I appropriated Daddy’s old hunting jacket for my barn coat. It still smells like him; every time I put it on it’s like he’s putting his arms around me. Some days, this fills me with a warm, gentle joy; others, it makes me want to pound my fists and rail against death. I don’t want his things—I want him.
“Death is our friend,” wrote Rilke, “precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”
As I’ve said before, I think death is the most clarifying force in the world; it awakens such a keenness for life. Everything in us rebels against impermanence; it’s no wonder that philosophers have wearied themselves since the beginning of time over the tension between the limit of our lifespan and our yearning for perpetuity. We’re made for Forever—it’s written on our hearts, Ecclesiastes says. And death brings it so blessedly near. We start to reevaluate everything in the light of this undeniable presence and this inconceivable eternity. The light is blinding at times, but it makes everything so much more real.
I understand why the Victorians gave themselves a year of mourning. While it might seem stuffy, repressive, morbid to our modern tastes, I can’t help but feel their approach was healthier than the hurry the grieving are subjected to in our society. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were at once more respectful and less afraid of death than we are, I think. Grieving takes time; it’s messy and rough-edged and unpredictable. It’s shot through with unexpected sunlight, and it will swallow you whole in a sudden thunderstorm of despair. It makes you strong, and it makes you vulnerable, and it tinges your joy with wildness, as of of all things born in sorrow.
Seeing what grief is really like makes me want to go back and apologize to all of my friends who have lost parents—I’m so sorry. I had no idea it was like this.
But these same experienced friends have given me wonderful advice: It looks different for everyone; take all the time you need; be gentle with yourself.
I hit a really rough patch at the three-month point. The sadness and the finality of the thing just pulled the rug out from under me. What’s more, that clear, calm sense of the nearness of heaven started to fade. The veil didn’t seem so thin anymore; it didn’t feel, as it had before, like Daddy was just in the next room of a lovely mansion. The darkness grew so thick; the sadness smothered out the sun. I felt chained to earth; I felt despair clap a clammy hand over my mouth.
It was almost as if he’d died all over again.
I’m definitely at the self-conscious stage—it’s hard for me to be so honest, even here, even among such friends. But this is what my landscape looks like; this is the weather of my soul. The sense of loss is spreading like a dye through the waters of my life, and nothing remains untouched. I’m so glad there’s a good, strong word for it: Bereaved. An adjective and a noun. It makes me feel less conspicuous, somehow, to have a name like that to hide behind for a space.
And it fills me with hope to remember that God often changed people’s names in the Bible after a life-altering experience. This name isn’t permanent; this barrenness isn’t forever; these wounds aren’t disfigurements. Beauty will be given for ashes and mourning will be turned to dancing. My words feel so clunky and hard-wrung and ill-fitting against such tremendous realities, but perhaps even they will be changed someday. I don’t know.
But I do know that if sorrow is a houseguest for the night, joy shows up in the morning. I know that those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. I know that joy is my birthright as a child of God. And while all these solemnities gather round, I know there’s a great belly-laugh of fulfilled purposes welling up in the heavenly places at this very moment.
And there’s a glint on the horizon. When the afternoon sun pours into my kitchen windows these days, it slants at a new-but-old, late-Novemberish angle, lighting on the old pine cupboard in the corner. I love that piece; in a way it’s the heart of our home, sitting very near the centermost joists and walls, built by the son of the man who built this old farmhouse. The shelves behind the wavy glass are lined with Willowware and oddments I picked up in England, and on the notched workspace reposes the old, dented silver venison dome that accompanies our most festal occasions. (Remind me to tell you a funny story about it someday.)
I look at that cupboard, bathed in gold, with the delicate etchings of tree shadows wavering over its honeyed surface, and something very like excitement ruffles its feathers in my heart. I’m ready for those stacks of plates to be in service, for the incense of woodsmoke and spice to permeate my rooms, for fuss and bother and secrets and little sacrifices.
I’m ready for the bright, glad burden of December to rise on the darkness of the world, for the excess of love and fellowship, the Light shining out of darkness. I’m ready for my rooms to fill, my heart to overflow.
I’m ready for a Feast.
Do you remember how the first sign that Aslan was on the move in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was the appearance of Father Christmas, doling out presents and pots of tea? That image is so symbolic to me—just like the creatures in ice-bound Narnia, what I need at the end of this long winter of a year is Christmas.
It seems so incompatible with grief, doesn’t it? The House of Mourning has little to do with the House of Feasting—or, so it seems at first glance. But as my friend Kelly so exquisitely put it, “Anytime you sit at a table with those who share your conviction that Jesus is returning, you declare war on the lies of this … mixed-up, passing-away, broken world. You reinstate the truth of creation, joy, and all things made new.”
My darling Laura articulated the mystery in her own inimitable way: “Seasons come; seasons go. Sadness overstays, but hope, thank heaven, proves most tenacious of all.”
Every feast is a waging of war on sadness and broken things. Every glass raised in fellowship is a declaration that death doesn’t get the final word. Every act of love is a song of hope.
I long—long!—for new life to spring up out of the ground of this death.
But Christmas tells me it already has.
To the Kingdom, friends!