House of Mourning

"This is not my landscape now, where I find myself without you. Oh, I never knew you from the sun." ~Karen Peris

My father died two months ago.

Apart from a few stilted sentences on Facebook, I haven’t known how to frame those words in this space. I haven’t known how to frame any words, really. My journal swells with a stream-of-consciousness torrent—explosions of anguish, swirling eddies of joy. I’ve stitched together a ragged story of things I never want to forget and things I so violently wish were not true.

But, for all that, I haven’t known what to say. I stand before this awful, stone-faced reality called death, and words are the most futile things in the world, like butterflies hovering around a grinding millstone.

A friend asked gently over tea the other day if I didn’t feel like a tsunami had hit my life, smashing and then washing away everything I once thought permanent, immutable. Safe.

Yes, yes that’s exactly how I feel, though it took her intentional and empathic imagination to name it.

I feel orphaned. At 41 years old, I feel like a child cast adrift on an unfriendly sea. I feel so bewilderingly vulnerable, so disoriented. It’s the strangest thing: all through Daddy’s illness I was mamma-bear motherly, as protective of him as if he were my child. But the minute he was gone—and I mean the very minute—all that collapsed. I was four years old, and I just wanted my Daddy. It was as if the past few years and all the trauma they held had never been. I wasn’t prepared for that—for the onslaught of memory and frailty and fear, nor for the blinding mercy that so instantly gave him back to me as he had always been. I welcomed it, opened my arms as it were to that searing flood. But it nearly swept me away.

Our culture is so inoculated against grief. We’re assured in whispers that it will get better, don’t worry, just give it time. But everything in me rebels against such a “hush-hush” approach. I haven’t the least doubt that it will get better—I do not grieve as those who have no hope, and this story is not over. The only thing I’m afraid of is not doing the thing properly; of not grieving thoroughly, in a holy, healthy way. It’s the last thing I can do for Daddy this side of heaven. And it’s where God is meeting me with treasures of darkness undreamt of in my innocence of grief. I don’t want to miss anything, excruciating as it is.

I wouldn’t go back to that time before my induction into this league of loss—I wouldn’t be again the girl I was before this sorrow broke me, shining its piercing light on my naïveté. I carry that girl in my heart—she will always be a part of me, and I will always need her hope, her wonder, her ideals. Yes.

But I need this acquaintance with sorrow, too. I need my heart joined to the great sorrow of the human race, the rage against death, the longing for all this sadness to come untrue.

I’ve feared for my faith the past three years. I’ve rebelled against and then dully accepted the silence of God. I’ve gotten used to it, in a way.

And then grief comes and rips the scab off the wound, demolishes with its tidal wave of finality every last defense with which we’ve learned to protect ourselves. We’re bleeding and breathless—and still the silence remains.

Only the grieving know this, and do no fear it.

Only on this side of death—the death of one of the greatest forces in my life—do I know just how utterly unshakable are my beliefs about life and death.

Only now do I know just how deathless life and love really are.

Only now do I dare to hope just how close God really is to the brokenhearted.

I don’t always feel it. The seeming of His absence throughout this ordeal has been horrifying at times. And yet—Something has caught me every single time I started to sink; Someone has held me when I couldn’t hold on. When I walked into the room moments after Daddy died (another heartbreak I can hardly speak of—I wasn’t there), an electric current of certainty seized my heart.

He’s not here, sang something deep inside me, something deeper than belief, more relentless than confidence. Everything—everything you have heard and believed about life and redemption and eternity is absolutely true. For the love of God, it’s all true. He’s not here—and yet he continues to be!

“Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity, and so very absent a help in time of trouble?” C.S. Lewis asks in A Grief Observed.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus Himself. The Man of Sorrows is intimately acquainted with that particular grief.

But perhaps a larger question for me is—Why do I question Him for bringing grief into my life, but never question with equal wonder and awe just why He would bless me so much?

I had—have—and extraordinary Daddy. I’ve never had a problem with the Fatherhood of God because my earthly father represented Him so well. I can hardly bear the thought of the rest of my life without him, but I’ve got a lifetime’s well of love to draw from. A friend who lost his dad years ago comforted me with the fact that the power of Daddy’s influence over my life would never be lost.

“I promise you,” he said, “you’re only going to see that influence grow and mature over the years. You’ve only begun to see the ways his love has shaped you.”

(He also told me to quit worrying that I would ever forget the music of Daddy’s laughter, or the sound of his voice. “It’s with you for life,” he said. “And it won’t always hurt.”)

Now I understand why the writer of Ecclesiastes says a sad face is good for the heart: I doubt there’s a more clarifying force in all the world than death. Clarity hurts. But I want to press in hard before it fades even the tiniest bit, before life tries to catch me in its current again. There is beauty and joy on the other side of loss. If I didn’t believe that, I would go mad. But I cannot believe that any of this is meaningless. The very life inside me will not permit it, nor the Spirit within my heart crying, “Abba! Father!”

I’ve tried to be very intentional about my grieving rituals, in a Lenten-like spirit exploring this loss and all the ways I want to live in the light of Daddy’s life and death. The legacy he left behind is simply staggering; the people whose lives he touched apparently limitless. The night of the visitation, the line at the funeral home went down the hall, out the door and around the block. And every single person there had a story to tell of how his joy had infected them with courage or hope or redemption.

That kind of life is not lived by accident.

And it’s not lived in vain.

I’d love to recount all the ways that Jesus has been real to us in His people these days. All the ways He has caught me in the dark and told me He is here. Perhaps someday I will be able to. But for now, I want to assure you, friends, that He’s doing it. There’s this daily punch-in-the-gut realization that nothing is going to change the fact that my Daddy died of a catastrophic illness at a young age—and with it comes the desperate longing to go back undo the tragedy of it all. But I believe, in ways I cannot understand or articulate, that God is doing just that. That His mercies are retroactively redemptive.

“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.” C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

I also want to take this opportunity to extend my most whole-hearted thankfulness to those of you who have reached out with such extraordinary kindness and sympathy. It hurts me that I haven’t been able to respond to everyone as I’ve longed to in this season—time and words have been in such short supply for so long. But I want you to know what your kindness has always meant in this place, and especially now. Your notes, emails, messages—all have been like rain in a parched land. Please know if I haven’t replied to your words, I most certainly have not forgotten them.

Under the Mercy,

~Lanier

30 Responses to “House of Mourning”

  1. Michelle Sanders Lochamy says:

    Oh Lanier…what a beautiful response to a sad, but beautiful, eternal event. I love your family. I remember my dad and your dad laughing together…and I know they are now laughing together in Heaven!

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thanks, Michelle. We love y’all too. I feel like we’re the ones missing out on that party in heaven, don’t you?

  2. Stacy says:

    Dearest Lanier,
    I am just a few months ahead of you in the grieving process, having lost my father in March. Thank you for writing this, for so concisely expressing every emotion I’ve felt, but have been unable to form into words…my words have left me. I know that someday I will be able to think of him without my mind clouding with the pain of his loss, but for now I wait for a new normal to come. Life now seems to be divided into before and after…before Daddy died and after he died. I’ve no idea how to live this after, but each day I find God’s grace meets me with the rising sun; I’m reminded that all is well.
    Dear friend, I will keep you in my prayers as you start living your after. I ask if you would be so kind to pray for me too?

    In His Mercy,
    Stacy

  3. Jody Furr says:

    Lanier,

    I know just what you mean about the orphaned feeling…. I haven’t felt the same since I lost my father on August 5, 2006. You grow to foolishly believe that your daddy will always be there for you, even if you don’t see him every day. You, at least, think that he will protect you no matter what happens in your life. That security blanket is ripped from you and things will never be the same ever again. That has been the hardest part of the deaths of my mother and father for me.

    Just know that you are not alone in this feeling. Helps me to hear others’ stories of loss.

  4. Judy says:

    You are grieving wisely, dear Lanier – immersed both in real sorrow and our certain hope.
    “May the everlasting Father himself
    take you
    in his own generous clasp,
    in his own generous arm.” – Celtic Prayer

  5. Rachel says:

    Lanier. So beautiful. (Can we use that word too much?) Thank you for sharing. This touched me on so many levels. – Rachel

  6. Elyce Westby says:

    Lanier, my heartfelt prayer is with you and your family…prayers for God’s continued arms to hold you.

    And thank you for the thought of retroactive redemption. I have never thought of that before, but what a glorious thought, a glorious hope!

    Elyce

  7. amy says:

    Many many prayers for you, Lanier. I too lost my dad 2 months ago on August 5th to brain cancer. I was/am devastated… It was excruciating… These words have given me much peace…perhaps they will do so for you as well.

    “Glory to Thee at the hour of nightfall”
    Glory to Thee for the last Ray of the sun as it sets/
    Glory to Thee for sleeps repose that restores us/
    Glory to Thee for Thy goodness even in the time of darkness/
    When all the world is hidden from our eyes/
    Glory to Thee for the prayers offered by a trembling soul/
    Glory to Thee for the pledge of our reawakening/
    On that glorious last day, that day which has no evening/
    Glory to Thee, O God from age to age.”
    Gregory Petrov, written in a Russian prison camp in 1940

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Amy. My heart breaks for you. I’m so very sorry.
      But thank you for this–absolutely breathtaking. I need this prayer somewhere I can see it every day.

  8. April Pickle says:

    Just read this beautiful post again, in the quiet of the late night.
    I’m so glad you wrote this, and I’m glad for the encouragement and shared sufferings in the comments.
    Amy, I lost my stepfather to brain cancer on March the thirtieth — excruciating describes it well. I love the Petrov quote. Thank you for sharing that.

  9. I have you in my thoughts so often and pray for God to pour out His grace and mercy and comfort and love on you and on your family.

    My father died when I was only ten and my world fell apart. I was too young to understand the feelings at the time but now, fifty years later, I know there was a vacuum in my heart that could only be filled by God’s presence. Nothing else. No person. No book. No song. Not even my mother fully understood my pain.

    So this child from an “unchurched and ungodly” family was wooed by Someone who loved me and in my teens, I accepted that love. Only God promises to become the “Father to the fatherless”. He does not try to take the place of our dad but He… who was the original Father before the Creation of the World… can help the pain. Someday. First we grieve. Then we start to heal a little at a time. Then there comes the day when we realize that strange feeling is JOY in spite of the loss.

  10. Josh says:

    Dear Lanier,

    I can’t imagine the pain you and your family are going through, but your ability to find and express beauty even in the midst of such pain is so inspiring. You and yours remain in my prayers.

  11. Teresa says:

    Dear Lanier:
    How sorry I am for the loss of your dear father.
    Much love and sympathy to you and your family.
    Teresa

    Psalm 34:18 – The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

  12. Janice says:

    Eternal rest grant unto him Oh Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him.

    One day you will be able to remember your dad without any sadness or tears. One day you will be able to smile, laugh and be filled with JOY thinking ONLY how blessed you were to have such a wonderful man as your father and for such a long time, many can’t say that. One day…….

  13. Martina says:

    My heart goes out to you and your family. Know that you are in my prayers.
    My father died seven years ago these days. Strangely, my brothers and me “needed” his absence to fully understand and be thankful for all he did for us. For the great and everlasting influence he had on us with his outstanding example of a well-lived life. Sometimes, one doesn’t appreciate others as much as they deserve if they are taken for granted, seen as ususal part of everyday life. More than everything else, I would love to have my father back – but sometimes I think it’s part of his legacy to take this final step in oder to make us see. To remind us to finally be grownups…

  14. Josie Ray says:

    Lanier, I will tell you what I think, the thoughts of one who, when sensing His absence, could run crying and screaming in circles, and stay on her knees for, like, 48 hours straight begging Him to return and flipping through Scripture trying to figure out what I did wrong that “drove the Spirit from my breast.” I think that, more than we know, for we who share in the Eucharist, He has become an inseparable, inherent part of us, and is now powerfully part of what we think of as “us.” And I think that in times of trial, even the part of Him that normally seems outside of us accompanying us, also steps right into us and stays. He is a Friend at whom we no longer look across the table over coffee, pouring out our sorrow: He’s come over and is sitting in the very space we’re sitting in, so the chair across the table looks empty. It is kind of like the Footprints in the Sand poem by Mary Stevenson, except better. In this case, He is no longer outside of us where we can sense Him even carrying us, but is in us as one. For those who “eat His flesh and drink His blood,” He is integrally woven into our very, deepest being, physically and spiritually. You really couldn’t sort Him out from yourself as something separate now if you tried. He is the very love that you have for your father; he is the very tears that you cry, the thoughts that you think; he is the grief that you feel because you love; and he is the selfless part of you who turned from your deep grief to write a beautiful passage to those of us who are praying for you. Now…I don’t give you *permission* to leave, so how can I say this rightly? If you need another sabbatical, take it. I, for one, have released my hope of receiving even a Christmas post from you this year; for once, I won’t come asking in December (smile). Take six months. Take a year. Take a break from the entire internet if you need it. You’ve been leveled and shattered: take what you need to cozy up with the pieces, without even thinking about healing yet. You don’t have to put on a presentable face here. Lots and lots of love and prayers to you, your mother, and your family, Josie Ray

    p.s. Part of growing into One with Him is maybe not sensing, but knowing and trusting. Now when I feel His absence–well, I think your brightly-stubborn “There is a Narnia” post helped me to see this–I stubbornly place my trust and hope in Him and His Name just the same. I’ve started standing each morning and evening before devotions and stating firmly, like the temple Levites in King David’s time (1 Chron. 23:30: They were also to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord. They were to do the same in the evening….”): “He is good and his love endures forever,” and following with either the Gloria Patri or the Doxology. When you are the grape in the winepress, and what comes out of you when you are crushed is great faith and praise and very determined trust in Him, I don’t know how to describe it, but it accomplishes great good in the world on the spiritual plane. Also, one last note from one who comes from a different background than you, the depth of the pain is proportionate to the greatness of the gift God gave you in the type of father that you had (and I have *loved* to read about your relationship with your father; it gives me hope for humans and for the idea of Family). So, I tenderly suggest giving deepest thanks to God for “Daddy” when the loss hurts the most. Lanier, you are such a blessing, and your father and Jesus are such a tremendous part of your beauty. God bless you…argh, you made me pool up. 🙂 Bye now.

  15. Josie Ray says:

    It just occurred to me to tell you (I just remembered): a few days or a week ago, I was working around the house and (no offense) not thinking of you or anything related to you, when an image and the thought of you came into my mind and I heard, “Please stop praying for me.” This was followed, not with more words, but with an unspoken plausible reason why that would be best for you. You know, I just don’t know that much about spiritual battle or the spiritual world, so first I thought, “Really? Would she really want me to stop praying for her?” Then, after a minute, I thought, “Well, I really just can’t do that, even if she does want it.” Then I answered back to the voice, “I’ll pray about what to do,” and it all went away. Now, looking back, I think I completely forgot to ask God about it; I just kept praying for you in my friends’ list as usual. Now, it seems, in retrospect, that it was a spiritual attack, that someone was trying to reduce the prayer cover and shield around you and that you must be more of a thorn in the enemy’s side than I had realized. Please be careful, spiritually, and, if your name isn’t already submitted to the prayer list at your church, you might want to consider putting it there during your time of vulnerability in your grief? I hope this doesn’t sound too creepy, but I think it’s best to tell these things.

  16. […] As I’ve said before, I think death is the most clarifying force in the world; it awakens such a keenness for life. Everything in us rebels against impermanence; it’s no wonder that philosophers have wearied themselves since the beginning of time over the tension between the limit of our lifespan and our yearning for perpetuity. We’re made for Forever—it’s written on our hearts, Ecclesiastes says. And death brings it so blessedly near. We start to reevaluate everything in the light of this undeniable presence and this inconceivable eternity. The light is blinding at times, but it makes everything so much more real. […]

  17. jules says:

    Lanier, my deepest sympathies on the death of your father.

    My mom died 4 weeks ago. These words of yours struck home for me:

    “But, for all that, I haven’t known what to say. I stand before this awful, stone-faced reality called death, and words are the most futile things in the world, like butterflies hovering around a grinding millstone.”
    “I feel orphaned. At 41 years old, I feel like a child cast adrift on an unfriendly sea. I feel so bewilderingly vulnerable, so disoriented.”
    “I doubt there’s a more clarifying force in all the world than death. Clarity hurts. But I want to press in hard before it fades even the tiniest bit, before life tries to catch me in its current again. There is beauty and joy on the other side of loss. If I didn’t believe that, I would go mad. But I cannot believe that any of this is meaningless. The very life inside me will not permit it…”

    These words spoke to my grief. I feel orphaned. My dad died 30 some odd years ago, close to Christmas, now Mom, close to Thanksgiving. I have no words to speak when people share their condolences. I am bewildered, confused, seemingly shattered, trying to gather up the pieces.

    I don’t want to live like before; it seems so disloyal now. The worst? We lived so far apart, phone calls were all we had, now gone. It was so sudden. Just one day…gone. What do you do about a thing like that? I don’t even know where to begin.

    Life has been difficult, these past 3 years. God certainly has been here, but quiet. I feel his presence, but do not hear his voice. Well, I DO hear his voice, but do not see any deliverance. The waiting is the hardest, for me. It will come…in His timing. I must just believe.

    Thank you for writing this. I’m so sorry about your Dad. Mine was the finest, and my Mom…she was even better than I knew.

    Love to you and yours.
    jules

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Oh, Jules, I am so, so sorry. My deepest condolences. I’m touched and humbled that my words were some help to you. Sometimes all we need is to know we’re not alone.

      Praying for you during this tender time.

  18. Len says:

    I am only a stranger and a fellow writer – a poor writer at that – but writing has led me to read the stuff of greatness from good writers such as yourself. I have only read your Sandhill Crane Advent piece and this one, but you have affected me quite fundamentally with both. I thank you! I always hope that seeds of talent and skill such as yours will fasten themselves to me as I brush past them. My sincere sympathy in your grief and congrats in your gifts. I share both on some level and want to assure you that you can add my support to that of God and his people.
    In His Life and Love,
    Len Snider at Gloryteller.com

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