Visiting Graves

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.

The same has been true with both my father’s (1994) and my son’s (2001) graves.  Graves reminded me of death, not life. They brought neither comfort nor closure.

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.

John Mark



21 Responses to “Visiting Graves”

  1.   Carisse Says:

    It’s good to hear that you and Jennifer went to see Sheila’s family. That is a sweet, sweet thought.

  2. Avatar of Philip Cunningham III  Philip III Says:

    Thanks for talking about this. I just lost my mother in April — she died of cancer at 58. Being a young minister, it’s easy to try to “suck it in” & be the hero for everyone else around me. It’s a little bit harder, and just as important, to let myself — or even force myself — to grieve.

    Thanks for your reflections.

  3.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Thank you for this openess. It really helps. I too have mixed feelings about the grave yard. I make it home to Indiana about twice a year. There is where my father and my younger brother are buried and it is nice to just stop by with my wife (she knew my brother but never met my father). In a strange way, rather then reminding me of death, the graves help me remember the great times I had with my father and brother.

    Now that I no longer live in the south, it has been three years since I last saw my son’s grave. I miss it.

    Romans 15.12 is a great prayer!

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  4.   rich constant Says:

    Psa 1:1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked, Nor standeth in the way of sinners, Nor sitteth in the seat of scoffers:
    Psa 1:2 But his delight is in the law of Jehovah; And on his law doth he meditate day and night.
    Psa 1:3 And he shall be like a tree planted by the streams of water, That bringeth forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also doth not wither; And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
    Psa 1:4 The wicked are not so, But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
    Psa 1:5 Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
    Psa 1:6 For Jehovah knoweth the way of the righteous; But the way of the wicked shall perish.

    GOD’S LOVE IS A FUNNY WORD….

    BET YA DIDN’T THINK ABOUT EVERYONE THROWEN YOU A PARTY UP THERE…
    AND THE LORD SAYING ATTA WAY YOU TWO.

  5.   clyde s. Says:

    I prayed it for you, John Mark. The heart of your book was a blessing to me.

    I enjoyed getting to meet Johnny Melton this past weekend in Nashville at Lipscomb. I am glad you had such a good, healing weekend. He has made the sun shine of you, bringing healing in his wings.

  6.   Doug Hall Says:

    I really appreciate your sharing John Mark. This post really touched me. I was 16 when my dad passed away very suddenly. I was the oldest child still at home. My older brother was away at Abilene Christian and we were stationed in New Jersey with the military. My dad was only 44 when he passed and my mom was 38. She completely fell apart and went to bed.

    The night of dad’s death, I held my younger brother in his bed while he cried himself to sleep. The next day, a well meaning friend of my dad’s told me that I had to be strong for my mom and to be the “man” of the family now. I took that to mean that I could not cry. I took his words to heart and would not mourn with the rest.

    Dad’s body was transferred to Sweetwater, Texas, for the funeral and burial and we were flown by the military back to Texas where we would live. I did not cry at the funeral home veiwing or the funeral. I was strong for mom and my younger brother and sister. I refused to pray. It was too painful to pray, if that makes any sense. I felt like God had totally let my family down.

    We settled in Abilene, Texas, where I finished my last year of high school and it was there in Abilene at Southern Hills that I met the girl that would be my bride someday. On our third date we saw a movie that was tragic and sad. After the movie I drove Carole to her house and we sat in the car and talked for a few minutes before she went into the house. I still to this day do not know what caused it to happen but the dam burst. I started crying uncontrollably. It was so embarrassing. Carole had no idea what was going on but she held me and cryed with me. I had never before or since really wept like I did that night. I could not stop for almost 30 minutes. For over a year I had been a “man” and I was “strong” for those in my family but the sadness and pain and feeling of abandonment from God was never resolved.

    I was a different person after that explosion of grief. I could pray again. A huge burden was lifted. Grief is so necessary but we (especially men) try to deny it or avoid it. I appreciated so much the reference to the cleansing power of tears in The Shack. I needed the release and the entire experience changed my life and formed my call into ministry.

    I’m glad that your journey back to Sheila has blessed you and that you have returned “home” again. God bless you, my friend. God bless you.

    Doug Hall

  7.   Terrell Lee Says:

    During some 15 months of depression I experienced the greatest misery I’ve ever known. JM, you helped me during that time by putting me into contact with a brother who had also suffered from depression. Whatever the cause of one’s suffering, suffering is just that. Only Jesus has walked in our shoes and only through him do we have hope for healing. He “had” to be made like us in every way, the text says.

    I praise God as your journey of healing progresses. Thanks for sharing.

    BTW, I do not hesitate to speak openly, publicly and privately, about my illness. It is amazing how much people are comforted by those willing to share their experiences. The truth of 2 Cor. 1 amazes me.

  8.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Doug,

    Thank you for sharing your story, that was very encouraging.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

  9.   Q Says:

    My dad has been gone for a year and a half (and a few days) now. I’ve never been back to his grave. I don’t know if I will, honestly. And right now, I’m not sure I ought to poke at those feelings. I know sometime I need to, but right now, I think I can’t. But I admire you for being able to and for sharing the process. You’ve helped me, especially, more times than you’ll know. Thank you again.

  10. Avatar of johndobbs  J D Says:

    John Mark, what a gift this post is to me. Yesterday marked five months since John Robert’s death. Tomorrow would have been his 19th birthday. I do not desire to visit his grave site. I have let myself grieve … and talked about it with several people … but there is still that part of me that wants to be “the preacher” … it’s hard to manage … showing grief … helping others …

    And we are not sure how to honor his birthday. Here come the holidays.

    We are now a part of a group I never wanted to be a part of … and didn’t have any understanding of … that of a parent who has lost a child.

    As my stepdad is dying slowly I keep asking myself …

    who’s next?

  11.   Rhonda Doss Russell Says:

    Thanks for sharing. A year has now passed since my 24 yr. old son-in-law was killed by a road side bomb in Baghdad. For some reason, I thought all the pain and grief would be gone and we would just move on and be “normal” again. I kept thinking if only we can get through this first year. Well, I still hurt, cry, and feel sad for my daughter and for the emptiness we feel without John. I think many people in our culture think that after some time that those that lose loved ones should be “okay” when in reality we are not but we act like we are and push those emotions away and apologize for them when they arise. Your posts over the past months about grief has helped me accept these feelings and deal with them now…and that is okay…I’m not weak or lack faith…it is a natural process. Thanks my friend, Rhonda

  12.   Stan Says:

    John Mark, I still remember when you visited my son’s grave with me, and I appreciate you sharing my burden at that time. I continue to grieve – it is a loss beyond description. But we walk with the loving, sustaining God of hope, and therein is the victory.

  13. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Friends,

    I appreciate all the memories, shared experiences, stories of your own experiences, and encouragement. I have read each one, prayed through each one, and drawn strength from your kindnesses.

    We each have a our “shacks” and griefs, and we each must walk our own path to healing by God’s strength.

    Blessings, my friends.

    John Mark

  14.   Matthew Says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have never experienced those feelings and in fact I am afraid of them. Thank you for your heart and your words.

  15.   rich constant Says:

    you know john mark… i have been thinking again…
    as we realise our own selfdecipiton,our harts are truly rewarded by the Spirit of truth as he leads us on ward to the newness of the image and likeness of our Lord to the glory of the fathers’s Grace.
    ABBA FARHER

    BLESSINGS

  16. Avatar of stonedcampbelldisciple  Bobby Valentine Says:

    I have read this post several times on several different days John Mark. I am so thankful, even grateful, to know that our Father is healing you and blessing you as you have so greatly blessed those around you for years. I thank God for Jennifer too. What a treasure.

  17.   Josh Says:

    John Mark:

    I feel a bit tentative writing this since my last name is well . . . Graves.

    Thank-you for opening us up to your world and journey. Those who’ve sat at your feet in the classroom know what a gift to God’s church you truly are. Now, we are sitting at your feet as pastor/fellow traveler.

    Grace and Peace to this week.

    Josh Graves

  18. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Oh, my friend, I am quite willing to visit the Graves as well, but hopefully I will never visit you in the grave.

    Thank you for your kindness and encouragement.

  19.   Quiara Says:

    Today is my dad’s birthday. April 8 was the second anniversary of his death. Again, I opted not to visit the grave site.

    To be honest, when he died 2 years ago, I knew I had no intention of going back. Not only is it not where he is, but it’s not the part of my memories of him I want to emphasize. I’d rather remember the goofy Willie Nelson look-a-like who chased seagulls, never stopping to answer the question, “What’re you gonna do if you *catch* that thing?” The one who made stupid puns at every opportunity (most of which still ring in my head whenever I see a certain thing or hear a certain song).

    Don’t know why, but I wanted to look up this entry again. Thanks for your honesty and vulnerability. It helps, a lot.

  20.   Quiara Says:

    I posted before I finished my thought.

    I hope some day to be receptive to the value of visiting his (and my great-grandfather’s) grave site because, as you said, there mortality stares us in the face and there are things God can do through that.

    I’m just not there yet.

  21. Avatar of johnmarkhicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Quiara, we all grieve at our own pace and there are no rules…as you know. When it is time, if there is a time, I believe God will show it to you and use to deepen your healing. He has taken his time with me; he has been patient and I am grateful. I still have a ways to go, however. I know that because even now I feel the pain of April 30th approaching. Blessings, my friend.

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