I find it difficult to cry in front of people, and I'm not even sure why.(1) Even when I want to cry, I can't. Behind closed doors I dissolve into a fountain of expression. But as I listened to Anna's story, mutinous tears escapes my eyes, and I made no effort to wipe them away. I ached inside for this woman who had suffered one of the greatest kinds of loss in life. How was she still so graciously soft instead of hardened with bitterness?
She was his mother. She had carried him inside of her for nine months. She had felt the exhilaration of her child's arrival into the world. She had held him, fed him, protected him, dreamed for him, cherished him. She would have given her very life for him.
As she held Jonathan's tiny body in her arms sobs spilled from the depths of her soul. She carried him into the living room and looked desperately at her husband, pleading for him to fix what she knew could not be restored. Wordlessly, her husband gently took Jonathan from her arms. He looked at his son's face, a face that resembled his own. He kissed the top of his head and then slowly, slowly raised his arms to lift the baby up to the heavens. Tears streamed down his face as he lifted his eyes upward in an act of submission to a fate that broke his heart.
Anna cried out in protest. No, no, no! She was not ready to give him back to God. He was an extension of her heart. She was not ready to part with him, not ready to accept what had been tragically forced on her.
For some time, she couldn't bear to visit his grave. But in a sense, she visited it every day. There may have been a site where marble was engraved for everyone else to see, but his life and death were engraved on her heart. In that way, he stayed with her.
People tried to comfort her, but there is no comfort for such a loss. In an effort to console her, they said, "You're young. You'll have other children." Perhaps, but she needed to grieve the loss of this child.
Over the years, Anna brought three more children into the world, but her family did not go to South America as missionaries as they planned. The call to South American had included Jonathan, and the idea of going without him brought with it enormous pain that was too much to bear. Twenty years passed before she returned to that calling and began to carefully unwrap it again. I want to believe that God understood this. Somehow, for me, it would seem to uphold the integrity of grief.
Anna had allowed space for healing, for a process that is complicated and needs the grace of time for authenticity. She allowed it to bring her to a place where deep sorrow and a kind of peace learn to live together in the same heart. And when she was ready, she began to dream again.
But the dream evolved into something of a different shape, and after the children were grown, she and her husband moved to a country she had never visited before.
Peace discovered will never minimize what was lost, but experiencing peace does afford us the ability to finally disengage from the battle of resisting what had already happened and what we cannot change. It is that place of acceptance called healing.
We sat now in her home in Central America, glasses of cold Sprite sweating in front of us. I was a guest in her home and she had shared with me her grief. And isn't your deepest pain the greatest gift you can give to anyone—when you slowly release the fingers from what you hold so tightly and invite someone into your vulnerability? I remembered a line from a beloved book, Shantaram. Author Gregory David Roberts writes that shared wounds, when pinned to the sky, become stars in the night that help us navigate a pathway home.(2)
Anna smiled sadly. Life had brought remarkable pain, but she spoke of its richness too. "Every now and then, God brings somebody incredibly special across your path. That's one of life's gems. You must remember those things and hold on to them," she said peacefully. I wondered if she knew that she was one of those gems to me.
The Gospel of John tells the story of the death of Lazarus, the brother of Martha and of Mary—the one who would later pour perfume on Jesus's feet and wipe them with her hair in an act of worship. Jesus would defend her and honor her. But first came another encounter.
Lazarus became sick, and the sisters immediately sent word to Jesus. They believed in him and knew he could do miracles. They must have thought he would come right away, but he didn't. He waited. And during that time, Lazarus died.
When the sisters heard that Jesus was finally coming, Martha ran out to meet him, but Mary stayed inside. I wonder if she felt betrayed. She had believed in him; she had called on him. But he didn't show up in time for something that meant life to her.
The Bible tells us that Martha returned inside and told Mary that Jesus was calling for her. Instantly, Mary stood up and ran out to him.
I picture this weeping woman, feeling abandoned by the one person she put her faith in. She's hurt, perhaps even angry. She hears he's near, but she doesn't go to him. After all, he had forgotten her. But then he calls for her by name, and she runs to him. Maybe she knew that the one she had felt betrayed by was the only one who could comfort her. Maybe she knew he had not forgotten her.
And so Mary goes to Jesus and falls at his feet, weeping. One day, she would fall at his feet in humility, knowing he had saved her, but first, she would fall at his feet, pouring out a broken heart, thinking he had betrayed her. She had experienced enormous loss—a loss that he could have prevented. Jesus takes one look at her as she weeps, and he was deeply troubled. And what did he do? He cried, even though he knew that life was about to be resurrected and her pain relieved. But first, he wept right along with her.
How much then would Jesus grieve with one who must endure loss? Would he also say, "Where have you put him?" And would she show him, not the grave, but her heart? And he would come and sit by this tomb and weep. For twenty years—for ever.
Naomi Zacharias is director of Wellspring International at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) The following essay is an excerpt from Naomi Zacharias’s The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010).
(2) Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram (New York: Macmillan, 2005), 387.