Easter 2012. I got up early to go to College Church. I don’t regularly attend there, but its choir sings the Hallelujah Chorus on Resurrection Sunday every year, and the song takes on new significance in the context of Jesus’ victory over death. I bawled through it, as I usually do.  The grandeur and sheer volume get to me every time.

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When I left that church on the way to my own, I noticed several missed calls on my phone. I didn’t take the time to listen to them just yet. They’d still be there when my second service of the morning was over.
As I was pulling in to the parking lot and checking my face in the mirror for mascara landslides, the phone rang again. Lane—husband to Michelle—my friends and Easter companions going all the back to Germany, now residents of Wheaton, as I am.
“Hi, Lane!”
Silent, surprised pause.
“Michele…” Something scary in his voice.  “Mari Ellen’s dead.”
The world—its Easter-business and Sunday-serviceness—screeched to a halt.
“Excuse me?” My mind was contorting itself in an attempt to make sense of the utterly inconceivable. Dead? Define dead.Wait…  Dead?

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I put the car in “park,” one of the last gestures I would make that day without having to subdue a visibly shaking hand. I felt my lungs constrict and my stomach churn. The world receded into oblivion as my eyes locked on my dashboard clock and my heart locked on loss. I heard Lane through the static-hum of absolute disbelief and sudden, searing grief. “She passed away a couple hours ago. I’m sorry, Michele.”
What has felt like the Year of Death had begun. On Easter Sunday, no less.  The Day of Resurrection.
[I think it may be difficult for people who aren’t single women to fully realize the magnitude of a loss like Mari Ellen’s. We don’t have spouses.  We don’t have children. We have the one or two rare soulmates who “do life” with us, committed and long-term. For my last twenty years, that person had been Mari Ellen.]
After Mari Ellen’s sudden passing (following a partial hip replacement the week before), I struggled to comprehend the finality of death. This “disposable world” we live in doesn’t prepare us well for something that can’t be undone. Command-Z. Backspace. Quick—download the retrieval software that will find and restore that life, as if nothing had ever happened.
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No. Death in this human realm is final. It is intransigent in that finality.  Irreversible. And because of that, to some degree, unfathomable. The platitudes only serve to exacerbate the void…and sometimes to inspire an acid-laced response.

  • It will get better with time” – I know that. It’s not the future I’m worried about, it’s the right-now grief that feels like it’s swallowing me.
  • He gives and takes away” – That’s great. Let me know how that works for you in the days after someone you love dies.
  • He never gives us more than we can handle” – A misinterpretation of scripture at best, one that dangerously forces a believer to second-guess his/her grief and may add unfounded guilt to intolerable sadness. (See HERE for more on this Biblical misuse.)
  • Death, where is your sting?” – I’ll tell you where it is. It’s in the places we were supposed to go together.  n the calendar notes that remind us of what will never be. In the half-light after dreams when the sound of a voice and the tangible presence of the person stolen by death were achingly and bitingly real. The “sting” is in the hush of absence. The empty comfort of fading memories. The impulses to pick up the phone and share…followed lightning-fast by the realization that death has come and gone, and left in its wake a barren landscape littered with impossibility.

So what are we to do with the sting of death, particularly if we live in a faith that promises a glorious but unimaginable afterlife? What are we to do with the emotions that threaten to teeter our soul’s disposition from precariously trusting to overwhelmingly despairing?

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Let them breathe. Let the emotions come in disconnected waves and feel no guilt if they sway you toward anger or confusion or accusation. Even at Lazarus’ grave, knowing full well that He would raise him from the dead within minutes, Jesus wept. The Son of God, who possessed the power to birth the universe, wept at the tomb of a man who He knew would soon breathe again. There is nothing weak about feeling a loss in the marrow of one’s life and faith. There is nothing shameful about the journey through grief to tentative reengagement to restored (but oh so different) fulfillment.

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But…and this is a “but” I’ve been rediscovering regularly on my journey from Easter to Easter…as deep as the pain may be and as confounding as the loss may feel, the greatest disservice we can do ourselves is to doubt God’s goodness. And fairness. The One we so often accuse, in the wake of death, of harming us “on purpose” for His own self-aggrandizement is the only One whose comfort can transcend our human inability to cope with devastating pain. The One whose name we moan as a loved one breathes his/her last breath is the One whose love and compassion can carry us from inarticulatable loss to tentative survival. Yet we so quickly brandish futile fists and hiss our grieved confusion. “How could a God of love take this person from my life? How can I trust a God who claims to love me but robs me of this precious soul?

The mystery of death is intact, no matter how feverishly we attempt to decipher and deconstruct it. The utter senselessness of young life lost, of bright futures stolen. At a time when we ponder the apparent randomness and unfairness of those who die too soon, we often forget how inevitable death is—the only foreseeable conclusion of imperfect existences in mortal bodies in a broken world. And instead of gripping God’s comfort with pleading hands and shattered souls, we sometimes launch into tirades woven from angry accusations and earthbound demands and core-deep despondence…not realizing that the only comfort that may, in time, begin to heal our gaping wounds must come from the One whose goodness and love we question.

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It’s okay for the questions to hang unanswered. It’s okay for the purpose to remain unrevealed. It’s okay for our grief to roil unsurrendered for a while.  It’s normal. It’s human. It’s a natural and necessary season.
But if we dismiss God’s comfort out of pained incomprehension, we also burn the bridge from brokenness to pain’s redemption.

May I repeat that one more time? If we dismiss God’s comfort out of pained incomprehension, we also burn the bridge from brokenness to pain’s redemption.

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On April 8th, Mari Ellen will have been gone one year. I intimately know the winding road of grief and laboring restoration. The Bible says to grieve with those who grieve. Too often, we try to mollify, mitigate and appease, while peppering our own soul-talk with easy God-aspersions. He doesn’t care. He did this out of spite. He can’t be who He claims to be and allow something like this to happen.
After a year of grief—both felt and witnessed—I can assert without the slightest hesitation that He is indeed everything He claims to be. Once I accepted both the inevitability and irrevocability of deaths’ brutal separation in this realm, I began to accept and embrace the fullness of God’s comfort. Without it, death is all sting. With it, it is incomprehensible, unpredictable, devastatingly irreversible…and also, in time, survivable.

Be still, my soul; though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
Then you will better know his love, his heart,
Who comes to soothe your sorrows and your fears.
Be still, my soul; your Jesus can repay
From his own fullness all He takes away.

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Comments

Comments(4)

    • sally phoenix

    • 9 years ago

    Weeping with and for you. You managed to find the right words when there seem to be none.

    • journalingjunkie13

    • 9 years ago

    Your tears for them are now on my face—much love, Dotsy

    • charissarenee

    • 9 years ago

    Sometimes it seems too much sadness to bear. Then I remember we don’t have to bear it.
    And I think we lost sweet Lois Karen this year too.

    • zach_drew_haley

    • 9 years ago

    Thanks for writing about your experiences. I’ve had a lot of reflections this year myself regarding death. Your reflections on getting a phone call brought be back to that moment when I received the same call. I appreciate you sharing stories of my sister as I know how much you meant to her and so many others.
    Marti

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