The following is a real and true-life experience of my own; nothing has been added or embellished in any way.
Perhaps it was simply the heart and mind of a grieving father, processing the loss of his child – or maybe it’s something much deeper, and much more, as I believe it to be.
I’ll let you, the reader, decide…
It had only been seven months since my little girl died. My daughter Elizabeth, who was blossoming into a beautiful young lady, ended her life when she was only 15 years old.
After spending most of our time trying to adjust our lives around the hole and vacuum, she left behind, we took our family Christmas vacation – but we were a family that was missing someone.
During the years I was stationed in the Hampton Roads area, my family and I had taken several vacations to Houston. Each road trip was like our own little adventure. But the Christmas vacation of 2015 was the hardest of them all – it was our first one without Elizabeth. It was a bittersweet experience. We were finally taking a much-needed vacation to spend Christmas with Erica’s extended family in Houston; but this time it was just three of us – my wife, our youngest daughter Isabella and me. The fact that there were only three of us is the part that hurt the most. There should have been four.
The road trips were so much emptier without Elizabeth. There was a sad quietness without her presence in the back seat. The typical annoying things, which siblings do to each other on a long car ride, didn’t happen anymore. Instead, Isabella sat in the back seat by herself. She kept a strong, positive attitude, but I knew that not having her big sister, hurt deep inside. The little joyful nuances, of our family treks, seemed to have faded. When I was driving through the different states, I’d see something that looked interesting. “Hey, kids look at that!”, I’d exclaim while pointing to whatever I was talking about. That’s when I felt a wave of grief roll over me and my heart would sink. There was only one kid in the back seat.
After arriving in Houston, we stayed at my in-law’s house, as we had often done. They had two spare bedrooms; Erica and I shared one and Isabella stayed in the other. Our vacations in Houston usually lasted about two weeks. Considering the distance and time invested into traveling there, we’ve always figured that we’d better stay more than a few days, just to make the trip worthwhile.
After a few days of sight-seeing and socializing, we started making final preparations for Christmas Eve dinner, and most especially Christmas Day. This meant last minute shopping to do and a bunch of presents to wrap; all of the typical holiday hustle and bustle that people do at that time of year.
I was exhausted from both the travel and running around town to all the malls and shopping centers. One morning, a couple of days before Christmas Eve, while I was catching up on some much-needed sleep, I remember dreaming.
The dream started out as nothing of particular note…probably something nonsensical and irrelevant. As is the case with most people, when I dream, one dream will slowly roll into another as the dreamscape changes; much of what happens makes no particular sense or has any reasoning behind it.
But this time something was very different. The dream neither continued playing its scene to completion nor did it morph into another, as they so often do.
Instead, I had an experience, which I deliberately reflect upon every time questions of life, eternity and the big “why” come across my mind. I intentionally recall the details and nuances to cast a ray of hope into my heart and re-ignite my perseverance.
While still asleep, I suddenly found myself in a room that was maybe 10ft x 10ft. It was a room that I’ve never seen before. The walls were white and its atmosphere light and airy. It had an overall feeling of pleasantness and was inviting. There was furniture in the room and what appeared to be either pictures or decorations on the walls. I only caught a brief glimpse and saw everything in my peripheral vision.
Before I could even take the time to study the room closer, standing in front of me was my daughter.
I was stunned and staggered with utter amazement. I was self-aware and understood that it was a dream. I knew that in waking reality, Elizabeth was not with us anymore. Because of all this, I vividly remember trying to contain my excitement because I didn’t want to wake myself up. While I was gaining my composure, I noticed that Elizabeth looked absolutely perfect. Everything about her was right, beautiful and complete.
She was wearing a white dress or gown that fit comfortably and naturally. There was nothing exceptional or decorative about it, only that it looked just right on her. I remember being astonished at the complete perfection of her appearance; her hair had its natural bouncy brown curls flowing down her shoulders. Even her teeth were straight and perfect.
I took note of these little details because, in the months and even couple of years before her passing, Elizabeth had slowly morphed her outward appearance, fashion, and hairstyle to match the dark and depressing tones caused by the battles going on in her mind.
And although she didn’t have a severe need for them, Elizabeth had often complained of wanting braces.
So, as I was looking and taking in every detail of perfection, I also noticed that she had such grace and poise. Not sanctimonious or pious, but instead a total sense of ease, clarity and completeness. None of the darkness or depression which she had struggled with in her physical life was there anymore – it was all gone – instead, she was whole and happy.
As my mind began to accept what my eyes were beholding, I approached Elizabeth, and we hugged. After losing her so tragically and not seeing her for so long, my soul swelled with joy. Her loss had caused such a deep wound to my heart and mind; to be seeing her in such clarity caused waves of healing happiness to wash over me.
Interestingly, Elizabeth was also happy to see me, but her excitement was calm and tempered. I could sense that her happiness came from a position of no pain or mourning; no grief or sadness. Instead, she was simply happy to see me. I remember wondering how long the moment would last. I thought to myself, ‘If I get too excited, I could risk waking myself up.’
Although she was delighted to see and fellowship with me during our brief visit together, she wasn’t concerned or in a rush. Interestingly, I sensed that fact and knew that she was neither hurried nor anxious about the entire experience. On the other hand, I wanted to hurry up and ask a thousand different questions about life, Heaven and eternity.
With my mind going a million miles an hour, I finally managed to contain my excitement enough to speak. I had so many questions.
The first question that I was barely able to get out and stuttered to ask was, “What is it like when you leave…what happens when you die?”
Before I could finish speaking, it was as if she could sense the full scope of why I was asking. My motivation behind that question was because I wanted to know all the details on what happens when a Believer in Jesus passes on. In the Bible, there are several verses which talk about a Believer being with the Lord at the immediate moment following physical death. (see Luke 23:42-43, 2 Corinthians 5:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
I grew up hearing these verses, and I firmly believe them. But when it’s your own child that is absent from the body and has passed on to the Lord, it raises a lot of questions, and your faith is challenged.
With Elizabeth fully aware of both my question and intent, she gently smiled and said, “I can’t answer that question while I’m here; I’m not allowed to.”
As she said those words, in my soul I understood the full meaning behind what she was saying. It was such a simple sentence, yet her intent and purpose for saying those particular words were clear. I knew that when Elizabeth said she couldn’t answer the question, it wasn’t because she didn’t know the answer. It was because she wasn’t permitted to give a detailed explanation and my human mind wouldn’t be able to comprehend the ‘mechanics’ of how our spirit enters eternity.
Part of me wanted to press and insist that she answer me – after all, I am her dad, right? As those thoughts passed through my mind, I sensed that I couldn’t insist. Yes, she’s my daughter physically, but spiritually she is no longer accountable to me.
Once I knew I was limited to the answer given, my next question was about Heaven; “Can you tell me about Heaven? What does it look like there?”
When the Bible talks about Heaven, it’s described as beautiful, peaceful and perfect. But I wanted to know how it’s structured. Is it similar to life here on Earth?’
I remember asking this specific question from a perspective of curiosity. I’m a naturally inquisitive person and have always been fascinated by scientific topics like astronomy, chemistry, and physics. As part of my military training and profession, I work in a specialty where the power of the unseen is harnessed all the time. Invisible satellite downlinks and uplinks with masses of data being transferred over the air and traversing thousands of miles across the globe and into space. There is a lot about my job that requires an understanding of energy, the electromagnetic spectrum, radio frequency, solar cycles, and meteorological phenomenon. So, when I asked Elizabeth to describe what Eternity looks like, I was expecting (and hoping for) a technical description.
The moment she answered my question, I could sense that she knew my reason for asking and my attempt to rationalize, with my mortal mind, that I’d be able to handle whatever explanation she gave me; no matter how complex or complicated.
It was as if she knew that I was trying to get technical information on how the topography and structure of Heaven are laid out and how the dynamics of that environment operate.
With a smile, she politely and calmly replied, “Dad, the red is the reddest red, the blue is the bluest blue, the green is the greenest green, and the light is perfect; there’s no shadow.”
I was stunned and humbled by such a simplistic yet pure answer. When Elizabeth answered, I knew right away she understood my hunger for knowledge, but she had deliberately given a short yet accurate description because my brain wouldn’t be able to fathom the size and scope of how that realm is really structured.
Accepting the fact that her description of Heaven was the most she was going to say and the most I could comprehend, I then stumbled over my words to ask my next question.
“Well, who have you met…I mean…have you met…”. As I struggled to articulate the question, I had a running list of all the people in my family who have gone to be with the Lord. Not only did I think of my passed-on loved ones, but I was also thinking about some of my favorite heroes from the Bible.
Names like Peter…Paul…John…David…Moses. Founders and fathers of the Faith who have gone before us long ago and are now in Paradise.
As it was with my previous questions, I knew that Elizabeth sensed precisely why I was asking, and she knew the roster of names going through my mind. She stopped me mid-sentence, smiled, and then pulled me close – “Dad, I’ve already met everybody.”
Relief and joy washed over me. I was ecstatic with the idea that my little girl, met and fellowships with the other people I love and the legends we’ve read about in the Bible.
Not knowing how long this breathtaking encounter was going to last, I quickly thought of the next couple of questions to ask.
I knew that she’s already met everybody, but I wanted to know if they are still aware of what happens here on our side of Eternity. Do those Believers in Paradise have cognition of what us Believers here in the physical, are doing?
With those thoughts racing across my mind, I asked Elizabeth, “Well can you all hear us…can you still see us…do you know what we’re doing?”
Elizabeth, once again already knowing the scope and motivation of my question said, “We can hear it when you pray to God and worship Him.”
Instantly I understood that Heaven rings out and echoes when our sacrifice of praise and prayer are lifted in deep anointed worship before the throne of God Himself.
Staggered by this knowledge and breathless from understanding it, I had a final question for Elizabeth. I wanted to know where this place called Heaven is. A place that we’ve all talked so much about.
Many of us imagine Heaven being up somewhere in the distant cosmos. Often, we look up at the stars at night and picture that one of those pinpoints of light is a positional reference point to Paradise, somewhere in the universe beyond.
Media, books, tv, movie – they all seem to frame a picture of a Believer traveling lightyears into the vast expanse through a dimensional rift leading to the other side. This was why I was asking – I had to know how far away it all really is.
Again, my analytical, and critical thinking mind was expecting a technical answer; perhaps something resembling a complex quantum physics equation or even a line from a science fiction movie.
Elizabeth, knowing I anticipated a wildly complex pseudo-science answer, smiled at me and lightly chuckled; “Dad, it’s a lot closer than you all think, it’s so close its vapor thin.”
When she said that, I knew that she was referencing all the imagery that was going through my mind; imagery which many of us have about how far we think Heaven is.
Elizabeth said those exact words with the specific intent of letting me know that those of us, which still live here in the physical, would be so surprised to know how close it all really is. Heaven is not some far-off place like so many movies and novels portray.
As I heard Elizabeth’s explanation, I suddenly understood that it’s a realm where none of our laws of physics have dominance; in fact, it’s a realm which is superior and yet so close. Everything about it affects the space and time we physically occupy. That realm is a plane of existence where much of what we see here is only a pale reflection of what exists there.
But it’s also not far at all. Therein lies the paradox; it’s here…but it’s not here.
It’s a place which is not understood or accessed through the tools and mechanisms of cold scientific analysis, but instead, it is a realm which can only be touched through a tender heart, hungry with an appetite ignited by innocent faith.
As those final thoughts flashed across my mind, the encounter with Elizabeth suddenly and unceremoniously ended…I woke up.
Human beings are a curious bunch. Our thirst for knowledge was imbued into us by our Creator. Nations have spent time and treasure towards financing the research of both the seen and unseen phenomenon within the universe around us. We’ve made space probes, satellites, and radio telescopes equipped with sophisticated sensors and collection devices; all designed to help give us a better understanding of what is going on around us.
I can personally attest to knowing what that thirst for information feels like. It’s an urge I’ve felt since I was a boy and spent over 20 years barely scratching the surface through my occupation.
There is so much more going on than we can even see or comprehend. Trying to get an answer to it all, is like standing outside at night and looking up at the stars through a soda straw…the view and scope of revelation is extremely limited, to say the least. Apart from the lens of faith, the quest for answers is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles.
On the seemingly endless list of mysteries, there is one that surpasses them all – death. What, if anything, is on the other side that experience which nature itself has never reconciled with? It’s something which has been woven into every stitch within the fabric of the physical universe; even down to the smallest particles and the bonds which hold them together. It is the essential premise for the laws of thermodynamics. Simply put, everything breaks down, wears down and eventually decays. This is a state of existence which was set in motion shortly after Creation.
For a living breathing being, death represents the end of something. It is the end of their presence here in this place we call the physical realm. The death of the body is a hard thing to reconcile with. It has such an air of finality to it. Death attempts to take with it all the hopes of the future and all the wonderful possibilities. I believe that we, as human beings, were never meant to experience that harbinger of sorrow. It is an unwelcome aspect of our existence that we as a species have struggled to deal with.
My faith, according to the scriptures, tells me that God created the universe perfect and the world sinless. It was Adam’s choice in the Garden that was the catalyst for chaos; it is why we experience death and pain after so many millennia.
Yet because of His endless love and infinite grace, God integrated a Divine rescue plan. The failings of man, and the follow-on scourge of death, didn’t enter the stage of the cosmos, without God’s knowledge.
There is no distance too great, no chasm too deep, no sorrow too painful or choice too broken that His love can’t reach. Through the sovereignty of His omniscient will, He ensured that the specter of death would no longer have the final word. Instead, God reached out from eternity and stepped into time to restore the hope we had lost so long ago and He removed death’s final say.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
1 Corinthians 15:55 (NIV)