The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  ~ Psalm 23:4

Christian or not, you’re most likely familiar with this verse from the 23rd Psalm. A lament giving way to hope. This particular verse has taken such a prominent role in our own lives since April 9th, 2013 – the night we learned Harlynn’s heart had stopped beating.

We live alongside the shadow of death, to be sure. Harlynn’s death cast such despair over our souls in those moments after. Once my eyes were opened to the life of a bereaved parent, Nothing was as bright as it once was. I felt, almost immediately, I would always have a cloud of grief enveloping me as I walked out the rest of my days on earth.

I specifically remember resenting anyone having the audacity to say things like, “I wish I could take this hurt away” or “I wish I could hurt for/instead of you.” My pain was the only thing I had to hold on to of Harlynn. The hurt was the only thing I could manage. I could call it up from the depths when I needed to grieve. I could subdue it when I needed to function. It was all I had. I hated when others dared to suggest I should be without it, let alone they should be responsible for taking it from me.

The other day, after I had picked Little Miss up from the bus stop and Little Man from his pre-pre-school, we drove to the cemetery. This was never the afternoon routine I imagined my life would hold, being a mother. Pick up oldest child. Pick up youngest child. Go spend time at the cemetery where middle child is buried.

Sometimes, though I’ve made that drive one-million-and-one times, it strikes me as if it’s the first trip down that dirt-covered lane to her grave. My breath quickens, my shoulders tighten, and my mind tries to reconcile how babies are still dying in our day and age. The shadow of death looms ever so present as we visit our child – the sibling my children will not ever know this side of heaven – by parking near a headstone.

The shadow of the valley of death lingers in other ways as well. In the “today would have been….” moments. In the “I wonder what she would have….” moments. Certainly in the “please protect my children from….” moments.

Sometimes the shadow looms. Sometimes it hovers. Sometimes it completely engulfs.

And yet…. in order to have a shadow, there must be light. Somewhere. The verse goes on, “and I will fear no evil…for You are with me.”

It will be three years this April since Harlynn entered and left our world. For the first two years following her death, I became increasingly consumed by fear. Not just afraid, but consumed by fear. Toward the end of last summer, it was rare for me to leave the house without thinking of the potential accidents I could find myself in. Strapping Little Man in his car seat caught me envisioning what would happen if we were T-boned.

At night, I would make the rounds several times ensuring our doors and windows were locked, and plot out scenarios for how I would fight to protect my family against an intruder.

The worst had happened – my child died. No one was safe. No one was immune from tragedy. Nothing was certain or guaranteed. So I lived in absolute fear of every. single. what-if.

It was affecting my marriage. My parenting. My work. My sleep. My social life. I was a prisoner, held captive by the debilitating effects of anxiety brought on by fear.

Then… I found the light. Of course, the light had always been there, but I was living in the shadow. The light was Psalm 139. It’s a beautiful chapter, but I’ll sum it up for you here: God is all places. All powerful. All knowing. Those days (months) following, when we had no answers, I sometimes tried to shame God for abandoning us. “Where were you THEN, Lord?!” And I see now, He was right beside me. As He’s always been. He provides for my every need, and always has. He clears paths for me I didn’t even know existed. He solves problems that burden me greatly. He can do it all. He knows my thoughts. My desires. My dreams. He always has.

And I don’t have to live IN the shadow.

Will it always be a part of my life? No question. My daughter died. Our family will forever have a missing member. Losing her has shaped not only who I am today, but who I aspire to be. Who I’m working toward being.

I will always live with the shadow of death. But not always in it. I embrace it. I’m familiar with it. But I’m no longer hopeless because of it.

Early October, I was speaking and imparting wisdom upon others like I always do (/tongue-in-cheek) and I spotted a dear woman in the back of the room. God pretty much picked me up, carried me over to her, and all but sat me in her lap. Out of my mouth came the words, “I need you to pray for me…” and that was as far as I could get before the tears came. I told her about the fear. The paralysis. The doubt. The worry. She grabbed my hands, and as only she could, she prayed the power of the Holy Spirit over me like nobody’s business. She cast out fear in His name. She threw all kinds of holy warfare in the face of that fear and as she prayed, I felt lighter. Freer. Free.

I still have moments, though so very rare now, where I feel afraid. But I no longer live in fear.

If I could rewrite this verse today, the Val-version might read something like this:
Yes, I walk with one foot in the valley under the shadow of death. But I will fear no evil, for You have freed me, and You are all places, all powerful, and all knowing. And today, that is enough.

Some days we walk in the valley of the shadow of death. Some days we camp there. But we’re not afraid. Shadows only exist because there is light. Constant, bright light.