Quite a few years ago, my friend Ken’s brother Ryan and his fiancé were driving to see Ryan and Ken’s dad at his Walter’s Camp cabin. The plans were to stay for the weekend, I believe. In the back of Ryan’s pickup was a 12 pack of Corona and their gear. On the way to the river, the pickup sideswiped another vehicle—a tractor/trailer—and Ryan was killed, almost instantly. His fiancé had quite a few cuts and bruises, but ended up mostly OK.
Ryan wasn’t drunk or on any drugs. Best guess is that he fell asleep at the wheel. In any case, he didn’t make it.
I remember there was a public funeral at some Unitarian Universalist church in El Cajon, and it was about what you would expect. Non-religious, lots of people crying, and a nice picture at the front of the church. Afterward was a reception, with even more tears and a few speeches.
Shortly after that, there was a much smaller gathering at the Walter’s Camp cabin, and I was a part of that. I remember we all had one of the Coronas which had remained completely intact in the back of Ryan’s truck, and toasted his memory. The next day Ryan’s dad attached a small, brown paper-wrapped package filled with Ryan’s ashes to a few very large balloons, with Ryan and his fiance’s wedding rings tied to the balloon strings. The object was for the balloons to be launched from a bridge over the river, and gradually drift down toward the water. The package would dissolve, and the balloons would rise to the heavens, carrying the couple’s rings.
It worked exactly as planned.
I remember standing on that bridge, and everyone was a wreck—though I was mostly able to keep it together. I placed my hand on the back of Ryan’s best friend’s neck as he knelt on the bridge crying and said anything I could think of to comfort him, praying silently for peace to come to these people.
We headed back to San Diego a little later that afternoon, and I never saw any of those people again. I don’t know if peace came to them, but I know those couple of days at Walter’s Camp made me heavily consider my own mortality. At the time, I also carried a lot of unresolved grief within my heart, and sometimes it was as bitter as bile, other times I was simply…stuck. In my grief, in my life. Stuck.
I would sit at home sometimes, or at work, and it would occur to me that for some, peace doesn’t come. At least not when you want it to, or the way you want it to. Sometimes, God doesn’t lift the burden right away. You get through things, and afterward you can’t remember how you did it, but you survive.
That was me. I realized it was mostly my own doing, but that didn’t change the way I felt.
I would think about my own experience—my many experiences—with death and grieving, and I would wonder why it had to happen that way? Hadn’t I tried to be the best person I could? I loved my parents, and they were gone. I loved my friend, and he was gone. He gave his life to a bullet, within shouting distance of my bedroom window on the day before the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
I didn’t really understand then—nor do I now—why endurance of those deaths was required of me. I trust God today that one day I will understand why those things happened. I don’t know how long that will take.
Maybe for me it’s like the refining process for gold. Heat is applied to the gold, and it melts. Impurities rise to the top and are skimmed off. The gold is cooled. More heat, more impurities, more skimming. Eventually, the gold is pure and valuable.
Perhaps I needed to be refined somehow. Perhaps we all do.
I just wish I hadn’t held onto my grief for so long. That was a mistake I didn’t really know how to correct at the time. I can tell you when things finally got to the point where I let go of them, though.
March, 2007. Canyon View Christian Fellowship.
Many years after everything went down, including those four deaths—five, if you include Tim Wakefield, which I completely should have. He died in 2000.
That day in March, my friend Ron came up to where I was sitting just before the service started, and said he was going to sit with me if that was ok. It was.
I had been a believer for about seven years at that point, but I never had given my grief to God, and that day it was heavy on my heart. Pastor Mike had given a bit of testimony just before Easter, regarding the death of his own mother. It hit me so hard I was nearly shaking. I made it through the sermon, but at the end I knew I was in trouble if I didn’t get out fast when church was over.
Without saying goodbye to Ron, I made tracks for the door. I stopped at the door like I’d hit a brick wall. I knew—somehow I knew—that today was supposed to be the day. I didn’t want it to be. I didn’t want to grieve. I didn’t want to think about things, or remember.
Yet I knew that my grief had been a slow poison to my life over the years and miles and so many tears since those deaths happened. It was a weight around my neck. It was so damn heavy.
I went back to where Ron was still sitting, and I asked him to pray for me. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember he prayed for me with his arms around my neck, and his face right next to my ear.
That morning, in the third row of the CVCF sanctuary following the 9am service, I finally handed 20 years of accumulated grief to my God. I grieved my mom, and dad, and my friend. I grieved for Tim, and even Ryan. I think I was still puffy eyed when the next service began, and I sat through that one, too. I was surrounded by members of my small group, and I leaned on them. It was good.
If I learned one thing over the years since, it’s that holding onto things really doesn’t help. It may delay your pain, but it doesn’t heal it. Acknowledging your pain does, when it is done before God.
Sometimes the comfort doesn’t come right away. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it comes when you least expect it, through the comfort of a good friend and whispered prayers. It can be a long and intricate process—it’s like that for me.
Grief can also sometimes be like a broken windshield. It starts with a speck–a chip in the glass. If it isn’t repaired, it begins to gradually creep out over the rest of the windshield, like a spider web of pain—with offshoots in many directions. Sometimes I see or feel things I haven’t thought of in years, and it triggers those old feelings. It’s easier, now. I have God to remind me he will carry them for me. I have my wife, who knows how to love. I have my kids, who lift my spirits when they get heavy.
The hands of God can feel like a strong grip, and also a gossamer touch. Often, you feel them through proxy. It’s always been that way for me. Yet comfort is comfort, and pain can be assuaged in so many different ways. Remember, one of His many names is Comforter.
Surrender. Give him your grief. Drop that burden at His feet. Be refined. It can be a lifelong process, but it’s worth it.