Reflections of a poet, preacher, and contemplative activist

The First Heart to Break


Several years ago, following the tragic death of her fifteen year old son, our Christian Education Director took a leave of absence and spent her time taking long walks with her husband, caring for their daughter, going to the ocean their son so loved, and allowing her grief to unfold.

The season of Lent arrived and she put her hand to creating art. She used scrap pieces of wood in various shapes and sizes and fashioned them into three mosaic crosses. They were of simple design, about two feet high, and set side by side they formed a Lenten display.

On Good Friday she brought them to the church and set them up draped with black cloth, and on the Saturday before Easter came back to transform the crosses with gold and white fabrics symbolizing the resurrection.

During Lent and Easter that year her art was her primary connection with the church and her expression of what little faith she felt she had left. She was unable to come back to work or worship for months, because her grief was too raw.

The crosses remained on display through the fifty days of Easter and as Pentecost approached she said to me, “I think I have an idea for transforming the crosses into a Pentecost symbol.”

So she took the crosses home, and when she brought them back, she set them up on a table covered with fabrics of rich gold, red and earth tones. A light shone through dark openings within each cross and a fan blew on the fabric to create movement.

The whole project from beginning to end felt like it was important to her grief work and her struggle with God, that she needed the safety of symbolically expressing to God her deep pain and sense of loss – not that she hadn’t had those conversations elsewhere, but this was on God’s turf. Her art seemed to say, “Look at the darkness that attends my life now through the loss of my son.”

It is significant that she chose crosses – the instrument of death that took the life of God’s own beloved Son – as the focal point. Maybe this choice was her acknowledgment that God knows sorrow. I do not know. I am not an art critic. I am a lover of God and a lover of people, and while some were made uncomfortable by her art, I did the only thing I could think of to do – I encouraged her to keep on creating, to let her soul speak through her art, to offer her prayers through these physical materials and the work of her hands when words would not easily come.

William Sloane Coffin preached a sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City ten days after his own son’s untimely death. It was a eulogy for his son Alex, who died in a car accident at the age of twenty-four. His words ring true because he was a father whose son beat him to the grave. He claimed, “the one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Words (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson

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  1. Dallis

    This brings back some sad memories, but also inspires hope. Hilary and her family have found Jonathan, a bright light who brings them joy. And they have so much love to give!

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Hilary and to Justin, and for the reminder that God’s heart breaks, too.

  2. Thank you for such an insightful post, describing the healing power of art. Sometimes words cannot express our emotions or offer a prayer in such pain. Our bodies take over in a way that is so much more powerful and expressive. Are there photos of your friend’s crosses? I would love to see what she created, what beauty burst through her grief and pain.

    • Thank you for your comments, Connie. I did look through my photos as I wrote this post and unfortunately didn’t find any. I would have liked to share them.

  3. Robin Worley

    A friend of ours who we know has eight children and divorced from her husband over 6 or 7 years. Four of the oldest boys all have served in the Armed forces. She works waiting tables for years now, 20+ years at one place and going on 2 years at this new place. On Jan 3rd she received a call from her daughter asking her to come home. The Mother asked what was the matter, and the daughter said “Come home NOW!”. She knew, she fell to her knees in grief, not even have been told, but she knew.. Her fourth son, a sergeant, along with 3 others, were ambushed in Afghanistan and hit a road side bomb. As she told me, I was quite in shock not even anticipating to hear this story and not even knowing what to say for the loss of her own son. Her last comment was, she didn’t feel like she had raised her kids right.. I told her, she has done the best anyone could do and better than myself. The pain is still raw, only 4 months ago.. Next time, I hope there is no next time, but maybe I will be better prepared..then again maybe not.

    • Robin, I have a special place in my heart for those who serve in our military having served myself as a Chaplain in the Air Force Reserves for many years. My heart goes out to your friend in her grief. It is a terrible loss whenever someone loses his life protecting the freedoms we enjoy.

  4. Thank you for sharing this message. My wife (also an artist) lost her sister to brain cancer a couple years ago. My wife’s faith life has not been the same since her loss and she now struggles to believe in God’s promises. Well-meaning people offer encouragement by saying that “it was God’s will” for her sister to die. My wife bristles at that thought…how could it be God’s will for a young boy to lose his mother, a husband to lose his wife, parents to lose their daughter, a sister to lose her sister at a much-too-young age? I agree with your Coffin quote that God’s heart was the first to break.

    • Thanks for sharing your comments, Ruminating Merlin. I do understand your wife’s feelings, and I hope in time that her trust in God will be renewed. In an interview with Bill Moyers in March, 2004, Coffin welcomed the thought that someday he may see his son again, but said, “I don’t need to believe that. All I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again. That should be enough.” That belief gives me comfort in the midst of loss.

      • Thanks for your reply, Mark. I appreciate your perspective and I do believe that in time her trust in God will be renewed. Thanks. -Merlin

    • candy

      I know how ya feel. i lost my husband four months ago to ganglioglioma brain tumor. He had battled for five years. With four brain surgeries and radiation. My boys and i watched the strongest person we know fight hard. You never are the same person. People would say things and i know it was because they couldnt find the right words. I take comfort in knowing that he is any a better place aven though it is sometimes hard for me to understand. May God Bless each one of ya

      • I am very sorry for your loss, Candy. God bless you too!

      • I’m so sorry for your loss, Candy. It sounds like your husband was a courageous man. Time has not completely healed our loss but we find that good memories of Lana sustain us and bring us joy. Peace and blessings to you. – Merlin

  5. Janet

    Coffin has always been an inspiration to me. You are an inspiration, too. Thanks, Mark, for this blog and for your thoughtful notes to those who leave comments.

    • Janet, I appreciate you reading my blog and sharing it with others, as I know you sometimes do. Thanks for your kind words. Mark

  6. Caddo Veil

    This is beautiful, makes tears sting my eyes. I’m wondering if you’ve visited Blessed Dad Weblog? He’s a great brother in the Lord–I bet you’d enjoy him. God bless you today.

    • And God bless you too. I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I will visit Blessed Dad Weblog. Thanks.

  7. I read this from start to finish unaware I was reading a writing piece, I was far mor aware, I needed the next word to finsih the story to which I was intranced by.

    Such a profound subject. I have heard Greg Laurie speak zbout his son often. I can’t imagine the depth of grief a parent of a lossed child goes through , nor do I try to for any length of time. I trust the provisions of God in my life now and today. I can deal with that.

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