Can I Let Go of Sadness?

At first I really didn’t want anyone to know.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. I wanted my wife to know, but only so that she would fell less alone in her pain. But otherwise I didn’t want anyone to know.

But as I think back on that time, I have to admit that wasn’t accurate either. I didn’t mind if other people knew about the sadness. I just didn’t want them to talk about it, and even more I didn’t want them to make me talk about it.

Unlike most stories on this blog, this story is as true as I can make it, and you are free to use it in any way that will be helpful.

It was just a depressing time. A couple of weeks before, I had been watching Hurricane Ivan approach. My wife and I have a simple rule. If there’s a storm above category 1 approaching the coast near enough, we’re out of here. But our son James was in the last few weeks or even days of his life, and we couldn’t move him far enough to get away from the storm. I tried to discuss it with my wife, but she just told me she couldn’t handle one more decision. “Just tell me what we’re going to do,” she said. So I worried (a lot) and prayed (a little)–how often that’s the case when we most need the opposite!–and decided we’d go to a friend’s place that was much more hurricane-ready than ours.

After the storm we’d seen the devastation around the area. But our house was still there and even had power–partially. James wanted to be back in his house, so we moved back. Struggling with the limitations left by the storm didn’t help at all.

But James was able to be in his own house when God called him home. It is now going on 9 years, and just typing that sentence still brings tears to my eyes. I’m sitting in the same room, in reach of the place where his hospital bed was located. I can see him now.

I’ve had people tell me that it can’t be as bad for me, because James is my stepson. I hope they’re wrong. If it gets harder than this, I don’t want to experience it. I don’t even want to know about it.

For days I would regularly hear his voice somewhere else in the house, clearly enough that I would get up to go to where he was, only to suffer the shock of finding he wasn’t actually there. While I haven’t heard that voice for some time, I can still picture everything. I see the bed. I see James. I see his little dog Barnabas under the bed waiting and watching. After James died we thought we’d lose Barnabas as well. But after about two weeks, he decided he’d make do with Grandpa. I wasn’t James, but I took him for his walkies. But there would still be those moments. I’d usually walk Barnabas in the morning and as James went to school, he’d stop the car and greet his dog. For as long as Barnabas lived, he would stop on those walks and look at any cars that passed by, waiting for the right one.

I had to learn to talk about it. It wasn’t just for me. Jody and I found that when we taught about just about anything, if the subject of bereavement and loss came up at all it would take over the conversation. There were so many people suffering and wondering why. They wondered if there was something wrong with them. Shouldn’t they be joyful as Christians? But still the sadness is there.

And so I’d talk about it. How does it work? My wife and I experience this grief differently. For her, it’s Christmas, James’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death that bring back the memories. For me, I remember mostly the day in June when I called his doctor and got the results of a set of tests. They said that the cancer was back–again. James had extracted a promise that I would call him as soon as I got word, no matter what. I should confess here that he was definitely more courageous that I am, and less willing to tell himself a happy story in order to avoid the reality. Then I had the task of telling Jody. She was on a mission trip and out of reach by phone. My only option was to send an e-mail, and then spend the hours waiting for her to get it (via an unreliable dial-up connection), knowing what kind of devastation it would wreak when it arrived. June is just a bad month for me, every year.

It’s a depressing story, isn’t it? It’s also as true as I can tell it, every word.

But it isn’t the whole story. I want you to know that I don’t have a bunch of answers. I can’t tell you why James died, except for the basic science. That’s what cancer does. I don’t have a list of wonderful things that will make it OK. Oh, I do have a list of wonderful things that he accomplished in his life, and even things that were accomplished by his death. But they don’t make it OK. None of those things make me feel repaid in some way for the fact that I never got to see him march in a college marching band, or get married and raise a family, or become a professional musician.

It’s not that I can explain why. But I can say this: God is with me. God is with us. There are things we cannot understand, things we probably will never understand, but we do have hope, and we can have joy.

For every one of those times when I sit here with tears in my eyes thinking about the loss, there are many more when I remember James with joy, and celebrate him in my heart. I remember the day he’d just gotten his learner’s permit. We were headed to Panama City, Florida, a bit over a hundred miles. Jody had explained to me that it was my job to teach James to drive. She couldn’t handle the teaching. As soon as he knew he’d have his permit, he started talking to me about driving. By the time we were backing out of the driveway, he’d concluded he would just drive the first few miles. As those miles passed, he thought he could drive to the interstate. Was that OK with me? It was. We got to the ramp, and he thought he’d just try getting on the interstate. (In case you’re wondering, he was very good behind the wheel. I had high expectations and he exceeded them.) Once we were on the interstate and had gone a few miles, he figured he’d be OK until we got off the interstate again. Driving in a strange city, he told me, would probably be going too far. But then we got off the interstate and it didn’t seem so bad. He didn’t get out from behind the wheel until we were parked in our friends’ driveway.

Then there was the fact that no surface anywhere was safe. If he had drumsticks, he’d be beating rhythms with them. If there were no sticks, hands would do. You always knew you had a drummer in the house. If you suggested he should stop, he’d look shocked that anyone could mind the sound of a bit of rhythm.

I don’t think it’s a matter of letting go of the sadness. I think it’s right for me to feel loss when I remember James. He’s in a better place, but I miss him. I’m going to continue to miss him. There are the moments when the loss is as strong as the original moment.

But so is the presence, so are the memories, and so is God.

I can be sad, but also joyful. I can feel loss, but also gain. I’m in much less danger of forgetting that I’m a pilgrim and a stranger in this land, waiting for my true home.

As Christians, we don’t need to forget. We don’t need to deny. We need to keep everything in perspective. Consider the incarnation. Jesus is fully human. He experienced our sorrows and suffering. But Jesus is also fully divine, capable of lifting us above. We can’t forget either one. We can’t let one take over for the other (Hebrews 2:9-18, 4:14-16, 7:26-28).

We don’t need to deny. We don’t need to forget. But we also don’t have to let the sadness rule our lives. We have the means of living with and living through.

We can rejoice!

(This story was written for and submitted to the one word at a time blog carnival – sadness.)

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  1. Thank you for sharing from the heart, Henry. God was so good to give you a son to enjoy though the time was brief but we will be able to enjoy our special relationships in the Kingdom. My greatest prayer for everyone is just “be there” through salvation. I am sure your witness will minister to many in grief. In His love. Judy M

  2. There is Sadness and there is sadness in grief. There is a difference. We know our loved one is in a better place, but there is always the memories that flood our mind including the “why” questions. To lose a loved one who has passed their lenght of alloted days, is one thing but to lose a young person is unthinkable and the sadness is there and understandable.
    Your SON was as much a part of you as would be your blood child. Our foster daughter is there too for us in many ways our child.

  3. Your transparency is beautiful. I have never had such a tragic loss, but I’m sure that those who have and who read this were very much helped. Thank you for risking this expression of dealing with grief so honestly and with godly faith. Bless your heart and Jody’s, too.

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