Day is done, Gone the sun,
From the lake, From the hill,
From the sky.
All is well, Safely rest,
God is nigh.
There are no official lyrics to Taps, but these words have been attributed to the hauntingly sorrowful tune that is commonly played at military funerals. I say hauntingly sorrowful because I have a powerful memory etched so deeply into my heart that I have a physical ache whenever I hear it. The memory is the day that I buried my first husband, Staff Sergeant Yance Tell Gray, at Arlington National Cemetery. I remember turning to look toward the sound and seeing the bugler. The song is only twenty-four notes, but that September day it may as well have been twenty-four knives thrust into my broken heart.
The unofficial lyrics to Taps can be thought of as words of comfort, “the sun has gone down on their days, yet God is near.” At the time, though, I didn’t know God was near. I didn’t even know who God was. But he was working to change that. As the waters of grief threatened to drown me, God was preparing to prove they were no match for his might (Ps 77:16).
September 10, 2007 was the day I learned that my beloved husband Tell was killed in Iraq.
It was a beautiful North Carolina fall morning; Ava, our five-month-old daughter, and I had just returned home from a short beach trip to Oak Island. It was a Monday and I hadn’t heard from him since the Friday before. He called when I was packing our bags to leave – he told me to remember everything about Ava’s first trip to the beach, to try and find time to relax, and that he loved me – that I was his lobster. He told me they had some kind of mission they were working on over the weekend and he might have an opportunity to call me the next week. I may have rushed the phone call a bit because I knew I had to get on the road. So when we got back to the house on Monday, I put Ava in her swing, made a sandwich, and sat down. I was anxious to hear from him. Instead, I heard the doorbell ring. Two men in uniform stood on my front porch preparing to share with me the most devastating news imaginable.
Over the next few weeks, which were a blur, I attempted to put together the broken pieces of my life. I loved Tell, so much so that I couldn’t even imagine existing if he didn’t. We were brand new parents and couldn’t wait to be together again to learn how to do this family thing. We had plans to travel, to give Ava what we both hadn’t been given growing up, and to grow old together. We made a joke that we would “grow old and gray” together (our last name). Not only were my dreams shattered, but I wasn’t even sure how to move into the next day, let alone the future. I was a nurse; surely I needed to go back to work, but how? I had a brain fog; couldn’t remember how to get groceries, forgot about paper towels, couldn’t nurse Ava because I couldn’t eat and my milk dried up…everything felt overwhelming. And over it all was the suffocating weight of the heavy blanket of grief.
I spent many hours crumpled up, weeping until my chest hurt. I missed him. One day, not too long after Tell died I was in one of these postures when words I had seen or heard several times came to mind – something about giving it all to God. I had no idea what that meant and a couple of times had even thought this meant something like believing a little spider I saw in the shower was who I was supposed to talk to…or if I looked hard enough into the clouds that Tell would somehow send me a message. These were all ways I had seen in movies that the bereaved were comforted – they were given a sign. Without much luck in those avenues I thought one day that I might try to look up some Bible verses that a friend’s dad had sent in a sympathy card.
I don’t know where the Bible came from that I used, but there it was, in my house. Through the tears I fingered the table of contents to find the Psalms. I landed on Psalm 139, which wasn’t on the list. The words, “if I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there,” were like a magnet. Was this Tell, letting me know he was with me? I read it over and over. Then I read it every day. I couldn’t understand it, but I wanted it to be him with my entire being.
Over time I began to see that the words weren’t from Tell; they weren’t about Tell.
The God that I was told to give everything to had already given everything to me in his word, revealing himself to me in a way he knew my heart would respond.
The hopelessness I had felt and the weight of the most painful grief I could imagine was giving way to my beginning to believe that I actually wasn’t alone or abandoned. The words were not about Tell, but they were about a God who apparently sees, hears, and loves those who cry out to him. And while a deep sadness still coursed through my heart when I thought of Tell (it still does), I wanted to know more of the God I was reading about.
And then I met Rhodes. I had heard of him; Tell told me that they had a new LT that came over and he liked him. “He’s not arrogant; he’s like one of us,” he said. “That’s nice,” I remember saying. After the accident that killed seven guys that day, I went through their names often. Who was killed, who was seriously wounded, who lived. Rhodes (or, LT Bob, as they called him) was the only one I didn’t know. I inquired, was he hurt badly? How can I help? He had been wounded and sent to Germany and then back to the states but was on convalescent leave at his home in Kentucky. No bother, then. He was fine.
It wasn’t until all the guys finally returned from the deployment did I meet him. I was invited to join a bunch of them at Texas Roadhouse. I was apprehensive…as much as I wanted to share in the joy of their return, I knew Tell wouldn’t be among them. I didn’t get to Green Ramp to see him come home; I didn’t have a banner across the threshold or his favorite foods in my fridge. I could barely speak about him without longing to hear his voice again.
I sat down at a table for four – Rhodes was at my table and I didn’t think much of it…until he bowed his head to ask a blessing over his food. No one else was doing this, and with my upbringing, I would have thought it was a terrifically weak and embarrassing thing to do. Yet there he was, giving thanks to this very God that I wanted to know more about. I decided then and there to make him my friend.
Over the next several months, God began to grow the seed of faith he had planted in me when he led me to the Psalms in my suffering. He used Rhodes to patiently teach me the gospel, and over the next several months my eyes and heart were opened to the reality of the truth in Jesus Christ as the lover and savior of my soul. Not only had God been kind enough to comfort me in the worst pain I could imagine, but by his grace he took my broken heart of stone and made it into flesh. I became a new creation in Christ. I could grieve with hope knowing that God’s glory was now my ultimate gain, that the sorrowful story he gave me has a beautiful purpose (Ps 40:1-3).
Rhodes and I have been married now for twelve years. I’m unspeakably grateful for so many things about him – he’s a gentle man who loves Jesus, has loved Ava from the start, loves our daughter Elloree that we had together, and loves our littlest daughter Leeona that we adopted. I’ve seen God’s grace move through Rhodes over the years as he has humbly and imperfectly led our family to follow Jesus, but especially in how he’s cared for me when Tell’s memory overwhelms me with sadness, even as he grieved the loss of friends and fellow soldiers from that same terrible day.
Tell has been gone now for fourteen years. I can hardly wrap my mind around that. Yet there isn’t one single thing about my life that is the same as it was the day before he died, or before I became a follower of Christ. 2 Cor. 5:17 is profoundly true. I don’t think I would have chosen this story for myself if you would have asked me all those years ago. But on this side of it all, even with the wounds and scars of loss, the gift of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord has made it infinitely worth it. Eph 2:13.
Any one of us who was alive on 9/11/01 remembers where we were on that day. And we all know it, too. We all know that we experienced a day that only fits in with a handful of other days in the tapestry of our country’s history. So, we may well assume that there is a safe space to talk about that day with anyone who was able to remember it. I was there, too. And until 9/11/07, the day didn’t cross my mind much. I cringe even typing that, knowing that I moved through life without giving much thought to anything or anyone besides myself. But that is the truth.
9/11/07 was the day after my husband was killed in Iraq. I spent that day in utter disbelief, probably not unlike many widows spent that same day six years earlier. I can promise I hadn’t considered the anniversary of 9/11 that year. But every year after, now for thirteen more years, I do.
Tell enlisted in the Army before 9/11. He had always wanted to serve his country in the 82’d Airborne, and he did. So when 9/11 happened, for Tell – it meant something. His first tour was to Afghanistan in 2003. We had just begun dating right before he left; we promised to write, and in the pages of hundreds of letters I learned what 9/11 meant to him. He didn’t have a hunger for war, rather, a longing for justice and a deep desire to serve honorably his fellow men. I admired his humility and selfless desire to care for others first. He was killed in Iraq, and, in the simplest view, the events that happened on 9/11/01 were central to this tragedy.
And so, 9/11 signifies for me a double portion of grief. It is the day after the worst day of the year for me, and every year there are visible reminders on 9/11 as to why 9/10 happened. There is temptation to believe that peace has surely passed us by – why must the nations rage and the people plot in vain? There cannot be victory with so much collateral damage, so many lives lost and families broken. The weight of September 10 for me, the reminders every September 11 for our country; we are desperate to believe someone sees this brokenness and will not forget. We want to know that all the wrong, all the suffering, all the loss will be undone. Will there be an end to the pain?
Reminding ourselves of the suffering is a way we can draw on fresh hope that anchors us to the promises of God; that he will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev 21:4) We look back in tears so that we may turn and fix our gaze forward on the one who will make it all brand new again.
I don’t want to run away from 9/10 and 9/11. Instead, I allow the grief to wash over me, give myself space to feel the loss, and trust in God’s faithfulness to comfort in those places of sorrow and remembrance.
Caring for military members and their families begins with building relationships. If you live in a city or town with a busy military post, be aware that many families have to navigate a type of single parenting that is unique. It’s true that they do have built-in communities with other spouses or families that remain while the service member deploys. But nothing satisfies the deepest need for community like the church. When members of the military are away, many times the need for a stable body of individuals that will not be uprooted is invaluable. So if you see a mama in the store wrangling kids, strike up a conversation. See what she might be missing in terms of practical help at home (carpool, a cheerleader at a game, pick up snacks for a practice, etc.). Invite her to worship with you; offer her a reliable hand and listening ear.
If you don’t live in a community with a large military presence, find out how you can connect in ways that support them from afar. The organization Operation We Are Here has a website with multiple resources to help know how and where to plug in. If you are interested in helping or supporting Gold Star Families (these are families who have lost someone in the military while on active duty), there are many avenues to ensure their loved ones are not forgotten. Folded Flag Foundation, Folds of Honor, Wear Blue: Run to Remember, and Team RWB are a handful of organizations that exist to support these families.
Military families have a unique way of life, but one thing that isn’t unique is their need for biblical friendship and fellowship, as well as community with the local church. So start there: be a friend that helps them fall in love with Jesus.
Learn more about Jessica’s story in this video from The Church at Brook Hills.