged my heart to let me stagger though my words before I crumbled into a pile on the altar. I stared aimlessly at faces I could barely see over the tears that threatened to fall as I tried to detail what my father, affectionately known as Big Art, meant to me. As I stepped down from the altar, I turned and looked at the cross above the priest’s head. I was hit with shocking anger at a God who could take a grandfather away from his beloved grandchildren.
In the months that followed his death, I grieved. I cried hot, heavy tears and felt rage deep into my bones. I couldn’t concentrate, I was cold all the time and I was just plain angry. Angry at the Fruit Loops, angry at Hubby, angry at the poor grocery cashier who didn’t instinctively know that I wanted plastic bags (it’s *always* plastic, people). I carried a weight in my chest and could barely fall asleep at night because I was weighed down by grief I couldn’t control. Running was no longer a solace for me because it meant being alone with thoughts I couldn’t handle and sitting in a room with my friends made me want to crawl out of my skin. Life had gone on like nothing had happened, as if the world had forgotten that my father was now in a cold, dirt grave.
And I couldn’t face God.
Oh, I tried. I dragged myself out of bed on Sunday mornings, in an appearance of normalcy, and put on a church dress. I’d silently sit next to Hubby and the Fruit Loops as our priest gave a homily, all the while counting the minutes until I could escape the torture. Everywhere I looked in the church I could see my father: he was in the kindly old gentleman with the cane who held his wife’s hand and he was in the wooden rosary beads dangling next to the stockinged leg of the lady beside me. He was in the sound of the deep gutteral cough in the back of the sanctuary and in the screech of the baby in the pew in front of us (my father used to tell new parents that we teach babies to talk all week long and we couldn’t expect them to not practice their words during church). And, perhaps worst of all, he was in what I am fond of calling the “Funeral’s Greatest Hits”: the church hymns that cut deep into your soul and cause you to come right back to the moment when you could smell the calla lilies and feel the death in the air.
And I missed my faith. I missed the comfort I found when I’d commune with a God who understood that I wasn’t ever going to agree with all of my Catholic faith. The God who forgave me for saying the F bomb more than I say “please” and “thank you” (shut up, we’re all sinners). The God who knew that I’m a person just trying to do a little good and that sometimes, okay, a lot of times, I’m out of the pew more than I’m in it on Sundays. I missed the serenity I used to feel as I’d look next to me and see my family quietly sitting together united in fellowship and the knowledge that we’d be eating donuts soon. And, I was tired of breaking down into the ugly cry every time On Eagle’s Wings came floating from the choir. Seriously, there should be a disclaimer for that song.
As the months wore on, I resigned myself to the fact that my faith was broken, damaged beyond repair. I tried to accept that I’d never feel the same in a church again and I struggled with the idea of stopping altogether. One day, though, a kind friend asked me how my grief process was going and I broke down and told her how frustrated I was that I was out of tune with my faith. She suggested that I talk to one of our Deacons, who happened to be a grief counselor. When I balked, she urged me to reconsider. She gave me his number, I thanked her and I promptly put it in my purse, hoping to forget it existed.
But, even a week later, the card in my purse kept calling to me, telling me to take the first step towards healing. And, though I was skeptical, I made the call and arranged to meet our Deacon the following week.
When the Deacon met me in the chapel, the air was hushed and the smell of incense was thick. The silence was almost deafening and, as he invited me to sit in front of him, face to face, I felt an overwhelming terror. “This is a mistake”, I thought. “I can’t talk to a stranger about my dad,” I panicked. But, as his kindly eyes met mine, he said the four words that are responsible for me finding my way back to my faith:
“Tell me what happened.”
As I stared blankly at him, he repeated the words in the exact same way and waited patiently. I fumbled with my fingers and felt a lump swell in my throat as I opened my mouth and told him the story of how my father got sick, the painful months leading up to his death and the excruciating details of the day he died. For almost an hour, he sat with me, held my hand, and listened to me tell my story. I cried, I spat out angry frustrations and I smiled as I reminisced. And, the whole time, the Deacon just quietly accepted my words without judgement.
In giving my grief a voice, the Deacon helped me unload the weight I’d been carrying. Months of anger, hurt and grief were lifted as I let myself admit out loud how I’d been feeling. And, when I shamefully admitted how angry I was at God for taking my father away from me, he gently said, with a twinkle in his eye, “That’s okay. God forgives you.” We talked about forgiveness and grace, pain and suffering, hope and promise.
And that simple act of listening, an overwhelmingly simple kindness, was enough to help me slowly work my way back to the pew on Sunday. But not *every* Sunday, mind you. I’m still not perfect, you know.
In the years since my father’s death, I can now sit in church and accept my Dad’s presence near me. I still maintain that the Funeral’s Greatest Hits should be banned but, for the most part, I know Big Art is looking down on me with a smile. I haven’t ugly cried in quite some time and even managed to make it through “Amazing Grace” without wanting to junk punch the choir director. Baby steps, I tell you.
And, when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, please forgive me as I change the words to “Our Father, WHO IS Big Art in heaven…..”. I mean, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, right?.