“Mystic Sweet Communion”

Rob and I grew up in church traditions that loved hymn singing, and we gravitated toward churches like that as a married couple. On Sunday mornings now, when I’m missing Rob’s arm around me in the pew, the hymns remind me that he’s near.

“Yet she on earth hath union

with the God the Three in One,

and mystic sweet communion

with those whose rest is won”

“The Church’s One Foundation”

The contemporary church doesn’t talk much about the communion of saints — that mysterious and beautiful connection across the ages that we possess as the Body of Christ. Hebrews 12 tells us that those who’ve died in Christ cheer us on like spectators along a marathon route. Though absent from us, these dear ones continue to participate with us as the Body of Christ.

This is all a theological nicety until you have lost someone you love. Monday through Saturday I am reminded of all the ways Rob is gone from my life. There is no end to the places we experience his absence. But on Sundays, when I sing the hymns, I am reminded of how very present and connected Rob still is with me and with the Body of Christ.

Rob’s not the angel on my shoulder or that ray of sunshine that breaks through the clouds on an overcast day. I don’t believe he sends me signs. But I do believe, if the ears of my heart are tuned, I can hear his voice, joined with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Hans, Rosemary, Marty, Brett, and others we have loved and lost. Together though apart, we continue to worship as one Body. Death does not end our communion; it only changes it for a time. The hymns remind me that this separation won’t be forever. Alleluia. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

“’Mid toil and tribulation,

and tumult of her war,

she waits the consummation

of peace forevermore;

till with the vision glorious

her longing eyes are blest,

and the great church victorious

shall be the church at rest.”

“The Church’s One Foundation”

Time to Start Growing

When we met, I wore my hair like 90s Winona Ryder. A pixie cut, dyed dark. My high school math teacher had told me years before that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” and his adage had proven true for short hairstyles as well. I hadn’t dated at all in high school and only sporadically in college. But Rob liked my short hair. He said it was like me — spunky.

We dated for five months before he asked me to marry him. With a ring on my finger and a stack of wedding magazines in my lap, I began to long for longer tresses. None of the brides in the glossies wore their hair short on their wedding day. Elaborate updo hairstyles were the standard. I had enough to spike a mohawk maybe, but not nearly enough to satisfy the desires of a hairstylist with a handful of bobby pins and a can of hairspray. We’d planned our wedding for eight months hence, so I didn’t have much time. Time to start growing.

I cut my hair a few weeks before we got married. It was hot, July. I wanted some relief. I didn’t get the fancy bridal updo, but I got Rob. That was more than enough. Hair was just hair after all.

Throughout our 17 years of marriage, my hair changed with my emerging sense of self. Secure in his love, I grew my hair out. Past the awkward in-between “growing out” stage, to a full head of long brown waves. I happily experimented — dyed it, chopped it off, grew it out, straightened it. Each time, Rob would say, “You look great!” 

I birthed our four children who held my hair tight as they nursed, weaving its strands between their little fingers as they sighed and suckled. I even let Rob cut it a few times, me sitting before the bathroom mirror in his old undershirt while he wielded the scissors to fix some professional stylist’s snafu. Not many women trust their stylists with their hair, their husbands even less. But Rob was always more than enough for me.

When I could see age 40 on the horizon, I decided I wanted to grow my hair long again. I had committed to embracing my gray hairs whenever they arrived, and I wanted long hair again before I felt the pressure of an ageist culture to cave and wear it short. Rob may have fallen in love with my spunky cut, but he loved my long hair. Even if I wore it in a messy bun most of the time. I treated myself to balayage, just to stay hip. He called it my “rockstar hair.” My hair was like our future — long, full, healthy and full of shine.

I cut my hair the day before he died. It was hot, July. I wanted some relief. I would never have cut it if I’d known that day would be his last. My stylist straightened it, complimenting me on how well my highlights had lasted. I texted Rob a picture. “Cute!” he replied. I smiled; his opinion was the only one that had ever really mattered to me. I was excited about my new style.

But when I looked in the mirror the next day, after they had told me he had died, I no longer recognized myself. The person I used to be — his wife, his confidant, his lover, his companion, his editor, his co-adventurer — she was gone. Death had taken her away from me, like the stylist who’d cut and swept away my curly tresses the day before. Even my hair said, “You’re not the same anymore.”

In the six months since Rob died, I’ve started growing out my hair again. I don’t feel spunky anymore, so short hair just won’t work right now. Maybe I’m longing to go back to those years he loved me so well. Maybe it’s just time for a change. I don’t know. Even when my hair is long again, Rob’s death has secured this truth: I will never be the same again. No hairstyle can change that reality. I’m a different person now. And it’s time to start growing.

Tilting Toward the Sun

The kids and I traveled to the far northern edge of New Hampshire’s White Mountains for the Christmas holiday, a trip that coincided with the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. On a day that was -1 degrees Fahrenheit, the coming of the solstice brought little comfort. We may enjoy more daylight from this point on; but here in New England, the coldest part of winter is still to come. While the solstice may have astronomical significance, to us it’s just another cold day in a long, cold winter.

Unlike Washington, our old home state, New Hampshire’s mountains are covered with a majority of deciduous trees. In winter, the once lush slopes look bald. Groups of scrawny, hardy evergreens faithfully present their colors on an otherwise gray and white canvas. Rock faces now exposed by leafless trees look sharp and grim.

The landscape of our life looks so different too from how it did almost six months ago. In some places, we’ve gone from flourishing to just hanging on. In others, we are developing rock-solid resilience we never imagined we could. In all things, we are learning that the only way through grief is waiting.

Whether or not we feel the lengthening of days, we are beginning again to tilt toward the sun. I pray that the warm light of Christ’s presence will illumine our darkness this winter. That as the days grow lighter and warmer I will sense the dawning of His good kingdom that is to come.

You Love Me Best

I remember driving through an Ohio cornfield with Rob soon after we’d met back in 2001. An old white farmhouse with a broad front porch rested atop a hill in the distance, its red barn sagging on the lawn behind. “When I’m old, I want a front porch like that,” Rob told me, “with two rocking chairs — one for me and one for you.” At 23, Rob already had gray hair and grand visions of spending his old age smoking a pipe and reading great novels. I was thrilled; a future together was exactly what I wanted too.

A month later, he asked me in a letter to marry him. That November, he made his request official with a ring. While we were to enjoy the next 17 years together, rocking away our latter years on a broad front porch was a future we wouldn’t see.

Author Megan Devine writes, “It’s tempting to tell a grieving person to look to the future. What most people don’t understand is that your person is missing in the future, too. There is no place their absence doesn’t reach.” As times has passed, our life here in Massachusetts has settled into new regular patterns that seek to accommodate Rob’s absence. We now have a working plan for carpooling, for school mornings, for chores around the house. These new patterns help us immensely; but, with much of the day-to-day routine ironed out, my mind and heart have had the space to look ahead. And time and again, I find Rob missing there too. 

I sift through our dreams for the future like I look through the clothes in Rob’s closet, wondering what I should save and what needs letting go. After almost 20 years together, every dream has his fingerprints on it. It’s hard for me to think about my future — finding fulfillment in a second-half career, launching our children into adulthood, growing old — without him in it. And yet this is the path God in his mysterious wisdom has asked me to walk. He knew I would be called to fulfill my wedding vows in this painful way. To have and to hold, to love and to let go. 

As we continue to process our loss — the past, the present, and the future — the Lord Jesus is reminding me anew of the vows of love He has made to me. He also promises to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish. But His vows to me cannot be broken by death. Instead, they have triumphed over it. Of all other loves, He has loved me best.

One night, the kids and I sat and talked about the night we learned of Rob’s death. Together we created a narrative of the evening that changed us forever. We shared what we could remember, each filling in memory gaps for the other. We remembered the words that were spoken, the arms that held us. We remembered the verses I read as I claimed God’s love over us even the darkness. “You are worth more than many sparrows … I have loved you with an everlasting love … I have called you by name; you are mine.” These vows of love have upheld us these last four months, and I trust that they will continue to sustain us in all of the days ahead. We are held. We are loved. No matter what. We are His Beloved, today and always.

Our Steps Are Ordered

I don’t have adequate words to describe what it has been like to lose my husband. It is to find the fabric of my life torn in two. Not just a single moment of being rent asunder by death, it is the daily unraveling of the beautiful life we wove together over 17 years. Each day I discover something new I have lost of Rob, myself, and our life together. I have lost my sounding board, my parenting partner, my confidante, my encourager, my best friend, my fellow dreamer, my advocate, my iron that sharpens iron, my love. I’ve lost the “me” that was “us.”

In The Art of DyingRob wrote of me, “I love her, and I know she will make wise decisions if I am no longer able to be at her side.” I read those words as his enduring blessing over me. As I seek to rebuild my identity and parent our children alone, I am reassured that Rob trusted me in that task. Through God’s enabling strength and comfort, I can lead our family with courage and confidence. It is my gift of love to Rob as I take these torn threads of my life and create something new and beautiful that honors what was lost. I am fiercely committed to that purpose.

Rob’s death has galvanized our family. The spirit of this little band of five inspires me daily. I see my children living in bold servanthood, deep empathy, and sincere love toward one another, even as they shoulder the burden of their grief each day. They are courageous, gentle, brave, and wise. What a privilege to companion my children through life! Though he is gone, I have committed that our family will continue to be marked by the love, values and faith Rob and I held dear together. In the midst of massive change, that remains constant. 

We find deep satisfaction, comfort, even joy, in the myriad ways we seek to remember Rob in our daily life. From sharing rituals around the dinner table and recreation activities that capture his spirit, to individual journaling and memory building creative projects, we are processing our loss, saying goodbye, and looking forward with hope. Even as we journey together, each one’s grief process is unique, and it is an honor for me to walk beside each child and see firsthand their vulnerability, insight and resilience. Ours is a years long grieving endeavor, and each step forward is a victory.

There is not a moment of our days that is not touched by the loss of Rob. We are learning to wake up in the morning without our barista and pancake flipper. We are learning to navigate home improvement projects without our foreman and resident handyman. We are learning how to laugh, cry, love, and grow without the warm arms of husband and father to surround us. 

All of these things we can do entirely because of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. We have a phrase in our house that has become a touchpoint for our family — Our steps are ordered. Whatever we will face, He’s already been there. Jesus knows the end and the beginning, and He walks beside us and goes before us. We place the sorrows and anxieties of each day into His hands, and He fulfills what concerns us. Time and time again over the last three months, we can testify to God’s care for us as Defender of the fatherless and widow. He is an attentive Father and the very best Provider. He is the Mender of hearts and our Beacon of hope. We are safe in His good care.

Grief in the Desert

Since Rob died, the place I’ve most wanted to visit was the desert. We traveled more than 30,000 miles together road tripping in our camper, and the desert was one of our favorite places to camp. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with my new life, I long to be sitting in this spot again.

I love that to the casual observer everything looks dead in the desert. People associate the desert with scarcity, and so they avoid it. Too hot. Too dry. Too empty. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I love the desert even more because of this. It weeds out the casual lovers.

The desert environment is anything but empty. Sure, it doesn’t rain much. But it’s filled with vibrant life and even water, if you know where to look. Snakes, insects and small mammals thrive there. Cryptobiotic soil amazingly holds the habitat together. Stunning quiet drapes itself over the whole landscape. A jar of red desert sand sits on the windowsill in my kitchen to remind me of this place I love.

Why do I crave the desert in my grief? What makes this seemingly harsh environment appealing in my sorrow? As I look at its landscape, I see myself — parched, empty, uninhabitable. The desert is a mirror for my heart. I want to go there to be alone with the quiet. To yell and weep into the canyon and hear my voice echo back to me.

I also seek out the desert because I know that, beyond the casual glance, life thrives there. Not a lush, green, cookie-cutter-front-lawn kind of life, but one that is still vibrant. The desert life adapts, tenaciously hangs on. It’s the life, in the midst of grief, I’m longing for.

“I’m Headed Home”

Saturdays used to be for hiking. Even in the winter, Rob would long for the mountains. When it was too cold for the kids and me to join him, he’d head out alone. If you ask my children what their dad loved most, they’ll tell you “hiking and his family.” Hiking offered Rob precious time to think and connect with God.

I remember this winter hike well. Deep snow had fallen, and Rob was soaked by the time he got back to the trailhead. But the cold and wet didn’t dampen his spirits. He called me from the car raving about the views and letting me know all was well and he was on his way home.

I think of all of those calls he made from trailheads across America. All those years. All those safe returns. I never got a call the day he died. If he could have, I have no doubt he would have told me, “I had a great time. I’m headed Home now.”

Sheltered by Love

I’ve been looking for something to help me visualize my new role parenting alone, and I fell in love with this little carved elephant family statue at Ten Thousand Villages. I thought it was one mama elephant sheltering four smaller ones until I got it home. It was an impulse buy; I’ll admit I didn’t look closely.

When I removed it from the bag, I realized the carving was one large elephant sheltering two small ones and four tiny ones. From its position on the store shelf, I got only one perspective.

I love that from the front you see a mama alone with her babies. But when you look from above you see the family of six overshadowed by the big one. This is my life. From one angle, a mom alone with her kids. From another, a complete family sheltered by Love itself.

Homeschooling Through Loss

Our family homeschooled for seven years before Rob died, and we joyfully watched our children grow into intellectually curious students and voracious readers. More than that, our family became its own little tribe, deeply committed to each other.

Homeschooling became even more precious the last three years of Rob’s life when he transitioned to working from home. Over breakfast, Rob would discuss geology with one. Over his lunch break, he’d sweat out a workout with two. And every night, we’d pile onto the couch beside him to read aloud, exploring ancient worlds and journeying to fantastical places together. Relationship building became the core of our homeschool intentions.

Each year, we’ve schooled a little differently. This year, all of our children have begun schooling outside our home in some way. Our oldest two attend university-model classes; our youngest two attend school part-time. Still, our Fridays are spent together at home just like they’ve always been. In all of the change we’ve experienced, Fridays still feel familiar. We’re still the tribe where each cares for the other. The younger one learns to read with her brother. The older sister reviews her Spanish vocabulary words with the younger ones. And the dog finds companionship with anyone schooling on the floor.

When I worry about how my children will carry Rob’s death for the rest of their lives, I often read about resilience. (I’ve got Harvard’s study bookmarked on my phone.) Research indeed has shown that the trauma of a parent’s death can disrupt a child’s development in deep and long-lasting ways. Yet, these same studies also say that children can develop resilience in the face of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). The single most important indicator of resilience — deep relationships. Our family has that in spades.

Homeschooling isn’t the only way to develop deep relationships, just like it’s not the only way to school. But for our family, these years have created a beautiful scaffolding that now is holding us up as we grieve and live forward together.

May You Find a Light

“Lost and weary traveler searching for the way to go …
May you find a light to guide you home.”

The Brilliance

Of the many times I have felt lost in my life, none has ever been so all-encompassing, deep, and dark as grief. Sometimes I miss Rob so much that I don’t think I’ll ever feel found again. I feel so lost without him.

This week, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, the day we remember the Magi who followed a star to find the Christ Child. Two thousand years later, darkness still persists. We are still travelers, weary and longing for a better country. May we find a light to guide us home.