Lamenting in the Valley of Suck: The Days After Death

If I could go back to tell myself something about what was to come, I do not know if I would have believed me.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, would have helped and nothing would have done the job to prepare me for the moment when my wife would take her last breath on this planet.

Do not believe it when someone says they know.  Even those who have experienced the “technical” same thing (me talking to someone who also lost a spouse to cancer) do not know what I experienced nor what I am experiencing now. There are similarities which allow us to support one another but it is not the same.  I would never have believed it possible that walking in the valley of the shadow of suck could be worse.

I was wrong.  Oh. My. God. I was wrong.

I was not prepared for how I would feel.  I was not prepared for my children’s responses.  I was not prepared for what it would be like to go home, to an emptiness and hollowness.  I was not prepared for the sounds of the stairs which I hoped would be the sound of her coming down.  I was not prepared for her empty space at the table.  I was not prepared for all the pictures and the memories they would bring up.  

I was not prepared for the truth.  I thought I knew and I was wrong.

You are wrong too.  Whatever you think you know about how you will handle a tragic death, will not help.  For all I had read and prayed and talked and prepared for that moment, it was not enough.  It could not be.  Half of me was ripped from my life.  For all my bravado, I was not an island.  Twenty-one years ago, when I said “I do,” I committed completely to the role of being Heather’s husband.  I must have done something right because I am missing me.

If you read my blog right before Heather died about how I read “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe,” to her, you know C.S. Lewis was one of her favorite author.  Lewis wrote two books on pain: “The Problem of Pain,” and “A Grief Observed.”  The first is good theology.  The second is real life.  It is Lewis’ struggle with his wife’s death.  I started reading it again and in Madeleine L’Engle’s intro from 1988, she wrote what I need to say to you today:

“But where Joy Davidman [Lewis' wife] is now, or where my husband is, no priest, no minister, no theologian can put into the limited terms of provable fact. ‘Don’t talk to me about the consolations of religion,’ Lewis writes, ‘or I shall suspect that you do not understand.’”

In my experience here in the valley of suck, I have discovered it does suck out the consolations which I once knew regarding my faith; my religion...all of them.  The genie is out of the bottle and you cannot put him back in.  We are not immortal.  Our love, no matter how strong, is not enough to prevent the one we love most from dying.  Remember, Lazarus, though raised from the dead, died again.  

We do not understand death.  I do not think for all our poetry and prose regarding love, that we understand it either.  And I truly do not understand the ways of God.  Death rips apart the past, the present, and the future.

As I blog tonight, I know very few things anymore but I know these things:
-I loved Heather with my whole being (and I hope I made her glad she married me).
-Everyday I woke up, I loved her.  I still do.
-Her favorite job title in the world was “mom.”
-I have no idea what I am doing now and only a fool would brag they did.
-I am scared how to parent my two new adults (death graduates you early).
-I know enough that though I may be at odds with God; God is the only one I’ve got.

I also know there is no way around the valley of suck and I find it has given me much strength to name it and call it out for what it is and what it does to us.  There is no way to talk about consolations without the despair of lamentation and knowing deep grief.  We must live and know what the writer of Lamentations says in the first half of the book before we can talk about what comes next...

1 I am the man who has seen affliction
under the  rod of his wrath;
2he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;
3surely against me he turns his hand
again and again the whole day long.

4He has made my flesh and my skin waste away;
he has broken my bones;
5 he has besieged and enveloped me
with  bitterness and tribulation;
6 he has made me dwell in darkness
like the dead of long ago.

7 He has walled me about so that  I cannot escape;
he has made my chains heavy;
8though  I call and cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones;
he has made my paths crooked.
(Lamentations 3:1-9)

If you are grieving, know this, you don’t get to skip ahead to the end of the book or the end of the valley no matter what you may think or want to do. If you are with the grieving, do not try to console the grieving by belittling them as they grieve with talk of glorious days ahead. The food of the valley of suck is the gravel we tread. We run head first into blocks of stone you cannot move for us. Walk with us at your own peril but if you do, just walk. Much love from the valley of suck.


Cynthia Astle said...

Ken, with all you've been going through, you may not be aware that I've been re-posting your blog entries of Heather's dying on United Methodist Insight. I'm going to repost this one with your permission. I ache for you and your family. I can't know the reality of your pain, except to know that it exists and it grieves me. I can offer you no other consolation except to say that you've been in my thoughts and prayers and will continue to be. In Christian love, Cynthia Astle

Debbie said...

Thank you Ken. You put to words what we are feeling. From the Cancer Caregivers Support group.

Ken Hagler said...

Thank you Cynthia. You are always welcome to repost.

Ken Hagler said...

You're welcome. Thank you all for being part of this journey.

Turtle One said...

David Johnson wrote: "Don’t let anyone tell you how you should be processing your grief or what stage you should be in."
And for the rest of us:
"Don’t make the mistake of telling someone what they should do with their grief just because it makes sense to you. Many people have been greatly wounded by well intentioned suggestions from others."

All emotions are internal but they need external (physical, behavioral) expression, a means of finding their way out of the heart.
You have been doing that for yourself and for all of us as you shared your journey. Heather would approve of your words for the rest of us.

Andy P said...

The way you have articulated the suffering endemic for those traveling trough the valley rings true to this fellow traveler. Thanks. Your brother, Andy P.

Susan Taylor said...

I hear you. I love you. I love your "graduated" children. I have my own experiences in the valley of suck, and pray for each of you as your lives become something you never expected them to be.

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for putting your grief into words, Ken.

Cindy Campbell said...

You have put into words I couldn't when I lost a very good friend. It is an individual journey, not two alike. Praying as you walk yours.

Ken Hagler said...

Thanks TurtleOne. The thought that Heather would approve...whew.

Ken Hagler said...

SusanTaylor, thank you for your words and being part of the journey with us.

Ken Hagler said...

Craig, you're welcome.

Ken Hagler said...

Cindy Campbell, thank you for saying that. I do hope the words helped.

Unknown said...

Madeleine L'Engle also wrote a memoir _Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage_
Perhaps it will be some company to you in the valley.

Wayne Younger said...

Thanks Ken. As a Pastor, you have informed me through this writing, as a man you have deepened me and as a husband I am moved to love my wife with abandon. You have blessed me from the valley.

Suzanne Rollins said...

Ken, your words are so true. Grief is as individual as our thumbprint. Please receive my virtual hug and know that you and your kids are in my heart, thoughts and prayers. Suzanne Rollins

Susan said...

Praying for you and your children, grieving for your loss. There are no words.

Vera said...

Shedding tears as I walk with you, Ken. Thank you for being honest, with no pat or trite answers to this tragedy. Keep writing as you can as it's helping more people who have had someone close, torn away from them. Self included. Hugs and prayers.

Shelly Leiblie said...

I am so sorry for your loss, Ken. Your words definitely reflect your love for Heather and are a beautiful tribute to that love. I can't begin to fathom what you're going through. I will continue to pray for you, the kids and extended family. The days ahead won't be easy, I'm sure, and I'm so sorry.

Shelly Leiblie said...

I am so sorry for your loss, Ken. Your words definitely reflect your love for Heather and are a beautiful tribute to that love. I can't begin to fathom what you're going through. I will continue to pray for you, the kids and extended family. The days ahead won't be easy, I'm sure, and I'm so sorry.

Jennifer Andone said...

Ken, What you have shared is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. During a week in which I have hardened my heart to endure the pain of this week, your expression of your love for Heather and your grief at her absence softened my heart and tears fell. I think it was Buechner who spoke of being a good steward of our pain. Sharing as you have is a gift I wish you did not have to give.

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