We learned last week of the death of a wonderful man, who played a large part in the life of our youngest son, Matt. While we lived in a small mountain town in Southwest Virginia, I was seriously ill, and spent extended amounts of time in the hospital. Ashley, of course, had the care of our sons during that time, in addition to his more than full-time job as pastor of two congregations. Also, during part of those months and years he was helping to keep watch over my mother. She had moved in with us after the death of my father and was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. For Ashley, keeping her from burning down the house (leaving forgotten-about pans on the hot stove) was a job in and of itself. Our sons were quite mature and understanding of the problems much of the time. Each, however, expressed in his own way a type of anxiety over our difficult situation.
Matt, (our youngest), in particular, felt the effects of the instability at home, and coupled with my frequent long hospital stays, had a difficult time adjusting to high school. The decision was made to transfer him to the high school in a neighboring town, and that decision was indeed a God-send. At the new school he became a new person. He started enjoying learning again, and met some wonderful friends.
Three of those friends, now men, formed with Matt a team they called “The Four Horsemen.” Matt, Jason, “G,” and Josh D. They did all sorts of interesting things together (some I’m glad I didn’t know about at the time!), and were for the most part inseparable. They have continued to get together at least once a year, when able, and enjoy their deep friendship, born out of mutual respect and affection. Now, years later, they have each followed different paths: one became a physician, one a lawyer, one a Peace Corps volunteer and artist, and one – Matt – a musician and golfer. Two are now married, one of whom has a stepson, and the other along with his wife is expecting their daughter to be born in September. Scattered across the nation and even the globe, they have nevertheless kept in contact with one another. It has been a good thing – a good thing that simply is.
Matt’s best man at his wedding was Jason. Jason, the Peace Corps volunteer, the artist, and the constant friend. Matt began a friendship with Jason that extended to Jason’s family. Jason’s Mom and Dad and younger sister Tess, all became a second family to him, a stable family when he needed it. Jason’s parents, Ann and Randy, graciously and lovingly stepped in and filled a gap that Matthew was experiencing at a difficult time in his life, and were able to strike the balance between being confidantes, while at the same time not acting like de facto parents. Jason’s family took Matt with them to their lake house, and Randy taught Matt how to water ski – or at least tried to. (:-D) Jason’s parents were also generous, not only with their time, but with their material resources, and as a high school graduation present, sent the two of them on a trip to Scotland – truly a gift of a lifetime. Jason’s parents were always spoken of together – “Randy and Ann,” or “Ann and Randy.” It is hard to think of one without thinking immediately of the other.
Tragically, Randy died last week. He took a terrible fall down the stairs at their home and died less than 24 hours later as a result of the injuries incurred. We have all been in a state of shock, and trying to take it all in; knowing that as deep as our own grief may be, the lives of Randy’s family – including his own wonderful parents – have been dealt an even more serious blow – far beyond our own capability to imagine. Yet this is the first loss of this kind by any of “The Four Horsemen.” They are each dealing with Randy’s death in their own way, and each is experiencing pain and grief that comes out of losing someone who was very special, and so important in their lives, especially Jason, who has lost his dearly loved father.
Grief is an inescapable part of life. We all face the death of family and/or friends at some point in our lives, but even knowing that it will happen is not a preparation for the enormous sense of loss that is experienced. The long fatal illness of a loved one is supposed to prepare you for the inevitable, but it never really does. Because no matter how prepared you think you are for a loved one’s death, you cannot imagine that staggering finality until it actually happens. Tragic, sudden loss takes you completely unaware. The world tips over. Even knowing that life holds no guarantees for tomorrow, most of us exist in our own world of the willful ignorance of our mortality – we act as though there will always be another tomorrow, that we will always have another day in which to love and live. When that rug of confidence is pulled out from beneath us, we fall; because even knowing what we know about the unavoidable occurrence of death, we are still surprised by it. W. H. Auden, in his poignant poem “Funeral Blues,” speaks eloquently of that all-pervasive sense of loss:
Funeral Blues Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come. Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead. Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves. He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods; For nothing now can ever come to any good.
The sorrow expressed in Auden’s poem is a common feeling during the first few weeks and months following the death of a family member or close friend. It seems impossible that the sun could rise ever again, because your own sun seems to have vanished. There is also denial. After the death of the father of one of my own friends, and also at the death of my own father, I dreamed they were somehow alive again. So real were the dreams, that each morning I had to face and experience anew the reality of their death. Pain attacked again and again. That all-encompassing sense of grief was ever-present, surgically sharp and precisely cutting into every aspect of life. It is unbearable, yet it is borne: grief simply is.
Offering words that truly and effectively console to anyone experiencing grief is next to impossible, but most of us long to be able to give some comfort, to offer some respite from the heartbreak. Those words, sincerely offered and gratefully received, still do not wield a magic wand of inner peace or a lifting of bereavement. A terrible hole is carved out of a grieving soul’s heart, and it is a hole that can never be filled, or gotten over, but it is one that you learn eventually to accommodate into your life. As time passes the joyful remembrances can block out or dull the sharp feelings of loss. Life does go on, and we wonder why it does, yet we wake each morning, and somehow continue to exist, to carry on. Grief is still constant in its attention, it is around us and within us; grief simply is.
God does offer us strength for the journey through grief. While grief simply is, it is God’s perfect love that always was, always is, and always will be.
As ever, Gentle Reader, I wish you enough…