"I'm more than you dreamed, more than you understand
Your days and your times were destined for our dance
I catch all your tears, burn your name on My heart
Be still and trust My plan, I'm more than you think I am."
- Danny Gokey
I mentioned in my last post that I've experienced the full range of human emotions in 2015, our first year without Nathan. There were big chunks of time when I didn't post, too crippled by grief and doubt to fully stand behind whatever words I could muster. But I was writing all along, and looking back over my journaling in 2015 I see themes and shifts that have helped me better understand my journey through loss.
2015 was a year of firsts without Nate: first New Year, his birthday, Valentine's Day, Easter, Mother's Day, Father's Day, anniversary (we would have been married five years in June '15), my birthday, Elissa's first birthday, and the first anniversary of the accident. The once-special days seemed to come in waves, pushing me back down into a sea of pain and broken dreams as soon as I started coming up for air. I am thankful now that I chose to embrace the holidays for all the joy and pain that they represented. I didn't even attempt to suck it up and march blindly forward. I spent Valentine's Day blinded by tears, surrounded by piles of love letters from Nate. On our anniversary I was in Houston, tracing our steps back to all the places where we'd lived, gone on dates, and eaten our favorite foods. On my birthday I took Elissa back to Strong Mansion, our wedding venue. October 5 found us in Destin, FL, one of Nathan's favorite beaches, with the people he loved most. Looking back I see a trend on these poignant days. I would begin the day overwhelmed by grief, barely able to breathe. The path through our memories seemed unbearable, but necessary. There was nothing else I could or wanted to do. And by the end of the day I was actually able to smile, and laugh, and be so thankful for my years with Nate and find genuine joy in the life I now live with my baby girl. That is a priceless gift, and I don't think I would have come to that place had I not chosen to throw myself headlong into the most painful aspects of my loss.
Valentine's Day 2015 - overwhelmed by all the love!
As Thanksgiving and Christmas '15 rolled around I noticed a marked difference from the previous year, when we were all still stunned by Nate's absence. In 2014 I wanted nothing to do with these holidays; I tried my hardest to avoid them. On Thanksgiving I spent the day driving to North Carolina, timing it so that I would miss all the feasting. On Christmas I locked myself away for most of the day and refused to give or receive gifts. It was the only way I could make it through what used to be my favorite holidays, but this year, with a busy toddler in tow, I baked traditional Thanksgiving dishes and ate and wrapped presents during Christmas movie marathons and even felt a spark of the old anticipation on Christmas morning. Seeing things through Elissa's eyes makes these days new again. Holidays will never be what they were with Nate, who literally made me giddy with joy more times than I can count. I had the best years of my life with him, but there is so much life still to live with Elissa. Every day I thank God for the hope and fresh perspective that she gives me.
I read about a couple who lost their six children in a fiery car crash, and years later they attributed their faith in God to the way they'd seen Him carry them through each day since. That is exactly the way I feel fifteen months after Nate's accident. My faith has run the full gamut of questions, rage, and doubt, but the one constant thing is that Jesus has never let us go. Several months ago I journaled these words:
I've wanted to write inspiring posts about trust and faith but I barely know what those words mean anymore. My worldview has been upended; my beliefs are in tatters. It scares me to publicize my fear, anger and doubts. What happened to the steady Christian girl with unshakable faith?
The unthinkable happened. Try as I might I cannot roll over and play dead with God. I cannot blindly accept everything that happened as being "part of a plan" or "for a reason." Nate's accident is senseless and meaningless and so wrong. It should NEVER have happened. As long as I live there will never be any answers to explain it away.
Was my former faith really so shallow that a catastrophic loss can destroy it? I've come to believe that God doesn't expect me to shut my mouth and play this hideous hand I've been dealt without an epic internal battle. I believe He's invited me to have it out with Him. He's big enough to handle my rage, my hurt, my doubts and my tears. He already knows all about it anyway, so it's both senseless and futile to try to bottle everything up inside.
I don't want anyone to think for a minute that I'm stronger or braver than I really am. My faith is one long string of question marks and expletives, and I am relearning how to live in a world where nothing is guaranteed and the most beautiful things can suddenly become the most horrific. I once thought I knew God. Nothing could have prepared me for this side of Him.
My former faith has been torn down and rebuilt on a foundation that includes the worst loss imaginable. Yes, God allowed it. And somehow, even now, He is still good. He is still God. And every day I am learning a little more about what that means.
I believe that people suffering the aftermath of a catastrophic loss are given little glimpses of their loved one as an encouragement to pull through to the finish line. Around Elissa's birthday I had a vivid picture of Nathan that changed my perspective so much. Many well-meaning people had said things about Nate being "in a better place" and "at peace," and I took this to mean that he was so happy with Jesus that he wasn't even missing the ones he left behind.
While I do believe that heaven is infinitely better than earth, and that given the choice Nate would probably not want to come back, I firmly believe that he knows this is not the way things are meant to be. God has promised to redeem all evil for great good, but sickness and drunk drivers and serial killers and death were never part of His original plan. Death is horrific, nauseating, the antithesis of creation. All the perspective in the world doesn't make it okay. Jesus wept at Lazarus' tomb. He knew that He was about to raise him from the dead, but that didn't take the pain away. Nathan sees how all this will turn out, yet I believe he still grieves the untimely severance of our souls. We are separated by time and space, and the eternity in our hearts heaves against the separation.
Somehow the image I saw of Nathan cheering me on through tears at the life I am left to walk alone has filled me with hope and the will to press on. The end of Hebrews 11 talks about martyrs "of whom the world was not worthy" dying in faith before receiving what was promised. The very next verse, Hebrews 12:1, admonishes us to run our race with endurance, "since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." To me, the image of a cloud of witnesses means that Nathan is still involved in my life on earth. Like Jesus, he sees what I am going through and he intercedes for me. Randy Alcorn suggests that there is a "present heaven" where saints go before the final creation of the New Earth: the longed-for paradise where there will be no more tears or sadness, because all will finally be well. In the present heaven, as depicted in Revelation, Christians who have died still watch the drama being played out on earth and pray for those they have left behind. It brings me comfort to imagine Nathan watching the way I raise Elissa, praying for us because he will always be part of our family.
I can't pretend that I've been through the dark valley of anger and doubt and made it through to the other side. I don't ever want to stay quiet until I've resolved things about God and the way the world works that will honestly probably never fully resolve, but I do want to end affirming what I still know to be true: that God loves us. He has a plan for us that isn't exempt from horrific pain, but that is guaranteed to use the worst circumstances for good. As it turns out, God's "good" is usually the opposite of what seems good to me. But He is the One in control, who sees the end from the beginning, and while this life was never promised to bring us happiness or ultimate satisfaction, awaiting His children is an eternity filled to overflowing with all the things our hearts most deeply long for.