My Grandma loved the Denver Broncos. She was five foot three inches tall with gray hair, glasses and a petite frame that she passed on to my mom. She was the classic little old lady—unless a football game was on. Then morphed into one of those crazed football guys you see in the stands. You know the ones; they usually have their shirts off and are wearing full body paint in their team’s colors.
When she got her diagnoses, she insisted she was going to live to see the millennium. And she did—barely. So this time of year always makes me a bit weepy. Between football season and the holidays, it feels like the grief is always lurking right below the surface. My grandma’s death was my first—but not my last—experience with deep, fierce loss. It was also my first—but not my last—experience with hospice.
I remember sitting with our family minister to prepare the funeral service. “Tell me about her,” he said. And we all stopped, startled by the enormity of the task. How do you cover one person’s entire life in a few brief words? How do you capture what they mean to you? “She was brilliant.” “She had a deep faith but was also a passionate seeker.” “She loved the Broncos,” someone said, which was stale on the lips. It was a silly thing to say, a way of conveying how the enormity of someone’s passions, loves and kindnesses came out when they watched a football game. “I will never see orange and blue without thinking of her,” seemed trite, even if it was true.
In the years since my grandma died, I’ve lost other family members and been through the grief process again and again. No doubt influenced by her pioneering spirit and her faith, I went into ministry. Because of this, I’ve walked with many, many people through their own losses. Now I’m the one who sits across the living room, notebook in hand, and says “tell me about her” or “what was he like?”
Every time, I am met with a familiar response, a stunned blankness as they ponder how to convey a lifetime of loves and hates into a few sentences fit for public hearing. “She loved to bake.” “She loved Christmas carols.” “He fished every weekend.” “He could braid hair better than anyone else.”
Then the family stops, always certain that these things do not matter. Someone hands me a copy of the obituary, which is usually filled with resume-type details. Jobs held, titles given, degrees earned. Those are important but what I really want to hear are the first stories. The ones people don’t think are worth telling. I want to hear about the love of knitting, the joy in gardening, the quick temper or easy smile. I want to hear these things because these are the things of life.
Here is what I’ve discovered: People will talk with pride about a loved one’s accomplishment. They will always mention how he was manager of the company, or won the BBQ contest at the county fair every year. They will talk about volunteer accomplishments, too—the years as chair of the library board or the successful fundraising campaign. In fact, these will almost always be the first things they mention. But those are just the warm-up. The real stories come later, as they remember the way the person smiled or the way they cried.
The stories that we hesitate to tell because we think they are “too small” or “unimportant” are really the stories that get at the essence of a person. When we try to measure life only by our accomplishments, we measure it by fleeting moments. But when we tell the stories of the people we loved, we begin to capture the impact that they had on us.
I know that if you asked my grandma what she wanted to be remembered for, a love of football probably wouldn’t make the list. She, like us, would mistake this for being a small thing. But when I tell my daughter about how her great- grandma loved the Broncos, I am also telling her that my grandma was passionate—and unconventional. When my sister and I reminisce about the times we spent the night at my grandma’s house and woke up to the click-clacking of the typewriter at 4:00 am, or the stacks of books that were around the house, we are also remembering how smart our grandma was, and how committed to nourishing her mind and soul even through aging and illness.
The stories don’t stop there, of course not. But they start there and we are better and wiser people for telling them. They are like little prisms that we hold up to the light. We look at them through all sorts of angles, remembering the complexity of joy and grief, remembering most of all that our lives were changed simply by having another person in them. Our very grief, our tears and our laughter as we remember those we have loved, is proof that their lives mattered. Like ripples on a pond, their many acts of love and life spread out, affecting more people that we know. And so too, we are inspired to take hold of what life we have left and live more fully into it, trusting that our lives of little stories matter too.
This is the text from a talk I gave at a hospice event two weeks ago where the topic was grief and remembrance. It’s written in the way I write things when I’ll be speaking, so it reads a little awkwardly but I’m sharing it today because I know many of you are struggling with the bittersweet memories of someone you lost.
The hospice event was non-religious but if I was going to add anything for a religious crowd, it would be the reminder that our God is a God of stories. No story is too small to be noticed and treasured by a God who dares to come among us as the Word made flesh. Our lives of little stories matter.