June 20th has come around again. A day that holds the weight of memory and loss.
This day, two years ago, I was in Norway with a group of friends. We were preparing for a discipleship week for students and graduates from around the world. It was a place I’d visited the summer before, nestled at the foot of Norwegian mountains. I was excited about the photographs I was going to take with my new camera, looking forward to quality time with friends, before I moved hundreds of miles away from them.
But it all changed abruptly when my friend James went missing following a hike and was later found dead.
I had lost people I loved before and have since. Yet there was something uniquely heart breaking about the death of an amazing young man at the age of 21. And we knew that the grief we were experiencing was just a small share of the grief felt by all those who loved him. The tragedy and trauma of it felt more intense when we were together, so far away from home.
At the time I wrote the following words to God, words that are just as true now as they were then:
“We lost the boy who taught me the joy in photography, the boy who’d always help me with my coursework when I got stuck, the boy who was twice the Mathematician I’ll ever be. We were all blessed to have known him and broken to have lost him in such a way….None of us understand why this has happened. I know he is safe with you, that he is in a better place but we are left to deal with the aftermath. I do not doubt your goodness, I know you have a purpose and a plan. We just miss him very much.”
I have struggled for the words to write this year. I could easily have written everything I wrote last year all over again. Another year has passed. The intensity of the grief has lessened further, my emotions have changed, and there has been healing from the trauma of Norway. Yet the absence is the same. James is still just as gone today as he was two years ago. Time cannot bring him back. In fact each anniversary reminds you, that the years stretch before you without him.
Anniversaries bring home the realities of futures taken away. Of all the conversations we cannot have, and all we can’t do together. Each year our own lives move forward, whilst the one we have lost remain frozen to us, at the time they died. This year I am struck with how much I have changed in two years. I am no longer the person I was then, so much has changed, good and bad. And it hurts to be unable to share that with James.
I miss his friendship and the way it made me a better person. He had a positivity and optimism for life, which could make me smile even when I was low. He was kind and selfless, in a way which seemed so natural to him. He was loved by so many.
I remember when it first happened, just how vivid my memories of him became. I remember lying awake the whole night after they found him, going through each memory, being surprised by each fresh one I unearthed. Memories become treasures when you know there will be no more. His face was so clear to me, I could hear his voice and his laughter as if he was standing right next to me.
But memories are fragile things and they fade with time. With each year that passes I feel more distant from him. It gets harder to remember clearly, and to trust that my recollection has not become flawed with time.
A human life is a rich and complex thing. No one life is like another. We are all knitted together with fears and dreams, hopes and memories. And a life lost, especially of one so young and so precious, leaves behind an unfathomable hole. Try as we might, we cannot go back in time. The past is beyond our reach. We have only one choice left to us, to move forward. But how do we honour the memory of the one we have lost? How do we hold on to what matters, even as the memories fade?
I suppose it comes down to a question of what would the person we have lost want us to do, what kind of future they would want for us. I believe they would want us to try to keep moving forward, to find hope and happiness again where we can, to embrace life with it’s sorrow and joy. Whilst memories may fade, that doesn’t mean we will ever forget the one we have lost. And we carry a part of them with us, in the way they changed and shaped us. People leave behind a legacy within us. They may no longer walk this earth, but our own path is still before us. We can choose how we walk it, we can walk it in honour of those we have lost.
I struggled with how I would spend today. I considered going back down South to spend the day with friends who knew James, doing exactly what I did last year. For various reasons it hasn’t worked out, and I will spend it here with a friend instead. We’re going to make new memories. Not to replace any old memories, but to acknowledge that life goes on and it can still be enjoyed. Perhaps it’s time for me to paint June 20th with some brighter colours, to drive out some of the darkness that has clouded the date. I think James would have been happy with that.
“If I should die, and leave you here awhile
Be not like others sore undone, who keep
Long vigils by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake, turn again to life, and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand to do
Something to comfort weaker hearts than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I, perchance, may therein comfort you!”
Mary Lee Hall