Death in the Garden: A Reflection on my Grandmother’s Death

I find myself writing on death quite frequently. Every year for the anniversary of my father’s death, I write a theological reflection and meditation on the concept and reality of human death. Death has always had a certain hold on me, and I have always had a certain contemplative fascination with it as both a spiritual concept and physical reality. Well, death has reared its ugly face again, and on Tuesday, my Grandma Shirley experienced physical death and similar to her son, my father, became present with the Lord. I imagine they are together in heaven enjoying the presence of Christ and living in his perfection. Over the past three days, memories have both lifted and drained my Spirit. Thinking on my Grandma’s life and the many loving experiences I had with her has brought much joy, as well as grief, to my heart.

As I reminisced over all the stories Grandma told me and my siblings, all of her favorite experiences from her many travels around the world, all of the meals we had together at Thanksgiving and Christmas, all of the Dunkin Donut munchkins and coffee we had around her kitchen table, one characteristic overwhelmed me. My Grandma was truly one of the most consistent, resolute humans I have ever met. For the better part of my life from toddler to twenty-two-year-old, almost every Sunday afternoon after church, my family and I visited my Grandma. Every Sunday, there would be bakery snacks in the kitchen, a coffee pot half-filled, and a crystal bowl of M&M’s for anyone with a chocolate craving. Every week we as a family would talk with Grandma about her regular brunch meetings with her friends, her weekly mass, and much more. My Grandma was structured, disciplined, resolute, and unwavering, the Matriarch of the large Elliott family.

My dad was one of ten children. So, as you can imagine, my extended family is quite large. My grandma had so many grand children and lived to see many great-grandchildren born as well. And, she was there for all of us. Grandma was amazing. Her resolute character, witty responses, and devoted nature inspired me as a child. Grandma was truly a Matriarch not only physically but morally. She led my father, my siblings, and me, and I am sure the rest of the Elliott family as well, in her beautiful example. She impacted so many through her absolute, unconditional love of her husband, children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I with the rest of the Elliott family are an heir to her great legacy.

And above all, Grandma loved Jesus, loved his church, and proved this week after week by going to mass, listening to His word, partaking in the Eucharist, and giving of her time and money. Even when Grandma could not physically go due to her health, she would watch the mass on TV. Even in her last week, when she was at the hospital, she told me that she was able to watch the mass and take the Eucharist with the local parishioner. It is this resolute discipline and dedication to the church and to Jesus that impacted me so much. It is my Grandmother’s unwavering dedication to the Church through thick and thin that spurs me on to do the same.

And, as I think to my Grandma’s dedication to God and family throughout her life, I cannot help but meditate on the Triune God’s dedication and faithfulness to her in death. For is this not the gospel message that gives hope and inspires humans to have faith and love in this world? God’s word in it’s witness to the person of Jesus Christ assures humans of God’s faithfulness to those who believe in his Son even in their death. As Jesus himself proclaimed, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[1] God asks every human: come to me, eat of me, listen to me, know me, and have life. Come to my Son, Jesus through my Spirit and have life. And, if one does these things in and through the faith which God has given him, then God through His good grace will raise him on that final day, when he comes to defeat death and evil once and for all.

And the Christian message is the only message that preaches Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully man. That Jesus, as a man, did what man could not do and defeated death. And, that he defeated death, because he was God incarnated, the eternal Son. And Christianity preaches that this God-man did not conquer as a king but as a servant who submitted to death to bring man to life. For, Jesus took sin upon himself in death and thus defeated sin, death, and the devil through the power of his resurrection. Thus, death was the divine tool of man’s salvation. As the Apostle Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”[2]

Death was originally humanity’s enemy. It was not part of our original design; it was a self-inflicted wound from our forefather, Adam. As St. Paul explains, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”[3] Death is a a wound that still hurts us to this day. The pain of loss. The pain of memories that draw you into presence of those who have passed away. My Grandma’s death hurts me, and I am sure that when I attend the funeral I will experience more pain and sorrow. Pain is not the only weapon of death, doubt and insecurity often follow as well. In human life the reality of death, of our physical existence ending, causes man to question existence itself. What is life? What happens after death? Paramount metaphysical questions enter the human mind when death enters the picture. So, death as the enemy attacks with pain, suffering, doubt, and insecurity.

Now, insert the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

God has defeated death. And, if one in faith draws to that message of truth, God will raise him on that final day. Humanity’s pain and suffering is answered by the truth that God will wipe away all tears, and that we will be reunited with our loved ones. Human doubt and insecurities are answered as well. What is life? Life is to know God through His Son. What happens after death? After death one will become present with the Savior and healed of all evil and physical infirmity. This means that death is not only the divine tool of salvation, but also becomes a tool that makes humans rely on God. Death draws us to God. [Perhaps this is why I am fascinated with it.] As Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, “God brings men not from life to life with smoothness and ease, but from life to death to life with the pain of childbirth and the pangs of death and the continuing threat of nonexistence hanging over them. Living in hope, therefore, means living by faith in the God who can reach even into the hollowness of nonexistence . . . to confer life.”

My Grandma had a hymn she quite liked. It was “In the Garden” by Charles A. Miles. Miles wrote this hymn after reading and experiencing the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden after the resurrection. Miles was in complete awe of Mary Magdalene seeing an empty tomb and being filled with doubt, hurt, and pain, thinking her dead savior’s body had been stolen. Mary Magdalene was experiencing the attacks of death: pain, sorrow, and doubt. But, the story follows that in the garden outside the tomb, Mary Magdalene sees a man who she thinks to be the gardener and ask if he knows where they took Jesus’ body. The man then reveals himself to be the resurrected Jesus Christ. And, in this moment, the truth of the resurrection becomes so clear. Jesus has defeated sin, evil, sickness, fear, sorrow, and doubt, because he has defeated death itself. In the garden, Christ arose; in the garden, death was defeated. As the song goes:

He (Jesus) speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

I know for a fact that as the night was falling around my Grandma, that Jesus Christ’s sweet voice was calling out to her to come home. I know that God was faithful to her, as she was faithful to Him. She had faith that in Jesus’ Baptism, in his Word, in his Eucharist, in his Church, in his Love that she would be secure even through death because of his almighty power and mercy. That although death in her life had caused her pain, sorrow, doubt, and insecurity, that Jesus was standing next to her saying, “Death is swallowed up in my victory. Death where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?[4] I have defeated you. You have no power.” I hope to have that same resolve when I am faced with death. And, I know that if I draw near to Christ in this life, he will raise me in the next. For, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”[5]


[1] John 6:29,40. ESV.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14.

[3] Romans 5:12.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:55.

[5] John 6:29,40.

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