Grief and Gratitude: A Celebration of Life
In October, 2020, I had the privilege of presiding over the Celebration of Life for a friend that I had known for forty-five years.
In school, we had much in common and we bonded over our shared love of music. In fact, he formed the first rock band I was ever in, with a drummer, an electric guitarist, and me, playing Toto tunes on trumpet. It was not a highly successful band, but we had fun together for a bit, and deepened our friendship. We lost touch with each other for a few years, and then music brought us together again.
In the spring of 2019 my friend learned that he had cancer. After his diagnosis, we spent more time together, scheduling visits monthly, then weekly, then whenever possible. I remember every word of our last visit together, the last day that he was strong enough to speak, just three days before his passing.
In honour of our friendship both old and new, his family invited me to preside over his celebration of life. Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, a couple of dozen of his closest friends and family were admitted to the hall, and we learned later that a couple hundred more watched on closed circuit video.
Here is an outline of the service, with my remarks added where appropriate.
Celebration of a Life Well Lived
Prelude Instrumental Music
Greeting and Words of Welcome by Doug Ferris
Musical Selection 1
Family selections from Psalm 23, read by Doug Ferris
The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths, for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Surely, Goodness and Mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life, An I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
My whole life long
Words of Remembrance 1 by family
Words of Remembrance 2 by family
“Full Hearts, and Full Hands: Grief and Gratitude”
Words of Comfort By Doug Ferris
If you got your driver’s license in this town back in the eighties, you had to go through “The Old Man”. Any life-long residents here know exactly who I’m talking about, because everyone knew him, and everyone hated him.
Truth is that, back then, he wasn’t as old as I am now, and he wasn’t a bad guy at all, really.
Still, to every kid who craved their G license he was “The Old Man,” and he was the only real barrier between the new driver and the freedom of the open road. Sitting in that car was our rite of initiation into adulthood, and I had the privilege of going through that initiation ritual three times. Yep. Three times. I admit it, I failed twice. Oohh, that “Old Man.” I blamed him.
But deep down, I knew I wasn’t ready to do any more than either kill myself or somebody else. And over time, the Old Man taught me a little something about being a better driver. But he taught me something else, too. He taught me something about life.
I failed the first time before I even left the parking lot. On that day, the Old Man taught me something I have never forgotten, and today I want to share the Old Man’s wisdom with you.
After I backed out of the parking space and headed for the street, The Old Man stopped me and just looked at me. Then he asked a simple question: “When you’re driving down the road, what window do you look out of”?
I stared back at him blankly, scared enough to wet my pants. I didn’t get his point, and I was too scared to speak, so he repeated his question: “When you’re driving down the road, what window do you look out of?
I finally found enough voice to reply with a question: “The front one?” And he nodded.
“So, when you’re going backwards, what window do you look out of”? The penny dropped so hard, that you can still hear it ringing today: “The back one?” I said.
“Right. Now park over there. We’re finished”. And I was done. Failed.
But I learned that day that, when you’re travelling down the road, you’re invariably looking in two different directions at the same time. And so it is in life. Invariably, we look out the rear window so to speak, backwards into our own pasts, while at the same time, we need to look forwards, into the future.
Looking forward is absolutely critical. We MUST look forward. To stay on the road, we need to look forward, into the hazards that come our way, prepared for what lies ahead.
But, at the same time, we have the opportunity to look backward, with gratitude, at where we have come from. the safety of the trip so far, the beautiful scenery, the warm conversation we enjoyed with the ones we love, it’s a pleasure to look back. But we have to do both.
And life is like that, too, isn’t it? Looking forward and back, at exactly the same time. On days like this, we hold these tensions together at the same time, in grief at the loss of a man we all loved and admired, in grief and in gratitude for what has gone before, and in anticipation of what still lies ahead of us.
In grief and in gratitude. There is gratitude in grief. It is at times like these–times that seem to treat us so unfairly–that we learn to hold our grief lightly.
Hold your grief lightly. Honour it, respect it. Because your grief is a sign from the universe that you and I–that we–have loved and have been loved, that we have lived, and that we have had the privilege to share both life and love with one of the gentlest spirits that you and I ever known. There’s grief in that. Hold your grief gently.
At the same time, hold your gratitude lightly, too.
Hold your gratitude lightly because it is the living child of all of your thoughts, your memories, your hopes, your dreams and your relationships. Gratitude is sacred.
In its own way, grief is sacred, too. Both are gifts to us from a sacred universe, an animated Universe, a universe that is alive beyond our comprehension.
In our hearts, we know it. We hear our spirits whispering in gratitude, reminding us: this is not all there is. This is not all there is. This is not all there is.
There is more, so much more. Keep watch, look behind you, to see where you have come from, but also, look down the road, ahead of you, further than as far as you can see. Because what you can already see is not all there is. This is not all there is. There is more, so much more.
An ancient story tells of a man who was able to see both deep into the past and far into the future. As a result, he was a man acquainted with grief, a man of sorrows, and yet, a man filled with gratitude, filled with empathy.
Because of his profound understanding of grief and gratitude, he was a man with unusual allure, a man who inspired great allegiance and inflamed tremendous jealousy. And this allure, this ability to inspire and inflame eventually got this man into trouble. He knew he had to go.
When the time came for him to leave the friends that had become his family, the man sensed their grief, their loss, and their love. Knowing that it was his time to leave them, he said “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my family’s home, there are many rooms, and I go ahead of you to prepare a place for you, so that we can be there together.”
The man promised his friends that he would see them again. But until that time, he reminded them, “Love one another, the way that I have loved you”. Love one another the way that I have loved you.”
Hold your gratitude tightly and hold your grief lightly.
Hold your gratitude tightly and hold your grief lightly.
Grief and gratitude. Both are a gift of the Spirit, given to those of us who have dared to know the depths and the heights of love.
As we travel together, looking into the rear-view mirror of our past, we are filled with gratitude. The road, though, leads forward. And like the ancient sage and his friends, we all know the grief that loss brings. This world is a wonderful world, a world of life, laughter and love, and we grieve when we lose the best parts of it. Our friend–my friend and yours–was one of the best parts of it. And so we look back, in grief.
But this is not all there is.
This is not all there is, and while I grieve the loss of my friend today, I remember the words that he and I shared together not three days before his passing, when I last saw him at his house. In that room, in that house, we spoke of another house. Looking forward into the future, we could see another house, a new home.
In that house, there is a place prepared for all of us. There was a place prepared for my friend in that house. There is a place for you in that house, there is a place for me in that house, and with the full knowledge of the promises of God, I know that my friend has gone there ahead of me. I am fully convinced that we will see him again.
We shall meet again, because this is not all there is. This is not all there is.
We have been given a great gift, to be able to look back and forward. I give thanks for the world that slips into the rear view mirror. I grieve for it, but I also see through the front window that this world is not all there is, and I am grateful that God has prepared a place in the house of God for our friend, for you and for me.
Friends, this is not all there is, and like that parking lot that I learned in so many years ago, this is the world where we learn the skills we need for the road ahead. And down the road, we shall meet together in joy again.
Thanks be to God for the gift of this world, and thanks be to God for the gift of the world to come.
Thanks be to God, because this is not all there is. Amen.
Invitation to a Moment of Silent Remembrance
Reflection, Meditation or Prayer. Responsive Words of Assurance and Comfort from Scripture as selected by family (Doug Ferris, reader).
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after;
To live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord.
Musical Selection 2: Guest Musician
Benediction and Sending Forth: Doug Ferris
Processional to Interment
(Shared publicly with gratitude and with the expressed consent of my friend’s family)