“To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”
We were laughing as we left church that Sunday afternoon—playing with our toddler cousin, vying for the attention of the small child, making lunch plans, and basking in the afterglow of a great Sunday morning service and the bright sunshine of the June day. We said, “Love ya!” as we parted ways, even though we knew we’d see each other again in just a couple of hours for music practice and the evening service. But that was just the way our family did it—my parents, my brother, my sister, and I never hung up the phone or left each other without saying “I love you.” As my twenty-three-year-old brother, Patrick, drove away, I had no idea it would be eternity before we could tell him, or hear him say, those words again.
Within a couple hours’ time, there was an urgent knock at the door, and the cry of “Patrick went under the water! We haven’t been able to get him up yet!” A quick swim in the lake with the guys from church … and he was gone forever. In mere moments, my parents, my sister, and I were thrust from sunshine and good times into the valley of the shadow of death. The change from light to darkness was so sudden that we could hardly see for a while. We cried in anguish as we stumbled on the craggy valley floor, trying to see through the darkness but making no sense of the shadows. We would wake each morning, praying it was all a nightmare and we could go back to the land of the light, only to feel the stabbing pains of grief that pierced our hearts until they shattered into pieces and plunged us into dark despair.
Not only did I grieve over the loss of my beloved brother and the fact that my future children would never know this amazing uncle that should be theirs, but I hurt almost equally as much watching my parents walk through this valley of grief. It was so excruciatingly painful to see them navigate through each stage of grief, completely heartbroken and in agony.
I wish I could tell you a secret formula, a series of steps to take which would ensure your quick passage through and exit out of the valley of the shadow of death. I can’t do that, but I can remind you that when the darkness tries to convince you there is no light at all, ironically, the very existence of a shadow gives us hope that there is, in fact, light on the other side of whatever has cast the shadow. For those of you trekking through that valley of darkness now, I pray you see this article for what it really is: just some notes scrawled on the canyon walls from those who’ve passed this way before and by the grace of God, crawled and staggered our way through that dark place into the light once again.
My dad, a faithful preacher of the gospel, clung to the Scripture that tells us to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. As Dad walked through the valley of depression and despair, the only time he could get relief from the heaviness and darkness was when he was in the presence of God or preaching under the anointing of the Holy Ghost. He would experience brief times of peace and comfort, somehow sensing that while he was in the presence of the Lord, he was in the same place as his son.
Our family never withdrew from going to the house of God after Patrick’s death. We refused to isolate ourselves, and although we didn’t feel like it, we entered into worship faithfully. It wasn’t easy to lift our hands in worship after such a loss; it was difficult to even lift our heads! But here’s what is so significant about worship when you’re broken: this is when you must give God true worship. Abraham is an example of this in Genesis 22, for he said, “I and the lad will go yonder and worship” (verse 5) when he really intended to sacrifice his only son on the altar! It was true worship because it wasn’t what either of them wanted.
When Abraham fully surrendered in worship, the angel of the Lord spoke: “Now I know that thou fearest God” (verse 12). In other words, you passed the true worship test, you just unlocked the miraculous, you summoned God’s angelic host, and God has provided a ram in the thicket. If he had gone into “worship” demanding that God do it his way, it wouldn’t have worked.
Because true worship is surrendering: “God, You are Lord. You are King. I give You control. I don’t understand these circumstances. I don’t pretend to even like it, but I surrender it to You, to whatever bigger plan You are working. I choose to take my eyes off the loss and lift my eyes heavenward, to know that You will work all things for my good.”
True worship involves surrendering our trust to God and dying to our will and desires.
It’s hard to describe the healing that came when we lifted our hands and said, “God, we give our heartbreak to You. It’s not what we want; nevertheless, not our will, but Yours be done.” My mom testifies that only through worship and clinging to the Word of God was she able to experience peace that passes understanding (Philippines 4:7). When we thought we would lose our minds with grief, worship brought peace that kept our hearts and minds.
Our family learned that reaching out to someone else who is hurting is one of the best ways to heal. After about ten years of struggling with grief, my parents decided they did not want to “waste the storm.” They began to reach out to others who were suffering as they were and assist them on their journey of grief. They launched a “Loss of Child” network and annual retreat. This network reaches out to parents who have lost a child and sends them thoughtful gifts, books, and resources. Once a year they gather for an informal retreat and help each other by sharing stories, fears, hurts, and grief. The participants span a wide range of ages and have lost children due to varied circumstances. Parents come broken, weeping, and grieving, but leave comforted and feeling like “I can make it through this.” When they fellowship with others who have already gone through several years of grief, it encourages them to keep progressing on their journey. They now feel they have a support system on which they can lean and people who will be praying for them. The retreat forges lifelong friendships. The participants become a family with a bond that only those who have suffered great loss truly understand.
Obviously, these notes from valley-of-death travelers won’t take away the pain of your loss. I just pray that you will find some comfort in knowing that others have traversed this path as well.
In Psalm 23, David began speaking about the Lord: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But while walking through the valley of the shadow of death, he transitioned to talking to Him: “Yea … I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Walking through this valley, we find His footsteps there and realize He’s already walked this valley before us, He conquered death, He is walking with us, and if we keep holding His hand, He will gently guide us out of the shadows and into the light once again.