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A Dog, a Mountain of Grief and Answered Prayers

January 9, 2012

Over Christmas I had an opportunity to go on a two day solitary retreat. I have done this twice before, and if you are an introvert like me, it is heavenly. In addition to enjoying the solitude, I have found that when I take a span of time, whether its 15 minutes or two days, and dedicate it to doing business with God, he always shows up. This trip, I felt like God was telling me in a million different ways, “TRUST ME. I am in control, and I have a plan for you. You focus on what is in front of you and let me be God.”

A Dog

Upon checking in to the Cedar Cross Retreat Center in Louisburg, NC, I was introduced to the resident dog, a German Shepherd named Isaac. Inclined as a shepherd, I was told that Isaac would likely check on me frequently and accompany me if I were to embark on a hike. If you know me, you will know that, shamefully, I have a heartless aversion to dogs having never attached to one myself. So, I politely nodded to the owner, but silently vowed that I would be staying clear of Isaac during my stay.

The first morning I woke up at and decided to go on a hike. Seeing no sign of Isaac, I figured he was up at the main lodge some quarter of a mile away. “Whew,” I thought. So, I quietly snuck out of my cabin to take a morning hike on the over four miles of trails around the property. I started down the trail in the opposite direction enjoying the scenery of the wilderness.

As I walked down the trail I heard a noise that sounded like a covey of quail being flushed from the bushes. I turned around instinctively and saw this German Shepherd bounding towards me at light speed. I remember thinking, “I sure hope he recognizes me, because if he doesn’t, I’m about to lose a limb.” Before I had time to really panic, Isaac blew by me, advancing up the trail ahead of me, brushing within a few inches of my leg.

Isaac ran about a hundred yards ahead of me, and then began scoping out the peripheral area. I continued down the trail curiously watching my unwanted companion. As I hiked, I began to realize that Isaac didn’t crowd my space or get in the way at all. He let me go as I pleased, but stayed close enough to see me and respond in the event of danger.

My attitude soon changed as I realized it was kind of nice to have Isaac accompany me on my hike. I somehow felt safer because of him. It struck me that God was using Isaac to encourage me. It was as if He was saying, “I am your shepherd. My presence in your life is like Isaac’s during this hike. Wherever you go, I am always there looking out for you. You cannot escape me, and I am much more capable of protecting you, than you are.”

A Mountain of Grief

As any American productivity junkie, my natural inclination is to approach grief as a mountain to climb. It is a project, a task to work through and put in the rearview mirror. My focus drifts to, “how much longer until I can get on with life, until I can be happy again?” It’s as if I’m on an unfortunate side trail which I need to get off of as soon as possible. I am learning that this is not an accurate metaphor.

This way of thinking leads to a victim mentality of, “why do I have to go through this and nobody else does?” or “why can’t my life be as easy as his or hers?” or at least a feeling of entitlement, like God owes me something. “If I have to go through this, then I should be able to act how I want, or do this or that, or he should at least give me this or that.”

Underneath all of this is the subtle but insidious lie that God messed up. During my solitary time, God addressed this attitude in me with the passage which occurs during his rebuke of Job.

“Then Job replied to the Lord, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘who is this that observes my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful to know.You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”” Job 42:1-6

This passage brings me to a place of humility where I can rightly approach God, understanding that my role and position is infinitely lower than his.

I am learning that when experienced correctly, sorrow is a gateway to a right perspective with God. It puts us in touch with the truth that everything on this earth is fleeting, everything other than God. In this way, sorrow is helpful and therapeutic.

Furthermore, if sadness has a purpose and integrates with God’s plan for my life, then I should not wait to be “over the mountain” to get on with living. The sadness overlays the rest of life and God’s path for me continues forward.

Answered Prayers

Time after time I begged God to heal Sydney and give us more time together. While he did extend her life on multiple occasions, and he did ultimately heal her in heaven, God did not allow her to stay with us in this life. However, in looking back through my journals, I also prayed many other requests along the way. There were prayers for the kids, prayers for financial provision, prayers for relational building and restoration, prayers for mercy, prayers that God would change lives through our tragedy, and prayers that I would have assurance that God was loving and caring for Sydney even when I could not. As I made a list of these from prior dates in my journal, I realized that, except for my prayer for healing, all were answered clearly, in very specific ways.

It was as if God was saying, “I didn’t answer your primary prayer the way you wanted, but I have been going to great lengths to bless you in other ways. I care deeply about you and am attentive to every detail of this trial. Look at the record of my faithfulness. Can you possibly deny that I have not been there every step of the way. Rest assured that I am in control.”


I came away from my solitary retreat holding two truths simultaneously: 1)My heart aches and I am sad. 2) I choose to trust God and move forward with my life. Although it feels counterintuitive, these two actually fit together. In fact, the sadness essentially leads me to trust God as I am wholly incapable of managing it by myself in a healthy way. For this window of understanding, I am thankful for the dog, the answered prayers and the mountain of grief.

From → Stories

  1. Julie Anderson Holderness permalink

    Dear Todd, Your words are a revelation to me. I would always see your experience of loss and pain as the “mountain to climb”. I now see your perspective. Thank you for letting me learn from you. Sincerely, Julie A. Holderness

  2. Anne Huitt permalink

    It sounds like the time away was fruitful. I hope your re-entry into day-to-day life allows you to practice what you learned. Blessings, Anne Huitt

  3. Sadee permalink

    Thank you for letting God speak to me through you.

  4. Erin Cole permalink

    Todd, Thanks for sharing what God is doing in and through you. I understand completely! I am about two weeks shy of the two-year anniversary of losing my Layne to brain cancer and have also discovered the grief process to be weird and surprising at times. I would love a mini-retreat like you had! I continue to pray for you and ask God to work mightily in all of your lives. Press on…it does get better. The new normal becomes just the normal and though I still miss Layne every day and wish he was here to help parent our two boys, and so thankful God is enough and that He equips us for whatever He calls us to do. Also, I can totally relate to your comment about Home Depot in your last post–we have had several times I’ve had to tell someone my husband died and you feel bad that they feel bad! Many blessings to you and the kids from Texas!

  5. Dorothy Jones permalink


    This really resonates with me. I am encouraged through this. Thanks for sharing. Praying for you.

    Dorothy Jones

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