On Grieving: Part 1

I looked up the stages of grief today. There are only five, which remarkably doesn’t seem like a lot to go through. I couldn’t really identify which one I’m in, or really if I’d started going through them yet at all, or if it’s possible that I just went straight to depression.

Not that I’m depressed per se, I don’t think I’d describe it in that way, however, it may not be that far from the truth. I’m no expert. I’ve always felt like depression was this big, ugly cloud hovering in the corner of my perfectly happy sky expanse and someday I might look up to realize it’s tapping me on the shoulder with it’s rain of sadness and then… the rest of life… depressed. I’ve watched a lot of my family struggle with depression, it’s difficult to not succumb to it when that’s how you were shown to deal with things. It seems, though, that my struggle isn’t so much with depression as it is with anxiety. I think of depression as hopelessness, believing that there’s no point at all. I feel like that sometimes but not for very long. I usually see the problem, believe it’s terrible, but that there are a lot of things I could do to fix it, if only I could identify which tweak I should do first, and perhaps at the end of that, when it’s not fixed, I will start on this over here and maybe that will affect it. No? Ok, bummer, well, I’ll think on it some more (usually when I should be sleeping) and come up with some more things I should’ve done differently and will try again as soon as I wake up from that middle-early-morning nap I take from four til seven… Anxiety. There it is.

Where does anxiety fit into the five stages of grief? I’m not sure, but I know how it fits into my mind. It comes through in worrying about all the relationships: Am I doing enough for my dad? Am I doing enough for my siblings? Am I supporting my body with my diet and activity level? Because if I don’t, it’ll just be even harder for me. But, you know, don’t do too much and cause more stress. Am I doing enough for my students? What if I fail them because I don’t actually know what I’m doing? Am I doing enough for my friends? Am I being a willing servant to Adam or am I just absorbed with my sadness and thinking about only my needs? What if he’s grieving too and I don’t know how to help him? Why does no one like me? (that last question somehow squeezes in no matter what’s going on in life)

And then I wondered if I began my journey through the stages of grief a long time ago. Maybe when Mom was diagnosed, or maybe a year or so ago when it seemed like they weren’t getting control over the cancer and it was only a matter of time. Living with a terminally ill parent is very difficult. It’s not something I really wanted to talk about with anyone outside my family except for a couple of people I knew would understand, for fear of it seeming like I was unsympathetic to her pain. I’m sure it is different for everyone because every parent is different and every person is different and the complexities of responding to each other and to illness are seemingly endless. To put it simply, the struggle comes in when you realize your parent needs taken care of but they’re your parent and they don’t want to be taken care of by you. Perhaps it’s painful for them to put you in that situation, I’m not sure about parental emotions because I’m not a parent yet. All I know is that the whole time my mom was sick our relationship was very difficult. It’s so hard to have a parent be around but be so consumed within their own survival that they’re no longer a parent to you, they’re not taking care of you, at times not interested in your struggles at all, not giving advice, but also refusing all the little bits of help you can offer. It’s like your relationship gets stuck because there’s no back and forth, neither are sure what to give to the other.

I think I started grieving the loss of my mom a long time ago. Even though she was still here, I lost her as an active maternal presence a few years ago. That sounds harsh, but it was harsh, it was very painful and confusing. I never felt like I knew what to do, never felt like I’d done enough. Neither of us communicated enough, and it took until a few weeks before she died to actually sit down and choose to let all of the misunderstandings of the past few years (and, in my case, most of my life) go. I was led to that conversation by my brother, who stepped into the middle of it out of incredible wisdom, seeing it more clearly than I could that it was absolutely imperative that we speak our minds and choose to forgive each other. I don’t know where I’d be at emotionally today if it wasn’t for that encounter. I realized in that moment that so many things I’d chosen to hold against her since my childhood, she really had no idea she had wronged me in, and that I had only caused pain to myself by holding onto them. Likewise, the things that she was holding onto were her failures that I didn’t pay any mind to. I saw this very clearly: forgive each other, forgive yourself, bitterness and guilt do nothing but terrible damage. I also came to a monumental realization that God honored my mom’s desire to do good in my life and even though she made some mistakes that seemed like they should’ve ruined that quest, God still used them for the good she would’ve chosen if she could’ve viewed it more clearly. It gave me such great comfort because I know that I mess up things so often, and maybe I’ve screwed things up irreversibly, I feel like that a lot. But my efforts and those of the people around me are in God’s hands and He can change all things for good. Seriously! Blows my mind. I don’t understand it, but I am so thankful he didn’t leave us to our own tragedy.

Because of learning to forgive her, I was able to face Mom’s death and now my loss of her with sadness. I feel the sadness as a gift, as I get to leave behind that legacy of guilt and regret and realize that the misunderstandings weren’t everything. There was so much good, and now I am left to remember the good (gosh, I get overwhelmed by the beautiful memories hourly it seems), grieve over my loss of her rather than chase myself to the grave over mistakes and wrongs that I’ve committed or endured. God uses it all for good and we should build an altar.

My dad didn’t preach much when I was growing up so he just had this one sermon that he would use whenever he was asked to preach. It was about the altar that God asked the Israelites to build so that when they walked by it they would remember what God did for them and when their kids saw it and asked them why it was there they would tell them what God did for them. Then my dad would take out these four or five objects he’d gathered throughout his life that reminded him of what God had taught him through difficulties; he had an ankle brace from high school, an old Ford emblem from a van that was given to us, a newsletter they’d sent out at the beginning of my family’s ministry when my parents weren’t sure what to do, how to do it, or even how to put a roof over their five kids’ heads. He’d tell this story about when we sang at this band contest, didn’t place at all but this guy stood up and said he thought they should support our family so he passed his hat around the place and we ended up with more money than the grand prize for first place. Stuff like that, stuff you might’ve forgotten in the midst of the stress of living in a pop-up camper with seven people and the youngest person wasn’t quite potty-trained yet (Hey! that’s me!!) , or the disappointment that your band wasn’t really that great even though you wanted to do music for your living and instead were bussing tables at a buffet restaurant. Stress and pain can overshadow all of the joys of our days if we choose to let them. I have thought about my dad’s one sermon a lot over my life, remembering to set memorials in my heart and mind and things to place around my home to remind me of what God has done for me.

May I never forget what God has taught me, is teaching me, and will undoubtedly continue to teach me through the loss of my mom. Regardless of the weight of the sorrow, I can choose to forgive, to ask for forgiveness, set aside guilt and regret, take a lot of deep breaths and embrace the joy and beauty that God has for me today. Instead of (like my sister said) stomping my foot because it’s not what I had wanted. God has the power to make things good. Somehow He does it, and I believe He will again.