Today would have been Nathan's 19th birthday. Instead, it is the 283rd day since Nathan left this world for his forever home. 283 days. It has been a long journey for me, one that does not yet feel complete. I regret that I did not start this blog sooner to help me process this experience and share my heart along the way. As I talked about in this post, my progress towards healing has not been straightforward or clearly defined. Over the months, I have shared my journey in bits and pieces with most of the people in my life, but I have yet to sit down and share my story from start to finish—and by "finish" I guess I mean the place where I am right now. Not the end of the path for sure, but definitely closer to the end than the beginning. I feel very strongly that, although I am ready to do so, I cannot take the next steps towards reconciliation with God until I acknowledge everything that has led me to this point. Because I don't want to forget where I have been and what I have learned. Because I don't want to go back to the way things were before. I want Nathan's death to change me from the inside out. I want this dark valley to forever deepen my love and devotion for the One who both took me into the valley and brought me out again. And so I have been struggling for a few weeks now with how to convey all that has happened in my mind and heart in the last 283 days. It seems an impossible task, and my heart has been heavy with the weight of it. But the other night as I was expressing these feelings of being overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin, I felt God whisper this: "Just start at the beginning and take it one step at a time." Not an earth-shattering revelation, but it's what I needed to hear.
Over the next few weeks, I will be attempting to share my story from these past nine months. It is a story of grieving and healing, of tearing down and building up, of leaving and returning, of holding on and letting go. Mostly it is a story about God. The way He chooses the harder path for us, knowing that in the end it will lead to our greater good. The way He relentlessly pursues us even when we run. The way He invites us to be angry, to fight, to cry, to be real in our darkest moments. The way He waits patiently for us to understand, to be ready, to say "yes." Indeed, this is a story about God and His ever-redeeming ways. And tonight, I will start at the beginning.
On September 27, 2008, Nathan died in a car accident. Though my life was forever altered in that instant, my journey towards healing did not really begin there. After four months of grieving, I did not feel any less broken by his death. I felt stuck, unable to make sense of where I was and unable to move forward. At the suggestion of a friend, I decided to write a letter to Nathan and tell him everything I wished I had said before he died or wished I could tell him now that he was gone. I was skeptical about the role this letter would play in my healing process, but once it was completed, I knew the real journey had finally begun.
So here it is, the beginning of what has slowly and painfully become one of the most transforming experiences of my life. But remember, this is just the beginning. It's been an extraordinary journey and I hope you will stick around to hear the rest of the story.
It's been four months since you died. Sometimes it feels like only yesterday, but sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. I have cried a lot of tears and prayed a lot of prayers since the night of the accident, but I don't think I am doing a very good job of healing and moving forward. Most of the time, I feel just as much sadness, disappointment, and confusion as I felt in those very first days after your death. The rest of the time I just feel dead inside, closed off from everything that used to mean something to me. A good friend of mine suggested I write you this letter and tell you what's on my heart, that maybe somehow this would help me to grieve and let go. I figured it would be worth a try, since nothing else I have done seems to be working.
You might be wondering why your death has impacted me so deeply. After all, B and I have been best friends since childhood and you were just her little brother, right? Maybe not. Maybe I have always felt that B's family was my family, too. Maybe I thought of you as my brother. Maybe I loved you like I love my own brother. I know I never told you this, and it breaks my heart to think that you never knew I loved you, never knew how much I believed in you. I am so sorry. I wish I could go back and change things. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered to you, maybe you didn't need to know. But I need to tell you now. I need you to hear me say, "You are my brother, and I love you."
About a year before you died, I started praying for you every time you came to mind, which happened more and more as the year went on. I heard from B that you were having a hard time and making choices that didn't seem the best for you or your family. For some reason, I felt in my heart that you were acting from a place of brokenness, hurt, and anger. While I don't know your whole story, I do know that what happens when you are very young changes who you become, that it takes years and years to recover, and that sometimes you make really big mistakes in the process. When I heard about the things you were doing, I couldn't help but think how much your story resembled mine. Maybe my mistakes looked different and maybe some of them were quieter than yours, but I still made them. And I did a pretty good job of messing up my life while I was trying to come to terms with my own hurt and brokenness. In fact, I never intended to make it to my 21st birthday. I always assumed that I would take my own life long before I reached adulthood. It is only by the grace of God that my story didn't end that way. He never gave up on me and never stopped working to bring healing and hope back into my life. I am not proud of all the mistakes and bad choices I made, but I am grateful to know by experience the infinite mercy of my God and the redeeming power of His love. And oh, how I wanted you to know it, too! I prayed so hard during those months before you died. I prayed for God to bring you to the end of yourself, that He would set you free from your past and give you a future full of hope, that He would redeem all your years of struggle and turn them into something beautiful. I wanted you to experience the second chance at life that He had so graciously given to me. I knew that if you experienced that, you would never be the same again—and nothing would deter you from bringing glory to God with the rest of your life. As I was praying for you, I fully believed that God would answer. It never once crossed my mind that God would not do for you what He has always done for me—redeem, heal, restore, bring beauty out of ashes.
And then you died. I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. I have never been so deeply disappointed in my God as I have been in the wake of your death. I do not understand the choice He made to end your story this way. I do not understand why He led me to pray so hard for you when He never intended to answer. And I am disappointed that I cannot see who you are now—now that you've been healed and made whole. I wanted so badly to watch you become the man of God I knew you were created to be. Now I have to wait a lifetime to even tell you that I love you.
Shortly after you died, I heard someone say that maybe God decided to bring you Home because you were making too many bad choices, walking too far away from Him. For a brief instant, I found some measure of comfort in this thought—perhaps because it gave me an explanation for something that otherwise seemed senseless, or perhaps because it gave me a feeling of control over my future. After all, if your death was the result of mistakes you had made, then all I had to do was avoid those mistakes and I wouldn't have to worry about God cutting my life short and bringing my Home. And that's when it hit me: I've already made most of your mistakes. Maybe all of them. Maybe more than you did. Suddenly I felt nothing but overwhelming fear—fear that I had failed God, fear that I had made one too many mistakes, fear that God was losing patience with me, fear that God was on the verge of giving up on me and calling me Home. From that moment on, I knew I could not accept this explanation for your death. The God I love is a God whose mercies are new every morning, whose forgiveness is inexhaustible, whose love keeps no record of wrongs. I choose to believe that all the days ordained for us are written in God's book before one of them comes to be. I choose to believe that God doesn't need a backup plan, that what He has purposed from the beginning of time cannot be thwarted by how badly we mess up. And that means I believe you would have gone Home to be with Jesus on September 27, 2008, regardless of how many mistakes you made in your life. God wrote your story long before you were even born. I do not understand it, and I have not yet made peace with the ending God wrote for you. But I am choosing to believe in God's goodness. I am choosing to believe that what now lies broken in the ashes will one day be made beautiful again.
I will miss you, Nathan. It was a privilege to know you, to love you, to intercede for you. Your loss is teaching me much about myself and challenging my view of God. It is more painful than anything I have ever felt before, but I am grateful for the opportunity to grow and change and be refined into the image of my Savior. I can't wait for the day we meet again in the presence of the One who authored our lives and accomplished His purposes in us. Until then, save a place for me—I'll be there soon.