This is a piece written to address some fundamental issues related to bereavement, memory, and healing. I’m sharing this statement here to alert sensitive readers that this piece may contain triggers and urge you to read with care. My deep hope, however, in sharing my experience is that you may be helped to find framework, meaning, and healing for yours.
Grief is something all humanity holds in common as an element of the human condition. How we wrestle with it and are shaped by it, either to despair or hope, is what defines us.
Of all the pieces I’ve written over the years, this is one I have been most afraid of.
He was barely 15 when he died, shedding the “surely bonds of earth” like a set of outgrown clothes, slipping just like that into invisible expanse of immortality. He crossed over the threshold between worlds quietly. But not without tears. The tears linger with me still, his and mine both. Lying so still in the bed he was already too tall for at Children’s Hospital, life support tubes sucking out the brown oxidized blood from his stomach, wires attached in ways that I can no longer remember or visualize that kept his lungs rising and falling, kept his heart beating a little longer, Daniel was comatose. No broken bones, no jagged flesh, nothing physically displaced on the outside. All the damage done was inside him, veiled to our view. The rupturing was all internal.
He looked so perfect resting there. Except for the life support system.
He looked like he was sleeping and at any moment he would wake up. He would look at me. He would stir and heave his gangly body out of bed and maybe ask for something to eat. He would speak, and the universe would be put right again. The surreal horror of this would not be real.
The room was cold the way hospital rooms always seem to be. At some point in the hours that passed, the oxidized blood stopped appearing in the tubes pumping out his stomach. What I remember then is weeping. His weeping and mine. The tears ran down the sides of his face silent, constant. I sat beside him holding his hand, his long olive-skinned fingers limp in mine, feeling life ebbing over the edge of touch. I asked him for forgiveness and told him how sorry I was for how much I had failed to be the mother he needed. I told him how sorry I was for our last argument about his going to camp instead of coming to be with me for the summer. I told him how much, how deeply, desperately I loved him. The room was still except for my voice and our tears. Then, there was a tiny, nearly imperceptible movement of his little finger against mine. A faint, valiant, coming-from-the-depths response. Proof of hearing. Proof of tie. That tiny, ‘impossible’, half second of touch in a sterile hospital room has spanned 30 years of separation – 10,949 days ago as of this writing.
Gifted, brilliant, funny, handsome, beloved. As an asthmatic, this was Daniel’s first year to be cleared to go out for a school sport. He chose cross-country running. This was the last race of the season. Somewhere on the long course, removed from access to close help, something went wrong. More than an asthma attack, something ruptured something inside, triggered cardiac arrest, cut off oxygen to his brain. Before he was air lifted to the closest Children’s Hospital, he was really already beyond the aid of medicine.
He was named for the prophet Daniel. One of the last things he had written in his journal was,
“I am so in love with Jesus!”
Surely God’s tender heart would be moved to save such a boy! Surely, He would use His infinite power to demonstrate a miracle that only He could perform for His glory.
We prayed our hearts out by the hundreds in the prayer vigils across the country. We prayed for life, and we prayed for the Lord to heal him, and to save him. I prayed in ‘groans too deep for utterance’, something guttural, primal, begging the Lord to speak, to tell Daniel to ‘Rise, get up and walk’.
Contrary to all our prayers, the attending doctor told us that the brain scans showed all the parts of Daniel’s brain shutting down permanently. I remember the grief on the doctor’s face, and in his voice. I remember the finality in his description of looking at brain scans showing bursts of electrical charges followed by whole sections of the brain going dark, like city lights going out in entire grids. By mid-night Saturday night, the absence of Daniel’s spirit in the room was so distinct that even the medical staff who did not know him could feel it. Sunday morning, October 27, we had to declare him brain dead. Because we chose organ donation for him, he remained on life support hooked up to tubes and wires. I would never again be able to just hold him in my arms.
None of this is easy to remember, to talk about, or to write about. This part, however, is much, much harder. The darkest point of my life took place that night with me screaming silently in a janitor’s closet in the hospital. It haunts me still.
When he died, so did something in me. It wasn’t a choice I made. It is not something I made up to use as an excuse for yet another reason for why I am broken. It was something effected in me by something beyond me. I have never been able to mend it. I cannot go back to the woman I was as his mother before he died. I have been caught in that mystery from the moment in the hospital room when I felt the presence of the Angel of Death swing the severing sword of life. When Daniel’s life was severed from earth, something was severed in me too. In that place and that moment, I felt something in me divide like my interior being cut in half. Conscious for a few seconds before falling apart in two.
Mark of mercy
Did the Lord not listen or answer prayer? Does He not heal and save? Is He not merciful? Yes, He does and yes, He is. Yet, this is certain. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. The Lord did heal Daniel and save him, but not for us on earth. He did say ‘rise’, but not in his beloved flesh. How do I know? One of the extraordinary evidences of God’s fingerprints on this event was something given to us afterward. Tangible evidence of the intangible reality beyond our sight. A mark of mercy.
When he was 13 years old, for one of his eighth-grade writing assignments, Daniel wrote a short story titled, “The Race.” He never shared it with us, but his teacher kept it. After he died, she found it and gave it to us. This was at least 18 months before he went out for cross-country. It could only be described as prophetic. In the story Daniel described a cross-country race with three runners, the protagonist (the runner), another runner who was a helper, and a demonic presence who attacked them. He described in precise detail what took place the day he ran his last race. Cramps in stomach and diaphragm. Overwhelming pain. Gasping for air. Legs hardly moving. The pressing will to Win. Light fading to darkness. Blackness. Knowledge that the runner would die.
Then he wrote this,
“[The runner] stumbled. Fell. Was caught. He looked up weakly into the most amazing and beautiful face ever created in all time and before. A glowing, fiery, warm light shone from His face. So beautiful! His arms were strong and helped the runner up.
The runner looked at Him for a such a long time, locked onto the beauty and majesty. He looked around him. No more did he see blackness, but a paradise lit by a sunlight brighter than day. There was no sun in sight, for the light came from Him. A flow of life raced through the runner’s body from the strange man who had caught him.
Surely, He must be a King! The runner stood up, letting the wonderful glow spread through him. Then the two walked off into the distance of paradise, and they began to talk….”
He fell into the arms of the King, and they walked off into paradise, and they began to talk.
The need to know where our beloved go when they “slip the surely bonds of earth” is a universal need. We are standing in the face of mystery here. The passage of time itself is no guarantee of answers, any more than it assures the healing of all wounds. Anyone who has lived and observed long suffering knows this. There are somethings that cannot be answered from this side of mortality. But it does not stop the longing and ravenous need to answer the questions, “Where?” and the far more dangerous question, “Why?” To search for answers that we cannot comprehend wears the heart and soul ragged. A kind friend who was also a bereaved parent pointed me to these faithful words. When I met them, something in me (however small) began to rest in them.
Psalm 131.1-2 NIV
I stopped straining to grasp matters too wonder-full, too great for me. I stilled myself like a weaned child at her mother’s knee. I rest there still while I wait to grow into the understanding that is yet beyond me.
Whom have I in Heaven?
The comfort of the Bible does not always start with changed feelings or eased pain. Comfort begins with anchoring. It is nearly always a silent effect, a bracing, a breath of remembrance. It is a re-aligning and making straight the bentness of heart, soul, and thinking. It is a re-rooting.
I am not alone in this experience with Scripture. Others long, long before me wrote their wrestling prayers to the immortal, invisible God only wise. Their prayers, pleadings, and praise became what we know as the Psalms. I have spent much of my life in their company wrestling my own agonies through the voice of theirs. Their prayers have formed me, defined me, braced, strengthened, guided, and grounded me. I am a product of the Psalms.
David is a man I am not easy with and yet the God I love loves David and calls him a man after His own heart. I do not understand the reasons God says that but I acknowledge and honour that He does. And though I am uneasy with David, David’s wrestling has given words for me to cling to when I have had no words at all of hope or guidance. He was intimately familiar with anguish, fear, and despair. He could articulate their nuances. He could look them straight in the eye and call them by name. He could look them in their dragonish eyes, not look away, and yet also look God in the eyes. He could be wracked with fear, rage, desire, despair, sorrow and regardless of the ragged borders he dwelt on, his homeland was in God Most High – Elyon. David penned words I have clung to for forty years.
“[What, what would have become of me] had I not believed
to see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living!
Wait and hope for and expect the Lord; be brave and of good courage,
and let your heart be stout and enduring.
Yes, wait and hope for and expect the Lord.”
Unlike David, of the priest and prophet Asaph little is recorded, yet he wrote some of the most haunting words ever recorded in Scripture. At the end of my days, at the end of all my paths of uncertainty, bitterness, grief, and protest I come home to these words and find stillness here.
“Nevertheless I am continually with You; You do hold my right hand.
You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to honour and glory.
Whom have I in Heaven but You? And I have no delight or desire on earth beside You.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the rock and firm strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
For lo, those who are far from You shall perish; You will destroy all who are false to You
and like [spiritual] harlots depart from You.
But it is good for me to draw near to God;
I have put my trust in the Lord God and made Him my refuge that I may tell of all Your works.”
Does it heal me now, mend something broken beyond repair in me, suture an invisible rupture of my heart and soul, to write about this? That I cannot say. There are mysteries at work that I cannot comprehend. What I know is that I am irrevocably altered. As all the bereaved are, I am an amputee. What has been severed in me cannot grow back like the arm of a starfish. In this world I am unable to go back to who I was before he died. The girl-woman I was as Daniel’s mother died with him there in Children’s Hospital.
The extent to which I am mended has come not through the craft of reasoned words, mine or others. It has come almost entirely through the language of silence and the senses. It has come through other’s prayers and their companionship. No answer of reason can speak with any healing authority to the guttural anguish of loss. While reasoned knowing can provide a mental scaffolding, or a hard cast around a broken limb, reason itself does not heal. It only provides a framework for healing and reconstruction to be worked.
The mystery of healing is the mystery of resurrection itself, for all healing is a kind of resurrection of the soul.
If I found anchor and healing points along the way in any words, I found them not in rational arguments, but in the intermixing of prose and poetry. I found quiet for my soul in the consolation of beauty, Beauty made and given by God who speaks the mending language of Beauty as His native tongue. C.S. Lewis wrote these words in his novel, The Great Divorce, and I have carried them with me now for 30 years. They are, in fact, still framed in my house, and sit on my desk.
“both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective….
They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’
not knowing that Heaven once attained,
will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”
Triggers and dragon claws
The Dragon of Memory. It is not just a chapter title. It is a defining mark of reality. My reality certainly, but not mine only. Memory is a shared human reality, a guarded boundary line, sentineled by watchful dragons. These dragons do not sleep. These are our common enemies. Seductive as they are winsome and cruel, dragons deceive and by deceiving destroy. They are dragons after all and dragons kill.
Twist the memory and its tie to meaning, and you break the power of memory to redeem.
Memory is not simply the recall of facts. The faculty of the mind used for simple recollection of information is a different faculty. To remember is something else. A defining characteristic that we share with our Maker, memory is a process of imagination. Imagination is the capacity by which we find meaning. Memory is the synthesis events, places, senses, and relationships, and all that is attached to them. It is a powerful, powerful agency – the agency of remembering. Re-member. It is to reattach members one to another. It is an act of restoration when it is done in a framework of truth. To remember is to restore to wholeness. Our memories shape us in ways we rarely fully recognise, and it takes tremendous courage to claim them. Is it surprising that our memories would be stalked by dragons?
To return to these memories is not just to revisit a defining event in my life or a place of personal holy ground. It is to revisit the breaking ground and winnowing field. It is also ground staked and claimed for my redemption. Memory is given us not to haunt us with anguish and lurk in our minds as a field of landmines. The gift of it is meant for good. Memory in full bloom not only reframes our pasts, it guides us Home.
What do I exercise when I honour Daniel’s memory, when I “Hail, the victorious dead” and salute him who has preceded me into Paradise? What am I looking for here among these ruins of the once was and now is not? I am looking for more than answers. I am looking to be faithful. I am looking for truth to be told as near as I have courage to tell it. I am looking to stop my own running from the memory of irreconcilable loss, and ‘having done all’ to be able to stand. I am looking to be made whole and mended. I am looking to become something more than I have been.
I am looking to be a dragon slayer.
The dragon of memory is a title taken from an illustration Daniel did when he was 14. I’ve taken the title as a bread crumb to follow through the forest often shrouded in mist. This piece is dedicated with abiding love and gratitude to Regina and Pahtyana, and to my sweet parents who endured what seemed unendurable. You are among my greatest proofs that God is indeed good and trustworthy.
For more about this story in context of healing and calling, watch my closing presentation for the Imagination Redeemed 2020 Conference. The title of this talk is Recapturing Enchantment for a World in Twilight. The direct connection to The Dragon of Memory comes in at minute 22.
The featured image of Autumn Roses in Frost is by Julie Jablonski and used with her generous permission for Cultivating.
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.