Holy Ground

Decades ago, I went grocery shopping after the funeral of a dear friend who had died much too young and way too swiftly. His tragic death left one of my closest friends without a partner and their young children without a father. Arriving home after the funeral, I was anxious, emotionally untethered, and in need of distraction. Grocery shopping seemed a safe option.

While at the store, I did a pretty good job of holding it together, stoically marking items off my list in the snack aisle while successfully keeping grief at bay. Then, two high school-aged girls passed by chatting excitedly about what they might wear to a dance that night. 

“Shall I wear the pink or the yellow Abercrombie sweater?” one asked the other with an intensity that assumed world peace depended on her decision. 

Something about the banality of the conversation hit a tender spot of irrational offense deep inside. My cart halted as if it had come up against a brick wall.  My spirit cried out to God. Didn’t they know the world had changed that day? Children no longer had a father. My friend was a widow. The promising life of a young, vibrant man was over. 

The trite conversation of two young girls lodged like a carnival clown in the middle of holy ground. They walked on, grabbing bags of Cheetos and Doritos as their voices faded. 

An ache filled my throat as my lungs fought for the air my grief struggled to let in. Tears started to fall. 

“God, I miss him. How can the world just go on? How?!”

Reality had shifted. Everyone, including self-focused adolescents, should stop to take notice. It was an absurd thought, and it was real.

Since that day, I have become more familiar with saying goodbye. I am getting to that age, I suppose.  Memorial services for parents of childhood friends demand nearly as much time in church as Sunday morning services these days. In the last twelve months, I’ve embraced three close friends as they said goodbye to dear parents. I’ve said farewell to my own beloved sister and my precious dad. I tenderly held my much-loved, blind and toothless 17-year-old pup as he passed. 

Here is what I have learned: whether watching a casket lid close over a beloved face, stroking the furry head of a dear pet as they drift off, or hugging your adult child before they climb into a car packed to the gills for a cross-country move; whether walking out from a long-term workplace for the last time or simply blowing kisses to a grandchild through the car window, goodbye is holy ground.

Goodbye is a place where God becomes most real because it is a place where love becomes most real.

After each goodbye, time stands still for a bit. It should. If we live long enough, we learn that the gossamer string that connects us is at the same time fragile and tenuous. While we count on its strength, we cannot control the influences this connection will encounter.  We cannot guarantee that the string will be tenacious enough to hold us until the next time. We learn the precariousness of time. We learn the present moment is all we have for certain. 

And so, each goodbye prompts a heart to become more unmasked to the treasure of connection. An ache fills our throat and we long to see, to be with, to laugh with, and to touch those we love once again. “God, I miss them already.”

I have learned to note when the ache arises. I have practiced hard resistance to the thieves of connection that sometimes accompany the ache—fear, worry, resentment. Instead, I have learned to invite gratitude into the ache. I invite you to do so as well. When the ache rises, smile if you can, and when you can. Notice the anger or disappointment if it’s there. Let tears fall when they come. Miss your beloved. Worship, if that is your practice. Take off your shoes.  Remind yourself that ache of goodbye is holy ground. 

And rejoice when you’re able, for this aching holy ground and the slow burn of longing that accompanies it reveals the most sacred of all gifts from a very present God. True love. 

Jill English is an avid encourager of people and a lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, especially if the out-of-doors involves a beach. Her most magical moments happen as ‘Mimi’ while spending time with her well-loved grandchildren and her adult kids. Jill spends her workdays helping others discern vocational call through theological education. Her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of everyday life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.