Sunday, October 16, 2016

Grief Counseling for In-Laws

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.-Isaiah 41:10

The above verse is enclosed more for my partner and her family than myself. My regular readers have recognized I've taken an extended break from writing. This is due to a death in the family. When informed that my partner's mother was close to death, I dropped everything. In a matter of a few hours, I became my best task-oriented self in a short period of time. Mail needed to be held for a week. Transportation plans were scheduled. My obligations were cleared for several days consecutively. Now I have returned home and taken on my regular routine, but nothing is really routine yet. It may never be quite the same again.

In-laws sometimes aren't sure what to do when tragedy strikes. I write this post today to see if I can make sense, theologically or otherwise, of precisely what has transpired. My role in the proceedings has been loosely defined. Our societal institution of marriage or long-term partnership, whichever you prefer, is a kind of artifice. It's a way that we seek to consolidate families who are not related to us by blood or proximity. Even in the best of circumstances, it's a stretch.

But don't get me wrong. My partner's family, for the most part, is fond of me. Being mutually kind and polite was never much effort for either side. We only took one extended trip with each other, about four months ago, but didn't share close quarters for most of the time we were there. I find that having separate space is the key for survival at any family gathering. It doesn't take much spark to begin a raging fire of the kind produced by the inevitable friction of too many people in one room.

Most of the work was my partner's responsibility. As much as I tried to be helpful, there were particular tasks for which I was ill-suited. The fault was never my own. In its place, I have been mostly a passive observer. I admit that sitting by the bedside of a dying person for fourteen days solid would have likely tried and exceeded my patience. I'm not sure how my partner, her father, and her younger sister managed it.

My presumptive mother-in-law lingered in a comatose state far longer than hospice care nurses and doctors ever believed imaginable. I was beginning to worry that she would win a very dubious distinction in the Guinness Book of World Records, attracting the attention of medical science and incredulous doctors. There were several instances where her breathing become labored, ceased for a minute, and then mysteriously resumed. Back to Square One.

I kept asking myself the same question. Why does God, in most circumstances, set the time, date, hour, minute, and second of our lives? We can surely shorten and diminish the quality of our earthly existence, even up to and including suicide, but this situation was very different. My partner's mother died due to a very aggressive form of stomach cancer, which might have had a genetic component, or not. The cause has not yet been determined. In any case, first symptoms were experienced in January of this year, a diagnosis was made in August, and roughly two months later she passed away.

In the fourteen days she clung to life, the only analogy that seemed fitting was that of Jesus' agony on the cross. And yet, the torment and pain described in my first example was neither a sufficient explanation nor an accurate description of this situation. In those times, she was likely unaware of where she was or what she thought. It was the family who watched and waited and waited some more who suffered most. This is how I imagine it must have been for Christ's remaining followers who stood by the cross, to the bitter end, though they could barely lift their heads to observe their savior's imminent demise. Jesus knew where he was going. His followers did not know what fate faced them.

The process didn't conclude within hours, but didn't take weeks, gratefully. Some people die in the hospital, or hang around long enough to be transferred to hospice care. The human imagination, over the centuries, has surmised and postulated that in this time, souls about to transition are actively consulting with God, resolving long-held grievances, and generally working out the final transfer upwards and beyond. If heaven is anything like human-made bureaucracy, I imagine it might take 5-8 business days to process a person's claim. That might explain the delay.

Quakers are often ambivalent about the notion of heaven. I have never relinquished a very Protestant view of the afterlife, which has always persisted from childhood, even though I have never really missed outward sacraments like confirmation, baptism, and communion. Still, there are times where I walk into Meeting and wonder what happened to the draped and reverent colors of the Christian season. I feel the same way when the notion of heaven is conspicuously skirted past in Quaker theology. I take no offense, but I nonetheless feel a loss.

When it comes my time, should I be lucky enough to make it there, it won't bother me if everything is draped in purple. I always liked Advent. Though I don't miss singing hymns, I never felt that Friends had to throw out the baby out with the bathwater in being so austere. I wouldn't mind my entry to heaven being accompanied by a soundtrack, not strict silence, no matter how pious and pure it might be.

Where does a soul go when it is his or her time? Perhaps along the way she took a stop by her working class roots of North Texas, USA, almost Oklahoma. Tornado ally poverty with omnipresent Air Force Base were never enough for her in life. She pursued an academic's life, instead. Two years here, three years there, and then lucky enough to be hired, even lucky enough to make tenure. A skilled communicator, she taught students how to be heard, acknowledged, and taken seriously. She took time to listen and was beloved for her kindly ear.

Along the way, she married. It was a happy one, and produced two children, both daughters. The eldest daughter is where I enter the picture. Beyond that, I have only first-person accounts at my disposal, and I'm left with the feeling of one who has arrived late to the party, or perhaps transferred into a small school district halfway through high school. I was always given space to breathe, but I have a lot of catching up to do, and likely always will.

What can one really ask from a mother-in-law beyond considerate small talk and peaceful coexistence? We were cordial and friendly for slightly over seven years, and now she will no longer be present on holidays and quick trips to DC. My own grief will be less intense. I have enough cognitive distance to complete small tasks the family is too overwhelmed to contemplate. I hope I can be a beacon of strength and stability.

I entitled this post "Grief Counseling for In-Laws." As Lincoln wrote, "it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work." No death is an end of and to itself. If we keep the memory of the deceased in mind, as well as their positive example, we preserve what is worth keeping. As it is written in First Corinthians: "so, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless." This is especially so in the healing work left to be done. My work will be yours someday, too.

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