I hadn’t heard all the hype about Broken Heart Syndrome. The hype that, apparently, filled social media for a week after Debbie Reynolds died just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. I had been pretty removed from the world, actually, and clueless to news stories since mom first started her chemo treatment eight weeks ago.
I just knew that Dad, and my brother and I, had spent one month without her. Dad had spent 31 days “single,” after 55 years of “together.”
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These numbers were running through my head as I sat, tense, in the cold truck cab beside my husband on New Year’s Eve. The headlights cut through a deep velvety curtain of water-logged snowflakes. They fell in a widening circular pattern, with a growing circumference spreading away from the piercing beams.
I don’t want to type these words. I’m afraid to see their harshness on the screen. . . My parents are both gone.
Missing his sly smile.
We were driving home from the hospital, and I was trying to string together words in my mind, words to tell my daughters that my father had died of cardiac arrest. Thirty-one days after Mom–his wife of 55 years–ended a brief battle with cancer.
Their PapPap, whom they adored, wasn’t going to be around to offer them a sly smile tomorrow.
Their PapPap, who was a healthy 80-year-old, would not be spending time in the garden with them this spring.
Their PapPap, who had just come to live on our homestead, after his wife had passed away, would make no more walks with them to tend the animals or give Scout a piece of bread.
Their PapPap’s sweetly gruff voice, which mingled with theirs, singing Silent Night, last week and told a story that made them giggle just hours earlier, would now be silent.
Facing a new year without him.
Their PapPap would not be a part of their new year, except in their memories and in his stories that will live on as long as we tell them.
Feeling absolutely alone.
Sitting in the truck cab, although I was beside my high school sweetheart–my backbone for the past 23 years, I felt indescribably, totally, absolutely, in-a-deep-black-hole-surrounded-by-a-circumference-of-wet-snow-drops alone.
Every minute of every day, up until that very hour, I’d had a parent. I had a mom and a dad, yet in the last 31 days, both had been stripped from my life, leaving me with dilapidated boxes to sift through and arduous questions I never even asked that would now have no answers.
Calculating a correlation.
I had a bizarre picture in my mind of a mathematical equation, one that filled a chalkboard with Pi and other Greek letters. Could there be an equation to correlate length of time spent with a loved one and length of time you can then live without them? Could there have been an equation to determine how long Dad’s heart would keep beating, one pump after another, and how long his lungs will keep filling, one breath after another, succeeding the vacancy in his life when Mom passed away? Maybe, I thought, rubbing my cold hands against the vinyl seat, maybe we can live without a loved one for a specific number of hours that correlates directly to the number of years we lived together, the number of meals we ate elbow-to-elbow, or the number of breaths we took side-by-side.
But then I wiped the board clean, obliterating the pointless Greek letters and silly mathematical equations that could never predict Broken Heart Syndrome or calculate a time of death.
Realizing our lack of control.
I sat by my mother’s hospital bed for twenty-four confusing, chaotic days. I held mom’s fragile hand and massaged her week feet for twenty-four dim, bittersweet evenings. I saw, first-hand, that we will never calculate death’s timetable. Not once in those two dozen difficult days did I see my mother have any control over the beating of her heart, or the flushing of her kidneys, or the workings of her central nervous system. There were times when I cried deep, silent tears for her, wishing she had the ability to let go of this life and avoid any more pain. It was intensely, visually real to me one morning as we watched, through her hospital window, while the morning sky awakened in color. She had no more control over the involuntary functions of her body–involuntary actions that were insisting she live another painful day–than she did over the color of the beautiful sunrise that ushered in that day.
She had no more control over when and where she breathed her last breath than she did over the icy, forlorn weather that would coat the morning of her funeral in beautiful yet miserable ice.
He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain and brings out the wind from His storehouses. Jeremiah 10:13
Recognizing misguided condolences.
Of those who braved the icy weather, many people at Mom’s funeral offered kind, consoling comments that Mom held on those three weeks in the hospital to give me time to say goodbye to her. And, they went on, she chose to take her last breath once she was back in her own home (on hospice care), where she wanted to be, with me by her side.
They may sound like beautiful sentiments, but misguided condolences are simply an attempt to offer comfort over something we don’t understand. To romanticize something we fear. To soften the sharp, painful corners of something we’ve tried to contain in a box labeled “death.”
But if we recognize death for what it is, it has no sharp corners.
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?… thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. I Corinthians 15:55
I know, first-hand, that death does cause deep, yawning pain. I cried in the grocery store today, standing by the Gala apples. The last time I stood there, just days ago, Dad was telling me he would like to get a bag of oranges. And now I can no longer hear his voice. I will never again pick up some fruit for him, and we will be eating the rest of the bag of oranges without him. C.S. Lewis said it well. A loved one’s “absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
Lewis knew grief. He wrestled honestly with God when his wife died three years before himself, and he finally concluded, “Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you. What are you afraid of?”
The steps of a man are established by the Lord. Psalm 37:23-4
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip—he who watches over you will not slumber;… the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore. Psalm 121
Trusting death’s details are not in our hands.
The timing and details of our death are in the hands of the loving creator who formed us, determined our birthday, knew our name long before our mother did (Isaiah 49: 1), and has already numbered our days. Who better to joyfully entrust those details to? Because He is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” (Ephesians 3:20)
As for my silly imaginary equation that correlated length of marriage to length of solitary survival time? Instead of the empty, failed equation, I thought of only two Greek letters. The Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end. God. The one who knit us together also tells our heart when to make its last effort, our nervous system when to feel its last burst of pain, our brain when to recognize its last earthly fear.
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. … Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. … My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Psalm 139
Was my mom thankful to be at home, with me by her side and a favorite hymn playing when she took her last breath at 2:05 one cold November morning? I’m sure of it.
Was Dad missing his beautiful, faithful wife of 55 years so much that he longed to be with her and was envious of the time she had already had with the savior they both loved, free from pain, sadness, and worry? I’m sure of it.
Is there such a thing as a Broken Heart Syndrome? From what I’m told, the medical term is stress-induced cardiomyopathy. And yes, Dad’s central nervous system started shutting down from the weight of his loss. The medics who rushed him to the ER that night… the medics who performed CPR and made him prolong those few steps from this life to eternity by bringing him back multiple times in that ambulance on that blustery, snowy night… they definitely noted dramatic changes in the rhythm of his heart. From the description of his last few days, they later guessed his heart had been out of rhythm for quite some time. Surely his life had been out of rhythm since last April, when the oncologist told mom the news none of us wanted to hear.
Clinging to romantic notions.
So if Broken Heart Syndrome is a medical reality, is there accuracy in these romantic notions that Dad “decided it was time” to be with mom?
Was there any truth in this thought that mom “was holding on” until she was back in her home on the cul de sac on the hill, with family by her side, where she then decided to give up the good fight?
No. Those are the romantic notions we cling to, hoping to strip death of its power. But when we do that, we’ve forgotten that Christ has already defeated death, 2000 years ago on a different hill, far away.
Is God a kind and generous God who knew I would cherish moments at home with Mom before she passed away? I’m certain of it. Is God a gracious, loving God who knew Dad was missing his wife deeply and decided it was time for him to come home? Of course.
Admitting who is in control.
But He is also the one–the only one–who could stop a heart from beating or the nervous system from sending signals. If we ever think we as humans can orchestrate the natural workings of death, we are trying to smooth out the painfully sharp, jagged corners of something we have stuffed in a box labeled “death.”
Instead, I choose to recognize death for what it is. While it is a horrible, vile result of living in a sinful world, and while it causes great stress and heartache to those in its wake, death is oh-so weak. It lasts for but a minuscule moment, and then death, and all of our life before it, is but a vapor.
You do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4: 14
When we step through the thin veil of death, we will finally see life–eternal life–for all that it was intended. No, death has no sharp corners. And when we step into eternity, death has no power.
Yet He who is the source of every power and the granter of every breath, He is worthy of all honor, all glory, and all praise. I am grateful that my mommie’s and daddy’s last moments on this earth were in His gracious, loving hands.
But. I. Sure. Do. Miss. Them.
Resources That Have Offered Comfort
I want to share a few resources that have given me great comfort over the past few weeks.
First, I pulled a Spurgeon devotional off the shelf (Morning and Evening) a few days after Dad died and it spoke volumes to me. It was extra special to me given that it was a copy from 1955, a second printing, from my grandmother’s bookshelf. But no matter when your version was printed or what the cover looks like, you absolutely can’t go wrong with this devotional. There’s one page for each morning… He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed. Isaiah 50:4. And one page for each evening… On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 63:7.
Then, at Dad’s funeral service, a friend handed me a devotional book that I can’t get enough of: The Songs of Jesus, by Timothy and Kathy Keller. I find I revisit most day’s teachings more than once. It’s that kind of book, and it’s been so good for my aching heart. As Keller explains, the Psalms are a “medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living.”
Then there’s my daughter’s new Bible that she purchased right after her PapPap passed away.
Time spent meditating over God’s word while she makes it look artfully pretty has been a soothing balm for her, as well as for me when I discover her latest design left open on the kitchen table.
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