Grief is not the end of you

I’ve been trapped in the same hospital room for a year.

I can still see the two rows of glass standing guard on either side of me, my fractured reflection in each pane as I walked past the silent sadness in each room. Doors and windows and off white curtains running into each other down a beige hallway. Dated floor tiles with brown specks become a river as the smell of antiseptic and thin cotton perfumed the air.

I can tell each hospital I have visited over the last ten years apart by the aesthetics Even though they all seem the same to me now. Even if it doesn’t matter anymore.

On my worst days, this is where I end up.

I replay this scene, and many others, over and over again in a devastating loop. And I hate myself for it. For being so weak.

A long road with nine years of hospital stays, visitor badges, and frantic phone calls that came late at night or early in the morning. How else would bad news travel save for 6 a.m. Sunday morning phone calls or 11 p.m. texts on a Tuesday? The faintly blue walls and fake flowers on side tables in hospital hallways were like lipstick on a pig.

Because no one could ever assure us that it would get any better.

It was a slow siphoning. A meandering descent.

Like a giant bucket full of water, with a minuscule hole drilled in the bottom, we didn’t notice the changes at first. We didn’t notice that the silver thread of my father’s life was nearly gone until one day it suddenly was. But we had silently been careening to that moment for nearly a decade.

And still, we weren’t ready for the impact.

On my worst days, I’m back by his side, swallowing a brick of tears and burning anguish as we all waited for the lines on his monitor to flatten and anger singed a bitter blister inside of me.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted him to stay or go, to keep holding on or to infinitely release, even though that had been his life for the last decade. Even though I had already asked that of him again and again. I couldn’t ask that from him even once more because he had done all of that, and more. What else can a father give?

On my best days, I remember that it won’t always be this way.

After his funeral, we made our way to a familiar small, sandy beach. The sky churned in a wild sea of gray, the clouds turning over like a river of lava, like they were hot and flowing until they piled on top of one another, building something unknown. The water was murky. The grainy sand bone white as it crunched beneath our feet.

Somehow, the fact that it was a less than ideal day that we had chosen to spread his ashes was actually comforting.

I’m new to this grief thing.

Before that day, I had thought that maybe, by the time we stood at the edge of the water he loved so much and let him go, eight months and a few mornings after he had left us, that it would begin to feel like true closure. When in truth, letting go of some of the last tangible pieces of him was a painful act more than it was transcendent.

The day was a confusing mess of gray, rain that spit from the sky, and winds that churned the waters below. The air stung our faces, and we let him go into something wild. We gave him over to the uncertainty, and that seemed to make a modicum of sense after eight months of being confused over how someone can truly be gone.

It didn’t mean that it was over. But it meant that we began to accept that truth of the matter. That we all fade, no matter what. That those around us will fade, and we might have to be here to watch. That life was still infinitely mysterious in its at times unforgiving nature. But in the tangled web of uncertainty and beauty, something beautiful still throbs even when we are broken. In darkness, something hopeful and light pulses even still.

We accepted the inevitable that we couldn’t escape. But by setting him free into the mist, right in the middle of it, we agreed that we were trying to figure it out. To discover our way through it. To make peace with everything.

I sat on that same beach, two months later. On Father’s Day.

Aviator shades on, shoulders out, freckled skin hot, the weather and the day could not have been any more different. This was my first time back to that same place, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. Or in what state I would find myself.

Only on that day, in the place of my sorrow months before, I wasn’t alone on the beach. Families lounging on plastic chairs and beach blankets dotted the shore. People played in the warm and clear water. I found a spot beneath a tree and sat. Watching.

You would never have believed this was the same place.

I took my children swimming yesterday. Three busy bodied children in fluorescent swimsuits stood at the edge of the shore. The older two hesitantly let the water lap around their ankles, while my third child alligator crawled through the water, the soft sand pillowing under her knees.

My two oldest were afraid of the jelly fish. They were afraid of what they could not see. My youngest child hardly took notice of their worries, instead enjoying herself on a perfect day.

She hasn’t learned to be afraid yet. She just dives right in – to anything.

I assured my children that I was watching over them. That the waters were clearer than they thought. That they were safe. From jellyfish, from waves and all manner of scaled and clawed sea creatures.

They doubted me, while my youngest continued her fun, soaking up the moments and almost becoming too brave as she inched further out.

I marveled at how brave we are before we learn to be afraid.

I realized that I might never be like that again.

 

I remember being like them. Being stung by a jellyfish hidden in the gray waters. Rocked over by the waves until I swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater. Raw wounds on my shoulders and knees as the ocean flung me back and then began to pull me out again.

I remember feeling helpless. So many times in the last year, I have felt so helpless.

How weak we feel when life mercilessly knocks us to our knees. How it clutches  at us and shakes us until the air is ripped from our lungs. How it rubs us raw even while we still suffer. We feel small, like will never be brave again. Like we couldn’t ever be again even if we had the choice.

But really, it is after life has shaken us, has devastated us, has reminded us that its language was always uncertainty, that we should feel the most brave.

Grief is a torch that will only light our steps so much.

But it is peace the illuminates the way.

Grief is not the end of us.

Even as we make bedfellows with it for many days in the dark. Even as we begin to comfortably wear it. Even as we swallow it, hold it close to ourselves and count it only as ours.

I’ve marked my grief these last twelve months. I’ve made it my own, unwilling to share it. To talk about it. To expose it would leave me helpless. It has become a shield, something to wield. As I let myself cower behind it. As I try to forgive myself over and over again for feeling so weak that I can’t move forward. When I tell myself that I can’t. I can’t move on from when he left me. What if my life is unrecognizable without him? What might he think? 

How does one move on without a place for the ones they have lost?

Grief is a torch that shows us the path, but it is peace that illuminates the way ahead. It is peace that compels us to move and find our footing again. It is peace that wills us to be brave. It is peace that tells us that we must trust the uncertainty.

One day, I pray I will be far away from that room. Where our bodies were crowded close together. Where we held his hands and whispered to him as we silently prayed that maybe he heard us one last time. That he heard us tell him that it was okay, that we weren’t going to ask him to stay one more time.

Peace tells me that grief isn’t the end. My ashes become an adornment. The thin soot of my pain. It tells me that fire can be both devastating and cleansing, and that death can make the things left behind beautiful. It can be a catalyst. The fire that sparks. The end is only the beginning, for him in eternity and now for me, still on Earth.

Grief is the end of the chapter. But not the story.

Not of me.

 

 

 

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No One Said It Was Going to Be Easy

The walls were lavender. 

The room is hued in a smokey purple as the autumn sun set. And the back of my hand finds my mouth, as the gasps pour out of me. 

I’ve contained them all day. Slowly being worn down under their weight, until I couldn’t contain them any longer. I breathed through them like contractions when sitting at a stop light, hands clutching the steering wheel. I swallowed them when scrolling through my social media feeds. 

Now, finally standing still, undistracted by anything in particular, I had stopped, and they started. 

I’m so scared right now. 

You probably don’t have to search your minds for very long as to what may have happened this week that would leave so many reeling. 

But it’s more than that. 

It’s the reactions after. Such anger. Such pain. 

This is not a place I, or anyone else, thought we would ever find ourselves in. Not a place we want to stay. Or, perhaps it is. Because this will eventually be comfortable. This place won’t challenge us.

But this place, if we linger here too long, will change us. 

My dad died in August. And I know that something so personal can seem so unrelated to all of this mess. But that pain has colored my world for the last nearly three months. It has shaded in areas I didn’t expect; drawn the light out in others that I never before appreciated. 

And I realize that…we all have such bigger things to worry about. 

Because there is something bigger than what’s dominating the news headlines right now. 

Since my dad left me holding his hand, beside a hospital bed, alone in a room for just a few minutes before I had to leave him for the last time, I have tried to decide what I was going to do with this time that I had left. 

Somewhere in there, in this fragmented mind, I made this solemn vow to love people. Wherever I could go. And what that looks like for each person, each situation, might be different.

But if I chose this path wholeheartedly, it might never change anyone else; but it could certainly change me. 

My pain is different than those of the marginalized. Those who are worried about putting food on the table. Those who are worried about whether or not they will have the chance to love the person of their choosing. Those who find themselves in unexpected predicaments, and are faced with hard choices. 

And yet, our pain, our hurt, is the same. Because we feel alone. We feel like it separates us out; makes us different in unpleasant ways. It makes us feel like we are scarred. It makes us feel like we aren’t whole.

Unwanted. Unheard. Under-valued. Unseen. 

I’ve carried this tornado inside of me for almost three months. Every time, I think I have made it through some of the hardest parts, something new tells me that I’m wrong. Like the fact that no one else in my family really cares for cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, except for my dad. And he won’t be here. And there won’t be cranberry sauce. 

It makes me want to give up.

The last two days have been one of those times that it makes me want to give up. Such divides. Such contempt. 

What is the point?

I told my dad, in my secret heart, that I would try to use the days ahead for something good, something better; that wasn’t about me. 

And then I see the vitriol at its angriest, words burning red in my eyes from a screen. And I wonder what the point really even is?

I sat on my stair case today, that sun still meandering its way down the sky. My children knowing something was wrong as my insides turned out again, when I just wanted to tell someone that I hurt so, so bad, about so many things. 

And the words whispered into my ear: no one said this would ever be easy. 

It’s easy to love people when they are lovable.

When it detracts the least possible amount of energy and expenditure on our parts. It’s the times when people are wildly unapproachable that we must seek to love the hardest. Or else…we aren’t really loving them, are we? We wouldn’t be living by a mantra to tolerate and accept others if we back down when it would be really, really easy to. 

We would be giving in to pain. And if we stay here long enough, a single angst ridden track on repeat, the pain won’t ultimately change. But we will. 

There are days to fold up inside of ourselves, and give up. 

But we can’t. We just can’t.

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Slowly Learning About Grief

By all serious accounts, I am very much new to the “club” when it comes to grief. 

It’s been just over a month since my life turned upside down.

I lost my grandfather and my father within a week’s time. In both cases, both men had been dealing with serious, long-term illnesses. And yet both of them passing away happened about as quickly, and as unexpectedly, as you could consider it to be, even despite their declining health. 

Once a person who thought she had a grasp on the happenings of life, I realize that I am now being schooled in something entirely new: profound grief.

Being leveled doesn’t even begin to describe any of what’s still happening to me, to my family. As a blogger, I’m doing the one thing that I can to retain my sanity in bits and pieces: I’m writing.

Truly, the outpouring from those around me has been tremendous. When in comes to the abundance of prayers and steadfast loyalty of those around me, I could not be richer. 

Still. When it comes to processing everything that has happened, while facing days ahead filled with constant reminders of what has happened, I feel very much on my own. 

Here are truths I am slowly learning about grief:

 

You will feel like you weren’t enough

How many conversations or memories have I played back in my head over the last few weeks? The last time we watched Fourth of July fireworks together. The last time we carved pumpkins. The last phone call. The last time I said goodbye, completely unaware that the world was about to cave in.

I couldn’t tell you the number. 

How I wish I could have made those last goodbyes something more. How I wish I could have given one more hug, one more kiss on the forehead. How I wish I could pick up the phone and talk about the weather, the kids or the migrating geese flocking overhead that mark the change of the season. 

I judge myself as a daughter and granddaughter based on the actions of the last few weeks, when the truth is that perfect goodbyes don’t always exist. In our case, we were lucky enough to gather at the bedsides of those men we loved to pray over them, and love them into the next life.

That is more than so many get, I know. 

To dissect the tiniest fragments and pieces of our lives together does us no favors. When I look back over the years though, in both cases, I am fortunate to be able to say that in each moment, I loved them both as best I could. 

The feeling of not being enough is a lie, the inner workings of an enemy bent on our destruction. I wasn’t supposed to be “enough” for them. I could only be their child, their grandchild. For every shortcoming, the love between us, and the love that is still left behind, can be the salve for nearly every bruise if we let it. 

 

You can’t rewrite what’s happened

There are moments I’m not proud of. There are moments where I failed my dad, and those shortcoming are sometimes an angry slap across my face when I’m laying awake in the middle of the night, wondering what I could have done differently.

“You don’t get to make up most of your story. You get to make peace with it.”

– Ann Voskamp

The last few weeks have served as a stark reminder that I, we, are not in control.

We wonder if maybe by some action of our own we could have changed everything if we had said or done something different; been different. One of the worst things that we can do is believe that we somehow could have changed everything if we had only…

Grief is a nuanced thing. At times, I’m learning, you put yourself on trial. And you are your own worst accuser. Because maybe if you had picked up the phone more, said you were sorry sooner, seen what was coming around the bend, you could have controlled the outcome. Which just isn’t true. 

It’s a road we shouldn’t even tempt ourselves to go down. Easier said than done in some of our darkest moments, but no less true. What’s happened is what’s happened.

What might bring us eventual healing is trying to make peace with it.

 

There is no such thing as perfect goodbyes, because there is no such thing as perfect people.

We gathered around my dad’s bedside as his life was slipping away, and tears quietly rolled down our cheeks. We played The Beatles for him, held his hands while they were still warm, and watched the lines on the monitor flatten while all of our insides hurt beyond the telling of it. 

We were with him when he transitioned. As much as it hurt, and though it didn’t feel at all like it, those last moments were an extraordinary gift that I will never forget.

Still, afterwards my mind couldn’t help but almost immediately sprint towards all of the unresolved things that still lingered. All of the things that I had had faith would be satisfied before this time came. The things that hurt. I was piling pain upon pain until it almost crushed me. 

I thought we’d all have a chance to individually make peace with everything, and with each other. So much has happened in our lives during the last ten years as he grew sicker and sicker. In that slow unraveling for him, we all lashed out at one another out of fear and pain. Before that even, we had all failed each other magnificently at one point or another.

About two years ago, I wrote my dad a note and left it in his hospital room as I was leaving, after he had drifted off to sleep. In it, I thought I told him everything I had ever wanted to. It seemed premature, but I felt that it was something that needed to be done. Still, just two years later, there are hundreds of words that I wish I could have told him before the end finally came. 

I imagine that’s how the rest of my days will be. We are no longer a phone call or short drive away from each other. And every trivial thing that happens in my day is something that I will always wish I could share with him.

I mostly just wish I could tell him how much I miss him. 

I don’t know if that final goodbye will ever come to feel like the final period at the end of a sentence. I don’t know if the days ever turn from feeling like my mind is an endless, churning river, upturning stones after stones to see what I find. I don’t know if I will ever feel like myself again. Then again, what is normal even after loss?

I just know now that my job is to let it be.

 

Though the temptation to hang on, want more, do more will always be palpable, I know that for me, for all of us, the two men that we have lost would wish on us a life spent chasing the sun, welcoming the future and all the gifts that it holds. 

 

Indeed, the future could never hope to be as bright if they weren’t here before to light the way.