I was camping out in a tent, during the first frost of the year on a weekend trip to Maine. I lied in the sleeping bag, wide awake, as my body tried to shake the cold and my mind tried to shake the memory. Grief is persistent, though. There is no way to distract it and there is no shaking it – especially when it emerges suddenly from the deep, hardened, carefully chosen place, where you thought you were a safe distance from it.
I was cold.
Despite the multiple layers of clothing, along with hat, scarf, flannel sleeping bag, and the tent sheltering me from the twenty-eight degree night outside, I was cold. It was then, as I plunged further into the sleeping bag, secretly hoping for a warm pocket, that I saw Jess’ face.
It was a moment so sharp and poignant that it reawakened my heart to the sadness and pain of grief and death.
It didn’t take more than the cold air for my mind to flood with images, sounds, and memories of the last time that I had talked with Jess. I had been sitting at the Night Shelter Manager desk when he came up to ask me for some cough syrup. In his genuine and calm nature, I remember him standing there telling me how he was tired of being sick. The next morning, as he exited the church, we had one more brief conversation – one that we had routinely – as to whether he would be able to stay at the shelter again that evening. I reminded him, as I always did, that as long as he came back by evening check-in that he would have a bed. With his cowboy hat on, he said ‘thank you ma’am,’ and he walked out the door. That was the last time that I saw him.
My heart paused as I recounted arriving at my midnight shift, where I read the note that Jess had died of hypothermia – police had found him sleeping outside at a gas station. He had died cold and alone.
The wound began to open further, as I recollected the memory of attending his funeral. Sitting in the very last pew of an unfamiliar church, I watched and listened as several people – family, friends, and coworkers – shared kind words, stories, and memories of Jess. I remember choking back tears as they talked of a man that I had come to know as a friend. I remember the pain that surged throughout my chest as I grieved the reality of an unfair world. I remember the ‘why’s’ that disturbed my consciousness and evoked an uncomfortable anger. Why were all of these people here now but not then? Why had he not come to the shelter? Why did he die alone? Why had the world failed him? Why, God, why?
On a cold, fall evening, I, once again, found myself grieving for Jess and the injustice of a homeless man dying at the expense of a broken world. The journey exposes us to overwhelming glimpses of darkness and we may, very well, spend our whole lives asking: why? However, amidst the pain, grief, and loss, a powerful light pushes back – casting new hope, new perspective, and new strength.
With resilient hearts, fragile faith, and kindred connectedness, we thrust forward into a broken world, alive with the pursuit of a restored Kingdom.