It’s gone. I could see the yellow-spoked wheel of the spare tire, perched on the back of a 1934 Plymouth , disappear over the hilltop. The car in which I might have gotten a ride home from elementary school on this rainy day had gone and I was left behind.
“It’s gone.” The trainman stood at the only lighted gate in Penn Station. The train had gone, leaving me behind to figure out how on earth I was to make a speaking engagement on Long Island in an hour and a half.
We’ve all experienced the desolation of being left in one way or another. And sooner or later many of us experience the greatest desolation of all: he’s gone. The one who made life what it was for us—who was, in fact, our life.
And we were not ready. Not really prepared at all. We felt, when the fact stared us in the face, “No. Not yet.” For however bravely we may have looked at the possibilities (if we had any warning at all), however calmly we may have talked about them with the one who was about to die (and I had a chance to talk about the high risks with my first husband, and about the human hopelessness of the situation with my second), we are caught short. If we had another week, perhaps, to brace ourselves… a few more days to say what we wanted to say, to do or undo some things, wouldn’t it have been better, easier?
But silent, swift, and implacable the Scythe has swept by, and he is gone, and we are left. We stand bewildered on the sidewalk, on the station platform. Yet, most strangely, that stunning snatching away has changed nothing very much. There is the sunlight lying in patches on the familiar carpet just as it did yesterday. The same dishes stand in the rack to be put away as usual, his razor and comb are on the shelf, his shoes in the closet (O the shoes! Molded in the always recognizable shape of his feet). The mail comes, the phone rings, Wednesday gives way to Thursday and this week to next week, and you have to keep getting up in the morning (“Life must go on, I forget just why,” wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay) and combing your hair (for whom, now?), eating breakfast (remember to get out only one egg now, not three), making the bed (who cares?). You have to meet people who most fervently wish they could pass by on the other side so as not to have to think of something to say. You have to be understanding with their attempts to be understanding, and when they nervously try to steer you away from the one topic you want so desperately to talk about you have to allow yourself to be steered away—for their sakes. You resist the temptation, when they say he’s “passed away,” to say “No, he’s dead, you know.”
After a few months you’ve learned those initial lessons. You begin to say “I” instead of “we” and people have sent their cards and flowers and said the things they ought to say and their lives are going on and so, astonishingly, is yours and you’ve “adjusted” to some of the differences—as if that little mechanical word, a mere tinkering with your routines and emotions, covers the ascent from the pit.
I speak of the “ascent.” I am convinced that every death, of whatever kind, through which we are called to go must lead to a resurrection. This is the core of Christian faith. Death is the end of every life and leads to resurrection, the beginning of every new one. It is a progression, a proper progression, the way things were meant to be, the necessary means of ongoing life. It is supremely important that every bereaved person be helped to see this. The death of the beloved was the beloved’s own death, “a very private personal matter,” Gert Behanna says, “and nobody should ever dare to try to get in on the act.” But the death of the beloved is also the lover’s death, for it means, in a different but perhaps equally fearsome way, a going through the Valley of the Shadow.
I can think of six simple things that have helped me through this valley and that help me now.
First, I try to be still and know that He is God. That advice comes from Psalm 46, which begins by describing the sort of trouble from which God is our refuge—the earth’s changing, or “giving way” as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, the mountains shaking, the waters roaring and foaming, nations raging, kingdoms tottering, the earth melting. None of these cataclysms seem an exaggeration of what happens when somebody dies. The things that seemed most dependable have given way altogether. The whole world has a different look and you find it hard to get your bearings. Shadows can be very confusing. But in both psalms we are reminded of one rock-solid fact that nothing can change: Thou art with me. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. We feel that we are alone, yet we are not alone. Not for one moment has He left us alone. He is the one who has “wrought desolations,” to be sure. He makes wars cease, breaks bows, shatters spears, burns chariots (breaks hearts, shatters lives?), but in the midst of all this hullabaloo we are commanded, “Be still.” Be still and know.
Stillness is something the bereaved may feel they have entirely too much of. But if they will use that stillness to take a long look at Christ, to listen attentively to His voice, they will get their bearings.
There are several ways of looking and listening that help us avoid being dangerously at the mercy of our (heaven forfend!) “gut-level” feelings. Bible reading and prayer are the obvious ones. Taking yourself by the scruff of the neck and setting aside a definite time in a definite place for deliberately looking at what God has said and listening to what He may have to say to you today is a good exercise. And if such exercises are seen as obligations, they have the same power that other obligations—cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, vacuuming a rug—have to save us from ourselves.
Another means of grace is repeating the creed. Here is a list of objective facts that have not been in the smallest detail altered by what has happened to us. Far from it. Not only have they not been altered; they do actually alter what has happened—alter our whole understanding of human life and death, lift it to another plane. We can go through the list and contemplate our situation in the light of each tremendous truth. It is simply amazing how different my situation can appear as a result of this discipline.
The second thing I try to do is to give thanks. I cannot thank God for the murder of one or the excruciating disintegration of another, but I can thank God for the promise of His presence. I can thank Him that He is still in charge, in the face of life’s worst terrors, and that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us [not ‘us for’] an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” (2 Corinthians 4:17 , 18) I’m back to the creed again and the things unseen that are listed there, standing solidly (yes, solidly, incredible as it seems) against things seen (the fact of death, my own loneliness, this empty room). And I am lifted up by the promise of that “weight” of glory, so far greater than the weight of sorrow that at times seems to grind me like a millstone. This promise enables me to give thanks.
Then I try to refuse self-pity. I know of nothing more paralyzing, more deadly, than self-pity. It is a death that has no resurrection, a sink-hole from which no rescuing hand can drag you because you have chosen to sink. But it must be refused. In order to refuse it, of course, I must recognize it for what it is. Amy Carmichael, in her sword-thrust of a book If, wrote, “If I make much of anything appointed, magnify it secretly to myself or insidiously to others, then I know nothing of Calvary love.” That’s a good definition of self-pity—making much of the “appointed,” magnifying it, dwelling on one’s own losses, looking with envy on those who appear to be more fortunate than oneself, asking “Why me, Lord?” (remembering the “weight of glory” ought to be a sufficient answer to that question). It is one thing to call a spade a spade, to acknowledge that this thing is indeed suffering. It’s no use telling yourself it’s nothing. When Paul called it a “slight” affliction he meant it only by comparison with the glory. But it’s another thing to regard one’s own suffering as uncommon, or disproportionate, or undeserved. What have “deserts” got to do with anything? We are all under the Mercy, and Christ knows the precise weight and proportion of our sufferings— He bore them. He carried our sorrows. He suffered, wrote George Macdonald, not that we might not suffer, but that our sufferings might be like His. To hell, then, with self-pity.
The next thing to do is to accept my loneliness. When God takes a loved person from my life it is in order to call me, in a new way, to Himself. It is therefore a vocation. It is in this sphere, for now anyway, that I am to learn of Him. Every stage on the pilgrimage is a chance to know Him, to be brought to Him. Loneliness is a stage (and, thank God, only a stage) when we are terribly aware of our own helplessness. It “opens the gates of my soul,” wrote Katherine Mansfield, “and lets the wild beasts stream howling through.” We may accept this, thankful that it brings us to the Very Present Help.
The acceptance of loneliness can be followed immediately by the offering of it up to God. Something mysterious and miraculous transpires as soon as something is held up in our hands as a gift. He takes it from us, as Jesus took the little lunch when five thousand people were hungry. He gives thanks for it and then, breaking it, transforms it for the good of others. Loneliness looks pretty paltry as a gift to offer to God—but then when you come to think of it so does anything else we might offer. It needs transforming. Others looking at it would say exactly what the disciples said, “What’s the good of that with such a crowd?” But it was none of their business what use the Son of God would make of it. And it is none of ours. It is ours only to give it.
The last of the helps I have found is to do something for somebody else. There is nothing like definite, overt action to overcome the inertia of grief. The appearance of Joseph of Arimathea to take away the body of Jesus must have greatly heartened the other disciples, so prostrate with their own grief that they had probably not thought of doing anything at all. Nicodemus, too, thought of something he could do—he brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes—and the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee went off to prepare spices and ointments. This clear-cut action lifted them out of themselves. That is what we need in a time of crisis. An old piece of wisdom is, “Dow the next thynge.” Most of us have someone who needs us. If we haven’t, we can find someone. Instead of praying only for the strength we ourselves need to survive, this day or this hour, how about praying for some to give away? How about trusting God to fulfill His own promise, “My power is made perfect in weakness”? (2 Corinthians 12:9) Where else is His power more perfectly manifested than in a human being who, well knowing his own weakness, lays hold by faith on the Strong Son of God, Immortal Love?
It is here that a great spiritual principle goes into operation. Isaiah 58:10-12 says, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail, and… you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in [or, in another translation, ‘paths leading home’].”
The condition on which all these wonderful gifts (light, guidance, satisfaction, strength, refreshment to others) rests is an unexpected one—unexpected, that is, if we are accustomed to think in material instead of in spiritual terms. The condition is not that one solve his own problems first. He need not “get it together.” The condition is simply “if you pour yourself out.”
Countless others have found this to work. St. Francis of Assisi put the principle into other words in his great prayer, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is darkness let me sow light, where there is sadness, joy…. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console…. For it is in giving that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” The words of this prayer were like a light to me in the nights of my husband’s last illness, and I wondered then at the marvel of a man’s prayer being answered (was I the millionth to be blessed by it?) some seven hundred years after he had prayed it. St. Francis was most certainly during those nights in 1973 an instrument of God’s peace.
Perhaps it is peace, of all God’s earthly gifts, that in our extremity we long for most. A priest told me of a terminally ill woman who asked him each time he came to visit only to pray, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)
I have often prayed, in thinking of the many bereaved, the words of the beautiful hymn “Sun of My Soul”:
Be every mourner’s sleep tonight
Like infant slumbers, pure and bright.
There they are—six things that, if done in faith, can be the way to resurrection: be still and know, give thanks, refuse self-pity, accept the loneliness, offer it to God, turn your energies toward the satisfaction not of your own needs but of others’. And there will be no calculating the extent to which
From the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) was a popular speaker and the author of many books, including Through Gates of Splendor, Let me Be a Woman, Passion and Purity, and Shadow of the Almighty. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was killed in 1956 while serving as a missionary in Ecuador.
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