Walking the Path of Grief

25 04 2016

This past Sunday my church did a service on lament at which I was asked to speak on the topic of loneliness. One of the characteristics of lament is the necessity for honesty; telling it like it is. I did that.  I’ve had some requests to print the text of my talk on this blog, so here it is.

I often think of my father, a widower for twenty years. He bore the burden of his loss  quietly, rarely talking about it, and when he did, he simply said: “It’s lonely without Mom.” I thought I knew what that meant. But the depth of meaning in those few words didn’t fully impact me until loss happened to me.

When Mel died, everything about my life changed. I wasn’t prepared for his death, nor did I have any idea how impossibly challenging it would be to walk the path of grief.

Weariness became my new normal over the weeks and months as I discovered the true meaning of loneliness. My house was so very silent all the time–meals eaten alone, evenings spent alone, weekends without the companionship of my husband. I felt his absence everywhere.

And that loneliness brought me to an unexpected emotion—anger. I was surprised by the depth and force of it. Mel was a good man with much still to contribute to the world. He had great plans for volunteering in our retirement. But he never got that chance, and I was angry. I railed at God, I stormed through the house yelling, crying, shaking my fist at Him. Really, God? Why him? If You truly love me, why did You allow this? I demanded answers.

What I got was silence. God had gone, deserted me, left me to deal with all the baggage that accompanies grief. The sadness, despair, loneliness, helplessness, bitterness, anger.

And the doubt. I couldn’t feel God anywhere.

This thing called faith can be elusive. It’s hard to find in the deepest, most painful days of our lives. How can it even exist in a world where death takes children, spouses, friends and parents way before their time?

For a long while after Mel’s death I had doubts about my faith. I needed that wonderful man as my life partner—didn’t God know that?

As Christians, we believe God knows best….until things don’t go as we’ve planned. Then we have the audacity to think we can control our lives, that God needs us to direct Him. Maybe I felt that way. As if I know better than God. As if I have any say in what happens next. The hardest thing I’ve had to do is let go of all that—all the control—and trust God knows best.

That’s really tough when all you feel is gut-wrenching pain. So yes, I questioned my faith. But gradually through the days and weeks, I realized it was still there.

Because what do we have if we don’t have our faith? I admit mine was tested, but in the process it deepened as I felt the comforting arms of God around me in the middle of many sleepless nights, or in the solitude of a winter snowstorm.

And in those lonely days, God hadn’t gone away, hadn’t deserted me. Instead, He’d given me space in which to work my way through the messiness, all the while quietly walking alongside me. He allowed the process of grief to take its course, gradually lifting the initial blessing of shock so that I could do the important work of grieving.

I still have those moments when I feel as if I’m going through the grief process all over again. Some of my joy is gone, some of life’s wonders are diminished, and there is heaviness in my heart. I miss Mel. I mourn the days ahead without him, the 50th anniversary he won’t be here to celebrate with me this August. As my dad said, at the end of the day it’s lonely.

Chris Tomlin’s song God of Angel Armies says I know who goes before me; I know who stands behind. The God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine. The God of angel armies is always by my side.

I awoke with that song going through my head on March 17th, 2013, and I continued to hear it as the day wore on. That afternoon, God took Mel home. In His divine providence, He gave me the words of that song to carry me–then and in the weeks to follow. To remind me I’m not alone. And that has truly been evidence of His amazing grace.This





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1 01 2016

I’m not doing resolutions this year. They set me up for failure every time. Promising myself that I’ll work out regularly, eat healthier foods, develop a better house-cleaning routine, be a better friend-mother-grandmother, be more organized and vowing to write a little every day isn’t working for me.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to make a resolution in order to do those things. They should happen because I want to do them. The doing should be a part of me that is automatic, a natural response to all the blessings I am showered with every day–because I am grateful.

Today is page one of a 366 page book. Without those resolutions I am free to be and do what I was made for, to write an exciting story that starts on page one and continues daily. None of that grinding I-should-have-I-have-to-I-failed-to-I’ve-already-ruined-the-resolutions guilt.  I want to use my energy to look back on each day and think of the worthwhile moments that set that day apart.

Instead of a resolution, I’m starting the year with a question that has a new answer with each turn of the page. How can I make this day stand out? What can I do to make this a better world for just one person?  Call it random acts of kindness, paying it forward, doing what’s right—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about remembering to look outward.

January 1, 2016, page 1. God has gifted me with amazing friends. I have a wonderful, loving family. I am in good health and able to do whatever I want. I am blessed with reasonable security. I woke up this morning alive.

Great start, right? I don’t need resolutions. I just need to live the gratitude and stop thinking about what’s in it for me. So maybe in place of a list of resolutions, I’ll make a list of ways I can show gratitude, ways I can be a blessing, ways I can leave a legacy of giving back.

Happy New Year! God bless you all.





The Forgotten Ones

6 04 2015

IMG_1145I have this picture of my mom. She’s wearing a kerchief over her hair, a knife in one hand, an apple in the other. She has the serene smile of someone who has  a deep-seated contentment, a trait she shared with my dad. Mom loved all fruit, but the apple is the one I associate with her the most because of that smile as she sliced it. She was a purist–loving all things in their simplest form. Meat was always cooked with salt and a little Dutch spice, potatoes were ungarnished and served quartered, vegetables had freshly grated nutmeg and a pat of butter on them. Dessert was pudding and stewed or fresh fruit. On special occasions we were allowed home-made ice cream.

In the summer as she gardened Mom would pop a carrot or radish into her mouth. I can still smell the earthy odor of the garden soil as she pulled root vegetables free, shaking each before laying it in the bucket beside her. The red of beets, the orange of carrots, the white of peppery radishes, the brown of potatoes she dug out of the hills, each with its own brilliant green foliage, all colors of summer.

Year round Mom hung wash on the line strung in the back yard, allowing it to flop in the breeze until the smell of fresh premeated each piece. Sheets carried the sweet scent of outdoors, and I remember as a child burying my nose in in them after climbing into bed on washday. I followed her lead  after starting my own family. I gardened, froze and canned the produce, hung out the wash, allowing my children to enjoy that experience of freshness only Mother  Nature can provide.

And then one year it was Dad who planted and tended the garden while Mom sat motionless in her chair gazing out the living room window at nothing. She had ceased to speak or acknowledge us. Dad was the one who froze the strawberries and canned the abundant harvest of beans. Dad cut the juicy stalks of rhubarb, discarded the poisonous leaves, sliced the sour stalk into a cooking pot and covered it with sugar. Dad fried the meat, peeled the potatoes, topped the beans before settling them into boiling water. And Dad decided to use the dryer instead of the wash line.

Mom had slowly walked into the mist of Alzheimer’s Disease. Bit by bit, her spirit ceased to exist as she became a shell of the person we loved. Dad was her sole caregiver (by choice), at first handling things well. Mom was docile, easily steered to the table or her favorite chair, able to take care of her private needs, to feed herself. That lasted only months, soon giving way to Dad having to take her to the bathroom, help her take care of her hygiene. Then the night wanderings began, and the care that had covered daytime hours stretched to 24 hours a day. She lost bladder and bowel control, so he changed her adult diapers,cleaned her, washed sheets, towels, clothing as they were soiled. He carefully fed her at each meal. And he lost weight, this tiny man who hadn’t an ounce to spare. He looked weary. He looked old.

Everyone asked after Mom. How was Anne? She didn’t look sick. Was she in need of anything? She seemed fine in church on Sunday. Did she get around all right? Was she staying healthy? How was the disease progressing? (Dad had fed and dressed her, guided her to the car, put on her seatbelt, taken her out of the car, steered her toward the church building, gotten her through the door and delivered her to a pew before sitting beside her. And then he did it all in reverse after the service).

But here’s what amazes me. No one, not one person, bothered to ask how Dad was doing. All the attention was focused on my mom, and Dad became secondary. He’d lost 20 pounds (a huge amount for a man who weighed 140 at his peak) and his face was drawn, the lines of exhaustion right there for them to see. I was over 2000 miles away, raising a family and holding down a full-time job, unable to help more than a couple of times a year, but I saw what his care-giving was doing to him. Was I the only one? Really?

I begged Dad to get help, hire someone, have Mom admitted to the local nursing home. He refused (I promised ‘in sickness and in health’) until he had no choice. One day Mom couldn’t stand. When Dad tried to get her out of bed she crumpled to the floor, and he couldn’t get her up. Not only did she outweigh him, she had become inert. At last he acquiesced and had her admitted to nursing care. Six weeks later she died. Though he mourned losing her (he said he lost her twice; once to Alzheimer’s and then again through death), gradually, my dad became his old self. The weight came back on, his humor returned, he slept well at night. But it took a while.

I know several caregivers, individuals who dedicate each day to filling the needs of a loved one, ministering to both their physical and their spiritual needs. I see it happening to them just as it did to my father, that gradual wearing down. People show concern for the ill person. Ask questions as to the sick one’s welfare. But what about the caregiver? I try very hard to let those earthly angels know that they are in my prayers along with the one they care for. They are heroes, every one of them. I know it’s lonely work, I know they’re exhausted. Do you know what they tell me when I thank them for their service, these invisible, forgotten  people? They consider it holy work, a sacred gift, a privilege. A privilege. That gives me chills. It is all they have to give their beloved one who is dying, and they give it with joy.

I am in awe. God bless them, every one.





Saint Paddy From My Perspective

16 03 2015

IMG_1132

In past years I used to envy the Irish just a little bit–the Dutch people don’t have a day equivalent to Saint Patrick’s day to honor our heritage. And since I’m not Irish, March 17th had no major significance for me,  that is not until two years ago when my husband Mel died of a massive heart attack on that day. It’s the kind of anniversary no one wants to celebrate.

My first experience with anything Irish was  when I was 8 years old and someone gave me a music box with a small ballerina that twirled round and round to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Later, as an adult, it was fun to adopt an Irish heritage just for that one day (though O’DeVries sounds, well, weird. But still. . . ).  It was fun to see the river turn green, beverages and food items dyed green, and shamrocks pretty much everywhere. Today I see the day through a different lens.

The week after St. Patrick’s Day two years ago, my friend Diet Eman (author of Things We Couldn’t Say) gave me a shamrock plant as a thank you for taking her to a Passover service at my church. Though she didn’t know that Mel had died on that holiday a week earlier, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the constant reminder, her sweet gift has become precious to me.  This morning as I watered the shamrock I wondered about the significance behind it.

I didn’t know much about either the holiday or the plant. As I began to research the beginnings of St. Patrick’s Day, I found some interesting, little-known details. Although Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, he was born into a wealthy Romano-British family in Roman Britain in the 4th century. His father was a deacon in the Christian church, his grandfather a priest.

At age 16 Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for six years. During that time he was said to have ‘found God,’ and was told by God to flee to the coast where a ship was waiting to take him home. In Roman Britain he became a priest, returning later to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity. He worked mainly in the northern regions of Ireland (Wikipedia, et al), using the shamrock as a way to explain the Christian trinity.

It wasn’t until the 1600’s that a coin was minted showing St. Patrick holding a shamrock. From that point on the Irish

St. Patrick and shamrock

began to wear the shamrock on their lapel as a symbol of their patron saint. I found it interesting that the initial color associated with Patrick was blue, but was replaced by green in the late 1700’s mainly due to the shamrock. During the Irish rebellion the shamrock changed from a symbol of St. Patrick to one of Irish patriotism. The Irish government adopted it as the country’s official trademark in 2003. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 A.D. He was buried at Downpatrick in Ireland, and has been considered the patron saint of Ireland since 1903.

Our Christian culture considers the evergreen a symbol of eternal life. I think initially the Irish had it right–the three sections of the shamrock leaf remind us of the Holy Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–and the green reminds us of the promise of eternal life. Fr. Vincent Twomey was quoted as saying, it is time “…to reclaim St. Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” Who knew that’s what it once was, since we’ve known it only as a secular holiday.

That brings me to my personal feeling about March 17. I have spent two years without Mel. My life changed forever because of the events of that day. The loss is still  fresh, the pain very real, but somehow it seems fitting that God chose this day to take him home. Knowing the true meaning behind the story of Saint Patrick makes me realize there is a much larger plan at work here, that maybe I need the reminder of an eternal goal. My little shamrock plant leans toward the sun each day just as I ought to be reaching for the Son. Everlasting sounds pretty good in the light of the promise of eternity we as Christians have. Mel just got to experience it a little sooner than the rest of us. Maybe he’ll be wearing a shamrock in heaven.