After she died, it was as if I had broken my arm. A part of me ached all the time, and something that had been functional was now useless, and everything about my daily routine needed to be navigated differently. It was difficult, for instance, to stand in line at the post office or buy groceries or make dinner. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.
I had spent much of the final six months of her life with her, my mother-in-law, my friend: Penny. And once she was gone, I missed her. I missed the Penny I knew when she was healthy—the woman who had enjoyed kick-boxing, who loved ice cream and didn’t like cilantro, who had hand-addressed our wedding invitations. I missed the Penny I came to know in the midst of her battle against cancer, who, after surgery, laughed so hard in response to a get-well card that staples holding her wound together were dislodged, who walked around the block in sneakers and a nightgown just to get outside, who held my hand as she slept, who said, “thank you” even at the very end.
Six years later, I don’t feel her absence in a visceral way. But, just as a rainy day can draw out the pain of a broken bone, so too the grief returns. When we celebrate Christmas. Or when we bought a new house. Or when my husband told our three-year-old daughter about her namesake and she said, “Hug?” and he replied, “One day. One day you can hug her.” My grief doesn’t compare to the wounds of parents who see their children suffer, or to those of a husband who loses his wife, a young girl whose father dies. Their grief is more akin to amputation, a permanent and irrevocable loss. And yet witnessing the death of a woman I loved changed me forever. Experiencing the reality of death helped me discover the reality of hope.
Hope is a campaign slogan these days, and an effective one at that. Perhaps it is such a compelling buzzword because it conjures up vaguely positive thoughts of the future, of a time when all the things that are wrong with the world will be undone. Somehow. Someday. But I would argue that this popular notion of hope could be more accurately defined as optimism. It is easy to confuse optimism with hope, but optimism in the face of death is merely a form of denial. Optimism insists that it will all work out here and now, and yet the reality of everyday life demonstrates that this is not so. It will not all work out, at least not until the time of the new heavens and the new earth. For as long as sin exists in this world, people will suffer and die.
When Penny first received her diagnosis—primary liver cancer—we were optimistic. Perhaps surgery would eradicate the disease. Perhaps she would live to know her grandchildren. Perhaps she would retire and travel to Italy again. We thought it might all work out. But then came the pathology report, the news that the cancer had gotten into her bloodstream. Those optimistic thoughts were no longer readily available. Optimism failed.
But hope is not optimism, and neither is it false piety. Once Penny died, it was tempting to ignore the sadness and focus upon the promise of eternal life. It was tempting to bypass grief. But I cringed when someone offered, “I guess God needed another angel in heaven.” In thinking only of the future, of heaven, that statement skips over the real loss in the present. It implies that God is needy, snatching people away to fill some cosmic void. It implies that it is acceptable for a fifty-five-year old woman to die a grueling death. Statements about God’s purpose in death can be used as a cudgel, a way to berate believers into pretending that the loss is not profound, devastating. “Pie in the sky by and by” is no consolation. False piety skips past grief altogether, and, like optimism, it ultimately fails.
Penny’s illness followed the liturgical calendar. Her surgery took place on Ash Wednesday, and she had recovered enough from the operation to return to church on Easter Sunday. Even then, she knew she didn’t have long to live. We sang Alleluia that Easter Day. And we wept. As we took the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies, I was reminded that God suffers with us, that God entered into human suffering on our behalf.
Jesus did not ignore the reality of pain. Rather, he engaged it, even as he knew it would be overcome. He knew, for instance, that he would raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet he mourned. He knew God would be faithful, and yet he shed tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus had hope in the midst of grief, without denying the reality of suffering and loss. His life permits us to forgo false piety and admit that suffering and separation are an offense to God.
And yet, that Easter morning also reminded me that God has triumphed over death. Christian hope hinges on the fact that God has the power to give life to the dead, starting with Jesus, and one day, extending to us all. Hope is a place of tension, tethered between the Cross and the Resurrection, engaging pain and suffering while simultaneously looking ahead to restoration.
In the midst of Penny’s illness, I read that the word hope in Hebrew is similar to the word for spider’s silk. I also read that spider’s silk is stronger than steel, that researchers are hoping to use spider’s silk to make lightweight bulletproof vests. I’m not sure the Hebraic etymological connection was intentional, but it provided me with a helpful image: hope as a strand of spider’s silk, stretched tight between the pain of the present moment and the promise of a future reunion. Hope is a place between. It is remembering the pain of the Cross and anticipating the reality of the Resurrection. It is an awareness that this world is not yet what it should be, even as God is already at work. Hope is as strong as steel, and as fragile as a thread.
It is our son’s first birthday tomorrow. His grandmother will not celebrate with us. I have so many questions for her. Did her firstborn son, my husband, walk early? Did he eat blueberries hand over fist? What was his first word? When did he first sleep through the night?
I hope one day we will sit down together and she will answer my questions. For now, I am sad she is gone. But I am grateful for what her life, and death, taught me. God is present in grief. And God calls us to have a true and living hope, hope that acknowledges all that is wrong with this world, hope that looks ahead to the glory to come.
Amy Julia Becker, a master-of-divinity candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary, is a writer and mother in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Her first book, Penelope Ayers , is a memoir about the experience detailed in this essay. She blogs at www.amyjuliabecker.blogspot.com .
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