The phone rang at 1:39 a.m. Good news never comes at 1:39 a.m. on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. This phone call was no exception.
“My dad passed away!” The voice on the other end was shaky, broken up, difficult to understand.
My husband’s voice sounded tight, confused from waking from a deep sleep, now wrestling against disbelief and fear and trying to get more information.
I’d been sleeping so soundly I’d barely heard the phone ring, but my conscious mind took over as soon as I recognized the voice. A son in anguish.
My husband’s best and closest friend of 44 years, Rob, was dead. Suddenly, unexpectedly gone.
My husband, Scott, had just seen him, laughed and talked with him, only hours before. Now his friend lay face down on his bedroom floor, arms sprawled, heart no longer beating. The massive heart attack came without warning, without invitation, and violently stole a father, husband, new grandfather, and dear friend.
We arrived just after the coroner and stood out in the chilly night with his middle son and his son’s girlfriend, unable to enter the house while the coroner and detectives did their work, determining cause of death and making sure no foul play was afoot. I watched an hour later as they walked outside the house, heaving a large black body bag and heading toward the coroner’s white, unmarked van. Scott’s friend was in that zipped-up, suffocating, plastic, temporary coffin. He was leaving the house he loved for the last time.
My husband and I have spent the last five days grieving and processing what happened, but we find we struggle to comprehend it. It’s too surreal, too raw . . . too wrong. We haven’t gotten much work done this week. Too often tears come and the mind begins to wander back to last Saturday night when the world changed, when everything stood still and we were unable to breathe or take it in.
My heart aches over the loss of a man who died too young, who died senselessly, but more so, my heart aches for my husband. When a person dies, people talk about the family’s loss and their pain, they’re quick to comfort the spouse and children and parents, which is a good thing and should be so, but too often they neglect the very real despair over a friend’s loss. No one shows up at a friend’s house carrying a chicken and broccoli casserole and saying, “I’m praying for you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” While the family is surrounded by comforters, a friend is often left to grieve alone.
I wrote Rob’s obituary for the family. I wrote the usual—“He is survived by his wife and three sons, his granddaughter, his siblings . . .” but nowhere did I mention Scott—the close friend who knew this person longer than almost anyone else alive, the one who had gone into business with him, the one with whom he shared his sorrows and joys and profound thoughts about unique gardening tips and heirloom tomatoes and the best way to fix a transmission and life and love and hopes and dreams and UFOs.
Scott will never again receive a daily text or a phone call in which he’ll hear Rob say, “Where you at?” He will receive only silence. Just last night, I asked Scott a question and he began his answer with, “I’m not sure, I’ll need to check with Ro—” only to interrupt himself with a stunned and pained look. The reminder of a deep loss, that grief has now become a wedded companion to my husband.
When grief comes, it never leaves. There will never again be a time when Scott doesn’t at some level grieve. It is now part of who he is. Grief is achingly raw and agonizing right now, and in the future it will lessen, but for the rest of his life, it will pop up unexpectedly with hurricane force, and the void will glaringly present itself yet again.
We have hope. We know we will see Rob again someday. We know this isn’t goodbye forever. We know he is in a better place, where the weather is superior to San Diego’s perfect day, food is more amazing than the best Portillo’s sandwich and fries, where heart attacks never happen, and laughter and joy ring out in a constant refrain of hallelujahs. And yet . . . not yet. Our mourning has not turned to dancing. Not yet.
We cannot—and must not—rush the process of grief, as too often our culture encourages in an effort to push off the discomfort and inconvenience of death.
No, grief and hope are not mutually exclusive. As people of faith, we always have hope that a time is coming when we will experience no more pain or tears or suffering or death. But grief has its important place too, reminding us that loss reverberates through an entire community, not just a nuclear family. David ripped his clothes in grief and lamented over the loss of his best friend, Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:11-12). Even Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (John 11:35). We too must dive deeply into grief’s waters, lamenting and allowing ourselves to freely feel the pain of what is unnatural—death. We can hope, but we must never allow it to become so superficial and pat in our faith that we fail to experience the rawest of emotions.
And so today, as Scott and I prepare to enter Rob’s church and celebrate Rob’s life with his family, we will allow ourselves to laugh at Rob’s crazy antics and to cry over the man who lived, who touched our lives, and whom we will miss terribly as long as we draw breath.
We will grieve. And because of and through those tears, we will draw strength and hope from our Savior who knows what it is to be a friend and to weep bitterly over a friend’s loss. And slowly as we weep and allow ourselves to feel the not yet, the hope of soon will quietly comfort and become our wedded companion as well, for “friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family” (Proverbs 18:24, MSG)—not even death can take that away.