Over the last few days as I was doing the heavy lifting – both literal and figurative – of making a major move, I thought about what we go through as we do the work of grief. Dealing with all the choices, options, and emotional challenges of a life irrevocably changed by the death of one we love is heavy lifting indeed.
It’s interesting that when we begin to pack up our things, we’re forced to touch each item and make a decision. Do we save it? Do we plan to use it? Should we give it away to a family member? Or should we donate it? Or maybe some things just need to go away to the trash – they’re used up, they no longer have a purpose in our life. The rhythm of life, the cadence of grief…
As I neared the end of what seemed like months of sorting, separating, and disposing, I considered what to do with the TV I bought about a year after Leighton died. It replaced a heavy old box TV that sat on a relatively unsupported shelf in the bedroom. As I grieved alone in the dark for months, I listened to the shelf creak and groan. The noises added to my already rampant fear. I could easily imagine every worst-case scenario – the TV might crash through the shelf in the middle of the night and then what would I do?
The association with my grief made me stumble before I could figure out what to do with the TV. Grief has the power to affect us that way – it sneaks up on us when we’re trying to be sensible and practical. Suddenly we’re overwhelmed by a wave of sadness and tears – we grieve anew all that’s forever lost to our lives. And though it’s not intentional, often we endow our stuff with a certain unmerited power. When we grieve sometimes we must simply allow ourselves to experience the force of our emotional connection to the past it represents. We're human.
When Leighton got sick we bought a DVD player (to use with the same old TV) in the expectation that he would come home, be in bed for a while to recover and recuperate, and that movies (he liked westerns) would be a welcome entertainment and diversion. It never happened. Every time I looked at the DVD player I remembered our thought process and associated it with his never coming home. If we’re honest, there are things in each person’s life - especially the clothes of our loved one - that evoke memory, pain, and longing for our beloved. It’s inevitable. It’s one of the things that makes moving so difficult, even when it’s necessary or better or even joyful.
If we simply can’t face the painful reminders of the past, sometimes we just chunk our stuff into a large moving box and vow to deal with it all later – it goes in the attic or a dark storage unit or under the bed or on a shelf. Along with the books and the kitchen utensils we may box up our feelings and shelve them for a while with the intention of eventually revisiting them. Our lingering guilt, resentment, anger, or fear will still be there waiting for us when we decide one day to get down the box of our darkest grief and open it again. There’s no “shelf life” for the unresolved issues and emotions of grief. When at last we open the box, we’re better able to assess the importance of the things we’ve held onto. From the improved perspective of time often it’s easier to let go, release, and move on from the worst of our grief. We’re lighter, freer, the power of things past no longer grips us – we cherish the memory, our love is forever. God instructs our heart; God makes us secure; God guides with counsel and wisdom. We grieve and move forward.
I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.
Psalm 16:7-9 NRSV
Keep me this day, O God, in the strength of your counsel. Amen.