It has been 5 months since my parents put their dog to sleep after an aggressive cancer took over his sweet black and white, smushed face, snorting nose, sweet little being. He actually was put to sleep the same day that I found out I had cancer. It was a rough day all around. My almost 4 year old son asked: “Mama, where’s Gus? I miss him.” And as I explained that Gus had died and tried to make sense of something that is overwhelming and confusing for even me, Sam started crying: “Mama, I don’t want Gus to die. I don’t want him to go to heaven!” All I could do was give him the biggest hug and continue to process the loss of this sweet dog that we all dearly missed.
An hour or so later, we were driving to the library for story time. He started crying again: “Mama, I don’t want Gus to be in heaven! I’m sad…” which trickled into: “Mama I don’t want to go to the lie-berry, I want to go to the jungle gym.” As I affirmed his sadness and tried to share my own sadness of Gus’ absence in our lives and I shared fun memories that I had of Gus, I decided that the jungle gym was just what the doctor ordered. We pulled up to the park and he quickly forgot his sadness as he chased his sister and they pretended the playground equipment was a ship, a house, a castle… And I was an alligator going after their feet hanging over the side of the draw bridge. I was really just trying to chase away their tears for a moment.
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8
Five months had passed… and my son was finally asking questions about the permanent absence of our beloved Gus. As he grows in his ability to express his sadness and as I strive to stay ready to affirm and welcome those tears that accompany those intense moments of sadness, I know that processing the loss of a dog is an opportunity for God to mature his little but oh-so-passionate heart so down the road, he can grieve over even greater losses. My own grief is often delayed and unpredictable as I often don’t even take time to sit with a loss until weeks have passed and I’m in child’s pose at a Holy Yoga class. There is something about being flat on my face that allows me to finally accept and surrender my sadness, anger, fear, and emotions that don’t yet have words. I’m not sure what made my son finally sit with the pain and loss of Gus’ death, but I wonder if it had something to do with feeling safe, slowing down, and having a bit more quiet in our daily rhythm.
There are so many triggers to those deeply stored feelings of loss…vivid memories or familiar moments to your senses, perhaps, of sitting in a chair, seeing the season change, or feeling the leaves crunch under your feet. My childhood best friend’s dad passed away four years ago this November. I remember driving a few hours to be with her and her family when his health was quickly fading. I remember how my friend stood next to her dad while he played the keyboard. He got choked up as he heard his daughter sing these favorite hymns. And I sat quietly and absorbed the sacred and comfortable moment occur. It wasn’t my moment, but I was blessed to observe it. Even now, it is crazy how often waves of sadness sweep over me when he and his family are brought to my mind. Sometimes, it is the worship song that we sang at his funeral or remembering how he’d drive my friend and I to ballet classes when we were 7 years old, his peaceful and assuring presence in the front seat while we sat in the back of his station wagon, sharing pages from our diaries, giggling, and eating apples. Or sometimes, it’s remembering the phone call where my friend shared about her dad’s diagnosis through tears and confusion. And while I feel that pang of loss, it reminds me of the enormity of loss that my dear friends carry with them with exponentially greater intensity and frequency that I cannot even begin to imagine.
With pangs of loss, there is a deep hope, trust, and peace that followers of Jesus have in eternity… that death is not the final word. And in those moments of grief and loss, I rest in the promises of our God who is in the process of restoring and redeeming all things for His glory and purposes. But whether it’s at three years old or thirty-three years old, the permanence of someone’s absence hits the depths of your emotions at the most unexpected, often delayed, and always unplanned times.
I’m so thankful that my son is asking the hard questions, sharing his feelings, and letting himself cry. I think a lot of us adults can learn a few things from the authentic grief of a small child.
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.” Revelation 21:1-7
I’m so thankful for the ways that children keep us authentic and engaged at the heart level. What a gift.