On a languid evening in late summer the boys were in bed, and my wife and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV and talking. The air outside, even at that hour, was still holding its heat and humidity like a personal grudge. Our conversation (about what, I couldn’t say) had trailed off and I was halfway through reading something on my phone when my wife sniffed. I looked up and saw tears on her cheeks. The sticky summer heat disappeared and we were taken back to the front porch in January snow, lost in sudden grief.
On that Sunday afternoon months before, the kids were both napping. I was hoping the snow would accumulate enough to play in. But, taking a call on the porch so as not to wake the kids, my wife learned that her mother had died suddenly. I got a last-minute plane ticket to Mississippi over the phone, asked a neighbor to sit in our living room, and rushed her to the airport. The kids were still asleep when I got home.
My wife’s mom, her omma, had called our oldest son the peacemaker because he brought a reunion after a season of estrangement. My wife and I thought that at the right age her omma would come live with us and the peace might grow deeper. In the span of one nap, my wife lost this imagined future and was set on the hard road of grief.
More pressing to me than the loss of my mother-in-law, whom I’d scarcely gotten to know, was seeing my wife go into a dark place and wanting to rescue her from it. But such a so-called rescue is fraught with danger. I’ve had to learn to stumble down a far less “heroic” path, one echoed in the poem “To Know the Dark” by Wendell Berry.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight …
That week in January was a blurry pastiche of funeral planning in Kentucky, talking to hospitals and estate attorneys in Mississippi, arranging transport, and figuring out where to put all of my mother-in-law’s belongings until anyone was emotionally ready to even look at them. Under it all flowed a steadily building current of sorrow as more and more of the loss trickled through the busyness. Telling our oldest why mama had been gone for three days and came home looking so sad. Watching his heart break. Of course, there were moments of mercy as well. My wife and I met our month-old niece for the first time at the funeral.
I got a last-minute plane ticket to Mississippi over the phone, asked a neighbor to sit in our living room, and rushed her to the airport.
But then the funeral was done and the life after it had to begin. In the weeks that unfolded, I watched and worried as my wife’s sorrow billowed. I tried not to panic when her faith actually seemed to make the pain worse as she tried to reconcile her belief in a good God with her omma’s suffering. Her omma came to the United States from Korea after marrying an American serviceman. That serviceman died driving drunk and left her to raise two children as an immigrant and a widow. In the midst of a life of struggle, she died suddenly, alone, and far from all of her family. She was 58.
My natural inclination was to find the right answers to put my wife’s questions to rest, but my gut warned me against this. While they masquerade as the desire to ease her pain, of course answers are more about easing mine. A means of pulling her out of the dark without getting my hands dirty. Being present is being vulnerable. Enduring the questions that she endures, bearing the temptations to doubt. Having answers is an attempt at invulnerability that only seals our loved ones behind a wall of “truth” to suffer alone. The hunger for consolation must take us through darkness first.
By a long-seeing mercy, the best counsel for walking through grief came right at the outset. Before the funeral I spoke with one of our pastors about the questions that were already beginning to swirl. Pastor Chad said, “We can’t know how God might have worked in the end.”
The depth of wisdom in these words has steadily grown apparent to me. He was giving me permission to lack the answers for my wife. He was helping me, instead, to take hold of a mystery. God moves unseen. In the dark.
In the weeks that unfolded, I watched and worried as my wife’s sorrow billowed.
Sometimes, the worst thing to offer a grieving heart is an answer. If someone has been sitting in the dark, the most painful thing to see is a blazing light. Our eyes need time to adjust (and in that way, what a mercy that God makes the sun rise slowly each dawn). The thought of joining someone in the dark—going without sight, without answers—can seem truly frightening. But, love demands courage. Even the sharpest mind cannot heal the heart. Neither can our presence, I suppose, because healing the heart is a thoroughly mysterious process in the hands of our invisible, inexorable God. But, our presence can make it less lonely as we wait together for the sun to come up. We may even find that God is present in ways we would never know about otherwise. Even in the dark.
For a while I had to sit with my wife in the dark every day. In a way, that was the easy part. Like jumping into a cold pool, once you’re in you’re in. The real challenge came as that first emotional storm spun itself out and life drifted back to normal. The pop-up squalls, those are hard. Those are the moments when my personal comfort rears its bleary head and I am sorely tempted to reach for silencing answers. But I remember these words from Diane Langberg, a trauma counselor: “The length of the grieving is determined by the griever—not by how long you, as comforter, can stand to be sad.” My wife still carries grief inside of her even when it’s hidden from the world. It’s precisely because I love her that I cannot speed her through it.
That summer evening on the couch, I turned to face my wife and set aside the dread at joining her in the dark. As we began to talk, I realized I was sitting there with my phone still glowing in my hand, a ready escape the moment it looked as if she was “finished.” Then a still, small voice urged me to go dark, even literally, and I blacked the screen. There are parts of her grief that will never be consoled in this life, but we’re waiting on the sun together.