The tip of the morning sun touched the horizon, sending forth stunning rays of orange, pink, and purple to color the skies above me. I slowly awakened from my deep sleep to the picturesque scene. Birds sang their songs of the dawn as they welcomed this new day with joy. But as I lay there, I only felt the familiar ache that had greeted me in my first moments of every day for the last seven years.
There is something about the raw awakening of a soul in the morning that has the ability to draw out the deepest griefs of the heart. For the last seven years now, this same pain had been mine to bear. It was a ritual I had come to both dread and embrace; it was my walk of grief.
I rolled closer to the warm embers that burned next to me, slowly, ominously. I examined their dark red glow. Heated to their core, those embers would continue to smolder, charged by the energy created from deep within. They were not much different from the sinister burn of grief and anger that I felt in my heart.
As I had done every morning for the last seven years, I rehearsed in my mind the events of that dreadful day, the day I lost my son. Memories have a way of becoming fuzzy on certain details over time, but those memories, the ones of his death, were burned in my mind forever. They would never become fuzzy, though part of me wished I could wipe that day entirely from my memory, or even from history. The familiar ache, the longing to hold him just once more in my arms, seized my body with the full and assaulting weight of grief. My empty arms were limp at my side. They should have been filled with the warmth of my son, but for seven years, now, they had been empty.
Had it really been seven years?
“My son,” my hoarse voice croaked. Nothing compares to the loss of a child, the death of a dream. I reached into my bag, searching to the bottom and pulling out his fabric. It was a portion of his blanket, the favorite blanket he had carried with him everywhere. I smelled deeply of the soft cotton, but instead of filling with the sweet scent of his skin, my nostrils filled with many other odors this blanket had collected after seven years of absence from its owner. I released my breath, exasperated, and allowed a few rebellious tears to fall into the fabric, mourning all over again the knowledge that it no longer held his scent.
I let out a groan of pain as I set the blanket down. My empty stomach rumbled audibly, signaling for me to rise and start a fire. Although I could hear the grumbling of my stomach, I did not feel the hunger I knew was there. My grief often usurped my desire to eat. Pulling out my supplies, I prepared coffee over the fire and munched on a piece of cold, hard bread. I chewed furiously on the bread as I remembered those hollow days that followed his death. Emptiness, numbness. And then I had fled, unable to continue on in the normalcy of my life at home. I had fled, with nowhere to go and nothing in particular to see, but with everything to escape. It was the reason for my many travels; I had become a ship lost at sea.
I washed the bread down with scalding sips of coffee, but I hardly noticed the burning liquid. I didn’t think the summit was too much further from my resting place, so after a while, I began to gather my supplies to continue hiking. The fire had died down at this point, but I made sure to cover those smoldering embers with dirt, dousing their oxygen-induced heat. I repacked my bag, folding the precious section of my son’s blanket and sticking it in my pocket. Then, I set off on the trail once more.
Usually, I could manage some semblance of denial as the day progressed, ignoring the crushing pain of loss that threatened to consume me. But for some reason, being on this particular journey alone allowed the remnants of my earlier grief to stay with me as I hiked. I thought some more on the day my son left me forever, causing my heart to race.
A moment of distraction was all it had taken, and in an instant, he was gone, swallowed completely by the water beneath our boat. Rage filled me, and I felt helpless from the memories, just as I had been helpless that day. “Why, God, why?” I said out loud, knowing the question would go unanswered, just as it always did. I trudged on at an unnecessarily urgent pace, putting all of my furious energy into my hike.
Until the day I died, I would never understand why God had taken my son from me. “He was so young, so innocent!" I continued. "He was robbed of a promising life; he had so much to offer others. Yet, God, You took him. Why? Why did You allow my son to die?!” My eyes blurred from the flood of tears that pressed harder and harder against my strong will, daring to make their escape. I slipped my hand into my pocket, pulling out that tiny section of his blanket, and I clenched my fist around it. I hiked further still, blinded by my tears but continuing to put one foot in front of the other.
“Where were You that day?” I called, raising my voice as I hiked alone in the wilderness. “You left me! You say You are with me always, but where were You when I needed You most?”
Giant, tearless sobs suddenly seized my body as I shook the fisted blanket in the air. “How dare You, God!" I yelled, finally releasing the grief of my heart. “How dare You say You love me, that You understand my pain. You ignored me that day when I called to You so desperately. You abandoned me; You abandoned my son!”
And finally, I wept. I fell to my knees, covering my face with the portion of my son’s blanket. My knees struck the ground with such force, but the sudden, sharp pain was nothing compared to the blinding pain in my heart. I clenched my eyes shut as I cried, falling face-first onto the ground. Falling, falling, I remembered the water, rushing around me. I dove in for my son, calling for him, feeling in the water and thrashing about, hoping to grab even a piece of his clothes.
Where was he? He had only just disappeared! I had heard the splash, seen the ripples in the water, and I had dived in instantly. How could I not have found him? How had he dropped so quickly into the depths, that I could not retrieve him now?
“My son, my son, where are you?” I cried as I curled into a ball on the trail, my body wracked by the waves of grief that continued to strike me. And still I was falling, falling, deeper and deeper as I searched my memories, searched the waters. I held my breath, but how much longer before these waters claimed my life, too? I couldn’t breathe, not before I found my son! But at last, my instinctual human drive for survival had won out, and I resurfaced from the depths, gasping for air, spewing water from my lungs. Empty-handed. I searched and searched the waters that day, long past the possibilities of my son surviving, but I couldn’t surrender, not until the setting sun forced my hand.
I cried and cried, dizzy from the memories. My body still felt the waves of the water pushing me, pulling me, disorienting me, and as I lay on the trail, I felt disoriented once more. Exhausted from my weeping, I eventually surrendered. The waves of my memories eventually stopped wracking my body, and I felt as if the trail was still once more. At some point my crying blended into a deep sleep of grief.
How much time passed between my weeping and my waking? I am not sure. But eventually, I awakened, my eyes puffy from crying. I reached up to rub them, and I felt the soft cloth of my son’s blanket, still in my hand as it touched my face. I sat up, blinking in the sunlight that assaulted my bleary eyes. I still felt disoriented, but I knew I needed to continue on with my hike.
Yet as my eyes began to clear and I was able to focus, I found that I was no longer on the trail. Confused, I looked in front of me, taking in the scene. How have I arrived here? I thought. I had not finished my hike at the time of my weeping, yet now, somehow, I was at the summit. Did I hike in my sleep? I wondered.
I sat there for a while, unmoving, as I took in the stunning view. The ache in my heart remained, but my physical body was too drained to react anymore to the grief I felt.
At last, I spoke, weary of the empty feeling inside my heart. “Father, are You there?”
As the breeze gently brushed my skin, He whispered, “I am here, My child.”
I contemplated His words. “But You are so silent!” I said, the sting of loneliness fresh on my mind.
“Beloved, I have been with you through it all.”
His words caused me to wrench in pain. How could it really be true? “I do not understand, Lord. I cannot comprehend that.” The nagging question in my heart needed to be asked. “Father, I felt so abandoned that day he died. Where were You then?”
“I was with you, precious one, every moment. I wept with you on that day.”
“But You did nothing,” I said with exasperation, my words betraying the bitter heartache I felt.
“I am always doing something. You will not always understand My ways in this broken world, but you can always trust My goodness,” He replied. I considered His response, thought on its meaning.
“And earlier today, then? Were You at work even as I wept?” I did not mean to sound harsh, but I needed to speak truthfully. “I have grieved now for seven years. Seven years! Yet You have never taken away the heartache; You have never relieved my suffering, my despair!” I cradled my son’s blanket in my arms, thought on my loneliness, thought of my loss. No one understood the hopelessness I felt over his death.
“My child, who do you think carried you to the summit while you wept?”
The power of His words struck my heart so forcefully, I felt as if the wind itself might knock me over. I looked to the ground and noticed a towering shadow that stretched from behind me. I turned around, and there before me was the cross.
Only the sound of my sandaled feet crunching on the ground reached my ears as I approached the barren cross, rugged, splintered, and worn by the weather.
“I understand your loss, beloved,” the Father said, knowing my thoughts and speaking to the loneliness that had haunted me for so long. I looked up at the cross. I knew He understood.
“Father,” I managed, slowly dropping to my knees, trembling. Weary, wounded, I lay prostrate before the cross, and I worshipped.
As time passed, I knew the broken places of my heart were mending. “I’ll never understand it all, Lord,” I confessed. But as I worshipped at the cross, I surrendered my quest to understand. I remembered the great sacrifice He had given, recognized the incomparable effort He had made to redeem humanity. Perhaps I did not need to know everything to still trust His goodness. After all, there was always the cross. Who could understand God sacrificing His very Son for a people that continued to rebel against Him, spitting in His face in response to His relentless grace?
After a while, the Lord spoke again. “I know you suffer on this earth. You will suffer in this life, child, but in Me, your suffering is redeemed.” I pulled up to my knees and looked at the blanket in my hands. He continued, “Your great heartache on this earth finds meaning in Me. ‘Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, and you are Mine.’” (Is. 43:19).
And as He spoke, the dead parts of my heart came to life again. I looked to that empty cross, knowing that His grave was also empty, and peace surged within me. I had for so long lived in the memories of my loss that I forgot the promise of my future because of Jesus. The pain of this life was not entirely erased, but a new thing took root within me once more. Hope.
“‘Beloved, when you passed through the waters, I was with you.’” The memory of the water came rushing to my mind. The searching, the tossing and tumbling. But I suddenly knew that I had not been alone the day my son died. He had been with me; I had never been alone. The Lord continued, “O weary traveler, ‘when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God. You are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you. Fear not, for I am with you’” (Is. 43:1-5).
And as He spoke, strength returned to my body. I stood to my feet, and I raised my hands in worship. “I believe You, Lord. I trust Your Word.”
“In time you will see all things redeemed. I gave My life that you might find true life, life that will not end.” I raised my hands in worship and surrender as He said, “This, my child, is an act of love.”
Moved by the Spirit, I approached the cross, and there on the ground lay a hammer and nails. I bent to retrieve them, and on that day I nailed my son’s blanket to the cross. With each drive of the hammer, I nailed with his blanket my great heartache. I stayed at the cross for hours that day, enjoying sweet intimacy with my Lord. Yet I could not stay there forever, and at last, the time came for me to begin my descent.