During high school, I [Clarissa] often worked the Valentine’s Day shift at my town’s grocery store. Assigned to the quick checkout register, I rung up purchases for a steady stream of men, their arms overflowing with roses, stuffed animals, and champagne. Every once and awhile, a bashful gentleman would slide a gigantic red heart of chocolates onto the conveyor belt—no doubt “I hope she forgives me” chocolate—to make up for another missed special day.
I easily noticed that the flow of customers looked very different on Valentine’s—their purchases so extravagant, their intentions so ardent. I wondered how these demonstrations of affection jived with their behavior the other 364 days of the year. Did they always express themselves so generously? Was their love always this lavish?
Less than a decade later, I found myself on the receiving end of those Valentine’s gifts. My cynicism about this “Hallmark holiday” prompted me to ask my new husband, Rob, to buy me cheaper carnations instead of roses and discount candy marked down the day after. I reasoned that lavish displays of love were silly and unnecessary. Sure, I’d worked in a bridal store during graduate school, and I loved a romantic comedy just as much as any other young woman my age. But love, in the words of Anne of Green Gables, wasn’t “diamond sunbursts or marble halls.” Real love, my church had always taught me, was an act of the will. Reasonable, unemotional, steady, determined. Love loved the unattractive, the unlovable. Anything else was frivolity.
I found that steady, faithful, nonfrivolous kind of love in my marriage, and for 17 years I rested secure inside it. No couples’ tropical getaways. Just four children born in quick succession and days filled with washing dishes and carpooling to baseball practice. The deep, everyday love of my marriage seemed to confirm my Valentine’s Day suspicions. Real love wasn’t lavish and demonstrative. Real love was unadorned, simple, and faithful. I thought that way for almost two decades. Until my husband died.
My [Daniel’s] wife, Dawn, grew up a missionary kid with Scottish parents in Angola, so extravagant material expressions of love were always in short supply. As one who likes to lavish, my Valentine’s overtures of a couple dozen roses, poetry, and chocolate (sometimes in hope of forgiveness) overwhelmed as much as charmed. My most recent two dozen came compliments of a dear friend who made my run for the roses for me. Dawn had been diagnosed with pancreas cancer, and I needed to stay by her side. That Valentine’s Day was her last.
Each year, she’d hang her roses upside down to dry out into a bouquet that would bring beauty for the rest of the year. Her final arrangement of dessiccated flowers still resides in its special vase, the dark red slowly browning with the passing of time.
After Dawn left this world, I read in her journal about how she once offered me advice on our taxes as I was completing them. She wrote how my warm reception of her input meant more to her than any bouquet. We divided our household labors, me doing most of the finances and she making most of the parenting decisions; but as a missionary Scot, she felt my budgeting too luxuriant. I’d wave off her worries with an entreaty to trust me, which she did, saying she had no other choice. But she always thought I spent too much money. It was the only thing we ever really fought about.
As she died, she passed over the parenting to me and money no longer mattered. She spoke of our being parted by death, of the vows we’d made and promises kept. She had me move my wedding band from my left hand to my right, so as to hold on to all we’d shared but to acknowledge our marriage had been fulfilled. Despite our divergent financial philosophies, we’d enjoyed riches beyond measure.
The night I learned of Rob’s death in Mount Rainier National Park, I stood at my campsite 3,000 miles from home and these words tumbled out of my mouth unbidden. “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” Even as I think of it now, a year and a half later, I wonder, Why those words? What made me think of that? In that very darkest hour of my life, what drew me to praise lavish love?
I can only believe that for my whole life I’d operated under a terribly truncated definition of love. Face to face with death, I suddenly discovered I craved something more—a passionate power that spoke worlds into existence and called the dead to live again, a love so extravagant it could save my soul and body from hell itself. All of those Valentine’s Days, I’d scoffed at the one thing I ran to for shelter when darkness fell on my life. In that hour when I discovered I had become a widow, lavish love became my lifeline.
Since Rob died, “redeeming love has been my theme,” to borrow the words of William Cowper. My loss has shown me how deep and lavish God’s love is for me. He intimately abides with the brokenhearted. He abundantly supplies the sorrowing. He mightily defends the widow and fatherless. Nothing about God’s love is ordinary or budget-conscious. Jesus lavishly demonstrates his love in our darkest hours, joining us in our deepest suffering and raising us up to new life after loss. We may know his thrilling presence on the mountaintops. But his passionate love also draws near to us in the valley of the shadow.
Valentine’s Day comes and I think of friends who’ve yet to love, who’ve failed or been burned by love, or who may never love as I did. I thank God for the passion and deep friendship I enjoyed with Dawn, a genuine gift of true grace. Grief is a price we gladly pay to love, as sad as we are when the bill finally comes due.
God knows this, of course, having factored it into the human experience and Christian faith (John 12:25). The cross, though an instrument of cruel suffering, has become the symbol of consummate love (1 Pet. 2:24). Grief may be love’s price, but Jesus’ cross and resurrection assure a hundredfold return somehow in this life and, in the age to come, eternal life (Mark 10:30).
How do I love my wife this Valentine’s Day now that she’s gone? In practical ways: raising our daughter (buying her chocolate) and letting Dawn’s influence continually shape my soul. The person I am, having loved her and been loved by her, abides and will grow. Love never fails. Inasmuch as love’s intensity (and immensity) elicits grief, grief beckons to love for its redemption. New relationships testify to a heart transformed. Among the surprises of grief is the courage to take new risks and go deeper with others than we might have otherwise.
I’m more determined than ever to love lavishly now. Since Rob died, I’m convinced that every day should be Valentine’s Day.
The intimacy I have discovered in grief’s darkness convinces me that the spiritual life is one not only of disciplined faithfulness but also of unabashed passion. Jesus has known me in the vulnerability of my imperfection and loved me gently in my weakness. As I still grieve my husband’s death, I can also profess with gladness, “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.”
As I revel in Jesus’ extravagant love, my heart overflows with love for others. My life post-loss can become not just a memorial to my marriage and the love that was but also an ever-emerging picture of Christ and the church—a reflection of the lavish love that continues to woo and transform me. Every day becomes Valentine’s Day, an opportunity to act in love, give in love, and speak words of love.
My prayer in the face of death has formed around these words from Julian of Norwich.
God, of thy goodness, give me Thyself;
for Thou art enough for me;
and I can ask for nothing less
that can be full honor to Thee.
And if I ask anything that is less,
ever shall I be in want,
For only in Thee have I all.
In the depths of grief and on the heights of joy, my prayer has become simply this: Give me lavish Love itself. There is no better gift to receive, no more passionate Valentine’s prayer to offer.
Clarissa Moll is a writer, the widow of author Rob Moll, and the mother of their four children. Daniel Harrell, a widower and father, is editor in chief at Christianity Today. Their new podcast, Surprised by Grief, debuts February 18.