Our Father, Who Has Been in Hell.

My Daddy doesn’t cry.

Growing up, I never saw him cry even once. Oh, his voice faltered for one tenuous moment while speaking at my sweet Grandpa’s funeral in the old church on Hubbard Street, but no tears fell. This is, in no small part, why I find it violently disturbing whenever a man cries in my presence. It feels like the sky is falling.

As a little girl, my Mama used to tell me that one day, I’d see my Dad cry. She’d grin and lean in, as though she were about to share something precious, confiding in a whisper that every time the two of them watched Father of the Bride, Daddy teared up just a little bit until he’d finally ask her to turn it off. Your Father can’t even think about your wedding without tears springing to his eyes. Oh honey, that man is going to just cry on your wedding day, she’d tell me with a sort of prideful glee that I’ll bet only a Mama can understand. It was a promise that I savored, treasuring the idea that that my stoic Dad loved me so much that he’d actually cry when I got married. I used to recount that promise to friends, remarking how I’d need to wear waterproof everything on my wedding day because I was entirely certain that one look at my Father with tears in his eyes would send me careening straight over the edge.

Ian started chemo two impossible days after his diagnosis. Doctors wearing white coats and grim expressions were using words like aggressive, and as Ian’s abdomen continued to swell his shallow breathing was becoming increasingly labored. Every second mattered. Reeling from an incomprehensible diagnosis unceremoniously handed to a healthy twenty-one year old kid, we were sitting in a corner room at UNC Hospital, Dad, Ian, and I. Large windows overlooked Chapel Hill in October, and the Magnolia leaves had sparked into flame. We barely noticed, that day.

My tall, strapping brother looked so small laying in his white hospital bed. The chemo bag was hung, Ian was hooked up, and I remember being surprised that something as ominous as chemotherapy wasn’t more complex. As though there should have been more fanfare, more gravitas before poison was allowed to course through my little brother’s broken body. A smiling nurse quietly exited the room, and I sat on the edge of Ian’s bed as the chemo began to infuse, our Dad standing behind me.

So this was chemo.

Minutes later, Ian began to shake violently. The pale, curly-haired boy that had been cheerfully traipsing around his college campus just three days earlier was moaning and writhing on the bed in front of me, and as I lunged over him and held him I fought the panic in my voice as I screamed for someone to come help. I felt like I was drowning as I watched my little brother convulse on the bed in front of me, powerless to do anything but watch. Ian, I’m here, I’m right here. Daddy and I are right here. You’re going to be just fine. Just keep breathing. We’re right here. Nurses and doctors poured into the room, and I stayed trembling at the foot of Ian’s bed, my hands holding his feet. I’m here, Ian. I’m right here.

Fearfully, I glanced over my shoulder at my Daddy just in time to see one tear trickle down his face. It was the first time that I’d ever seen him cry.

I would later learn that Ian was experiencing Rigors, induced from too much of the toxic chemotherapy flowing into his battered body at once. His chemo drip was slowed, and eventually the horrifying convulsions came to a sputtering, faltering halt. I weakly made an excuse about needing to go get something, anything, and walked into the long hallway outside of his room with hot tears streaming uncontrollably down my face. I didn’t make it past the nurse’s station before gut-wrenching sobs threatened to send me to my knees. Sunlight poured into oversized lobby windows, and everything in my world felt dark and splintered. My twenty-one year old little brother’s body was rebelling, and there was nothing, nothing that I could do. I learned that morning what it’s like to feel helpless. To pray ragged, desperate, keening prayers, deeply guttural moans begging God the only way I could think to do it: please. Please. Please. Please. 

Ian would go into kidney failure later that day, and would be rushed downstairs into a dark ICU. I would sit there by his bed, holding his cold hand, begging God please. Please. Please. It was a scene that would be repeated time and time again over the next five months, by hospital beds and on 2:00 AM drives home from the ICU, always begging God please.

When I think about that day, and the many like it that would follow, when I think about holding tightly to Ian’s hand as he falteringly breathed in and out for the very last time, when I think about how God said no, I don’t understand. I believe that when our hearts are shattered, human instinct is to try and make sense of it all, as if a tidy answer will help us put the pieces back together again.

I don’t pretend to understand God. I cannot tell you why He said no to the one thing that I wanted most in the whole world. What I can tell you, is that before Ian’s first day of chemo, I thought about God as Our Father in Heaven. He is that, of course, but as I learn to stumble through life without my little brother I have learned to cling to Him as Our Father who has been in hell. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched the flesh be torn from his Boy’s body as He was chained to a post and violently whipped again and again. Until tattered skin hung loose and blood ran crimson and bone was laid raw and exposed. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched as thorns were pressed deep, as blood poured rivers down his Boy’s beaten face. Our Father who has been in hell, who watched smirking Roman guards stake his Boy to a couple slabs of wood. Our Father who has been in hell, who for hours watched his Boy slowly suffocate to death. Straining, gasping for air that his exhausted lungs could not find.

I’ll bet He cried, just like my Daddy did.

I do not follow a God that I understand. I do follow a God that understands me. Who understands wrenching pain and searing loss, who for the sake of Ian and you and me stood by while his precious Son bled out and suffocated. A God who is intimately familiar with the raw, howling, soul-wrenching bone-weary keen of grief. In the midst of it, I am grateful for the God that has been in hell. Who triumphantly walked through it and shattered the chains off the gates and declared it FINISHED so that death would not be the end of Ian’s story.

It does not have to be the end of your story, either.


Filed under Family, God's faithfulness, Grief, Hope, Ian

22 responses to “Our Father, Who Has Been in Hell.

  1. Your beautiful writing is an incredible witness to the strength of your faith. You amaze me.

  2. Jaime Ostrum

    Wow is all I can say. I have been in the same situation as you with my little sister. She had heart surgery and then in the middle of the night after her surgery she went into full cardiac and pulmonary arrest. They put her on a heart lung bypass machine and they waited to see if her heart would recover. I prayed that God would heal my sister and that she would be okay again. I too was given the answer, NO! I still wonder why God took my sister Katie at the young age of 5 while I was 20. I understand your pain and I too know that God is sovereign and there must have been a reason.

    • Jaime, I’m so, deeply sorry about your little sister. I know that’s heart-wrenching for you. “No” is very hard to hear sometimes, isn’t it?

  3. I sat here crying as I read this and wanting to bottle up your feelings and give them to everyone I know who asks how we can follow a God who is so impossible to understand. It also made me think of the verse in Psalms about saving all our tears in a bottle. I imagine that when life is messy and hellish and complicated. I imagine God saving those tears and I don’t know what he will do with them, but I know they won’t be wasted.

    Thanks – as always — for your words!

    • You are precious. Thank you. I’ve thought about that verse a lot too–thankful that they won’t be wasted, and that we have a God that deeply cares.

  4. I’m remembering, and crying again. But glad for the reminder of our great, merciful Father, who knows our frailty and the brokenness we experience, who cares and sees our tears, and who loves us so much He gave His Son in our places.

  5. thank you for writing and sharing this – it is a beautiful tribute our Heavenly Father – Mark Sanders

  6. Thank you Ashley for this. I remember when Savannah told me about Ian being sick. Dawn had called her crying. I remember taking his name to our Bible study praying for him & the family weekly. How I cried as if he were my son. I remember sitting through the funeral with a row full of “daughters” that loved him & kept asking why. Thank you for reminding us of what our Father has been through and He does understand. Only a magnificent and amazing love can walk us through times like this. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Beautifully written … yet, so very hard to read. I’m thankful you shared your powerful story in this post, as well as in others. After perusing through many of your posts, I am finding myself wiping away tears which I am not quite sure are from laughing or crying. Looking forward to reading more of what you have to say. :)

  8. Debby Machan

    This made me think of my brother, whom I watched slowly slip away from us. I had the same reaction as she did but God got me through it. I knew he gave up his son in a worse way. Thank you God for everything.

  9. Cheryl Womack

    All I can say is I have watched The Passion of The Christ but your simple truthful words personally for me painted a far more vivid picture of what it must have been like for God. How much suffering Jesus went through and how much it really did cost to wash away our sins. I have never witness suffering like you and your family had to endure but I do have a little boy.

    • It’s really helped shape the way that I view God in the wake of Ian’s death, to remember that the God that I pray to every day hung on a cross for Ian and for me and for you. He intimately understands pain, and in the midst of pain I think that really matters. Thanks for reading, Cheryl. :)

  10. 2014momof3

    I lost my sister 9 years ago and I get.it. I get watching helplessly, I get searing overwhelming can’t talk, think, walk or move forward pain. I get a life time of memories and a life that had to move but didn’t want to. I get stuff I never wanted to get.

    • I’m so, so sorry that you lost your sister. It’s only been 16 months since I lost Ian, but I’m confident that I will always miss him this badly. It will never be okay. It makes me that much more excited for heaven.

  11. Chelsea

    As always,your writing is phenomenal. You’re always able to put into appropriate words what my heart has felt for the last 13 years. I greatly needed to read this today and be reminded of the fact that Our Father has been to hell. So often I allow myself to become consumed with the “no one else can understand what it feels like to have your precious sibling ripped from you” emotion. Above all He understands me. Thank you so much for this reminder Ashley. I pray for you and your family often.

    • Thank you for praying for my family, Chelsea–I’m really grateful. I’m sorry that you could resonate with the blog, but I’m praying right now that in the midst of whatever happened 13 years ago, God gives your heart the grace to understand that He is incapable of being anything but good to you. I’m so sorry you lost a sibling.

  12. Kathi

    Thanks Ashley! I’m Elizabeth Smith’s aunt (the wild one) who just finished a 2 year stint of breast cancer chemo and … 7 surgeries…. Love your honesty! Love that you still love and promote God! And love that you are ok with not knowing everything. I have felt so loved by my Heavenly Father through this whole ordeal… That is what has carried me! Bless you and your family as you grieve the loss of Ian!! Kathi

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