The anniversary I never wanted

At the fourth anniversary of Russell’s death I really wanted to be able to write something profound and significant and life altering.  But I got nothing!!

What I do have is  four years of experience with profound grief, a few significant lessons and a life altered.

Just some things I’ve learned:

When Russell and I were married in 1986, due to my rebellious nature, we didn’t say the traditional marriage vows until an ‘I Still Do’ conference in 2000.  One of the speakers had us stand and restate the marriage vows to each other.  It may have been the first time we said the words, “Till death do us part.”  It was definitely the first time we really meant it.  The point of the speaker was, don’t give up, don’t walk away, stick with it to the end.  But when he actually died, I realized, I lied, my commitment to this relationship did not end. There was no magic that made me realize I could celebrate a commitment fulfilled, a goal reached.  It’s not like the end of a mortgage or paying off your car.  Being parted by death just plain sucks, I hate it, why would we promise it?

Grief makes you see things you would not otherwise see.  You appreciate a good meal most when you’re hungry.  A weekend is most treasured after a long hard work week.  Nothing makes you appreciate a shower like getting really dirty.   Grief is like that too. The deep pang of losing someone you counted on makes you really appreciate the relationships you still have.  And the value of what you’ve lost.  It helps you better understand others who have lost as well.

Grief is not just about physical death. We grieve all kinds of losses. A lot of people have experienced grief through the COVID-19 lock down. Carol Kent in her book A New Kind of Normal talks about grief in relationship to the life sentence her son received. She had to grieve the hopes and dreams they had for him and their family. Illness and disease causes us to grieve a future forever altered. We even grieve the loss of dreams when things don’t turn out like we thought they would. Once you know grief, you see it everywhere.

Grief is not a constant. It’s not like the loss of sight or hearing that you are constantly aware of.  My friend Lee describes grief as a companion you walk through life with and from time to time grief taps you on the shoulder and says, “Remember me.” She is not wrong.

Grief has mellowed me.  I used to be the first to jump into conflict and fight for my point of view, fight for others, or just to be right.  But grief has taught me that time is short, having relationships is way more important than being right.  I value relationships that I  took  for granted before.  It’s not just a cliche, you really never know when an interaction will be your last. Many arguments and conflicts are simply not worth the effort for me anymore.

Grief is important.  Latasha Morrison in Be the Bridge. talks about how grief and lament promote healing and understanding.  She’s talking about racial reconciliation, but her point that grief and lament promote healing is universal.  As humans we need to grieve.  As Christians it allows us to cry out to God for comfort and healing.  It is a long dark road that we must walk and while others will visit along the journey, in the end you must travel it alone.  It is a part of our journey that cannot be avoided.  To stuff it or ignore it is only to postpone it.  GriefShare teaches you to lean into grief rather than trying to avoid it because avoided grief lies dormant only until it grows to a point it can no longer be ignored and reeks havoc on the life we are trying to salvage. 

Grief is both universal and deeply personal.  There is no map or formula to navigate it, like the waves of the sea or a strong wind you surrender to it and see where it takes you.  It is not the same for two people.  Our boys have grieved their father very differently, they had very different relationships with him, they are different ages and different stages of life.  The deeply personal part makes it impossible to say, “I know how you feel because I lost ____________ too” is just straight up wrong.  I can’t know how you feel because we aren’t the same, our relationships were not the same, it’s just not the same.  I can have empathy or compassion for your situation, but I can’t really know. And honestly, it’s a pain I hope you never really know.

Grief and guilt are really good friends.  In many ways, my life is better today than it was four years ago.  It’s really, really hard to say that.  It feels like it does not honor the value of the person I lost.  It doesn’t acknowledge that much of the better is because of him and the plans he made to take care of us even after he was gone.  It doesn’t acknowledge that I’d give it all up to struggle with him again.  But that is guilt which Psychology Today says is ‘self-focused by socially relevant.’  We have a choice as to whether guilt holds us back or holds us accountable.  I have to seek balance between self-focused and self-absorbed.  Do I feel guilty because I’m wrong, uncomfortable or maybe just scared?

The blessing in a new season doesn’t replace the pain of a past season!

Eric Mason

Grief is both natural and unnatural.  While it is natural to grieve what we’ve lost, it’s unnatural in that we don’t know how to do it.  I’ve heard many times, “I don’t know how they survived ________.”  The blank being loss of a child, loss after a short marriage, loss after a long marriage, loss when you’re young, loss when  you’re old, loss of a sibling, a twin, a murder, a catastrophe but the reality is you could ask a hundred people and get a hundred answers.  How do you get through a loss?  Just like life, one step at a time.  Then one day you notice  you’re further down the road than you realized and have arrived at a destination you didn’t know existed…life after loss. 

The days become weeks, weeks become months, the months become years.  I try not to count them as time marches on with little, if no, consideration of me.  Still I lament, “We loved you everyday we had you.”

On Grief and Friendships

Someone posed the question at GriefShare: Do you think grief re-writes your address book?

I love the trees when their leaves are gone. They point to the beauty around them, birds nests, sunrises, sunsets, blue skies and gray skies. They also reveal damage from parasites and damaged limbs that need to be removed. Photo credit: Me 3/1/2018 7:34 a.m. headed out on a morning walk.

We used to sing this song in Girl Scouts, “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” Grief changes you, it changes your relationships. We tend to view friendships as either forever or failures but God places people in our lives for a season and seasons change. Old and new are both treasures!

I used to think that friendship was give and take. That the people I’ve been there for would be the people that were there for me, but that’s not always the case. God is dynamic and so are our relationships.

I think He places people in our lives for a purpose. We remember those who have been there for us in the past fondly but there is no obligation, you don’t owe them, they don’t owe you. As a follower of Christ you realize that we are obedient to Christ’s calling in our lives. When he shows a need, a place we can serve others, our obligation is to honor Him by serving others. Friendships based on debt don’t work. I can like you, I can think fondly of you, but I can’t keep score of kindness offered and treat it as a debt to be paid nor expect any kindness I’ve extended to be repaid. I can only grow from it and pay it forward. Kindness makes both the giver and receiver better.

Sadly no caption needed! Gardening and photo credit … me.

I think He places people in our lives for a season. When a deep freeze hits in the winter some plants do not survive, some are permanently damaged, some bounce back. Plants require different kinds of care in different seasons and we’re like that too. Sometimes we need more water than others, sometimes we need fertilizer, sometimes we need constant attention to rescue us from the brink of death, sometimes we don’t survive and sometimes we thrive. But none of the seasons are forever. They may seem like forever when you’re in them, they may last longer than we want, but they always change.

The rings in a tree tell us about the climate and atmosphere throughout the trees life, no year is the same. Photo credit: stolen from the internet

I remember growing up my dad used to burn the lawn in the early spring. It was fun getting to catch the grass on fire and keep it in check with the water hose but it left our yard black and dead looking and horrible. But then it came back so beautiful with all the bad stuff burned away. I still look at pampas grass and think, “That would look so much better if it were burned in the spring.” The pain in our lives also breeds new life, sometimes we have to be burnt to be beautiful.

to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Isaiah 61:3

I think we get into trouble when we expect things from a relationship that only God can provide. It’s in our relationship with God that we can survive and thrive with ourselves. Time alone with God fills a need only God can fill. When we expect that unconditional love, acceptance and grace from humans, we will be disappointed. Everything outside of God is temporary. You can survive the loss of a spouse, a child, a friend, a parent, a grandparent because God never abandons you. You can ignore him but that doesn’t impact His existence. We tend to look at other’s loss and think, “I don’t know how you could survive that loss.” The truth is neither does the survivor. You survive by putting one foot in front of the other and every day choosing to move forward.

I think that is living in light of eternity. When we live knowing that the only constant relationship is with our creator we can put our other relationships into perspective. We can see our spouse, children, siblings, parents and friends as the gifts from God that they are. Treasures for the time we have them. Time isn’t the only measure of the depth of a relationship. A spouse lost after a few years or 62 years is still a huge loss. A child lost at a couple of minutes or 70 years is still devastating. Depth isn’t quantified just by time.

I heard one time, I wish I could remember where, that we have 30 seconds to respond to a prompting from the Holy Spirit. If you don’t act on it within 30 seconds you’ll either forget or talk yourself out of it. I don’t know if the 30 seconds is accurate but I know that when you have that idea, action is required – act now! It could mean the world to someone else, it could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, it could be kindness from a stranger that makes their day better and it will definitely leave you better! Let God be the author of your address book.