What a week. I don’t know about you, but this past week has felt grueling. So many decisions, so much wrestling. I’m grateful it’s Friday.
Of late, my heart has been chastened. Too often it takes coming to the end of myself before I recognize my need for Jesus. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish I relied less on my own inadequate strength and turned more quickly to him for provision. If I’m honest, even on my best days, my heart is like a stone. My harvest of achievements are an empty husk; my life is a broken bowl. No wonder I run out of strength. No wonder I feel lost when I try to forge my way on my own.
I appreciate Christina Rossetti’s words today because they bring me back to this core truth: Jesus is my life. It is only in him that I live and move and have my being. As the hymn writer says, “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling.” And so, on weary days and triumphant ones, my heart’s prayer must always be for this resurrection life. “O Jesus, rise in me.”
Whatever you face today, it is my prayer that you find your life in Christ. He promises resurrection for this day and for the life to come. Thanks be to God.
I have no wit, no words, no tears; My heart within me like a stone Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears; Look right, look left, I dwell alone; I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief No everlasting hills I see; My life is in the falling leaf: O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf, My harvest dwindled to a husk: Truly my life is void and brief And tedious in the barren dusk; My life is like a frozen thing, No bud nor greenness can I see: Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring; O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl, A broken bowl that cannot hold One drop of water for my soul Or cordial in the searching cold; Cast in the fire the perish’d thing; Melt and remould it, till it be A royal cup for Him, my King: O Jesus, drink of me.
One evening this spring, my youngest looked out the window during family read aloud time and whispered, “Mom, a bunny!” Sure enough, on the edge of the thicket that lines our property, a baby bunny crouched. A little ball of fur so tiny it looked as though you could cup it in a single hand. We stopped reading to watch the bunny munching quietly; and, of course, we named him Peter.
Over the last couple months, we’ve watched Peter grow. Almost every night, he comes out of the thicket to eat grass and leaves just as the sun is setting. Always alert. Always alone. Sometimes my third-born quietly steps outside to watch him at a distance, setting out lettuce leaves and carrot sticks for our little friend. The bunny eats his fill then slips back into the thicket through a little entrance directly across from our living room window.
Peter has grown a lot since we began our nightly viewings. But even though he’s a lot bigger, he still seems so vulnerable. Often he freezes in place and crouches low in the middle of his dinner. His big, beautiful, dark eyes always scan as he eats. His little ears move like radar, constantly twitching to pick up sounds of danger. He knows he’s small. He knows the world is big. There’s so much that could go wrong. Even so, there’s something in Peter that still brings him out into the vulnerability of my open lawn every night at dusk. Maybe it’s his hungry belly or instinct. Maybe it’s trust.
When we think of biblical analogies of trust, we often head straight to the gospel of Luke, to the lilies of the field or the birds of the air. Nobody calls forth the humble bunny as an icon of faith. But after watching Peter for these months, I’d like to add a third to Jesus’ lineup of pictures of trust. The bunny is less freewheeling perhaps than the other two. Certainly less glamorous. Bunnies have few defenses; they’re scared most of the time. (They’re herbivores — prey — after all.) But there is no getting around the kind of trust they must muster to live each day. When I look at Peter, crouching as he eats, venturing out each night into the open grass, I realize his life also is a picture of the life of faith. Not all faith is warrior brave.
Many days since Rob’s death, I’ve felt a lot like Peter. I sometimes wonder if “brave” is even written in my DNA. For most of my adulthood I have wrestled with the fallout of trauma-related anxiety and PTSD. Now I must learn to live without my strong, wise, beloved husband. I look out my window at Peter; and I see myself, nervous as life compels me to do the next necessary thing. Since Rob died, my life is filled with so many new tasks, and my survival and flourishing mean that I must venture forward to do them. Even if I’m afraid. Even if my trust feels thin. If I had my druthers, I’d rather hop back to the rabbit hole and enjoy bread, milk and blackberries for supper.
In the last year, I’ve received the lovely compliments that I am “brave” or “strong.” When I talk to other widows, they tell me they often hear the same things. Very rarely do I feel brave or strong. On the contrary, most days, my life is an act of bunny-like trust. Moving forward while still unsure. Venturing out in vulnerability while learning to shoulder my sorrow. Tearfully (and often, fearfully) taking the next right step alone. Learning to balance alertness and care without slipping into hypervigilance. Often it feels less like bravery and more like sheer survival. Everything was easier to do with Rob at my side, and I miss him there. This new life is hard to do.
Some days, I envy the lily of the field who waves effortlessly in the wind. Better yet, the bird of the air who sails on the breeze. Lilies don’t have feelings. They don’t understand the risk of stepping out in trust to eat your evening meal in the wide open. They don’t try to live their lives even as they watch for danger, for the neighborhood cat who might end it all. And some birds get to be hunters — falcons or hawks. Perhaps trusting wouldn’t be quite so hard if I could fly above it all. If I had the power to catch my next meal.
Of all the icons of faith, I see that Peter and I are kin. We shake nervously as we step out in trust, but we keep doing it. Night after night. Day after day. We venture forward toward the Jesus who promises to give his beloved every good thing, desperate for the sustenance that can only be found in the wide open life of faith,. We may not be outwardly strong and noble creatures, the bunny and me. But we can choose to trust. We can be faithful.
Recently, a pet bunny I know died of shock. It’s a common problem for rabbits. Thunderstorms, the howls of coyotes at nighttime — these and other frightening sounds, sights and smells can do poor bunnies in. Their rapid metabolisms can’t handle dramatic events. As I look out my window at Peter eating alone at dusk, I marvel. His fragility makes his faith all the more amazing to me. Stepping out into the open requires so much vulnerability, so much trust. What he craves must be stronger than his fear of the neighborhood cat or his dislike of thunder. His life depends on his willingness to trust.
My life too depends on this willingness to trust. So I pray for deliverance from fear, for Jesus’ presence in uncertainty. I pray for the mustard seed of faith that Jesus promises will move the mountains that stand before me. And over it all, I pray for the beautiful comfort of his goodness, his gentleness and his care. For the assurance of his strong arms around me, protecting me from harm and guiding me in paths of peace.
I have always loved the picture of God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden. They enjoyed such intimate conversation and fellowship. God spoke them into existence and never stopped talking.
In this poem, Rainer Maria Rilke gives words to God as we walk together with him through this life. Grief provokes all kinds of spiritual wrestlings, and sometimes it’s hard to hear God’s voice amidst our sorrow, anger, and questions. Even when the words are only dimly heard, these are the truths God offers us — an invitation to embody Christ in our suffering, to become a place where the Spirit can dwell. And reassurance too. No feeling is final. Life is a country still within reach. Whatever darkness we face, we walk hand in hand with the One who loves us.
Where do you find life in Rilke’s words today? In what ways to do you sense God speaking to you as you walk together?
“He had felt safe and strong in his shell. But now it was too snug. Hermit Crab stepped out of the shell and onto the floor of the ocean. But it was frightening out in the open sea without a shell to hide in.”
Eric Carle, A House for Hermit Crab
This past weekend I took my kids exploring at a local neighborhood beach. The water in the cove was warm, and low tide had brought tiny hermit crabs swarming all over the rocks and in the tide pools. My kids happily spent the hours catching crabs, creating little pools for them, and watching them scuttle along the bottom.
Hermit crabs are designed for change. In fact, they do it frequently. As they grow, they shed their shell houses and go in search of new ones. They find another shell to fit their new girth, but it’s not long until they outgrow that one too. Twice a year (on average) hermit crabs move out and into new homes. Change is a normal part of their life experience. It means something healthy is happening.
I find I’m less like the crabs at the beach and more like Eric Carle’s classic character Hermit Crab. I step out of my shell onto life’s ocean floor and feel frightened without a shell to hide in, without a place to define me. Change makes me feel vulnerable. Even when the shell is snug. Even when I know I’m growing. It’s still hard to step out in trust toward something new. Especially when, like Hermit Crab, that something new isn’t sitting right in front of me. When I have to act in faith and go looking for it.
In a few short weeks, I technically won’t be a “new widow” anymore. I’ll have passed that first year mark of Rob’s death. Yet, as the days pass and I see more change on the horizon, I feel so new still. So tender still. While I wouldn’t describe this first year of grief as “safe and strong,” it was a house I have learned to live in. I have found some stability in the midst of tragedy. At least life has become a little bit predictable.
But each day, each month, the grief journey brings new change; and like Hermit Crab, I must change too. As I approach the year mark of Rob’s death, I sense there’s going to be some shell-shedding in the near future. Some searching for what comes next. Some finding a new home, both literally and figuratively. You can’t really get ready for that kind of change. You just have to step out in trust. Accept that you may have to try on a few shells before you find the next right fit.
I wish I didn’t have to do it, but I’m trying to remember that change means something healthy is happening. Moreover, that transformation is what we’re made for. Even in grief. I can do this next brave thing. Even if I can’t quite see what it is yet.
Even though Rob only lived in our house for one year before he died, his fingerprints are all over it. We bought the house with the intention to work on it, and we started right away when we moved in. Two years later, I walk through the rooms and remember the walls we painted together over Christmas that first year. I chuckle as I look at the sconces beside our bed and remember Rob working hard to get them level with each other.
Over the last year, I’ve completed almost all of the major projects we planned to do together. If Rob walked in the door today, he’d say, “You’ve done a lot of work on this place!” Even so, when I open the breaker box, there is his handwriting labeling the circuits. It will stay there for years to come. However much work I’ve done alone, this house was never just mine; it was ours.
I’m preparing my house to sell in the coming weeks. It feels good to be unloading the responsibility of a big house and acreage, and I’m filled with hope (and a good dose of nervousness!) about the unknown future that lies ahead. The market is solid here in New England. I sense that my timing is divinely guided.
If all goes smoothly, by the end of the summer I’ll be living somewhere new. Some place Rob’s feet have never crossed the threshold. A place that will only have memories of Rob if I purposely bring them there. It’s a hard reality to accept. Even though I’m content about the decision to sell the house, it’s still bittersweet. This is another ending. Another reminder that my future will look very different than I thought it would. Another adventure, but also another goodbye.
We often think of adventures as exhilarating, and they are. But they also can be long, exhausting, scary and fraught with disaster. As the crew of the Dawn Treader (our most recent family read aloud) discovered, you don’t always know what you’re getting into when you sign up for adventures. You may just end up sailing to the End of the World. And regardless of what you meet on the voyage ahead, you’ll need to leave something behind.
To some, selling your house when you have no idea where you’ll go next isn’t adventurous. It’s foolhardy. To some, leaving traces of your loved one behind isn’t a good decision. It’s disrespectful or insensitive. But I am discovering that, if you know your Captain, you can make bittersweet choices. You can say goodbye and hello at the same time without contradiction. You can step forward into the unknown with hope, even as you grieve for what you’re leaving behind. In the words of the hymn writer, “I may not know the way I go, But oh, I know my Guide.“
I’ve taken pictures of the two breaker boxes in the house. More than the realtor’s beautiful pictures, these two tell the real story of this house I’m leaving behind. A story of a husband and a wife and four kids who hoped to set down roots, who planned for a happy future together. A story of adventure that was marked by joy and sorrow. A story that, though this chapter is ending, hasn’t finished yet.
A year ago today our family began our road trip west, the vacation that would end in death. Rob took these pictures on the shores of Lake Erie that night, after our first day of driving. We had looked forward to this trip for months, and that first night was so filled with happiness. We were on our way!
As a family, we walked down from our campsite to the shore of Lake Erie, climbed around the rocks, found our perches and settled in to enjoy the view. To some people, there might not have been much to look at. Just a big expanse of water. But for two parents with insatiable wanderlust and four kids who’d sat in the car for hours, the view was perfect. Nothing but water stretching on to the horizon.
I have always loved wide open spaces. In childhood, the blue sweep of the Atlantic Ocean; and in adulthood, the expansiveness of the American West. Big sky country doesn’t overwhelm me with its size; I love the feeling of freedom that comes with a horizon you can see hundreds of miles away. Whether it’s water or land, I love the possibility of faraway horizons and the scale of grandeur that reminds me of my smallness in the universe.
Since Rob’s death, I’ve felt that smallness acutely. Death makes you feel so powerless and little — a speck of dust on a hunk of dust spinning wildly through space. It’s easy to let death dictate that narrative for the rest of your days. “I will always feel powerless. I will always feel small and alone.” It’s easy to let your experience of grief color the rest of your days with negativity — to convince you that you’ll never really live again, that the rest of your life will always feel this small and wounded.
Yes, death makes us feel small. It wipes the slate, clears the table, removes everything we found familiar between here and the horizon. Death can make you feel like the one small person on the shores of a lake that seems to go on forever. It can be terrifying to feel so small and alone. I suspect it’s that same feeling that keeps folks at home instead of exploring, more comfortable in cities that in the great wide open. The breadth and depth and length and width are overwhelming.
Today, I was taken aback when a friend described my future as “this adventure you’re on.” I had to stop and write it down. I’ve been mulling over his words all day. His different perspective stopped me in my tracks. I needed that reorientation, that reminder. There’s still a horizon out there calling me. Death doesn’t have the final say. Rob’s death need not dictate the horizon of my life.
My friend’s comment reminded me that, though I feel small, horizons don’t need to frighten me; they can excite me too. My new empty-slate life can feel overwhelming, like staring out at the seemingly endless waters of the ocean. Or, if I’m willing, I can allow this new broad expanse to tempt me with the possibility to be found right beyond the curve of the earth. This same life that has dealt me sorrow is also still full of unexpected adventure. I may not be able to see it from where I stand on these shores of grief. But I do believe it’s still out there, maybe just beyond the horizon.
Today, as I remember this day where Rob and I began our last adventure together, I’m reminded not only of all that lies behind me, but of all that still lies ahead. Rob would want me to keep living. (No surprise, he and I even talked about it!) There is adventure still to be had. Joy still to be experienced. Like a seasoned traveler, I’ll leave a little of my heart at each place on the way. I’ll carry in my heart each place I’ve been. On the cusp of so much change, I’ve decided that I’m going to start chasing that beautiful horizon again. There is so much world left to see.
Temperatures have reached the upper 80s here in New England, and we’re enjoying lazy summer evenings now that school has ended. Because of ongoing COVID limitations, we have nowhere we need to go, nothing we need to do. So after the evening meal is finished and dishes are cleared, the five of us sit around and play cards and talk.
One night this week, the kids and I sat after dinner, eating salt water taffy. Casual conversation eased into talking about how Rob’s death has changed us, about how we’re feeling as we approach the mind-boggling one year mark next month. We don’t reflect as a whole family like this as much as we did in the early months; that’s just not the season we are in right now. So when conversation turned, I settled in and listened closely.
As the kids shared, I was humbled by their depth of insight, honored by their willingness to be honest, and amazed at their innate wiring toward resilience. I looked around the table at the four of them and thought, “They’re doing this so well.” For the first time since Rob died, I felt I could tell myself confidently, “They’re going to be okay.” Each one is working out his or her grief in age appropriate ways. They are integrating their loss into their emerging selves. I know that grief will take a different shape in their lives as they grow and change, that it will always travel with them. But I also know they can do this brave thing and walk this hard road. They have what it takes. All four have done hard work this year, and I am so proud of them.
“Grief is different for kids than it is for adults,” one of them said that night, and I heartily agreed. As an adult, a wife and a mother, I don’t grieve like they do. Furthermore, they each grieve differently from each other, according to their ages, their personalities, their deep inner wirings. These last eleven months, I have tried always to remember that this is a collective and a solitary journey for each of us. Honestly, holding that posture has made it difficult to parent and lead many times. It’s like cooking a different dinner for every person at the table. At every meal. Every day. Lots of customized, single-serving work. Very little overlap.
It’s like cooking a different dinner for every person at the table. At every meal. Every day. Lots of customized, single-serving work. Very little overlap.
But as I listened to the voices around the table, I knew for sure that all that work has been worth it. To see my children ready to stretch their wings, to see them willing to take risks and try new things — what a joy to see that our year of grief has not killed their young spirits! Instead, their post-loss growth makes me believe even more fervently the truth I’ve always told them: each of them is and will be such a gift to the world. My vision for them has always been one of resilience. Of allowing the pain of loss to mark them but not break them. Of carrying love and sorrow in the same hand, engaging the world with kingdom longing and resurrection hope.
Lots of times I talk about the investment of parenting Rob and I did together for all those years. I am firmly convinced that foundation has been critical for my children’s survival this last year. I say that I couldn’t have done it without him. And yet, now that is exactly what I have been called to do. In the successes and failures of this last year of solo parenting, I hope I have also created a solid foundation for them on my own. It’s an accomplishment I’m still unsure about acknowledging. But the reality is: I’ve worked my tail off for them in many ways they’ll never notice.
After one of our children narrated a story from history or explained a math concept to Rob, he would always say, “You have a good teacher.” The kids would laugh and respond, “But Mommy is my teacher!” As I reflect on how far we’ve come in these last eleven months, I feel Rob’s words again over me as a blessing. If he could see how we’ve navigated this last year, how the kids have grown in the midst of loss, I believe he’d tell them the same: “You have a good teacher.” I always told Rob I would give our children the very best I had as I guided their education. Now that I parent and lead alone, I have to trust that my very best has been enough.
When we hiked as a family, one of Rob’s favorite parts of the hike was looking back at the way we’d come. I remember standing atop a huge red cliff in Zion National Park. The kids wandered around looking for lizards, and Rob and I traced our path back as far as our eyes could see. Eventually, the trail wound around a bend and disappeared beyond our view.
As I stand at this eleven month mark and look back, I am amazed we have survived so strenuous a path. Little legs unprepared for such a walk of grief. Tender hearts unready for the perils of navigating a life of loss. The five of us have brought a lot of grit and family love to the task. But as my eyes trace the trail we’ve taken since the day Rob died, I know we own no credit for where we stand today. Instead, we owe all praise to the One who knew we’d walk this path — yea, who in mysterious love ordained it — before we ever knew it ourselves.
I am sure without a doubt that the Lord Jesus met Rob as he fell that day, eleven months ago today. That even as Rob’s eyes closed to this life, the Lord Jesus opened his eyes to life everlasting. I believe with full assurance that this man I love was carried gently in the strong arms of the Shepherd who loved him before the foundation of the world. That though Rob’s earthly days were numbered, they were also wisely, graciously ordered.
Even as our path continues without him, I believe these things are true for us too. We too are beloved. We too are carried. Our steps also are ordered. Now, on the cusp of a year without my precious husband, I choose to trust God’s path for us even as it wends on beyond what I can see. Eleven months down, a lifetime to go. Now and always, I trust that His glory will guide us in perfect peace.
All praise to the Rock Eternal. All glory to Him who was and who is and who is to come. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.
“Praising what is lost / Makes the remembrance dear.”
William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well
When I was a college speech teacher years ago, I used to tell my students that the top two fears people had were death and public speaking. I was afraid of the former but through years of practice had trained myself not to fear the latter. If I were to add a third fear, I think I’d simply combine the first two. People are afraid of talking about death.
Rob knew this well. It’s why he wrote The Art of Dying. In his hospice and funeral work, Rob saw families and friends who avoided death at all costs — approving invasive medical interventions when death was inevitable, fighting with each other (and even the dying person sometimes!) about what the dying person’s end should look like, avoiding the reality of death altogether. Over and over, he encountered people who wanted to ignore that foreboding elephant in the room. Death sat in the corner waiting, and nobody wanted to talk about it, much less prepare for it.
I don’t think it would surprise Rob at all to know that after death the avoidance is no different. Whether death is in process or a done deal, people still don’t want to talk about it. Many grieving people find that, after the death of their loved one, folks shift to avoiding conversation about the person who died. Some don’t wish to inflict further pain by repeating the person’s name. (Hint: that’s not possible.) Others feel awkward acknowledging the death themselves. Either way, the result, though often unintended, is that the grieving person feels as though his or her loved one has been forgotten. Everyone knows he or she is gone, but nobody wants to say it. The lost loved one becomes the dead elephant in the room.
Though it might feel counterintuitive, one of the kindest things you can do for a grieving person is to ask, “Tell me about your loved one.” By encouraging the sharing of memories, you actually lessen the isolation of grief. You allow the grieving person to talk about the one who fills her thoughts all day, every day. This sharing is actually a vital part of the grief process, and you might find that it helps you edge a little closer to that most difficult conversation topic also. What a gift!
Recently I recorded three podcast episodes that will air next month. I look forward to sharing them with you when they release. Among the joys of those conversations was the joy of talking about Rob. Nothing makes my heart happier than to share stories about our life together. I always love when people ask about him. About his quirks, his writing, his life. Even his death. Talking about Rob brings him back to life, even for just a bit. When people say his name, when they share a story or invite me to do the same, I am reminded that others have not forgotten him either. Shakespeare was right: “Praising what is lost / Makes the remembrance dear.”
When I leave my children home alone, we keep Rob’s phone on the kitchen island in case they need to call me while I’m out. My kids know the phone is only for emergencies, but I try to check up on them regularly when I’m gone. Leaving your kids after loss is a complex process, and I work hard to honor their needs and desires for reassurance. Their comfort it always my first priority.
Yesterday afternoon, I ran out to do some quick errands in town. The kids were all happily occupied with activities around the house, and no one wanted to join me. When I called from the car about 45 minutes later, nobody picked up. I let the phone ring and ring and ring. And then I let it slip into voicemail. Something I haven’t done in a long time. And I heard his voice.
For just a moment, Rob was really there. Still. On the other end of the line. Like no time had passed. No death. No eleven months. No massive distance that travel cannot cross. I wanted to leave a message. “Where are you? Call me back when you get this. I love you.” The same words I left so many months ago.
Suddenly, I was hanging up and calling again. Waiting through the ringing. This time hoping no child would answer. Hoping only to hear his voice. To hear something more. Not just the voicemail recording, but new words. Hoping to feel him near again.
This Friday, it will be eleven months since Rob last spoke to me. As I near the year mark of his death, I feel the painful tension of the passage of time and the still tender immediacy of loss. The voicemail of the man who sounds so very much alive. On the phone of the man who is so very dead.
Something came alive in me when I heard his voice again. Something in me that has felt dead for so many long months. A mix of longing and joy and deep sorrow and love that was the best I’ve felt in a long time. An urge to find him in any way I can in this world that now feels so devoid of him. For the rest of my life, my heart will listen for Rob. In crowded rooms. In the quiet of a car ride to the hardware store. I will always long to hear his voice. The voice of my beloved.
I told Rob I’d call back soon. I’m glad he’ll answer when I do.
One of my favorite Rob-isms was “It’s all about death and resurrection.” He’d often quote John 12:24 when he said it. Here in New England, we’re on the cusp of summer. The world is in full bloom. All of those seeds that fell to the ground last fall are coming up as flowers in gorgeous array. As the seasons shift, I am reminded that resurrection always comes after death. Whatever you face today, may you find life, the opening buds of resurrection. May you live “as though death were nowhere in the background. From joy to joy to joy.”
From blossoms comes this brown paper bag of peaches we bought from the boy at the bend in the road where we turned toward signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands, from sweet fellowship in the bins, comes nectar at the roadside, succulent peaches we devour, dusty skin and all, comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside, to carry within us an orchard, to eat not only the skin, but the shade, not only the sugar, but the days, to hold the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background; from joy to joy to joy, from wing to wing, from blossom to blossom to impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.