A long line of people had formed to come and pay their respects. As an 11-year old standing next to my recently widowed mother, with her standing in front of my dad’s casket, there was a lot about the situation I didn’t fully grasp. (Does anyone ever immediately grasp something like death?) I stood there in new khakis, a blue blazer, and a tie – all purchased for the occasion – not really knowing what to do as these people came and greeted us. All I knew is that standing right there next to my mom was where I was supposed to be. That was my duty.
Up until this point in the evening, I had felt amazingly strong. I didn’t feel a whole lot of sadness, nor did I feel a deep sense of loss. But to say I was numb isn’t quite right either because I remember feeling some type of strength with me. I felt capable of standing tall as I shook hands with people even though I knew why we were all there.
Then I saw my friend. My best friend, really. He was with his mom and dad, all taking small, gradual steps as the line made small, gradual movements forward. When my friend was about 20 feet away, I saw just how hard he was crying, and that he was trying – bless his little boy heart – to avoid eye contact with me in what I’m sure was a brave effort to somehow – in his little boy mind – spare me additional pain.
Eye contact or no, when I saw his tears, something within me changed and changed fast. All of a sudden, the strength I had felt that evening immediately left. My shoulders must have physically sagged because I remember very quickly seeing the situation for what it really was – a tragic, shocking event that would change my life and the lives of my family forever. A profound sense of sadness and loss overcame me. I too began to cry – sob, really – and my mom’s sisters quickly rallied around me and took me to a nearby seat where I buried my face in my hands and bawled.
I don’t remember how long I was there on that seat. I don’t remember what anyone said to me. All I remember was that after a time – maybe a few minutes, maybe up to a half-an-hour – I felt as if the strength came back. I was aware of the profound sadness I had just felt, but I was no longer bound to it. Instead, I felt my shoulders square up and I resumed my place standing next to my mother. For the rest of the night and really, for the next several months, I felt strong. I felt capable. And while I didn’t feel exactly happy or joyful, I at least felt a deep sense of peace and calm.
But something else accompanied the return of that strength that night. My 11-year old mind remembered the story of Jesus on the cross asking Heavenly Father why He had forsaken him. And suddenly I understood. I learned in my heart that night, in the smallest of ways, how it feels when God withdraws. I sensed how Jesus must have felt (even more profoundly so) on the cross. But I also felt the real strength God’s presence provides and just how incredibly powerful and uplifting it is. I felt like Heavenly Father said to me, “Anthony, now you know that I am with you and that I’m giving you strength through this.” It made a huge impression on me and awakened me to the source of that strength I had felt for several days.
I’ve since wondered if what I experienced was nothing more than a child moving through the grief cycle as he processes the many emotions he encounters with the death and funeral of a parent. I’ve wondered if I’ve superimposed a religious interpretation on a very natural, perhaps even neurological process as I witnessed my friend’s reaction to the reality of my family’s situation. I think I’ve been open to that possibility. But the feelings I had that night were more than just mere emotional strength, as important as that was. Rather, I was given a personalized message from an all-knowing, loving God that He was seeing me through this. He used a familiar experience from Christ’s last mortal day to teach me about what the Savior experienced. And I’ve always remembered it.
From that moment on, I began to more authentically believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. I could really believe in Him as my Savior. And I had greater confidence in the reality of a listening, attentive, and personal Father in Heaven, a confidence that in turn has grown throughout my life. In short, I gained a witness that night of a God who mercifully allows us to suffer but lovingly enables us to overcome.
He lives. Time to believe.