A Grief Continued

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Confession: I skipped my last Policy Process class to spend time with my sister. But in my defense my life as a graduate student is a constant struggle of juggling school, work, life, and mental health.

Family trumps education. At least for me.

My sister has this adorable child who is developing every day. And for fear that I might miss his entire childhood I recognized my need for some “auntie time” with him. Plus, I’m vying for his love, attention, and admiration in the face of his eight other aunts and uncles, not to mention eight or so more on his dad’s side. So, as you can see, I couldn’t pass up an evening with them even if it meant missing class.

John’s niece and baby cousin were at my sister’s house. Our families grew up together so I feel like they are my nieces and nephews as well. We shared a meal in the warm house, on a freezing December night, and the toddlers and babies played happily on the floor. Well not entirely, but their interactions were entertaining, to say the least.

As autumn frosted into winter this year I thought December would bring depression as it did last Christmas. But for some reason my foreknowledge of the potential to slip back into it has kept my head above waters.

But on this night, before I even arrived at my sister’s house, I knew the gathering would create remorseful nostalgia. And as expected it caused me to remember John. It was the sort of dinner he would have come to, with his sister and cousin.

Well, maybe.

I’m sure he would have been invited, but he’d find an excuse not to come, and then two hours in, he’d appear in the doorway with a cup of coffee and a mischievous smile.

*          *           *

The snow was falling as I drove home from my sister’s. Christmas music hummed from my car speakers as the seat warmer heated my bum. The quiet streets glistened from the neighborhood Christmas lights. Halfway home I started to think about John, not John when he was alive, but John today.

Because it’s difficult to fathom life after death, in vain I try to imagine what he’s doing up there. But the longer we spend without him, the more difficult this becomes. Is he making a new life? Is he outside of time, so far removed from the earth, that life before death is just a dream to him?

These late night ponderings always make me cry. For all that death is, the shock, the denial, the graveyard visits, and the PTSD, I can honestly say the hardest part of losing a friend is their absence. I sometimes wonder why I reacted so dramatically the night he died. Was it the unexpectedness, or the disbelief, or the fear? And then I sit there wondering why I revisit those thoughts so often, dissecting each moment to make sense of what happened.

One year, two months, and four days since John died. I’ve grown use to this reality in a sense. But the small things still trigger that painful remembrance. For some reason, dinner with my sister and John’s family caused me to cry. Holding his niece in my lap, her soft hair brushing against my chin. He would have laughed with me when I told him I’d skipped class. But in vain I resign to imagine what it would have been rather than accepting how it is? Just continued grief.

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Practicing Gratitude: Eight Months After His Death

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Yesterday marked eight months since my friend, John, was killed in a bike accident. I was marveling at the way it still hurts like the first day we lost him. It’s not easy to describe the pain of loss. Sometimes you feel the shock again. Sometimes you can’t breathe. Most times you just pause and recollect.

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A Rightful Anger at the Loss of a Friend

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On a sunny day in April the air blows through the sunroof of my car. I sit in the driver’s seat with a pounding in my chest as I prepare myself to talk about John. Regret floods my mind as I consider skipping today’s session. I would rather go home and eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, hide under a blanket and drown out my feelings with a Bollywood classic. I wait for the clock to say 1 minute ‘till my appointment, and then I go in.

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Death, A Daily Reality

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Weddings, babies, and graduation ceremonies are what I thought would fill the duration of my post-college years. But, instead I find myself attending the funeral of one of my best friends and then hearing about the sudden death of several other young people in my community. Life is weird.

For some I suppose this is a daily reality. Those in war-torn countries, people in crime infested neighborhoods. Maybe I was just spared this type of grief in my growing up years. In former days, death was the stuff of news articles, statistics, and maybe a distant relative or an old church member. Now, death proceeds from the mouth of a friend still in shock, it arrives in a church announcement, a phone call in the night.

Yesterday at church, I stood on stage with the worship team. Looking out into the congregation I saw so many grieving faces. A church elder got up and shared about the 20-year-old murder victim who was closely connected to members of our church. My heart sank as I shuffled the pages on my music stand before we started the next song.

Death is horrible. Now that I’ve experienced it I don’t retract in fear like I once did. Instead of being afraid of death I’m just disheartened by it. What is there to fear when you’ve already lost a very close friend? I feel united with my friends who are grieving. I look into their dimmed eyes and say, “I too lost a best friend.”

Not fearful however I can’t help but ask myself, who is next? What person in my life will be the next to go? Where will I be when I hear the earth-shattering news that yet another person has left this earth? Maybe it will be me. I rise in the morning and wonder if today is my last, and I go to bed at night thinking I may awake in a place called eternity. At a grief seminar last week I realized it’s good to come to terms with death, to ponder your own death. Just because you want to die doesn’t mean you’re suicidal.

I know this post is a little scattered but to make sense of death is very difficult. Once the griever, now I feel called to be the comforter. How do you comfort a grieving friend? What do you say to a father who has just lost his son, or a sister who has lost her only brother?

I am comforted by one thing only. The Lord is here. The Lord is with you. Most of the time there are no words or deeds to mend a grieving heart. But the simple act of being with someone can make the grieving process a great deal better.

How to grieve when the world moves on

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Johnny’s sister mentioned something to me this week about the world moving on when we are still sad and still hurting.

There is a tendency to stop and just sit down, like we did in the grass by his grave. To linger in the moment, as my mind seems to return to the night it happened. To stop buying food. To stop eating. To stop working or reading or updating social media.

What do you do when the world is moving on, when all that stopped for John’s death has recommenced its course?  How can you, when you are still grieving the loss of a most beloved soul?

Still.

It’s a strange word, as if the aftermath of a sudden death could ever come to recovery. The word “still implies that we will eventually be okay. Can I agree with this? Some say it will take a year, others claim two years. But since the sudden death of John, I feel we shall never be the same on this side of heaven.

The world has moved on. It has already changed since Johnny left. The grocery stores are decorated for the holidays, the wind has unclothed the warm-colored trees, and darkness sets in before the day is over.

The world is moving on, and people are talking of winter decor and seasonal Starbucks drinks. I listen, trying to enjoy this time of year like I always do. But then I look down at my chest and see a fresh wound still bleeding, still hurting. When my thoughts return to that night my heart aches. I search for something to ease the pain.

I cry. I don’t cry. I hold it in. I don’t hold it in. But still, there is no remedy for death.

Grief is a ruthless enemy. It strikes when you least expect it. It hits you while you’re down. It comes from behind and descends like a cold November rain.

I’m realizing that I cannot just move on as the world has. I cannot come out of this, unchanged. And one thing in particular that must change is time with God. If anything, death should draw me nearer to Him. It surely has. But still, I need something to combat this ruthless enemy.  A lamp to guide my steps as the world is moving on.

Psalm 119:9 “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.”

Death was not intended for us

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” — John Donne

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I was sitting in the cozy part of the university student center, near the coffee shop. A blog post I’d shared on social media had brought an unexpected flood of attention. I scrolled through my analytics and realized I’d hit a record of blog views in one day, reaching eleven different countries in readership. I’d only shard it so my sister could find the link, but I must admit the response was rewarding.

My phone buzzed with a text from a friend about my post. He reminded me that God did not intend for us to die.

My last post addressed the issues involved in death and the reality of grief. I asked the question of why people have to die. Lately, I’ve been asking God this same question every time I think of John. I’m okay that John died. I know where he is and I know he is alright. But I’m not okay with death. Nor am I at ease with the thought that every relationship in life will end in sadness. It’s a difficult reality to swallow. Not only will every relationship end — this alone is disheartening — but every relationship will end in pain and sadness.

Great, what a life we have before us.

But, my friend who reminded me that God did not intend for us to die, also reminded me that we should take comfort in this truth. I once wrote that there is no comfort in death. Death is a result of sin and I’m learning to see that in Christ we can overcome sin. I know what you are thinking. Can we cheat death? No. But can we overcome the power of death, not the reality of it? To this I say yes.

I was waiting for my evening class to begin as I pondered this thought. The sun was disappearing, the night was drawing in and I realized that lately I’ve been thinking of death as the ultimate outcome.

I keep returning to this one bible character who walked with the Lord all his life. I can’t remember his name or which book he was recorded in. I heard a pastor say this man walked with the Lord straight into heaven. An ideal way to go. Death for the people in this world appears to be the ultimate outcome, but ultimate would imply that it is final. Although death is the finish line on this side of heaven, it is also the starting point on the other side.

My sadness for Johnny was first brought on by a longing to be with him, then it became a fear of facing death in this world over and over again until it was my turn to suffer this final enemy. I don’t know what I think of death now. But it doesn’t seem quite as scary as it first did. Not with the remembrance that God never intended for us to die.

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more. Death, thou shalt die.” — Holy Sonnets; Death, Be Not Proud

A Grave Visitation

Friday was the one month anniversary since John died. His best friend and I went to the grave to pay our respects. I wasn’t ready for it. The night before I tossed and turned until I found myself in the kitchen chugging a glass of water to replenish the tears I’d cried in my bed.

The graveyard is an easy half hour drive from the city. A quiet countryside surrounds it with square farmlands and big roofed houses. Gravel crunched beneath our feet as we silently approached the grave. I trembled with pulsing thoughts that said, I’m not ready for this.

It was one of those moments in life that you never expect to live. To be in your early twenties approaching the grave of your dear childhood friend, on a Friday afternoon in November. Isn’t this the time of life when you’re thinking about who you should marry, or what job you should pursue, or what countries you want to visit?

How surreal it is to visit the dead. They hadn’t set a tombstone, so we stopped at the bed of grass that was raised up from the ground with the bouquet of flowers from the funeral at the foot of it. They were white and wilted with long green stems and their petals were starting to brown at the edges. It felt odd, the two of us looming over this plot of grass where his body was laid. So I told him we should sit down.  And so we did, and then we wept. . .

“I wish there was a tombstone,” I remarked. I’d pictured this moment in my head since the day my brother said we’d occasionally have to visit the grave. I wanted to see his name and the date and the bible scripture his parents had chosen to engrave in the stone. But no. There was just the earth and the flowers and the sky and the absence.

It was indeed surreal, too surreal to recount. Not pleasant, not healing, not restorative. Just sad. Sad that people have to die. Sad to think I too will lie in the earth someday. Sad to consider how many times we will return to this spot to grieve the loss of our dear friend.

Two is better than one. I’m glad I went with his best friend. We cried together. We prayed together. We sat in silence heaving deep breaths of autumn air, while flicking bugs off of us and listening to John’s favorite album through an iPhone speaker.

Leaving was harder than coming. As we drove away with the gravel crunching beneath the tires, I wept again, feeling the absence of John so very strongly. It would no longer be  the three of us.

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Another week begins. And I am doing better. I was feeling so distant from God lately that I sat in church yesterday and waited patiently for a word from him. He met me in the back pew with a passage from Romans 8.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[g] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

I woke this morning ready to declare my usual greetings to God, but all I could manage to say was, “Thank you for grace.”

 

Afraid to live Afraid to die

Fear: noun; a distressed emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, or pain.

I suppose fear is a result of death, and that of sin. As expected, these days I am depleted by the fear of death more than ever before. I use to think about death in a good way. It was my ultimate outcome, a sign of a job well done, the end of the race.

Now it scares me.

I fear losing another close friend. I fear dying when my time comes. How will it feel to leave my body, this vessel I call home, and to experience a state of bodilessness.

My fear extends beyond death. I’m now afraid to live. Afraid of making memories without him. Afraid of doing things we used to do together. Afraid of growing older than him, for he was always a year ahead of me. Afraid of stepping into new chapters of life and not being able to tell him about them. And most of all, afraid of forgetting things we did together.

When someone dies, memories are all that remain. Photographs hardly do them justice. But what of when I forget the sound of his voice, the way he walked, the expressions he made?

I was at first comforted by the thought of seeing him again; heaven seemed all the more near. But as one morning without Johnny in this world becomes a few dozen, I search in vain for that comfort?

I remember a famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

Last week I didn’t want to beBut with each new morning in this sad chapter of life I realize that Someone wants me to be. And as long as I am here, ’till the day I get to see Johnny again, I will carry out the tasks my Father has asked of me.

As I start a new week I pray these words from the Psalms, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

The Death of a Friend & the Birth of a Nephew

Hospitals. Nobody likes them. I hadn’t stepped foot in a hospital for eight months. And then I made two trips within a week. One for the death of a friend and another for the birth of a nephew.

Because the two incidents happened so close together, Johnny’s death and Gabe’s birth, my emotions tend to overlap. I see my sister with her baby, that baby who grew inside her for nine months, that human soul who I just thought of as a swollen stomach for weeks on end. And it scares me. My mind tries to comprehend how this works.

How is a human soul born?

How does a human soul die?

But wait, it doesn’t die. For it was John’s body that died, not his soul. That’s what they tell me.

At his funeral . . . that wretched day when I sobbed on the porch, mortified at the thought of seeing his body.

At his funeral . . . that awful day when we drove for an hour to find the place to rest his body.

At his funeral . . . his friend spoke. I didn’t know the man. It was a friend from his years when I was in college. The man was preaching a sort of funeral sermon, explaining the eternal life John’s soul was granted in Heaven. John’s soul, not his body, his soul. Like the soul in little Gabe that began when he was born.

The man at the podium loudly proclaimed into the microphone, “JOHN IS NOT DEAD.” Silence followed. Someone in the audience murmured an almost laugh. It was lunacy to say such a thing at a funeral, with the body of our friend resting in a closed wooden box just a few feet away.  I mean, really? Can you imagine what those words did to everyone? 

The words haunt me like a strange shadow, breathing into my ear, those words I so very much wanted to hear the night it happened. But no, I heard in fact the opposite.

John is dead. Despite the words that echoed hollowly through the sanctuary, despite the fact his soul lives on, despite the life God’s given him in heaven, John is dead. John died.

Three weeks from the day his life was taken, I still tremble at the thought. I still wish it was all a dream and I’d wake up wondering how someone so close to me could actually die. How could I go on when that person — who was a part of me and I of them — was removed from my life?

But no.

Three weeks have come and gone and I haven’t woken from this bewildering nightmare. Dreams don’t make sense in the moment but still we try to figure out how to keep going, or we come to a point when nothing about the dream is fathomable and we simply wake up.

There is no waking up after a death. There is simply the shock, and then the grief, and then something they call coping. Trying. Attempting. Figuring out what to do.

“I don’t know what to do.” I breathed these words into the dark air outside the hospital. We hugged, his best friend and I, in the eerie realization that it was just the two of us, and that Johnny, though inside the hospital, was no longer there.

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I hold my nephew in my hands. This doesn’t feel real. How can my sister have a baby? I know it’s so simple. My mom had ten of these. But my brain for some reason cannot admit the change life brings. First she was pregnant, then he was born. First Johnny was here — we were texting hours before it happened — then he was gone.

Death is not a dream. Death is reality.