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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When you’re grieving, hope is the thing that carries you.

I keep having this vision in my head. 

I’m outside, walking. 

The sky is gray and wild. It’s raining, and the wind is battering my face as I ascend upward,  my feet digging into the side of a hill. I’m alone, surrounded by walls of gray above me and green before me. As I reach the top, I look to the closed, storming sky that is spilling out for miles above the rising slopes, unfolding in gray upon gray, cloud upon cloud.

And I shout. 

I scream. 

At first, it’s just blistering shouts of anger barely puncturing the air as it feels like I am heaving every drop of malice that I have ever stored up inside of me out into this great precipice of nothing. I scream because it feels like there is nothing good in me anymore, so why not unleash the torrent of bitterness that’s locked inside of me.

At first, I feel relief. 

Before long, though, the relief fades and the shouts turn to haggard wails as hot tears begin to pour out of me like the rain from the clouds on high. 

When I have released every drop of venom that I possibly can, the howls start, and I can’t stop. I crumple to the ground as the rain is still pouring, the wind now lapping angrily at the sides of my face. Now, I feel naked against the indifferent gray sprawl in front of me as the sorrows pour out openly from me the way the rivers dump into the ocean.

The way it feels like it is always going to be. 

Then I snap out of it. 

This is a confrontation, the one I want to have with God. In my mind, I feel huge as I march myself up that hill. I know what I’m going to say. I have been keeping score, and I know the ways that I have been wronged, and I assuredly climb to the top to receive my just recompense.

I will make someone answer for each offense that I have kept note of.

But when I finally stand at the top, and I let my full-throated anger and indignation loose, I realize that my screams are barely even audible over the wind and rain. I realize that my aching is but a dot against the horizon. A drop of rain into the ocean.

I finally feel like I am nothing. 

We went to the beach a few weeks ago, and my three children each had different perceptions of the ocean. One felt free when he was rushing headlong  into the waves. Another inched further and further out from shore the more comfortable and confident she got. And then there was the littlest, who did not trust me at first. 

As she stood looking out and registering the size of the ocean and her place among everything, she realized truly how small she is. She shrank back as the waves foamed at her ankles. But I was there, behind her, assuring her that I would keep her safe. 

She swallowed salt water a few times, and was sent spilling over backwards a few more. But she learned to navigate the inward and then outward flow of the water, and found my hands to hold on to when she knew that she needed to.

She still fell. She still cried. But in she went.

Now, God has His back pressed to me as I sit in the church pew indifferent and miles away and angry. And He says that he is looking out after me. No, He says that He moves before me, in ways that split seas open to guard my steps.

I will never be carried away, even though right now I want to be. I want to escape to where I don’t feel watched, so that I can unfurl these clenched fists in secret, and let hostility spill out of me.

For all of my inward thrashing, there is still nothing I can do. 

In other moments, I have a different vision of me. 

I’m climbing the same face of the same hill. My steps are still heavy, my grief still real. The face of the sky still upon me, and, yes, still angry. The sadness and enmity are still turning over and over inside of me. 

When I reach the top this time, carrying with me all of the losses and wrongs that I have tallied, at that moment, as I see the gray spilling out infinitely in front of me, those numbers are suddenly lost to the great expanse of everything, to the miles upon miles that we tread if we are fortunate enough.

Instead of hurling venom, this time I just say thank you into the wind. And while that quiet thank you is just a whisper, my shaky eucharisteo is carried beyond the wall of gray.

And suddenly, the pain that’s wrapped itself around my hurting heart is paled in comparison to hope. 

The anger that poured out of me before fell sharply to the ground like stones, but my thanks has wings, it’s the thing that carries me for miles beyond the storm. Disentangling wildly over hills of calamity, uncertainty and chaos. 

Hope is the thing that carries you.

Hope is the thing that carried our cross up a different hill, transcending veils between creator and man, past and future, life and death.

A cross borne into the back of the One, stinging him with each step, each strike, each nail. And with each step tread, marking the Earth in His suffering, He says that as we so suffer, He has suffered along with us before us. And surely He suffered the cost of hope more greatly than we.

Hope is sometimes the thing that hurts.

But hope is also the thing that saves. 

 

The Middle

I’m a middle child.

And there were times where I straight up hated being in the middle when I was growing up. 

I wasn’t old enough to be the one proudly trumpeting, “mom put me in charge!” over the  unfolding chaos or even the television remote. Then at age seven, I became a reluctant big sister, and was promptly cast aside to make way for the “runt” of the litter (sorry, little sister.)

I had to vacate my mom’s lap, and share her affections with the tiny thing that pooped and shrieked seemingly nonstop. I had no authority, or so I was reminded of by my older “mom said so!” sister, and I didn’t get the luxury of being babied because, “mommy can’t right now.”

It was not the tops. 

The middle is dangerous ground. 

Lukewarm bathwater. The middle seat on an airplane. You get the idea.

Nobody likes the middle. Save for the middle of a tootsie pop or Oreos. When it comes to food, the center can hold delicious surprises if we just keep at it. But in the context of adulting and life? No one really likes the middle. Being in the middle means being in transition. 

And people like the idea of transition possibly even less than they do the middle.

I’m in the middle right now.

I’m the woman in labor, fighting the terror in her body, willing herself not to push because it isn’t time yet. Breathe it out. Just wait for the release. Let what’s going to happen happen. I can’t see that light at the end of the tunnel through the pain and disenchantment. It’s real. The fear. All of it. 

Guys, I am so scared. 

I am learning a new way to be. A new way to see things. Even though I know that things really aren’t all that different than they were before. What was true yesterday is going to be truth tomorrow even if my insides have been eviscerated. My dad is gone. I miss him so, so much. But his love is as true today as it was when he was here, in the body, still with me. What’s different now is that he’s gone.

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What’s different after all that is me.

It’s like the aftermath of a comet striking the Earth. A volcanic eruption. A raging wildfire. The Earth is not even settled yet from the harsh, shattering, indiscriminate destruction. Because it’s not time. It’s not time to be okay. 

There isn’t release. Not yet. 

While I’m still sorting through the rubble North is still North, but it’s just not time to move on yet.  

When we bought our old house, we had the backyard tilled and grated. There was so much junk back there that we filled an entire rolloff dumpster and still had some left over.

That was more than eight years ago. 

Occasionally, on warm days when we are enjoying barefoot afternoons, we notice new remnants and relics poking through the dirt. Glass. Bolts and screws. Small bottles. Rusted pieces of copper even. 

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The Earth is purging itself slowly as feet disturb the dirt, as the rains wash away more soil. It’s cleansing itself.

My children see hidden treasures when they find something new to explore with a magnifying glass and I have to strain to see it through their eyes. I see something that was once useful, but not anymore. Something we don’t need to keep and that should committed to the trash can for fear of tetanus. 

Sometimes, though, we find something worth saving. 

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We separate the useless from the useful, the things worth saving from the things we don’t need anymore. It’s this slow process, this waiting for something to emerge. You clean what you can the best you can, and still, next year when the spring rains return, more that’s hidden will be revealed. And we will sort. 

Now is the time for sorting. And remembering. And for hurting. 

It’s the middle. 

It’s terrifying. It’s real. 

I’m worried that nothing good will ever come out of me again. When will I remember who, and what I am? 

We are here now. In the aftermath. And we know that brokenness will bring new life. 

It’s just not time for that. 

Not yet.