It’s been three and a half years since Jim died. I haven’t really talked about it much because, well, what would I even say. It’s all so tender and fragile and holy. It’s been three and a half years since we all stood around his bed and said goodbye. None of us wanted to, but we had no choice. So we did. I stood in the back of the room because I didn’t think I had a right to stand closer. He was my uncle. Not my brother. Not my partner. My uncle. I didn’t have a right to be up close as he took his last breaths so I stood in the back and held mine. In that cold hospital room, with the stupid blue chair and the horrible view of the roof and the air conditioning units I watched him die. And some of me died there too.
Parts of me that believed that life was good and right and real died that day when the most real person I ever knew stopped living and left us all there to figure out why the hell it happened. Even now as I write these words I still have no idea. You know how sometimes you look back on things that have happened and say, “so THAT’S why that happened. I understand now.” Three and a half years later I still can’t make sense of it. And maybe that’s just it. There isn’t a reason. He died because he got sick. That’s it. End of story. Maybe there’s no lesson there at all.
I don’t think I’ve taken a deep breath since that day. I’ve been shallow breathing for nearly four years. Filled with so much sadness and grief and anxiety that I can’t catch my breath. I got an up close and personal view of how fragile life actually is and it wrecked me. Jenny Simmons writes, “Life is so deathy.” She’s right. It is. But here’s the thing…the deathy-ness of life can keep us from the living. It’s kept me from living. It just feels so horribly wrong that the sense of wrongness takes up residence inside us and prevents us from taking deep breaths and seeing the fleshy colors of life all around us. The weight of death wrapped itself around my shoulders, refused to let me go, and I’ve been sinking underneath the heaviness of it.
I couldn’t accept it, so I didn’t. My heart has stayed there in that room, frozen in time, because I haven’t been able to deal with it yet. And I’m terribly embarrassed about that. I feel ashamed that I’m still grieving. Like, why can’t I just get over it already? Everyone expected me to get over it years ago, so I put on my happy face and pretended. But really, inside I’m just numb and angry and devastated.
I keep feeling the need to explain why I loved him the way I did, why his death has me so messed up. I feel the need to validate my grief. But I can’t figure out why. Is there some rule about who we are allowed to grieve for and whose death we have to move right past? I don’t feel like I have a right to be this sad. But I am. So where does that leave me? Not only am I still, nearly four years later, filled with red hot grief – I’m also ashamed to admit it so I’m keeping it entirely to myself. So add to the red hot grief a paralyzing loneliness that I didn’t even realize was there.
I was pregnant with my fifth child, our first boy, when my uncle died. I was terrified I would lose that baby as I had lost one many years before. So as we buried Jim, I buried my feelings along with him. I became numb, the feeling parts of me closed off as tightly as I could manage while still being able to hug and hold all of my sweet babies. Bittersweet living. A new baby came and new friends and opportunities and all along the way I showed up just enough to take a ton of pictures, laugh a little and then crawl back into my hidy hole.
As I begin to emerge from my little cocoon, I realize that I am certainly not the only one who’s been here. There are so many of us who struggle with sadness, depression, anxiety or grief and we never really talk about it. For me, it was mostly because I wouldn’t have known what to say. And I’m usually pretty in touch with my feelings. I generally understand myself pretty well. Grief changes all that self-awareness though, I think. At least it did for me. I suddenly had no idea how to deal, or even what exactly I was dealing with. I heard someone say once that sin takes you further than you want to go and keeps you longer than you want to stay. Well, I wonder if the same is true of grief – although I would never compare grief to sin. Grief takes you hostage. It pulls you away from the living. And it cannot be interrupted, ignored or avoided no matter how hard you try. Grief has its own timetable and it will not be determined by those who grieve, we are simply along for the ride.
I wish that someone had told me that grief is different for every person. The timing will be different. The feelings will be different. The intensity and effects will be different. None of that means that anyone’s grief is more or less significant than anyone else’s – it simply means that grief (like anxiety and depression) is different for all of us. I wonder if we have to actually be present within the grief to ever come back out of it? I wonder if grief isn’t something to just get through, but rather something to experience freely and fully so that we can take from it even more memories of the people that we lost. I have memories of my grief that are entwined with my memories of and with my uncle. This may sound strange, but they are as precious to me as the memories I have with him living. They feel tender to me and I wouldn’t give them up for anything.
I’m grateful for my season of grief and for however long it decides to last. I will fully participate in it. I will not try to push it down or away, but will listen to whatever it has to teach me.
I pray now for each of you who are traveling your own grief journey. Let us not be ashamed or discouraged. Let us be willing and ready to remember and be thankful that we have had the beautiful and enduring privilege of loving someone so deeply. May God bless you in your grief and me in mine.