Part of the journey through grief is figuring out how we got here. What happened to turn our world upside down and inside out? Some of us need to understand our grief before we can begin to rebuild our lives. We want to know exactly how we landed in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4 RSV).
We know that a valley is the low point of a mountain formation - it usually follows the course of a stream. The valley is at the bottom, it’s where we are when we grieve as shadowy darkness slowly closes in around us. Yet if we listen, we hear the stream surging with life, making its way steadily, surely toward that which lies beyond the confines of the valley. Its course leads out of the valley...
So, how did we get here? For some of us, it was a jump off the cliff of life because of the sudden illness or unexpected death of our loved one. There was no time to prepare, we just fell into the valley without even a running jump. Circumstance pushed us over the edge and we had nothing to break the fall. This is what happened when Leighton got sick. He died only ninety days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I plunged headfirst into the valley – it was a quick, painful, ungraceful descent.
For those of us who were caretakers or caregivers for several months or years before the death of our loved one, we camped out near the valley for a long time. Each day of a prolonged illness is like the persistent, steady erosion of the ground on which we live. We faithfully care for and tend the one now lost to us in death, even as daily we inch closer to the valley. When we feel life slipping away, we’re off balance emotionally and spiritually – intellectually we’re resigned to the inevitability of death, yet we persist in hope, we hang on.
I experienced this with my father, who died of Alzheimer’s disease. Observing his slow, steady demise was like watching an ice sculpture melt. His once strongly defined figure disappeared drop by drop, with no hope of salvaging the watery puddle around him or somehow reapplying it to make him whole and well again. And because we’re human, when we’re bystanders to the slow death of a beloved person, at some time most of us cry out in our inmost heart, “How long, O LORD, how long?” (Psalm 6:3 NIV). As my father’s life slowly ended, I struggled with my own slide into the valley of the shadow of death – I was hanging on for his dear life until at last I realized that the better part of love was to let go and let him go.
When we arrive in the valley, however we get there, we're surrounded by shadows – shadows of the past, shadows of the uncertain present, shadows of the unknown future. If you think about it, each day we struggle with the long shadow cast over our lives by death. Yet within each shadow is the suggestion of light and without light, there can be no shadow.
Faith is the light of God that guides the way through the dark passage of our grief. We follow the light, out of the valley, toward the promise of divine radiance at the end of our journey.
By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the sun of your light.