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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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.





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.





And Then Everything Shifted

23 07 2013

Little did I know on the morning of March 17 that my world was about to crash. It was a gorgeous, sunny Sunday, Saint Patrick’s Day. I had addressed perspective in a couple of my previous posts, a topic that seemed appropriate in light of the book review I had done on The Sunflower by Floris Bakels, and that morning I had just posted ‘On Knitting Your Life.’

Perspective. It has a whole new meaning today, just over four months later. And I realize that the true meaning today is so different from the one I so glibly explained then, because my whole world has imploded.

It was to be a short run, getting back into the routine of training for a marathon–the third one in four years. Half marathons had become cop-outs, he insisted. Do it all or do nothing. So he went for his run. I decided to read, catch up on the news in the Sunday Press, and work on my Words With Friends. He didn’t come home the time I had estimated, but maybe he’d stopped to chat with someone, or possibly he’d had a cramp. I heard a siren at around three-fifteen and briefly wondered where it was and what it was about, but then went on with my reading. At quarter after four I was worried enough to get into my car and look for him. He was nowhere to be seen, and I could just imagine him showering when I returned home and laughing at me for my alarm. But there was something. . .

Home again, and still he wasn’t there. I took a breath and dialed the hospital. And that siren. . . but no, it wasn’t anything. The woman in emergency took my information, asked a few questions, and put me on hold, and then a man’s voice came on. A policeman. And I knew.

The rest of the day is a blur. A massive heart attack, no vital signs, no blood pressure, all this after several efforts to bring him back. They did everything right. But now everything is wrong, and it will never revert to the way it was.

Grief is a monster. It rears its ugly head every day, some days sinking its teeth in and causing excruciating pain. My husband is gone. Even saying the words out loud doesn’t make it seem real. Maybe time will heal, but I doubt that the hole will ever be filled in the way he filled it. My whole world has shifted, and it doesn’t feel right.

At the funeral my son-in-law said, “Death sucks.” That about sums it up. My hope is that I will be able to bring something positive to this blog in the near future as I look back at this dark time, but it’s hard to see the light while you are still in the dark. I hope the saying is true–“it’s always darkest before the dawn.” I look forward to the dawn.

I am blessed to have a strong faith, one that allows me to know my husband is in heaven and that I will one day see him there. Though that will never take away the pain of grief, it does give me some comfort, and I have witnessed firsthand the power of being on the receiving end of prayer for these past months. Family and friends are such a gift.

Here’s my advice: Cherish each and every day as if it is your last. If it’s not, you are truly fortunate.