I write this thinking of the day I laid my wife in the ground, her ashes buried in a beautiful garden behind the church in which we worshiped in her final years. While feeling the crashing waves of grief, the all-encompassing black shadow which falls like a cloak around us with wintry chill when you lose one you love, many people shared the following poem to help encourage me:
Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
— Canon Henry Scott-Holland, 1847-1918, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, from a sermon on death.
Though I knew the folks meant well and likely this poem helps them with their grief, I have to admit reading these words led my tears to become mingled with rage. I wanted to punch a wall. To strike out at the universe and yell at the top of my longs “No, no, no, her death is not nothing. Waking to find her unbreathing body laying still as a stone on our bed that morning was not nothing. It was a nightmare come true, from which I cannot wake. Having her die is not nothing. It has ripped a hole in my world through which the whole word is plummeting, falling, crash. For my whole world was in her eyes that will never open again here. No, No, No, do not tell me to believe this is nothing.”
It may be that on the other side of pain, this poem will come to be life-giving, but not today. Not while I have the image of her unbreathing body blazened on my eyes. Not while I have to wake up every morning to see she is not there. Not while her faithful service dog circles our home, scratching at each doorpost, whimpering and looking for her. Please no one tell me it is nothing. It is perhaps the largest thing I have ever felt.
For me I find comfort in promises such as Psalm 116:15, which tells us “The death of the Lord’s faithful is a costly loss in God’s eyes” and even Ecclesiastes 12 which says
“Remember your creator in your prime,
before the days of trouble arrive,
and those years, about which you’ll say, “I take no pleasure in these”—
before the sun and the light grow dark, the moon and the stars too,
before the clouds return after the rain;
on the day when the housekeepers tremble and the strong men stoop;
when the women who grind stop working because they’re so few,
and those who look through the windows grow dim;
when the doors to the street are shut,
when the sound of the mill fades,
the sound of the bird rises,
and all the singers come down low;
when people are afraid of things above
and of terrors along the way;
when the almond tree blanches, the locust droops,
and the caper-berry comes to nothing;[a]
when the human goes to the eternal abode,
with mourners all around in the street;
before the silver cord snaps and the gold bowl shatters;
the jar is broken at the spring and the wheel is crushed at the pit;
before dust returns to the earth as it was before
and the life-breath returns to God who gave it.”
Before I can join in songs of triumph, I need to give voice to pain and loss.
And the same is true for you. In your pain and struggle, in your loss, don’t feel you need to rush on beyond your pain. Feel free to cry out, to labor in pain, to suffer.
Your progressive Redneck preacher,