Saying Goodbye…

104 years is a long time. Well, maybe not in terms of the sum total of human history, but in terms of one person’s life it is.

Less than three weeks after her 104th birthday, my last grandparent—my grandmother on dad’s side—peacefully ended her earthly pilgrimage at her home in Somerset, Kentucky. For several years, she wondered why the Lord didn’t just take her home; she was ready to go. Last Tuesday, her heart finally decided it, too, was ready and closed up shop for good. Off she went…home.

Grandma Georgie was a lady of remarkable strength, charisma, spunk, and lovability. Even when she was upset with me, she was pretty kind about it so her barbs didn’t hurt too much. The last time I visited her was the first time she’d seen me with a beard. That fact didn’t dawn on me; I’d had it for about a year by then. But it was something new to her. So when she opened the door upon our arrival, she took one look at me and, with that characteristic Southern expression, burst out, “Law! What’re you doing with that silly old beard for?! You shave that thing off your face!” Fortunately my wife was with me, and she really likes the beard, so I had an out. “Grandma,” I shot back, “I can’t shave it off or my wife will be mad at me! And I’m sorry, but if I have to choose between you and her, she’ll win hands down.” “Well, alright then. But I don’t like it!” She was already well past the century mark when we had that little kerfuffle.

Tuesday before Thanksgiving I got the call that she died that morning; the funeral was to be Saturday. And on Thanksgiving, I indeed expressed thanks for the good, long life my Grandma Georgie lived. I thanked God that she never had to live in a nursing home—one of her greatest fears [due to her living across the street from a rather drab and dreadful one, I’m sure]. I was thankful that her last few years—though marked by deteriorating weakness and mental acuity—weren’t a prolonged period of painful agony. I was thankful she had a nephew nearby who was diligent about her care, and he was just as determined for her to remain in her home as she was. And how thankful, too, for the two caregivers who took turns tending to her needs.

Saturday came, and I expected quite a crowd for her visitation and funeral. After all, grandma was 104!! She’d lived in Somerset since the mid-50s and had worked as a nurse in the local hospital until sometime in the early ‘80s, I believe. She was a member of the same church for as long as she lived there—a church of over 1,000 members, to be sure—and was its oldest member. I was sadly disappointed. I didn’t count, but I doubt that 75 people attended the visitation. There couldn’t have been more than 30-35 at the service—including family. I’m a pastor, so I’ve got a fairly keen sense of when a colleague is going through the motions, and it seemed that for her pastor, this was just another funeral. He made no effort to greet the family members personally (and there were only a handful of us there)…messed up details about her life…and recited a number of clichés one often hears at such times. Admittedly, he’d had a lot of funerals lately, but still…. Several times in the pastor’s eulogy he mentioned my grandmother’s commitment to and support of her church, yet I couldn’t help but wonder about the commitment to and support of the church for its people. For her. The service was supposed to be “a celebration of the life of Georgia Bice,” but it didn’t seem like much effort was put into the “celebration.”

Off we rode to the cemetery. My brother and I, along with four other loosely related men, served as pallbearers, taking grandma’s body to her final resting place. There were no guns fired…no mournful bagpipes or bugle cry…not even a great deal said, actually. We prayed, thanked God for the hope of resurrection day, grabbed a rose, stood in silence, and said goodbye. Then the small handful of mourners went our separate ways.

As I’ve reflected on the weekend, a few thoughts crystalized in my mind. I hope they’ll stick with me and make me a better human being—a better friend, family member, and pastor.

First, no matter how aware we may be of an aging loved one’s proximity to death, when the phone call comes, it’s still a blow. Are we ever really ready to say goodbye?

Second, make the trip. When I got word of the funeral arrangements, I immediately started calculating. From here to there is 8½ hours driving time…meals…motel…. Can I afford the unexpected expense? I’m a pastor, and Sunday is my “big” day. Should I even go? If I do, can I “put in an appearance” and rush home to get back Saturday night, so I don’t miss Sunday services? Is it really that important that I attend—besides, I’m just one of the grandkids? After doing some thinking, I decided to go and get a replacement for my Sunday duties so we could spend some leisure time with family after the funeral. Looking back, I’m so glad that we went, that we didn’t simply rush through it all and merely “make an appearance.”

Third, be there for others. Be willing to be inconvenienced for an hour or so, even on a Saturday afternoon, to care and show support for someone you know who’s lost a loved one, or to pay respects and say goodbye to the one who has died. I’m still a little stunned by how few people from my grandmother’s church made the effort.

Fourth, care. Really care. It doesn’t matter how many funerals you’ve attended in the last month, the people saying their last goodbye today need a genuine, sympathizing touch. Not clichés. Real, thoughtful, compassionate care. To help with that, think about the people you appreciated the last time you said goodbye to a loved one. Be that person.

Finally, be ready. You and I most likely will not reach the century mark. Our time will come when others must bid us a final goodbye. How critical it is to be ready for eternity by trusting in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, how critical it is to be ready by praying with Moses, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).