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Oh, how they shine

Light coming in window

Reminded of the death of a dear friend, Sondra Willobee reflects on what her friend taught her about meeting grief with grace and courage while waiting for peace to come.

Retired Pastor, Michigan Conference

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, NRSV).

Two years ago today, my friend Barbara Lewis-Lakin died. This morning a colleague who also loved Barb emailed me a poem by Maya Angelou about grief.

Beginning with the line, “When great trees fall,” Angelou traces the progress of our bereavement when “great souls” die. Angelou describes how the very air around us changes when we remember things undone. She tells how our souls, dependent upon the nurture of these loved ones, “now shrink, wizened.”

That word—“wizened”—is exactly how I felt when Barb died.

“Wizened” means to “dry up, wither, shrivel.” As in a sustained drought.

Angelou predicts that “after a period peace blooms / slowly and always / irregularly.”

I read Angelou’s poem this morning while looking at a blurry photo of Barb taken during the summer of 1985 at a restaurant in Melvindale, part of a region that Detroiters call “Downriver.”

Eating brunch
~ photo courtesy Sondra Willobee

Barb and I were both young pastors. We may have agreed to meet for brunch after she conducted worship at her church in Melvindale. Her son, Peter, a toddler, stood on the bench seat beside her, eyeing the knob that flipped the selections on the jukebox.

My daughter, Laura, just weeks old, slept in a bucket-style car seat on the floor. My husband, Ed, was watching Peter, perhaps to catch him if he tumbled.

The table, awaiting our order, was spread with coffee mugs and condiments. Maybe a waitress took the picture for us.

Barb was, as the scripture says, already “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, KJV). Her first husband, David Byers, had died seventeen months before.

She smiled for the camera with a sweet, steady weariness.

Maybe it was a trick of the light shining from the window behind her head, but even then, Barb seemed suffused with the radiance that Maya Angelou describes in her poem.

Throughout her life, as a pastor, counselor, and friend, Barb showed us how to meet grief with grace and courage. And how to make space for joy.

Though my heart still aches—I wish we could meet again for brunch, and I could show Barb the photo and laugh about my ridiculous sandals and how she often sat with her foot tucked under her skirt—I am feeling more at peace.

I was blessed to know Barbara Byers Lewis-Lakin. She was a great soul.

If you are downriver of grief of any kind, may comfort come to you.

May your senses revive over time.

May you be surrounded by the radiance of those who have gone before us.

Oh, how they shine.

The Rev. Sondra Willobee is a retired elder, last serving as lead pastor at South Lyon: First UMC. She wrote articles for The Michigan Christian Advocate, FaithLink, and Linktionary, and is the author of The Write Stuff: Crafting Sermons That Capture and Convince (2009). You can also read her blog, www.sondrawillobee.com/blog.

Last Updated on October 31, 2023

The Michigan Conference