Casseroles on the Doorstep

In a time of need, a mother realizes how important it is for her kids to be embraced by a faith community

BY: Jean G. Fitzpatrick

 
My mother died last month. I know her time had come. For years, life for her had been a struggle. Chronic bronchitis wracked her lungs with coughing, osteoarthritis left her bones fractured, depression and bouts of paranoia darkened her still-lively mind. So much pain. So little peace, especially at the end. As my brother and I dealt with the week's events and obligations--ordering the casket, planning the wake and the funeral, organizing gatherings of relatives and friends--hard questions pressed at the back of my mind. What could possibly have been the meaning of so much suffering? What was God's will--for my mother, for all of us who were close to her? If I talk to her now, can she somehow hear me?

I don't have any quick answers. Having walked the journey through grief and loss with many other people, I know that these questions and others will resurface in the months and maybe years to come.

In the meantime, our parish rallies around us. Friends carry in food--chicken and cookies and juice. They offer to help with the day-to-day suburban driving of my two kids. They are generous with listening ears and hugs.

Hannah, our minister, sits and listens as I tell her the story of my mother's life--of her passion for education, her devotion to causes, her pain. I am numb one moment, weeping the next; Hannah is steadfast, compassionate, and she encourages me to help her create a burial service full of hope and grace.

In the midst of it all, I am mindful that my kids need to grieve in their own particular ways, and I try to be present to them without pushing. Thirteen-year-old Laura reads the 23rd Psalm at the funeral service. We talk. We cry. Matthew, our 16-year-old, doesn't seem ready to say much. Like most kids his age, Matthew has been developing a theology of his own, similar in some ways but also different from the one he grew up learning in Sunday school. I'm not sure how it relates to his grandmother's death, but at the service, I am glad we pass the peace to each other and share in the Eucharist.

The night of the funeral, after a friend drops off a tray of lasagna and a bowl of salad, Matthew does speak up. "We're getting a lot of support," he says simply, as he fills his pasta plate. "People are really helping."

As often happens at times of grief, suddenly I am thrown back to another time of loss, back to when I was 17 and my father died. No one was ready then, and the pain was almost too much to bear. The preaching and platitudes people offered--all about my father being in heaven and his heart failure being God's will--pretty much drove me away from organized religion for more than a decade. But through the years, what I did feel thankful for were the dozens of casseroles that showed up on our doorstep night after night those first terrible weeks.

What a gift it was when people didn't try to persuade me of anything except that they would be present and caring when I needed them, and that in this community, I belonged. And so I understand why friends bringing lasagna and salad meant so much to my son.

Young parents often tell me they are hesitant to join a congregation with their children. "I'm not sure I believe all that stuff," they tell me, "so how can I have my child learn it in Sunday school?" For them, having unanswered questions is a sign of lack of faith, a sign they don't belong in church.

For me, questioning is what keeps faith alive for us and our children. Especially at times of loss and trauma, we all have questions. Many of them--especially for those of us with inquiring minds--may never be answered in this life. The journey toward the answers, with all the feelings and memories we recover along the way, is the essential thing.

In a nurturing congregation, we develop a sense of belonging that supports and strengthens us so that we can ask our questions in a spirit of grace and truth. Parish life offers an opportunity to share our bewilderment and struggles, to sit side by side in the presence of the eternal, to walk haltingly in the direction of hope.

As Matthew heads toward adulthood, he'll continue to walk his own path, struggle with his own questions. This week in the parish, though, sustained by casseroles and liturgy, he belonged.

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