This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write about grief and my experience of it after the death of my husband Paul 4½ years ago. I will write each post in the form of a letter—a letter to Emma. I’m doing it this way for two reasons: visualising an audience of one will help me to write about what is still a difficult subject, and Emma was the one who first asked me to consider writing something on this topic. It’s my hope and prayer that by blogging about my personal experience of death and grief, I might ease the journey for someone else.
Do you remember when we had lunch together earlier this year (or was it coffee, last year)? You asked me a question that really stuck in my mind; you asked if I would consider writing about grief, about what it’s been like for me. I wasn’t ready back then, but now I think I’m as ready as I’ll ever be—ready and apprehensive about the journey that lies ahead. But if I don’t do it now I probably never will and somehow that would seem like a waste. Maybe I can help make it easier for somebody else by telling my story.
Reading other people’s stories really helped me get through the fog and storms of grief. I couldn’t concentrate on anything theoretical or even theological, apart from the Bible, though even that was hard at first. I wanted, needed, something tangible—the raw anguish of someone else’s experience—because I wanted to know that someone else knew how I felt, that someone else had been in the black pit of desperate sorrow too, and yet had survived.
In the very early days I read Psalm 62 over and over because I simply couldn’t read anything else. Actually that lasted for months. Maybe it seemed to connect me to Paul because it was one of the readings in the thanksgiving service for him, but it wasn’t just that; it was the words themselves that I clung to, and through them I clung on to God:
My soul finds rest in God alone, my salvation comes from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken (Ps 62:1 NIV 1984).
You always know where you stand with King David, the man with a heart for God, and the master of hyperbole who never let political correctness get in the way of his passion. In his psalms he roars with pain, flings himself to the ground in repentance, shouts his demands for justice, and delights in God with complete abandon. You would never call him reserved. In a strange way, I think David helped me learn to be less reserved and self-contained. Grief did the rest.
Nothing prepares you for the physicality of grief. Nothing prepares you for the weight of grief. Nothing prepares you for the emotional intensity of grief and the sense that you have been taken over by a foreign power you cannot control (more about grief later). But most of all, nothing prepares you for the finality of death – the shattering, insurmountable barrier that cuts you off from the one you love.
That was the hard, cold, unrelenting fact that shaped everything to come. Paul wasn’t there anymore and never would be again. Even as my kids and I stayed with his lifeless body in the hospital until sheer exhaustion forced us to say goodbye and leave him, we were aware of a strange absence. His strong, fit body was there, but with life’s spark gone and the last remnants of warmth ebbing away, he really wasn’t there. And he would never return.
We gave thanks to God for Paul’s life on a humid, baking-hot February day in 2011, in the company of our family, church family, friends and colleagues. The church was packed to overflowing with the many who loved him and grieved for him. And then his body was taken away from us all for the last time, to be cremated. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
How I longed for his bodily presence—for his energy, vitality and strength, his tall frame, his enveloping arms, his face, his blue-grey eyes, his voice, his laugh, his kisses—and how completely they were gone. Everywhere I went, I went without him, even when I went to bed. His absence was a suffocating, aching emptiness that I couldn’t escape. I would bury my face in his favourite yellow polo shirt that hung on the hook in our bedroom, because it still smelled like him and I desperately wanted to remember. But inexorably, his scent faded away.
I was bereft, bereaved. Such old fashioned words—in fact, two versions of the same word—and yet they seemed so appropriate and relevant to me that I looked them up in the dictionary. Who would have thought such a mundane activity would be so comforting? These days bereaved means to be deprived of something ruthlessly, to be made desolate by loss (especially by death). And yes, that’s where I was—deprived of my husband and desolate without him.
But the older definitions got even closer to the truth because ‘to bereave’ once meant to take away by violence, coming as it did from an Old English verb bereafian which meant ‘to rob’. And that was exactly it: I’d been robbed, by death. I’d been robbed of intimacy and companionship with Paul and every good thing that came from that. I’d lost my husband, my lover, my children’s father, my best friend, my soul mate and my number #1 fan.
Distressingly, while that all made sense to me, some of God’s words didn’t. Death had brought undone the oneness of my marriage to Paul, ripped it up and tossed it aside, and my heart with it. According to God’s arithmetic, when we married each other one plus one had equalled one and we were one for 23½ years. So what was I now? A half? A fragment?
And what was I to do with Jesus’ words to the Sadducees, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels” (Luke 20:34-36a)? If our marriage was only for this life, was 23½ years of oneness now rendered meaningless? What was I to do with the oneness that was never meant for eternity and yet had made me who I am? What was I to do with my love for the man with whom I had been one, who had known me more intimately than any one else? So many questions. And answers slow to come.
In 2010, I was asked to write a brief synopsis of what the Bible teaches us about death and the afterlife; we’d been studying 1 Thessalonians at Bible study and had lots of questions. So I began to look into what we can and can’t know from God’s word about what happens when we die. Back then it was comforting to understand these things more clearly, to understand the clear promise that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord—something Jesus himself confirmed to the crucified thief.
But after Paul died, this wonderful promise merely intensified my pain and widened the chasm between us; when I followed the logic, I realised that ‘to be in the body’ and ‘to be at home with the Lord’ were distinct, separate states with no communication between them. So in the same way that I had no awareness or experience of what it is like to be at home with the Lord, then Paul, who was at home with the Lord, must be cut off from me completely with no knowledge of my sorrow. Bliss for him, but not for me.
But Emma, even though Scripture seemed to give me as much pain as it did comfort, I was convinced that our Father in heaven had been at work for a very long time, preparing me for what I was going through. Because of his overwhelming kindness and particular care over many years I knew he loved me, that he was always with me and that nothing would, or could, separate me from his love in Jesus. This letter is already long, but can I give you a glimpse of how he prepared me—just one example?
In mid-2006, our women’s minister Sarah asked me to prepare a talk about God’s sovereignty and predestination. It was a talk I never gave. Just weeks later Paul woke me in the middle of the night, in excruciating pain, telling me I had to take him to the hospital. I called an ambulance. I was still filling in forms in the emergency department when his heart stopped and after the flurry and confusion of defibrillation, he was rushed off to surgery. They led me to an empty, dimly lit waiting room and left me. I had no idea where I was or what was going to happen, but I’d just spent weeks wrestling with the mind-bending logic of RC Sproul’s The Invisible Hand, exploring the interaction between God’s sovereign power and his creation, and grappling with the searing application of the biblical truth:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28).
As Sproul says, “It is where the rubber of human anguish meets the road of divine providence”.* Just a few minutes made the difference between life and death for Paul that night, but I was so deeply immersed in biblical truth and so lovingly cradled by God’s merciful kindness, I knew that he was in control and I could trust him, no matter what happened—whether Paul lived or died.
The profound blessing of this knowledge has not left me. I don’t know why God spared Paul’s life in 2006, and I don’t know why Paul died when he did. All I do know is that his death was not a mistake, that God our sovereign Creator had numbered his days and called ‘Time’. Emma, I can’t believe in a god who does not have the power to decide whether my husband lives or dies, or a god who—when it matters most—is absent, or unaware, or simply doesn’t care. What would be the point of believing in a god like that? I can only believe in the God of heaven and earth who decides whether I take my next breath and who promises to use this present suffering for my good, and for my children’s, and to bring me home to be with him.
Ours is not a hard and punitive God intent on harassing us into heaven; he is a loving and merciful Father who will not stop pursuing us until we are safe, in him. And this is how he has blessed me.
There’s so much more to say. If you’re prepared to come with me on the journey, I’ll keep writing letters until I’m done. Thank you for being there, my friend.
* RC Sproul, The Invisible Hand, P & R Publishing, Phillipsburg, 2003, p. 2
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