I went to two funerals this week - on Monday to support my dear friend, Lynn, as she managed the unexpected and tragic loss of her 63-year old father, and today for Arlene Koch, the 83-year old mother of my other dear friend, Kathy. Arlene's death was not a surprise, both because of her age and the turn that her struggle with cancer had taken in recent weeks; thus, her family had time to say good-bye (or, really, in this case, "We will see you later, Beloved.") and to make some mental and emotional preparations for her passing.
I didn't take the girls to Mr. Mullins' funeral. I thought it would be too hard for them to see the body of someone so young - he didn't even look his age due to a perpetual tan! - and to observe their two good friends - Lynn's children - grieving for their grandpa. But I felt just as strongly that they should accompany me to Arlene's funeral in Milwaukee.
For one thing, I knew their presence would help Kathy - their "Aunt Kathy" - because they offered warm hugs and some distraction through a silly story or two. In addition, though they didn't really know it, they were an important part of Arlene's life in recent years.
When Arlene realized the depth of my friendship with Kathy - we consider ourselves to be spiritual sisters - she insisted on referring to herself as the girls' "Grandma Koch." She sent cards and cherished receiving copies of their birthday pictures every spring. She enjoyed having them to her apartment one day when they were toddlers and had a wonderful time on a zoo outing with us. She liked hearing Kathy's stories about the girls' activities and took pleasure in knowing that the three of us visit Kathy in Texas almost annually. I believe the idea of having two quasi-granddaughters to go with her real, much-loved grandchildren really tickled her.
I also wanted the girls to attend for their own sakes. I do shelter them from some of the harsher realities in life - and don't apologize for doing so because I believe that young children needn't be forced to grow up too quickly. But, at seven and eight, they understand that people die. And, for a couple of reasons, I felt this funeral would be a good way for them to experience that truth first-hand.
For one thing, Arlene was rather elderly. I didn't take the girls to the funeral last year for my 47-year old friend who succumbed to lung cancer or this spring to the service for Jeff's 41-year old friend; likewise, I think Mr. Mullins' funeral on Monday might have been too much for them to process. But - while Arlene was mentally vibrant until very near the end of her earthly life even despite her illness - I didn't think it would be too scary for the girls to realize that older people "wear out" and die. And, indeed, they were not overwhelmed. Rachel chose not to go directly up to the casket, but she observed the body without fear from a few feet away; Abigail wanted to look close-up, didn't flinch, and asked some very good questions as she and I paid our respects.
In addition, I wanted them to experience a Christ-follower's funeral. I wanted them to see that, though the family grieves the loss of a loved one, the ultimate feeling on such an occasion is one of celebration - for the person's life here on earth and because each and every person who eulogized her could proclaim without the least bit of doubt that she is now securely in the arms of Jesus for all eternity. Yes, there were plenty of sad tears today - Arlene was an incredible mother, grandmother, and friend who will be deeply missed - but there was no despair. And I felt very strongly that it was quite important for the girls - in order to strengthen the fledgling personal faith in Christ that each of them expressed in the fall of 2007 - to experience a situation in which people with hope for eternity could express joy even as they mourn.
In this life, Arlene was known especially for being generous, faithful, loving and loved; she consistently modeled those qualities, and by her example she taught all who knew her about each of those traits. Even to those of us on the periphery of her life, she was incredibly giving, loving, and kind. And now in her death she offered through the witness of her funeral a beautiful gift of understanding and hope in Christ to my two young girls. I rejoice in the fact that we'll all see her again, sooner rather than later.