I was dumbstruck. How could Lois ask me that? I wondered.
Time seemed to stand still as I looked into my dear friend’s eyes, red and puffy from a week of tears and lack of rest. I glanced quickly around the small hospital room. My husband was quietly conversing with Rob, Lois’s husband. Their seven-year-old son, James, lay near death in the unkempt bed. He was moaning softly. The scabbed marks on his wrists and ankles betrayed the use of restraints that had tied him down during his earlier seizures. Rob had since convinced the hospital staff that the restraints were not needed if he lay on the bed with his feverish son. He stroked James’s face and arms with a damp cloth and murmured memories and endearments in an effort to keep him cool and calm. James was not only having complications from malaria and asthma, he was also experiencing heart problems caused by the differing medicines. The next morning, James would be flown on a life flight to Paris, France, from the small West African country where we all served as missionaries.
I closed my eyes and prayed. Lord, you said you would put words in our mouths. I don’t know what to say here.
When I opened my eyes, the movement of time was restored. Lois looked expectantly at me. I opened my mouth and only four words came out: “Lois, don’t be brave.” These were not words that my psychology professor would have approved, nor were they words that came from my experience as a pastor’s wife or missionary. In fact, I could not believe they had left my mouth at all, and my hand flew to cover my mouth as if to shove the unwanted words back.
Lois and I stared at each other with eyes popped as wide as they could be. We both knew that if these were, indeed, the words of God, then James was going to die. Neither one of us wanted to acknowledge that, so we said nothing.
My husband finished his time with Rob by saying a prayer. Lois and I hugged a wordless goodbye. The next day, James died in Paris.
Their family was called back to the United States for a time to regroup. Lois and Rob had to decide whether to continue in their present missionary assignment or choose another vocation. Their younger children, one of whom had nearly died on the same bed as his brother, had to regain their health.
While the family healed and considered their future, the close-knit ex-patriot community made up of many nationalities and occupations all waited for news. It came in dribs and drabs from mutual friends who bumped into Lois and Rob while on home assignment.
Several months after James passed away, Christine, a mutual friend said, “Amy, I just saw Lois in the states, and she gave me a message for you.” She tilted her head and seemed to wonder if she had gotten the message correctly. “She told me that you would understand; she said: ‘Tell Amy that I’m not being brave.’ Does that make sense?”
I nodded that it did, indeed, make sense.
I was in misery. I pictured Lois as I had last seen her, with red, puffy eyes and a broken heart. What had I done?
A year after James’ death, his parents and younger siblings returned as missionaries in the same region in West Africa. We were happy to have them back and amazed at their resiliency through the past year.
A few weeks after the family’s arrival, Lois decided to hold a memorial time in which all their friends could say a few words about James as a closing to the formal grieving time. The ex-patriot community formed a large circle in the family’s living room. Almost everyone shared their recollections of James. He had been a very active and likable kid, so tales abounded. Lois and Rob nodded at some memories and shook their heads at others. Some of the stories were new to them. I said nothing.
After everyone was finished, Lois noticed my silence and spoke up. “There is someone here who has not spoken yet. I want to thank her. A year ago, when James was in the hospital, she told me, ‘Lois, don’t be brave.’ If ever words came directly from the mouth of God, it was then. I didn’t want to hear those words at that moment, but wisdom came with time.
“You see,” Lois continued, “I was raised a military brat. I knew how I was to act at all times. Soldiers don’t cry. Soldiers don’t let others know when they are hurting. Soldiers face every situation with self-control. Soldiers are brave. In my life, up to that point, I had always acted like a soldier. Yet, over the past year, with a loss so great, I could not do that. I was broken in two by James’ death.
“But with Amy’s words, God had given me permission to cry on the shoulders of strangers. He had given me authorization to tell grocery clerks and store managers why I was weeping as I bought only two sets of school supplies. God allowed me to scream and sob uncontrollably if I needed to. I didn’t need to be brave, and I wasn’t. By revealing my brokenness, I have managed to make it through this year. I have discovered God in the unlikeliest of people and places. People have listened by the hour as I remembered my funny bundle of joy that was taken away. I know now that I don’t need to be brave. God has touched my heart. I’m not God’s soldier; I’m his beloved daughter, and He grieves with me.”
As Lois spoke, I asked God’s forgiveness for not trusting that he knew better than I did and certainly better than my psychology professor did. Then I returned Lois’s smile. There were miles left to travel on her road of grief, but with God’s grace and with the loving support of others, Lois could walk its entire length on her own two feet at her own pace, trusting she’d find comfort when she couldn’t be brave.
– This essay by Amy Crofford appeared in Colleen Sell, ed., A Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Heart: Stories to lift your spirit and heal your soul (Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media, 2010), 184-188.