Aslan’s death so filled their minds that they hardly thought of it…. And down they both knelt in the wet grass and kissed his cold face and stroked his beautiful fur — what was left of it — and they cried till they could cry no more. And then they looked at each other and held each other’s hands and cried again and then again were silent.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine died in a car accident. I traveled to Champaign to be with his 28-year-old wife, Rachel, as she grieved. Although I’d just written an article about comforting the bereaved, my experience with Rachel opened my eyes to a different way of grieving.
In the hospital, after Rachel received word that Nate had died, she wept, as you might expect. But you might not be able to imagine (as I couldn’t) what she did next. She started saying, “Christ is risen!” to everyone who would listen: the nurses as they entered the room, her sister on the phone, her dad on the hospital bed beside her. She woke in the middle of the night with ideas for the funeral sermon and she resolved to wear white.
“People thought I was denial,” Rachel said. “But I understood what had happened. At the same time, I glimpsed the reality behind the reality — the deeper reality.”
If you’ve been up all night and cried until there seems to be no more tears left in you — you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
My first night with Rachel was her first night back in the apartment she had shared with Nate. It was a night of details — of taking them in like a long, jagged breath. Nate’s coat was slung over a chair, his boots flung on the floor, just as he’d left them when he’d come home from work on the Friday before the accident. Rachel and I thawed chili from the freezer, and it seemed odd to me that we were sitting together, eating that delicious chili, from before.
Later, when I crawled into bed beside Rachel, I noticed something: just above the nightstand, in the soft glow from the Chinese lantern, there was an icon of the Resurrection. Christ was clothed in white, pulling Adam and Eve from their tombs. As I looked at the icon, I realized that each night before Nate turned in he must have seen it. I can’t help but wonder if he knew his time was near because of how well he lived during his last months.
Rachel told me that their last morning together was full of joy. As they got into the car to leave the church, Nate stopped Rachel. “I didn’t get a hug today,” he told her, his arms open wide.
“He never let a day go by without us embracing,” Rachel told me. “He helped me to remember that we needed to embrace each moment we had together. That may be part of the reason I’m able to let him go and accept his death — we lived our marriage as a gift.”
* * *
That night, Rachel asked if I would read Psalms as she drifted off. She directed me to Psalm 126:5-6.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
Bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with joy,
Bringing his sheaves with him.
It was a night of restless grief, but also of unexpected joy. Rachel could only sleep for a few moments before she would begin to speak again. We wept so many times that night that I had to continually get fresh glasses of water from the kitchen.
Rachel and I make some pair. She is a teacher and I am a writer. She, even in her deepest moments of grief, continued to teach. For my part, I continued to take mental notes, struggling to create metaphors so that I could understand what was happening.
At some point during that long first night, I interrupted Rachel’s grief with an idea. “Isn’t this something like being on a river? You just can’t stop the current.”
Rachel, being ever the patient teacher, considered my latest attempt, “Yeah, Jenny, that’s right,” she said, sighing a little. Hers was a twilight grief. That long night was permeated by her very clear sense that the dawn would come.
Within Eastern Christianity we have a term which at least partially captures what we experienced at the funeral. “Bright sadness” is a kind of “bitter joy” or “joyful mourning.” It is a reality which defies all logic, and perhaps because of this, it causes us to rethink all that we thought we knew.
It was bright sadness which inspired Rachel to wear white that day, as she stood beside the casket of her husband in the church where they had married five years before. And it was bright sadness that caused the five priests to wear white vestments as well. I also saw it in the way that they approached Nate at the end of the service, one by one, kissing his forehead and making the sign of the cross over him.
The funeral gathered this reality together and held it for us: the agony of a death we were never supposed to experience with our hope in the Resurrection. Rachel, looking like a radiant bride, even as she wept. As one of Rachel’s friends told her afterward, “The Gospel hung in the air with the incense.”
Weeks afterward, I’m still pondering that thick, sweet air. Thick with sorrow, thick with hope, thick with the knowledge that even in our darkest moments God is there. Recently, on the phone with Rachel, I told her that the funeral helped me to see that the Resurrection is true. It happened — and is happening.
“I think I will use that phrase for the rest of my life to explain those days of mourning and joy,” Rachel told me.
The girls cleared away the remains of the gnawed ropes. Aslan looked more like himself without them. Every moment his dead face looked nobler, as the light grew and they could see it better.
In the wood behind them, a bird gave a chuckling sound. It had been so still for hours and hours that it startled them. Then another bird answered it. Soon, there were birds singing all over the place.
—C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe