In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the book that ends the series, a bittersweet parting closes out the epic story. Frodo, the hobbit hero of the tale, rides with his friend Sam to meet the elves, who are leaving the mortal world via the Grey Havens to go to Valinor, the Undying Lands. When Sam realizes that his lifelong friend is going away with them, he becomes distraught:
“Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.
“To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo.
“And I can’t come.”
Sam’s right; he can’t come. Not yet. And so Frodo goes, departing with the elves and remnants of the company who fought in the battle against great evil and darkness. Sam can do nothing but bid them farewell and watch them depart, and then:
…at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country…
But to Sam the evening deepened to darkness as he stood at the Haven; and as he looked at the grey sea he saw only a shadow on the waters that was soon lost in the West.
I’ve always struggled with how bittersweet that ending is; I wanted something happier for such an epic series. But tonight a family friend of mine passed away under painful and unexpected circumstances, leaving the rest of us shocked and uncertain and grieving, and my thoughts returned to the ending of that book and have dwelt there since. In moments of unexpected loss, we all stand here like Sam, stranded on the far shore.
We’re human, and frail, and easily wounded. We can’t control time and suffering and death. We can’t see certain partings coming, and even when we can they’re always too soon. Our lifespans are short and yet we love deeply. Even knowing that a happy ending awaits us, we want it now – it’s hard to stand here, left with nothing but questions and our own shock and sadness. Even Jesus knew this. Confronted with the reality of death – surrounded by humans who grieved it – He could do nothing else but weep (John 11:35). No matter how strong our faith or how rock-solid our theology, when death comes, as death does, it hurts – not those who have gone ahead, but those who are left behind.
The comfort I find – sometimes the only comfort – is that God abhors that pain as much as we do. He remembers our tears (Psalms 56:8), and He has promised multiple times that He will not only wipe them away but that He will abolish sadness and death itself (Isaiah 25:8, Rev. 7:17 and Rev. 21:4). God, too, does not intend that grief will be eternal. God too will roll back that “grey rain-curtain” for all of us one day, and we will come into our first glimpse of that distant place we dream about.
This world of hurt is not the one God wanted for us. But it’s the world through which He will guide us until we make it to the one He desires.
In times like these I don’t believe that words or platitudes or anything I could say or do can ease the hurt of loss. I don’t want to try. I think it is simply enough in this kind of hurt to watch and wait. To weep, and know that God hurts with us in our suffering. To understand that before the morning of joy, we must endure a night of sorrow.
It’s a painful place to be, stranded on the shore while others cross the water. All we can do is fix our eyes on the promised horizon and cry out to God.