STOOD ROOTED TO THE SPOT READING THE hall plaque again and again. A small granddaughter stood on each side of me, holding tightly to my hands. My heart fell into the too-familiar pattern of wrenching pain as I read the words again: “Bereavement Center.” Of all the ways I had pictured my life, this was never in the scene. My life was supposed to continue to be wonderful, filled with special times with kids and grandkids. Now here I stood with Ashley, just turned 7, and 3-year-old Kennedy. Their Mom, Dana, was out of town, so I was taking them to their counseling group meeting.
Our son—their father, Dana’s husband—had been killed in a snowmobile accident during a church outing just a little more than a year before. It was at the end of a beautiful Sabbath when a group of young adults went night riding. How many times had they done this in past years? How many times had we played with our granddaughters in the lodge at the Adventist youth camp waiting for them to come back? How many times had I prayed that God would keep them safe? But that night ended with my son, an expert rider, dead in the snow, while his precious wife held him and tried to breathe life back into him. When my husband, Dave, arrived at the scene, he and Dana could only hold each other while they held him, too, waiting for paramedics and later the sheriff to arrive.
I waited at the lodge with the girls for four hours until finally the news came back. Our son was dead, killed instantly when his body hit a tree. Those were the four longest hours of my life. Not knowing that he was already gone, I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. I asked God to do whatever was best for my son Bob. I told Him that He knew the quality of life Bob would want. I kept telling myself again and again, If the news is the worst, I can do this; my faith is good. I’ll be OK. But the moment I was told that my child had died, I knew I wasn’t OK. I’m not OK yet, and maybe I will never be totally OK again. When my son died, a part of my heart was broken, and it can’t be fixed until the resurrection morning.
The path of mourning has been longer and more painful than I had ever imagined it would be. In fact, I did not know a person could hurt this badly and still be alive. People recognized that I was hurting and later said, “I wanted to help, but I just didn’t know what to do.” Looking back, I know others did many things that did help our family through this difficult time. Most of them are simple. They are things all of us can do.
Just listen. During the long hours of waiting, my friend Carla never left my side. She talked when I needed her to talk, and was quiet when I needed her to be quiet. She didn’t try to distract me with chatter as some, in their anxiety, did. I didn’t want to be distracted. She made no promises. She never said, “I’m sure he’ll be all right.” She simply held me when my heart broke.
Listen some more. I needed to tell the story again and again. My friends must have come to know the details by heart, but still they listened to me tell it again and cried with me as though hearing it for the first time. They still listen when I need to talk. Part of healing is being able to process the trauma through the telling and retelling.
Let your feelings show. It helped so much to know that people cared about Bob and that they cared how our family felt. Some of our closest friends were overseas holding evangelistic meetings when they got the message. They could not come back in time for the funeral, but we cherished their words on the answering machine when we could hear Ron crying as he spoke. He told us that he was preaching about the resurrection the very night he got the news, and all he could talk about in the meeting was Bob and our hope in Jesus’ soon coming. Somehow that comforted us.
Contact the family in any way possible so they know you know. Every e-mail, card, and letter was read again and again—and saved. We read them all yet again on the first anniversary of Bob’s death. So leave messages on the answering machine. They will be played many times. Often it is easier to listen to a message than to have to respond in conversation. Every contact meant that someone cared.
Attend the funeral, if at all possible. I could not tell you exactly who was there, but seeing nearly 1,400 people sharing our grief told us that our son mattered and would be missed. It told us that his life had counted. It told us that people cared enough about us to share our sorrow. The family and friends who dropped everything and came to be with us gave us a priceless gift of caring.
Don’t expect every funeral to be a celebration of life. Yes, I have heard the words and said them too. And in many instances it is just that. When death comes at the end of a long and happy life, there can be celebration. But there is no celebration when you are burying your precious young son in the prime of his life, when you know that the tears in the eyes of your daughter-in-law are only a hint of how her heart feels. There is no celebration when his little girl, Ashley, then 5 years old, helps pick out the casket and asks to have “Jesus Loves Me” sung at the funeral because she says, “My daddy always sang that to me.” There is no celebration when Kennedy, then 2, looks for her daddy on every fire engine she sees because her daddy was a firefighter. There is no celebration when your older son tells you he wishes he could have died in place of his little brother so Bob could be there for his girls. Of course, we are glad for the years we had with Bob and we feel good about his relationship with God, but this mother cannot celebrate until God’s great waking-up morning. What a celebration that will be!
Don’t give pat answers. Many times I heard, “It must have been his time” or “His work must have been done.” And even, “God knows best.” I am confident that God did not do this. This is the work of the enemy. The truth is that we live in a world of sin, and the devil will do everything he can to hurt and harm us. We don’t always understand why God allows terrible things to happen, but the one thing we do know is that He loves us and will never leave us. He has promised His presence, and even when we are too numb to feel anything, He is holding our hand and walking with us. So just keep reminding me that we don’t have to understand, and that God cries with me and holds me.
Be there when needed. For instance, sit with us in church. The memories and then the tears come when you have attended church together with your loved one who died, and now there is an empty spot. Understand that if I do not sing, it is because I cannot sing without crying. I was glad for my friend Carolyn, who told me she could not sing for more than a year after her son died. That bit of knowledge helped me know my mourning was following a well-worn path. My friend Sue washed Bob’s jacket for us. We wanted it saved, but simply could not do that task. It hangs in her closet until we can emotionally face seeing it again. Sue and Jere also invited our entire family over for Sabbath dinner the week following the funeral, knowing it would be difficult for us to be home without Bob. They thoughtfully did not invite others, sensing we might need time alone to cry or sleep or talk. They have continued to invite us at times that might be especially difficult. I dreaded driving anywhere because I knew I would be replaying every detail of the whole experience. Tears came whenever I got into the car alone. All of us agreed driving was the most painful time. Offer to ride along or even drive me to work for a while.
Pray and let us know you are praying. Knowing that we were being remembered in prayer gave us strength when there was no strength. I don’t know why it helps to know, but I can tell you it does. We heard from church members and even conference workers throughout the world, and each message of prayer and love was held tightly to our hearts.
Understand that healing is a long process. Don’t expect too much from me. It seemed as if my mind would never be back to normal. I forgot things. I couldn’t remember names of people I knew well. I double-booked some speaking appointments. I had no energy. I couldn’t answer letters or e-mails. Sometimes even returning phone calls took too much effort. I cried unexpectedly. I needed lots of hugs. I couldn’t do even ordinary things, so it was helpful to have food brought to our home. Even though I couldn’t eat or even think about food and cooking, I needed to have something to offer those around me. It was very helpful to have food in nonreturnable containers because there was no energy left to deal with returning anything. A women’s group from one Oregon Adventist church drove several hours to deliver leis for the next Sabbath because they knew how much I loved leis—a small act of love that touched our hearts in our deep grief. I can’t remember if I wrote to thank them. Be forgiving if you do not get a thank-you note. We tried hard to get it all done, but in our grief we forgot things. Some of them were important. Just know that your thoughtfulness was appreciated.
Keep talking about the one who died. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” is definitely not true. In fact, Bob is on our minds much of the time. I need to know that you have not forgotten him either, that you still miss him too. One night we stopped to deliver cookies to the fire station where he worked. His buddies were laughing hard as we came in. They told us they were telling “Bob stories.” That helped us know he is still in their hearts. Holidays are especially hard because they are so full of family memories. Your reminders that you have thought of him too touch my heart. The years stretch ahead, and I will need to know these things forever. Even if I get teary, I still need to hear about him. Tears do not mean that I feel worse than I did, so do not be anxious about my tears.
Our older son, Scott, was always an early riser. As a toddler he would often come into our room to awaken us by whispering “Morning! Morning!” It was never “Good morning!” but just his abbreviated version. I would open my eyes to find his face inches from mine, breaking into smiles. Sometimes I would pretend to be still asleep just to hear once again that precious greeting, “Morning!” What an awakening!
The thought of the resurrection has always been precious. With each death of family and friends—Dad Allen, sister-in-law Beverly, friend Taylor (the list is too long)—I hold the promises closer to my heart. Now my son is on that list, and I find that I look for another awakening with untold longing. Soon God’s precious voice will be heard, “Morning! Morning!” On that day my mourning will truly turn into morning. Then celebration will begin. What an awakening!
“Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”
Before she retired, Ginny Allen was a high school nurse and health educator in Portland, Oregon. She continues to work for the Multnomah Education Service District as a member of the health screening teams for schools. She and her husband, David, live across the river from Portland in Vancouver, Washington.