Emily Dickinson put it well…
My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

For me that first huge closing that I was helpless to prevent was the death of our Christy girl a year ago today. But closings are not all bad things. Don’t we often speak of the need for closure? It was a small mercy for me when I got to the funeral home and went and looked in the casket my first and instinctive reaction was—– that’s not my Christy. That doesn’t even look like my untamed spirit. That is just a corpse masquerading as my daughter. To me it was a shock of unreality. If that’s not Christy, where is she? Then a quiet voice said “she’s with me, you have to let her go.” But what does that even mean?

Does it mean I am no longer her Dad? I know I can no longer go to games with her or movies (the last one we saw was Sherlock Holmes. She loved that). I can no longer go to high church worship with her– she loved that too. I can no longer protect her or help her or comfort her. I kept thinking if I had taken her to my cardiologist while she was here Christmas 2012 and he did a full work up of her, maybe the embolism could have been discovered? Had I failed her at the last hurdle? I know it doesn’t mean I have to stop loving her.

But today, a year later I am glad that I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that the mere material remains of my daughter was all there was to my daughter or even the most important part. You know people go to cemeteries and talk to the dead, but they are not there. They’ve vacated the premises. Elvis has left the building. To be absent from the body means to be present with the Lord if anyone is any Christ. I remember thinking how incredibly heavy that mahogany box was that Christy’s remains were in as I slid it into her resting place. Weighty ashes, but still, just ashes. Not Christy.

I drew some comfort from the story of David and his child who, once the child was reported dead, arose from his praying and grieving and knew it was important to move on. He said, ‘he will not come back to me, but I will go to him’. Short of the resurrection, that answer is still true. So I am thankful that the shock of actually seeing Christy (flown from Durham to Lexington, dead already some days before we saw her) was simply a reinforcement—- she’s not there, CLOSE THE BOX PLEASE.

So one last time, before they closed the box and we went home that night, I sang the song I regularly sung to Christy as a child at bedtime before we tucked her in— ‘you are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray, you’ll never know dear how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.’ Yet when I was singing, it felt like the sunshine in my life had been taken away. It was hard. I walked out into an ugly January evening and went home depressed.

With the benefit of hindsight, I am now thankful for the strong disassociation I felt between the corpse and Christy. It was the Lord easing me towards some closure in a gentle way. I frankly will never understand the capitulation of many modern Christian thinkers to pure monism, pure materialism when the NT is so clear about affirming dualism— we are both body and a non-material spirit. And as Jesus himself said to the Father as he died ‘into thy hands I commit my spirit.’ Thank goodness Christy is still an untamed spirit gone to God, beyond her suffering, sorrows, and sadness, beyond disease,decay and death. Hallelujah.

People have asked me a lot how I am since Christy passed on. I tell them I am like a war veteran who is an amputee. The amputation was painful but the spot where the wound is healing up. Nevertheless, every single day when you get up without your left arm (I’m left handed), you realize something vital is missing and it’s not coming back.

I leave you with a poem I wrote about Closure.


The darkening of the day.
Full stop.
The light dies away.

It’s all dead and gone.
Time’s up.
You’re left to carry on.

Tying up of loose ends.
A new chapter begins.

Signed on the dotted line
Well done.
Some things left behind.

Yet there seems to be a void.
Yet some things you avoid.

You’ve passed on the torch
No worries
You’re rocking on the porch.

But He’s not done with you
One day will come true.

‘At the door I knock’
You open
Time to restart your life’s clock.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part 2
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview, Part One
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on Reading Backwards’– Part Six
  • Michael Thomson

    Lovely bitter-sweetness here Ben…thank you for this recollection. One year, it’s hard to believe. We’ve both faced years of deep loss, and I look at the crossing you’ve had to make and wonder at the beauty of your shining faith. Thank you again for opening the book of your life to us.

    I leave you with the last stanza of a poem in turn…reflecting on losing someone once I wrote a poem that ended with this hope:

    Where bodies not bound to the whim of cells,
    Where selves are loved from and endless well,
    And stories are rewritten and selves reborn,
    And held again the ones once mourned,
    In healing,
    In hoping,
    In God.

    Grace and peace Ben.

  • Pat Sykes

    Thank you. I know your pain and I know your joy.
    You are not alone and in that, for me, is comfort.

  • Christy Thomas

    Thank you for writing this and giving a beautiful and powerful insight into grieving, death and life. My prayers are with you.

  • Ed Beedle

    Dr. Ben, as I read this I cried. I too sang that same song to my daughter when she was little as I rocked her to sleep n the evenings. You are still in my prayers. May you continue to know the grace and peace of our Lord.

  • Dave Wilkinson

    As a breaved father of 15 years I resonate with all you have said. In fact, even “You are my sunshine” was the song I used to sing to my son. Yes, you and I are still fathers to our children even though they are no longer with us. Blessings on the second year of your grief journey, what some, in fact, find to be harder than the first.

  • Galen

    You spoke LOUDLY to us all with this one, brother. Thank you for baring your soul, sharing your grief, and letting us share the journey. May you rest in His grace this night. – Galen Dalrymple (Tim’s dad)

  • Sariah

    Dr. Witherington,
    Thanks for your hearty sharing. It made me recall the past. In 1979 after my Mom’s funeral my Dad (age 70) cried and said to me, “From now on I have become a half-paralyzed person, but I believe we will meet again in heaven.” I knew his everlasting love for my Mom, his pain of losing her, but also his genuine faith and hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. On July 1 and 26 of 2002 my Dad and my first younger brother passed away respectively. My heart sank and my soul grieved, but my Dad’s hope became mine too. One day we will have a reunion in heaven. So, for me it is not a closure but a beginning to prepare myself well to meet them again.

  • Rachel Koopmans

    My dear friends’ little boy passed away just a few hours ago (cancer). He turned 5 in December. Thanks for this timely post – it has been a comfort xxx

  • Steve Kenney

    I gather with the faithful departed at the table of the Lord. In the Eucharist, I unite with them in the one body, which they will never leave. In that proleptic moment, I experience and anticipate our eternal reunion.

    Grace & Shalom,
    Steve Kenney

  • http://diana Diana Trautwein

    Thanks for this lovely, poignant post. I know exactly what you mean about disassociating from the body of the dead loved one – they are simply not there. Yet I struggle with any use of the word ‘dualism,’ too, because I think it’s gotten us into some messy thinking in the church about a lot of things. I do not pretend to know what happens to the essence of us when we leave our earthly bodies at death. Do we ‘sleep’ until the resurrection? Do we gather with other spirits around the throne? I think such questioning is fruitless, to tell you the truth, because once we die, we are no longer held by the constraints of time and space. We are embodied creatures, but I think at the point of cross-over we are immediately ‘present with the Lord.’ No clue what that looks like, I just know it’s the only answer that satisfies, the only answer that fits with that strong reaction of disassociation. I wrote an article for our denominational magazine about something that happened to me as a pastor when a dearly loved parishioner died, something I cannot explain beyond saying – hey, this happened to me. What do you think? You can read it here: Thank you for these beautiful words, these hard words.

  • Ron

    Just listening… peace….

  • Ted M. Gossard

    Wonderful Dr. Witherington. Thank you. And much comfort to you and yours.

  • jason greene

    What a beautiful and moving outpouring of your heart. I am crying for you and for your loss yet am glad that you have the assurance that she is with God. I lost my dad when he took his own life on Nov 4 2005. I have confidence in the goodness and mercy of God and of the never ending love of Jesus but I also know that he must have been in a living hell to do this to himself.
    It was a United Methodist Church chaplain (I am now retired Army) that reached out to me with the love of Jesus on the night that that happened and I am now in preparation for a ministry of chaplaincy in the UMC. I graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary in Dec 12 with my M.A. in religion and will now be finishing the M.Div at United Theological Seminary, maybe a D.Min at Asbury in a few years :)
    Thank you for sharing

  • Jeremy Forbing

    May God bless you for sharing this, and may He keep you close to Him in this harrowing time.

  • mickey

    Thanks Ben and that was poem of yours that I have read – re what Diana wrote, this is something different, but it would be interesting to hear/read something about dualism from you.