The golden fish may carry scars,
she may have wounds, maimed fins;
she ages, moving more slowly,
but she swims on, giving thanks
for the beauty that still exists around her.
She cannot know what is ahead,
what further challenges,
or how far she has to go;
she swims because
that is what God created her to do,
And she is beautiful in His eyes.Suzy Roeder, December 2019, London England
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.
Though leaves are many, the root is one
Through all the lying days of my youth I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun
Now I may wither into the truth.W.B. Yeats
Wisdom is attributed to the old for good reason. Our life experiences are numerous and our perspective deepens despite our weakened physical appearance. We “wither into the truth.”
Though we age, we are often called upon to continue physically caring for others. We must seek a balance in order to remain strong for those we love. Self-sacrifice that is all-draining renders us exhausted and unable to help anyone.
We are reminded of Jesus’ example but must remember that he did take time to sleep. I imagine that he ate healthy food and cared for his health, enabling him to care better for others. When the time was right and not too soon, he gave all. Most of us will not be in the position of sacrificing our lives, but we are all called to self-donation, to giving, and to some form of self-sacrifice.
Life is a juggle of self-care without self-centeredness, of self-sacrifice without self-destruction. It is at times difficult and even counterintuitive.
And then loss occurs. Tragedies visit more often or earlier in life for some: loss of health, of a partner, of a loved one, of abilities, of home, of youth…
I search for a better concept of loss. If inevitable, how does one best deal with it? I truly think it is with gratitude and acceptance. Pleasurable life experiences are easy to accept and be grateful for, but I am striving to be thankful even for premature losses and for tragedies. Certainly not that they occurred and hurt myself and others, but that life continued and God was there to comfort us with loved ones, with future life experiences, with a “peace that passes all understanding.”
It does seem counterintuitive. I have lost a dear husband early in life. It was tragic. Many people still feel the effects of the loss of him though over 20 years have passed. And yet, had he not died, Bruce and I would not have found each other, and our six children and four grandchildren would not have been born. I stagger in the profundity of emotional pain and of God’s grace.
I search to find meaning in physical pain, so hard to bear, so hard to witness. I do not believe that it is in vain. I ponder why some suffer so greatly, and feel that there is truth in the belief that their prayers and influence are profoundly powerful.
We are called to be generative in old age and thus if we are physically feeble, perhaps this is accomplished in our words, or modeling peace, or praying, or just loving. If cared for by others we become the means for their gain in grace.
“Now I may wither into the truth.”
Yeats contemplates the beguilement of his youth, and reveals to us that as we wither physically and surrender control, we have the greatest opportunity to gain in wisdom, influence and love.
Especially from the perspective of an older adult, life seems like a repetitive cycle of give and take, of gain and loss. Erikson posed that within each stage of life there is a developmental task that is necessary to complete; babies learn to trust, adolescents gain a sense of identity, and so on. There are consequences if these tasks are not achieved, thus Erikson phrased them in a versus relationship; for example, Trust vs. Mistrust and Identity vs. Confusion. In adulthood and older age, the developmental tasks are Generativity vs. Stagnation and Integrity vs. Despair.
The elderly patients I cared for as a nurse all experienced losses over time, some more than others. Loss of spouses, siblings, opportunities, jobs, abilities, and physical function to mention just a few. One said to me, “There is nothing left to lose but my life.” I was sad for her and must have tried to give some encouraging words, but being much younger at the time I could never have understood fully. I remember her words as I navigate the accelerating cycle of gain and loss.
I have lost too many loved ones: a husband, parents, young nieces, grandparents, many of them tragically before their time. I have lost abilities due to a degenerative osteoarthritic condition. I can no longer ski, hike, ride horses, golf — things that I not only enjoyed but formed my self-concept.
Pondering loss and fighting the understandable grief that comes with it, I rely on faith in God and in his words like “Be not afraid,” and “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” People can disagree with me on my source of comfort but I am undeterred. Each finds their own way in life.
There is a new series called “The Chosen.” A hit with millions of viewers, it is the highest grossing crowd-funded project to date. The amount of money donated secured not just the first season but the second as well. No money is asked for and it is free to watch. It is the only multi-season series on the life of the early disciples and of Jesus. Even if I had no interest in the spiritual life of Jesus I would watch the show on its period drama merits. It is good entertainment. Of course the intent is to do more than entertain but to inspire. It has done that for me as well.
As I continue to ponder the looming horizon of old age I will strive to stay peaceful. I will strive to “generate” and fight self-absorption. Stagnation helps no one. I am not as productive as I used to be, but I can still hope, pray, talk with friends, give advice, educate my children and support my husband. I may not be able to swing my driver or jump a 5-foot fence with a Thoroughbred or strap on my skis ever again, but I can do important things for my loved ones. I can still enjoy many other things in life. One can find ways to be generative in learning, loving, caring, praying, encouraging and praising.
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.
Our eventuality, each soul,
But prematurely, by their own hand?
Too much to bear
And I wear it
Can you see? It is me
Behind the convincing smile that I am alright
Though in truth not fully,
Until I am with my loved one again
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
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