Deacon Bill was only sixty-two, which is the same age at which my Dad died suddenly, over forty years ago today, September 1. Deacon Bill's wife, Sue, is devastated, as my Mom was. Both asked how they could continue to live without husbands who were their rocks.
Yet my Mom was a rock herself. And Sue is a rock - she stood, walked to the podium, and read the first reading at the funeral. I have NEVER seen a bereaved widow have the strength and presence to do that,- ever!
Another friend of ours, JoAnne Augugliaro, just lost her beloved mother, who died shortly after losing her beloved husband. Jo's heart has broken, she says, into a billion pieces. She has lost two wonderful parents in just months.
I understand Sue and Jo. My heart broke into a billion pieces when I lost my Dad and, later, my son. My first reaction in both cases also was - How can I go on without him?
Today I understand more deeply than ever before that to have one's heart shatter into a billion pieces when someone dies is so much better a way to live than never to have your heart break once during your life - because if your heart never breaks, it's because you've never loved or been loved. And Love is infinitely worth the pain it causes us.
Today I understand more deeply than ever before that we can continue to live after the death of a loved one. In fact, to continue to be a part of life, we have to. We have to go on being alive, even if we feel dead inside, for all those other beloved family members and friends who need and deserve for us to be alive for them and present to them. And we need to continue to live in honor of the loved one who has gone before us. He or she was our rock; now it's our turn to be a rock for others.
We live on in hope. Faith and science and our own observation of the world around us tell us that nothing stays permanently in its original form or shape. Things live, and things die, and things live again in new shapes or states. Caterpillars change into butterflies. Water shifts over and over between liquid, steam, rain, and ice. Earth itself moves in the great cycles of death and rebirth, Winter to Spring.
Christians say "Christ dies, Christ lives, Christ will come again" and His resurrected body, we believe, is not reincarnated, not resuscitated, but a changed, improved, advanced, evolved form of life - yet still definitely Christ. Jesus Himself knew that life is eternal. He said "God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. For to God all humans are in fact alive." (Luke 20:38.)
When a loved one dies, to be changed into a new evolved being - yet definitely the same person - we also die and change. Part of us goes down into the grave, so broken and scarred that we will never be the same again. Some people never do live again. They continue on, but broken and bitter and barely existing in a half-world of anger and grief and regret.
To hope is to believe that even our lives here are changed, not ended. We will smile again. We will laugh again. We will even love again, choose to continue the heavy risk of loving, because life without love isn't life at all. But we will live simultaneously scarred and at a different, deeper level because we have met death and now have the grace to choose to live fully every additional moment given us. Yet now because we suffer we truly understand compassion.
To hope is to believe that after our deaths, joy will come triumphant with the dawn of our new Life in Christ. Once again we will sing and dance in the eternal circle of life with our loved ones. I catch a glimpse of this fervent, unbroken hope at every faith-filled funeral. It's the hope, the belief, that death changes our lives but does not end them that gives a widow the courage, the presence, to stand up at her beloved husband's funeral to proclaim the Word of God.