Substance and Empty Space


For a couple years after my father died, his belongings continued to inhabit our home. A neat row of ironed dress shirts hung in his closet; a soldering iron rested on the workbench in the garage; his favorite books held their territory on the shelves. As the months passed, and I finished my freshman year of high school, those items remained untouched and unmoved, like priceless artifacts from a bygone era.

Though my father’s effects remained a solid presence in my world, I could not say the same about myself. In the months after he passed away, my grief tore at every part of me, eroding my spirit to mist. I experienced the scientific truth that the molecules of my body were more empty space than substance, and wondered when the mysterious forces holding those molecules together would disintegrate, giving up on me as much as I wanted to give up on myself.

The summer after freshman year, as my mother worked frantically to pay for one daughter in college and save up for another one on her way to college, I often walked to the library to keep my body and my mind occupied. It was a two-mile trek along a two-lane thoroughfare that paralleled the freeway, along which commuters drove at highway speeds.

During those walks, I remember feeling surprised each time a car slowed for me at a crosswalk. Surely there was something or someone else blocking their way. I couldn’t comprehend how another person—a stranger, no less—could see I existed in flesh and blood when I could barely see myself.

I certainly felt invisible to God. He had not been Healer or Comforter, nor Provider or Protector for our faithful little family. Even as my parents gave all the extra time and income they had to the church, it seemed as if God had watched passively as my father’s body was tormented by disease, and our hearts were tormented by pain. So I shut God out—just as he had shut me and my desperate prayers out.

More than a year later, little had changed. My father’s belongings remained scattered around the house; the remnants of my soul remained scattered like dust.

On a warm, clear California summer day, I sat in our living room as strident sunshine gushed through the glass doors. All around me was brilliance, but the only thing I could see was a hunting knife of my father’s, lying on the fireplace hearth, exactly where he had left it months before he got sick.

My father never hunted a day in his life, never expressed the desire to hunt or even spend much time in the wilderness. But he had been curious about so many things outside of his experience as a computer engineer, and so he had purchased and kept this hunting knife for no purpose I knew of except to have it.

It would be so easy to use that knife, I thought, to finish a life I was no longer living. I calmly pondered how to do it. Should I slash my wrists? My neck? Stab myself in the heart or abdomen? Every option seemed too messy, too vulgar for the cream-colored carpet and the sparkling sunshine. But every option still seemed better than pretending to embody a spirit that was already half gone.

And then, in the heavy stillness of that moment, when all I could see was darkness, the very presence of God entered that living room. I felt it; I breathed it in; I knew in the depths of my being the Almighty was there. He filled the room—and he filled me to overflowing.

He didn’t say anything to me, at least not anything that I heard. Instead he opened up his heart to me, and I sensed his sorrow at all that my father and our family had been through. I sensed his deep compassion for the suffering that burdened us still.

I realized then that God had been there all along—waiting, waiting, waiting for me to be willing to turn to him and share my sorrow. I sensed his gentle encouragement that life still had so much to offer me. In those few moments, I knew I was seen. I was real. I was whole again.

As the holy moment receded, I took a deep breath, picked up the hunting knife, and packed it gently away in my father’s closet.


Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor who has found healing and hope through words. She writes the Personal Effects column for and contributes regularly to Christianity Today, Her.meneutics, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. Dorcas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but is currently enjoying an extended stay in Kenya with her husband and adorable hapa son.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

Latest posts by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun (see all)

  • beautifully written- i relate to shutting God out in my pain. loved your breakthrough moment. great words, friend!

    • Thank you so much, Astrid! It’s so easy to want to shut God out, isn’t it?

      • it’s effortless… but I am slowly and imperfectly learning a different response.

  • This makes me want to cry. Both for the despair you found yourself in–oh, I identify with that–and how God stepped into it so mysteriously. Thank you for this post, Dorcas.

    • Thank you for the invitation to share it, Heather. Posts like these might not happen if it weren’t for a little encouragement from a friend.

  • Beautiful description of God’s presence saturating an impossible feeling and situation. I love it and am grateful for His work in your life.

    • I’m so grateful for His work as well! Thank you for your kind words.

  • Whew, Dorcas, scary powerful words. Thank you for sharing your story with us. God is so good.

    • Yes, he is. And he is always good in exactly the ways we need him to be.

  • Dear Dorcas, I am at a loss for words, thank you for sharing your heart. My dad died when I was 13, 40 years ago. Your words touched my memories. Your writing is like a paintbrush with words for colors, I could see everything you wrote, and feel it too. Thank you. Wishing you a very peace filled evening.

    • I really appreciate your kind words, Terri. It’s been more than 20 years for me, but the memories still feel fresh and the grief–while tempered over time–remains. Peace to you too, friend.

  • Dear Dorcas, this is so tender and beautiful….I found myself holding my breath for you. Thank you for sharing this holy moment. It’s late now, so I’ll wait until morning to share it in my Twitter feed. peace to you, April

    • Thank you, April. And thank you for sharing my post! I so appreciate your kindness and support.

  • Thank you, Dorcas, for sharing this tender time of your life. Your words brought tears to my eyes, especially when you wondered why the cars stopped to let you cross the street. How beautiful then when you were able to share your grief with the Lord and how he graciously responded! Your post reminds me how the Lord is always present. Thank you.

    • Absolutely–he is always present, even when we don’t feel it. That is a truth that has remained with me since this moment, and I’ve held tight to it in the darkest valleys I’ve had to travel since then.


    Girl: you are a breath of sunshine to me. Thank you for sharing this piece of your heart, and thank you for being such an encouragement to others along the way. xo.

  • What a moment. And putting that knife away in your father’s closet offered a beautiful ending to your piece. May God continue to offer you His peace.

  • I’ve read this again and realized I forgot to comment. It is so poignant and beautiful and heart-wrending. Thank you for your vulnerability, for giving words to thoughts and feelings that we all have. Thank you for your kindness in welcoming others into a sacred and wounded personal space. I’m so glad you wrote for us at the Mudroom.

    • I’m so glad to have the opportunity to share this! Thanks for creating space at the Mudroom for our grief to be redeemed.