Six Years Later
Updated: Mar 15
Six years ago today, my son took a shallow breath. We waited and watched for another, but it never came. I have tried to celebrate the anniversary of Joel's death as his "heaven day," remembering that it is also the anniversary of the day he entered a fuller, more beautiful life in God's presence. But today, I'm thinking not just of his transformation, but my own.
I used to talk a lot about how much Joel's battle with cancer changed me, how it strengthened my faith, shifted my priorities, and built up my endurance for challenging circumstances. I thought having a child with cancer changed a person about as much as a person could be changed. But my transformation began fresh six years ago when I no longer had a child battling cancer. I had no idea as I waited for God to bring Joel back to life how much his death would be a rebirth for me.
I have sowed in tears, and now I am beginning to discover the tender shoots that are springing from those precious and mysterious seeds.
Joel's death birthed compassion in me. I care deeply about the pain and suffering of others. While Joel was alive, I thought there was some limit to the suffering I could feel. I expected God's love for me to spare me from the worst of it, and so I didn't know how to relate to people who seemed left out of God's protection. Now the suffering I witness reminds me how connected we all are, none of us are immune from pain. God did not spare Jesus, and we know that God loved Him and was well pleased with Him. I see now how much God loves and is pleased with His children who suffer, and I want to comfort them, sit with them, and try to meet their needs rather than ponder from a distance who might be to blame for their sad predicament.
Joel's death planted mystery in my heart. I let go of the certainty I felt and gradually learned that there is a comfort in having questions no human mind can answer. I rejoice that we can't pin God down or demand that He explain Himself when He is so entirely incomprehensible to us. The limits of my understanding have given me peace in a way that is hard to describe, but the result has been that I love the doubters, the questioners, the ones who examine their faith, even if they find it lacking. I believe God loves them too. I want to sit with them and hear their questions and tell them that their questions are worthy and their wrestle is good.
Joel's death connected me to heaven. I consider heaven. I contemplate it. I try to live as if it is real. And I marvel at how infrequently I did all of this before heaven became the home of my son.
Joel's death set me free with God. Well first, it bound me up, but as I fought through the tangled knots of grief and disappointment, I knocked loose a few restraints I didn't know I had been wearing. I used to be careful how I approached God, with praise and honor, hiding the parts of myself I wasn't sure were holy enough. But I have learned to rage and weep and shout at God. I've learned to ask my questions and wait for answers and trust that God's love for me is big enough to hold all of my imperfections without holding them against me.
After Joel died, I wrote a poem. I've never shared it anywhere online before. I've shared other poems about Joel. But this one felt too angry - too accusatory. I didn't share it because I was worried that people would judge my grief. My grief was too precious to me for me to let it be trampled under the weight of other people's opinions. This poem opens the book I've written about untangling my disappointment with God from my grief. I'm sharing it today, because I feel like this morning, six years after Joel died, God gave me a minuscule new insight about the day I begged God to give Joel back to me, and God said no. My revelations from God and the comfort He has offered me have been a direct result of my willingness to meet Him in the middle of my anger, and ask my hard questions, unafraid that He will find me unacceptable if I reveal my feelings too plainly. So here is the poem I wrote, and hid. I have loved it all these years, and I can finally offer it to you.
You did not rise
When our prayers poured out of our mouths with boldness.
You did not rise
When our faith, mixed with grief, leaked down the contours of our faces.
You did not rise
When the cold ground came up to meet you.
You did not rise
When I swore that I would not, but then had to anyway.
You did not rise
To meet me, to find my arms, to quiet the ache I feel.
You rose instead in the arms of God
And I am still forgiving Him for that.
Early this morning, Zoe came into our bedroom crying. She shook with fear as she told me that she had a nightmare. She didn't want to talk about it at first, but eventually she told me that in her dream, a big spider and a snake were trying to get her. Later in the morning, my husband woke up and told me that he dreamt he had poisoned himself while trying to poison someone else. It got me thinking about dreams. We've all had pleasant dreams before, but most of us have had such terrible nightmares that we would gladly give up dreaming all together to prevent the fear and horror that can overtake us in our dreams.
I thought about the comfort I give Zoe as her mother. "It's okay. It wasn't real. It was only a dream. You're awake now, and everything is alright."
I wondered if Joel's first moment in heaven was like waking up from a nightmare. I wonder if God said, "You're awake now. This is where life truly begins. All the pain and fear you knew before is over, and everything is okay."
If so, I long for that same moment. I won't deny there are some exquisite moments here, experiences I have loved, people I would die for, but we all know how often fear and pain and sin overtake us. I long for God to wake me from the dream, and show me what is real. Because of Joel, I live with that awakening in mind.
And so perhaps I can forgive God a little more today than I have before because I can't begrudge a loving God the comforting act of waking their child up from a nightmare. I hate to call Joel's life here a nightmare when I know how full of joy, and love, and delightful mischief he really was and how few of his days were hard, despite his long battle with cancer. I want to selfishly call our lives here good, and say that it was wrong for God to let Joel be pulled out of them. But the part of me that has learned to love mystery has begun to understand that my perception of good is so limited. God's goodness is so far beyond our comprehension that it will make this fading life seem like a terrible nightmare in comparison and we will rejoice to see it pass.
"And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." Revelation 21:4
Amy Noel Green is a Ted Speaker, author, and video game designer. She received international press attention for her work on the video game "That Dragon, Cancer." The video game tells the story of her son Joel who died from cancer at the age of five.
She is the author of the upcoming book, "Dear God, How Could You?" (When Joel died of cancer after years of miracles, Amy questioned God. She shouted her betrayed, angry questions at the God she no longer understood. She buried many miracles with Joel. She buried her relationship with God too, but God’s love for her refused to stay in the grave.) Subscribe for updates on the bottom of her about page, to be notified when her book is published.