Memorial Service: Heartache & Glory

(Originally published on June 28, 2011):

It’s amazing to me that certain life experiences can be filled with heartache, pain, sorrow, grief and yet be very, very special all at the same time.

This is my best description of last Saturday, the day of Tim’s memorial.  (For more background, see earlier posts below).

It was definitely one of the hardest days I have ever walked through as we celebrated and grieved Tim’s passing.  And yet, it was one of the most profound, even powerful days of my life.  I don’t think I could ever describe how those feelings co-exist, but they do somehow and I know that most of you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Tim’s story, as it unfolded at our memorial, provides a powerful picture of God’s mercy in the midst of a life headed for destruction.  Not all will want to read his story, but for the sake of those who need to see God’s redemptive power at work, I will put it down…

First some background.  Tim was our youngest child; I was a single dad and his only parent for nearly three years.  He was my baby!  He was upbeat, full of life, fun to be around, and filled with huge promise.

But, in his late teens, his life did go astray as he began struggling with depression and probably the first symptoms of a deeper mental illness.  By his early twenties he was using legal and then illegal drugs to medicate himself which exacerbated his schizophrenia to the point where he was constantly distracted by voices and, at times, he exhibited behavior that was out of control.

Tim was very aware of his condition and so frustrated by it that he attempted to take his life, first, in early March by overdosing on Tylenol (one of the most lethal drugs when used this way).  He was given a 25% chance of recovery.  Yet, it was God’s intention to raise Tim back to life to provide him and the rest of us the chance of a work yet to come before his final passing.

All of this and more came out during our memorial as we celebrated in a family-oriented, intimate, house-church-type setting in a friend’s large garden room on a beautiful, California afternoon.  This environment created a space where those closest to Tim could share their hearts fully about his life, his last three months, and then his final day on earth.

In a typical fashion, everyone present was invited to share their memories of Tim, causing all of us to laugh and cry as we remembered his antics, his passions, and his love for his family, his pets, and various other pursuits over the years.

We then turned our attention to Tim’s last three months.  Following his first suicide attempt, he fully recovered except that his windpipe required a tracheotomy putting a tube in his throat that blocked his ability to vocalize words.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves in the presence of “our Tim” who was more like “himself” than he had been in a long, long time.  Purged of drugs, dependent on others for care, Tim was more like a child again whom we could love on, pray with, and lavish attention on.

Many of us shared what a special time for us this was.  We were given so many opportunities to express our love for Tim and how much we cared about him.  He often reciprocated.  Many times, as I left Tim’s presence during this time, I would tell him how much I loved him and he would point to himself and then to me, using sign language to say: “And I love you too, Dad.”  Our family came together like no other time.  Perhaps we sensed the uncertainty of the situation.

Indeed, his struggles with schizophrenia persisted and even his hard-headed approach to life was re-surfacing.  We had to wonder, at times, if he had made peace with God in a deep way or if he was still trying to figure out how to run his own life on his own steam.

These concerns continued until the last 24 hours of his life…

At the service, we took special time to share, as a family, about the last day of Tim’s life.  Brooks and I were in Africa and, though we were miraculously given one opportunity to speak to Tim by phone, we were absent for his final day.  He was alone with our daughter, Sarah, and our son-in-law, Will.

And God had a plan in this as well…

Through tears (both sadness and joy) the room of 40 people sat enthralled as Will and Sarah described coming to Tim’s bedside and learning that, this time, the doctors absolutely did not expect Tim to recover.  Yet, for the next 12 hours, Tim was very aware and responsive to Will and Sarah.   In Will’s words:

“I leaned over to Tim and said, ‘The doctors say you are not going to pull through.  Are you ready for that?’  I thought he should know.  When I first spoke this to him, Tim’s eyes opened in fear.  He shook his head stating clearly that, no, he was not ready for that.

So, I began praying for him.  I didn’t know what to pray.  I kept thinking, we need Tim’s dad.  He would know what to pray.  Maybe he could at least tell us “the right” scripture to use.  But I knew I had to step up.  It was up to me.  So, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer over him.  It’s what came to mind.  Then I leaned over and began speaking to him about Jesus, His love for Tim and that all Tim needed to do was reach out to him and ask for forgiveness.  I shared and shared this way and it was at this point that Tim squeezed my hand…

And I knew I was on the right track.

We continued to pray and, at one point, holding his hand, Sarah said to Tim, ‘Hey Tim, I’ve been told that God has even special grace for the mentally ill… so you have nothing to worry about.’  This was some brother/sister humor that did not go unnoticed by Tim.

He smiled at those words.  And we realized it was all coming through.

A few minutes after that, we were able to receive a call from Africa.  Somehow, our Skype connection, iphone to iphone, began to work.  We put the phone up to Tim’s ear as his dad shared his love for him and prayed for him from 12,000 miles away.  We could see, that Tim was at peace.”

As one friend who had been praying for Tim later told us, “I had such peace that God and Tim were working things out.”  We know this is true and God was so good to give us a firsthand account.

(Side note: I believe so many of our loved ones whom we have prayed for over the years do get things worked out with God whether we get to hear the firsthand account or not.)

Then, Will and Sarah continued to describe the last 12 hours of Tim’s life in which he became unresponsive.  They remained by his side, nursed him alongside the ICU nurses, and heroically cared for him until his last breath.

Will said at the end Tim leaned forward with eyes wide open, took his last breath, and settled back down with incredible peace on his face.  “It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen,” Will shared…

(Long pause as I write this allowing the tears to come and go one more time).

Sarah had put together a slide show of Tim’s life with the Delirious Song, “Not Forgotten.”  We showed this and then several people wonderfully shared pertinent Scriptures on the reality of eternal life in Christ.

Finally, Sarah shared a poem which I will share in its entirety at the end of this post because of its poignancy and pertinence.  But let me close here by saying that, yes, the heartbreak, the pain, the frustration, the loss, the anger comes and goes… as does the incredibly deep peace and assurance that, in the words of this poem, “Somewhere very near, just around the corner, all is well.  Nothing is past; nothing is lost.  One brief moment and all will be as it was before.  How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

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Death is Nothing at All
From a Sermon Written by Sir Henry Scott-Holland in 1910

Death is nothing at all
I have only slipped away into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other
That we are still
Call me by my old familiar name
Speak to me in the easy way you always used
Put no difference into your tone
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed
At the little jokes we always enjoyed together
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was
Let it be spoken without effort
Without the ghost of a shadow in it
Life means all that it ever meant
It is the same as it ever was
There is absolute unbroken continuity
What is death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind
Because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you for an interval
Somewhere very near
Just around the corner
All is well.
Nothing is past; nothing is lost
One brief moment and all will be as it was before
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!