I Wanted to Pray But Had No Idea What to Say

Darkness Closes In

Die before you die. There is no chance after. —  C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Sudden and tragic loss leads to terrible darkness. It is as inescapable as nightmares during a high fever. The darkness comes, no matter how hard we try to hold it off. However threatening, we must face it, and we must face it alone.

Darkness descended on me shortly after the accident. I spent the first seventy-two hours caring for John, my two-year-old son, who was screaming from the pain of a broken femur and fighting the confinement of traction. I was inundated with telephone calls and visitors. Every voice and face called forth more tears and demanded the retelling of the story. I had to plan memorial services. I also had to care for my two older children, who were terrified and confused by the accident, having been pushed, as it were, out of their cozy home into a blizzard of pain. During those first busy days, however,

I was rational enough to know that darkness loomed ahead and that I would soon descend into it.

That occasion came on the day of the interment. I chose to bury my mother, Grace; my wife, Lynda; and my daughter Diana Jane together in a cemetery in Lynden, Washington, where my mother grew up and retired and where my sister lives. It has always been a home away from home to me, as it was for Lynda. The day before their burial, I decided, for a reason still unknown to me, to view their bodies once — and alone. I stayed up the entire night before that visit, sleepless because of the dread I felt. The accident kept replaying itself in my mind like a horror movie repeating its most gruesome scene. I felt I was on the edge of insanity.

The next morning, I visited the funeral home and stared in disbelief at three open coffins before me. At that moment I felt myself slipping into a black hole of dread and oblivion. I was afloat in space, utterly alone among billions of nameless, distant stars. People seemed to recede from sight until they appeared to be standing far away, on some distant horizon. I had trouble hearing what people were saying; their voices were so faint. Never have I experienced such anguish and emptiness. It was my first encounter with existential darkness, though it would not be my last.

I had a kind of waking dream shortly after that, caused, I am sure, by that initial experience of darkness. I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever. I felt absolute terror in my soul.

A few days later, I talked about the dream with a cousin of mine, who is a minister and a poet. He mentioned a poem by John Donne that turns on the point that, though east and west seem farthest removed on a map, they eventually meet on a globe. What therefore appear as opposites — east and west — in time come together, if we follow one or the other long enough and far enough. Later, my sister, Diane, told me that

the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.

I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea at the time what that would mean.

Giving myself to grief proved to be hard as well as necessary. It happened in both spontaneous and intentional ways. I could not always determine the proper time and setting for tears, which occasionally came at unexpected and inconvenient moments, such as in the middle of a college class I was teaching or during a conversation. I was surprised to see how inoffensive that was to others. If anything, my display of grief invited them to mourn their own losses, and it made the expression of sorrow a normal and natural occurrence in daily life.

Still, I tried to reserve time and space in my life for solitude so that I could descend into the darkness alone. Late in the evening, well after the children were in bed, proved to be the best time for me. Sometimes I listened to music — mostly requiems, Gregorian chants, and other choral works — and sometimes I wrote in my journal or read good books. But mostly I sat in my rocking chair and stared into space, reliving the accident and remembering the people I lost. I felt anguish in my soul and cried bitter tears.

I wanted to pray but had no idea what to say, as if struck dumb by my own pain. Groans became the only language I could use, if even that, but I believed it was language enough for God to understand.

I remembered reading what the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans — that sometimes, when overcome by suffering, we do not know how to pray. But, Paul said, our dumbness before God is not offensive to Him or indicative of a lack of faith. Instead, it is an invitation for God to draw near and to intercede for us “through wordless groans,” (Romans 8:26-27) like a good mother does when holding a distraught child on her lap.

This nightly solitude, as painful and demanding as it was, became sacred to me because it allowed time for genuine mourning and intense reflection. It also gave me freedom during the day to invest my energy into teaching and caring for my children. I struggled with exhaustion, as I do now. But somehow I found the strength — God’s gift to me, I think — to carry on despite getting so little sleep.

My decision to enter the darkness had far-reaching consequences, both positive and negative. It was the first step I took toward growth, but it was also the first step I took toward pain. I had no idea then how tumultuous my grief would be. I did not know the depths of suffering to which I would descend. For months I kept staring at the accident and reliving its trauma. Though I knew intuitively that I had to look at it, I still recoiled at the horror of the scene of death I had witnessed. Catherine and David talked about the accident too, and they surprised everyone by how thoroughly they remembered even little details. I also suffered from acute depression, which, on top of the frustration, bewilderment, and exhaustion, became an unwelcome and obtrusive companion of mine for many months. My world was as fragile as the lives of the loved ones whom I had lost.

That sense of darkness so preoccupied me that I found myself unable to concentrate on mundane responsibilities. I became a robot programmed to perform certain functions that I was able to do quite well because of habits developed over many years. At the end of the day I would look back and remember what I had done, as if my body, not the real me, had done it. There was a radical split between the self that did my work and the self that watched me from the shadows. My schedule was packed with responsibilities at work and at home. I taught classes at the college, advised students, attended meetings, and then returned home to cook meals, fold laundry, and spend time with my children. I performed these duties because I had to. But I looked at life like a man having an out-of-body experience.

The darkness persisted for a long time; it persists even to this day as I discover new dimensions of the loss. For example, I learned early on that I did not even have the luxury or convenience of mourning the loss of my loved ones as a group. Instead, I had to mourn them as separate individuals. As my grief over one loss would subside, grief over another would emerge. If it was not one birthday I wanted to celebrate, it was another. If one piece of music awakened sorrow for Lynda, another would awaken sorrow for Diana or my mother. I had to face what felt like one wave of sorrow after another. I could not get away from it, no matter what I tried.

The pain was relentless, like midday heat in the Sahara.

But that is only half the story. The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss.

It is not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. Darkness, it is true, had invaded my soul. But then again, so did light. Both contributed to my personal transformation.

My first awareness of change within me came as I began to reflect on how I performed the mundane responsibilities from which I felt so alienated. Though I was not completely alive to them, I was able at least to think about them, if only from a distance. I was struck by how wonderful ordinary life is. Simply being alive became holy to me. As I saw myself typing exams, chatting with a student on the way to class, or tucking one of my children into bed, I sensed I was beholding something sacred. My encounters with students presented astonishing opportunities to listen and encourage. Bedtime with Catherine, David, and John allowed me to convey the blessing and love of God to them. I was not yet fully alive to these ordinary moments, but I began to glimpse how profound they were.

In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways I never thought possible before — not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within that pain the grace to survive and eventually grow. I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am.

Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.

I learned gradually that the deeper we plunge into suffering, the deeper we can enter into a new, and different, life — a life no worse than before and sometimes better. A willingness to face the loss and enter into the darkness is the first step we must take. Like all first steps, it is probably the most difficult and takes the most time.

Excerpted with permission from A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, copyright Gerald L. Sittser.

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Your Turn

Is sorrow enlarging your life right now? Even in suffering there is a holiness, a beauty, especially in the presence of God. Prayer may not be possible in the form of words when grief is deep, but it’s ok… groans will do. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you.

Jerry Sittser is Professor and Chair of Theology at Whitworth University. He holds a master of divinity degree from Fuller Theological Seminary and a doctorate in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, including A Grace Disguised and The Will of God as a Way of Life. Married to Patricia, he is the father of three children and two step-children, all grown.

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