My grandfather died yesterday. He died just short of his 87th birthday and 65th wedding anniversary. He died in Mountainview, California suddenly and peacefully after a long battle with cancer and the harsh treatments it required. He left behind his wife Jeanne, five children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, all of whom loved him very much.
He is the first person I have lost that was a significant influence in my life, and who I loved deeply. It is the first time in my life that I have experienced the grief that comes so uniquely from this sort of loss. It is, I’ve noticed, sort of incomprehensible. My mom and I drove up to my grandparents’ house as soon as we heard and were among the first to arrive. It is odd to see a set of slippers on the floor or a still full coffee mug, and know that the owner was using these things yesterday, but never will again. His toothbrush is still by the bathroom sink, even though he will not need it anymore.
I have not cried much, but when I called my office to tell them I wouldn’t be in, I could barely get the words out of my mouth, feeling as if something was holding them in. Throughout the day I felt a knot in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t until I sat in his chair, holding his hat that I realized what it was. It was love, love that no longer had the object of its affections. It no longer had anywhere to go, so there it sat.
This seems to be one way to understand grief. It is the love that is left behind instead of given away. My love for Warren Arthur Heath has nowhere to go, can no longer be given to him, so it stays with me. I understood then why we cling to our departed loved one’s possessions. I didn’t want to let that hat go, I wanted to love it with a small bit of the love that should be grandpa’s.
Then I remembered that there are others who deserve this love. My greatest comfort yesterday was holding the hand of my cousin’s four-month-old baby, the youngest member of our family. As grandpa passed away, little Amy continued to grow. As he leaves us, she gets to know us better. The family that he founded continues to care for it’s next generation. In the face of death, we are allowed, by the grace of God, to create and nurture life. Families continue and in this way are never lost, in the kindness of God.
Of course, my grief is gentle and well-supported. It is something else entirely to watch my grandmother as she walks through the loss of her lover and partner of almost 70 years. We have a picture of them dancing together at grandma’s 18th birthday party. They got through World War II together, raised five children together, walked through illness, pain, loss, and carried each other through all the ups and downs of our mortal life. It is comparatively easy for me to say I will process my grief by holding a hat or playing with a baby, and I pray for the grace and strength it will someday take to survive a loss like she has just suffered.
But for now, we will simply stand beside her and do our best to fill a very, very small part of the hole grandpa left. As we do housework, eat breakfast, or answer phone calls with grandma, Christmas music plays in the background. Grandma is an avid classical musician, and allows only one radio station, so pieces of Handel’s Messiah play amongst The Nutcracker’s bright enthusiasm and the drone of ancient carols as we go about our day. It is good to be reminded, as Handel does so beautifully, of the connectivity of the birth and death of Christ. He was born to die, as we all are. He was born to be a man of sorrows, and well acquainted with grief. We remember that the glory of the Lord was shown both in the miraculous birth of Christ and in his humble and painful death. This Christmas season, it is comforting to know that we can walk alongside a God who suffered to give life and overcome death. It is my greatest hope that Warren Arthur Heath has overcome.