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





CONFESSIONS OF AN INTROVERT

25 02 2015

Image result for Snoopy cartoons

Soon it will be two years since Mel died. Conventional wisdom says that by now I have settled into my life as a widow and should be doing well. Outwardly I suppose I am, but the truth is I’m really good at not saying what I feel. I specialize in maintaining the illusion that I have survived my tragedy and now all is great. Yeah, right.

The truth? I used to think there was a timeline. I used to believe you eventually get over a loss. I used to think life would return to normal after a respectable time of mourning. Today I’m on the other side, and I’m here to tell you that none of those things is true.

Here’s the honest truth. Grief never ends. It changes, it’s a passage. It’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. Grief is the price of LOVE. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint, but for those who share this state of being there is a common thread. I’m there too. My grief  is different than yours, but I share the common bond of pain with you. I understand the long-term effects. I know you don’t get over it.

Being an introvert can be extremely difficult in the lens of loss. Some of the widows I’ve been privileged to meet are quite vocal about their grief, and I envy their natural ability to express themselves. I wonder if that freedom relieves their sorrow in some small way. Much as I wish I could speak so freely, that is not who I am. So I nod and smile and say what I’m expected to say: I’m fine. Doing well. Thanks for asking.

Patrick O’Malley, a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, wrote the following article titled Getting Grief Right for a series in the New York Times Couch series (January 10, 2015):

“Mary was a successful accountant, a driven person who was unaccustomed to being weighed down by sorrow.     She was also well versed in the so-called stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To her and so many others in our culture, that meant grief would be temporary and somewhat predictable, even with the enormity of her loss. She expected to be able to put it behind her and get on with her life. . .
THAT model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity. (Italics mine.)
To look at her, she already had done so. The mask she wore for the world was carefully constructed and effective. She seemed to epitomize what many people would call “doing really well,” meaning someone who had experienced a loss but looked as if she was finished grieving.”

That last sentence hit the mark for me. Looked as if says it all. Outward appearance can be such a liar, something most people will take at face value, want to take at face value. After all, if you dig into it and ask more pointed questions, things could get really messy. Most people don’t want to get their hands dirty or become invested because they fear the dreaded I never know what to say.

I speak for many others in my position when I say we often feel isolated, standing on the sidelines while the rest of the world moves on with their normal lives. It has become my world, not ours. It is now my weekend, not ours. I talk about my house, not ours. We has changed to I, ours to my. The list goes on, every item I tick off with a singular pronoun instead of a plural.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about your lives and the things you are doing. You definitely should. I want to hear about them and share in your good times. It helps make life balanced for me to be told of your vacation, or some silly (or annoying) thing your spouse did last week. I need to know that how we communicate hasn’t changed. The sense of normalcy we all crave is especially prevalent in those of us who have lost a precious member of our family, so hearing about your life and your family keeps me grounded. Please don’t tiptoe around me. Pretty complicated, right?

So here’s the thing. In this broken, hurting world we live in, God’s intent is not for us to suffer alone. Regardless of our psychological makeup, it’s important to let each other in. We were not created to handle life by ourselves, but rather to bear each other’s burdens, to help lighten the load we see a friend carry. Sharing is hard, especially for those of us who hold our feelings close. It requires a certain amount of risk in the form of being judged, abandoned, mocked, or maligned. I’ve had lots of experience in those areas, and it makes me cautious. I am so thankful for the friends God has given me with whom I feel safe, feel able to share those deepest feelings. What blessings they are.

For those around whom I wear the mask of ‘I’m just fine’, I would ask that you remember this: Sometimes when I say I’m okay, I need someone to look me in the eyes, see the pain there, hug me tight, and say, “I know you are not.”





A Gala for Death

18 04 2014

Imagine a huge party with millions worldwide attending. Laughter and joy fills the space, the celebration going on and on through day and night. There’s dancing and singing and more food than you’ve ever seen in one place, an event unlike any you’ve ever experienced. Happiness paints the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and reflects off the faces of those who are here. The very air shimmers with joie de vivre.

Outdoors, sparkling stars are dancing in the heavens, circling the moon, the sun and each other in a frenzy of wonder. Every creature on earth is leaping, crawling, flying, swimming, moving in sheer joy, no longer enemies or predator and prey. Nature has joined in with a wild, gloriously flagrant display of color and perfume.

In the midst of all the happy chaos sets a casket. It’s ugly, black, non-descript, unembellished, no flowers in tribute, no notes of sympathy around it. And you realize—this is a funeral. But whose is it? It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Over my lifetime I’ve attended many funerals. Funerals for infants, children, young people, adults of every age. Parents, spouses, children, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, good friends. The causes of death vary from illness to accidents of all kinds to murder to old age. None of the funerals have been happy occasions. Sometimes the death was welcomed in the sense that the deceased suffered much in those last days, or was very old and had lost all sense of who they were due to dementia or Alzheimer’s. But the pain of loss was still felt, tears still shed by someone, and a precious soul still missed.

Funerals have one thing in common; there usually are mourners, even if it’s just a single individual. At some point in the deceased person’s life, he or she was loved by at least one person. People are devastated by the death of a loved one. They cry over their loss. Tears and pain are a tribute to the importance the loved one held in their lives. It’s honoring to them.

So my post title may not seem to make sense to you, but trust me, it does. I assure you, there will be one funeral yet to come at which there won’t be one tear shed. Everyone on earth will want to attend, to celebrate for days on end. Not one person will be sad. Instead I believe there will be a huge party of celebration and great rejoicing.

And here’s the best secret ever: it will be the LAST funeral we will ever attend. The last one.

At the very end of time, the biggest event will be the death of Death. When the day that God has preordained to be the last day finally comes, I look forward to that final funeral. What an event that will be, the funeral for Death. Never again will the awful words ‘Death’ and ‘funeral’ need to be spoken. That black-cloaked figure with the scythe who comes after every living person will himself be inside the casket, never to reap a life again. Imagine the joy of all mankind on the demise of Death!

Want to join the party? It’s easy to be included in the guest list, and your invitation is printed all through the New Testament. Just believe in, trust in, rely on God. Right after Paul and Silas are released from their chains in prison because of an earthquake, the jailer falls down in front of them and asks the question we all need to ask.

“…what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:30-31 (NIV)

Oh, and the celebration? It goes on forever. I, for one, want to part of that.





This is the Day

17 03 2014

Mel at work 2
I knew this day would come—it was inevitable. And our tears are there to bear witness.

One year ago today was a beautiful Sunday. Spring was bursting out all over the yard, coaxed by warm temperatures and bright sunshine. Mel and I attended our church that morning, thinking ahead to Easter Sunday coming in two weeks. We were sure a season of promise and new beginnings was finally upon us.

It didn’t turn out that way. Who would ever have thought that the unthinkable would happen on such a perfect day.

Everything’s different this year. This day, this wintery day after the longest, harshest winter in many years, is the total opposite. Snow has coated the earth for months, unrelenting cold causing furnaces to run constantly, and we are all weary of shoveling snow day after day after day. But that’s not the biggest difference.

This is the day my family and I and our close friends will never be able to erase from our memories. One year ago today, at about 3:20 in the afternoon, my husband was ushered through the gates of heaven by God’s angels. By the time we knew this, he had already spent over an hour in his eternal home, rejoicing and worshiping with all those who had gone before him.

The pain of that loss, so fresh and unfathomable then, is still fresh, still incomprehensible. We don’t understand, nor do we want it to be true. We don’t want to celebrate this day, the anniversary of his home-going, because it means we no longer have him here. The joy of knowing he is with his Father, his Lord, can’t begin to erase the hurt in our hearts, nor can it fill the hole in our lives. Our reality is that he is gone, never coming back, never here again to celebrate all the wonderful occasions through years to come. And it’s just not fair.

Sure, we have our faith. I doubt I could have made it through this year without it. But here’s the reality—he’s still gone. The comfort of knowing where he is can’t negate the fact that we no longer have him here. So what do we do with that? How do we face another year knowing Mel won’t be part of any of it?

This past weekend we spent time together, my three kids and I, talking about Mel, going through things that are precious to us all, missing him, crying over the emptiness we all feel. We held his things, looked at all the tools he used to create gifts for all of us, and realized once again that he will never touch those things again, never carve another piece of Christmas décor, never build that table out of the weathered wood, never repair that old chair he found at an antique store. Never is such a cruel word.

It hurts. Faith doesn’t lessen that. But it does help us cope. We are left behind, left to deal with the finality of his death. We are the ones who have to figure out how to do this in a new reality. How well we do it speaks to how much we trust. So we let ourselves fall into God’s arms–knowing that He is there to catch us, enfold us, comfort us, and give us the peace we so desperately need. He knows all the reasons, and in the end isn’t that really all we need to know?

You see the truth is, we will see him again. On that someday in the future, we will be reunited, not just with Mel, but with so many other dear ones we have lost, and those we will lose in years to come. That’s the thing; it’s all going to be good in the end, because as long as we believe and place our trust in God, we will see them again.

What a blessing. What peace that gives us. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us heal on this day. This, the hardest day.





Thar She Blows!

17 02 2014
Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Beauty from Ashes

My parents lived about one hundred miles east of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. As they were coming out of a worship service one Sunday morning in 1980, the sky was turning a strange, deep shade of gray. There was little wind, which would have signaled a sandstorm, and as the sky gradually darkened and the wall of gray advanced, the parishioners were frightened and began to speculate in hushed tones. What could it mean? Was it the end of the world?

Mom told me about the eerie silence that hung in the air as sunlight disappeared and it became dark as night. Panic stricken and not knowing what they should do, people huddled together. Mom described it as a very bizarre experience.

Later, my parents learned that Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, had erupted that morning. A strong earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter Scale caused pressure to build inside the mountain. That in turn released a plume of steam, and within seconds the cloud turned black as ash shot into the sky. Rock and ice trapped in the mountain exploded, and soon hot gas, ash, chunks of ice and huge pieces of rock were catapulted upward. It was determined that the blast was 500 times greater than the 20 kiloton bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

The darkness the parishioners experienced was caused by a fine, thick blanket of ash that crawled across the state like a curtain, slowly shutting out the light. Even though the volcano was a hundred miles away, the volcanic residue changed day into night. Amazing.

A few years later, my husband and I and our three children took a road trip on one of our visits to my parents’ home. We saw the devastation the volcano had caused—millions of fir trees, many 200 year old, mowed down like so many bowling pins, and the lake below filled with pines sheared and shoved down the mountainside into the water by the force of the blast. And gray. Everything was gray. Once, this had been a lush, green range of pine trees teeming with wildlife. Trees of every size had populated the slope, making it look like a green carpet rising up to meet the sky. Beds of wildflowers, spread like quilts in the sunny patches between copses of trees, had splashed color randomly across the forest. Now, there was no life of any kind. Only ash. Gray, lifeless ash.

volcanic-ash

Fast forward a decade. My next visit to the area revealed something amazing. Yes, there was still gray. But now there were small pine trees pushing through the ash, some vegetation and flowers beginning to grow. The mountainside was regenerating, starting anew, covering itself with a fresh, young shade of green that indicated new life. Beauty out of ashes.

This week I ran across an old newspaper I had saved from May 19, 1980, the day after the volcano erupted. As I remembered that week, the phone conversations with my parents, and the impact the ash had on the farm area where they lived, I realized that my current situation is similar. My life has undergone an enormous change these past months since my husband’s death. The ash of sorrow has darkened my days and covered me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems as though it will never go away, never be bright and good again.

Still, every now and then there comes a spark of hope, a hint of joy, a ray of light. It’s a new life for me as I face the future, but who’s to say it won’t be good? The cover of ash is being replaced by a fresh crop of optimism. No, it will never be the same. My children and I are facing a future without our anchor, but we are gradually emerging from the cloud of ash and are beginning to see potential ahead. God is revealing to us a new future with new hopes and dreams. It’s been there all along, really. He knew that, knows it now, but is giving us evidence of it one day at a time, as we are able to understand, accept. All we have to do is believe and trust.

Beauty out of ashes. New life in spite of death.

It’s nothing short of a miracle.





Finding Joy

10 02 2014

The trim white houses stretch as far as I can see, clones set in a row like soldiers at attention. Each yard is manicured, each drive an exact replica of the others. Mailboxes have no numbers to distinguish one from the rest. Panic overtakes me. Where is he?

I’ve knocked on dozens of doors, but there’s no answer. I’m frantic. Not a soul is in sight—no children playing in the yard, no fathers mowing lawns or trimming hedges, not a single car to be seen on the road. Fear constricts my throat as I try to call his name, but I have no voice. The stillness is eerie. I hurry on, searching for him somewhere on this endless street, searching, searching. Where is he?

I awaken with a start, my heart pounding as my eyes dart around the room. I see the familiar tie-back curtains, the floral throw pillows on the chair. My heart begins to slow, panic recedes, and I tell myself it was just a dream. Slowly, I rise, pull on my robe. It’s Saturday morning. The coffee will be on in the kitchen, the day ours to plan.

But then reality shoves aside my normal, and I’m forced to remember. That comfortable routine is forever gone. My husband isn’t going to be there, and coffee won’t be waiting for me. My normal will never be normal again, at least not in the old way.

He died. That’s the short version of the story. Grief has taken over my days and my nights, all aspects of my life, and it has changed everything. Forever. He’s gone.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I can remember. My parents endured a cruel war in the Netherlands before they brought our family to America in search of a better life, and their first years here were hard. We had little money, but there was an abundance of faith. I remember my father whistling hymns, my mother singing them, sometimes in Dutch and other times in English. I suppose you could say I inherited my faith. I didn’t question God in those formative years. But it didn’t feel real then the way it does now.

Much later, when life began to happen, the soul searching began in earnest. When my daughter was ten, her best friend, Shelly, died of cancer after a long, painful battle. She spent her last three months in the hospital, basically waiting to die, and it was heart-wrenching to see that brave little girl be so sick. I would scream at God with tears streaming down my face on my way to the hospital and again on the way back. I cried, I yelled, I questioned. I was so angry.

God was silent. And Shelly died. How do you reconcile that with the God who loves us?

I researched the word grief. Book after book gave me the clinical “steps of grief.” If I went through the steps, I decided, then I would be done. But you know what? I never dealt with it. Instead, I allowed my anger and frustration to stuff the grief and then I smugly walked away. All better.

As I look back now I see that God was laying groundwork for me, preparing for this day more than thirty years later. I’m learning to lean in to my grief instead of ignoring it. My husband is gone. I won’t see him again until the day I go to heaven. But God is never going to leave me. It took several months for me to learn this lesson. Initially I was angry, depressed, filled with pure black pain.

There was a glint of hope every now and then, but most of the time I was bleeding grief. Words don’t penetrate that kind of pain, but I found that music can. Slowly, as I heard the words of praise songs I had come to love, the message began to make sense. God loves me. He’s right there beside me, showing the way, holding me up when I can’t walk the path.

I don’t know the why of my husband’s death. But there’s a much bigger picture here than I can see. It’s like that giant tapestry that looks like a tangled mess from below. When you see the right side, the beauty of it is breath-taking. Someday I’ll see the finished tapestry, and I’ll understand. But in the meantime, my job is to trust.

I read somewhere the phrase, “The work of grief.” It’s an appropriate description of a hard event. Yes, grief is hard work, but it can also be something holy. Grief is my way of honoring my husband. It honors the 49 years he was part of my life, it shows evidence of his importance to me.

Make no mistake, it’s messy. It hurts. Sometimes it strangles. Nothing about it is easy. But I’m learning a new meaning to the word joy. It’s not a sense of happiness, or fun. Joy has a much deeper meaning, a gift God gives us if we accept it. Joy is that sense of peace that even on the most painful days, even in “the valley of the shadow of death,” we are not alone.

I’m working through my grief, not just for the loss of my husband, but for the loss of Shelly all those years ago. I don’t expect to get over it. True grief never leaves you. But those sharp edges that cut at you begin to wear down, and gradually the pain dulls and recedes. In its place you begin to feel peace, thankfulness. Grief becomes a companion, always there, but in a good way. And you learn to feel joy.

You see, God knew grief, too. When His son died on the cross, God’s grief was magnified beyond our comprehension. But He did it for love, and who are we to question that?

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.





Thoughts on a Morning Breeze

8 08 2013

Maple leaves

Maple leaves


As I sit on my deck, a single maple leaf quivers and shifts on the newly sealed floor, the drop of rain from last night’s shower shimmering as it glides off the edge. I watch, mesmerized, as the leaf lifts, floats for a second, and settles back into a new spot. It no longer has life, and yet it moves from place to place, carried by the early morning breeze.

It’s an amazing thing, that little bit of motion caused by something invisible. I look up into the tree and I see movement everywhere–every leaf, branch and seed pod is gently swaying because of the light wind. Raindrops roll off and fall on my arm. Shadows dance with the sun, making an ever-changing, abstract pattern on the deck.

Life is like that. Ever changing, never the same, unpredictable. That’s what makes it so beautiful, all those little surprises unveiled each day if only we stop and allow ourselves to see them. Sure, it can also be a harsh reality when the unexpected is painful and debilitating. I learned that lesson when my husband died unexpectedly in March. At those times it is impossible to see beyond right now, but out of that pain comes something salvageable and precious.

Once again that recurring theme of perspective comes to mind. I’m not an advocate of pain. Pain is, well, painful. But I was born with my father’s optimistic temperament, and I choose to believe that out of my pain there will come something beautiful. Maybe it will be in the form of a new friendship borne out of that pain. Maybe it will be a stronger relationship with and appreciation for my children and my friends. Maybe it will be a renewed faith and dependency on my God, the author of that breeze. Maybe it will be all of those things, and maybe it will take a long time to discover. But I believe it will come.

A small gust of wind picks up the leaf and blows it away. As I watch it swirl and dip and disappear, I feel a spark of something unexpected pass through me. Joy. There is so much to be thankful for. And joy doesn’t preclude pain, a lesson I learned a long time ago. It’s a state of mind. I look forward to the day I can see the other side of my grief, but in the meantime that sense of joy remains. Life does go on, it does still have unexpected beauty in it, and it does change every day.

I recently added a line to my email signature. It says: Spend each day as if it is your last.
I tend to barrel through my days, trying to pack in the items on my to-do list. I’m beginning to realize that it’s a coping mechanism, that maybe I need to slow down in order to appreciate those small things. If today is my last day, may it be filled with little sparks of joy.