In the aftermath of catastrophic loss, it is natural to speculate, to retrace the preceding events, to root around in the morass known as, What if?
What if I had called or texted her an hour earlier?
What if I had not left him alone?
What if the doctor had not been negligent?
What if I had gotten him to the hospital sooner?
What if I had paid closer attention to all the warning signs?
What if she had turned right instead of left?
What if, just before the crash, I went over to look at the work Hans did on his car and said hello, instead of hurrying to the house to wrap his birthday presents?
What if, [insert one of a million possibilities]?
Would things have turned out differently? Would my child still be alive?
These are hard, hard questions and I believe most of us ask them at some point in our loss journey. In the first weeks after Hans left us, I replayed the whole sequence of events leading up to the crash over and over, looking for a way to make it not to have happened. How crushing it was to fail over and over again and have my boy end up dead once more.
To have anything near a sense of peace regarding the question of What if? we must let go of the hypothetical. There is no end to the alternate scenarios we can imagine on a sleepless night. Instead of trying to orchestrate a replacement reality, one where everything turns out alright, we must submit to not having the answers we seek. We must rest in the fact that we will understand it all when we see the Lord.
We must let it go.
Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you. 1Peter 5:7
What if? is a particularly wearing question because we cannot understand or see all that God is doing on the larger scale. Every moment of our life is interwoven with many other lives, past, present and future. There are too many variables, repercussions, and influences that we have no awareness of – yet.
The way I see this is, if it happened, and God knew beforehand it would happen, and He did not intervene to stop it from happening, then He allowed it, or, perhaps for some of us, even directly caused it. Nothing takes God by surprise. There are no What if?s with God.
O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself:
it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.
Being preoccupied with What if? does not help us and cannot change the outcome. What happened to your child may not be good, but God is good and, since He operates out of love, from an eternal perspective and with perfect wisdom, we can depend on Him to always do or allow what is best. He has all variables and possibilities under His control.
The grief and pain I suffer does not make God happy. But, since He knows the end of all things and what is best for all of us in all circumstances, I can trust that the departure of my son was not a random meaningless event. It was precious in the sight of the Lord. God alone decides life and death. I can be confident that 1/11/16, shortly after 6 PM, was the appointed time for Hans because God knows every hair on my boy’s head. A sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His knowledge and so I do not need to ask What if?
What if? concerns the period of time before the loss. Some of us can look back in time to the days, hours, or minutes preceding the departure of our children, and clearly see what is now so very evident but went unnoticed or unheeded at the time. It may have taken the form of a look, or a comment, or a sort of something-is-going-to-happen feeling that rose up in our gut. It was an anxiousness, or a flash of mild alarm that we pushed aside because it was so vague, like a “little voice” telling us to pay attention or to say or do something. But, we couldn’t put our finger on what it might be. So, we brushed it aside because we have had feelings like that before and nothing terrible happened. Just me worrying again over nothing, right?
In the days and weeks – yes, even years – before Hans left us, I heard that “little voice” and had that odd anxious feeling more than once – the last time just minutes before the crash. As my husband and I rolled into our driveway that evening, upon our return home from an overnight trip, I felt a pull to walk over to Hans, as he was finishing up working on his car, and say hello. This one small act on my part would have delayed Hans leaving for the highway by enough time for the pickup that hit him to pass by the crash site. So, did I miss a What if? opportunity?
No. I still believe Hans would have died at that same precise moment anyway. Maybe an aneurysm, or unexplained seizure, or rolling his snow machine, or maybe his car or a tree falling on him. No, it was Hans’ appointed time and no What if? action on my part could have changed that.
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee,
thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass; Job 14:5
As I hurriedly scooped his presents off the back seat of the truck so he wouldn’t see them, my gut was telling me something was happening that I could not stop. Everything appeared to be normal, but I felt like I was closing a door or turning a corner, the corner that separates then from now. The moment felt…pivotal. But, my rational mind was telling me Hans will come to the house in a few minutes and you can say hello and give him his presents then. Just go to the house.
So, I did. Looking back, it all seems so arranged, as if we were being moved along according to schedule. To me, that “little voice” seems now to be kind of a trans-time phenomenon, as if the future sorrow about to engulf me was spilling over into the present moments leading up to the crash; as if the sequential order of events was temporarily blurred and everything was happening now – or had already happened.
What if I had walked over to Hans and engaged him in a two-minute conversation, delaying his departure and thus “causing” him to miss meeting and colliding with the other vehicle? This is foolishness. I do not have that kind of influence. My What if?s have no substance and no power. They are fabrications.
I believe the Lord steered me away from Hans and over to the house that night to spare me additional pain. The shock of seeing him alive and vigorous one minute, watching him drive away, and then hearing the crash and knowing, knowing…That might have been too much for me. My decision to go to the house did not cause the crash. Hans’ decision to test drive the car did not cause the crash. I do not believe our actions that night determined God’s appointed time.
Maybe the What if? questions we ask after a traumatic loss and the anticipatory “little voice” moments we experience before the loss are related. Like two drops of mist from the same fog bank. This is absolutely awesome to me. In retrospect, I can see it all coming and I get the feeling time is not as rigid as we imagine it to be. It is amazing to me now to see how God’s plan unfolded with such care and precision.
So, why does What if? haunt us? We torment ourselves with What if? because we feel we should have responded to that “little voice” and acted. We think we could have done something to thwart death. We hate our inability to control it. We think we can protect our children from it – that there is something we could have or should have done. We punish ourselves for not knowing the future. We cannot accept that, in the face of death, we are powerless.
We cannot, in this life, have full and satisfying answers to What if? questions. The answers are elusive because they are infinite. Every shift in circumstances causes a chain reaction of new variables. There are no answers to What if? because it is a question that seeks to reconcile events and contingencies that did not happen. Even if God gave us the answers, we could not comprehend them. And we would still miss our children. They would still be gone.
Give the What if?s over to God for safe keeping. They are too heavy for you to carry. In time He will make His purposes known.
He loves you and He’s got it all worked out.
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace,
whose mind is stayed on thee:
because he trusteth in thee.