My prior post was in celebration of the anniversary of my wife and myself. But there is another anniversary that also occurs for me, my friends, and my family during this week. But let me backtrack. Two years ago, perhaps two or three weeks earlier than this date, my son and I dropped our dear friend A off at the airport. A was a particularly close friend of our family, living as she did next door and often sharing family life with us, and so my son, then three years old, knew her well. When we dropped her off, and she began to go through Customs, my son was worried and wanted to follow her through. I reassured him that it would be okay, and that A would be back in a few weeks. But a few weeks later we learned that A, ten minutes away from her friend’s wedding, drove into a water-filled ditch by the road and drowned. My words had been lies. Things would not be okay.
It is two years today since she died, and I still don’t really know what to say. Yes, one goes on with life and gets by the best one can, and yes, our very makeup ensures that we are not going through the initial shock of grieving perpetually, but – she is not here. And if there is one thing I have learned, it is that neither answers nor even lack of answers (the much appreciated “mystery” valued in emergent circles) is enough. It is not these I want. There was in her – as there is in every of God’s children – what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls haecceitas, a “thisness,” a particularity that was her. I do not long for answers. I look with longing for the resurrection of the dead, the resurrection of the particularity that was her.
It also seems to me that grief is a mess, plain and simple. My own manner of grieving – after the initial shock – is silence, and this I imagine can be very disconcerting to those who mourn by speaking voluminously. Part of the process for me in fact has been learning to show grace to those who mourn in ways not as silent and not as tactful as myself. But my silence also makes me a horrible comforter, and very bad at extending empathy to others regarding her. There have been many a time when I have wished myself capable of some small gesture of help or comfort – the kinds of gestures by which practical people can be helpful – and I am paralyzed. I am paralyzed because anything I can think of doing seems so small and so insignificant in relation to the one who was lost. In my more rational moments I realize it is by very small things like these – by enacting the grace of Hobbits – that we get through both life and mourning; in fact this was one of the most important things I learned from A, who was stubbornly practical in the way she would hunt people down and help them. But I am so very often paralyzed, particularly when it comes to helping others of her friends and family who are mourning – what I can offer feels less than nothing.
And then there is all the “stuff” that comes with it. I really don’t want to be angry with God. Philosophically and theologically speaking, I don’t think I have good grounds (and I don’t say this flippantly – I have spent the last twelve years of my academic career researching, among other things, the theological problem of evil, and still longer thinking about it). But there is so often a difference between what we want and what we are. Emotionally speaking, when I am not raging Job-like, it is because I have abandoned my emotions as a lost cause, something doomed and waiting for the fix of heaven. No, it is not ideal. But neither was her death.
And as I consider concluding this, I am still not sure what to say. Part of me wants to wrap it up nicely and bring everything to a hopeful close; part of everyone longs for that because of the eschatological desire placed in them by God, and this longing, if not dealt with in patient prayer, makes us liars, as I was to my son – we make up answers because we are not willing to wait for the answer we were designed for. And then there is the part of me that just wants to end with tragedy and loose ends. The honesty of it is appealing. But this too can be a dodge. Because not only does death cast uncertainty on the things and people in life we take for granted; it also casts certainty on the things and people that do and did matter. I am more certain, perhaps even than I was at the time, of the way that our time with A taught us about real meaning in life – not the abstract, theoretical intangible kind, but the concrete kind that exists when you regularly share meals with someone. And so I find myself not only thrown by the uncertainty of life, but also, in an odd way, by the uncertainty of death. Life – her life – was too real (difficult though it often was for her), too tangible for death to be the final word. Some I imagine will take this as just a sop for my wishful thinking, but I think there is a little more to it. There is a reason that, in the Christian tradition, Job is considered one of the first prophets to proclaim the resurrection. Our lives are either meaningless or clues pointing to something else, something higher, and hers was the latter – something I cannot of course here prove but something that her friends and family will understand. In one of his sonnets, John Donne triumphantly proclaims, “Death, thou shalt die.” At the moment I cannot be quite so cocksure – whether it dies or not, it’s still pretty bloody awful to experience right now. But if I cannot at the moment say this with such great boldness, A lived Donne’s words. She knew much of death, and kept loving – and that, I think, is a legacy worth coveting.