In the Shadow of Death
To survive I need hope, so if faith and the hope of life beyond the grave is a crutch for the weak, sign me up.
My grandmother is dying.
When she passes, she will leave my father an orphan, joining my mother who’s been an orphan for 23 years. The “next line of defense” will have passed on, ushering my parents one step closer to eternity.
Ushering me one step closer.
Gram, as I call her, has been suffering. Her 89-year-old, weak body has been starved to the point that it has begun to eat itself, leaving her at 70 pounds. She has a bit of dementia, and when she looks at a photo of my grandfather and her, she claims that she knows them but can’t quite place who they are.
When I saw her the week before Christmas, she still knew me. I held her cup of sweet tea as she sipped it and gently rubbed her hands and silently prayed that she wouldn’t linger.
Death is a terrible reality. And we can do absolutely nothing to stop it. We can only sit by helplessly and watch it speed up the clock, as the future becomes the present, which too quickly becomes the past.
When Gram leaves this earth, everything for those who remain behind will change. The home I used to visit from childhood until two weeks ago will be sold to another. Gram’s sharp wit will be quieted. The plethora of her pig collection will be sold or given away or trashed. We’ll be left only with memories.
Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame wrote of his mother’s death and the grief that accompanies it: “The difference between joyous crying and sad crying is only for the young. . . . I’m old enough to know that I’ll never again really know why I’m crying. . . . I could make [my mom] laugh. I could make her laugh harder than anyone in the world had ever made her laugh. You tell me, am I crying now with sadness or joy?”
I understand that emotion too well. I can think of the Christmases Gram spent with me and how much we both looked forward to them, and the Cubs game we went to, and the times she played grocery store with me when I was a little girl. And I have no idea whether I’m crying for joy at the memories or sadness at the loss.
Penn and I share that understanding of grief. The difference between our mourning, though, is that Penn is an atheist. When his mother died, for him, she simply ceased to exist. And truly all that is left are memories.
Some people believe that faith is a crutch for the weak. You cling to faith when life is difficult and painful so that you can make it through the suffering. There is no God who comforts. There is no eternal home. We all simply cease to exist.
As I’ve contemplated my grandmother’s certain departure, and as I’ve cried tears that were both joyous and sorrowful (not knowing the difference), I’ve realized again that if faith truly is a crutch for those who need help making it through the suffering, then sign me up.
I don’t want to live with the thought that this life is it.
I want to live believing that “the LORD’s loved ones are precious to him; it grieves him when they die,” that he comforts us, that our memories are sweet, but just a promise of the joy that is to come when we will never again be separated from our loved ones. I want to believe. I want to have hope. Because we cannot survive without that gift from our Creator.
And in the depths of the dark night, I want to be able to say, “I will hope continually, and will praise You yet more and more.”
I want to sing hallelujah—not just when my life is smooth and good and I’m surrounded by family and friends. I want to sing hallelujah when I’m suffering, because it means so much more. Because it’s saturated with hope.
And so as I say goodbye to my sweet Gram, I will raise my eyes to the heavens, to the Maker of heaven and earth—to the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, who has a plan for us, who loves us, who never forgets us, who has numbered our days, who is preparing a place for us—and thank him that it isn’t truly “goodbye,” but “until we meet again.” And to that I cling hopefully and gratefully.
Ginger Kolbaba is editor of Today’s Christian Woman. Her grandmother passed away on Friday, January 11, 2013.