Last Tuesday found me driving through miles of cornfields, sweating through my good
silk polyester blouse. The air conditioning in the van was out, the mid-May temperatures had skyrocketed to the high eighties, and I had no choice but to get in that hot box with wheels and drive to the middle of nowhere.
I mean, technically I drove to the middle of Michigan but that’s pretty much the middle of nowhere.
A family member had passed away and I was headed to the funeral. I wasn’t sure what I was about to experience in what was bound to be a very difficult service. I was absolutely certain I had nothing to say, no way to help, and zero ability to relate to their pain.
It was hard, folks. Sometimes life is just so hard, and even though we walk next to the pain, not directly through it ourselves, being on the fringes can be hard too. Sometimes we pull away because we realize we have no way to make it better, and fear any words we offer will only make things worse.
But I’ve learned this– pulling away is the worst possible thing we can do.
What we do is this– we show up.
That’s it. Our very presence is often the best gift we can offer. It doesn’t have to be just at a funeral, either. Sometimes we show up in hospital rooms, on front porches, church sanctuaries, or backyard fire pits. Anyplace your loved one finds herself, join her there.
This is why I drove through cornfields and gladly sweated through that blouse. I did it because I learned an important lesson more than twenty years ago when my grandmother passed away. Although Grandma had lived for more than seven decades in her Polish Catholic community in Detroit, she’d moved across the state a few years before she’d died. My mother was an only child and it seemed fitting that Grandma lived close to us as she aged.
When Josie died and we planned the funeral, my twenty-year old self knew, just absolutely knew, that no one would come. Grandma had only lived in our town for a few short years, and really hadn’t developed strong friendships or ties. Who was going to drive to our little podunk town just for a short funeral?
I’ll tell you who. The Polacks, that’s who. They showed up in droves. It felt like hundreds of wrinkly old Polish people drove in from Detroit, Chicago, and Toledo.
Many of them didn’t even talk to me, and they didn’t need to. Their presence in that little funeral service was more than enough. Their effort to be there spoke love to us.
There was one little guy who did speak to me, and he told me about how wonderful my grandmother had always been. Then he told me how nice her figure was (my grandma was hot?!) while his wife was standing next to him, and I’m pretty sure I’ll take the memory of that awkward conversation to my grave. So honestly it would have been better if he hadn’t spoken at all.
Which brings us to our point about shushing up…
It’s often our anxiety that runs our mouth in uncomfortable situations. We don’t know what to say, so we say all the things.
No. Please, just no jabbering to calm our own nerves.
This is the space to listen.
This is the space to choose to be calm and very, very attentive.
This is the space for hugs. Possibly gifts of chocolate or a cake.
And if there are words to be spoken, they need to be very encouraging, kind, and gracious. Completely focused on the other person, not our own story to tell.
Also, those words need to be really brief.
That’s it. We just need to show up and shush up.
The last two years have brought some really difficult situations into our family. Never have I had the answers or the solutions or anything close to the right words.
But three times I’ve looked into a cousin’s eyes and seen the difference that showing up makes.
And yes, on the way home I stopped for a milkshake with 800 calories that barely took the edge off my emotions, but while I was there I pulled it together for their sake.
Friends, let’s show up for one another. May our presence speak love when there just aren’t words.