Stirring ashes for embers
On mourning the loss of a child
There is one word that springs to mind as I recall the year that has past : ashes. A thick choking blanket that quenched a bright spark.
I haven’t written about some of my memories of this time last year as the moments I can recall are brittle shards which bring pain. Many are lost in a grey numbness. I think there may be healing when these tender places are revisited, or at least acknowledged. In my minds eye I see these fragments:
A night drive when we bring our children home to tell them news that will only break their hearts.
Seeing the faces of my sister and her husband and observing greyness. Ashen.
That little willow coffin. Her bent form shuddering over it, arms seeking a final embrace with her child.
A small family and friend group surrounding them as we bade our final goodbyes at the second private funeral and committed him to the fire. Ashes to ashes.
The foggy air outside that shrouded the landscape, covering us in a wet and heavy mantle.
Lost appetites for all the festivity around Christmas and New Year. Sackcloth and ashes.
These past few weeks I have experienced patches of overwhelming sadness and sharp anger. I have been closeted away many days avoiding the Christmas bustle, I have lashed out at my children and husband. We have all been out of sorts. The logical explanation is that even when it’s not foremost in our minds, we’re experiencing a physical reaction to a subconscious recalling of this time last year when we were in shock and in mourning. Maybe you could call it a type of post traumatic stress reaction.
Today, on the eve of my 46th birthday I am inevitably experiencing a gut twist of anxiety over the image of a weighing scale where the needle is tipping ever so slightly away from 40 towards 50. In the mirror I see greying hair and crinkled skin around my eyes, lips and neck. The warm cheeks are associated no longer with the flush of youth but with the changes in my body that signal the death of fertility. I am not afraid of dying, only of what death does to those loved ones who have shivered in the proximity of its icy breath. One day I will breathe out my last breath in a peaceful certainty of what comes next, I only grieve now for those who will grieve me then.
Last year we flew to the UK to be with my family on my birthday. It was not a day for saying the word ‘happy’ though, it was a day of tears and embracing and planning for my nephew’s funeral. Nothing prepares you for what you have to do, a lot of the time I felt I had no map of what I ought to do. There were many decisions to be made at a time when grief robbed the ability to think clearly. I recall the sense of helplessness and utter devastation then which makes me crave order and security now. An unnatural death of a child shocks a whole community and the consequences are still rippling out as we remember one year on
Ashes are lifeless and nothing good comes from them of themselves. It would take more than is humanly possible to bring any life out of what is left once the final embers have all died. It is tempting to look at the dead fire and feel that’s all that is left, good for nothing and nothing good. You would need at least a couple of sparks to bring it back to full flame, failing that, something miraculous, a divine act that can breathe life into dust.
I recall the sensitivity of those who came to comfort and to mourn, the many, many families and school friends who crowded the church to pay tribute to a bright, sparkly and vibrant little boy who was taken so cruelly, our relatives who travelled from far, the kindness of neighbours and strangers, the piles of cooked dinners delivered, the words of the priest that offered hope. There was goodness that could not be defeated by the evil that had occurred – some warmth yet in the quiet embers. Death may think it is the victor even though it has temporarily destroyed, stolen and claimed a prize. Yet what I know is that light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Even a tiny flame in a large gloomy cavern is still visible and the darkness can be as dark as it likes, it won’t be able to quench that flame. And so too, the many acts of love that have been demonstrated can not be defeated by this one horrendous event, in fact they are born out of it.
It is difficult to lose someone we love at this time of the year but then the good things, the excitement of gifts to the children, the comfort of a meal to prepare, the need to be with family, are all little embers in the cold hearth that draw us in. It is too soon to determine what good can come from this for the grieving parents. For now though it is all they have just bask a little in what warmth and consolation that can be found through those who love them.
This past Sunday, the first anniversary of his passing, was also our 23rd wedding anniversary. Even though the mirror tells me I am becoming unattractive, my husband tells me the opposite. I am married to a good man. However, I felt unable to feel celebratory on the day so it was a mercy it was also the carols evening at our church and we had plenty to prepare for (children to be dressed, food to bring, readings to peruse).
There is a selflessness in the act of worship and in the deeds of serving which helps to turn our focus away from our own sorrow to look to the needs of others. Most significantly there’s an eternal reality in the Christmas message which lifts us from our circumstances and brings us joy for the present and a hope for the future.
May you also find the embers in what ever ash-choked life you may be living right now that will be fanned into full flame for the future by the Giver of life Himself.
Read more here in Isaiah 61