Death, Grief, and a Firm Foundation: In Loving Memory of Haddie Hardeman
I just had to look at the ground. The lady in front of me was wearing knee-high black leather boots that had a little metal tag on the back with fine print that read “The Frye Company” and I thought how nice they were, and then I thought how Haddie will never wear those. But I couldn’t look up because this lady’s daughter kept fidgeting and looking at me, oblivious to the reason we were all gathered around that green tent set up among the graves. I hung my head even deeper so my eyebrows blocked them from my sight as my heart tried to connect with what was really happening.
We were burying a still-born baby girl named Haddie. I never actually saw the tiny casket or the hole in the ground, and definitely not her, the child, Haddie. Or the equipment and shovels and sweat of digging the hole and it all seemed so unreal to me. Where was the baby girl named Haddie? Where was her life?
We, all of us living humans, were formally gathered around to give our thoughts and time to respect her life and the lives of her parents, but I hung my head. I couldn’t look up and see the perfect, bright blue sky shrouding countless stars of infinite complexity. I couldn’t allow the little girl in front of me to fidget and play with her shoes and her mommy’s dress and not feel I was failing at paying my respects. How could life go on when this one never even began?
In the pine trees behind the grave, forming the Western border of the big graveyard, birds were singing, enjoying the fullness of life. It had to be hundreds and they weren’t just chirping, they were singing. And I kept thinking how rude of them to interrupt. Didn’t they know a life had ended? But soon enough, we joined them. The pastor finished speaking, and he read a poem written by the mother of the baby. Meshea’s poem was the most moving thing I’d ever heard, and afterward we were instructed to take out our pamphlet and sing the hymn printed inside, a cappella. It began “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord is laid for your faith in His excellent word!” My voice shook, but I sang as loud as socially acceptable.
When we finished, the sounds of the birds came back and I began to get angry at all the movement. Kids fidgeting, parents moving them, some whispering. The anger broke my focus and the sounds of tires on asphalt creeped in and disturbed me even more. Somewhere out there beyond the trees was a road where other (alive) humans drove hurriedly around in big, sturdy cars hustling to their destinations. The sounds we heard were of the hardness of concrete, and the irony overwhelmed me as the softness of our hearts and eyes and voices tried to sing about firm foundations. Where is our foundation? Where is Haddie’s foundation?
But the birds kept singing and the sky kept being blue. Life seems out of control, and I caught myself hunching my shoulders because it seemed the sky was going to fall on me. But the sky didn’t fall. The sky doesn’t fall. Cars keep driving and people keep living. But sometimes people die, and they die all the time we just don’t know it or feel it. My friend’s Dad passed away last Fall when his heart just stopped beating, and he was only in his 50s. Life is fickle, and surely doesn’t seem fair, and yet everyone dies—everyone gets the same hard luck. The sky doesn’t fall but it may as well. We humans are pushing a 100% death rate. No one is alive who was born before 1900. Not really. There may be a fluke thing here and there, but everyone dies, and we living can’t imagine what that’s like. Because the sky never falls, and when people die we forget about them. Life is so fickle, but to the living, it’s sure.
I’ve known death. For years I’d fall out of bed and ask God to take me home, that today would be my last day. But now I don’t. Somewhere in between I found the value of life over and above the eternal life after death, and I want to live it—this life, this broken and jaded and absurd life where, all at once, birds sing and babies die. And I fight for that life, even standing there by that grave. My own body bears the scars of death, always reminding me of my end. After the first ten minutes my legs began to shake because they were so weak. Chronic Fatigue was pulling at me, reminding me the price I pay to live. I barely made it through the hymn I was so winded.
But why must life come with these price tags? Why must death take life from us so that we may have life eternal? Sure, life is terrible and painful, and sure it’s a blessing Haddie will never experience that pain, but were we really to rejoice in God sparing life when life was given to live? Is Haddie really better off?
A few days later, I was sitting in church listening to a couple tell about their adoption experience. Matt and Carrie Strevel had adopted a little American boy, but only after they’d had a couple of miscarriages (a word that means two infant humans they had begotten were never actually gotten). Carrie remembers the pain, and Matt remembers holding one entire baby in his palm. Matt said he remembered hearing a sermon where the pastor was answering the question of When babies die, what will they look like in the new heavens and new earth? Will they be full grown, or will they come there as they were here—infants, children, toddlers alike? Matt’s a big guy, an ex-cop from Atlanta, but he stood there in front of all of us attentive humans and cried as he said that maybe they would be children there too and maybe we’d have the opportunity of raising them there, on the new earth. It’s totally speculative, of course, but what if God would let Haddie be born into a perfect world? Saved from this world: born into the life that follows death? What if she spent her childhood learning the perfections of God, totally untainted by sin and perversion and death? What if life, to her, was the perfect Disneyland experience of pure joy and satisfaction, free from sin and death?
A few days later, I was standing in a hospital room holding my brand new nephew, Owen Leland. His little pink body was so fresh and soft, and his little feet were so incredibly tiny, and yet, in comparison to little premature Haddie’s feet, huge. I wondered again, Why God? How come these little feet get to walk one day and hers don’t? How come my own feet feel weak and bruised just from standing in that short ceremony while others get to stand and walk and run as much as they want? Death took Haddie and it’s taking me, and while it seems Owen is free from blemish, it’s taking him too.
What I’ve come to realize, even through my own experience with the sorrow of life, is that death is a necessary part of life in the narrative of Redemption. God’s purposes for creation are intertwined with the need for Redemption because Redemption is a function of revelation. The reason we have death is because humans rebelled from God in the beginning, yes, but the reason that was even an option was because God, in eternity past, decided to reveal Himself, and the only way He could unveil His infinite complexity was to create an entire Universe in which He would allow sin and evil to exist so that He could have an enemy to defeat. But there’s no point in defeating an enemy without something (or someone) to save. He created us humans as the center-stage of that story, the ones who needed the saving, the ones who would be broken in order to be redeemed. So God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…so that in the ages to come He might reveal the surpassing riches of His grace. When the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind was revealed, He saved us, not on the basis of good things we’ve done, but according to His mercy, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. And Jesus, the God-human, killed death so that we might live, forever.
God’s kindness needed to be displayed in order to put a spotlight on His love and grace. Every hero needs a villain and every villain is only bad if he does bad things. Pain is only pain if it hurts, and death is only death if it stops life.
I know all this, and I know why evil exists, and I know God is sovereign to not only conquer evil but usurp it and turn it into good, but, I still ask the questions. I still wonder and think and grapple. I still weep over the dead, those going to an eternity without Christ and those with Him already. I don’t know what it means to die. But I tell you one thing, I know how to grieve, and I know and feel way down in the core of my being the surpassing riches of God’s grace. I’ve seen God in the healing of my brokenness, and I’ve come to find in Him a foundation that cannot be shaken. My foundation crumbles all the time. My emotions run dry, my feet get bruised, my intellect hits the wall. But there is a foundation underneath all that that never moves. Though all hell endeavors to shake it my soul, God will never, no never, no never forsake it!
So when I hear birds sing, I laugh, and when my friends die, I cry. And when both happen at once, I shut my mouth, even if I have to do it with my hand. Because I know my place, a little broken human in space, and I know why I’m here. I can’t understand it all or protect myself from hurt, so I just pray every day to be man enough to have the humility to bow my head and the courage to give my heart.
Meshea has blogged through this entire journey (this being her second loss), and even wrote a letter to Haddie last week. I urge you to check it out.