When I sat down to write a blog post for this week, I realized that it’s been quite some time since I’ve written one. This is partly due the house renovations, which have evolved into a much bigger project than had been originally planned. What began as a simple idea to take down the thirty-year-old wallpaper in the basement became a full-fledged renovation in itself. Old paneling was wrenched off, drywall replaced, walls retextured, and we’re still in the process of sheetrock repair and painting. But I’ll tell the story of that self-taught handyman apprenticeship and the continuing bewilderment of the former homeowner’s cheapskate-ness some other time.
The other reason that I have been fairly quiet for the month of July is because my family suffered a traumatic loss. I lost an aunt to suicide. My father lost a sister. My uncle lost a wife. My cousins lost a mother. It will probably take years for us to find what many tell us is a “new normal,” and the healing will certainly take time. As I’ve shaken off some of the shock and started to pick up the pieces of life back at home, back in a routine, I realized that in many ways, it feels like surviving an attack. Like a bomb has gone off. In that darkness of depression, suicide seems ultimately imploding. It forces an end to pain, concludes what can’t be endured or understood. This perspective is drawn constrictingly inward, coiled tighter and tighter until breath stops. But it’s not an implosion. It’s an explosion. Some of us are not standing as close, and at first, we may even think that we’ve escaped with only minor cuts and bruises.
In the week that followed, my family limped on, but we found other hurts that we hadn’t first realized. One moment, my dad would be reminiscing about the vacation home that he helped his parents build when he was a young man. The next moment, his voice would catch and we’d find tears in our eyes. One moment, my brother would be talking about the things that he’d done during his visit to the family just a few days before. The next moment, the mood would drop and voices would quiet as our thoughts returned to the same exhausted questions. Could we have done anything? Why didn’t we know? How could everything have seemed so normal?
My aunt’s funeral was the second I have attended this year. The first was that of a friend I had known when I was much younger. While we had never been close and had not been in touch since high school days, I had always considered him to be distant family, since he was so dear to a friend that I think of as a brother of my own. His life, too, ended in suicide. I never thought that I would lose anyone in that way, and this summer, I have lost two. When I think of him, I remember laughter, jokes, and the way he loved animals. When I think of her, I remember her dazzling smile, generosity, and the delicious sweet potatoes she baked for my sister and I for Easter lunch last year. Their lives were filled with such brightness, but they could no longer see it. They hadn’t seen it for such a long time that perhaps they had forgotten it. And that breaks my heart more than anything.
At both funerals, the hymn “Amazing Grace” was sung. The familiar song, sometimes shouted and claimed, was a lifeline for the ones gathered around. In those moments, we hear “amazing” as it was originally meant, not a thundered “wonderful” or “great,” but a whispered “staggering” and “astounding.” In the best of times, grace is a restorative gift. We can hold on to it lightly, treasure it, fold it away with other essential assurances. In our worst times, grace is first-aid, suddenly confusing and completely necessary. We don’t know why we deserve it, or how we found it, but suddenly we cannot live without it.
Grace is always life-giving, and I think that is why “Amazing Grace” has been a song accompanying both of these sad times that have passed this summer. I am never so staggered by grace as when I am surrounded by death, heartbreak, anger, and loss. In the most broken parts of my life, the contrast of what I am is thrown into the sharpest relief against the vitality and wholeness of heaven. I can see again how I will never deserve a promise of life, but it is not a matter of deserving. God knows what life here is like—He is familiar with sadness, and no stranger to death as the Gospels say. He calls after us when we’re lost in these dark places, holding out grace and reminding us that we do not belong here. No one deserves that kind of hope, the preserving faith that this is not all there is, but it is what we all need. That song reminds us that we all want to be called home.
While I am staggered by the weight of what has happened, I am more stunned by the way that God wants to know us even though we are wretched creatures in need of saving, mostly from ourselves. Not every person who sings that song believes it, but I can only pray that, even if only for a moment, they could see something brighter, something higher, something life-giving. For myself, I know the road ahead is not always smooth. As of late, it’s been unstable, unpredictable, and heartbreaking. But I can only walk on, a melody under my breath, whispering that ‘tis grace that led me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.