It was one of those late night vigils where the family was trying to find the resolve to turn off the machinery that kept the man breathing. His wife was hysterical, refusing to believe his brain was gone. She yelled at him to open his eyes, to get up from his bed, that he couldn’t leave her. But he was already gone, leaving behind a hissing ventilator and a screaming wife.
Her grown children tried to help, holding her tenderly, speaking softly, but she turned on them, and verbally attacked each of them. I found it hard to feel kind toward her. I wanted to tell her to pull it together because while her children were grown, they were still young and they needed her. But I resisted the impulse.
I was the pastor for one of those children, a daughter, but not the rest of the family. There wasn’t much I could do except keep my hand on her shoulder while she faced her ordeal.
This isn’t the only time when I witnessed a death where the family behaved poorly. I remember one time where family members stood over the body of a young woman as she gasped for her last breath, and they fought over what little property she had left.
It’s not usually this way. Generally people show the best versions of themselves at such a moment of crisis. They find their courage by gathering up their love and faith, and clinging to one another for comfort. The weeping is open, the hugging is spontaneous, and soon they speak of things they love about the person who has just gone.
Later, after the grief has set in for a while, people will sometimes hurt one another without realizing it’s the grief that makes them crazy. But they shine at the moment of crisis.
I’ve learned a little more about the grieving woman since that night. She had some ongoing ordeals that had already sapped her emotional reserves before her husband was taken. There was nothing extra to draw on for strength. So she was doing the best she could.
Most of us do.