Being Present in Liminal Spaces

When I was in my twenties, I went through a period of discernment for Lutheran Seminary. While this period of reflection resulted in me withdrawing from religious life altogether, I did learn a great number of things about people and the process of grief.

Hospice, hospitals, and funerals are all areas where clergy and laypersons spend a fair amount of their time. The transition from life to death is something a person does only once and not something we hear about based on personal experience. There are many theories on how to act during this transition and how to console the ones left behind but ultimately it is at the discretion of the living, as we can not ask the dead.

One of the more impactful things I learned about grief is that it is unavoidable and looks different for everyone who experiences loss. No amount of faith or consoling can allow the grieving to bypass their emotions and there are no magical words to relieve the sting of the loss of a loved one. The only thing that can be done is to express and share in the grief and sorrow. Clergy and laypersons trained in this area are especially gifted at being fully present with the grieving in this liminal space between life and death. As for the rest of us, there is a fair amount of uncertainty on how to act around the dying and grieving.

Yesterday, I attended a funeral for a member of my husband’s family whose death was drawn out over several months after receiving a diagnosis of a very rare illness. The grief process had begun well before he left this earth but the tragedy of his transition hung low in the air surrounding those who knew him best.

We drove from Minnesota to Ohio with a car packed with all that goes along with traveling with two small children. My expectations of participation were low given that our two and four-year-old had never been inside a church and had limited experience with social interactions in general due to Covid. Nevertheless, we put our best selves forward and showed up.

After answering a few questions about the “guy hanging on the wall” from our four-year-old son, we found our places and prepared for the funeral. By this point, it was plain to me that the unrefined nature of our children was entertaining for some of the people present. I watched as people with tears of grief in their eyes smiled at our children as they climbed on the pews, asked if they could color in the hymnals, and other behaviors we as parents either take for granted, apologize for, or ignore entirely.

There was a point in the service when the brother of the deceased was overcome with emotion at the pulpit. His grief poured over all of us. Then the widow came and stood with him at the pulpit and remained there at his side for the rest of his speech. Her presence had a healing effect. That moment struck me as a powerful demonstration of the miracle of being fully present in the liminal space of grief.

We spent the rest of the day with family and by the evening hours, there were more smiles than tears. My personal insecurities about not remembering everyone’s name or not knowing what to say were moot points as our children were fully present and perfectly comfortable in this liminal space. Watching the children interact with the grieving reminded me of something that was echoed throughout my religious training; in times of grief simply being present with others is a very powerful healing act.

It’s tempting to get lost in what is the right way to act, the correct things to say, and what appropriate clothes to wear. It’s easy to forget that often all that is required in life is to show up and present your honest self.

Children are the great regulators of adults’ misguided worries about appearance as all bets are off when your son loudly announces he has to go poop during a funeral service or your daughter becomes obsessed with waving at one tearful woman in particular whose soft gaze and slight smile spoke volumes of gratitude.

My reflection today is to remember that there is power in simply being present. That standing next to someone struggling to express their pain at a funeral can bring profound relief and the innocent smile of a child can divorce thoughts from tragedy. Grief cannot be conquered with thoughts alone but it can be dissolved through shared experiences with others.

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