A very dear friend passed away about two weeks ago. He was one of the best people I know: a good friend, a loving husband and father, a sibling in Christ. He didn’t grow up with brothers, but to me – and I’m sure to many of those who lived with or near him – he was very much like a brother.
There is nothing I can say – and, strangely, nothing I want to hear just yet – that can make lighter the weight of this loss. And mine, it must be said, is a meager pain compared to the surpassing sadness that belongs now to his family and his wife. I feel grief, and will for many days, but it will eventually fade into something that can be stored away, called upon amidst happy memories with old photographs and the voluntary sadness of future anniversaries and reunions. But for those closest to him, the sorrow will go on. There is a physical, swallowing, trembling loss. A sick feeling; a dream feeling; a feeling that maybe this is not real; that maybe tomorrow the lights will flip on and things will go back to the way they were.
But we are never allowed to go back, except in remembering.
There is a piece of them gone – a piece of mind and of heart and of spirit, and a physical weighty absence. I guess there are many pieces gone.
No compartmentalizing now. There may not even be a desire for it. Storing the memory away in the backroom of the mind might feel just as bad as having it present. Don’t we want to remember, even if remembering feels like pain?
In his book A Grief Observed about the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis writes that such a piercing, personal loss is like an amputation, never quite ‘gotten over’.
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?
How often – will it be for always? – how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.
It’s only been a few days, but Lewis resonates. When I think on it, everything seems slower. For a time, the minute hand all but actually goes backwards. You feel you want to distract yourself, but at the same time you don’t. You feel strange at first if you laugh at a joke, or sing a happy hymn, or think too long about anything else. Everything has a newness to it – a sad sort of newness. Like the last long breath at 11:59 on New Year’s Eve, before you are starting over.
I have the great, saving comfort of writing that he was a Christian. He is looking God in the face – no tinted glass, no veils, no temporary blindness – where the streets are gold, lit not darkly, but in a brighter light than we have ever known. Thanks be to God, he has gained the ecstatic rest of eternal day; he has gained everything.
But for those still here – still pilgrims on this side of Jordan – the Promised Land seems far, somehow farther today than it was yesterday. Canaan today feels a universe from Egypt, and the wilderness is suddenly drier and colder, and we scarcely want to eat the manna because, well, what kind of God does it come from?
I know the Christian sayings for times like these – though I’ve never felt them so vitally needful. Still, the comforts of religion sometimes seem thinner in the hour you really need them. We thought the blankets of our spiritual beds were warm indeed, and then the winter came.
It’s not that I disbelieve the gifts of divine peace. I know it’s true that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. “Cast your cares upon the Lord” – and, surely, we do. But perhaps I had misunderstood what we were talking about. “Grief” and “hope” look different when you’re trying to stand up under them. God himself requires some rethinking – not doubt, but, rather, better vision – that we might see how this could possibly be in His plan, that all of this might work together for good.
Sure, it has worked out for our friend’s good; I have no doubt.
But what about his family’s good?
“O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” We try to find the peace in that truth. And while I know death has no sting for the ones who have gone to the Holy Table of God’s present glory, it sure feels like a sting for those still living. Bizarrely, the grave’s power is not over the dead, but it feels heavy over the living.
So we say, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” But when? And how much? And does the fact that we are comforted mean we do not mourn at the same time, in the very same thought? A memory of a friend and loved one may mean a moment of mourning and comfort both at once.
And then, “The Lord is near the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” But how near is near? And what does the saving look like?
And finally, we rest in this: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Yes, we rest here, but it is not an easy rest because today it is only a hope and a prayer, as much as it is a promise. It is not yet fruition. We still see very real tears.
Even so, there is an inheritance that is imperishable. He has it all. As for his loved ones, not yet. That may be why between hope and love, love is the greatest. Because hope is trusting in tomorrow’s comfort, but love is the comfort we feel today.
* * *
Since he died, some songs have become more meaningful to me. Hymns and worship music all talk about life and death, coming and going. We sang them yesterday; we feel them today. One begins to suspect the old Irishman went writing the final verse of Be Thou My Vision for this very day:
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.
“Whatever befall… whatever befall… whatever befall….” It keeps ringing. And then, “still be my Vision,” with its little gem of allegiance to Peace and Love, saying we are committed to being hopeful, whether we feel it or not.
* * *
I have cared about the Lions less the last two weeks. I have cared about my commute less, and the cold, and the news. I have cared about my comfort less.
Things I’ve cared about more? My friends. My family. His friends. His wife and daughter and family. Prayer.
* * *
I have been thinking about when I lived with him. It was the best floor and the best year, many who were there will agree. We’ll never forget how it was. It won’t do much to write out all the stories here. You had to have been there.
He was. And we were. And we will not fail to remember.
We will remember how the time felt, and what kind of man he was. The kind of man you want to spend time with. He was quiet, but could also laugh so so well. (I’m finding you don’t forget a person’s laugh.) He was lights out smart, but didn’t make anyone feel stupid. I’m not sure I ever heard him make fun of anyone, even in jest, and we know how rare that is. He introduced me to some of his favorite games. To this day, I still quote him. God bless him and his undying love for the Leafs. Many of us will now root for Toronto… except when they play the Wings… but maybe even then.
Once we sat in the back of pontoon boat laughing about the sort of stupid things that only guys who are real friends will laugh about.
I remember how, once, he told me I threw a really good spiral. He probably said this mostly to be nice, but I made sure not to throw the football again that day so as to keep him thinking I was All-State. I remember Settlers and Blockus and how into RedBall he could get. Honestly, RedBall is not even that fun of a game, but of course it’s fun when you’re playing with friends.
A bunch of us watched the Olympics together, and lots of terrible movies. (Somehow, in college, you watch way more bad movies than good ones.)
I remember his wedding. I remember seeing him dancing at other people’s weddings. That was awesome.
I remember the way he sat, then stood, then sat, beaming, after he became a father.
He was all the things you want in a friend. He had a good soul. Thinking of him now, it may be what Gibran meant when he said by love we might know “the pain of too much tenderness.”
* * *
In remembering, it makes me very happy.
Even in a funeral, even for a young man, we share more laughter than tears, more joy than sorrow. Our joy is only the other side of our sadness. We are so sad because he made us so happy, which is how, even in his youth, we know his life was full.
So we aren’t so sorry for the one who goes. He goes to God, and heaven brings a much sweeter rest. But we are sad for those left to carry on here. And I think we do not need to fill the sadness, as though it were a hole that needed to be closed up; rather, we need to balance it. On the other side of the scale we can and must speak comfort, laugh, remember. We must give all the help we can to those who were closest to him, whose weight of sorrow demands a far greater weight of peace. We must tell all the stories we can, so his precious daughter knows her father and that she was his beloved.
I do not think he would want us to be sad. He would want us to be happy, and to help others to be happy too, just the way he always did.