Posted by: James Atticus Bowden | January 9, 2014

Keep Calm, I’m Back


I’m back from a Biblical month of mourning for my wife.  Sort of.  Not really.  Actually, just faking normal enough to function in my hierarchy of duties.  Really and truly, I’m just following the instructions that my late wife, a counseling expert on death and dying and grief and grieving, gave me.

I know what “I’m Back” meant before.  In the Summer of 1987 my Army career was crushed.  My sweet wife had a role as a catalyst, but not a guilty party, for what was such a humiliating, embarrassing enormity.  I never fussed at her – ever.  I endured.  It was the end of a rough two years of personal attacks from bosses (first time that couldn’t be soldiered through to victory) and five family deaths finishing off our parents and grandparents.   We were in our 30s with three precious kids.  The Army wasn’t a job – being a soldier was life.  I loved it – even when it sucked.

Great friends, especially my classmate Bruce Scott, went to bat for me.   I got another chance to serve with troops.  Within 6 months I was holding a job above my rank and doing well.  But, the career was still dead.  About 10 months later – it was Spring in Germany 1988, my wife and I got home from one of the frequent, more than weekly, official functions we had to attend because of my duty.  As I got out of the car, I said, “I’m back.”

My wife walked over and looked in my eyes.  She smiled.  “You are.  You’re back.”  She smiled again and kissed me.

The confidence was back.  The spring in the step, the focus of eyes, the erect  – but not haughty – head, the squared shoulders and easy laugh – were all back.  The singing for joy, not laments.  I was back.  I was up for a mission.  A good fight.  Hard work.  Disciplined passion in life.  Tender was the night with my wife – with the same vigor as all the years before.

Lord, I wish she could read these words over my shoulder.  We’d laugh – whether she edited them or not – about that sweet moment.  That moment of clarity in life and defining turning point for us.

This time, “I’m Back”, won’t be the same.  My wife isn’t here.  I don’t know how to live and not share life with her. We started dating when I was 21.  I’m 63 now.

“Back” just means I’m one month into what my Nellie said was a 24 month process to even understand what the loss of a loved one means.

“Back” means I have work to do.  I need to get about it.  My job is “to read and write” – in addition to my assigned duties as father, grandfather, kin, friend, teacher, neighbor and citizen – Believer.  Much to do.

“Back” means those who care can, indeed, keep calm.  I survived a month that I wasn’t sure I could survive – physically.

I’m ready to be back to being the man – who as a Infantry Battalion Operations Officer was told by an evaluator, “Everything calms down when you walk into the TOC (Tactical Operations Officer)” – and by my sister, “When you come home, everything gets peaceful and calms down.”  Provide leadership with a calm and resolute purpose – however small my reign is.  May just be in my upstairs office.   Whatever He wills.

My Uncle Harry shared II Corinthians 1:3-4.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Wow.   Being “Back” to do this, is a good mission.   I’ve already had a chance to try to serve a friend and co-worker who lost his wife of 42 years – a week ago.

The Apostle Paul continues about suffering and relief from suffering to write:  20 For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. 21 Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, 22 who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

As I’ve said for over 20 years, “Here I am, Lord, send me. ”

“Back” this time means I’m just starting to grieve.  My kids and grandbabies are just starting to grieve.  The community she ministered in lovingkindness will move on.   But, we are in the first days of a long, long season of grief.

No confusion, anger, doubt or bitterness here.  We have the blessed assurance of an eternal reunion.  This is our time for a great sorrow, a deep sadness, and an awful missing her.

I’m grateful for the time alone in the house I built for her – to cry without shame.  My keening is a groaning from my bones.   I know it will wane in time.  Until then, I pour my grief on the Holy Spirit who lives in my body.

I’m sharing all this private news because I write for reasons.  May this serve others.

My wife didn’t fear death.  She wanted to live and had a lot to live for.  We wish that all of this were not so.  But, it is.

When I’m done after another lament with my cheeks burning and wet with tears I confess, “Lord, your servant is sad.”

We bury her in Arlington National Cemetery on February 21st, 2014.

Keep calm, I’m back.

I ain’t dead yet.

God is good.  All the time.  No matter what.  NO MATTER WHAT.

Isaiah 59:21

Isaiah 59:21






  1. Dear Friend,
    I, too have made a long study of, and career in, matters of grief and loss–only to learn through the deaths of dear ones that I knew nothing of the powerful waves
    that regularly crashed over me. You have the saving lifeline of your faith, and support of family and friends. These I know to be essential, but not immunizations against the journey you have started. Your beloved wife was wise to suggest a long timeframe for the journey. I have wanted to write you something to ease the pain of loss, but against this profound loss, words seem somehow trite. But words do comfort and you, as a writer, will use your words, too, to help others. It is also presence, and fortunate are those who can just be there with you in your grief. Do you know the work of Julia Kasdorf? A Mennonite, she wrote, “What I Learned from my Mother” in 1962. I quote it here in part because your writing about your wife make me think of her poem: “I learned from my mother how to love the living, to have plenty of vases on hand in case you have to rush to the hospital with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole grieving household, to cube home-canned pears and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point. I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know the deceased, to press the moist hands of the living, to look in their eyes and offer sympathy, as though I understood loss even then. I learned that whatever we say means nothing, what anyone will remember is that we came. I learned to believe I had the power to ease awful pains materially like an angel. Like a doctor, I learned to create from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once you know how to do this, you can never refuse. To every house you enter, you must offer healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself, the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.”

  2. Thank you so much, Suzy.

    I used to joke that you didn’t want to see Katherine walking up your way with a sandwich tray. It meant somebody died.

    I am taken aback – really and truly – by how powerful this grief is. I know this is a hard, long road, but I’m sure it will surprise me how much it is so – as I walk it.

    Thanks again. I’ll send a separate note, if I can find your email. I’m the world’s worst clerk.

    Thank you.

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