“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Every human being will experience the valley of grief at some point in their life. Whether it be the grief of losing a spouse, a parent, or even a child, we are guaranteed a walk through that valley.
My mother would have been 83 today. She was, without a doubt, the most influential person in my life. Today also marks almost ten years since she left us. The day after her birthday, she went in for a routine medical procedure. Tragically she had a massive stroke under anesthesia and passed away eight days later, sending me on my journey through that valley.
Grief is the unwanted house guest that has worn out its welcome, but it also makes an excellent teacher when used by the Master. And so, I’ve learned much.
I grew up the daughter of a gold miner. I know, it sounds like a movie. But my dad really was an old-school miner of precious metals. We lived out in the middle of the California desert where our closest neighbor was 10 miles away and the town was 25 miles. The wilderness was my playground and the mountains, my schoolyard.
Dad had bought mining claims just on the Arizona/California/Mexico border when I was 2. The area was once a thriving mining community in the late 1800s; however, there was nothing there when we purchased the land. Just a vastness of desert that was foreign to the mind.
Our little homestead was located in the center bottom of a mountain range. Although a relatively small range - the tallest mountain boasted only 2200 ft elevation - they seemed to tower above our little property. Part of the Chocolate Mountain range, and named so because of their dark brown appearance, were stark, especially against the blue sky.
While other kids watched cartoons on Saturday morning, I explored caves and abandoned mineshafts. While my peers would ride their bikes down the sidewalk to visit their friends, I rode mine throughout the canyons, mindful to watch for snakes. Finally, while my friends explored neighborhood parks, I explored deep valleys and climbed steep canyons where the rocks would slide out from under you if you weren’t paying attention.
And it was to these valleys, the Lord took me back to as I sat in the ICU with my mother as she was dying.
There are parts of that time that are seared into my mind and heart. The sound of the ventilator, the various beeps and alarms that went off for any reason. The horrible sound of her coughing as the techs cleaned out her lungs. But most vividly, I remember the sound of the curtain pulled back as doctors and nurses came in and out. All with the sad look on their faces of trained professionals who know the look of death and recognized it on my mother.
I refused to accept it, though. I begged, pleaded, ordered, demanded that God raise her up. And I believed that He would. I was desperate for a word from Him. I scoured the Bible, listened closely to the Pastor, analyzed every word that came out of my husband’s mouth, scanned every text, every email that came from the body of Christ. I was confident that the Lord would send me something.
And then, finally, the word I had been waiting for arrived.
I had reached that place in the hospital ICU where time and space all ran together. I could not have told you what time it was or what day it was, but I was sitting in the chair next to her reading the Bible. I felt the Lord direct my eyes to Matthew 20:15 –
“’Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?”
And I realized with an awful finality that He was going to take my mother. He was telling me that she ultimately belonged to Him.
And it was time.
I remember feeling my faith wavering, like the rocks in those canyons I’d climbed from childhood slipping under my feet. I thought my faith was weak. Here’s what I learned, though. It takes more faith to let go of someone we love, to put them entirely in the Masters’ hands, trusting that He knows what’s best than it is to believe for a healing or a miracle.
God was asking me:
“In whose hand [is] the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?” Job 12:10
He was asking me if I trusted Him. And I faltered. When the middle of the night came, and I sat in that room watching my mother die, I struggled with my faith. Ever so softly, I heard the Lord whisper the same question, “In whose hand is the life of every living thing?” He was gently telling me, “it’s ok, leave her in my hands.” Still, I struggled.
A few nights later, I picked up the Bible on impulse and started reading the 23rd Psalm. I got to the line “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” I tried to move on, but I kept feeling impressed that something was there. Finally, in frustration, I mumbled out loud, “Lord! I get it….the valley of the shadow of death…mom’s dying….what are you telling me??” And the thought that followed immediately behind it was, “No, this is not her valley, it’s yours. Prepared by me.”
Almost immediately the scripture came to mind, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28). The true meaning of that verse is never more evident than when we are in the valley of the shadow of death and despair.
We have to remember that there are parts of who we are that need to die and be broken off, and it's in these deep valleys of sorrow and grief that the Lord does His work if we’ll let him. I knew that He was there in that valley with me, using this time of sorrow and grief to do a work in me.
A seed sprouts in the dark, wet, and tilled up soil. The mighty oaks’ roots run deep into the ground, plowing through hard rocks below. It’s in the dark, lonely shadows of our grief the Lord does His most significant works. When we ignore Him, we circumvent the cure.
God wants to take us THROUGH our valleys, though. We will remain there if we do not follow the Shepherd out of our valley. And it’s easy to stay there and even easier to return. Many times in the first couple of years after Mom died, I returned to the valley’s depths. When I allowed my mind to think, “Should I have decided to remove the ventilator?” “Could I have done more to get the hospital staff to move faster the morning of mom’s stroke?” I was reminded of when I would explore the canyons as a kid. Some were steep, frightening channels carved into the land, with the mountains rearing up sharply on both sides. I remember scraping shins and banging knees as I would climb higher and higher. And then one of the rocks I was using as leverage to climb would give way, and I would slide down. That’s what our mind does to us. It slips us back to ‘what ifs” and loosens our hold on the “what are’s.”
It has been a difficult journey. But I’ve learned priceless life lessons. I’ve learned that I can’t rely on “feelings” and that God’s grace really is sufficient for the moment we are in. Planning for the future is essential but living in the moment with Him is paramount. Those 193 hours spent in the ICU and the many hours of sorrow afterward gave me on-the-job training in the sufficiency of God’s grace. ‘My grace is sufficient for right now,” He would whisper into my soul in the days following when I found it hard to put one foot in front of the other.
Jesus was a man of sorrows, and I have been comforted knowing that He knows the brokenness of our grief and loss.
Mourning and grief are part of life, but how we respond to it and handle it determines its effect on our lives. After 10 years, I still walk in the grief of losing my mother. But the canyons are a little less steep, a little less dark these days. I continue to watch the Lord break things off of me and prepare me for the next valley.
One of the few constants that life brings is the valleys.
Holding on to the Shepherds hand, I’ll be ready.