We are on furlough in our grandmother’s house in Illinois and my mother answers the phone. “What?” “What?” she asks several times for clarification, speaking loudly into the phone. It is an international call from Pakistan. She gets off of the phone and we learn that on Easter Sunday our cousin, who is perhaps the sweetest man any of us has ever known, has been hit by a bus while riding his motorcycle and has been killed. One year later when his family picks me up at the airport in Islamabad, upon seeing me, their grief is as raw as the day he died. And I, being only sixteen and half-removed by culture, do not know how to enter in to it.
A half a year later, in the back seat of a van with confused tears drying on my cheeks, I am in half sleep as we drive through the night. I hear only snippets of a conversation between two doctors, family friends, who are referencing Harold Kushner’s classic When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I can remember no more than this. I have been told by them only that something has happened to my grandmother. They are taking me home. Before we leave for our journey, though, a mother of a friend of mine has told me upon my asking what has happened, “It was your mother,” who has just returned to Pakistan a month earlier. Upon arriving at our home, which I have left to go to school only two days earlier, my aunt confirms the worst. My mother has died in an accident. It is 1986.
“You suppose if a wound goes so deep, the healing of it might hurt as bad as what caused it?”*
There have been far too many emotions and life events that have passed under time’s bridge for any type of easy summary since that day, though I can safely say that the early passing of my mother is still a wound and a trouble at the core of my spirit. That, despite having written about it specifically and grief more generally and talked about it to many people, that I have not really gone deeply or painfully enough into that wound to experience healing. On the spiritual and intellectual side of things, my grief work has been a bit more complete, as I have internalized and sought to practice the truth that those of us who have experienced suffering may be able to better offer comfort to others with greater empathy and success. Though, truly, this principally consists in having learned that what is best when comforting others is simply the ministry of presence, of sitting and listening. As to the questions of why these things must happen at all to good or even marginally good people**, why they happen to anyone at all, to leave their loved ones bereft—well, despite some theological and philosophical beliefs about the nature of the good and evil in the universe, I still have no answers.
I am thinking more directly about these things today because in my new church, we will very soon experience this very same trouble once again, as the wife of one of our pastors will soon die an early death from ALS. It is not, however, my family’s story and I will not try to make it my own by offering much comment here. It is very difficult to be the loved one of someone who dies who is much loved by many; one’s grief so easily can get lost in the sea of the grief of others. And, yet, in my short acquaintance in this past year, I have been amazed at what I have seen in her life in the few times I spent with her. There are two moments particularly which stand out, which I can call my own.
When having every reason to focus on her own difficulties, my pastor’s wife exhibited such thoughtfulness and kindness and a mind continually engaged with the troubles of others and the world at large. One Sunday, just after the school shootings occurred in Pakistan, using her assistive iPad to speak, she asked me about my family and their safety. The sweetest thing of all on that day, though, which I will never forget, at first blush may seem rather odd. After our meal, to which our pastor had invited some of us newcomers (the fact that he had invited us to lunch at all given the circumstances contains its own lesson), she made it a point to interject from across the room—again using her iPad—in order to say to her husband that he needed to talk less so that others could speak! We all laughed, but to me the remark was deeply moving. The comment appeared to me to be one small tip of a mighty iceberg of practical spousal support and love, and she was not letting her frailty keep her from being who she was.
Last night in prayer group, I prayed along with some others with far deeper connections to our pastor and his wife. We prayed about our deep impending sorrow. We prayed for our pastor; we prayed for his family we prayed for ourselves. Afterwards, I went to the park, sat for a while in my car, and asked God once again, the question with no answer. Why?
* Quote from the character Percy Talbot from The Spitfire Grill.
** I know, I know, “No one is good, but God alone.”