grief

Forty Days Til’ Forty, Day 8: When We Walk Alongside the Grieving

The last few weeks have been an exercise in digesting bad news. Several friends, family of colleagues, and just downright good people who have graced my path have left this world all too soon, abruptly so. A friend posted an article about grief that I think is tremendously helpful in considering how to be present with those we love in their grief.

I am reminded of the first night I was alone in the rental house my now-ex-husband and I had lived in briefly before the tumultuous end of our marriage. He had moved out, and I was alone in a city and state that were far from ever feeling like home. I was consumed by grief as I walked into the closet where he’d cleared out his clothes. I could not imagine life beyond that moment. My childhood friend, Melissa, spent the evening lingering on the phone with me as I digested my reality. I will never forget her presence with me on the other end of the telephone line.

Grief comes packaged in all different shapes and sizes. There is no sense comparing whether yours is worse than mine. We lose even more in the moment we make sorrow a competition. May we, instead, learn to be with one another when we are without the one we’ve lost. I think this guy says it so well.

 

Undertow

On one of my early independent jaunts as a kid into the Atlantic Ocean, I got my first taste of salt water. Gagging and coughing, I wasn’t sure why I felt like I might throw up.  I had lost my footing and was sucked into the current of the sea.  I’m sure I hadn’t drifted too far out, but it didn’t take much for the force of the tide to pull my string-bean frame out further than I’d planned. I was old enough not to be trailed by an overly concerned parent but young enough not to be the best judge of how far was too far. So I learned the hard way, as we often do, just what they meant by undertow.

Undertow. That force that moves in opposition, always there, imperceptibly so. Threatening. Challenging anyone who ventures in to call its bluff.

A couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by an interview on CBS This Morning with a psychiatrist father and his comedian daughter. They were pitching their new book to the media, “F*ck Feelings.” What drew me in was the suggestion that we must accept our complicated feelings and difficult life circumstances, despite how we might feel about them. There are some things that, no matter how much we might wish were different, just will not ever, not never, change or go away. Sometimes feelings are what they are. We can’t feel our way out of them but must learn to live with them, around them, in spite of them. And not just live but, rather, live well and love ourselves for trying.

I’ve been divorced over two years now, and still, I wonder when I won’t feel sad. After all, that sadness puts me in conflict with all the goodness that has flowed into my life since then. Grief still lingers. Just when I am not sad about one thing, I become sad over another. Sadness remains because each day carries a paradox for me– the challenge of living well but outside the boundaries of my values. The undertow of that loss sometimes threatens to pull me out to sea. I live with, and I live without every day.  I live with the hope that emerges when something new comes to life. But I live without the dreams I’d set out for in the first chapter. And when I’m caught in the undertow, I doubt whether I can get where I want to get at all.

I woke up one morning, wondering just where God was in all this sadness, not just my own but, also, yours. Ours. We all live with. And we live without.  Yet, therein is the very conflict that leaves room for the divine to make all things beautiful. The very notion that this will take time and things will be made beautiful points ever-so-subtly to the fact that they didn’t start out that way. We are with, and we are without every day.

Feelings are just that–feelings. They come, and they go. They’re wobbly and unreliable. They’re like scattered Legos on bare feet in the dark. They can trip you up. Or, just when you think you’re going to take a quick dip, they pull you under. Though we might not be able to master of our feelings, we can master how we handle them. We can choose to live well and make it our quest to find as many ways as possible to do so. And when sadness rears its head or disappointment nestles in beside us, we can celebrate the endeavor we’re on, the blood, sweat, and tears we’ve shed to get beyond it.

Feelings tell us something about ourselves–what we value, what we’ve lost, and what we ultimately long for. They need not drag us down. We may find ourselves being pulled under. Yet, if we can yield for a moment to the pull, the emotional swell can come and go without sucking us completely under. And in the miracle that is learning to swim, we may soon find that our deepest aches give way to joy.

Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Psalm 30:5 NRSV

Rally For Hope

Slamming the door to ensure it was closed tightly, I secured the lock and sat back in my velvety, maroon-colored seat. I was humbled by this responsibility, palms sweating at the tiniest bit of daylight that occasionally made its way through the sealed door. Dad shouted, “ALL CLEAR!” just before firing up the engine to get the propeller spinning on the front of the plane. We all sat in our usual spots; Dad in the pilot’s seat; my oldest brother up front as the co-pilot; me facing my youngest brother; who sat next to my mom, facing my middle brother who sat next to my right. We were boxed in and ready to go wherever Dad had planned–a business trip to Boston, New York City, a stop in Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa or one memorable journey crossing the expanse of water between the tip of Florida and the Keys.

The air plane was fodder for memories of childhood friends throwing up due to air sickness not previously mentioned before we took flight and the science of determining whether a winter coat doth a good barf bag make; for hypothetical ponderings about the harrowing landing I could pull off in the case of a mid-flight emergency; and the cold winter night, just before Christmas my dad let me have the controls as we descended into Tennessee to pick up my grandmother so she could come spend Christmas with us.

From one summer to the next, we packed our soft-sided luggage and flew from Missouri to Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Canada, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and so on for fishing trips, family camps, beach vacations, and, in the case of my family, many golf outings. And while I’ve received some degree of hassling over the years from my club-wielding family about my disdain for golf, one thing wasn’t lost on me.

Only a year or so prior to the purchase of our infamous Cherokee 2174 Sierra, as I remember it being called, my second brother had suffered from a near-fatal brain tumor that brought our family all too close to the edge of what could have been a tragic loss. For my parents, this would have been a third hit, in the wake of losing their first child just weeks before she was to be born and their second to a tragic drowning three weeks before his third birthday. My parents were all too familiar with such heart ache.

And much to the chagrin of the kids in my neighborhood who hailed us as being “rich,” the airplane was more of a way to shake our veritable finger at the suffering that life brings than any show of wealth. My Dad decided to seize the day; to be grateful for the resources that enabled us with the opportunity to do so by flying across the country on family vacations that we would not have otherwise taken and to live a dream that he had to be a pilot because, after all, each of us only has today. As life would have it, he sold the plane on the heels of losing his job my freshman year of high school, but the memories had already been made, good memories.

I was thinking of this mid-lunch today with a dear friend as we talked about life and the meaning of suffering, how basically, there is no meaning to be found in suffering alone. Instead, we impose meaning upon it–to get through it, over it, beyond it. We keep living in the face of pain and death, heartbreak and loss because life is still there to be lived even in loss, even in struggle.

She shared of the power we have to change our story as she had done herself. When facing the declining health and death of her brother in a way all-too-familiar to how she had lost her own father at a young age, she chose to change the story and the inner dialogue that she’d known the first time around. No longer was she a victim of life’s circumstances but, instead, a cancer-survivor herself who could lovingly support her nephews as they faced the loss of their dad. She recognized the power to change her story and re-wrote her response to the hardships that life was throwing her family’s way. Even recently, in her own recurrence of cancer, she shared of the presence of God with her when she had good reason to feel very alone.

There is no meaning in suffering, no meaning that arises alone. Meaning is made. Meaning is found by looking, not by passively letting grief and life’s disappointments settle in around us to take captive our dreams. We find meaning in reaching out to others outside of our pain to meet them in theirs. We rally for beauty to rear its head in the aftermath of our agony. We rally for joy to follow in the wake of our losses. There is light. At the end of the tunnel, there is still life. Everything doesn’t happen for just any reason. We are the reason for which everything happens, to awaken us to life in all its forms, even the life we find in death, in hardship, in loss and disappointments.

All of this circled right back around to the memory of my dad buying that plane, not your everyday purchase. We can each make a gesture, be it large or small, to live outside of our pain, to recognize the gifts that are right before us both in relationships and resources, to live life regardless of our circumstances. And in the moment we do this, we open the door to opportunities we cannot know until they are had. But they are endless; and they are beautiful. Rally for them.