My Journey Through The Winter of Loss
It was a bitter-cold January morning as I sat staring at the beautiful spray of sunflowers, lotus pods, and wheat stalks. Woven throughout the arrangement were yellow satin ribbons embellished with glittered inscriptions of the many roles he had played in life.
Of the many titles given to him, “Father” was my personal favorite. Little wonder, since he was mine.
Was? Is? How am I expected to speak of him in past tense?
So… This is what it’s like to be granted a seat under the emerald-green canopy. The place of honor reserved for the family members closest to the deceased. An honor I had never experienced until this day.
With the frigid temperatures came the blustery winds. And as friends and family gathered around us, braving the chill while providing a wind break of support, my grief-stricken mother and I huddled close; aware that this service would end too soon and yet, not soon enough.
Did I mention that it was cold?
Why did it have to be so cold?
And why was my heart equally cold?
You see until that January, I had never lost anyone close to me. And no one had ever warned me of the sudden drop in temperature that a heart experiences during loss.
I sat staring at the burnished-bronze box, barely tuning in to the voices committing my father to the ground.
Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
It is a cold wind that blows through the hole in the heart of the grieving one. The longing that you have for the physical warmth and touch of your loved one will never be felt again. This is an unbearable awareness. A reality that you cannot reverse and a bad dream from which you will never wake.
May I interrupt my story to bring a Public Service Announcement on behalf of those who mourn? Having first-hand experience of the moment you realize the finality of death and the permanence of loss, I can assure you that it brings little to no comfort to be reminded that we will see our loved one again.
Don’t misunderstand me. We are well aware that when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. It just simply doesn’t lessen the pain of the current situation when someone states the obvious. Not now, anyway. But maybe later.
Why? Because in the moment of that painful awareness that it may be YEARS—perhaps a lifetime, of waiting before you see your loved-one again, a reuniting at the pearly gates is simply not a very welcoming thought. For the one suffering, it’s like the half-empty vs. half-full glass scenario. For the consoler, the reassurance that you are trying to give to your devastated friend seems like it should be the best consolation possible. After all, we know that for the Christ-follower, there is indeed a reunion of the saints in eternity.
But from first-hand experience, I can tell you that the idea that I may not see my dad’s face or hear his voice again for another 20 years still punches me in the gut–even now, two years later.
With Grief comes its companion, Fear.
And Fear brings its own brutal winds to the storm. Fear speaks best in the form of questions…
“What happens now?”
“How on earth will life ever be normal again?”
“How will mom ever be okay now that he’s gone?”
“How can I bring comfort to her when I feel none of my own?”
“Are we really going to leave him here tonight?
With fear-filled questions mounting like snowdrifts, the panic welled in my throat.
When our last moments with him came to a close, compassionate guests said their final good-byes. Well-meaning souls offered their final condolences in an attempt to bring some sense of closure and reasoning to this unnecessary loss.
Life was to resume for everyone that day. People needed to head back to work, go shopping, pay a bill, or any other number of things. And it seemed that everyone had places to go.
Everyone that is, but us.
We would drive away, not wanting to leave; all the while looking back behind us until his coffin and the burial crew were out of sight. The thought of leaving him in the hands of total strangers who were merely doing their job, nauseated me. Shouldn’t we stay with him until…
Tears flow even now as I remember that day.
This was the second toughest day of my life.
The toughest being the day I watched the man I’d known my entire life take his final breath and leave us in a silent standstill. And only moments later being encouraged to gather our things and leave him there.
The thought of leaving him in the hands of total strangers who were merely doing their job, nauseated me that day, as well. Shouldn’t we stay with him until…
All life left room #6 that day.
After the burial service…
…Mom and I made our way down the leaf-covered path into the woods and sat together in silence.
Each one aware that there was nothing left to do and nothing left to say. Everything had come to an abrupt stop. The rush of activity had stopped. All of the days and nights spent sitting beside his hospital bed had stopped. All funeral arranging had stopped. All because Dad’s breathing had stopped. Every moment spent pleading and begging, bartering and badgering hadn’t stopped the worst day from happening.
Through loss, I came to know what it means to experience the dark night of the soul. I’d heard mention of such a night before, but like the honorary seat under the burial tent, I had never experienced one. Oh, I’ve had my fair share of dark nights; don’t get me wrong.
The pitch of this black was something different. This kind of dark shrouds all that you thought you saw in God and His loving care for you. When your faith is shaken to the point of collapse. When things seem so distorted in your view of His character that you don’t even recognize the God you thought you knew. When the Solid Rock feels like shifting sand under your feet.
No. Actually more like quicksand. And you feel certain you are going to be swallowed up alive.
It’s dark. And it’s cold.
Why did it have to be so cold?
My heart, that is.
I can’t remember much of what people said that week. Well-wishers came from all over and the memory of most conversations is pretty vague. And though I do remember that some things shared seemed a bit clichéd, unhelpful, or simply too soon to be said, I do not hold it against them. They meant well and quite honestly I have given more than my share of trite condolences to the widow at the end of the receiving line.
It’s inevitable that the most gracious individual will, at times, fumble through her words in an attempt to help ease the painfully awkward moment when staring into the glassy eyes of a mourner. And it would be easy to feel that maybe it’s best to just avoid the situation altogether.
However, I can assure you that avoidance and absence are never the proper actions to take in these situations.
Your very presence speaks volumes. The fact that you took the time to attend the viewing and/or funeral shows more support and brings more comfort than you’ll ever know.
As I stood at his casket, addressing all of the people who had come to pay their final respects, I was beyond touched at the sea of faces gathered in honor of my sweet dad. And as I shared memories of him from my bleeding heart, the smiles and tears from those listening brought amazing grace and strength for that day.
So though, yes, we must choose words with caution and handle the bereaved with care, one can never go wrong when they choose to overcome their awkward nervousness to lend support at the worst of times in a family’s life.
It is my hope that in recounting my story and some of my disturbing thought processes during those first few days after loss, that we can explore some things that are helpful to say; as well as, what to avoid saying that can actually be hurtful or frustrating to the faint in heart.
But, I’ll save those things for the next article. Time has gotten away from us for now and I thank you for reading this far.
I assure you that the story doesn’t end here. Through many dear friends who cared and prayed for us, and who allowed us to use angry words with outdoor voices at times, we have seen God’s healing. Time, in a sense, heals most wounds. (Though that’s another one of those things you don’t want to tell someone in the acute stages of grief.)
God not only wasn’t surprised or thrown off by my anger and disappointment towards Him, He wasn’t put off by it either. He didn’t punish me for my questioning of Him and His faithfulness.
In fact, He knew it would happen.
And therein lies the beauty of grace in our grief. When God draws near to us in our lowest place—the valley of the shadow of death. His Word tells us that He is near to the broken-hearted. When He hears our cries and lifts us up from the pit of despair.
But until the heart is ready to be lifted up from that despair, (and it does take a while to be willing) His Spirit will come and lay down on the bathroom floor beside the shattered, disappointed, and angry heart. Administering His comfort like only He can.
And at times, He’ll prompt others to share words of Life to the downcast. Offering the cloak of grace to warm the frozen heart.
May we be sensitive in all that we say and do, in our attempts to bring comfort to one another. May we pause, pray, and ask God for His Life-giving words to share; while knowing that sometimes the best words spoken are words not spoken. Sometimes they are only felt as we sit and weep beside the one who weeps.
Question of the day:
In your time of grief, what words spoken or gestures from others brought the most comfort to you?
Don’t forget to read part 2 of this series found here!