I will never forget running, screaming into the Montana night. I will never forget the crucifix of St Patrick’s Cathedral blurring and refocusing and blurring again in front of my eyes. Or the wild, cold flight into the Midwest and the dress with a gray and black pattern and the marquee ony the side of the high school gym and the smell of a burning house.
I will never forget that song. When I first listened to it, really listened to it, I crawled into bed and played it over and over. I sobbed and marveled that four years later, practically in another universe, something could be written that captured the helpless and shattered feeling of grief so perfectly. It was not written for death—it was written for heartache, another kind of loss that death devours and encompasses. It was written for the love between a man and a woman. But I felt it was written for us:
“I’ve been sleepwalking,
Been wondering all night,
Trying to take what’s lost and broke
And make it right.
I’ve been sleepwalking,
Too close to the fire,
But it’s the only place that I can hold you tight
In this burning house.”
How many times had we all been to that house on fire? It had been gone for almost half a decade. Razed and seeded with grass, the site used for prayers and plantings and parties. It was not a place of grief. But that smoldering place in my head was, and it was still burning. There, the basement still gaped at me, swallowing our family memories and spitting out ash. I walked through again and again, unable to stop sketching in the unimaginable details left out of the police report. I stretched out my hand out again and again, searching for her.
We all did.
“I had a dream about a burning house
You were stuck inside
I couldn’t get you out
I lay beside you and pulled you close
And the two of us went up in smoke.”
All of us, all fifty-odd and maybe more, I think, would have laid down and pulled her close. Because she would have. If it were any one of us Grandma would have covered us with her body and made us a refuge and shielded us from harm the best way she knew how. She spent her entire life doing that very thing.
We did not get that chance.
Why am I telling you all this? Why am I putting myself through the pain of writing it? Why am I putting others through the pain of reading it? I’ve learned to sleepwalk other paths and find her in better places. We all have. That’s how you survive the heartache.
If I didn’t tell this story, I would be leaving out one of the most defining events of my life. But more than that, I would be putting the fire under a bushel basket.
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” -Matthew 5:14-16
How does telling and re-telling our worst stories of loss—heartbreak, grief, illness, despair, death—let our light shine before others?
Grief is so much darker and deeper than a few lines in a police report, a eulogy, the front page of a newspaper, a holy card. But this is all we publish. Perhaps we are afraid to go deeper. We don’t want to scare or cause pain. Perhaps we are embarrassed. We don’t want to be seen crying too long or too loud. We don’t want to seek attention that could be better directed elsewhere. Perhaps we want ourselves and our deceased to be remembered differently, in their happiest times. This is all understandable and even laudable. But in our silence, we tell others that grief should end cleanly and quickly like a candle put out, when it’s really a house on fire. We tell people we can be strong and they can too. The truth is we are all desperately weak.
There is power in these stories because there is unspeakable power in being weak, in mourning.
“‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” -2 Corinthians 12:9-10
When we let the fires of our pain shine in the presence of others, we allow them to to grieve their own loss without judgment. They unite their stories with ours. And by uniting our weakness and pain in love, we unite ourselves with Christ crucified. He is the only one who can truly hold us close in the flames.