This was us

Some nights there’s no hiding from it. Some nights, you are simply going to get hit like you were in the path of a tornado. The sorrow will lay you flat. It will make your eyes burn and your heart break like it never has before. Your throat will ache from a thirst you cannot quench, not ever again. You will weep until you think you can’t any longer, and then you’ll start again.

This was us. We were a family. We were a unit. Mommy, Daddy, Seanie and Sophie. We had our routines, our rituals. We had our high holy days. We were building our traditions. We were growing together, all of us at once.

In this family, she was our heart. In this family, we all sort of orbited around her. In this family, she was the glue, she was mom to us all. We are all orphaned by this to a degree.

She will not walk in the meadow any longer with you, son. She will not sit you upon her lap as she used to and read your favorite story. She will not be there when you go to your first day of big boy school, will not be there to comfort you when you fall in love for the first time and then have your heart broken. She will not see you marry the woman of your dreams. She will not hold your firstborn in her arms and thank you for it. My heart is broken for you tonight.

She will not hold you again, my sweet little girl. She will not talk to you about what it means to be a woman, she will not cry with you during sappy movies, she will not fight with you as you grow older. She will never meet your future husband and never rock your babies to sleep. My heart is broken for you tonight.

Once upon a time there were four us. Now there are three. Once upon a time there were plans made for all of us. Now those plans must change. Once upon a time, life was so simple as to make me forget what was of  value.

I wish I hadn’t taken you for granted, my love.

I wish you could come home.

We all miss you so, so much.

Originally published August 24, 2011

Good Grief

Grief sucks. There’s no nice way to put it. Grief is the partner of a great loss: it follows death like a travelling companion. The two arrive at your doorstep one day, death walks away with the one you love, and grief moves in for a season. But grief is more than death’s companion: it is also the precursor to life.

That last statement may strike as odd, even a bit offensive. Perhaps I can conjure a useful metaphor to help clarify this point. When death touches your soul, it is as though a massive volcano has erupted in your landscape, sending ash and lava everywhere, blowing things to bits and basically wreaking destruction as far as the eye can see. This is a cataclysmic event that shatters one’s entire world, utterly altering the once familiar landscape forever.

Grief is like the cooled lava on the plain. Like a scab on a wound, the cooled lava begins to settle and harden, eventually becoming the contours of the new landscape. As time goes by, its crust yields and begins to accept new seed, from which springs forth new life. Riotous splotches of colour pop up on an otherwise black and hardened scene. Given more time the lava yields even further and transforms into the rich soil feeding all sorts of new plant life. Trees grow, birds return, animals roam in the underbrush. A new landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the old one, but forever changed. But it is still life. A new life, brought about by the cataclysm.

Death is common to all, meaning, we will all experience it at one point or another. Therefore, we will all at some moment in time encounter the bitter pang of grief. Put it off as one may, grief always catches up with us. This is so because grief’s ultimate goal is not to destroy, but to heal.

Without grief, there is no cost. What I mean by that is if you read an obituary in the paper tomorrow of someone whom you never knew, you will feel no pang of grief. This is because you likely did not know the person. Therefore, you never invested anything into that person: it cost you nothing. The people in whom we invest the most cost us the most when they depart. The bereaved speak of losing a part of themselves when a loved one dies. Indeed.

The task of grief is not, however, to replace that loss, but to heal. I say that it can be a healing agent. Often times it is not. Some people become so lost in grief that it leads them to untold depths of depression. This has obvious psychological effects, but it can also lead to physical ones. Some research points towards prolonged grief leading people to suffer from cancer. A cancer of the soul that leads to cancer of the body. A dreadful thing.

But aren’t there other things which, when abused, can rob us of life? Wine gladdens the heart and can benefit the body, but when abused can lead to alcoholism, even death. Sugar makes all kinds of things palatable, but again, when abused can lead to all sorts of physical problems.

Grief can also be abused. One can wallow in it for too long.

Grief is not the soul’s natural condition. It is an extreme emotion, if you will. It comes when great disasters occur: the loss of a loved one, when one’s home is burned down, when you bid your youngest child goodbye as he or she heads off to university and you face an empty house for the first time in many years. These are extraordinary events. Grief is present in those occasions to shepherd the grieving person into a new phase of life.

The death of a spouse is an extraordinary event in any one person’s life. Yet, sooner or later, it will happen to us all if we were fortunate enough to be married to someone who counted.

Grief is good in that it brings up everything you had with that special someone, good or bad. You relive the good and bad times in the theatre of your mind. You look at the photos and cry rivers of tears, because the memories formed were sweet and brought you life.

Grief is good in that it forces you to take stock of your life. Many people say a death will do this to you, but death is all around us at every moment of the day. People die left and right, and they do not affect us until it’s the death of someone who mattered. This is the province of grief: those who count, those we love. Grief is the one that forces you to take stock. You check to see what is of worth, which of your priorities are really, truly worthwhile. “What is life all about, anyway?” is a question asked ad nauseum until the season of grief passes. Is this not a worthwhile question for us to ask ourselves every day, no matter where we might be in life?

Grief is good in that it shows you that you did love someone very, very much. This is bittersweet, indeed. To have lost so much and only then to realize how much was in fact lost is hard to stomach. You would think that you would think about it every day. But none of us do. I didn’t. I took it for granted that Janie would always be there. Now she’s not. I loved her so, so much. As much as it hurts, it makes me feel alive and significant that I loved someone else so much that it hurts like hell now.

I said earlier that grief heals. That might have been the wrong thing to say. Grief is the EMT at the accident scene that gets you to the hospital. In my world view, the healer is God. Grief forces me to confront God. Why did she have to die? Why am I, the lesser parent, given the task of raising our two children? Why did this have to happen now when everything was just starting to come together, when we were just really hitting our stride and getting along better than we ever had before? Honesty about these questions opens me up to God’s healing. It also produces perseverance, character and hope. (Romans 5:3-5)

A real faith wrestles with just these sorts of questions. A real faith hits the mat with God and goes back and forth until, at last, either the soul finds its answers or rests in the knowledge that the One who has them is good and will not abandon you to a wilderness of sorrow. This is the point of these verses:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

Later on in the same Psalm, it says the following:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:5)

Quite an image. God has set a table, and I am seated there with my enemies. Who are my enemies? In this instance, my enemy is death itself. Yet, while seated at the table, my head is anointed with oil. This is, to me, an image of God’s own Spirit flowing over me. The image in the Old Testament harkens to when someone was called into a sacred office, like that of a king or a prophet. Kings and prophets are anointed to lead their people, their nation. At the table of my enemy death, I am called into being in that place. I am anointed with God’s Spirit in that place. In that place, my cup overflows. Abundant supply. Of what?

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:6)

An abundant supply of goodness, love, and the joy of being in God’s presence, God’s house, now and beyond the now on the other side. An abundant supply of goodness and love here, and a dwelling place with the God of the universe. This is what we Christians like to call a promise of God.

So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why is grieving so hard? Why must I wake up every morning to this dreadful sense of loss and emptiness only to carry out my daily tasks in rote fashion and finally collapse in bed at night contemplating the meaninglessness of my existence, praying for death to come swiftly that I might be reunited with Janie, whom I loved so much?

For one, because she mattered. If she didn’t, I’d be fine.

For another, recovery takes time, and there are stages. Already I function better than I did on 21 June, the day the doctors said Janie was brain dead. I still feel dreadfully sad much of the time and helpless. A year from now, I won’t be in as bad a place.

Healing takes time… but not only time.

This is where grief is most useful: it can spur you to action. You can get to the point where you ask a very meaningful question: “isn’t there something I can do about this?”

And yes, you can. For one, you can stop lugging around all that weight on your own. Open up to someone close, then open up to a group. I go to grief group every Monday night. I was just there tonight. It’s absolutely the most positive experience for me right now.

For another, you can allow the One who can heal all that hurt to get into you and do what he does: restore. The whole of the gospel of Jesus is about restoration: restoring humanity to a loving relationship with the divine. God won’t leave you. God hasn’t left you. Immortality has its perks.

But the single most awe inspiring, most wonderful, most joy inducing thing about grief is that it is not permanent. If you can be a gracious host to your grief when it is with you for a season, then like a good guest it will leave when its work is done. This is something I cling to. There is something good at the other end of this thing. I still struggle to accept Janie’s death. I will for a long time. But there is a life for me at the other side. Right now, I don’t want it. But when I get there, when I arrive at the other end of this valley, I will.

Several friends of mine have lost someone dear to them: a parent, a dear friend, a child. They are still among us today. They laugh, they joke, they work, they live. Some have walked through their season of grief. Others haven’t.

I am on my road through this valley. I want, more than anything else, to know that those who read this blog and have been or are in a similar situation to mine understand that this is temporary. Life changing? Oh yes. Soul wrenching? You bet. But temporary. And no, time alone will not heal the wound. You have to go into the valley if you want to get to the other side.

So as they say in England, get stuck in. Go after it. Be purposeful. This blog is part of my attempt to do just that. If you’re in this wilderness with me, find your avenue, your outlet, your conduit to go through what is now raging inside of you and, eventually, find your way out of the valley too. That is my prayer. Now pray it with me:

God, your name is holy. Teach us to treat it as such in our daily lives.

May your kingdom come here, and your will be done here as well, just like it is in heaven, where you are.

Give us today what we need.

Forgive what we have done wrong to you and others to the degree that we forgive, because we know that we cannot ask for it unless we freely give it out.

Deliver us from the darkness and the forces therein.

You are King of the kingdom. You are its power, its glory, now and always.

Amen.

August 23, 2011

Turning down kindness

I am so glad this blog is being read by a wider group of people every day. It’s encouraging to hear that people who have been through a situation such as mine, are single parents, or even folks who haven’t gone through this kind of ordeal are drawing some insight and courage from these posts. That was part of the original intention, and I’m so pleased to see it happening.

Another goal of this blog was to keep people who know me and the kids, knew Janie and want to stay abreast of what’s happening in or world the opportunity to do so. I also want it to be a way to transmit messages that need to put out there but that I haven’t the energy or ability to say to each and every one of you. That was the thought behind the very first post on Janie’s death. Telling the death story over and over again really takes it out of me, so I thought I could put it in one place where anyone with the inkling to find out the details of what went down can go there and read about it.

That is also the intention of this post. I have something to tell all of you, especially those who live nearby.

Many of you who are reading this post today have, since Janie’s death, kindly supplied my family with meals (that we are slowly getting through! So many meals!), offered to babysit or have invited us around to your house for a play date or a birthday and so on. For all of your kindness and good intentions, I want to say a heartfelt thank you, from me and the kids.

I will deal with the last of the three points above first, on coming around to your place. Many of you have invited us around. You may have noticed that we have yet to show up. There are so many reasons for this, but I will try to keep it to four.

1.) We haven’t come around because I don’t have the energy. This will be the case for a long time, still. I am writing this post on Sunday, 21 August. The kids woke up today at 4:30am, and have demanded my attention from that point forward. This is not the case every day, but it does happen more often than I’d care for. But even if they did sleep in every morning, the grief process is wearing. As I have said on this blog before, the processing of this loss happens during waking and sleeping hours. And sometimes, out of the blue, a wave of sorrow blows over me and sucks out the will to live or do anything, really.

But this would seem like an opportune time to come around, wouldn’t you think? Not really. There is the matter of getting the kids ready to go, and once the play date/birthday party/ hang out time is done, there’s the matter of getting them back home, washed, dressed and in bed. This is a lot of work for one guy, and when you are constantly battling with emotional and physical exhaustion, you just don’t want to add to that.

2.) We haven’t come around because of matters pertaining to stability. Seanie and Sophie have just lost their mother. At their young ages, this cornerstone of their short lives literally disappeared from one day to the next forever. This has shaken their foundations and rattled them deeply. As a family, we always had our circle of friends and people the kids knew well, and they were always very keen to hang out with these folks. Suddenly, mommy is gone and now daddy is taking them around to the houses of a whole new batch of people. Suddenly, they have all these new faces, new environments and relational dynamics to contend with. I’m no expert, but my instincts tell me this is a difficult thing for children of their age (or any age) to deal with. So, frankly, I am protecting them. Their circle of acquaintances will grow, but not right away. Remember, it’s just been two months since Janie’s death. I am trying to preserve a sense of continuity for them: their surroundings, their toys, their beds, their routine. This last one brings me to the last point.

3.) We haven’t come around because of matters pertaining to routine and schedule. This point is closely tied to the one above. Janie always came home from work, every night. The kids always had her in their lives, every day, from the day they were born until just over two months ago. She was a part of the rhythm of their lives, and that has suddenly and irrevocably screeched to a halt. That massive and unwelcome change to their routine far eclipses other changes to routine such as naptime, bath time and bedtime, but these other routines must be maintained at all costs in order to preserve a sense of security for the children. That I take them to school, fetch them, take them home, put them down for naps, wake them, feed them, bathe them, play with them and put them to bed at night at the exact same time on our schedule, every day, provides a thread of continuity that helps them cope with the loss. Mommy has gone, but everything else has stayed somewhat the same. So as much as a play date at someone else’s house sounds like a good idea, I am trying to protect my children in this matter, also. Certainly one day out of the week won’t upset them too much, will it? Honestly, I don’t know. Again, I am following my instincts here. I don’t want to mess about with their rhythm just yet.

All of the above said, this does not mean we will never come around. All I am saying is that for now I am turning down almost every invitation to have the kids around for these three reasons. As time passes, I think this will change. Their circle will grow, but it must be done organically, not in response to this tragedy.

So many of you have offered to have us over out of a sense of wanting to help. I can say with sincerity that I am so grateful for your willingness to have us around. However, I have to listen to myself, to my instincts regarding the kids and my own soul when it comes to me. I am not purposefully trying to thwart your well intended attempts to help us. I am simply trying to do what I believe is best for myself and the kids.

Now, on the matter of babysitters: I have followed principle number 2 on this one. I have a babysitter that comes around on Mondays so that I might attend grief group. Her name is Claire and she is the daughter of Faye Weston, who runs the playschool where my children attend. She is well known to the kids, so they feel secure when she is in the house. If I have turned you down for babysitting, it is probably because my kids don’t know you terribly well. In time, you will, and in time, if the offer is still open, I will gladly accept. But not now.

No, food… I have a freezer heaving with meals right now. It is a small freezer at that. To further complicate matters, I am a cook. However, in order to make room for freezable groceries, I first have to clean out the readymade meals that now occupy every square inch of the freezer. Please understand me here, this is NOT me saying that this particular show of concern and care is unwelcome, but the reality is I don’t have any more room left! So, for now, don’t worry about feeding us. Check back in mid-November when I clean out the last meal!

This leaves people living close by to me with very little to go on. Do I not want you to help out in any way at all? Do I really not want any of you folks to be in relationship with me? Have I purposefully shut everyone out? No, people, no.

First of all, there is MUCH you can do, every day, on your own. The most important thing you can do is pray. Pray with others, organize a team, and read this blog to know where we are emotionally, physically and spiritually. If you need more details, shoot me an email. I will gladly fill you in. I had a few almost good days last week, and one amazingly restoring night’s sleep. That is, I believe, as a direct result of your prayers. Our family’s walls are down, our defenses are weak, we are wide open to all kinds of attack. I don’t pray much anymore, mostly for the reasons outlined in point number 1. My prayers normally consist of one word: help. So pray more intelligently than that, and you’ll be doing us a massive favor.

If you want to do more, you can come here and visit. Email or call, and I’ll give you the address. I know that puts the burden of throwing the kids in the car on you, but if you want to help with keeping my kids distracted and have a chat to me so I can have some adult conversation, than that is the way forward. Come here. I WILL return the favor, but right now I just can’t.

Also, if you want to help out with food, come here with your family and I’ll cook for you. That might sound a little odd to you, but cooking is a joy for me. Bring the ingredients. Tell me what you want, and I’ll make it for you. Seriously. Cooking is more relaxing and life-giving to me than pulling a frozen meal out of the freezer. Not that those don’t come in handy, but if you really want to help, then come around for supper. Tell me ahead of time what you’re bringing, and I’ll plan out how I’ll cook the stuff, and we’ll have us an earlyish dinner, and then you can get your kids back home in time for bed, too. This goes for those who don’t have kids too.

I know I can’t have everything I want in life on my terms. Nevertheless, right now I need to go with my gut, and all of the above is what my instinct tells me to do. I must listen to my instincts on this one. I hope you can all understand that.

I know that I will need to go back eventually and do some maintenance work on many of my relationships once I begin to find my feet again. Janie’s passing has massively rocked my world. I do value all of you, all of your shows of care and concern. That I do not reach back every time is not out of ingratitude. I simply do not have the emotional resources to stretch any further at this time. There will come a day when I will be able to do so, and you can expect a phone call on that day.

In the meantime, keep praying for us. Every day is a challenge. Every day has its own hardships. No prayer for us at this time is frivolous, stupid or pointless. I quite literally covet your prayers. That above all is the most important thing you can do.

Originally published August 22, 2011