Stumbling Toward the Light

"We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly" -- Madeleine L'Engle

A collection of thoughts and messages I wrote after my daughter died May 17, 2000. Primarily this blog is concerned with grief, bereavement, the death of a child, hope, courage and a tough faith journey.

Location: Kansas, United States

Husband, father of four, friend, dog owner, owned by a cat, Episcopalian, last liberal Republican left in the U.S.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Each Spring I begin a personal journey strangely linked to my religious beliefs.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. The day is a mix of the triumphant and the defeated.

During the first part of this service we sing and speak of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In some places such as my own church the congregation literally marches outside as a symbolic reenactment of Jesus' procession through the streets of Jerusalem. The feeling is upbeat, almost militant. It reminds me of that life before Rachel's diagnosis... the "silver bullet" attitude many of us have... 'That happens to other people, not us.'

The second half of the service begins with a reading of one of the Gospel stories covering the final hours of Jesus' life. In many congregations this reading is presented as a play of sorts with selected members of the congregation speaking the different roles that took part in the betrayal, handing over, trials, final agonizing walk and death of this man. The Gospel reading ends with Jesus' death. The "parade" at the beginning of the service ends with a terrible "crash" into the cross.

This coming Friday, commonly called Good Friday, repeats the Palm Sunday drama leading to those final moments on the cross and the laying in the tomb. It is a bleak day. Unlike Palm Sunday there is no triumphal entry. The battle is seemingly lost on Good Friday. The church is shorn of all adornment, the music somber... haunting and the readings are of a pleading, sorrowful, even angry tone.

For me the most striking moment of the Good Friday service are the words that Jesus utters in terrible agony while hanging from the cross:

"My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

I had an hard time figuring out those words when I was young but I understand them now. They are similar to a howling within me that I ripped out of my soul on a bright, sunny mid-May morning almost seven years ago.

When my daugther, Rachel, died of leukemia I spent the first few days after her death in a bubble of sorts. I went through the process of working out her funeral, her cremation, her burial... the things I was supposed to do as her Dad. I knew my role and I performed it. I was "taking care of her."

I greeted friends at the front of the church as they came in to honor her at her funeral. I marched down the aisle holding her cremated remains in the plain wooden box and set them on the altar steps and took my place in the front pew with my family. I sang the songs, said the prayers and marched out of the church holding her ashes in my arms.

During the funeral service our son, then 18, leaned over and whispered, "You need to let go of what's inside you, Dad."

I glared back at him. I knew what was inside me and didn't need some teenager screwing with my brain.

At the grave I took the boxed cremains up to a small bier next to the grave and sat next to Diana. There were some more readings, prayers and a song.

After the song each of us was expected to come up, bless the cremains with holy water and then step aside. I stood up after Diana had blessed the container and moved forward... and my life began to unravel.

I was her Dad. No, I was her Daddy. I had sat with her many nights reading her a story before bed. I sang her favorite lullaby to her. I had walked her across the street holding her hand. Diana and I had rotated staying with her at the hospital. I had loved her more than my own life.

I... had... done... what... I... was... supposed... to... do...

...until now.

I could not protect her from leukemia, the pain and suffering that went with three chemos and a bone marrow transplant... the slow suffocation of her lungs by pneumonia. I had not protected her. And now... Now.. I was going to hand her over to these people who were going to put her in the ground and shovel dirt on top of her?

My mind began to race 100 miles per hour. I was going to grab the box and run for it. It seems ludicrous to the sensible mind but there is no "sensible" in these moments. I laid my hands on the wooden box... my Rachel... my child.... and there was a momentary jerking as I started to lift it away from these people who knew nothing of her... who would put my little girl in the ground.

A hand touched my shoulder... a gentle hand... I turned... my beloved wife, Rachel's mother, Diana, looked into my eyes. A million Madonnas... mothers who have buried children... looked at me through those two eyes... Sad, wounded love.. And I knew... my daughter was dead.

It came out of me from a place I can't imagine deep inside... a HOWLING. I can still hear it in my mind each spring as I move toward May.... Not a scream or a yell but a howl. What my son had told me... the thing that needed letting out... came out. A close friend who was there later told me that she'd grabbed ahold of herself at that moment for she had started to lose her balance at that howl as though knocked over by it. She called it, "The most powerful sound a person can ever make.... wounded love."

"My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"

There is a moment when this man, hanging from a cross, believed by Christians to be God's son, suddenly understands that feeling of complete abandonment. It is not a deity play acting or mimicking mortal feelings but a deep wounding... God perceiving humankind's suffering... our helpless, hopeless state at times. And God, whose other name is Love, howls.

I understand this God. He holds me close to him like a child, touches me, looks into my eyes and says, "I know."

And each spring we remember together... and howl.