Archive for Grief

Living Between Heaven and Earth

She seethed with all the rage an eleven-year-old could muster. I hadn’t even stopped the car completely when she jumped out of the front seat and glared at me through the window. Catherine was a force. Never had she been madder at me than she was at that moment, and she was making sure I knew it before she stomped off to her classroom.

I put the car in park and waded into the indignant fury radiating from my beloved daughter.

“Honey, I know you’re mad, and I’m sorry about that. But you and I never know when will be the last time we will see each other. I never want us to part on these terms. I love you.”

She was literally taken aback. Her head jerked upwards slightly in shock, and the body that had been quivering with rage slowed to a stop. She thought for a moment, then came over and hugged me. I’m sure she was still angry, but I was amazed that a kid her age would take that to heart. For the next three years, until the day she died, she seemed to live with the perspective born of that moment. Thank God, thank God. I had no idea I’d lose her so soon.

After her accident, I seethed with all the rage a forty-four-year-old could muster. I didn’t understand God’s perspective on my loss any more than Catherine understood why I made her go to summer school. I stomped and screamed and glared through the windows of Heaven, shaking my fist at the God who’d abandoned me. Had He not heard my prayers for her life? Didn’t He love me?

How could He do this to me?

Night after night, when I wanted to die, I instead searched the Bible for comfort. Words that had once only warmed my heart now pried open my eyes to eternity. So long ago, in an upper room, the man who was God faced an excruciating death. Rather than pleading with His friends for compassion, He gave them a hope: a hope they could cling to, a hope I could cling to, the hope that would save my sanity. He took me aback with this promise:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am. You know the way to the place I am going.” (John 14:1-4 NIV)

I wish I could say I responded to God as quickly as my child had come and hugged me. Rather, He suffered my rage and endured my fury until I collapsed at the foot of the Cross. From there He could lift me out of the pit. In the darkest of nights, when her accident haunted me, I learned to picture Jesus coming for Catherine in the high mountain meadow where she died. With her unbroken smile she’d be so happy to see Him! He’d hold out His hand, and she’d grin and accept, and together they’d fade from my sight. My daughter’s in Heaven, waiting for me. What a comfort! What a Savior. Thank you, Jesus.

…as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him.”– (1 Corinthians 2:9 NIV)

©2012 Rachel Ophoff, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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Finding Our Way When the Boat Turned Over

Like a wounded white whale washed up on the beach, the Costa Concordia lies on her side. The pictures shock and frighten us. What’s worse- an incompetent captain running aground, or the realization that cruise ships really can sink? As a dedicated cruiser I never thought twice about putting my life in the captain’s hands. I took it for granted he knew what he was doing.

We’ve always departed from US ports, where the first order of business is the safety drill. The horn blasts, we cast off, and before the coast is out of sight we dutifully file into our assigned common areas. We grumble and groan as the crew straps us into our life jackets, until the crowd resembles a sea of heads afloat on an orange tide. “Remember your muster station,” the head strapper warns. “Come here in case of emergency.” I’ve sometimes wondered what it would really look like: passengers running in every direction, trying to remember where to go. In my wildest dreams I never envisioned the ship turning over, the lights going out, and the crew swimming ashore without me.

But now we’ve seen the pictures. The passengers must have been terrified: crawling uphill, blind in the dark, fighting the pull of gravity as the water rose around them. Photos show tiny figures rappelling across the belly of the beast, desperate to reach the lifeboats in the sea far below. Even in the movies it’s horrifying. I can’t imagine how they had the courage to try. But I have experienced the adrenaline-fueled panic of my own surreal disaster.

Last week we observed the anniversary of our daughter’s death, the result of a snowmobile accident. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw in the Emergency Room. Blessedly, her spirit had gone on to Heaven before we saw her body. In my wildest nightmares I never imagined the worst could actually happen, but it did: our ship went down in a matter of minutes. In its place spun a vortex: a cold, silent tide, sucking the warmth from my hands and the blood from my heart. I breathed in the dirt from the ER carpet, lying on my side like the Costa Concordia.

“Expect the unexpected.” Insurance companies thrive on helping us prepare for emergencies. For peace of mind we gather under the umbrella of impending doom with like-minded others, sharing the cost to cover the poor slob with the rotten luck to die early. We are ready- just in case. As we set sail into the future we ignore the rocks under the surface as best we can.

“In this life, you will have trouble,”1 Jesus said to his disciples. Like the life jacket drill as we pull out of port, we are warned. On this night, the last night before his murder, he told his dearest friends what he really wanted them to remember. Likewise, he gives us a heads-up: once in a while we’re going to hit the rocks. This is not good news, but it’s no surprise to anyone who’s been around a while. What can be surprising is what he says next:

“But take heart! I have overcome the world.”2

What does that mean?

I will leave the literal interpretation to learned theologians, but I can tell you what it looked like to be a friend of Jesus the day our ship went down. On that day, and for weeks to come, we were surrounded (and fed, nurtured, and cared for) by our church family. We hurled our furious questions at God every day in the same place we always met him- in the Bible. God’s Word assured us we will see Catherine again; the same girl she was, only made perfect. We survived and eventually thrived because we knew what to do in an emergency. It wasn’t a matter of expecting the unexpected; it was a matter of accepting the invitation long before we hit the rocks.

Finding our way when the ship turned over was as simple as going to our muster station. Jesus drew the map on our hearts. The captain knows what He’s doing.

©2012 Rachel Ophoff, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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1. John 16:33b NIV
2. Ibid.

Christmas In My Brown Paper Castle

“How blind are men to Heaven’s gifts!” -Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, (39-65 AD) De Bello Civili Bk. V, 1. 528

Ripping through paper and tugging on ribbon, my kids were each about three years old when they discovered this basic truth about presents: sometimes the box seems better than the gift inside. For all my thoughtful choices of educational toys and books, their imaginations went wild when faced with cardboard possibilities. They could sail on the sea or fly to the stars! These humble remnants of sacred trees became space capsules and sailing ships, playhouses and forts, fire engines and jets. After a couple weeks of loving abuse the kids lost interest, the boxes collapsed, and I quietly folded them into the trash. The books and toys from Christmas morning looked a lot better in the light of the new year. Cardboard castles kept them happy for a while, but my kids needed more to grow into their lives.

Just before I had kids, soon after Kevin and I were married, I found out that God loved me. The gift changed my life, and certainly the way I viewed Christmas. Ribbons and wrappings of sentimentality tugged at my heartstrings every year as the holidays approached. Carols and bell-ringers and all manner of cheer brought me to tears, and I treasured the package of Christ’s love for me. So beautiful was the gift I took great care not to even tear the outer paper, just peeking inside to find His story. But like toddlers exploring their brown paper castles, I could only grow up as fast as I was able. Soon enough, the Lord would invite me to learn what was inside the box.

Decembers came and went, and my kids grew up and into their lives, until a January day when Catherine died. She was my firstborn, my only daughter, now alive only in memories of boxes and castles in our make-believe world. In a murderous rage I ripped the sentimental trappings of my love for Jesus from the plain brown cardboard, tearing open the box to see if there was anything worth keeping from this seemingly useless faith.

Without its brightly-colored paper, the box just seemed old and worn; humble remnants of a sacred tree holding only a story stained with blood. While the Biblical account of Christmas reads familiar and sweet, the life story of Christ is savage and sad. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3), giving all that He had for the children He loved. In the months, then the years following Catherine’s death, I read and raged and searched for comfort, for reason, for an explanation. Like toddlers exploring their brown paper castles, I could only grow up as fast as I was able. But in time, I found the box and the story it held to be my most treasured possession. The story held the answers, and Jesus held me.

Under the tree this year are brightly-colored gifts from Kevin and Jesse, and the Santa hat Catherine wore every year. God has graciously lent us an amazing son, and we are grateful beyond words for the privilege of having raised him. With all my heart I believe the promise of Heaven (John 14:1-4) and that Jesus is holding Catherine close to His heart, and I have finally grown out of my cardboard castle. It kept me happy for a while, but I needed to grow into my life with Him. And the ribbons and wrappings of sentimentality to celebrate the birth of our Savior? I’m always a sucker for a good Christmas story.

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! (2 Corinthians 9:15 NIV)

©2011 Rachel Ophoff, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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Merry Christmas to All!

Hearing the Heartbeat of God

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge.

I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”– King David (Psalm 57:1-2 NIV)

Were we still in the days of paper and stamps, the letters would arrive damp with her tears. Instead she updates by email from a hospital far away. Her husband’s heart is failing. I plead with God to hold them so closely they would feel the beating of His very own heart as they walk through the valley of the shadow. In the sterile domain of the mortally ill, where the hush in the hall is broken by sobs, sometimes it seems God is nowhere to be found. Perhaps He is across the street, flying a kite with a child in the park? But while I’ve flown plenty of kites, I’ve also been to the morgue. In the still of that silence I heard His heart best.

When our daughter died, we walked the sacred ground between Heaven and Earth, and there I first heard the heartbeat of God. I also felt it; I smelled it. Curled up on the hospital carpet as we waited for Catherine’s body, a virtual stranger wrapped me in her arms, my back against her chest, and the steady rhythm of God’s heart pushed my breath in and out, in and out. Later at home, and for days to come, it thrummed through the sounds and the scents of the saints coming and going, bearing hams and lilies; pleading prayers and passages on our behalf. Steadily it thumped in the rhythm of life, pulling our own hearts in tow lest they lose their momentum and surrender their song.

I’ve changed in the years since my daughter went home, because I now know the heartbeat of God. I hear it in the wail of the siren and the hum of the heart monitor. It throbs in the background as children let go of their parents, parents let go of their children, and as husbands and wives whisper, “goodbye, for now.” We can drown out the tempo with a flurry of fists as we pound on His chest and scream out our pain. But in the quiet of after, when our voices are broken and we’re fresh out of tears, He pulls us in close to His steady, strong comfort. He gathers us in and holds us next to His heart.

I have little to offer those who walk through the valley of the shadow, but I’m not afraid to go with them. I’ve been there before, and I know God is there. In the shadow of His wings I’ve felt the beating of His heart.

The LORD is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18 NIV)

©2011 Rachel Ophoff, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Please visit my website at

Looking Forward to Heaven With the Eyes of My Heart

Sunday, January 23 marks the anniversary of my daughter Catherine’s death. At the age of fourteen she died in a snowmobile accident on a sunny Sunday afternoon, enjoying an outing with her friends from church.

In the eleven years since her passing, I’ve made some important choices, but one stands out above the rest. I chose to seek God in the midst of the tragedy.

In the years and the months, the weeks and the days leading up to the accident, we as a family lived a life of faith as best we knew how. All four of us had invited Jesus Christ into our hearts as Lord and Savior, and accepted salvation through His death on the cross. We had given Him free reign in our lives (again, as best we knew how) and prayed for each other in faith every day.

You can imagine our shock and rage at this turn of events. As far as we could tell, our prayers for Catherine’s safety had fallen on deaf ears. The Lord we thought we knew had been replaced by an impersonal, uncaring God who allowed our daughter to die horribly before she really had a chance to live. Our pain defied description, underscored by a sense of betrayal by the Jesus we had taught our children to love.

But the three of us who remained made one major decision, and it was that decision that saved us. We went to the Bible, the source of our answers before the disaster, and sought to understand a God who would allow such a heartache. We, who had endeavored to follow Him wholeheartedly, hurled the same questions as Job, and prayed the same laments as King David (both grieving parents themselves.) Finally, we followed Christ to the cross, only to hear the magnificent promise given to the thief: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And finally, as far as we could go in the Word of God, we followed them to Heaven, reading everything the Bible had to say about the home where Catherine waits for us. Though we cannot understand the ways of God (Isaiah 55: 8-9) He gave us enough to cling to for the days we still have here on Earth.

Today, I look forward to Heaven with the eyes of my heart. Catherine- we miss you, honey. To everyone else: if I have only one message I can share with you, it is this: Jesus is always enough. Between His saving grace and the power of His Word, He gives His followers strength for today and hope for tomorrow. If He can keep this addict clean, this alcoholic sober, and this grieving mom from losing her mind, He is enough for anyone and everyone. To God be the glory, Amen!

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you may also be where I am. You know the way to the place I am going.” – Jesus Christ, on the night He was betrayed (John 14:1-4 NIV)

Do you know the way? If you would like to know more about friendship with Jesus, visit my website at

©Rachel Ophoff, 2011, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC, All Rights Reserved.

The Sacred Place Called Mourning

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven…and…a time to mourn.”-The Teacher (Ecclesiastes 3:1,4 NAS)

After the first day, we posted a hand-printed sign on the front door, requesting a few hours of privacy overnight; but as word spread, they just kept coming. The doorbell rang non-stop for a solid week. Kicking the snow off their boots, they wrestled themselves out of their coats, all the while balancing bouquets and balloons and boxes of cookies. The scent of lilies and the aroma of baked ham pervaded the tiny house, reminiscent of Easter were it not for winter’s gloom. Family from Michigan and Florida and Texas mingled with neighbors and friends from church, greeting and mixing with an ease that comes only from sharing a common disaster. Our daughter Catherine had died in an accident, and our little corner of the cosmos rushed in to hold our hearts lest they bleed out silently were we to suffer alone.

We were so fortunate these people swallowed their terror and rushed to our aid. That, folks, is how it is done.

Unfortunately, helping the grieving is not a life skill taught in school. It is passed down by generations as children watch their parents participate in the life of their community. I suggest that, due to advances in our mobile (and now plugged-in) society, we are losing the knowledge of how to comfort the bereaved, because we are no longer part of the process. We are no longer part of community. We run from the hurt because it scares us to death and say, “it’s not our concern.” When an accidental encounter launches an awkward monologue, we blurt out our condolences even as we furtively look for an exit. When Catherine died, Kevin and I became accustomed to the “quick switch”- acquaintances ducking behind the bananas at City Market lest we strike up a conversation. We understood, and eventually forgave. Adrenaline provokes the flight response faster than compassion stirs the brain. People who haven’t been there avoid “a time to mourn” out of fear. Folks who have been there can’t stay away- not because it’s so much fun, but because we remember the comfort given to us.

So what did the author of Ecclesiastes know of a time to mourn? Far more than we do, I suspect. Society may have progressed in its attitudes, values, and quality of life, but I submit that his culture enjoyed a peace that surpasses our own when Death comes to call. Hebrews of the time observed strict practices for outward expressions of grief, burial, and mourning. The brokenhearted were recognized, understood, and respected. These customs brought comfort to the bereaved and honor to their dead. The also united the community, making each person a participant in the process. One might call this morbid. I call it healthy; we are called to community in all the events of life. God invites us to participate in the sacred process of mourning as well as the celebrations of marriage and birth.

Mourning is sacred because God is there. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18 NIV) God bends down to earth and wipes the tears from our eyes using the hands and hearts of the people around us. In the beginning, I wondered where God was when Catherine died. Ten years later, I know. He was in the meadow, holding her hand and leading her home. He was in the ER, manifested in the various shapes and sizes of the saints who were crying with us and praying. He shoveled our snow and took in our relatives and cleaned our house and brought flowers and food and filled our cars with gas. The Lord flung wide the door and lived out His love through the actions and prayers of His people. Together, they formed an almost magical bubble of protection in the sacred experience of grief. Together we mourned, and together we healed.

So who are we to be when sorrow pays a visit? It’s been said, “People are at their best when things are at their worst.” * I say God’s people should be at their best when their neighbors are at their worst. “A time to mourn” eventually comes to every home. Rather than ignoring the pain of the family down the street, (after all, we may not know them) we can take a plate of cookies and a card; not to leave them on the front step but knock and be recognized. We can say, “I am so sorry for your loss. I am your neighbor. Is there anything I can do for you?” We will not melt if their tears fall on our shoulders. On the contrary- the tears of God fall like rain every time we look away.

Ten years later, I look with confidence towards the faraway land where I will someday see Catherine again. Though God has given me the peace to live between now and then, I would not have survived the early days had He not given me the gift of Himself through His people. As for our neighbors: lilies and ham are gifts we can bring, but our presence is our present. We are not alone as we enter the sacred place called Mourning.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus Christ (Luke 10:27 NIV)

*Author Unknown

©Rachel Ophoff 2010, Coconut Mountain Communications LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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Bittersweet Blessings and Late-Summer Bouquets

 “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven; ..and a time to heal.”– The Teacher (Ecclesiastes 3:1,3 NIV)

“Some people are always grumbling that roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.– Alphonse Karr

Dear Catherine,

Happy birthday, honey. I wish you were here.

Your gift this year is a late-summer bouquet. The bittersweet blessing of cooler nights and shorter days seems to have spurred the neighborhood flowers into furious bloom, a last-gasp effort that shouts, “We’re not done yet!” Even the butterflies appear to have launched an August campaign to pollinate the planet, one bush at a time. As the sun moves south, the turquoise skies of summer are deepening to that autumn shade of azure, the postcard-perfect backdrop of a Rocky Mountain fall. You loved every season of your Colorado home, but this last week of August still belongs to you. God lent you to us as a late-summer gift.

You would be twenty-five today. To us, you will be forever fourteen. For several years your friends kept in touch with us; we joined the throngs of celebrants as they graduated, married, and moved on with their lives. Understandably a little gun-shy in crowds, your dad and I always grabbed a corner table for four; it seemed we could not attend any event without including our constant companions, bitter and sweet. Tears burned my throat as I hugged every bride, threatening to escape as even as I gushed over her dress. Finally we’d throw the rice and wish them well; off they would drive for their honeymoon as I cried all the way home in the car. I would have loved to have seen you get married.

Sorry, sweetie, I get caught up. On a brighter note, what’s your birthday like in Heaven? Do you celebrate birthdays there? Does Jesus hug you tightly for me, laughing at your goofy sense of humor and tickling your funny bone? Oh, how I wish I could be there! As it is, I’m afraid I might have to call Him away from the party. Missing you on your birthday is so hard I can’t stop the tears from coming. I need Jesus down here with me. He knows what it’s like to feel sad.

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”-Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:38 NIV)

Jesus knows about suffering, both His and ours. To His disciples He said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b NIV) Did He know you would leave us so soon? Of course. Did He build you a nice home in Heaven? He promised He would, so I’m sure that He did. (John 14:1-4) I guess my real question for Him is: What does “taking heart” look like? How do I overcome a world full of brides and grandbabies and birthdays every year?

And He whispers, “Remember. Remember My gifts as well as My commands.”

“Remember the friends I sent you? They give you their hugs, their presence, their prayers.”

“Remember the Word I sent you? It’s your invitation to the Party, and the promise of My love.”

“Also remember I have work for you to do. Reaching out to others will rescue you from the pool of self-pity. Keep your eyes open for My assignments.”

“Remember the Colorado skies you are so fond of? The ‘someday’ of eternity is coming. On that day, your azure skies will drop the act and run for cover. Even the splendor of the Milky Way at midnight cannot begin to compare with the glory of Heaven. Catherine is safe and happy and busy. To her, time has a different meaning. You will be here almost before she knows it, and almost before you know it, too. Be patient and wait for Me. On your ‘someday’ I will come and take you Home. In the meantime, I will help you through the hard days and rejoice with you on the good ones. And you still have good days to come. Trust Me.”

Okay, Lord. Who can argue with that?

Catherine, here’s your birthday bouquet, made of the flowers that bloom in late summer. The colorful ribbons that weave their way through it are my precious memories of your laughter, your kindness, and the strength of your will. The crystals that bounce back those sparkles of sunshine are the tears that have watered the growth of my soul. I send my love, I wish you the best, and with all my heart I look forward to the day I will see you again.

Happy birthday, honey.

Love, Mom

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord. (Psalm 31;24 NIV)

“The hope of heaven under troubles is like wind and sails to the soul.”- Samuel Rutherford.

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