No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. –C.S. Lewis
Last May 13th, I rode to the hospital in an ambulance with my grandfather, frightened by how frail he had looked as they loaded him in the back, and wondering if it might be his last day with us. It turned out to be what we knew as the beginning of a long end, and he passed away last August 13th after three grueling months of fighting and then about 30 seconds of letting go.
Exactly two weeks after Papa’s death, a precious friend got married and left for her new home a few states away. She is one of those friends who knows all of me and my story and still loves me, and trusts me to love all of her and her story, too. We walked alongside each other in ministry that was usually not easy. We prayed and rejoiced as God brought her a husband after His own heart, a new family, and a new ministry.
But then, both my grandfather and my friend were gone. Through the whole summer, I had known the losses were coming. I had shaken my head at how the joy and sorrow of life are mixed and inseparable as Papa moved toward Heaven and my friend moved toward her marriage. I had wept with my family in the moments surrounding Papa’s death. I danced and laughed and cried with my friends as we celebrated at the wedding. But then, they were both gone.
What happens to walking alongside, being Sam, when the ones I was walking alongside go where I can’t follow? Maybe not surprisingly, I found some answers from Sam himself. Along the way to Mordor, Frodo appears to have been killed. Sam comes upon Frodo’s body, and is undone.
“Don’t leave me here alone! It’s your Sam calling. Don’t go where I can’t follow…
“Then anger surged over him, and he ran about his master’s body in a rage, stabbing the air, and smiting the stones, and shouting challenges…
“And then black despair came down on him, and Sam bowed to the ground, and drew his grey hood over his head, and night came into his heart, and he knew no more.”
When I first went back to read that passage, I was undone. It so echoes what happened in my heart last summer and in these last six months. Fear and panic: I don’t know how to live in a world with no Papa in it. I’ve never not been a granddaughter. I say Papa is in Heaven. Is it really true? Is Heaven real? Is Jesus? Did I miss my friend’s heart before she left? Can we really still be knit together across states? Will we just drift apart? I can’t do this ministry alone. Anger, too: Why did You make Papa suffer so long? I asked You, others asked You, to shorten his suffering and You wouldn’t! And despair and emptiness, a dark numbness, that made the fall months in some ways a disorienting fog. Actually, I didn’t even realize how thick the fog was until it began to lift in January. I found myself like Sam again:
“When at last the blackness passed, Sam looked up and shadows were about him; but for how many minutes or hours the world had gone dragging on he could not tell. He was still in the same place, and still his master lay beside him dead. The mountains had not crumbled nor the earth fallen into ruin.
“’What shall I do, what shall I do?’ he said. ‘Did I come all this way with him for nothing?’”
There was the question piercing through the fog. Did I come all this way with (them) for nothing? Does loving God and people really mean anything? Is it worth the long ache of grief? What shall I do?
Today I find myself still in the same place, vaguely aware that the world has gone dragging on, no mountains crumbled or earth fallen away. Tears have come with these questions, and with the answers a gentle Lord whispers. “Yes, it means everything. Yes, I’m real. Yes, it’s worth it. Keep being Sam.”