When we grieve, for a while shock protects us from the reality of death and the enormity of our loss. But one day the shock of what’s happened to us – whether suddenly or over time - wears off and life begins to seem a little more real again. When gradually we return more to the dailiness of our life, we sense deep within a challenging imbalance - we’re clinging desperately to the past, yet we’re alive in the present, and at the same time we’re anxious about the future without the one we love. We're especially vulnerable to the inevitable setbacks of our individual grief.
One of the assumptions of grief is that we’re supposed to “do” something to help ourselves. Yet when someone we love dies, we have no idea what it is we’re supposed to “do” – grief doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Others may think they know what it is we need to “do” for our grief to be “over”. We’ve all heard some of the more infuriating platitudes and clichés, “You should have more faith”, “You should pull yourself together”, “You should give away his or her clothes”, etc., etc., etc. Others are uncomfortable with our grief - their message is, “You should get on with your life”.
When my husband Leighton died I was shattered. At the time I thought my heartbreak was irreparable. Oddly, I’d lived fifteen years of my life alone – eight in a foreign country speaking a foreign language – so I thought I knew how it would be to navigate my life solo again. But after having been bonded at the hip for eighteen years with my soul mate, lover, and best friend, I could never have imagined my aloneness would be so painful. There was a yawning hole in my soul I had no idea how to piece back together. But I tried on new things and new venues and new people and for a while I routinely experienced more setbacks than successes. I just didn’t know exactly what to do or how to get it right. Life felt like one colossal flop after another.
What surprised me most was the full force and effect each setback had on my suffering spirit. At first I was devastated by each perceived failure – small and large – but slowly I learned better to dust myself off, laugh a little, and learn something from each encounter with change. And slowly but surely I managed to assemble the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle – the abstract picture with 1000 pieces entitled “the rest of my life” – until some structure and form that felt personal and authentic began to take shape.
And so when we grieve for a time we pull up our socks and try – again and again – despite the certainty of setbacks. Even as we inch forward into the rest of our life, when setbacks occur often they feel like a complete undoing of our hard-won progress. It seems for a while as if we’re taking one step forward but two steps backward. What we find, though, is that our gains in grief are incremental. Imperceptibly grief becomes two steps forward and one step backward.
Yet on remembrance days and at the holiday season often it feels as if we’ve fallen off the steep cliff of our darkest grief yet again. This is because we love – thanks be to God. When we revisit the abyss of our sorrow it seems for the moment as if we’ll never climb back up and out – it’s easy to think about simply giving up on life, succumbing to eternal grief. But when we try and “do” the work of grief (really, this is all we can “do” for ourselves) gratefully we regain our footing rather quickly. All we need is a little rest, some prayer, and a new day, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40:29 NIV).
You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.
Genesis 32:28 NIV
Keep me this day, O God, in the assurance of your support. Amen.