I had never felt so alone in my life. I stood in a well-kept cemetery just off highway US 67 in Hope, Arkansas. I stared at the cold stone marker on which the names of my parents were etched, along with the dates of their births and the dates of their deaths.
It was rare for me to be alone. I had asked the governor’s security detail from the Arkansas State Police to give me some space. My mother had died on the last day of September 1999. For the first time since I showed up on this planet, my only family links, other than my sister and my wife, were my descendants. When my mother drew her last breath, I became the oldest living link my children had in their bloodlines on my side of the family.
The depth of my grief was not so much over the circumstances of my mother’s death. Since a brain aneurysm and series of strokes n early 1992, her health had declined steadily. In her last days, it was no longer merciful to pray for continued existence as she was experiencing it. I was comforted by my unwavering faith that there was in fact a God in whose arms she would fall. I knew death was not the worst thing that could happen to her. Continuing in her state would, in fact, have been worse.
It wasn’t so much that she had died as it was the fact that her death had closed the book on an entire generation. Her passing had taken away my last link to the past and forever physically separated me from the one in whose womb I was formed.
It would have been easier if I could have wept bitterly. God has a wonderful way of washing away our grief with a cleansing shower of tears. But some pain is far too intense to be expressed with the same emotions we once used for a scraped knee, a sad movie, or a loss in a championship basketball game. In that moment, I understood better Romans 8:26: “The Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (nkjv). The phrase “groanings which cannot be uttered” became more meaningful as I sought in the depth of my soul to find a vehicle of expression for my grief.
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None of us gets to choose how we come into this world. We can’t choose our parents, our hometown, or the physician who ushers us into this life. Unless we end our lives by our own hands, neither do we choose the circumstances or date of our deaths.
Even though we don’t choose how we start life or how we end it, we most certainly choose how we live. It is how we live that may determine how people feel as they stand staring at our names chiseled into the gravestones. It is how we live that will affect generations to come and countless people whose names we don’t even know.
In the South, there’s a time-honored tradition that friends of the deceased bring more food to the grieving family than can ever be eaten. Obesity among Southerners may in fact be tied to the number of funerals we are part of. After a loved one dies, there will soon be a parade of people, a pastor’s visit, lots of hugs, and, without fail, large bowls of potato salad. The potato salad is such a Southern fixture during the period of grief that some refer to it as “potato salad time.”
“Potato salad time” is a good time to do some serious reflection about what really matters. No matter how busy we are, it’s often in the presence of the potato salad that we are brought to a halt and reminded of how temporary this life is. Consuming large quantities of potato salad may not be good for your health, but being consumed by overwhelming doses of reality can be helpful.