There were many unthinkably difficult things we had to do after Titus passed away. Horrifying decisions we had to make, phone calls with insurance agents and mortuaries. And my husband, Kent, handled it all with such strength and grace. He wouldn’t let me make a single phone call (he still hasn’t to this day). But by far the most horrifying of them all was picking up Titus’ ashes from the mortuary.
The most important prayer for us in those first weeks and months after we lost Titus was against the attacks of the enemy. I remember being surprised by how many people either prayed protection over us or told us they were praying for it. Thank you to all of you. I had no idea how much we needed it. Those attacks were, and still are, incredibly powerful. And in those first few days, we definitely felt God’s presence shielding us, tucking us away, giving us time to rest and find our bearings.
About a month after Titus was born, an attack hit. Neither of us had returned to work yet. We’d decided to get out of the apartment for some fresh air, so we went to lunch. While we were at lunch, we got a text that our good friends had their baby boy. We looked at the picture they sent with smiles on our faces and tears in our eyes. We were filled with joy for our friends, and at the very same time, feeling the absence of our own baby boy stronger than ever.
Then Kent’s phone started to ring.
It was a gentleman from the mortuary, informing us that Titus’ ashes were ready to be picked up. Searing pain flooded our hearts. Life can be so incredibly cruel.
The timing of that phone call was not lost on us. It was clearly an attack, a flaming arrow of the enemy that blazed through every inch of our tired, wounded hearts. We walked home from lunch hand-in-hand, the air heavy with silence.
It took us over a month to gather the courage to pick up Titus’ ashes. I’ll never forget how terrified I was. We drove out, sat in the car in the parking lot, and just cried. Neither of us could manage to make our bodies move. We couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t want to walk through those doors. I was afraid of what they would hand over to us. I didn’t want to face the reality that our baby was really gone, that death was inescapable. But the hard truth was that even if we never got out of the car, Titus would still be gone. And it was our responsibility, as his parents, to walk through those doors, and face death and ashes and sorrow.
Kent cried out to Jesus for both of us, begging for strength to do the impossible. We wiped away the tears, took a few deep breaths to calm the sobs building in our chests, and stepped out of the car, filled with a strength that was not our own. On the walk up to the building I clung to Kent’s hand as if it was the only thing keeping me above water, every step heavy, crushing, final. Once inside, they ushered us in hushed tones to a dim room with a large formal dining table in the center. We sat in clunky leather arm chairs and waited.
“It’s not him,” Kent whispered in an effort to encourage us. We both knew our little guy was alive and whole in heaven, and that these ashes are not the end, but I couldn’t help reply,
“But it is…those ashes are everything that grew inside me for 9 months.”
Kent nodded quietly in response.
We’d been told to lean into the pain. To not gloss over it, but feel it fully. To grab hold of the grief instead of pushing it away.
On that day, just a few weeks after losing our son, I didn’t know why it was so significant to lean into the reality of death. I just knew we had to in order to survive. Since then, God’s been teaching me a lot about acknowledging the ashes.
Acknowledging the ashes admits that there’s value in creation. I struggled for a while with the question, “God, why did you spend so much time designing every detail of Titus when you knew he wouldn’t live past birth?” The answer He’s given me, over time, is this:
1. Because it’s his very character. He is, by nature, creative. He delights in creating.
2. Because he knows that his creation will not be lost. He has a plan to redeem all of it. Our physical bodies are valuable because heaven is a physical place! Titus is in heaven, inhabiting a physical body – the body God designed for him. We don’t get to enjoy those details here on earth, but those details are ETERNAL.
So while Kent and I find ourselves collecting the ashes here on earth, all is not lost. God is enjoying the first fruits of his creation of Titus. He gets to marvel at the sweet features of his face, the chubby fingers, round tummy, and perfect little feet that he designed. And someday we will see, hold, and marvel at that sweet physical body once again, too.
I had the instinct to lean into the pain that morning at the mortuary because God created all the tiny details that made up my boy, knowing that they would last, knowing that they are hidden in heaven, with Him, forever.
This revelation that we must acknowledge the ashes isn’t to gloss over the pain – it’s to lean into it. When the Bible speaks of ashes, intense mourning always accompanies it. Ashes are cause for ripping of clothes, for weeping and groaning and gnashing of teeth. Ashes come with suffering. They are proof that something of value has been lost, that things aren’t right in the world.
But along with our mourning comes God’s promises. Promises that cause us to mourn with purpose, with hope.
Isaiah 61 says that God will come,
“to comfort all who mourn;
3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.[c]
Today we have ashes, but he promises us the beauty of victory – a headdress of triumph. Today we mourn, but he promises gladness. And not just any gladness, but one that will seep into our skin, nourishing our cracked, dried out, tired bodies with lasting joy. Today our spirits feel faint, but he promises that we will literally wrap our bodies in the soft garments of praise. And then, once he’s brightened our faces, nourished our bodies, and wrapped us up in his glorious praise, then he will establish us – firm and stable and unmoving like a mighty oak tree. Ashes are fleeting, blown away by the wind, but oaks…oaks are strong. Our lives will be planted in his unchanging spirit, his everlasting life. There is so much comfort in that kind of stability! How powerful are the promises of God!
That day, as Kent and I sat in the car and wept. As we dragged our tired bodies, sick with mourning, through the parking lot and into the building to pick up the ashes of our beautiful little boy – bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. As we drove home with a tiny box placed gently behind my seat. As we walked up the stairs to our apartment, his ashes in hand, instead of his body in our arms…
A fire of hope burned deep within our souls.
When we feel like falling to our knees and ripping our clothes. When our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our very spirits groan with longing, our Creator calls gently, “Acknowledge the ashes. All is not lost.”