My Mourning Bench

…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

Spring 1980

I wondered if 8:30 AM was too early to call my friend and mentor Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice. I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from metastatic breast cancer growth in her bones. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.  I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each one of us medical students. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken and hurting body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with her recent diagnosis of metastatic cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home and I regularly visited, in need of her wisdom and she still needed her students.

That night I had felt uneasy about her all during my ER shift and felt compelled to visit her and her husband and daughter that day, maybe help out by cleaning their house, fixing them a meal or taking her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?” Something was deeply wrong.

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form. She sobbed out the words that their college son, Gordon, was dead. Earlier that morning, a police officer had knocked loudly on their door, awakening her and her husband with the news of a tragic highway accident.

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense although I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died as they were driving through the night. He was sleeping in the camper as they drove. They think he sleepwalked right out of the back of the moving camper, fell onto the highway and was hit by another car.“

I felt strangled by her words and could only imagine how difficult it was for her to keep breathing enough to say them.

“They’ll bring him home to us, won’t they? I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

I assured Margy she would see him again, both in his broken body and, some day yet to be determined, whole.

Up until then, I knew in my head this life was full of sorrow, but I had been spared the full heart impact of grief until I witnessed such intensity of an acute unbelievable loss – how loving one so deeply meant suffering immeasurably.

I understood, for the first but surely not the last time, how it is the only way to love.

During the remaining few months of Margy’s life as she waited to join her son, she continued to teach me about how to come close in to the suffering and grief of others, and also how to sit together, even in silence, on that too-often lonesome mourning bench.

…for the Jude Veltkamp family who lost their teenage son, grandson, nephew, brother this week to a relentless cancer.

But our God is even more relentless in His love and comfort for His mourning children…

I knew this life was full of sorrow
But still I believed
That good times would follow
That the evil would falter
And true hearts would rise
True hearts would rise
That simple dream ended
On the night that you died

And even the sound of a whistle fading
Brings back the longing
And stirs up the aching
Peaceful companion that grounded my soul
You grounded my soul
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone

Sometimes I still think
I will see you in New York
And we will meet on the platform of the train
And with your great leaning stride
You’ll cross back to my side
And my old life
Will be my life again

You were quiet as a winter sky
Where planets turn
And the North Star rides
My sweet brother, so reasoned, so calm
My brother, my own
The world spins without meaning
Now that you’re gone
~Fernando Ortega

5 thoughts on “My Mourning Bench

  1. So incredibly beautifully and painfully expressed.
    What is written here is so true — so achingly true.
    The price of loving is often far beyond our comprehension to accept and to live with.
    It is, however, our only Hope, Faith and Trust in our loving Savior that can give us the strength
    to bear these losses.

    (I will say again, dear Emily: you bleed! I can feel it resounding in your written words —
    even those that remain silent but fill your kind, understanding soul.)

    Thank you for this.


  2. Thank you for sharing these beautiful words that express what we are all feeling in our hearts. You touch our deepest heart strings and help us sing through our tears. We are gathered together at the mourning bench embracing Jude’s family.

    Liked by 1 person

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