Grief is a strange thing. Years may have passed and it hits, out of the blue.
People commented when only a few months after my late husband died, I met Bruce and fell in love again. Years later some new friends were discussing an Army widow who was remarried within a year and implying that she must not have really loved her first husband. Ah, mais, au contraire! I told them about my own experience.
My late husband’s practice partner, a wonderful, experienced Family Practitioner beamed when I first told him about Bruce. He said, “I know how much you loved Bob, and it’s because of that ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ love that you have the courage to love again.” Others probably thought I stopped grieving as soon as I found Bruce, but the process of grief continues. I like to believe that Bob went immediately to work in the afterlife, petitioning God for exactly whom he wished to be my husband and his little girls’ father. Grief is an undercurrent of my life now, slowly transforming into a firm foundation of gratitude. And there is much to be grateful for.
This morning I found myself unexpectedly sad, missing my Mom. She was an amazing, quiet, humble and steadfast woman. She was the rock of our family, and when Bob died so suddenly she flew from her home in North Carolina to be at my side. She remained with me and my two little girls until one day, nine months later, flew back to check on things in her home and passed away alone. My Mom and my husband were gone in less than a year. I take comfort that she was able to get to know Bruce and his girls, and was happy for us. So why am I missing her this morning?
There is something I believe about grief, that we never really stop grieving until we are reunited again. It is a process that teaches me to be thankful for all that has been given; yes, even the hard stuff. Not that I’d want any more difficulties thrown my way, believe me, but with trials we have the opportunity to become better people. I’m not talking about the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” No, somehow that negates pain and suffering. Each person has their own path in life, their own trials, and I can only speak on my own experience and those I’ve known or read about. There is at some point a choice to despair or to accept. Sometimes we need to fight–to find cures, to right wrongs–but eventually there is peace in acceptance. There is grace in trusting God, in being thankful for the good that was and still is.
If grief is a process, an undercurrent, then it stands to reason that at times there will be rip-tides that without warning pull me into the depths. I flounder until at last I stop fighting. I rise to the surface and allow the waves to carry me back to shore. At those times I remember, cry, and feel again the ripping pain of sadness. Then I pick myself up on the wet sand and walk toward the sun and the firm ground, with gratitude for the past, determined to love life in this moment.
The Abbey Farm, my earlier blog, was about the wonderful experience of living in a former Benedictine Monastery and raising our children. “Busy” was an understatement, and of course there were challenges, but it was a lived dream. Our sale closes today and we are excited that the new owners are yet another large family who will live out their dreams there. The wife and mother is a gracious and generous soul who intuitively asked if I was dealing well with the emotional aspect of selling. Yes, I am. What I have realized is that it is a process. For myself more than my husband, it involves grief.
I was the Mom who managed the place, paid the bills and raised the kids. I was home more of the time because he spent hours at work each day. He is more a renaissance man than any other I know and he gave more than his fair share. I’m just “feeling it” more, and try as he might to understand me, how could he if I have trouble understanding myself?
Looking back now, I see how friends have lived their lives expecting too much of their spouse or partner. In this age of equality we forget that there are not just differences in gender (we have biological differences unique to each of us), but differences in personality and ability. Perhaps some relationships can’t be 50-50 in certain areas. I was always told to strive for 100-100! Yet, think about it; one person’s 100% may not be enough to perform 50% of the work. In illness, they may offer far less. Those who have nursed a partner through cancer realize that their loved one can only lend a fraction of a percentage to the “50-50.” Life does not conform to neat equations.
My sister-in-law is one of the most self-actualized persons I know. When dealing with grief she learned a technique to anthropomorphize grief–to think of it as a person. First, identify the feeling that the grief evokes, and where it is felt in your body. Then imagine that you are the friend to that grief “person.” You do not need to reason away the feelings or say the right thing, as many well-meaning friends want to do, but just to “be” with them. I tried this and found myself able to separate from confused feelings and “be” with my grief. I saw more clearly that time would help this “friend.” I sat with “her” and when I needed to tend to a task in the house, instead of feeling overwhelmed, I let her know that I would be back. The day went on, life went on, and I was able to be productive. My mood lifted.
I realized that it was not so important to get my husband to understand exactly how I felt. In fact, it was better for me to do this work on my own. This morning I had an image of that work and it became a parable of sorts:
When we are young adults we may have less experience, but we usually have more strength and perhaps more raw material to work with. We lack wisdom and experience, but we construct a life quickly. With good intent, these are built swiftly to meet our immediate needs. I pictured this life as an abode. We are the builder-tenants. Winds blow, pieces fall off, and repairs must be made regularly. After a few years, what was once a simple, lithe dwelling becomes tacked-on, patched and perhaps less attractive. But it is home and it is livable. Over time, it reacts to elements like wind and water, to attacks both natural and man-made.
In moments of calm the builder-tenant has a choice to grow, and may say, “This is what I have, it’s the best I can do at this point.” Any faults are easily hidden with paint and flowers which look more attractive but inside, the walls and floors may be on the verge of collapse at life’s inevitable, next assault. Another choice which could be made during the calm is to perform the difficult maintenance and repair work.
Decades of life bring on a havoc of their own, the inexorable wear-and-tear, and forces not anticipated. A tornado, a flood, or a sinkhole may threaten even a well-built structure. Heavy, relentless, back-breaking, seemingly thankless and unrewarded labor may require digging down to expose the weak foundation and to repair sections–or to completely rebuild. Labor may result in no outward change, yet that which is essential to the core strength of the abode.
Friends and family will ideally come to aid. If the builder has a partner who soothes with physical love and distraction, it is restorative. There is rest, and rest is important. Still, over time, it is the tenant who must accomplish the structural work needed by the building. Exhausted as he is, he rolls up his sleeves, reads manuals, contemplates, plans and executes. Little-by-little, the intensely hard work of fortification is done. A replaced beam, a sistered joist, waterproofing, rewiring, tuck-pointing, task by task he keeps on. He falls into bed at night spent, and awakens early to continue the process. He does not need an elegant edifice, and realizes that it is the process which is more important than the end result.
The “parable” is reflective of the work necessary in our own lives. Wonderful as all the external support we may be blessed with, and as hard as we strive to portray the person whom we wish others to see, the hardest work we have in our lives is our own to accomplish. It requires regular maintenance as well as repair. You may think, well, of course! But there are many who lean heavily on others, or who expect too much of them. I learned this when my late husband passed suddenly. Without his support, I needed to roll up my sleeves and get to work learning the things that needed to be done both physically and mentally. Even now with my amazing husband, I realize that this grief-work is mine to perform. It doesn’t mean he can’t be supportive–it is just that the grief is unique to me, and I must learn how to work it out.
I am not implying that we go things alone–there are times we need to visit the doctor or establish a relationship with a therapist. Certainly if dealing with protracted depression, or trauma or addictions one needs that expert help and support. I was, long ago, a nurse on an addictions unit and saw the grueling work it took on the part my patients. This same fortitude I later saw in my hospice patients and families. This work is accomplished step by step, inch by inch, sometimes seemingly futile and without end. It is in reality the furthest thing from futile.
When dealing with grief, think “Everything is permeable”. Grief is permeable. Moments will come that shift you away from the pain and turmoil. Look for these moments of relief and notice them, live into them.
There will be gains made and relief in which to rest. More important than the destination is the journey. At the same time, we try to offer support to our loved ones, as they perform their unique life’s work.
Excellent guest that He is, the Spirit finds you empty and fills you; he finds you hungry and thirsty and satisfies you abundantly. God the Holy Spirit, Who comes from God, when He enters into people, draws them to the love of God and neighbor. Indeed, He is love itself.
Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 225, 4
Wisdom, work ethic, faith, hope, trust and love: these are the things that last, that go with us. They live on in the memories of those who remain after us. There is hope in the next phase of life. Strive to look back in gratitude, and forward in grace.
The loss of a loved one can really only be fully comprehended if you have gone through it. Even well-meaning folk do not know what to say. Those of us who have suffered tragic loss know that they don’t have to say anything–just be near, give a hug, or tell you that they are thinking of you, keeping in touch, available in case of any need.
I have known suffering souls who felt no other recourse in life but to end their lives prematurely. One friend tragically left her husband, two boys and all who loved her. A loving and decorated war hero left his children and his Mom and Dad shockingly bereft. Another kind soul, an Army Major succumbed, leaving his wife and children, family and friends. They were each people you would have loved to know. Fascinating, warm, inspiring, but their internal pain was agonizing, and too much to bear. But they underestimated the grief, despair and devastation that their final actions would wreak, and the life-changing, excruciating holes left behind in their loved ones’ lives.
I wrote this for my friends left behind.
I know, Our eventuality, each soul, But prematurely, by their own hand? Too much to bear And I wear it Daily
Can you see? It is me Walking Pain. Behind the convincing smile that I am alright Though in truth not fully, Until I am with my loved one again
Few None? Can escape loss. But prematurely, by their own hand? Dimensions painful beyond imagination
One more step, one more step One more smile, one more day Traversing the dark tar pit of pain. Full of questions and remorse And memories. Molten innocence turned torture
One more step, one more step I go, Lord, I keep going I must reach the other side Must “be” for others, for You. For now, however long, despite the burning Despite the scars that form In an effort to numb the next step That will make it possible
It is for You, for others That I push on Bearing this pain This must be enough for now You will be my strength, give me grace Until in Your time I too will be Better there