When my Grandma died last year, we experienced fully the forethought of grief, where you get to hang on to the tension and dread of a protracted, agonizing death. Sometimes it is like that. But sometimes death just happens, and all you can do is try to keep breathing when someone you love isn’t. The forethought of grief was not an option with my grandpa. The phone calls came quickly and suddenly this time: Falls. Heart murmurs. Bed sores. Hospice. Long naps. Soon. Maybe tomorrow? No, today.
And all of the sudden, Poppa is gone. This was expected because, of course, we’re mortals, and he’s an old man with heart defects and Alzheimer’s, ailed by who knows what host of other problems he couldn’t describe due to his memory problems. But it feels too fast, too soon, and too wrong. I suppose it never feels right to hear that news. Death is always a loss, always cutting against the grain of our eternity-bound hearts.
A robin flies into my window the next day, and the thump against my house drops it back dead on the porch. Seizing the opportunity to practice a hard teaching moment, I point out the front window and explain the bird’s death to my little daughter. She can’t understand it yet, can she? Still shy of her second birthday, she proudly tells her baby brother Thomas about this as soon as his nap ends: “Tho’as! Bird. Nap. S’eepy outside. No wake up. Dead. Icky. ‘ook, Tho’as.”
We need to walk past the bird to get in the van, to get to the mall for new black funeral shoes. Old shovel in hand, I swallow hard and can’t get the edge under the bird; I don’t really have the gumption to take control of the dead bird situation. When my scooping efforts fail, I let the bird slide off the porch into the flower bed. It lands between two overgrown boxwood, right next to a new bush Aaron planted. He’s so much like Poppa, with curious joy in watching new life spring forth from the earth. He can move the bird away later, and it won’t hurt us in the meantime. Still disconcerted by the sight of this poor robin in the bushes, I take the children around the back door anyway.
That night Aaron says he’s glad to hear the bird landed in the mulch. He needs to fertilize the new bush soon anyway. The best thing to do, he says, is just leave it. We go about our evening: My grandpa is dead, the bird is dead, and my children are miraculously full of even more life than usual after our trip to the mall. We sing cheerful songs before they sleep at night, because that dead bird monologue didn’t translate into actual understanding of my (and our) loss. Cheer and grief: what do I do with this dissonance?
The Lord liveth — though Poppa is dead.
Blessed be the Rock — since we are dust.
Let the God of our salvation be exalted —
…while we lay someone low in the ground.
The funeral, exactly a week before my sister’s wedding, finds me preparing to share a eulogy about Poppa’s humble beginnings, his love for the creation and the Creator, and his determined spirit. That sanctuary holds many special memories: My mom’s and aunt’s wedding pictures, my cousins’ baptisms, late Christmas Eve services, Grandma’s funeral last year. Poppa was there for all of these. We sing some of his favorite songs, like How Great Thou Art, and it’s hard to believe he’s not sitting in his row, belting it out alongside us. Since the minister’s homily covered most of my main points, I begin with a joke that my speech “got scooped.” Thankfully, a story as good as Poppa’s is worth telling twice.
The tales of Poppa growing up as the child of unassimilated Finnish immigrants yet earning advanced degrees, serving in the Air Force, establishing elementary schools in Alaska and colleges in Michigan, traveling the world, and always, always gardening might seem disjointed, but their common thread is found in a little knowledge about his Finnish roots. My Poppa started elementary school speaking only Finnish and knowing just a few English words. I’m the opposite, because I just speak English, but the one Finnish word I know is sisu. It doesn’t fully translate to English, but it means grit, determination, valor, fortitude, sustained courage, and fighting with the will to win. Sisu is considered the true Spirit of Finland, and with this tenacity, Poppa’s life demonstrated that he kept the best of his Finnish heritage with a sisu drive for faithful effort in carefully chosen pursuits.
After talking about his life and the resurrection – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ is coming again, Alleluia – we scoop potato salad onto our plates in the fellowship hall before moving outside to stand in the blazing sun, scooping earth over ashes. Grandma and Poppa are set there together, dust over dust. By their quiet faithfulness to the gospel and each other, my grandparents were, in so many ways, like trees planted by streams of water, like great Oaks of righteousness. We sow in tears, grieving that this is so final and awful and wrong. We sow in faith, believing boldly that God will reap them as His glorious harvest following the raising of Christ, the firstfruit of all who sleep.
When we have laid them to rest, we return to a full house since so many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings stay for the week until Naomi’s wedding. We do not rest ourselves. No one ever wants to go to bed, and this is not just the kids cajoling for 5 more minutes. We’re adults who know we are dangerously exhausted, but still we turn on the movies and make snacks to procrastinate on our necessary wedding projects until the wee hours every day. Is it because we want to try keeping today long enough for a little more joy? Or because we know sleep is a mini-death? Maybe it’s because we want more time with Poppa, which we cannot have, so we hang on to every moment with these people who gives us a little bit of him and his memory.
Grief is exhausting because you just want to keep it at bay; if you keep busy, keep fighting to embrace what you have, maybe the memories of your loss will stay away longer. And you stay up late so you aren’t trying to will yourself to sleep with fewer defenses against the pain. You want to be too tired to pay attention to how bad it feels. If you lay there with any energy left, you will remember. It’s easier, in the short term, to fall apart from exhaustion than to be alert to what you have lost.
The Apostle Paul says that in death and resurrection, what is sown does not come to life unless it dies, planted like a bare kernel. Everyone who watched Poppa’s remains go into the earth (we who are now folding bulletins and altering bridesmaid dresses and spray painting table decor) also watched this happen in Poppa’s garden every summer. Just like we joyfully tasted the firstfruits of his garden labors, in ripe red tomatoes and long green beans and crisp cucumbers, we see the joyful fruit of his life among us. To say nothing of blessings among my cousins and the wider community of family and friends, my sisters and I all celebrate our new boys: I have Thomas, Beth is roundly pregnant with Ellis, Naomi is marrying Matt. We live in the tension of loss and exponential increase this week especially, somehow starting to make peace with what we have heard and spoken about the resurrection: What God raises up out of death is greater than what existed naturally in the first place.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead:
what is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.
It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.
Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is never in vain.
– 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 58.
It makes a lot of sense that we spend our initial grief for Poppa in wedding coordinations, moving from funeral grief to marriage joy in that same church the next Saturday. We celebrate the seamless call of the gospel and the example of Poppa’s Finnish sisu, to abound and labor for good fruit by the finished work of Jesus. We persevere in preparations while Naomi and Matt open their hearts and arms to each other, in the shadow of Poppa’s life of diligence and devotion. We prepare to rejoice and feast in celebration of their new life together, echoing the eternal life Poppa revels in at the marriage supper of the lamb.
Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb! -Revelation 9:9