A few years back, I met a man whose father had died, and he was going through a difficult and extended grieving process. Randy recognized that his father had been suffering, and was glad that the suffering was gone; both he and his father shared a strong faith, and the man trusted that his father had found peace in his eternal home.
However, their relationship had been a difficult one. Whereas Randy’s two sisters had been successful, he had always struggled; and even though he had been the primary caregiver in the last few years of his life, his father’s criticism continued to sting him.
Randy could never measure up, and his father had never let him think otherwise.
After his father’s passing, Randy had not been able to find the peace that he trusted his father had. He wanted to talk to his sisters frequently about their life growing up, to share the stories and the pictures of his father. At each of the family gatherings, he made sure there was some recognition of their father, and he only shared the positive aspects of what was, for him, a much more complicated experience.
Transitions are difficult — people don’t like change.
The biggest change we face is at the end of life, through the dying process. Intimately connected to that is the transition from a life with someone you love, to trying to live without that person.
As a hospice chaplain, I travel alongside people in the last chapter of their lives. I also walk with people after they lose a loved one, helping them to find a new way of being in the world. But death is not the only kind of loss we face: I see people struggling with failing vision, reduced mobility, and a lack of independence that they had once enjoyed.
And of course, not all transitions are bad. People find new jobs they are excited about, successfully work through recovery from drugs and alcohol, and begin new relationships. Even with the promise that each of those brings, however, there is still something scary in letting go of our familiar patterns and trusting that we will find our way through uncharted territory.
This is a natural human response, and even people with strong faith sometimes have difficulty moving forward.
The Israelites headed out into the unknown after generations of groaning under the yoke of slavery in Egypt. God had heard their prayers, sent plagues upon Egypt, and delivered them out of captivity, leading the way with a column of smoke. Although individuals, such as Moses, had left before, now the entire community was heading out together.
At the edge of the Red Sea, they are at an impasse. There does not seem to be a way forward, and the Pharaoh’s army approaches. They have seen God act in power through the plagues, but now they doubt that power. The sea before them parts, and a way opens that seems impossible, and they move forward.
At this point, it would seem like they could trust in God. They’d seen the Pharaoh’s army was thrown into the sea, and they are truly free from bondage in Egypt.
However, the reality began to sink in: now what? Egypt had been terrible, but it was familiar. They didn’t know where they would find food or water, and despite the miracles they had already seen, they did not trust in God’s salvation. Going back seemed like it might be a good option to some, and they mourned the way of life that was no longer open to them.“If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
This is a natural response. Everything is new, and the way forward lacks all familiar landmarks.
After his father’s death, Randy faced a different sort of wilderness. He trusted that his father had found peace, but he could not. Like the Israelites, he could not imagine the path through the wilderness ahead, and cast a fond eye back to a past that never really was.
For Randy, acknowledging the fullness of his relationship with his father — both the good and the bad, not to blame or condemn — was the key to moving forward. There was not a pillar of smoke leading him forward, but God was present with him through the journey.
The journey through grief feels like a wilderness; transitions are difficult. But even though the journey may be long, we are not alone. God and the people of God are always present with us to comfort and to guide.
Craig Dove is Staff Chaplain, OhioHealth Hospice.