Post Author: Amy E. Loving Austin
Nothing can really prepare you for the death of a friend. It doesn’t matter how many pastoral care classes you took in seminary. It makes no difference how many funeral services you prepare and lead on a regular basis. The books on your shelves and the articles in your files do not mean a thing when it comes to losing someone you hold dear.
When I first met my friend (I’ll call her “D”), I was interviewing with the churches I now serve. D was serving as a Committee On Ministry liaison to the search committee. She was fun and feisty and full of energy. She was a strong woman with a clear, strong voice. She was, perhaps, one of the most dedicated Elders I had ever met. She spoke fluent sarcasm and had a wicked sense of humor that matched well with my own. We were fast friends and colleagues.
For almost three years, we served the Church together. We attended countless meetings, co-chaired a committee, and spent hours debating issues of polity and ministry. It was the time spent between meetings, however, that I came to cherish. D was one of those rare people with whom you could truly be 100% yourself. She knew when to listen and when to speak. We did not always see eye-to-eye, but we enjoyed our friendly debates. D introduced me to the restaurants I now frequent, as well as the local jewelry shop which has often put a small dent in my pocketbook. She taught me how to brew a proper cup of tea, and we had plans for her to show my now-husband and me how to make the best scotch eggs on the planet.
In late 2014, D fell ill. At the time, I don’t think anyone thought anything of it – who among us hasn’t contracted the flu at some point? The complications were unexpected. In just a matter of weeks, D went from briskly walking her beloved dogs around the neighborhood to barely being able to stand without someone’s help. She struggled. I prayed. We hoped. D’s health improved and then got worse. Months passed. It seemed as though every step forward was countered by at least two steps backward. Still, she was determined that she would be better before the date of my wedding.
I remember the moment when I visited her and realized what was going to happen. My once-vivacious friend was fading away. I could see it, even though she refused to admit it. She told me she would see me at my wedding. I held her hand and told her I couldn’t wait to see her there. Five days later, I was married; D was still in the hospital. My husband and I brought pictures to show her as soon as we returned from our honeymoon. By now, my dear friend was a mere shadow of the powerhouse she had been. My heart ached. I tried to put on my best “pastor face” and keep a stiff upper lip, but it was nearly impossible.
Sitting with a family as they keep watch over a loved one in their final days is sacred work. When that precious one in the hospital bed is one you call friend, it is more complicated. You find yourself clinging to the words and actions that you usually say and do as a pastor – praying the prayers you know by heart, offering a gentle touch and the sign of the cross. Since the family knows that you are a pastor, you become a source of stability, a person who can provide that sense of calm in the midst of their personal storm. All the while, however, you are struggling to contain the emotional hurricane that is raging in your heart and mind. Inside, you jump around through the stages of grief like a ball in a pinball machine: first denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, then flirting with acceptance, and quickly back to bargaining again. Outside, you offer a quiet prayer.
I was just leaving the house to go back to the hospital to sit with her again when I got the phone call that she had died. I had to pull the car over as I drove to meet her family, since I could hardly see through my tears. The sun was setting, and the clouds and sun’s rays created a spectacular scene that I took as a gift from the Holy One – a glimpse of God’s promised light in the darkness, reminding me that D was no longer suffering. My dear friend D was in the arms of her Savior.
After the family said their goodbyes, I was left alone in D’s room for a few moments. I knew she was no longer present, but I sat with her anyway. No matter how many funerals I have conducted over my 10 years in ministry, no matter how many people I have shepherded through the grieving process, I was not ready for D’s death. The careful wall that I had constructed to separate my feelings from my calm pastoral presence crumbled to dust. I wept. I prayed with deep, deep sighs. As a pastor, I have prayed countless times for those who mourn to have their sorrow lifted. This time, it was personal. Sorrow is very rarely lightweight; as a friend in mourning, I petitioned God for weighty work.
The prayers we offer are more than fancy words that have been passed down through generations. The words we offer can, and perhaps should, come from a place of gut-wrenching sadness. We need God in those moments of grief—and those to whom we minister need to see that we need God, too. We need God’s strength to hold us up and God’s peace to smooth the rough edges of our confusion, and those to whom we minister need to see us relying on God in those moments as well. We need to be reminded—perhaps through honest tears—that we will be reunited in the life to come. D’s passing reminded me that this sacred work is not devoid of emotion. I will not rebuild the careful wall to separate my feelings from my calm pastoral personae: I will make it a window, instead.
Amy E. Loving Austin serves as pastor of two of the coolest Presbyterian churches in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. During her free time she enjoys time spending time with her husband, reading fantasy novels, and dabbling in crochet and other crafts. Her life is fueled by faith, friendships, essential oils, and coffee.
Image by: Amy E. Loving Austin
Used with permission