All The Materials

“He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.”

Philippians 3:21, NLT

“What is cremation?” My seven year old asked me as I tucked her into bed one night. She often wants pillow talk at bedtime, but this felt like a dark subject to bring up right before she drifted off to sleep. She regularly has night terrors, and I didn’t want to provoke any unnecessarily. They are exhausting for both of us.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned to be a student of my children in grief. Each child processes loss in a unique way, and it’s been a holy honor to walk with them as they process Rob’s death. When they want to talk, I drop whatever I am doing and we talk. No exceptions.

So even though it was bedtime, we talked about cremation. About the room with the bright light that turned Daddy’s body to ash. “Even his bones?” She asked. “Even his eyes?” My heart slid up into my throat. My stomach tightened. Her questions are so pointed, so direct. Not like the meandering pensive questions of her older siblings. “Yes, all of him,” I replied as my eyes filled with tears.

“How do they do it?” She probed, not satisfied with my practiced answer born of hours of reading on child loss. “I don’t exactly know,” I had to admit. “I can find out for you, if you want.”

“That’s okay, Mommy,” she said as she snuggled deeper into the blankets and squeezed her stuffed pig. “God can put Daddy back together again. He has all the materials.”

He certainly does and He really will, I affirmed her. We talked about Ezekiel and the dry bones, about God breathing His Spirit into a handful of dust at creation. We talked about His promise to bring Daddy alive again to us at the last day. We smiled and snuggled and sang, “We call out to dry bones, come alive, come alive,” from her favorite Lauren Daigle album.

Rob used to say everything is about death and resurrection. He was right. Even talks about cremation. I’d studied all of the best ways to talk to a child about death. My daughter knew all the best ways to talk to me about resurrection. Come alive, dry bones. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Marking the Way

From the dusty parking lot the trail begins over open slickrock. In the distance, the La Sal mountains paint a deep navy blue against the umber terrain. They rise up far in the distance, still snowcapped even in late June. A reminder that somewhere in this dry landscape water exists in abundance.

It’s a steady uphill climb. The rocks worn down with age and weather smooth out beneath our feet. Though it’s not a hike with much elevation, you still have to step carefully. Even dry rock can be slippery. We spend more time watching our feet than the scenery. We remind the kids, “three points of contact when you climb.”

As we crest the first hill, the vista opens up, and we stop to catch our breath. The mountains appear closer than they are now. Their navy mixes with the vibrant cerulean of the sky. We stand in wonder with our hands on our hips. Our breathing, still heavy, cuts the silence. We feel the weight and beauty and wonder of wilderness, standing here on the edge of it. I understand for the first time the ranger’s admonishment to stay on the trail. A person could lose her way quickly out here.

We gather with the kids for a picture. He and I grab a selfie. And then we look for where the trail continues. The map says to the left, but with so much rising slickrock it’s hard to see which way to go. We scan the area, and I see the cairn. We’ll go that way.

For the next hour we pick our way through slickrock following the cairns. We scramble around blackbush. We take water breaks in the shade of pinyon and juniper. We walk step in front of step along the upper edge of a slot canyon. “Watch for the cairns,” we tell the kids, who always are a stone’s throw in front, more intent on the destination than the journey. We may not know where we’re going, but the cairns know.

Cairns point us back as well as forward. For centuries, they have also served as burial monuments. From ancient Gaelic fields to coastal towns in Maine, cairns stand in silent witness to those we have lost. They mark the landscape like little altars, quiet testimonies to great love and great grief. Don’t build them in a national park (They violate Leave No Trace principles), but fill your backyard with them. Or fill your life.

As I consider the emerging topography of my new life without Rob, I know this for sure: my landscape will be filled with cairns. No map exists to guide me as I navigate without him. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, talked to women who’ve been on this journey long before me. Even so, the trail I walk is one I will have to chart myself. Each grief journey is as unique as the person who grieves. And so I write for myself, to chart my path, to find a way through this landscape where — if a woman isn’t careful — she can lose her way forever. Like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail, I hope the cairns I write will lead me home.

My cairns will serve another purpose too. In everything I write, Rob will be there. The cairns I build will be for him, a monument to our love. I wrote before I met him, just diaries for myself. I happily lived in the sheltering shadow of his writing when he lived. Now I will write for all of us, to remember. I will write to remember that we carry with us always those we have loved and lost. That their work and witness can guide us even after they are gone. That our going on, our persistence in this climb that feels insurmountable, is both possible and necessary. My cairns will mark the way.

Wish You Were Here

We slide into the booth just before closing time. The vinyl bench seat squeaks softly against our legs. A couple of older locals chew the fat with the waitress behind the counter as she wipes down the coffee makers. The glass dessert case stands beside the counter, a colorful assortment of pies all topped in whipped cream backlit against the chrome walls. Rob Thomas sings in the background, “It’s three a.m., I must be lonely.”

We’ve come to the diner in search of late night pie. You and I always drove by but never went inside. Tonight I’m taking her with the intention of making a memory — a mom-teen daughter date. This is the real deal, a 1954 rail car turned restaurant. Not like Johnny Rocket’s in the mall. It’s also cash-only, so I had to think ahead, make sure I had my wallet stuffed with bills. I’m not sure how much diner pie costs these days.

She’s fascinated by the jukebox, and I realize she’s never seen one before. We choose our pie slices — hers chocolate cream, mine strawberry rhubarb — and I answer her questions about music. Yes, the jukebox used to work. Yes, people really put money into a machine at their table to listen to a song. Yes, I’m old enough to remember pumping the juke with quarters for another go-around the roller rink to my favorite song. This girl, growing up on iTunes, podcasts and streaming music, can’t believe people actually lived this way.

Our pie arrives, and we do our family tradition, “Taste for Taste.” My bite of her chocolate cream takes me back to childhood summers. My mother’s buttery homemade crust filled to the edges with chocolate pudding filling, a smooth layer of Cool Whip spread atop. It’s exactly what you would have ordered. You would have loved it.

My strawberry-rhubarb pie bites in all the right ways. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and tart, with a dusting of powdered sugar on top. The filling makes me crave a swig of water, and I draw little swirls in the powdered sugar with my fork until my glass arrives. I tell her about the rhubarb that grew in your yard as a child, transplanted from your grandparents and lovingly tended by your father. I remember dating you and learning that your family loved rhubarb like mine did. Somehow feeling this was serendipitous.

We finish our pie and sit in quiet. The darkness outside makes me feel like we’re sitting in an Edward Hopper painting. The waitress busses nearby tables. The dishes clatter against each other, and I imagine you here with us. I see the future stretch out before me with a million little hometown diners, a million little places you’ll never see with me. In the background, Diana Ross croons, “Do you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to? Do you know?

We wipe our mouths on the paper napkins, and I leave my pile of cash and coins on the table. A former waitress, I always tip well. Tonight, I leave a little extra. A benediction for this little space of chrome and glass that you’ve somehow made sacred with your absence.

Saying the D-Word

Our smell announced our arrival before we’d hit the threshold. Teenage boys tumbled out of the locker room, doused in cologne to mask their gym class body odor. None of them had showered. Girls walked down the hall in groups, a cloud of floral shampoo fragrance surrounding them. “Women don’t sweat. They glow,” remarked the kindly, older teacher as we filed through the door and headed to our seats. An agreeable sentiment — unless you had to wear medicated deodorant. For at least one girl I knew, those words were laughable. For her, adolescence had hit like a Mack truck. Women didn’t just sweat. They stunk. No euphemism was adequate when the medical community had to be called in to help you tame your odor.

Death is the ultimate stink. We’ve got all kinds of genteel phrases to try to mask its horrid smell. Our pets cross the rainbow bridge. Our loved ones pass away or go to a better place. Become a Christian and the phrases multiply a hundredfold. Gone to be with the Lord. Crossed the river Jordan. Entered eternal rest. At peace with God. In the arms of Jesus. Called home. All phrases that help us avoid saying the word we really mean — died.

If you spend much time with me, you’ll quickly hear how vital my faith is to my life. Especially in these difficult days since Rob’s death, I have clung to Jesus and to the promises I find in God’s Word. Yes, I believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Yes, I believe that those who have died in Christ now enjoy His promised eternal life. Yes, I believe Jesus has prepared a home for those who love him. These promises are the bedrock of my hope. But in a society that already doesn’t know how to talk about death, these promises can easily just become euphemisms — our attempt to deodorize death, take the edge off its horrid smell.

In our culture, our best employers often only offer three days bereavement leave. Our anti-aging health regimes attempt to forestall the visage of demise. Our medical system locates our last days in sterile rooms away from our communities. We hold Celebrations of Life instead of funerals. We do everything we can to curb the stink of death. Unfortunately, death’s horrible odor doesn’t go away. We walk around with our noses pinched saying, “Smell? What smell? I don’t smell anything.” But all of our attempts to euphemize and minimize death fall short. We’re not being honest.

If you have sat at the bedside of a loved one, if you have received the dreaded call in the night, if the chaplain has visited your doorstep like he visited mine, you have met with Death. We do no one good when we try to dress up that word. Dying. Died. Death. Dead. Avoiding those words doesn’t soften the blow for the grieving person. Avoiding affirms that death is so scary we can’t speak its name — even to someone well-acquainted with its presence. Instead, we need people willing to disarm death’s power by speaking about it honestly. When we are willing to talk about death openly and face its nasty smell, we express solidarity with those who grieve, and we teach our world a new language of honesty and compassion.

In July 2019, Rob went home to be with the Lord. He entered his eternal rest. He lives now in the arms of Jesus. All of these are true because Rob died. None of these promises soften the impact of Rob’s death. I don’t think that was ever their intention. Instead, these promises point to a larger reality, one we each will experience only by finally facing the word we fear most — death.

All Eyes on Me

Not long after Rob died, I ventured out to a social gathering, my first foray into the world post-loss, beyond the comfortably anonymous grocery store and post office. After a brief pep talk in the car, I smoothed my sweater, smiled in the rear view mirror and climbed out of the car. “Straighten your shoulders, Clarissa,” I coached myself as I walked across the parking lot. “Stand tall. You can do this.” Rob and I had tag-teamed in social situations for so long; I knew well the challenges I’d face without him beside me. So I’d prepped myself in advance with possible conversation topics. I was ready to smile and engage and ask open-ended questions, envisioning him beside me as I tried this on my own.

As I walked in the door, I realized I wouldn’t get the chance to practice all I’d prepped in the days before. All eyes glanced in my direction then quickly looked away. Weak smiles faded off faces as folks returned to their conversations. I headed to the refreshments table and grabbed a drink. “At least I’ll have something to hold,” I thought as I filled my cup. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I attempted to circulate that evening like the elephant in the room. My grief seemed to be bumping up against everybody, stepping on their toes, making them feel squeezed and uncomfortable. I’d barely said a word. “An odd by-product of my loss,” said C.S Lewis in A Grief Observed, “is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet.” Making sustained eye contact in that room was harder than at a junior high school dance. No one wanted to look me in the eye. 

In a moment of relief, I found a seat on the edge of the room. I’d nurse my drink, give my regards to the host and be on my way. Even there, a wallflower, I couldn’t be inconspicuous. A dribble of uneasy, well-meaning folks wandered by with vanilla pleasantries. They could barely make eye contact; but I realized, to my embarrassment, that their gaze was still on me. They were looking at my hands.

A widow’s hands are the most fascinating part of her body. Her hands are the woman in the low-cut blouse, the teenager with the multiple facial piercings, the little girl with the chocolate milk mustache. Folks may not be able to look me in the eye, but they can’t take their eyes off my hands. They’re looking to see if I’m still wearing my rings.

Six months later, I wear my rings like always. I don’t ever take them off. Regardless of what the law or society might say, I still feel married to Rob. My finger bears the imprint of those bands that have rubbed against it for so many years. Marriage has shaped even my hands.

After Rob’s death, I didn’t remove a ring; I added another. For Christmas, I bought myself an anniversary band, 17 tiny diamonds to celebrate our 17 years of marriage. I wear his wedding band on my right hand and my rings on my left. I look at my hands, my collection of rings, and think, “I’m more married now than ever.” Those rings have meant security and belonging and love and faithfulness for so long. It is hard to let these find new meaning as I learn to be alone in the world. It’s even harder when it feels like everyone is watching.

I don’t know when or if I’ll want to remove my rings. This is more than a choice of jewelry. It’s another deeply painful part of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, I have no doubt everyone will notice when I do. I’d like to say … Stop gawking. Just act normal. Don’t draw attention. Don’t make this harder than it is. If they’ll look me in the eye, perhaps I’ll get the chance.

“Not Gray … Hoary.”

I stand before the linen closet in the bathroom, a trash can beside me. I’m told that it’s helpful to tackle one space at a time, so I’ve decided to go through Rob’s toiletries. There’s not much really. The elastics from his despised Invisalign treatment. Trash. The half-used Chapstick. Trash. The dental floss. Might as well use that. The cheap Axe body spray he bought on a work trip when TSA confiscated his Old Spice. Keep. It doesn’t smell like him, but he’s been gone six months now so maybe I can imagine it does. I’m glad I’ve started with the bathroom. There’s a sort of pragmatism to this room. A bathroom is an all-business space. “I need to consult my broker,” he’d say when he needed to duck out to use the loo.

I clean the top shelf, rearrange the towels to hide the emptiness, and move to the shelf below. My hand hovers over an old Money magazine when my teenage daughter walks in. “That has Dad’s whiskers in it!” she exclaims. We sit together, me on the toilet and her beside me, flipping the pages, searching for hair like two pirates looking for buried treasure. Sure enough, scraps of his beard lie sandwiched in the centerfold where he used to open the magazine to shave over. White, brown and gray hairs. Small bits really. Hardly anything worth keeping. And yet.

When I met Rob at age 23, he’d already begun to gray. He always liked his premature silver threads. He thought they made him look wise. Always the literati, he’d say, “Not gray … hoary.” Over our almost 20 years together, his hair grew grayer. His beard became white. During paternity leave for our last child, Rob began growing it in earnest. Our youngest only ever knew a bearded father.

I loved Rob’s beard best in the summer, when the sun had tanned his skin a deep brown. I used to hold his face, the wrinkles of his smile spreading out from his eyes, and tell him how much I loved him. Six months later, I close my eyes and remember his face. I remember the feeling of his beard beneath my hands, and my eyes fill with tears. God, I miss him. Even my hands miss him.

My daughter and I decide to keep the magazine. We’ve found a little treasure of memory inside. Carefully, we close the magazine so as not to lose a single precious whisker. I place it back on the shelf, the hair clippers and beard trimmer resting on top. I toss the random Q-tips into the trash, straighten things up and step back. Time to clock out. I’ve finished my work for today.

Surrounded by His Love

When we moved to Seattle in 2011, all of my longings for mountains were fulfilled. I’d grown up hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and after more than a decade living in the flat Midwest, I was hungry for elevation.

Even when our family wasn’t up in the mountains, I enjoyed their steady presence. As I sat homeschooling with my kids in the upstairs bedroom, I’d position my chair by the window so I could look out on the Cascade range. Every time we drove down the hill out of our neighborhood, I’d scan the horizon for the Olympic mountains. “The mountain is out!” I’d holler to the kids in the backseat when Mount Rainier peeked through the clouds. It never got old. What a joy to be surrounded by mountains! I used to recite, “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people.” The mountains reminded me daily of God’s presence with me.

The encircling presence of mountains in the Pacific Northwest creates a unique, nurturing ecosystem unlike any other in the United States. Caught between two ranges, Seattle gets lots of rain, yes. But what some call gloom others recognize as a marvelous greenhouse environment. Skagit Valley blossoms each spring with hundreds of acres of tulips, a harvest made possible by the sheltering mountains that create a mild environment and long growing season. The Puyallup Valley erupts with blackberries, marionberries, and raspberries, delicate fruits that thrive in the volcanic soil laid eons ago by Mount Rainier and her fiery sisters. Out on the Olympic peninsula, the mountains shelter one of the largest temperate rainforests in North America, overflowing with ferns and moss and a fascinating array of animals. Encircling mountains create a good home.

The day Rob died, I took my children to Mount Rainier National Park to do some hiking of our own. It was our last vacation day before heading back east, and I wanted my last fix of Washington mountain beauty. Though we didn’t know it at the time, my son took this picture in the park within moments of Rob’s death.

As we drove out of the park, we passed Rob’s trailhead and considered stopping to leave a congratulatory note on his windshield. We kept going when we saw an ambulance in the parking lot that, unbeknownst to us, had been called for him. We stopped at the bathroom at the ranger station (where a ranger had just been dispatched to his accident), took a picture by the entrance sign, and headed on our way. We had no idea the mountains had just taken his life.

You might think that my love for mountains has become complicated now. They’re not all beauty and nurture. They also can be deadly. The mountains possess a mighty power. The same peaks that shadow fertile fields can also deliver death. They have taken from me what I loved most in this life.

Nevertheless, the Psalmist tells me that the hills are where my help comes from. In them, God’s goodness, power, provision, and deliverance are made manifest. As I lift my eyes to the strong and steady mountains, God reminds me that His love for me endures forever. Like those sheltering ranges, He nourishes me in His embrace. These truths remain unchanged even in the face of deep pain.

Today, on the eve of the six month mark of Rob’s death, I choose to plant my feet firmly on the mountain soil of God’s goodness. The mountains will always remind me of Rob, of his well-lived life and his tragic death. They will also bear this testimony: God is good to me.

The Son Will Rise

I’ll never forget the Easter we stumbled into a church in Capitol Hill in Seattle. We jammed our family into a pew and heaved a sigh. Our hearts were carrying so much that was heavy. Family complexities. Health concerns. Life questions. We needed some hope.

We sat, exhausted. Then, a single cellist broke the silence, playing this familiar melody. I glanced across the kids to Rob. Our eyes met, and he grabbed my hand. He felt it too. I closed my eyes, tears running down my cheeks. The piano joined in, the guitar and violin too, and the music swelled.

The sun will rise.
The sun will rise.
Won’t you dry all your tears.
Lay your burden down.

The Brilliance, “The Sun Will Rise”

This coming Sunday will mark six months since Rob died. Six months of carrying the heaviest burden I have ever been asked to bear. Some days, the weight feels lighter, and I can look to the horizon with hope. Other days, my shoulders are so bent with grief that I feel I can barely stand.

While other month marks have borne sorrow with them, this six month mark carries a unique sadness. Half a year is a long time to grieve. Grief has changed the kids; it has changed me. Each month that passes inscribes this reality more deeply on our hearts: Rob isn’t coming back. We are called to carry on without him, even as we carry him with us in our hearts.

My body senses the month marks approaching before I even notice them consciously. Everything starts to feels harder. When I remember why life feels heavier than usual, I am learning to cling evermore closely to Jesus — to release my burden, recall His truth, and take up His lighter yoke.

The writer of Lamentations writes, “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope.” Sometimes hope is just a whisper. But as this Sunday approaches, I choose to sing with the defiant hope I felt in those early days after Rob died. In the face of that last enemy, death, I call to mind these truths and claim them as my own:

He’ll bind up the brokenhearted …
He’ll set captives free from darkness …
He’ll breathe hope into the hopeless …
He’ll give beauty for our ashes …
He’ll restore the oil of gladness …

Ellie Holcomb, “He Will”

Grave, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?

When the pain is deepest, our hope must be fiercest. When the burden feels heaviest, His promises remain steady and true. I choose to believe the sun will rise. The Son will rise. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

What’s Normal in Grief

What is normal in grief? Our culture has lots of advice, little of it helpful. Any mother who’s endured a miscarriage knows the difficult messages a grieving younger person hears. “You’re still young enough to have another one.” “At some point, you need to move on.” The pressures I feel as a young widow aren’t that different.

As I approach the six month anniversary of Rob’s death, I am aware that my posture of active remembrance runs counterculture. Thankfully, my husband wrote a little book about dying, and I know our culture needs some major help on this topic. I feel free to grieve deeply and on my own timetable.

It’s normal in grief to get rid of your loved one’s belongings. It’s also normal to hold onto them, sometimes for a very long time. So far, I haven’t been ready to cancel Rob’s phone line and let this piece of him go. Rob’s phone was shattered in his accident. It miraculously still functioned, but I needed to get information off it and was afraid of cutting my fingers on the broken glass screen. His phone wasn’t paid off when he died, so I submitted a claim to his insurance to get it replaced.

When the replacement phone arrived, it hurt more than I anticipated to remove the SIM card from his broken one, put it into the new phone, and bundle his broken phone up to send back. I audibly said “goodbye” to the box as I dropped it off at the UPS store, and I cried on the way home. It was a sad farewell.

Even though it’s shattered — maybe because it’s shattered — that phone meant so much to me. We’re sometimes embarrassed to admit how intimately we are tied to our technology, but it’s true. That phone slid into his pocket each morning, warmed to his body temperature in his hand. It was the receptacle of his thoughts and memories and dreams. (How many hiking apps does a man need?!) And it was on him when he died. The kids were apprehensive about me sending it back; they got it instinctually. Giving up Rob’s shattered phone was giving up another piece of him.

Rob’s SIM card is safely installed into the replacement phone now — “Dad’s phone” — though he’ll never hold it in his hand. If you call his number, you’ll still hear his voicemail. (I love that.) We keep the phone in the cabinet for emergencies. The kids especially love that the games Rob downloaded for them are all still on there. The replacement phone is “just like Dad’s used to be!”

As I set up the new phone, I kept his password the same. However, the fingerprint ID is mine now instead of his. It feels practical, if a little inauthentic. But this mishmash of past and present and future is our “new normal” now. Everything can be normal in grief. Even setting up a new phone for a man who will never use it.

Elinore and Me

In 1909, Elinore Pruitt headed west with her three year old daughter. Her husband had died in a railroad accident, and Elinore wanted to start a new life for herself. Under the Homestead Act, she secured a section of land in Wyoming near a fork of the Green River, and she began to prove her claim. Elinore didn’t have experience homesteading; she had previously earned her keep doing laundry and housekeeping for a wealthy woman, Mrs. Coney, in Denver. But Elinore was determined. She wasn’t afraid to work hard and find her own way, even as she mourned the loss of her husband.

Life on the frontier was filled with excitement, challenge, loneliness and sadness. Elinore built her own home, learned to ranch, and welcomed and befriended nearby settlers. She endured harsh weather, fended off thieves, and attended more funerals. Certainly, her life in Denver as domestic help would have seemed the easier choice, especially with a small daughter to raise. But Elinore had a different vision. She wrote in a letter to her former employer, “Those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing.”

I read Elinore’s story, Letters of a Woman Homesteader, two years before Rob died. We’d just spent extended time camping in Wyoming and northern Utah, and I’d fallen in love with the contours of the land. I could envision the terrain as I read Elinore’s letters. The scrub bushes and dry soil. The coyotes and mountain lions and hawks. The hot sun and the storms that rose quickly and raced violently across the land. I loved its beauty even in the harshness. Like Elinore, I craved the feeling of a spacious sky above.

Though we are separated by 100 years, my grief journey isn’t all that different from Elinore’s. Like Elinore, I work hard each day to coax life into our family’s parched landscape, to cultivate the soil of a new life without Rob. I endure the windstorms of sorrow, the deep quiet of isolation and loneliness, the steep learning curve as I take on responsibilities I have never had to shoulder. 

I hope too that I possess a measure of Elinore’s pluck and faith as well. As she reflected on her life on the frontier, Elinore wrote, “any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end.” 

Elinore’s story is a guiding light in my grief journey. I find I want the same things she wanted in the face of loss. To see beauty, to grow, to find fruitful labor.  To discover independence and interdependence. To build a home of my own.