When my mother passed away last winter, I discovered the gift of grief.
In the span of a single year, my mother went from a vibrant, constant presence in my life—through phone calls, texts, and when we could, in-person visits—to a swift decline in mental and physical health.
The first sign, for me, was an unexpected call at 5 a.m. one morning. Mom had many skills but being active at 5 a.m. was not one of them. Calls at 10 a.m., lunchtime, or late in the evening were much more likely. I immediately answered, thinking something had to be urgent.
“Mom, is everything okay?” I asked, pretending I had been up for hours while clearing the cobwebs from my mind and the frog from my throat.
“Oh, I’m just calling to see how you are doing,” she said, “but I hope I’m not interrupting dinner for you guys.”
Maybe she’s just confused. Maybe she had a bad night’s sleep, I thought. I didn’t want to believe this was what my sister, Laura, had been gently warning me about. My sister and her husband had recently moved back to Illinois to live near my parents. And in recent weeks, they had told me that Mom had forgotten how to write a check. Well, that’s not that crazy. Who writes checks anymore? I had rationalized at the time.
“Mom, you do know that it’s five o’clock in the morning, right?” I offered.
“Oh, I’m so sorry. You know, I keep getting my times mixed up, with daylight savings and all,” she replied, though we were nowhere near a time change. After talking a bit more, we ended the call. When I told my sister about it, she said these sorts of incidents were becoming more common.
A few days later, I got another call from Mom—this time more bizarre. She insisted that men were in her house, that my father had let them in, and that she’d called the police. My heart sank as a realization began to set in: I think we are losing her.
We clung to one last desperate possibility that it could be Mom’s iron deficiency, something she’d struggled with for much of her life. We were hoping against hope that with a few doctor visits and medical adjustments, Mom might return to her normal self. My sister dutifully begged, cajoled, and shepherded her to doctors and specialists, updating me every time.
My dad quit his job so he could take care of Mom as she slowly lost her memory, until we learned the hard, final, difficult news: The results of her MRI revealed significant dementia.
Dementia is still a mystery, even to the most learned minds. In the season after her diagnosis, we talked with experts and with friends who had endured this journey with their own loved ones. There was no way to predict which course Mom’s health would take. Would she, like the sweet wife of a friend in my small group, slowly decline over nearly a decade? Or would she, like my late mother-in-law, decline quickly?
When you lose a loved one to dementia, you grieve twice—once when they lose their mind, and again when they lose their life.
The early grief is like a weight on the soul. I can’t explain the heaviness you feel in realizing that the one who birthed you, raised you, consoled you when you came home crushed after a bad day at school—the one who stood on the sidelines and cheered at your basketball games, who said everything you wrote was amazing even when it wasn’t; the one who introduced you to Jesus—is slipping away.
This was a particularly difficult season, since I had moved 18 hours away to Fort Worth after living near them for almost 30 years. Much of the burden of care fell to my sister, although we walked through difficult decisions together along with my brother, also local. Yet I was plagued with guilt: Was it a mistake to not stay near my parents? Had I chosen my career and calling over loving Mom? Of course, my friends and family reassured me that this wasn’t true, but I still wrestled with these thoughts.
Another recognition hit me as well: This is it. In this life, I’ll never really know Mom as she was. There is no going back. Eschatologically, of course, we have the blessed hope of the Resurrection, where Christ will breathe new life into his people, in both our bodies and souls. But I would still grieve the years of her bodily absence and the missed moments with my kids and their grandmother—the loss of phone calls and texts.
Once at a faculty meeting, we sang “It Is Well with My Soul,” and I couldn’t stop myself from weeping freely. The hymns bring me back to my childhood, attending our small Baptist church three times a week dressed in our Sunday best, singing lyrics that I barely understood at the time. But the words embedded themselves deep in my heart over the years and were now bubbling up, like water drawn from a deep well.
I’ve never been much of a crier. My emotions are usually more visceral. I get angry, I brood, and then I’m over it. But the sudden decline of my mother’s health and her subsequent passing has revealed fresh reservoirs of pain that have seen my tears flowing more frequently.
Yet I’ve come to believe that grief is a gift, a human response given by God to help fill the space where our loved one once stood—a cushion against the deathly blows of a cursed world and a sign of hope that fuels our longing for the world to come.
I’m comforted repeatedly by the humanity of Jesus as he looked in on the decaying corpse of his friend Lazarus. John 11 seems to indicate that Jesus was both full of sorrow and full of rage.
The rage is just, for we are told death is the work of the enemy, the final foe that Jesus defeated as he endured the cross and walked out of the grave. It’s good and right to lament the loss of loved ones. To blithely skip past this anger at death is to diminish the way God values human life. To pretend it’s not a big deal when we lose a loved one is to minimize the ugly finger of Satan and to lessen the impact of sin.
Too often, as Kate Shellnutt wrote for CT, we’re not mad enough at death—for “while dying is a fact of life, it’s also the enemy we’re called to resist.”
Mom did decline quickly. We had to make difficult decisions about memory care facilities and insurance coverage, deciding how to help her live out her final days in dignity—choices our society makes crueler and grimmer than they should be. My faithful father visited every day, as did my sister, as they both shepherded Mom gently toward the end. I squeezed in as many calls with Mom as I could, so I could hear her voice and so she could talk to my children. Thankfully, she still recognized all our names and faces.
We made a special trip last Thanksgiving, celebrating with Mom in her care home. Her memory was jumbled, barely able to recall very recent details but elaborating in near-perfect detail scenes from our childhood and from her own. One medical expert I spoke with said our brain is like a cabinet storing memories in organized files by date, and dementia is like a storm jumbling those files, scattering random bits of memory out of sequence and with little order.
As autumn faded into winter, so did Mom. Her body withered down to nearly skin and bones. I made one final trip with my eldest daughter, Grace, and was taken aback when I entered her room. I could barely recognize Mom. But still, we gathered and sang hymns. We comforted her. I leaned over and told her how much I loved her, that she’d been a good mother. She could barely speak but she was able to whisper, “I love you. I’m proud of you.”
I wept. Mom had always told me she was proud of me, and as a 45-year-old husband and father of four, I still needed to hear those words. To hear them at the end of her life was a treasure I’ll never forget.
A day later, Mom passed into eternity, her body temporarily yielding to death. And thus began my second stage of grief—where I remain to this day.
The famous lyrics of Horatio Spafford’s hymn have meant a lot to me over the past year: “when sorrows like sea billows roll.” We know Spafford wrote that while on a ship, lamenting the tragic and sudden death of his family via shipwreck. And yet it describes the way grief often visits like a tide crashing onto the shore of our hearts before leaving. Grief cannot be escaped, and as Amanda Held Opelt writes, it’s not something that can be outsourced.
I feel this often in these days since Mom’s passing—sometimes in a worship service, and often when a familiar hymn brings the grief back. I attended a conference recently where the worship team played “Jesus Paid it All.” I trembled when I sang the words, “I hear the Savior say, / ‘Thy strength indeed is small, / Child of weakness, watch and pray, / Find in Me, thine all in all.’”
Losing my mom has made me recognize afresh that I am a child of weakness. My strength indeed is small. The loss of a loved one removes our veneer of self-confidence, our masks of self-sufficiency. C. S. Lewis said that the death of a loved one is like an amputation. So, until we meet again in that heavenly city, I’m a son without a mother—walking with a limp and leaning on Jesus.
Paul told the Thessalonians that we do indeed grieve, but we do not grieve without hope. I find the waves of grief are a welcome gift helping me say, with hope, that even this is well with my soul.
Daniel Darling is the director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of several books, including The Characters of Christmas, The Dignity Revolution, and Agents of Grace.