Today, March 16th, marks the one year anniversary of the death of my brother Ben. He was 28 years old.
This has easily been the most stinging grieving experience I’ve gone through so far. It got me reflecting on ways that our culture experiences grief, as well as the ways grief is processed in Mexico, where I spent a number of years.
Mexico has a number of traditions surrounding the mourning of a loved one who has passed away. The deceased person is usually buried within 48 hours of his or her death, but family members and friends gather for nine consecutive nights at the home of the deceased one to carry out the “novenario”. An “altar” with flowers, candles, religious objects and photos is set up for the family member who has been lost. Those gathered each night say prayers for the deceased person and eat together. At the end of the nine days of the novenario a religious ceremony takes place, with those in attendance taking up the flowers from the altar and carrying them to the grave of the deceased afterwards, followed by a special meal together.
Further traditions and rituals are prescribed for various points of time throughout the first year and beyond. These traditions give structure to the mourning process. They ensure nothing is rushed; everything happens at its prescribed time throughout the year.
One important ritual following the death of a loved one is the “cabo de año” taking place on the first anniversary of the person’s passing. At the cabo de año family members attend a mass in memory of their loved one. Afterwards they gather for a celebratory meal together.
After the cabo de año, Mexican tradition says family members of the deceased should go back to wearing colored clothing and no longer wear black. The black bow that has hung over the entrance to the house of the deceased, signifying his or her passing, is taken down. The family member who was lost will continue to be honored, however, each year on the Day of the Dead.
Though grieving is a fluid process that can continue in some ways for many years, the cabo de año marks a transition and some level of resolution to the grieving process.
Now one year removed from the passing of my brother, I can really appreciate the rituals and traditions that accompany the mourning of a loved one in Mexico. I’m not sure that most of us Americans are all that good at grieving the loss of a loved one. It feels at times like we try and gloss over or sugarcoat the painful reality we’re experiencing, and the process can feel rushed.
At some funerals it seems more time is spent trying to get God off the hook for taking away our loved one than is spent remembering the loved one and acknowledging the pain of losing him or her. After the service is done, and possibly a potluck, precious little structure exists in our culture to facilitate the ongoing mourning process.
Those first few grief-stricken days I spent together with my family for my brother’s funeral were incredibly healing. The pain was intense, but simply being together and sharing the pain with one another felt like it did wonders. We laughed and cried together as we shared stories and celebrated Ben’s life. It didn’t seem like anyone tried to dismiss the pain we were experiencing with a trite comment about him being in a better place or, “We can’t understand why God chooses to do these things, so we just have to trust Him.” We were in the moment, we felt the pain, we mourned the loss, and we shared it together.
Here are a few other thoughts and reflections I have related to Ben’s death and the grieving process:
- As stated, the freedom to simply experience the pain and mourn our loss was paramount. I think Americans in general and evangelicals in particular need to learn better to feel pain when pain is real and raw without having to try and quickly make it all better or explain it away. These things just take time, and I think on some level it’s dehumanizing to pretend that it’s okay that someone close to us just died. I’m deeply comforted by the conviction that my brother has entered into an eternity in God’s direct presence, but that doesn’t mean I have to be okay with our losing him at such a young age.
- On that note, I don’t buy into a way of defining God’s sovereignty that says that God is the orchestrator behind everything like this that happens. God is a good God, but the aftereffects of the curse are such that we live in a world where crappy things happen sometimes. It doesn’t mean God is the one doing the crappy things, and I don’t think it’s an offense to God to feel that losing my brother is crappy. Because God is sovereign and God is good, He can work the most awful situations for good (and He has certainly brought much good out of Ben’s death). But I’d still prefer to have Ben here for many more decades, and I refuse to blame God for his death.
- The first week or so after Ben’s death felt like a very healthy time of grieving for me as I was with family and friends. Among other things, it’s amazing how much comfort came from having my two older daughters along with me on the trip out to Kansas for the funeral…seriously, so much of it is about just being with loved ones in painful times. In the months following the funeral, though, I felt more disconnected from loved ones. I sensed that my spirit had more grieving to do than was happening on a conscious level during the days. On a handful of occasions over the past year I woke up at night crying hard in my sleep for my brother. This, too, felt very healing.
- I appreciate that we had an open casket funeral. I’m fairly uncomfortable with death and dead bodies, and I’ll wager that the majority of the people reading this are as well. But I never got to say goodbye to Ben while he was alive, and seeing his body in the casket somehow seemed to make it a little better. Even though I didn’t believe his spirit was there anymore, the day of the funeral I hung around his casket as long as possible before the lid was closed. I wanted to see Ben, and I put off saying goodbye as long as I possibly could. I dreaded taking him to the cemetery and leaving him there, and that was indeed the hardest part of the entire process.
- Ben died of a medical event associated with the epilepsy from which he suffered most of his life. I believe that Jesus has broken the curse of sickness and death that entered the world in the Garden of Eden. Losing Ben has strengthened my resolve that we who belong to Jesus must keep pressing until we walk in such a measure of victory that everyone upon whom we lay hands is healed. I believe it is part of our inheritance in Jesus. I don’t think someone like Ben should ever have to die for the reasons he died. That doesn’t mean I carry around any guilt over Ben (or anyone else) not having been healed – I don’t. But nor am I willing to accept people being sick and dying when Jesus has set us free. It’s not about beating ourselves up over what we lack in our experience, it’s about accepting an invitation Jesus is giving us to a fuller kind of life. We must press forward.
- Many people would think being one of six siblings sounds like a very big family, but it’s amazing how small that number feels when we used to be seven. We’ll always be missing a part of us until we’re together again.
- I’ve never been prouder of Ben than I was the week of his funeral, hearing numerous accounts of ways he touched lives, inspired people, and persevered in the face of discouragement. It was so encouraging. I felt like hope was the word God gave me the day of his funeral. I can’t imagine mourning a loved one while having no hope.
My grieving process has included doing a lot of talking sometimes. I’ve continued it here, in written form. I hope something I’ve shared will resonate with you or encourage you in some way wherever you’re at. There may also be a thing or two I’ve said here that rubs someone the wrong way. That’s okay. The important thing isn’t that we all agree, the important thing is that we’re all together. That’s what makes grieving bearable.