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Sacred Absence

A Pilgrimage of Love, Loss & Grieving Well

“Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating…” 

  -Jan Richardson, Blessing for the Brokenhearted


Falling trees seem to be part of this mysterious healing journey for me. This past summer, a very large Sycamore fell right across the place in our yard where we celebrated Craig's life only a few weeks before. It was also where one of his good friends read the poem, When Great Trees Fall, by Maya Angelou in his honor that day.

This evening, the wind is rocking the outside world with gusts up to 40 mph at times. The low drum of barren limbs crashing into each other started last night and hasn’t stopped. A few times I opened the sliding door and yelled into the backyard darkness, “Hang in there, trees!” Then, late this afternoon as I was prepping for Red Carpet snacks and an Oscar dinner with my niece, like I had done with my husband for nearly two decades, I walked over to the door again to look out. I gasped when I saw it lying on the ground…an inside joke…never to be shared again with him.

Because our house was built into a hill, the back deck stands about twelve feet off the ground. Centered several yards away stood a small pine tree for as long as we owned the house. About twelve years ago, the bottom branches of the tree died off. Craig and I both commented about it but that’s as far as it went. A couple years later, we noticed the bottom half of the tree looked brown with bare limbs, but since we sat so high up, we still enjoyed the green at the top half. One day, though, Craig announced he was going to cut it down so it wouldn’t fall on the deck. Optimistic for the little Charlie Brown tree, I said maybe wait another year and see what happens. He reluctantly agreed. Then every year after that, as we sat on the deck with less and less of the top branches holding their needles, we would have this harmless debate…in variations of words and tone…but always with loving exasperation.

His argument:

“That’s it! I’m cutting that tree down this summer. It’s already dead. If it falls on the deck it will be a hassle and I don’t need any hassles.” Mine: “No, give it another year. Besides, the woodpeckers like it, there are sapsucker holes circling the trunk. And it’s a great perch for all the birds that fly through the yard. Think of all the ones we wouldn’t see up close if that tree weren’t there. Just let nature take its course.”

His: “It better not fall on the deck or I’m going to make you cut it up.”

Mine: “It won’t, it’s not even leaning this way.”

Well, today was the day.

The wind pushed it just as much as it needed to fall to the left, missing the flowering dogwood I’d been waiting to bloom for the first time….and the deck…by a mile. It had never been in any danger. I stood there somewhat stupefied, a host of thoughts and emotions flooding me. Makes sense it would fall, I thought, trees in the area are probably falling all over the place with this wind and saturated ground.

But why today…the day of our annual “Film Festival?”

And why, after last night, when I watched one of our favorite movies, Signs? It happened to be on T.V. and I didn’t have the energy to keep scrolling and make a different choice. The movie is summed up by one of Mel Gibson’s lines, “Could it be there are no coincidences?” Looking out the sliding door, I wondered. My answer constantly vacillates.

And why after I had just journaled that morning about my life-long difficulty in knowing how to have a tangibly intimate relationship with God? They say death ends a life, but not a relationship, so that mystery is now transferred to Craig, as well.

“Are you there?” I often ask.

How would I know? What are the “signs,” if any? I can’t seem to get over the deep need to just have Craig stand before me, just one more time, so I can ask him how this all works. The same goes for God because I don’t like the monologues…the prayers I’m never sure are ever answered. Other people seem to have the ability to patiently accept that this is one of life’s great mysteries, but right now, this veil between worlds is bothersome to me. It will take my entire life to reconcile.

So, I stood at the open door, wind whipping the leafless tentacles that surround my home, and wept. He is not here for the punchline. I cannot tease him that I was right about the deck, see him reluctantly smile, then wink at me. I cannot share our silly inside joke with the one and only person who would get it…so I share it with everyone.

But as I stood there, I also wondered if maybe Craig IS the punchline. Maybe on this day when we were always together, he punched that tree over as a sign. It wasn’t uprooted like I’d thought from the wet soil, just cracked off about 20 inches up. And the poor, pathetic thing was really just two thin branches that parted maybe eight feet up the trunk. Not a major wind catcher. So, I asked my rational mind to please take a few steps back, so I could suggest to my heart that perhaps this was no coincidence, but rather an intimate gesture from wherever Craig exists; a message of love and humor, through my favorite language of nature, on one of our most special days of connection.

Cindy K Steffen February 2017

When Great Trees Fall

Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down in tall grasses,

and even elephants lumber after safety.

When great trees fall in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.

Our eyes, briefly,

see with a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines, gnaws on kind words


promised walks never taken.

Great souls die and our reality,

bound to them, takes leave of us.

Our souls, dependent upon their nurture,

now shrink, wizened.

Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance,

fall away.

We are not so much maddened as

reduced to the unutterable ignorance of

dark, cold caves.

And when great souls die,

after a period

peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly.

Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.

Our senses, restored, never to be the same,

whisper to us.

They existed. They existed.

We can be. Be and be better.

For they existed.


© Cindy K Steffen  2023

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