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September 14, 2011

Mourning

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

When a loved one dies, when does the mourning end?

Is there a set date, say, of six months before one can be considered mourning-free? Or is does the internal sadness never end?

This topic came up last night at the hospital as I waited for my oncologist. A patient at the hospital wheeled himself downstairs to, as he told the nurse, to “shake my view up a bit.” He wheeled himself over to the table in the waiting area and picked up a copy of the new ESPN Magazine. Shaking it above his head, he cried out that the doctors steal all of the good magazines from the volunteers who come around with the book cart. Laughing at his comment, he turned and said that I shouldn’t laugh. If I was a patient, he claimed, I’d realize very quickly that the magazines they bring around are months and months old. And the books, they’re falling apart.

“My name is Ken,” he said as he rolled over to me in the empty waiting area. Touching his chest, he said, “lung cancer, 6 months, maybe.” I looked at him, touched my throat, and said through the pain, “Throat cancer, don’t know.”

Not skipping a beat, he said that the television was out in his room, that’s why he was wandering the hospital for something to do. He told me that he was a divorced father of 2, retired bus driver from Long Island. Ken said I looked like a furniture mover he knew from the old neighborhood.

He told me that his children do not live in the New York area; one lives in Arizona and the other in Kentucky. They have come to visit when they can, but the distance and their own families’ needs sometimes put a crimp in their ability to stay longer than a couple of days. Ken has been fighting lung cancer for over a year; as a longtime smoker, he said it was inevitable. Now the cancer was spreading and there wasn’t much left for the doctors to do. He was waiting for another ailment to lessen before he could leave the hospital to go home and die.

“You ever listen to country music,” he asked me. Before I could strain out an inaudible answer, the nurse chimed in that I should not talk. Instead I nodded ‘yes’ to his question, which only caused the nurse to tell Ken that I was an avid country music fan. “Then you know that Tim McGraw song about his dad who died from a brain tumor?”

I nodded in agreement.

“That song is what gets me through the day.”

Ken talked for a little while about odds and ends when he brought up something I haven’t ever thought of in a serious, theological way: When does someone stop mourning?

He said that he didn’t want his daughter and grandkids crying over him after he’s gone. He wants them to buck up, drop a few flowers at his grave, and go do something fun. His son was very much like him. “He’ll be drinking a six-pack at my funeral and putting a carton of Marlboro reds in my coffin.” Smiling, Ken explained that when his wife divorced him, it was his son who told his dad not to lock himself in his house watching “Law & Order” reruns. “Get off your butt and find a woman,” was his advice.

Ken wasn’t worried about him after he dies. It was his daughter who holds her emotions in.

“How long should she mourn?”

As I thought about the question, I didn’t have an answer. Holy Scripture doesn’t give us a limitation on when we should stop mourning the loss of the loved one; it just reminds us that the comfort we need is found in Christ. There is no time limit for tears and sadness. When we lose someone we care about, mourning can go on for a long time. I have lost family members and a number of friends and I honestly say that I have never really stopped grieving their loss. Each of them brought something to my life and now, without them, there is still a deep loss. Instead of crying, I find myself thinking about them when various situations come up and try to think about how they would advise me to do. I feel sad when I visit their graves, but the sadness lessens each time I visit.

But in all of my mourning, I remember what my Lord tells me in His Word — no matter what I face in this life, He is there for me as He was there for me at the cross.

I couldn’t say those words to Ken last night. Instead, I just reached out to hold his hand.

“Man, it’s like you’re a priest or something,” Ken said, to which my oncologist, who had snuck into the waiting area, responded, “No, it’s worse. He’s a Lutheran pastor and a Yankees fan.”

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