A Stored-up Sorrow
How an unexpected encounter at McDonald’s brought new healing to an old grief
By Royce Eckhardt | May 22, 2017
Not long ago I walked into McDonald’s, contemplating the culinary delights that would make up my fast-food lunch. As I sat down to eat, I noticed the paper mat on the tray soliciting donations for leukemia research. I’ve seen such solicitations many times over the years, but this one had quite an unexpected effect. Suddenly the curtain of time was abruptly pulled back and I was at my little brother’s bedside.
As best I can remember, it was in the springtime toward the end of the school year when we sensed that six-year-old Teddy wasn’t well. Since I was eleven at the time, I don’t remember the symptoms or clinical descriptions that characterized the onset his affliction. But I do remember my parents’ great concern as they began the rounds of medical appointments, seeking a definitive diagnosis.
Local doctors in my hometown of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, knew their limitations and sent our family to Children’s Hospital in Denver to confirm what they suspected. A diagnosis of acute leukemia came with unspeakable impact. In those days, almost seventy years ago now, it was a sure death sentence. Remission was not in the vocabulary.
Driving back from the Denver hospital to our home in western Nebraska was gut-wrenching and anguishing. The intense periods of silence were occasionally broken with sobs of deep pain and cries to the God in whom my parents’ faith was grounded. I can still recall my father, stunned and heartbroken, wishing audibly that a serious car accident might occur to take us all as a family. Not a rational response, to be sure, but excruciating pain is seldom rational.
Returning home to the daily routines was difficult when we knew the anticipated outcome—one of our family would be departing soon amid great suffering.
My parents were people of solid faith. For them, it was not just a matter of embracing dogma or church membership, but rather living out a committed and devoted Christian life grounded in what seemed an unshakable trust in God. Immediately friends and relatives around the country were contacted and prayers requested. Teddy was anointed with oil and surrounded by prayer. But gradually he grew weaker. It became a pattern to bring him to the hospital for transfusions, replacing the blood that cancer was destroying, and then bringing him back home as his life slowly ebbed away.
In mid-August, just three months after that devastating diagnosis in Denver, Teddy died.
Deeply burned into my memory is the heaviness, the stunned silence that suppressed our family life. Friends and family members came to our home with expressions of support and consolation. Support was clearly evident just by their presence. Consolation, however, seemed unattainable. My parents, so deeply rooted in the promises of God, so vibrant in their spiritual life, were profoundly shaken in their faith, almost to the point of abandoning that which they had held so dear. It became an enormous struggle, both personal and theological, that engulfed them for years.
The unspeakably sad events of funeral and burial came and went. I recall taking rose petals from the many floral arrangements from the funeral to my special space in the basement. There I found solitude and solace in the beauty of those flowers and the wondrous fragrance that permeated the room—an intersection of beauty and sorrow.
Decades passed, and it became true for me that time does heal. The fading of painful memories is itself a healing gift of God. Except for the occasional trips home that included a visit to the local cemetery with my parents, this tragic episode and thoughts of my brother had not risen to consciousness in many years.
The fading of painful memories is itself a healing gift of God.
And then, while eating at McDonald’s, I was stricken with grief. For the first time, I reflected on that terrible illness from Teddy’s perspective. How filled with fear he must have been. Certainly he must have recognized that he was dying. I had never contemplated how frightening and terrifying it must have been for a young boy of six.
Suddenly the deep wells of tears opened and flooded. Restrained sobs are rather uncommon at the McDonald’s in my neighborhood. I left a partially eaten lunch and let the tears do their work of washing away pain.
What do I make of this? The struggle over God allowing pain and calamity to come upon us hangs over the entire human story. Job wrestled with the Almighty over the devastating events that visited him and laid him bare. Requiring of God some explanation about the untimely death of a six-year-old boy, only to be met with a great divine silence, is neither unique nor new.
Yet as the fog of sorrow’s gloom begins to dissipate, as the tears eventually dry up, one comes to the ultimate conclusion that God is indeed the only refuge; there is no other place to go. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” he promises. The comfort and sympathies of friends surely are important and are to be cherished, but it is not enough. Hallmark expressions of sympathy certainly are appreciated, but they soon become trite in the face of devastating pain.
So one must turn to the eternal verities, the words of God as revealed in Scripture. Job is Exhibit A. Job’s wife looks at her greatly afflicted husband and offers this advice: “Why don’t you just curse God and die!” (We can be grateful that she didn’t work for Hallmark.) And Job responds: “Shall we receive the good from the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Later in this horrific story, Job makes this remarkable statement: “Even if God slays me, yet will I hope in him.” What profound, unshakable trust in the ways of God!
As one wanders down the path of pain and loss, assurances from Scripture emerge almost as road signs: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, ESV). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, ESV). “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose”
(Romans 8:28, ESV).
And so many other words of Scripture that comfort, strengthen, and sustain.
Yes, I suppose you can curse God and die. But then you would never experience the Lord’s goodness and mercy, never know of God’s love reaching out to you, his grace sustaining you through the crisis. It is only when the night sky deepens into its darkest that you can see the stars shining brightly.
Slowly the once-strong faith possessed by my parents, nearly washed away by a tsunami of trouble, started to reappear like little buds in the spring sunshine. Dad’s comprehensive Bible knowledge and his previous experience in preaching and in leading Bible study groups both helped and haunted him. He sought the wisdom and comfort of the Scriptures. He wrestled through many theological issues as an uneducated man and sought counsel from many a caring Christian friend. And I turned—and keep turning—to the vast, rich storehouse of Christian hymnody for just the right word:
How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you he has said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed,
for I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
upheld by my gracious, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call you to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
for I will be with you, in trouble to bless,
and sanctify to you your deepest distress.
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!