Provision #760: Your Brain On Grief

Laser Provision

Last week I shared with you that we were waiting with my mother in a hospital in Cleveland. At the time I wrote my short Provision we were only beginning to glimpse the severity of her condition. With blood clots in both lungs, damaging her heart and other internal organs, she was lucky to stay alive for one day, let alone for five. But stay alive she did, so that all of her children and grandchildren could make it to Cleveland in time to say goodbye.

The past ten days have been a blur with frequent sighs and tears as I and my family have come to grips with our loss. We were heartened by the outpouring of support we have received from people here at home and around the globe, including many of you with your replies to last week’s Provision. I thank you for that. We were also heartened by the emerging recognition that my mother was staying alive to die on Valentine’s Day. That day had special meaning for her.

My mother was one of 3 girls, separated in age by 7 years each. My mother was the youngest, her middle sister, Norma, was 7 years older, and her oldest sister, Geraldine, was 14 years older. When Norma turned 21, in 1938, she died of ulcerative colitis on her own birthday. My mother was very close to Norma, and Norma’s death was very formative in my mother’s life; it contributed to a lifetime of anxious concern for all her loved ones. To love someone, for my mother, meant that you worried about them. Indeed, my mother never ended a conversation with any of us without saying, •Be careful.• 

Well, as it turns out, Norma’s birthday and dying day was Valentine’s Day, the same day my mother died. And that was no coincidence. At the hospital, all the doctors and at least one of her pastors were telling us that my mother might linger to the end of the week. But they didn’t know my mother. If anyone in her condition could will themselves to die on a particularly significant day, it would be my mother. When she went to the hospital, my mother told my sister, ‘today is not my day.• That’s because Valentine’s Day, 5 days later, was her day. And she made it to that day, against all odds, just the way she wanted.

One of my mother’s requests, for the at least the past ten years, was that I would officiate at her funeral. Today’s Provision, then, is in her honor — the only person I could count on, along with my father, to read my musings each and every week. Stacks of past issues are still printed out in their home. What follows are the reflections I shared at yesterday’s funeral service. I hope you will find them to be a worthy description of what it’s like to find your brain on grief.


I want to start by thanking each and every one of you for coming. Words are not adequate to express the appreciation we feel as a family. The many ways in which you have been holding us up with your thoughts, prayers, and innumerable acts of kindness have made all the difference in the world. We would not have gotten this far in our grief without you and we are counting on that support to continue far into the future, especially for my father.

I have been dreading this day for at least a decade. That is how long my mother has talked to me about her desire to have me officiate at her funeral. I would often protest, saying, •Mom, I don’t know if I can do that. It’s going to be an awfully emotional day. I’m not sure that I will be able to get through it.• But she had no doubt and it was a request that could not be denied. So I here I stand. And I will do the best to not only honor her memory but to draw out a few life lessons for us all.

It’s kind of dangerous, when you stop and think about it, to ask your son to preach at your funeral. I mean, I have a lot of dirt on this lady! But in this case, and at this time, the glow of my mother’s presence and loving kindness is all that I can see and feel. She has always been and will always be, for me, a channel of the divine Spirit. Through her I have come to know God and what greater gift can any parent give their child?

There are lots of ways to introduce your children to God, of course, and she took many expected paths, participating actively in three churches, all United Methodist and all here in Cleveland, from the time of her own childhood (at the Broadway Church) to that of my own and Laurel’s (in Parma and Brecksville). In those places I went to Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and youth group meetings such that I came to understand my life in theological terms. It was here, in this place, at the behest of my mother and father, that I first began to hear the still small voice of God speaking my name. 

Since that time, over the past 50 years, my mother and I have traveled many journeys together, marked by the highest of mountains and the deepest of valleys. There were some ferocious battles of love. During my first year of college I was compelled to register for the draft, at the end of the Viet Nam war. It was a soul searching and heart wrenching time not only for the country, that had largely given up on the war, but for me and my mother as well. That registration led me into the pastoral ministry, where I served for more than 20 years, and also to declare myself a conscientious objector. When I looked at that war and asked myself the WWJD question, •What Would Jesus Do?•, I had no doubt as to the answer.

My mother, at least at first, was beside herself. In the age when long-distance phone calls still cost lots of money and there was no such thing as email, we spent hours and hours on the phone and writing each other letters to explore where my convictions were coming from and where they might lead me. •You know,• she would point out, ‘this means you can never be President of the United States.• I told her I felt comfortable with that and, ultimately, she felt comfortable with my decision.

Every single member of our family • her husband, my sister, and her six grandchildren • knows exactly what I am talking about. June was at once our greatest champion and greatest critic. When she had a concern, you were sure to hear about it. More than once. More than twice. More than three times. She was, in her own words, ‘tenaciously honest.• Some might say, ‘tenaciously opinionated.• But for all the tenacity of her concerns, none of us ever doubted her love and commitment. She was in our corner to the end and nothing could ever break that bond.

Her tenacious love for me and for us was the more important way that she introduced me, and all of us, to God. Participating actively in church was, for her, an outward and visible expression of an inward and spiritual grace. Not a night went by that she wasn’t praying for the safety and success of her family. Person by person. Name by name. We may have thought we were off doing things by our own power, here at home and in the far reaches of the world, but I am persuaded that our power came, in part, from June’s nightly prayers. By refusing to quit on any one of us, regardless of how strongly we might be disagreeing at the time, and by lifting us up in daily prayer, she became for us not only a model but also a source of love that we may never fully appreciate.

One way to measure the depth of that love is to understand the pain we have been going through in the past week. Last Thursday, after nine months of struggle following her badly broken leg at the end of last May, June developed large blood clots in both lungs that damaged her heart and other internal organs as well. What often leads to sudden death in others became, for my mom, one last battle to fight for the sake of her family. She and my dad got to the hospital, under her own power, where she managed to hang on for five days giving every child and grandchild • from Virginia and Florida and Las Vegas and Washington DC and parts around Ohio • the chance to say to goodbye and to hear her say, one last time, in a slow and steady voice, •I love you.• Her love for us, and our love for her, is what fills us with this heartbreak, now.

In 1993, Anthony Hopkins played C. S. Lewis in the movie Shadowlands. The movie tells the true story of how Lewis, a great novelist, poet, and Christian theologian, fell in love, for the first time in his life, as a middle-aged man. The object of his affections was a young woman, 17 years his junior, named Joy, that he had known first as an admirer and then as a friend. Early in their relationship, the woman contracts cancer which had progressed to a terminal state before it was discovered. In caring for her as a friend, Lewis realizes how much he loves her and they proceed to get married.

Their marriage lasted four years before she died. Although they have a brief respite when her cancer goes into remission, giving them delightful days filled with tenderness, caring, and love, Lewis finds that he is unable to enjoy that time because he cannot take his mind off the certain unhappiness that lies ahead. Seeing his despair, Joy encourages him with these words: ‘the pain then is a part of the happiness now.• ‘the pain then is a part of the happiness now.• 

After she dies, as Lewis is attempting to deal with his grief, he remembers that saying, turns it around, and comforts himself with the recognition that: ‘the happiness then is a part of the pain now.• ‘the happiness then is a part of the pain now.•

That’s as good an understanding of what we are going through here today as I can imagine. Had there never been any happiness then, had there never been any joy or laughter, had there never been any hopes and dreams, some of which June takes with her to the grave, there would not be more than a hundred people gathered in this room today feeling the weight of such a loss. Grief is the price we pay for having loved and loved well. Just because the melancholy Teacher of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for every matter under heaven, that does not make hard times any easier. Our feelings are real. Our needs go unmet. And God shares that pain as much as our happiness. ‘the happiness then is part of the pain now.• The God we knew then is part of the God we know now.

Today is our time to weep, our time to mourn, and our time to lose. And I venture to say that if we knew then what we know today, namely that on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2012, death would come as it did for my mother, June Ann Tschannen, we wouldn’t have changed a thing. She really had a wonderful life. We would still have married and loved and laughed; we would still have fought and struggled and cried; we would still have parented and played and taught; we would still have lived and worshipped and served.

That is the bittersweet mystery of life. Death is never fair. It’s never sought after. It’s never far enough away. But life, loaned to us for but a season, makes the happiness then more precious and the pain now more poignant.

Before my mother died, in her final hours at the hospital, she learned a secret. My daughter and son, her first two grandchildren, are not here today because they chose to come to Cleveland earlier in the week, from Las Vegas and Washington, DC, in time to see her off. The secret she learned was a follow-up to one she learned over Christmas. Rather than me telling it to you, perhaps you would enjoy seeing the look on her face for yourself. PLAY VIDEO CLIP. In another coincidence that may not be such a coincidence, that baby, her first great grandchild, is due on her birthday in July.

Well, the secret she found out was the baby’s gender and name. Evan kicked all of us out of the room, made her promise to not tell anyone, and then asked her to raise her finger if she liked the name. She raised her finger and then proceeded to raise her entire arm. Right before she died, then, my mother found herself once again filled with hope, smiles, and joy as she thought about the prospect of new life rising up in her wake.

Yesterday, for the first time since getting that fateful call 9 days ago, I went out for a run. I’m not sure I have ever gone 9 days without running, since I started running in 1998. It felt great and as I came up the final hill to my parent’s house from the Tow Path Trail, I looked around and saw many huge, dead, fallen trees. Around all those trees, I also saw tiny saplings springing up with leaf buds already beginning to swell in this unseasonably warm weather.

Do you see the connection? Do you see the truth? The happiness then is a part of the pain now. The pain now is a part of the happiness then. This life is all so precious and all too brief. In the end, one can do little more than to look up, give thanks, and sing. Surely God has now given my mother rest for her soul. She has yearned for time of reunion and that time has arrived. For to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Amen.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC, MCC (IAC)

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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