Prayer in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

My brother died by suicide some years ago. A friend who just had a miscarriage asked me if I had been able to pray after his death. Her question lingers with me.

When you ask if I prayed after he died, I guess I would tell you no. At least, it wasn’t prayer exactly. It was a just a dark, quiet room.

Or, yes.

I prayed.

I mean, I think I prayed. But it didn’t (it doesn’t) look or feel the same as before.

Okay, maybe I prayed, but I didn’t mean to. Maybe when, out of some sense of obligation toward the effort of prayer, some duty to the terms of the relationship to which I’d assented long before, to show some sign of faith in the faith I used to profess, I tried to pray, it was contrived, performative.

I would tiptoe back in time, up to the girl I used to be – holy, happy, earnest – and I would whisper in her ear to tell God I loved him, and then steal back, fast, to my dark room. Perhaps this was prayer? But only because time isn’t exactly linear and because faith is only ever faith in the moments we’ve had faith, which made asking her – my faithful, former self – an honest act of, well, faith. And anyway, I guessed she might still have some goodwill, some way with words to reassure God that I’m fine, I just don’t want to talk about it right now. Does this count as the communion of saints?

(I told her to tell God I loved him, but I know that’s not necessarily how you feel. Maybe God feels far away, or cruel, or completely and conceptually absurd, but that’s okay. That’s still God. God’s absence is still God, albeit one of his less popular attributes.)

Actually, no.

I didn’t pray. That’s not what I did.

Even when I rehearsed the motions or sent my less-blemished self as an advocate in my stead, I can’t be sure I was praying, because I never really wanted to pray. I didn’t want to go out of myself. I didn’t have anything to say, and besides, what words would even work?

I didn’t want to leave my grief, myself; I didn’t want to return to the spaces I’d known God before, which were changed and also excruciatingly the same. I wanted to stay, still, in this darkened room.

The room wasn’t a place of peace, exactly, but close. It was the absence of not-peace. It was so quiet, like death. It was so still, like his lifeless body, his body cold but still his, unanimated but still familiar, his body that I prayed over or maybe just yelled over, but who can be sure of the difference these days? Some kind of perverse sacrament, some tangible sign but pointing to nothing, no breath in his lungs, no channel of grace. Just a body. A sign of what used to be.

But this quiet and still and cold was still fresh. This quiet was the closest I would be to the time his lungs had breath. This cold was the closest I could get to the felt memory of his warmth.

I suppose I knew.

I suppose I knew all along.

Sitting in the darkened room, with me as I clung to the sign of what used to be, he was there. I could not yet bring myself to leave what was, could not bear the thought of joy, could not afford to shed the comfort of the quiet and still and cold.

I suppose I knew that God was in the dark room with me, or was the dark room, surrounding me. I knew that God sat, quiet, still, almost absent, almost dead, inaudible breath but yet alongside me. God who died and teeters near death with us. God who mourned and continues to mourn with us. My only God, the only God I could bear or bother with. I beckon her, my former, faithful self, to join me here, to trade in language and ritual and everything we’ve known for this beatific blackness.

Does this help? I ask.

Do you want to pray?

Ellen Koneck is the head writer and editor at Springtide Research Institute, which is dedicated to exploring the inner and outer lives of young people, ages 13–25. She previously worked at Commonweal and taught in the Catholic Studies department at Sacred Heart University. She now lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and baby.

Originally published on as “Almost Absent”, July 17, 2020.  Used with permission.