I had seen it coming. Whenever Nathan came home late or forgot to call my mind would immediately conjure up visions of him wrecked on the side of the road. I vividly imagined him in a hospital bed, the phone calls I would make to our family…but the images always ended there. Of course he would survive. The alternative was unthinkable. So vivid was my imagination that on one occasion when he got stuck in a meeting and missed a dinner with friends I panicked and called them to help me go look for him. We were on our way to retrace his route to work before he finally called. On our fourth wedding anniversary just three months earlier I had written in my journal: I start crying whenever I imagine something happening to Nate…I know I could never live without him.
That knock on the door stops my heart, but it also feels like déjà vu. I try to convince myself that it’s just a neighbor wanting to borrow something. My body knows better. I’m unsteady as I gather Elissa and stumble to the door. The cloudy glass pane in the door reflects a distorted cop car parked in the street. My heart thumps loudly in my ears.
I hold Elissa tighter as I open the door to a lone cop standing stiffly on the porch. “I’m here for the family of Nathan Farlow,” he says, gruff.
“I’m his wife,” I falter, juggling Elissa.
He surveys the two of us – bedraggled, sleep-heavy mother and tiny newborn. “No other family? You’re all alone?” I sense his heart sinking. “You’d better sit down…”
“What happened to him?” I force out the words as I totter to the couch. But even before I ask, I know. And I’m terrified that I’ll have to get into that cop car, and go somewhere to identify him, and come face to face with a dead man who is no longer my husband.
The officer shifts uncomfortably in the doorway. I balance on the edge of the couch, grip the arm with white knuckles. “What…happened to him…”
He refuses to make eye contact. “Your husband was involved in a serious auto accident. He didn’t make it.”
Everything in me screams disbelief. “Oh my God…” It is a strangled, pleading sob, begging that this not be true. And yet in my core I know it is. And so begins the awful paradox of denial coupled with the gut acceptance of reality. I feel detached, robotic, as if I’m watching someone else’s life implode. From far away I make out the officer’s intonation: “He didn’t suffer…killed instantly…hit head on by another driver…she reeked of alcohol.” I reel. “He was wearing his seatbelt…did nothing wrong…my condolences.” He’s delivered his message of doom and seems ready to leave. I panic; suddenly I want to grab hold of his uniform and be dragged away with him – far away from this house, this nightmare.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I’m begging, desperate. How can he decimate me and then leave me to pick up the pieces?
He takes another look at us – mother gasping for air, infant mewling for food. “Is there someone you can call? I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”
My mind spins crazily, running through the options – I’m irrational, over-concerned: I can’t call Eric and Katrina; they’re at church. I can’t call family; they’re 1,000 miles away. It’s pointless. There’s nothing anyone can do.
The officer is insistent: he won’t leave until someone is here with me. I finally dial the only name that sticks in my head; my next-door neighbor, Jill. She’s there within minutes; we hold each other and cry, Elissa pressed tightly between us. The officer, relieved of his burden, scrawls a number on a piece of paper. “Here’s the medical examiner’s number – you can call him in about thirty minutes.” And just like that, he’s gone. Another Sunday morning, another unpleasant aspect of the job. He closes the door and my life is in shambles.
The rest of that awful day is a blur of phone calls, each more agonizing than the last as I am forced to plunge the dagger over and over into the hearts of family and friends whose lives are now changed forever. Shock makes me level-headed and meticulous, and by the time I fall into bed, drenching Nathan’s pillow with tears, plans are made and our things are packed to go straight home to Maryland. I am mechanical, following the blueprint I’d subconsciously constructed in the back recesses of my imagination. If anything ever happens to Nathan I cannot stay here. I will go home immediately. There is nothing for me in Texas without him.
Early the next morning we are on our way to the airport, the rain on the window mirroring the endless silent tears streaming down my cheeks. Laura Story’s voice comes soft over the radio, and her words bring anything but comfort.
What if Your blessings come through rain drops
What if Your healing comes through tears
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You're near
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?
Racked with grief and desperate for answers, the words “blessing” and “mercy” are like shards of ice scraped across my shattered heart.
It has been almost four and a half years since my perfect Nathan was killed. I have floundered in an ocean of grief: terrifying, paralyzing, utterly unfamiliar. For a long time anger and disappointment with God kept me from running to Him for comfort and security. I was adrift in doubt, numb with anger, dead inside without my love. In the first months after losing Nathan, my father-in-law gave me Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised. Though I had trouble reading and internalizing anything helpful, these words stuck with me and have come to define my grieving process: “The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.” For four long years I have plumbed the darkness, owning every devastating aspect of my loss, with the conviction that the path to healing leads straight through the valley – not around it.
The best way I can describe my journey from despair to renewed life and hope is in the following letter I wrote to a hypothetical friend about to embark on the grieving process. If you or someone you know is in the throes of sudden loss, I pray these words will be a ray of hope for the days ahead. You will make it. You are stronger than you ever dreamed. And when all strength fails, there remains One who will lift you in His arms and carry you close to His heart…
Dear friend. There’s not much I can say to prepare you for grief, because it will hit you like a hurricane. Suddenly the impossible happens to you; your worst nightmare comes true and you are left writhing in anguish, in disbelief. Oh God…this cannot be true. How is this happening?? You will alternate between frenzied emotion, gut-wrenching sobs, panic, and numbness. You will feel like the walking dead – existing day by day somehow, but unable to make sense of anything. All your hopes and dreams for the future died with that person who was everything to you. It is all so wrong; no one can say or do anything to make it better, but plenty to make it worse.
You retreat into your shell because there is no safe place for the rawness of your open wounds. After all, you have lost your harbor – your home. “Run to God,” they say, trying to encourage. But He – once so close and intimate – feels the most dangerous of all. How can you trust the One who inflicted this near-fatal wound, who ordained the loss of the one you loved more than life? You will feel a loss of commonality with all those who take refuge in their faith. Your own faith, which you once thought impermeable, has shattered. You avoid other Christians because you can quote all the verses and truths they will paste over your suffering. You don’t need platitudes – you need a way to connect what you once knew to be true with all that has happened to you.
You go underground, and for as long as it takes you chip away at the layers of this loss. Grief, in its truest form, is a reckoning with every memory – every moment in time, every smile, every kiss, every habit and idiosyncrasy of daily life, every shared dream for the future. It is a farewell, an admittance that you alone are left to shoulder these memories, carrying them with you for the rest of your life.
For a long time – months, maybe years – you teeter on the brink of total despair. You want to give up. You are so very tired of breathing, of waking up yet again to face another faceless day. But you are propelled forward, by the relentless passage of time and the resiliency of the human spirit. And one day you look back, hardly recollecting the past hour, week, month, with a distinct sense that you have been carried. That when you wanted to give up, He has not given up on you. The tenets of your deconstructed faith begin to rearrange themselves into a new belief that now encompasses the worst that can happen.
You slowly, tentatively, poke your head out of the underground. The sun washes over your face. The sounds and smells of spring breathe new life into your reviving soul. You realize with a start that you are beginning to anticipate life again. Day by day you are looking ahead more than behind. You find fresh comfort in walking alongside those who have been plunged without warning into the community of suffering. And you realize, as you lift your head and embark anew on this journey of life, that there is immense purpose in what you have lost and in how you now live. The One who has brought you to the valley has brought you through it, and will lead you on to that glorious eternal reunion.