When Sitting in the Front Row Isn’t Great

I have always loved sitting in the front row in a classroom, church service, conference presentation, and especially an airplane. Sitting in the front row allows unfiltered access to the speaker, with the distractions emanating from other people removed from sight. At university, it was the bored and don’t-want-to-be-here students who preferred the back row, but I did want to be there (except for Auditing and a few other classes) so could usually be found at the front. The front row of an airplane is a sanctuary of quiet and concentration, which is wonderful for recharging, thinking, debriefing, and getting ready for the next engagement. Visual distractions are removed, engendering focus.

But sitting in the front row is not universally a good thing – nor always symbolic of a good thing.

A couple of weeks ago I had to sit in almost the front row at a funeral. In reserved for family seating. For a niece who died at 15 – the youngest of three sisters of my sister-in-law and her husband. Sitting in the back row at such an event would be much preferred – “we knew the deceased from a distance” – but when you are required by right of kinship to sit in the front row the usual beauty and magic of being there is replaced with the picture-perfect clarity of deep loss.

  • Grief wearing its grooves on her mother, father and two sisters. All of whom spoke. And for the parents especially, both excellent public speakers with hard won storytelling abilities and skills in encouraging others, having to use those abilities for such a soul-wrenching occasion was heartbreakingly hard.
  • Grief expressed with clarity in the words and actions of school friends who paid tear-stained and tear-interrupted tributes to a good friend, of visions now unattainable, of future mid-school visits to McDonalds for Chicken McNuggets which would now never happen.
  • Grief rendered painfully (but beautifully) from the young woman who had to carry the load of opening the Maori Tangi, and her great struggle to deliver on the script while coping with a broken heart and a flood of tears.
  • Grief etched on the soul of grandparents, leaving them diminished, while dealing with questions of how to support children and grandchildren through this process while also trying to cope with the raw and deep sense of loss. Along with the other older folks at the funeral, perhaps more than one grandparent wondered “why her at the beginning of life instead of me who has lived a long and fruitful life already?
  • Grief from the many cousins – most of them my children – who were not ready for Emily’s final farewell, and would have much preferred to be playing one of Emily’s favourite games with her instead of sitting only metres away from her coffin.
  • Grief at being one of the six to have the right to carry the heavy coffin out of the service and load it into the waiting hearse.

And still, sitting in the front row also gave picture-perfect testimony of Hope, of God’s Goodness in the midst of deep tragedy, of Faith that there is more to this life than what we experience (and sometimes have to endure). While grief will wear its course, forever changing those it touches, yet there is the ever-present future expectation of meeting Emily again.

This was my attempt at capturing the grief and hope on the day after Emily died:

Dark clouds tarnish my soul,
Overcasting your vibrancy and joy for life
With the debilitating weight of grief.
And sorrow. And tears beyond count.
My eyes are bruised from weeping.

Too soon – so young – were you ripped from this world.
While death could not keep our Lord,
Life could not keep hold of you.
And you are snatched far beyond our grasp.

All those years yet to be,
Now unfounded and undermined.
The future promises of life and health and happiness – and joy,
Insufficient for our always-brave girl.

Dearest Emily, while we stood around your empty body,
You were already dancing elsewhere with Nana and Gran.
And then one foot on a scooter, the other on a skateboard,
The heavenly skate park your new favourite place to be.

Our grief will intensify, but eventually ease
As we learn a new rhythm of life without you.
But on that day when life loses its grip on us too,
And those dark clouds are peeled back to reveal the heavenly brilliance
We will meet again.
With no tears. No pain. No grief.

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