Last Thursday, my grandmother died.
I’d just sent out the newsletter with a “Let Me Tell You a Story” segment that reflected on how God’s perfect love welcomes us amidst our own, so very imperfect love. That even though we’re a mess, He came down from heaven for us, and because of that, we can lead a redeemed life, even when we don’t lead a picture-perfect life–reflections from my visit to my grandmother’s bedside at the nursing home, as she lay there in stage 4 renal failure.
When I posted on social media about her passing, the messages of prayers and condolences soon poured in, of course. Along with the usual sentiments about how much we’ll no doubt miss her and how our memories will comfort us, and how much we all must have loved her. And all those things, all of those sentiments…they’re true. But they are so very far from the complete picture.
Because Grandma Helen lived a messy, complicated, broken life. And mourning her is going to require a messy, complicated, broken grief. And you know what? I think that’s not just okay…I think that’s right.
We live in a culture that doesn’t understand mourning anymore, that doesn’t always make room for grief. Especially in Christian circles, we’re often told to just cling to the fact that our loved ones aren’t suffering anymore, that they’re in a better place, and that if we truly believe that, we ought to be rejoicing instead of mourning.
But you know what? Jesus wept when His friend died, even though He knew He was about to resurrect him. He mourned over Jerusalem, even though He knew it would someday be redeemed. Those emotions are part of being human, and they don’t have to be neat and tidy. They often can’t be neat and tidy, because WE aren’t. And because the people we’ve lost weren’t either.
My grandmother had bipolar disorder. It didn’t make itself known until she had kids, but then it struck…and its impact could be felt for generations. It meant a tumultuous childhood for my dad and aunt. It meant periods of institutionalization throughout their youth and my own. It meant that, even when they found meds that worked for her and which kept her stable, she may at any moment decide she was fine and didn’t need them anymore and stop taking them…which would send the family’s world into a tailspin again. It meant manic phases where she’d buy and buy and buy, and depressive phases where she’d say the cruelest things. It meant five failed marriages. It meant behavior that threatened lives with recklessness. It meant countless tears shed countless times.
She wasn’t a perfect mother, wasn’t a perfect grandmother, and we can’t just ignore that as we mourn her loss. Because our love for her, while so very real and so very big, is wrapped up in so many other feelings. Frustrations and disappointments and maybe tinges of resentment.
But that isn’t the whole story either.
Because there are so many amazing bright spots too, which shine all the brighter because it shows the way she loved through her own brokenness–the way she would stop by with gifts out of the blue. Part of a manic phase? Maybe. But even so, she thought of us. The way she served others for decades with her work in the nursing homes, and how she would help her patients with single-minded care and love that left me slack-jawed when I witnessed it. She wasn’t just a nursing aid, she was a champion. Because, I think, she knew what it was to need help. She could make friends so easily and would corral them to church so often. She would take in stray cats because she couldn’t bear to think of them alone and cold and hungry outside. And her laugh! Oh my gracious. My grandmother didn’t just laugh or chuckle. She cackled. You couldn’t help but grin when you heard it.
Anyone with mental illness in their family knows that it makes life…complicated. But they also know that in most ways, depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or OCD don’t create symptoms outside the normal experience–they just amplify them. We all experience highs and lows, compulsions, anxious times, and times where we’re down. The “disorder” is when it’s just more than normal, to varying degrees.
And as I feel my way through this new loss in my life, I realize this anew. Because we are all, in some ways, like my grandmother. We all love our families and God imperfectly. We all have moments of generosity and moments of harshness. We’re all a mess–I know I am.
And we’re all redeemed, if we choose to put our hands in our Savior’s, like Grandma Helen did. We’re all loved so perfectly by Him, even as what we offer to him is broken and weak and twisted by our own biases and understandings. But still, He came down from heaven for us. He became man for us. He suffered for us.
We’re all going to suffer in this world, too. Maybe from physical ailments, maybe from mental ones. Maybe from loss of fortunes or loss of loved ones. We’re all going to suffer…and we can know He suffers with us. We can know that, if we let it, that suffering can draw us closer to Him. Show us the depths of His love. And then He can use it to help us reach others who suffer too.
Remembering my grandmother can’t be just remembering the good times, though we certainly will remember those. Why? Because that’s not the full picture, and we lose the beauty of the redemption if we ignore the broken people that needed redeemed to begin with. We are not just our strengths–we are our weaknesses too. Jesus loves us in those weaknesses. We need to love each other in those weaknesses. And so mourning and grief need to make room for them as well.
Grief doesn’t have to be simple. How can it be, when people aren’t? Grief shouldn’t be simple. It shouldn’t be ignoring so much of a person because we’re afraid of how it might look. Instead, I think it should be acknowledging those faults and flaws…and marveling at how they still loved, how God still used them, how those faults and flaws are always paired with graces and strengths.
I do take immense comfort in knowing that in heaven, there’s no more brokenness. No more imbalance. No more disorder. I know that when united with Christ, all those imperfections get lost in His perfection, that she stands before Him now as the person she was always meant to be, the person she was beneath the illness. And that does bring me joy, not just for her, but because it reminds me that we are all shackled by chains of weakness and sin, but they’ll fall away someday. We’ll all be as free as she is now.
Some day, I’ll hear her cackling in heaven, I know. And I’ll grin, and I’ll embrace her. There will be only joy then. But for now, I’ll give room to the sorrow. To the complication. I’ll think through who she really was and how she’s shaped our lives. And I’ll thank God for the 41 years I knew her.