You can’t tell me that small kids don’t remember big things, because when I was 3 and a half my family lost a baby, and I remember chunks of it vividly. Some of the memories are vague – the hospital room where we met her, 1 day old, small and sweet. The next day when we went to a family friends house and I was allowed to swim in the pool even though I didn’t have swimmers.
Other parts, though flashes only, are technicolour. Stark relief. I can almost walk around in them still… Sitting down with my Dad when he told us. The book we read straight after, before my nap – such a random story, but forever in that breath. Standing in the pews at the funeral, singing “God holds the key of all unknown”. 18 months later taking her photo album into my year 1 class for show and tell. My hair changed colour that year. There were other funerals to follow, hair ties shaped like guitars. And I remember.
I remember understanding, even then, that death was final. But also that, my parents promised, it wasn’t the end…
Today in the elective session on the first day of Oxygen, the topic was “discipling people through the loss of a loved one”. When I chose the elective – the much safer sounding ‘discipleship’ – I had no idea. I wasn’t ready for it, but I don’t know what that would mean anyway.
There were a couple of things that struck me. I write them down not because this will form a cohesive unit with a neat take home message, but because I’m trying to process it, and maybe this will help.
The first was that some songs are hard to sing on the other side of grief. I want to be careful here… my life has been full of wonder, and I do not have any kind of monopoly – not even a monopoly deal – on grief or tragedy. There are not that many songs yet, mercifully, that are hard for me to sing. But for the speaker Nancy, it was the thought of joining in the everlasting song with the sacred throng that stopped her in her tracks. She gave much of the seminar holding back tears, and I have hardly admired anything so much as her ability, by God’s grace, to do so. And as she whispered to us the reason for her pause – “I realised that I will know a face in that throng” – unexpected, uncontained tears rolled down my cheeks. This too my hope – a face, so many faces now, in that sweet crowd at Jesus feet.
The second was in question time, thinking about how to help children deal with grief. And the answer was that they will model what they see their parents do, not listen so much to the words they say. And I thought about Nicole, and the months and years after she was gone. And I say with all humility, in awareness of their frailty, that my parents were amazing. And I thank God for them.
I thank God that they cried, so that I could too. I thank God that they made an album so we could see her. I thank God that we talked about her, so many questions and prayers and hugs and sighs. I thank God that they let their defiant 5 year old lug a frilly album off to her year 1 class, to force grief upon them, but also joy that we would see her again. This was claimed from the start, and owned fiercely by that 3 and a half year old and then the 5 year old after that. This 29 year old still. Because of Jesus, death is not the end.
I suppose like anything else I didn’t realise this was all inside until it came out. It has not been a scar on our family, a weeping wound that never heals. I can go months without thinking of her, and my family is hugely unsentimental about it all. Perhaps I used to think there was something wrong with that. When my parents announced that Natalie was on her way, 4 years later, Hails and I cried because we didn’t want to lose anyone else, and my parents were amused and bemused. I used to think there might be something a bit weird about us because, by and large, we were all cried out. But today I realise both that the tears are not yet quite finished, but also that they will be one day, and herein lies the hope. She isn’t in that distant baby cemetery or even in the pictures within the embroidered album.
And we? By God’s grace, we are not overcome by grief, because there is such great hope. It is not the small yet wondrous hope of seeing a loved one again, but the far surpassing wonder of how that could come to be. That Jesus died and rose again, washing away my sin and granting me life eternal. That he will return and set this broken world right, and take his people home. Tonight as we took communion together, we were reminded that this is a temporary remembrance of Jesus death – “until he comes” – because in Heaven we will not be tempted to forget it, not ever. That blood-bought throng will remember with joy and sing as one, to him.
And so after an unexpected day of bittersweet, of being reminded of death and life, I’m so thankful. So thankful to God for his work to reconcile sinners to himself. So thankful for my parents and the way they faithfully modelled the hope of the life to come, so that the rare tears I cry are happy and expectant instead of hopeless. This hope, long-claimed, that glory awaits, and that we will share in it together.