It caught me off guard. I was getting into my truck on Monday morning to come to work, and the radio was on (I usually just leave it on when I turn off the truck). As soon as I turned the key, I listened and heard a song playing, and then heard some familiar lyrics to a George Strait tune begin to spill out of the speakers: "Oh, the last goodbye's the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away."
I stopped everything immediately, and just sat there for a minute as my mind and my body were transported to an early November day 6 years ago. That was the day of my Uncle Ralph's funeral. He was only 54 when he passed away, and he had always thought himself to be a bit of a cowboy. Though he had struggled with some chronic health issues, they had been pretty well under control, so his passing was sudden and tragic, and took a toll on everyone who had known him and loved him.
The George Strait song? Well, that was played as the casket carrying my uncle's body was wheeled out of the church I grew up in. The church I was baptized in and confirmed in. The church my parents had been married in...the church my uncle and aunt had been married in. We all filed out of this same church, behind my uncle--one of my dad's closest brothers and friends--saying our last goodbyes as George Strait laid the soundtrack to our grief: "Oh, the last goodbye's the hardest one to say. This is where the cowboy rides away."
It's funny how a song can touch a nerve like that--how a nothing-special Monday morning can turn on a dime and transport us to another place and time. It's funny how something I thought I had buried so easily came bubbling up with just a few chords and George Strait's twangy voice. It's funny how the grief is always there...even when it feels like we have--for the last time--dealt with it.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?"
Grief, we keep learning over and over, is not a straight line through the well-known 5 stages of grief. It is a spiral--an unpredictable, spinning, spiral. And we will be on that spiral until the day we take our last breaths. There is no "getting over it" or "moving on," there are simply seasons when we walk through the world relatively oblivious of our grieving hearts. And then there are seasons that simply take our breath away--days that feel as fresh as the moment we first knew grief for ourselves. And both are sacred spaces and hallowed ground, where we affirm again and again one of the deep truths of being human: That the price of love is loss.
So please, friends, walk softly today. Make space for the grief of others. Make space for your own grief. And remember, there is no time table for when you should stop loving someone or missing them and the light their presence brought into the world and into your life. Let the grief spiral carry you someplace deeper, someplace higher, someplace more lovely, yet filled with more heartache than you knew yesterday. For this is the stuff of being human, and grief over what we have lost is, ironically, how we know that we yet live.
This is where the cowboy rides away...
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen
Rev. Melissa Sternhagen was called as the pastor of St. Paul Congregational UCC in June of 2020. Prior to her call to St. Paul, Pr. Melissa worked as a hospice chaplain in the Ames, IA area, following pastorates at rural churches in Central Iowa and Southern Illinois. Pr. Melissa is a second-career pastor with a background in agribusiness and production & supply operations. She received her M.Div. from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, and holds a MA Ed. in Adult Education and Training, and a BA in Organizational Communications.