A few hours before I had set down my book I was reading, Water for Elephants, glanced over at my mother lying there in room 379 of Providence Hospital, and thought for the thousandth time how I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. I couldn’t bear for her to leave me. I couldn’t bear for her to be so sick anymore. And so my prayer in those days just had kind of become, “Please … God.” And I understood God would just have to fill in what I didn’t know how to say.
I had turned off the light and fallen asleep to the sound of her breathing. At some point while I slept, she slipped away. Went on to the next place.
Not Just Ruth
Now, I’m not just Ruth, Betty’s daughter, but I’m Ruth, whose mom is no longer here. Ruth, the forty-something orphan. Ruth, who was overjoyed a few months ago when I was back home and ran into my hometown pastor who is nearly blind now — and even though he couldn’t see me, he knew me by my voice, because I sounded just like my mother.
I cannot tell the story of me without telling the story of her loss. This is just how it is, once we have known great loss. Our stories are knit together and we don’t expect the empty spot they left behind to ever be filled again. We may grow accustomed to the empty spot, we may get used to the ache, we certainly go on and live and love again, but we would not wish the echo of their loss to ever disappear, because we know there are just some things in life that are irreplaceable.
It’s as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”
And yet, it’s not just the pain and the emptiness that remain with us after our loved ones die. In a mystical, yet very true way, they are a part of us. In countless ways we feel their presence. Think about how the scent of a particular gum brings back memories of the fellow who used to always share a piece of it with you before church.
Or how when you hear a certain hymn you remember how your grandma would tear up whenever she sang that song. Or how when you look at the smile of your grandson you can so clearly see the same grin your father had. These things feel like small miracles because they bring back dear memories and glimpses of loved ones long since gone.
A Fellowship We Share
It goes even farther than that. Here in the church we believe that those who have gone before us are not just with us in those memories. The communion of the saints is a fellowship we continue to share as the Body of Christ — regardless of time and space, life or death.
There is a reason for the half-moon shaped altar rails in Scandinavian churches. The current congregation gathers around the visible half circle rail, while the circle is completed beyond time and space by those who have already died. The altar rail may look like an incomplete circle, but when we gather there we can know that those who have died in the faith are kneeling with us. They complete the circle.
When we sing together, they sing with us. When we share in communion, they share in that meal as well. It is a thin veil that separates us.
Pastor Ruth Hetland is the pastor of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church of Audubon, Minnesota, and author of Writing With a View of the Graveyard: Loss, Life, and Unruly Grace. “I’m Ruth, Whose Mom is No Longer Here” is adapted from her meditation on All Saints, published on her weblog.