About 10 years ago, my wife had a miscarriage. We came home from the hospital exhausted, red-eyed, and grieving. We opened the front door and discovered that the house, which had been left in disarray as we rushed to the hospital, was not as we left it. The dishes were in their cupboards. The sink and counters washed. The floors vacuumed or swept. The living room picked up and put in order. Our friend had let herself into our house and spent hours cleaning, while we sat in hospital rooms and met with doctors.
It was 10 years ago, but it remains a bright, clear memory alongside the white walls of the hospital, the tight lips of the doctor as she carefully shared the bad news, the sitcoms playing in the waiting room.
This small kindness was one of many from our family and friends in the weeks to come. People brought flowers. Meals were delivered. Kind words were written on cards and social media or spoken to us in church. People prayed for us.
In the midst of our grief, mourning, and loss, our community reminded us that there was hope, life, and love in the world around us. They kept us from despair. They blessed us with their words and actions and kindness.
In the face of death, all kindnesses seem small. The question, “What can I do for you?” is nonsensical in the midst of grief, and the best thing is not to ask the question, but rather to do something: clean a house, take someone to a movie, say a kind word, bring flowers, deliver a meal.
“Love is as strong as death.”
Last November, I found a piece of garbage in my front yard. It was a flattened and torn sky lantern, a sort of mini hot air balloon made out of paper. It was soaked in rain and plastered to the ground. Written on it were these words: “Love you, Dad. Miss you so much. Steph.”
I threw it away, but the words nagged at me throughout the day. I didn’t know this person, and had no way to contact her, but the thought that she was out there, sending a message of love that wouldn’t be answered, bothered me.
I thought and prayed about it throughout the day. Part of my unrest came from the thought that my own three daughters might someday write a similar note and send it out into the world. It was unbearable to me that they might say, “I love you” and be met with only silence. It seemed to me that such an event would argue that death gets the final word, that death is stronger than love.
I don’t believe that.
In times of grief we are all tempted to believe that death is the most powerful force in the universe. It traps us in its orbit so we can scarcely think of anything else.
I wanted to tell Steph, “Love is as strong as death,” an ancient phrase that is a key part of my own faith as a Christian (Song of Solomon 8:6). I love that idea . . . not that love is stronger than death, but as strong. Love transforms, it takes hold of us, it is inevitable and inescapable.
So I wrote Steph a letter. It isn’t long. You can read it here.
It took me a little more than an hour to write the letter. I cried while I wrote it, and put it up on my website before going to bed. It was a small act of kindness. It seemed unlikely Steph would even see it.
Over the next few weeks the letter went viral, and people all over the world did me the small kindness of writing me to tell me about how the letter had impacted them, of how that small kindness resonated in their own lives. I cleared my schedule for a few days and tried to answer them all — another small kindness, another human connection.
In time, Steph saw the letter. I am still shocked and amazed by this, and I cannot help but think it is more than coincidence. She and I became friends. I flew to her city and spent a few days with her and her family.
Steph shared with me how those few words of affirmation and love created a change in her life. She was re-examining her relationships, her job, her actions to see if she was living life as someone worthy of love and respect. The letter had reminded her to live well in the midst of her grief and loss.
She did me several small kindnesses, as well, not least of which was telling me that I should write similar letters to my own daughters, so they would have something from me in the years to come. I am deeply thankful she saw my daughters in a way I did not and helped me see their need for a greater expression of love.
That’s a key, important piece about doing acts of kindness for one another: we must see one another as human to perform an act of kindness.
Seeing others as God does allows us to love them.
God loves me, but he also loves you and Steph and my daughters and the guy who cuts me off in traffic and the doctor delivering bad news. And he expects me to love the people He loves. So even though I didn’t know Steph when I found that sky lantern, my small act of kindness, my small act of love, came because for a few hours on a rainy day I saw her as God does: a beloved human worthy of His and my love. She was a person who was hurting and needed to be reminded that love is as strong as death.
Seeing others as God sees them allows me to love them. But to love them, I first have to see them.
There is a beautiful sort of corollary to this. When we do acts of kindness for others, they begin to see us, too.
There is a hundred-year-old woman who lives near me. A mutual friend invited several of us to come to this woman’s home and spend a few hours doing yard work. I power washed the side of her house, and at the end of the day she came out to look at it and was nearly speechless. She was deeply thankful.
A few months later my friend and I dropped by to bring the woman some water and help her pick up some leaves in her yard. She looked at me and said, “He seems so familiar . . . ” she thought about it for a few moments before she said, “Yes, he’s the one who washed my house.”
My small act of kindness allowed her to see me, and I was overjoyed that she would remember me.
We must see others as human to perform acts of kindness, and receiving those acts of kindness allows them to see us more clearly, too.
These small acts of kindness are so much more than they appear. Just a few moments in a day, a couple hours in a week, but what it communicates is something far deeper and more profound. It is a reminder to me, whether I receive or perform the kindness, that love is as strong as death. As eternal, as powerful, as present in our everyday lives.
And in the great battle between love and death, love is winning.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.