When Sheila died in 1980, I discovered that I was one who neither enjoyed nor desired to visit graves.
For me visiting the grave was not very comforting. In fact, it was the opposite. The graveyard seemed too permanent. It contained too many granite stones which testified to both the pervasiveness and intransience of death. I didn’t like it and never found consolation there.
What I have discovered this year, however, is that there was something deeper going on inside of me that prevented their “resting places” from providing the kind of solace that it seems to provide others. My avoidance of their graves was a symptom of my avoidance of grief itself.
I was in full flight from my grief. Rather than embracing it, living through it, and accepting it, I evaded it. My avoidance of the grave–for me–was a way to escape the pain, to push it into the background, stuff it down, and pretend it did not exist. Avoiding my deepest pain, I numbed it through workaholism and in other ways.
I can remember the moment when I decided I would not feel “that” again. At twenty-two years of age, I was basically carried out the front doors of the church building after viewing Sheila’s body for the last time. Standing outside those doors was, among others, the Potter High School chorus from Bowling Green, KY. I was deeply embarrased that those kids–many of whom were my students–saw me like that. I never wanted to feel that way again.
That day I created a facade of sorts. I would protect that part of me that did not want to feel embarrasment. I would not show that emotion again; I would not allow that kind of transparency again. Instead, I would play the strong, stoic hero. But it was not really a matter of heroism. Rather, it was self-protection, a coping mechanism.
This year I discovered that I have never really grieved. This has been my year to surface that grief, experience it, live through it, and let my outsides match my insides. This has been a year of grief recovery for me. And it has been a good year filled with healing through the loving support of friends, therapy, and my wife’s comforting presence.
This year I intentionally went to their graves to remember, speak with, and sit with those whom death has captured.
My blog has been silent this past week because this past weekend I visited Sheila’s grave with Jennifer and spent the evening with Sheila’s family in Ellijay, GA. Last week I anxiously anticipated the journey and this week I have been talking with friends about it. It was healing.
For the first time, I shed tears at Sheila’s grave, talked with her, and accepted that what could have been is not what is. I felt like my insides and my outsides were beginning to coalesce at last. Oh, I know it is not a done deal, but it feels right, healthy, and peaceful.
Sheila’s family welcomed me, embraced me, blessed me, and loved me along with Jennifer. I rediscovered that I still belong to them and they to me. I felt at home like at the end of a long journey into the far country.
I still don’t like graves. Perhaps I never will. But I recognize that visiting the graves was a necessary part of my healing this year. What I once resisted has become spirtually therapeutic for me.
Where I had found some measure of comfort through the years–and still do–is in assembling with God’s people. Assembly has been an event, a moment that transcended time and space. It is the gathering of God’s people in the divine throne room–an assembly of past, present and future where all God’s saints, including those who rest in the grave, are gathered to God with Jesus by the power of the Spirit. I have been comforted by the experience of gathering with Sheila, Dad, and Joshua around God’s throne. I love to sit in the assembly meditating, singing, listening and praying as a means of joining hands with those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. This is the theology of assembly that is at the heart of my recent book A Gathered People, written with Bobby Valentine and Johnny Melton. The book is dedicated “to those whom we love but cannot see except as we meet them around God’s throne every Lord’s Day.”
Now, however, I also have a new appreciation for visiting graves. There death stares me in the face–I cannot escape it and must process it. It brings acceptance (over time), opportunities to remember, and a terminus where we don’t forget the past but we don’t live in it either. I have not arrived, but I am learning…and growing.
This has been part of my “shack” experience this year. Thanks for listening.
Pray Romans 15:13 for me, my friends.