It's gone. I could see the yellow-spoked wheel of the spare tire, perched on the back of a 1934 Plymouth, disappear over the hilltop. The car in which I might have gotten a ride home from elementary school on this rainy day had gone and I was left behind.
"It's gone." The trainman stood at the only lighted gate in Penn Station. The train had gone, leaving me behind to figure out how on earth I was to make a speaking engagement on Long Island in an hour and a half.
We've all experienced the desolation of being left in one way or another. And sooner or later many of us experience the greatest desolation of all: he's gone. The one who made life what it was for us--who was, in fact, our life.
And we were not ready. Not really prepared at all. We felt, when the fact stared us in the face, "No. Not yet." For however bravely we may have looked at the possibilities (if we had any warning at all), however calmly we may have talked about them with the one who was about to die (and I had a chance to talk about the high risks with my first husband, and about the human hopelessness of the situation with my second), we are caught short. If we had another week, perhaps, to brace ourselves... a few more days to say what we wanted to say, to do or undo some things, wouldn't it have been better, easier?
But silent, swift, and implacable the Scythe has swept by, and he is gone, and we are left. We stand bewildered on the sidewalk, on the station platform. Yet, most strangely, that stunning snatching away has changed nothing very much. There is the sunlight lying in patches on the familiar carpet just as it did yesterday. The same dishes stand in the rack to be put away as usual, his razor and comb are on the shelf, his shoes in the closet (O the shoes Molded in the always recognizable shape of his feet). The mail comes, the phone rings, Wednesday gives way to Thursday and this week to next week, and you have to keep getting up in the morning ("Life must go on, I forget just why," wrote Edna St. Vincent Millay) and combing your hair (for whom, now?), eating breakfast (remember to get out only one egg now, not three), making the bed (who cares?). You have to meet people who most fervently wish they could pass by on the other side so as not to have to think of something to say. You have to be understanding with their attempts to be understanding, and when they nervously try to steer you away from the one topic you want so desperately to talk about you have to allow yourself to be steered away--for their sakes. You resist the temptation, when they say he's "passed away," to say "No, he's dead, you know."
After a few months you've learned those initial lessons. You begin to say "I" instead of "we" and people have sent their cards and flowers and said the things they ought to say and their lives are going on and so, astonishingly, is yours and you've "adjusted" to some of the differences--as if that little mechanical word, a mere tinkering with your routines and emotions, covers the ascent from the pit.
I speak of the "ascent." I am convinced that every death, of whatever kind, through which we are called to go must lead to a resurrection. This is the core of Christian faith. Death is the end of every life and leads to resurrection, the beginning of every new one. It is a progression, a proper progression, the way things were meant to be, the necessary means of ongoing life. It is supremely important that every bereaved person be helped to see this. The death of the beloved was the beloved's own death, "a very private personal matter," Gert Behanna says, "and nobody should ever dare to try to get in on the act." But the death of the beloved is also the lover's death, for it means, in a different but perhaps equally fearsome way, a going through the Valley of the Shadow.
I can think of six simple things that have helped me through this valley and that help me now.
First, I try to be still and know that He is God. That advice comes from Psalm 46, which begins by describing the sort of trouble from which God is our refuge--the earth's changing, or "giving way" as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, the mountains shaking, the waters roaring and foaming, nations raging, kingdoms tottering, the earth melting. None of these cataclysms seem an exaggeration of what happens when somebody dies. The things that seemed most dependable have given way altogether. The whole world has a different look and you find it hard to get your bearings. Shadows can be very confusing. But in both psalms we are reminded of one rock-solid fact that nothing can change: Thou art with me. The Lord of Hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. We feel that we are alone, yet we are not alone. Not for one moment has He left us alone. He is the one who has "wrought desolations," to be sure. He makes wars cease, breaks bows, shatters spears, burns chariots (breaks hearts, shatters lives?), but in the midst of all this hullabaloo we are commanded, "Be still." Be still and know.
Stillness is something the bereaved may feel they have entirely too much of. But if they will use that stillness to take a long look at Christ, to listen attentively to His voice, they will get their bearings.
There are several ways of looking and listening that help us avoid being dangerously at the mercy of our (heaven forfend ) "gut-level" feelings. Bible reading and prayer are the obvious ones. Taking yourself by the scruff of the neck and setting aside a definite time in a definite place for deliberately looking at what God has said and listening to what He may have to say to you today is a good exercise. And if such exercises are seen as obligations, they have the same power that other obligations--cooking a meal, cleaning a bathroom, vacuuming a rug--have to save us from ourselves.
Another means of grace is repeating the creed. Here is a list of o