By Dale Jordan Heath
After the death of our son, Brandon, to what was ruled a suicide, I was in shock and what seemed to be a permanent sorrow. The anguish had an immutable grip around my life. I was suffocating in grief. No one could say anything to me that was comforting. I sought the peace I did not have, desperate to know that in spite of how my son had died that he was in Heaven with Jesus. Somehow I had in my mind that to kill one’s self is unforgivable. I think I must have come to my own wayward conclusion somewhere in my past undoubtedly inspired by an unforgiving world and/or an unforgiving religion. To believe your child is not forgiven and possibly in hell is hell itself for a parent. My personal belief is that once we are saved by God through our belief in Christ Jesus we are forever His (John 3:16) …forever in His grip (John 10: 26-29)…. Nothing can separate us from His love (Romans 8: 35-39). We are forgiven of all sin; past, present, and future. Somehow that belief was waylaid by my inability to rationally think. I was in disbelief and shock.
I cried out to friends, family, pastors of various denominations, and strangers who professed the Christian faith. Even though, they told me the comforting truths of where my son is, my mind was in a vortex of disbelief on every level, including all I ever knew about God’s grace and mercy. I prayed and yelled and ranted. I was insane from my own misunderstanding. It was the worst feeling in my entire life paralleled to the death of my son.
How could this happen to my son who was a Christian? How could he have been in such despair and we did not know? Why would God allow this? Was I being punished? What about my precious son? This was the beginning of a spiritual warfare that I had only begun to fight. I was ill-equipped as a grieving mother to battle the foes driven by the force of Satan. I would soon learn that I was not alone and that God, indeed, had not forgotten or forsaken me or my son.
Shortly after our son died, my husband and I moved back to the area where we had been raised and where we had raised our children. I wanted to start attending our church again although I did not like to grieve publicly and knew that church would be the very place that would test my emotions. Fragile and crushed, I began to attend Sunday night service. People were compassionate and attentive. The restraint, under the strain of keeping my tears at bay, was unbearable. It was just not possible to be tearless when the Holy Spirit tended to me in ways I can’t explain. My joy clashed with my sorrow. Quietly, I would try to stifle any emotion that would cause me to be on display. So many emotions at once, I felt the need to compartmentalize my feelings to keep them in check. In spite of those attempts, I failed most of the time. The nature of grieving does not allow for scheduled tears.
Our church observes communion the first Sunday of each month. It was on one such Sunday I prayed before going to the altar for God to please send me a sign that my son was with Him. I had no way of knowing if God would answer or how He would if He did. Humbly I made my way to the front of the church in line with others. The organist was playing hymns as we knelt. As soon as my knees hit the bench the first three notes of the next hymn began. I instantly recognized “It Is Well With My Soul.”
I was mildly surprised as the words came quickly to my mind…..”when peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll…” and I said to God, “I’ll take that as my sign.” I received communion and left with a most inexplicable peaceful feeling. I had not heard that song in a long time and if I did, I had not paid attention as I did this day. The following month I prayed the same prayer because my grief had rendered me useless and depressed in the weeks before. My mind seemed to have forgotten that “it is well…” from the previous month. I was not thinking about it or expecting anything in particular right away. The choir was singing this time, as I knelt they began to sing “when peace like a river…” I was astonished at the wave of relief that came over me. This time I felt even more excited that God was speaking to me, allowing me to know it is indeed well with my son.
Never in my lifetime, have I received the intimate whispers of God’s voice…or should I say, recognized His voice. “It Is Well” continues to be “my” song from God. Many times over the course of this past five years, whenever I have heard its soothing lyrics and melodic strains, my crying heart is quieted. It was not only sent to me at Holy Communion but in ways I cannot begin to count.
Like the time I was listening to K-LOVE as I drove to town, and a song by Aaron Shust played called “My Hope Is In You, Lord.” It spoke to my heart so when I returned home I looked it up on YouTube. I would never have expected what the video was actually about, nor what was waiting for me at the very end. The video portrays the death of a couple’s teenaged daughter. I was drawn into the scenes as they unfolded to the song’s words…. “I won’t be shaken by drought or storm”…. “the peace that passeth understanding is my song…” At the very end of the video came God’s intimate communication with my broken heart, mending it with His love and tender touch.
One day while looking up “It Is Well” online to cut and paste into a journal page, I discovered the history of the song. The song’s relevance was not only in how God worked it to minister to me but that it was written by a parent in the throes of unspeakable sorrow; the sorrow that only a grieving parent could know, the sorrow that could only be shared by parents who have lost a child. For Horatio Spafford, the writer of the hymn, it was all of his children, lost at sea when their steamship was struck and sunk by a sailing vessel. Through his tears and utter sorrow, he shared his faith, his hope, his anticipation of all that God has assured, never knowing its impact through the ages for people like me.
Recently, I decided to make a CD for a lovely couple with whom my husband and I had become acquainted because of the mutual grief over the loss of our sons. We had planned to visit them in their North Carolina home and I wanted to take them a CD of the songs that have been instrumental in helping me to cope with grief. I went through most of my downloads on my pc and systematically burned them to the disc. I remembered that I still had Brandon’s memorial CD tucked away in a my dresser. My two daughters chose most of the songs. I had chosen two songs about angels and did not remember any of the other songs on it. I retrieved the CD from my drawer and began to upload them. My heart was overwhelmed as I soaked in the words of each song. The songs that only made me cry in my anguish then, now soothed the pulsating, deep down ache of missing my son. I caught my breath as the third song began….it was sung by Chris Rice, “It Is Well With My Soul.” http://youtu.be/cPPSG_SpojY
When telling my daughters about my discovery neither one took credit for it. No one knew who was responsible for the song being on the memorial CD, but we happily concluded it was indeed God’s timewise voice…always on time, in time, timeless. Needless to say, I included it on my CD for our friends Ron and Diane. My hope was they would also be comforted.
Recently, my husband and I joined the church choir. By doing so, I knew I would not be kneeling at the communion rail to be tended to by the hymn that has been mine for the past five years. I must mention at this point that the hymn was only sung or played on any Sunday following a very bad week. I did not hear it every communion Sunday.
I prayed and thought long and hard about my decision to join the choir. I finally decided it was time for me to sing the song; my heart could now begin to sing of the peace that continues to be given to me.
The very first Sunday I sang in the choir was the last Sunday referred to by Methodists as “camp meeting” months. During that time, we sing the favorite hymns from the Cokesbury hymnal as requested by individuals in the congregation, the page numbers politely called out to our music minister.
I turned to the last page number requested to discover with a pleasant surprise, “It Is Well…” the last song requested before the special music for the day. God’s wink. And because God does not do anything in small and insignificant ways….the next song, the special music already planned by the organist and pianist was their inspiring rendition of “It Is Well With My Soul.” I saw through my tears the faces of the people nodding with whom I had shared in small group studies, or who knew my personal story and had witnessed all those times when the hymn was played at the communion rail…. who knew that God had abundantly blessed me beyond my comprehension of all things holy and true, and understood this was no mere “coincidence.” Hope had come full circle.
The hope I received in the beginning was mine to give away to others who may be hurting and in despair. I received God’s approval in a song: ‘our song.’
I continue to share all that God reveals to me during this loss. My son is not here. I do miss him so much. While I know he is in Heaven, I am still human and continue to have the many emotions that accompany my life now that the winds of change have blown me off course.
Please join us today, December 14 for the Worldwide Candle Lighting in memory of all children gone too soon. For more information, visit The Compassionate Friends website.
Along with that change is the constant of God’s love, grace, and mercy. “My hope is in You, Lord”….”The peace that passeth understanding is my song…” …. “I won’t be shaken by drought or storm…” … “God is my refuge” …..“when peace like a river attendeth my soul…” … “Lord, haste the day when my faith will be sight…”…. and most of all… “It is well with my son’s soul.”
In Memoriam: Michael Brandon Heath July 26, 1979 ~ March 6, 2009
Dale Heath writes about her experience as a mom of a young man who died by suicide at In the Wake of Suicide…trying to understand. She is a hopeful and compassionate woman who provides a safe and uplifting space for others coping with the pain and confusion of a loved one taken by the illness of depression.