We had a memorial gathering yesterday afternoon for the mother of two daughters and their families and about a hundred friends. The mother had been ill for some time and finally let go in the face of the cancer. Working with families in the week leading up to a memorial service is always an education in human nature and relationship. Some things are predictable and expected, others are not. There is generally a certain amount of confusion and indecision–a simple unknowing of how such things should go and what should happen. Underneath is always the gnawing realization that your loved one is gone… Activities and preparation, flowers and phone calls and relatives at airports may distract, but the realization remains, waiting to engulf when catering trucks turn the corner and relatives are back on their planes.
The memorial had all the same parts and pieces that memorials have: a young man playing guitar and singing, tearful daughters and friends trying to coax out a few words, laughter at shared memories, and…a slideshow. Fifteen year old granddaughter prepared a slideshow of at least a hundred shots from all over her grandmother’s life to play on screens overhead. As the pastor for the gathering, I moved off alone to an alcove to wait, and though I could only catch one monitor at steep angle, I was head on to over half the faces in the room tilted up to the screens.
I tried to watch the parade of images for while, but from my angle the people watching were really center stage, and my eyes kept straying to their faces until I felt the smile spread across my face as I realized another slideshow was playing. I didn’t need to see when pictures changed on the screens, I could see each one reflected in those tilted faces. As cued by each image, their expressions changed in unison–each one different as it triggered a different emotion, memory, or perception. There were smiles through tears and outright laughter, complex combinations of emotions and faces crumpling into sobs. There were soft stares and knowing glances, brows that furrowed and relaxed and looks at which I could only guess. There was the entire scope of possible human emotion playing out, sliding frame by frame in quick dissolve for me alone. I couldn’t take it all in at once, settling on certain faces for several images, moving from face to face, coming back to some, unfocusing my eyes to try to grasp the group as a whole moving together as choir to conductor.
I told them I wish they could have seen their own faces. The stories they told with their faces. I can still see them now and will most likely carry them with me until someone is playing my slideshow. Maybe even then…
There are no words to heal someone’s grief, nothing we can say to take away the pain, and anything said only trivializes the moment, the depth of relationship. So we show up, eat food, sing songs, and tell stories–the only things we can do together, only things we’ve ever done together since we lived in caves. Except slideshows. Now we can watch slideshows and let everything we feel, everything we’ve shared play out on the screens of our faces: uncensored, uninhibited, unashamed. To be wordlessly present, to be willingly vulnerable is all the healing power we can ever muster. And all that is ever needed.