I like to believe she died in my arms. Suse was fond of my arms. “They make me feel safe”, she’d tell me regularly. So I like to think that her last earthly memory was of me holding her, caring for her, even as she was being carried into her Saviour’s presence.
Sadly, there’s no way of knowing what she felt. Her death was sudden. Abrupt, really. She was simply walking over to kiss me goodnight when she muttered, “I don’t feel right”. They would be her last words. I turned to see the light evaporate from her eyes. She collapsed. I caught her. And though it would be another two hours before she’d be pronounced dead, at that moment, my wife of 18 years was gone. And just like that, grief took me into its raven claw grip.
Over two years have passed since that night. In this series of posts, I will share some reflections on my experience in the hope that it provides some insight into grief and loss. I don’t pretend to have answers. All I have is an experience which may resonate with you, whether you’re grieving yourself, or supporting someone who is. In this, I hope it will be evident how the message of the crucified Christ, raised from the dead, has the ability to carry you even in the darkest of times. In Christ our souls find great safety, and never has the gospel of “new birth into a living hope” (1 Pet 1:3) made more sense to me than in these past two years since Suse died.
The simple truth is we grieve because we love, and that connection between grief and love has been impressed on me nearly every day. Suse and I enjoyed a very happy marriage. It wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was very good. We loved each other very much. We were never just two people working out our own individualism under one roof. Nor did we ever consider marriage to be our human right. We always viewed it as a union of souls, two people intertwined as one flesh, woven together as a tapestry by God’s gracious hand.
That’s why, when Suse died, it felt as though every fibre of my being had been shredded. Torn away as she was, the threads of my existence were left flailing in a storm of grief. Clutching for their former connection, they found nothing but separation. In marriage, two become one. In death, I was halved.
And it wasn’t just me who felt that. Early on, I remember our nine-year-old daughter coming to me in tears, saying “I don’t feel human, Daddy”. The profundity of her words hit me almost as hard as the despair they conveyed. Love was so fundamental to our experience of life, and grief attached itself to the place from which love had been stripped: the core of our beings. It was a soul-altering loss.
The anguish was immense and inescapable. Every waking moment was consumed by new revelations of what we’d lost. There were so many things I missed—her touch, her voice, her cheerfulness, her motherly compassion, her enthusiasm for life and people. So many things. But what I missed most was being known. No one in the world understood me like Suse did. She knew what made me tick; she knew what I loved and loathed. She knew my idiosyncrasies, my fears, my weaknesses. And she knew these things because, in love, she’d surrendered herself to me, as I had to her. Losing that depth of connection gave rise to an incredible sense of vulnerability and loneliness.
But the truth remained: love was the reason for my grief, and that became the lens through which I tried to process things. I was sadder than I could have ever imagined, and yet I didn’t want to be anything but sad. Some people tried to offer comfort by suggesting I’d be happy again one day, but I found the idea intolerable.
I tried to make sense of why I was so hostile to the idea of happiness. It seemed irrational. But after a few weeks, it occurred to me that my sadness was the only thing I had left to express my love for Suse. A month earlier, I could do that in any number of ways, but now all I had were tears. I didn’t want to be deprived of this opportunity to love my wife. There was something very right, very natural, about my sadness. I didn’t want it solved. I wanted it supported.
Pastorally, I’ve found this to be a key distinction. My family and I have received extraordinary support in all sorts of ways. But the greatest comfort has come when people have not shied away from talking about Suse or the relationship we had. Questions like “What was she like?” or “What do you miss most about her today?” have been so helpful, largely because they convey a desire to understand the nature of the love lost, without any sense of judgement, assessment or solution.
Grief is what happens when love’s bonds are severed. And understanding grief like this has only made me appreciate God’s love for us in Christ all the more. Our sin tears the fabric of our relationship with God, and the love he has for us is demonstrated in his grief for us (Gen 6:6). In a sin-soaked world, suffering and love go hand in hand. And yet, in his Son, God does not distance himself from that grief. He entered it. And he willingly endured the full extent of human suffering so we could be rescued from it. He suffered because he loved (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10). He endured grief to destroy it. In deep sadness, this is my comfort and joy. How good it is to be carried by his loving arms.