I’ve moved my office from the dining room of my friends’ vacant home to the patio, which backs onto a 9-hole golf course. It’s in a grove of pines and there are song birds here to provide a sweet melody behind the staccato, syncopated rhythm of my keys. The place is too gorgeous and the afternoon too perfect to work indoors.
As I was traveling here yesterday, I did some reading. At the airport I was previewing a new book written by a friend of mine, to be published in the spring. On the plane, I finished Grief Undone, by Elizabeth W.D. Groves. This was the first of many books on grief that I was given after Donna died, but the last one I completed. The only reason I can give is that I got tired of reading books about this troubling subject and even got too busy to grieve properly myself. As I finished reading this godly woman’s story–her husband died of cancer in February, 2007–I realized several things.
First, the reason I appreciated this book so much is that the author’s experience, even the nature of her family and work, so closely paralleled my own. With all due respect to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and the many authors and practitioners who have followed her, I don’t believe grief can be easily quantified. While there may be common elements in everyone’s experience (the most obvious being the loss itself,) grief is visceral, spiritual, social, mental, emotional–and, above all, intensely personal. It is not clinical. Some of the books I read were more helpful than others. Richard Baxter and C.S. Lewis touched me profoundly, unexpectedly. David Knapp’s I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss offered a wealth of practical help, even though its primary audience is not the grief-stricken themselves. But Groves’ book was comforting and encouraging in countless ways. I’ll share some passages from it later.
The second thing I realized is that I am not anywhere near the end of this path of grief. During these past months I have pushed myself physically, socially, personally, and professionally, and I’m not sure if that was always wise. In the last couple of weeks, especially, I’ve experienced bouts of extreme melancholy, tears, and stabbing pains in my soul. Just about anything can set them off, and as much as I try to recover my wits and move on, when I’m alone I still struggle. I think it’s a matter of pacing. Perhaps I have tried to grieve the way I walk–always as fast as I can.
In the third place, I realized when I got here that God wants to use this short respite to allow me to grieve some more. I have a pile of work to keep me busy–mostly writing projects, and principally, my book manuscript. But something Elizabeth Groves said in her book hit the mark. She had recounted several divinely-tailored blessings her family experienced during her husband’s long illness and just before his death. One was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him and his sons to attend a professional football game together. It was a barn-burner, won in the final seconds by their beloved hometown Philadelphia Eagles. They had been given tickets for seats on the 30-yard line behind the Eagles’ bench, and her husband even had a small wall right in front of him on which to rest his foot (this had been a concern when they had received the tickets, as he had blood clots in his leg.) The experience was perfect in every possible respect, and her sons will never forget it. Elizabeth wrote:
“The Lord may not care about who wins a football game, but he does love his children and he delights to pour out that love in personalized, intimate, generous, overflowing ways. He does it all the time, for all of us. But I don’t often notice. I go around living as if things ‘just happen’ or ‘just work out,’ rather than realizing that they come to me directly from God’s loving hand…Throughout the year Al was dying and beyond, we were loved beyond all imagination, not only by God directly–through his Holy Spirit and his Word–but by his people. What we received was vastly beyond anything we deserved and was deeply humbling. It’s the kind of thing that is so overwhelming, so gracious, so unmerited, so far beyond measure, that it makes you just bow your head in grateful silence. There are no words that are an adequate response to such love.” (pp. 108. 158)
That resonated with me, and I realized that this very trip is just such a gift: the generosity of precious friends who also loved and miss my wife; the beauty and charm of this region; the welcoming solitude of a beautiful home; the ridiculously cheap airfare and the offer of another friend’s extra car for two weeks; eager and competent people to “mind the store” and look after my house while I’m gone. And I may even get to see some of my children and grandchildren in the bargain! This didn’t “just work out.” Last year, just two months before Donna’s diagnosis, our family took a two-week road trip to Nova Scotia together. Then, we viewed it as a trip-of-a-lifetime. Now, we see it as a precious gift of God to His unsuspecting children.
Thank you, Father.
One thing that hit me when I was reading is the fact that Donna and I never really got the chance to say an official goodbye, “alone together,” before she lapsed into a medically-induced coma three days before her death. In some ways, her homegoing couldn’t have been more of a blessing: she slipped quietly into the arms of Jesus surrounded by the four people she loved most in the world, in the familiar comfort of her own home. Donna and I had talked often about heaven and my desire to join her there soon. We told each other many times a day that we loved each other (through the years of our marriage, we tried never to let a day go by in which we didn’t say, “I love you” at least once) and we had no “outstanding balances” of sins or personal grievances between each other. For that I am immensely grateful. But I so wish I could have given her a proper send-off to glory, with a long kiss on her lips and a gentle embrace of her fragile, ravaged body and a final, “Thank you for the years of exquisite joy you have given me. I love you more than you’ll ever know, and I’ll see you soon.” Even as I type this, tears are streaming down my face.
Finally, I realized the value of the Body of Christ. I have had to go through this process without the benefit of a local church to support me. I am surrounded by people I love and who love me back, and I know I can call on them whenever I wish. We spend time together and they have been a huge help to me. I treasure them beyond words. Some are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that spiritual kinship has the power to uplift and sustain that people who don’t know the Lord cannot fathom or even imagine. Technology has helped to bridge this gap somewhat–the 800+ people in our private Facebook group and many personal friends who have prayed and shared passages of Scripture and words of comfort and encouragement have been a huge blessing. But God designed a local church to be a family, a body, a building–with each of its parts connected to, supporting, and being supported by the others. I’m so thankful for my brethren in our TAPESTRY FELLOWSHIP and also for those all over the world who have been siblings, vital organs, and bricks for me.
So I go on now, facing these two weeks with a fresh perspective and thankful that my gracious heavenly Father has bestowed on me such a lavish gift. My time here is like a speed bump–a warning that I may be traveling too fast and a way to slow me down lest I bottom out.
I want to share three more passages from Elizabeth Groves’ book:
“Theologians talk about ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification.’ Justification is about Jesus paying the price for our sins by his death on the cross: the innocent voluntarily dying in place of the guilty. Sanctification is about the Holy Spirit gradually transforming us to be more like Jesus. Unlike the makeover shows on TV, however, this process takes a lifetime and will not be finished until we get to heaven. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit is both incredibly patient and fully committed to the ultimate transformation, because the change is often v-e-r-y slow.” (pp. 92-93)
“The benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection were real and brought genuine relief and blessing. The gospel doesn’t necessarily alter the circumstances of suffering in our lives. Suffering is real and painful, and it may continue to be painful for a long, long time. The gospel didn’t change the fact that my children were still without their dad. Al was gone, and he wasn’t coming back. I couldn’t erase the pain and grief of that for my kids. But the gospel does set our suffering in the context of a bigger reality–that Jesus came to reverse the curse of sin and death, and already his victory is turning back its effects. One day sin and death will be entirely eradicated, and as his people we long for that day, but even now we experience a foretaste of it. Even now that reality brings hope in so many ways.” (p. 162)
“Finally, knowing God as our Father–a loving, merciful, generous, faithful, kind Father–made a difference every single day…knowing that Jesus had defeated death and opened the way to heaven for his people took the sting out of death and undid our grief. I ache for people who face death–their own or a loved one’s–without the companionship of God or the hope of heaven. Thankfully, God’s family is not exclusive; the Father is delighted to welcome people into it.” (p. 207)