I used to think grief and celebration were opposites. After all, we’re supposed to rejoice for victories and mourn for losses, right?
But to grieve while celebrating sounds contradictory, like trying to face both east and west at the same time. “Celebrating” a loss seems like sticking candles in dung heap and calling it a birthday cake. What could be more superficial than layering happy clappy on top of pain and sorrow? What could be more insensitive and unhealthy than to deny the reality of a tragic loss?
When my son died of cancer, I had everything to grieve and nothing to celebrate. To suggest otherwise was unthinkable.
On their journey to Emmaus, two disciples grieve, faces downcast and hearts broken following the violent death of a dear friend. Along the road, they encounter a stranger who seems ignorant of recent events. But as the conversation deepens, he talks them through their experience with unexpected wisdom. Upon reaching their destination, the two beg him to stay for supper, hoping to hear more. While breaking bread together, they discover the stranger has been Jesus all along. The risen Christ disappears, leaving them to ponder an encounter that set their hearts on fire.
When you grieve well, you can celebrate well. The lower your descent, the higher you can rise, your broken heart refashioned into one that burns.
By grace, I’ve been blessed with family members, friends and a faith tradition that have helped me grieve deeply and honestly over the past three and a half years since Vincent died. They granted me permission to admit pain rather than deny it, to face darkness rather than run from it. Like the wise travelling stranger, they have woven a redemption story in which death is not absent from the plot, but plays a prominent role.
Paradoxically, the gospel announcement of abundant life is a summons to die. To find your true life, you must first give up everything. Broken hearts party big in God’s kingdom, the place where grief and celebration embrace like old friends.
We rejoice for the gift of a kid who spread infectious joy (and still does). We raise our sippy cups to the rascal who captured our hearts.
Celebration doesn’t mean conjuring up a prescribed package of emotions. It means recognizing the impact of another human being, delighting in our relationship and letting the emotions come out, whatever those may be.
Celebration gives me permission to smile when I think of Vincent. I am thankful to be his dad, excited to see him again someday. Until then, I will honor his memory by savoring the joy in ordinary moments.
Celebration happens while walking the path from burial to resurrection. Between Jerusalem and Emmaus, we encounter God in disguise, sharing conversation alongside us, full of surprises yet to unfold around the table of fellowship. Death has left its mark, but we are a resurrection people.
Death shows up in every true story, the descent before we rise. We are not guaranteed tomorrow, so I will celebrate today, pursuing the dreams that make my broken heart beat faster.
Losing Vincent taught me how to grieve, but I didn’t expect a lesson in how to celebrate.