Today I went to my local park district for a morning soak in the whirlpool. It is rejuvenating and relaxing. I look forward to deep cleansing and quiet reflection. Thirty minutes of silent meditation while my body enjoys the circulating warmth. I typically arrive when the busy fitness classes are either getting started or letting out. This locker room isn’t busy like most gyms. I like it that way. Older folks such as myself have a tendency to fall into a trap of getting a bit too introspected. We can get lost in our heads and forget that there are people all around us with whom we might engage.
I am one of those people who falls smack in the middle of the introvert/extrovert scale. That means sometimes I love to engage and other times not so much. It just depends. Today was one of those days I expected to be on my own and lost in my own thoughts. But a woman in the locker room pulled me out of my head. She was polite and friendly. Probably about my age, sixty-ish. We chatted. The typical nothing chitchat. That is until it wasn’t just chitchat anymore.
Right there in the locker room I was presented with a choice. Would I take the time to engage or rush through the polite gestures most people extend during this time of year. I decided to linger. I’m glad I did. As it turns out she lost her husband eighteen months ago. Both her married adult daughters also just lost their mother-in-laws this year. Ouch. That means the children involved have lost one grandpa and two grandma’s in a relatively short span of time. I remember the sting of such loss. And I remember the peculiar need to talk about it with strangers.
For me it was fourteen years ago. I had been divorced for about ten years and newly engaged to a wonderful man. That was 2004. By February of 2005 my fiancé suddenly died and by the first week of December that same year, my ex-husband passed away. I was gutted. I was just getting used to my beloved being gone when my first husband followed him. That Thanksgiving wasn’t like Thanksgivings in the past. Christmas was not like prior Christmases. My kids and I were used to it being just us for Christmas. They were used to their dad not living with us. But what none of us were used to was the vacancy left by his permanent departure. My well meaning, but clueless, friends decided what I needed was a party so they dragged me some Christian Woman’s gathering. I was miserable. I wasn’t wallowing in self pity. I was in grief. I remember looking over and seeing a familiar face at a table near us. I leaned over to off my condolences. I heard she lost her husband a few months before. She too had friends who meant well. She and I spent the rest of the time consoling one another.
Romans 12:15-16 NIV – Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.
When we are in grief we need to be consoled. We don’t need a party. It doesn’t help. In fact it often just makes it worse and harder to move on. When everyone around you is celebrating life, and death just took half your life away, it isn’t difficult to rejoice. It’s impossible. God gave us our emotions so that we can feel them not suppress them.
As I stood there in the locker room I was hurled back to those first holidays without the person who meant the most in the world to me. I remembered that what helped me was being able to connect with someone who knew exactly how I felt and what I was going through. I needed someone to stop and take the time to just listen.
So I sat. We chatted. We chatted about nothing and everything. When we both were comfortable with leaving, this outgoing and sweet natured woman turned to me and straining to smile asked the question we all ask when it is our turn to mourn. It’s the question we can only hope has a positive answer. Will this ever get better? I knew what she meant. She meant, does the vacuum that sucks the enjoyment out of everything ever stop. Does the empty chair across the table stop eating away at your gut? Does the loneliness end?
I was able to share with her what someone once said to me. It was something someone had once shared with them.
“The gut wrenching grief will slowly fade away. Don’t be afraid to forget. You won’t forget. The memories you have will stay with you, no matter what other people might tell you. You’ll stop listening for his car to pull up in the drive. You’ll do things you might never have done before. But you will never forget the love you shared. Life will never be the same. It will be different. It will change. You’ll get better. Life will come back in. Give it time. When you feel like crying, cry. Ride the wave. And when the wave is gone get back up and live your life. And you will realize that the waves don’t come as often and they aren’t as intense and devastating as they used to be. You will get through this. You will never have the life you used to have. Don’t try to. But you will have life. A new one. A different one. Thanksgiving will be different. Christmas will be different. This year they will be full of tears. But it will be good again. You will be good again. You will be different. But you will be okay. You can get through this, and you will.”
Sorrow hits hard any time of the year. It is gut wrenching at best. The loss of a loved one does something that no other kind of loss does. The person isn’t just not there. A part of you is gone forever as well. For those who have never suffered this loss I appeal to you to be gentle and kind to those who have lost loved ones this year. Don’t say things like “He’s in a better place.”, “God must have needed him/her.” In fact, don’t say anything except, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Don’t offer to get them out of their slump. Don’t tell them they are taking too long to get over it. Offer quiet sympathy and maybe a hug. Don’t think that you have to fill the silent awkwardness with words. You don’t. If they cry, you can offer a tissue, a shoulder for them to cry on and a listening ear.
Grieving is how we move through grief. If we don’t grieve it will swing around on us and bite us in the rear later. No one plans to lose a loved one. No one is prepared even when they have had months or years of knowing that person would one day be gone. Please don’t expect them to be the lively perky individual they were before this loss consumed their life. We do come out of grief. But we have to walk through grief in order to emerge from it. There are no short cuts. There are no simple steps. There are awful gut wrenching stages but no easy path. Anyone who has lost a parent, a child, a sibling, a spouse or significant other, knows a pain that those who haven’t had the experience can’t even imagine.
Don’t inquire – ‘how are you feeling today?” Let their involvement or lack of involvement show you. For those who are friends of those who are in grief don’t hover, don’t smother, don’t ignore and don’t berate. Just know that your friend is going through something that you can’t fix. But in time they will come through grief. They will emerge from this dark shroud. They will be different. They will be altered. They will have walked in the valley of the shadow of death and survived. It is these, the ones who have suffered great loss that I would like to honor today. They are giants of faith and heroes of grace. They are the survivors of death.
When they get up and go to the gym, when they clean out that old closet, and when they join a knitting group, or a bible study, just know that they are on the mend. Life is coming back in. And yea, this Thanksgiving will be different. Life will be different.
Loss makes for a different Thanksgiving. It makes everything different. I remember that first Thanksgiving after my much beloved Grandfather died in 2011. Some family members wanted to make it fun because Grandpa was all about having fun. Some us needed it to be a somber time because we were feeling the pain very deeply. It can difficult to get through holidays when grief is on the visitors list. Grace and space to grieve as each needs to grieve is important. As much as one needs to cry another may need to set off fireworks. We express grief in different ways. Some shut down while others get an energy surge. For those who will sit at a table with an empty chair this year my heart aches for you. I pray that the Lord wrap His comforting arms around you and breathe His amazing love and grace into your soul. May the consolation of God comfort your heart and your life.
In Times of Sorrow
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall,
You do not walk alone.
– Author Unknown