The Greatest Grief

img_0669.jpg
Heart Butte, MT

A year ago, my family gathered for a quiet graveside service to remember the life of my grandpa. The wind was strong, the harmonicas were beautiful, the memories were precious, and the time together was all of that and then some. It was too early for flowers to poke up in the earth, too cold for buds to pop out on the wet trees, too soon for life to completely cover emptiness.

We grieved together, prayed together, and continued to live life together. In some ways, grief was a kind friend in pointing our eyes to Christ, the one who smashed death when he died on the cross. The one life that mattered most died like all of us will someday. But the one grave that mattered most of all turned up empty three days later. This one empty tomb gives hope that all graves will burst open with shouts of praise to the death-conquering One.

In all of life, we grieve. We grieve for losses large and small—relationships, jobs, health, a life we never had, and thousands of other things that break our hearts. We mourn over loss of physical life. We cry when dust returns to dust, when death drops our beloved friends and family members into the open hands of the Savior who died for them and us. We grieve as people who loved well and lost hard. We lament the loss of life cut off too soon. Simply put, we cry a lot and often in the course of a simple life.

But as much as life breaks us when death snatches our believing friends away, there is a greater grief than this.

In the course of the past couple weeks, two people who made an impact on my life died. Both people hardened by the pain of life and steeped in bitterness and seclusion. Broken people who desperately needed Jesus. God knows their final moments, but from all appearances, both of them died without believing, trusting in, and clinging to Jesus.

And that is the greatest grief. These are deaths to grieve deeply over. These are deaths that break our hearts in hard ways. But these are also deaths that should drive us into the arms of Jesus, with hearts overflowing in gratitude that he loved us first, commanded our spiritually dead corpses to breathe, and saved us from living a life and dying a death without him.

Because I cannot imagine a life without Jesus, it is a great pain to think of people having lived their entire lives cut off from the one who is what life is all about. It moves me to tears to think about people spending every waking moment and every sleeping breath not realizing that they are missing out on something immensely precious. And it should break our hearts that people we know and people we don’t are living and dying without a love so strong, so rich, so beautiful.

We grieve often and we grieve a lot. And well we should. Along with Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, we should be outraged at death. We should let death upset us. We should be indignant that the sickness of sin sucks the God-given breath of life right out of our friends and acquaintances.

And we should be brokenhearted that there is an answer to death but so many souls die without knowing that this answer has a name—Jesus.

This is the greatest grief.

Harvard

One year ago today, I wrote this piece about Harvard. How can it be that it has been 1 1/2 years since he went away?

1933904_184443654096_1648005_n[1]

Exactly six months ago, my bestest friend went home to be with Jesus. Knowing the gracious, beautiful heart of Jesus makes me think that He is probably incredibly happy having Harvard back with Him. And Harvard? I doubt he knew what happened to him when he breathed in the air of heaven and saw the smiling face of God above him.

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss my greatest earthly love. Once in a rare while, I hear him. Old cat nails scratching out a staccato rhythm on the hard floor. Old, raspy meow demanding I rub his head and tell him something wonderful about himself. Old, cow-patterned fur just dying for me to touch and brush. Old eyes staring into mine, telling me his love would drain the lake dry.

That is the cat I loved—and still love. That is the friend I miss with all my heart. The light of my life and joy of my soul.

Six months. How can it be that it has been that many months, that many days? And how can it be that it feels like just last week?

Harvard, do you know it will be another six months in just a flash of time? One, whole year will soon separate our lives. Sunrises and sunsets apart. Seasons and worlds away. Time and space preventing our lives from touching, connecting.

Dear one, my hair is far longer than you’d remember. You’d love chewing on it, I know. There are more wrinkles on my forehead from the sun and sadness and age. But I’ll always be eleven years old to you.

Our maple tree budded the week of Easter and was fully leaved just days after that. You would love it. There have been cardinals and squirrels in it. The rabbits play in the lot—they make me smile. And the lilacs—oh the lilacs!—they smell like the air of grace and heaven. There is something un-earthy about them, something that makes me long for heaven and Jesus and all that goodness so much more.

Dearest Harvard, I’m certain it is a very fine thing to be Jesus. I’m also equally certain it will be the very best beginning to the rest of my life when the day comes that I get to be with both you and Jesus in the same place. Forever.

 

Grandpa

Grandpa
Grandpa and I

 

Jesus, You restore my soul. It is well with my soul, only because of You.

This past Wednesday, my grandpa went home to be with Jesus. It is surreal to think that never again will we see his twinkly eyes and ever-present smile. Never again will he give those hard, tight hugs that squeezed the last particles of air from our lungs. I hear his voice in my memories of him, but I’ll never hear him speak again this side of eternity.

He was the only grandfather my siblings and I had, and all our growing up years, he was our second favorite man in the entire world. He delighted in his grandchildren and positively beamed with pride over our dad—his son.

Grandpa passed down his love of dogs to me. If he knew I was going to be coming over, he would save the table scraps for me, so I could feed his dog, Rusty, and in later years, the neighbor’s dog, Sheba (who always came to visit their farm). All our years in Iowa, he was the one who took care of my dogs and cat when we took our annual trip to Tennessee. When Dad would call home, I would always ask him to ask Grandpa how Pal or Harvard was doing.

When my six-month-old puppy, Pal, was put down, Dad took me to my grandparents for a bit. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t even know how to grieve a loss that gigantic. This was the puppy I’d been praying for since I was about four, and suddenly, he was just gone. All I knew was that I ached. But the pain was soothed a bit by just being held.

At the height of my dog show craze, Grandpa would record the AKC/Eukanuba dog shows for me. I learned more about the breeds of dogs from those videos than I did from college. Grandpa would also send up newspaper clippings about animals for me, which I always loved.

Grandpa loved my sister, Keren’s, and my cats and would pet them when he and Grandma would come to the family home on Thanksgiving. Perhaps, pet is too gentle of a word—it was always more like a rub-down that you’d give a horse or a large dog. We gave him updates on their latest “accomplishments”, and whether he enjoyed hearing the stories about them or simply listened in amusement, we’ll never know.

Sometimes, Grandpa would join Grandma and my sisters and I when we’d have hot chocolate with marshmallows. He and I loved the same mug, so when Grandma gave us the mugs we’d used growing up, she couldn’t give me the one I usually drank from at her house, as Grandpa was still using it.

As an adult, it was always to Grandpa and Grandma that I’d write from the depths of my heart. The pain of loss was lessoned by pouring it out on paper to my grandparents. And the ecstasies of joy were heightened by having them share in my happiness.

One of my favorite memories of Grandpa is from just a few months ago. He nearly died in the hospital, and my siblings and I piled into cars and went down to Fort Dodge to see him that cold, windy evening. We thought we were seeing him for the last time, and hugged him tighter and held his hands longer.

Grandpa’s faith was always a very private thing, but that evening in the hospital, he spoke more about Jesus than he ever had before. Heaven was a very near thing that night and the presence of God was equally close. Tears flowed freely down faces reluctant to cry.

God pulled him from the brink of death, and allowed Keren and I another precious afternoon with Grandpa. We bought him the softest blanket we could find and he seemed to love it. Only later did Dad tell us that Grandpa said it was too nice to use, so he just kept it folded up on the arm of his chair. Every so often, he would reach over and pet it like our cats from years ago.

Then came last Wednesday. No one saw it coming, but it was Grandpa’s last. I read a text early that morning telling my siblings and me that Grandpa was dying. We scrambled to rearrange our schedules to allow us to drive down to Iowa to be at his bedside, one final time. As details were falling into place to allow me to leave early, the first song I began to sing was Bethel’s “Our Father”. It was as much a prayer as it was a song. Jesus’ famous prayer poured forth from my heart, with the depths of my soul crying out for His kingdom to come here—on earth, in our lives, in us.

We made it down just in time to be with the family as Grandpa breathed his last. I rubbed Grandpa’s shoulder as Dad held his hand. So much rest, silence, and peace as Grandpa’s soul went back to the very hands who had created him 93 years ago.

And so much love filled that space in his room. Once again, tears flowed like good wine. Hugs were freely given and received. We gathered around his bed, held hands, and prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Oh the angst of the here but the not yet in those beautiful words of Jesus.

Jesus, may Your name be lifted higher, may Your kingdom come, may Your sovereign will be done—here on earth as it is in heaven. King Jesus, the kingdom is Yours, the power is Yours, and the glory is Yours. Forever.

Yesterday, we formally gathered to remember and honor Grandpa. Psalm 23 was read, my brothers played hymns on their harmonicas, we recited the Lord’s Prayer one more time, and sang “It is Well with my Soul”.

Yes, Grandpa will be deeply missed. But because of Jesus, we do not grieve without hope. Because of Jesus, we will walk through the valley of death and not be consumed by it. Because of Jesus, our hearts will be restored. And it is truly well with our souls because of Jesus.

My Friend, Fernando

Can you hear the drums, Fernando?

I remember long ago another starry night like this.

He was a beautiful soul and I miss him already. Just as I miss his cousin of sorts, Rip, who died just two days before him.

Fernando was one of my favorites. He had a quiet personality and preferred to play the background to his brother. I loved his rex fur, especially as it had been several years since I’d had a “little lamby”. Fernando was not food-motivated like Santi. He would nearly always choose a head rub or the chance to get out and cautiously explore near his cage over a tasty morsel.

He had no fear of my cats, and both boys had their paws bitten by him, when they got too nosy. He also made me laugh, when he pulled Harvard’s tail through the wires of his cage. Whether he was going to make it into a nest or try to take it up to his hammock, I don’t know, as Harvard got it out of there as soon as he realized it was being gently yanked! He had a great propensity for chewing and successfully demolished every nice hammock he got. He was never a ground rat, and even on his last day, managed to get on top of his nearly shredded condo.

Fernando and Santi were very close—they did everything together. So, it was a terrible loss for Fernando when Santi died. Fernando had to “show” me where his brother was and didn’t want me taking him out of the cage.

After the loss of Santi, Fernando went into a deep depression. He refused to eat and I was certain he was going to die too. It was like he’d made up his mind that he didn’t want to live. He was sad and reserved and wanted out of his cage in the worst way. I ended up giving him a different cage, to hopefully give him a fresh start to help him forget Santi.

It seemed to help some, and extra attention from me helped too. He also seemed to appreciate moving closer to the other cage of rats, so he felt like he was with them. After his several days of not eating and getting steadily weaker, something changed. It was like he decided he wanted to live after all. In all the years I’ve had rats, nothing like that has ever happened. Once a rat makes up his mind that he is dying, there is next to nothing that can be done to change it. This time, I think God changed his mind for him—maybe to let me have my buddy for just a bit longer in this season of death.

He began to eat yogurt drops and a few pieces of puppy food. Yogurt drops were his staple food until he died, as nothing else appealed to him, for longer than a couple days. He loved the spoon the canned food was on more than the food itself. Just two days ago, he got that greedy look in his eye and refused to let me take the spoon back. I like to think he was enjoying seeing his handsome face in the metal but maybe he just wanted something to hide in his hammock.

Yesterday morning, I knew it was the end. I gave him a small green fleece blanket and tucked him into bed. I petted his coarse yet soft head and told him I loved him deeply.

When I came home last night, he was nearly gone. I gave him the hot water bag, and made him a plush bed on it. He looked so content as gentle heat began to warm his cool body. I rubbed his dear face, and he closed his eyes in pure contentment. He laid his head down and I petted him one last time, before turning off his lamp and telling him to go be with Jesus.

Early morning found him gone.

Fernando, you were a precious friend and I’ll always love you. Forever, you’ll be in my heart.

If I had to do the same again

I would, my friend, Fernando.

Farewell, Bestest Friend

DSCF0445

Just two short days ago, my bestest best friend left this place we call earth—a mixture of dirt, sky, and water. In the end, God will do the right thing, but my heart believes that the precious lives found in our pets go home to be with Jesus. That one day, it will be both Jesus and Harvard who meet me in Heaven.

Harvard lived an extraordinary life of 17 years, 3 months, and 10 days. He was the answer to all my childhood prayers: miracle, best friend, someone who understood and loved me deeply, the light of my life and joy of my heart.

In all my years, there have only been a handful of things that really, truly make my heart sing and he was one of them. It was always Harvard who waited for me to come home, and greeted me every, single time. It’s always been Harvard who “got” me. Always Harvard.

Harvard was the one who had my heart. And in many ways, he took much of it with him when he died. But he also left me with much of his heart in mine. Though he was “just a cat”, I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from him.

  • Live in the moment: Don’t wait for tomorrow to really start living.
  • Embrace simplicity: It’s never the extravagant, excitable things that make life sustainable long-term.
  • Love deeply: Give and receive love for the unspeakably precious gift it is.
  • Laugh: Whether dreaming or awake, find things that make you jump for joy.
  • Be grateful: Express your gratitude in your actions.

Friday, I lost my best friend. The face I knew better than my own is gone. The white stripes running down his ears will never be stroked again. Never again will I run my finger over his soot-colored spot by his left eye. There will be no more sorrows to share with him. No more stories to tell him. No more tears to fall on his shiny coat. No more soul-eyes to stare into.

The deepest things of life were reserved for him and Jesus alone. On earth, only he truly knew the greatest dreams of my heart, the deepest hurts, and the happiest moments of my days.

My apartment feels hollow now, and no amount of music can ever replace his voice. Every day of his life, he talked to me and I miss our conversations. It is truly a rare thing to have a cat converse as much as this one did—with the greater thing being that he “answered” questions with a well-placed response.

Harvard was always the better best friend…and it will be a very long time before I find a friendship that comes close to all he was for me. Only God really knows how much that cat held life together for me in the times when there was nothing to live for.

Jesus, I am unspeakably grateful to you for giving me the greater greatest gift in the better best friend. There are no words to adequately express my thankfulness to you for sustaining his life through all the heartbreak of just this past year alone.

Dearest Harvard, I miss you in the depths of my heart. I’ll always love you. It will always be your voice I hear in response, when I come home in the evening saying, “Honey, I’m home.” And one spectacular day I’ll come Home to stay and my heart will again be home with you.

Kristoph

By the time any one of you reads this, Kristoph will have left this world. Last particles of air pulled into tired lungs only to be gently released in a final sigh. The drumbeat of his intricately designed heart giving its last reverberation. Stilled forever. The beautiful breath of God that perfectly held his tiny body together for over three years coming to a dramatic climax and ending in a peaceful, silent conclusion.

A lot has happened in these three brief but full years. My very first, long, solo drive was a fourteen hour trip to Kalkaska, MI to retrieve him and his brother, Carlos. Those two rode back in the hood of my favorite sweatshirt. They experienced the joys of driving–when the car broke down along the interstate just a half-hour or so after picking them up. They also kept me company in the worst motel that night—when cell phone service was terrible, someone peeked in my window, the room was as cold as ice, and the only thing keeping us safe was God.

Just a couple short days after returning home with them, I left for a mission trip to one of the most picturesque places in the world—El Golfo, Mexico. I returned a different girl with a different life to live, big surrenders to Jesus, and a deep brokenness in my heart.

Just another couple handfuls of days later, I again left Kristoph for Atlanta, GA, for the Passion 2012 conference. It was in that arena that God began to do a major work in my heart and also started healing the wounds from a long-ago lived life. I came back but not the same. I did not belong in America anymore. This was not home.

There were many evenings spent in my blue Adirondack chair in front of the screen door, holding the boys and pouring out my heart to a God who heals the broken. We enjoyed the smell of freshly mowed grass, the heavy fragrance of rain in the clouds, and the occasional rainbow over the bare field. It was a place of healing waters for my soul and I had my “pocket buddies” to be companions for my thoughts and words.

Over the years, I continued to grow up and down time became less and less. Life gave way to more college, new jobs, new relationships, new churches, the death of Carlos, a couple moves, deaths of friends and a teacher, and a deeper darkness in my soul than I’d ever experienced before.

But through it all, I continued to come home to Kristoph and experience his deep peace in his ordinary life. He was happy to see me up to our final good-bye. My heart found a place to rest with him and I felt that life would go on, when I would take the time to just be and not always be doing.

Just a few days before Kristi’s last, I knew he was going to be leaving me. His eyes began to cry and stain his white face. His final day, he pushed his special food away and I knew that he knew. He did not want to do anything but be with me. His last evening, I held him and sang to him. We rocked in front of the big window, and watched the wind shake the wires in the evening light. The blow up snowman across the street nodded to us one more time, before decompressing into a crumpled pile on the ground.

Joseph and Harvard came over to sniff Kristoph. I tucked him into his little carrying pouch that Kat made for times like this and prayed over his fragile, small body. Tears falling on his face and dancing off his whiskers as I asked Jesus to take him home. I washed his face, rubbed behind his ears, and stroked the space between his eyes. He rested peacefully and seemed sweetly resigned to death coming for him. I cuddled him next to my face for the very last time, sang Chris Tomlin’s “Jesus Loves Me” to him one more time, and said my final good-bye to him.

Then, gently snuggling him in into his blue pouch, I put him on the water heating pad, and whispered to his dear dying face that I’d always love him more. More. Always more. But no matter how much I loved and love him, the greater honor was being loved deeply by him.

And with each little life, I again learn more about the importance of loving deeply, being present in life, the greater strength in letting go instead of hanging on, and dying well—dying with full confidence in Jesus and a huge trust in all that he has been and will be for me.

All will be well. Jesus died for me.

The terror of death was defeated by the spilled blood of a Savior. And forever overcome by a great risen and reigning King.

All will be well. Jesus loved me then. And loves me still.

Kristoph

Adios, Saint Kristopher.

In Every Season

All of my life

In every season

You are still God

I have a reason to sing

I have a reason to worship

“Desert Song” (Hillsong)

 

Yes. Gospel truth there. No matter what season we are in, God is still God. And we do have a reason to sing and worship Him.

This is not a season I am happy about or content with. My heart is crying after the absence of God. He is distant and far off. It is a struggle to maintain a relationship with someone this far away. Many evenings I want to just give up and give in to the doubts that are bigger than my shards of hope. I want to just believe the questions in my head and forget the facts in my heart. It’s easier.

But I have not been called to an easy life. Ugh. Far from it. This season is no different. In fact, it feels like a replay from about 3 ½ years ago when all of life fell in around me. That was a time when death and loss seemed to be as near as my breath on the cold window pane. Close enough to touch, close enough to feel.

The darkness in my soul screams for the light of Christ to break into the empty caverns and fill the hollow spaces. I am desperate to feel something—anything. Anything but this sorrow, fear, and loss.

Today marks the day that five months ago James went to be with Jesus. And today is 25 short days from when Stephen went to be with Jesus. One friend gone because of the darkness in another, and the other gone from the darkness in his own soul. Oh, God, where are You when our hopeless hearts decide we are done living, breathing, being here? Where are You, when we can’t see You anymore? Where are You when the deep darkness of our souls drowns us? Where, God, where?

I understand the darkness, the fear, the questions, the sorrow that weighs us down. But I wonder if the perceived absence of God isn’t far worse than all of these put together. Could it be that this very space in our lives is what causes us to try to end it all? When the great chasm in our lives is devoid of God, do we attempt to fill it with other things, relationships? And when the gaping hole still screams at us to fill it up with something, we can’t take it anymore and forever silence the cries in our head and the tears on our faces?

My heart is dying for Jesus to show up just in time to bring life from death in our souls. For the deepest aches to hear words of hope and salvation from our Savior King. For all the people whose cavern is missing something—Someone, to find Jesus the great Treasure that fits the hole and fills it up. Just in time.

And for all of us who are attempting to live our lives with this great felt absence of Jesus, I pray He shows up. Eventually. Just in time for us too. I hope that as we continue to live lives like He is present, He will again make an appearance. May we believe in the bottom of our hearts this promise from The Chronicles of Narnia, “When the King comes, he will set everything right again.” Though all around us whispers how gone Jesus is, my prayer for all of us is that we will hear the voice of Jesus who said He is with us for all time, will never leave us, and loves us with an everlasting love. That is reality compared to the felt perception that He has left us.

And, God, I hope we can be real. Real enough to get help, see hope, and live. Choose to be present in what feels like Your absence. Choose to love You through the questions and the darkness. Choose to live.