A friend remarked recently that grief can be subtle. I had not considered that; most of my personal experiences have involved shock and suddenness – nothing subtle about it. But recently Grief made its uninvited, unwelcome appearance, disturbing the Christmas season and putting on hold my desire to blog until now. I’m still reflecting on the death of my father. Some of you have just stepped on this same path; others are much farther along the way. But eventually Grief brings a suitcase to each of us.
Illness and frailty had been my father’s companions off and on for several months before his death, rehab centers and assisted living replacing his favorite recliner at home, so I wasn’t completely unprepared for the news. But I don’t think we are ever truly ready for that phone call, that text. There is no way to predict how you will feel, how you will navigate the journey or when it will end.
When Dad passed away Grief just barged in, the weight of his luggage threatening to bury my ‘normal.’ Grief arrived and took over, dropped his baggage everywhere, propped his feet up on the coffee table expecting to be waited on, demanding my full attention before settling for anything less, threatening to set up permanent camp.
The tenderness of the moment I received the news was its own thing. At some point that yielded to sorrow which mingled with a simpler sadness, enveloped in melancholy and gloom.
The tears came first. A flood of full blown sobbing, overflowing my eyelid banks. Then they slowed to a river, freely flowing down my cheeks at will. As they ran their course sometimes they would drop like a brief light rain. Other times they would produce a sort of mist like a dreary day, dampening the spirits and making everything blah. Later internal tributaries developed, invisible but no less a reminder of the lingering presence of grief.
Desire to connect with those I loved most, especially my siblings, was right on the heels of tears. We gathered to reminisce, to mingle our tears, to poke around in every memory and get every drop of comfort that process brings. We brought strength to each other. The umbrella of grief shifted just enough for the light of happy memories to filter through. I began to gather pictures, searching not just for the best ones of Dad but for those candid photos that showed the love we had for each other and how much we enjoyed family time. Dad the patriarch, me just one of his many kids, the grands and great grands. Gatherings where the presence of unconditional love allowed for our acceptance of each other – flaws, failures, foolish mistakes and all.
My heart began to grow lighter as I prepared the memories I would share at my father’s memorial service. The word picture that resulted was of a man whose first love was his family and whose second love was flying – his 50+ year career took him from crop dusting to a highly credentialed flight instructor and business owner. A man whose imperfections led him to AA, gaining and giving strength during his 30 years of sobriety. A musically talented man, preferring guitar and harmonica. In his soft spoken way he lived a full life, rich in all the ways that count. What a blessing to honor Dad publicly, and to hear the kind comments from others who appreciated my father.
I begin now to understand the subtleness of grief. The memorial service was last week; the calendar distance from the finality of his passing has begun its work of gently prying away the grip of Grief. Gaining emotional distance will take time. I go about my day when suddenly there is Grief, squatting on my chest, daring me to put him in his place.
Being in the present of someone’s grief is a holy place. It is solemn honor to be close enough to observe something so deep, so personal. Holy places have a way of softening hearts, dissolving walls and prioritizing life. My Dad’s service was one such holy place. The sight and sounds of grief were all around me: silent tears sliding down the face of a brother; the rustling of tissues and touch on the shoulder by a sister; workings in the face of a loved one feeling the need to hold back tears; a gentle pat on a granddaughter’s knee; the dressed up well-mannered great-grandchildren in their places in those three front rows, learning about the circle of life and death; my own moist eyes, most of their leaking done in the weeks between his death and the service.
Grief was there but the author of death was outshone by the Giver of Life and His blessings. Blessings like the genuine love and regard of family and the gift of the presence of those impacted by my father’s life. The sweet table by the entry displaying carefully selected photos – the portrait of him as a young man, pictures of him with his children, an annual family reunion photo, his wedding photo from 55 years ago. The fitting guitar arrangement of In the Garden, its beautiful notes washing over us like healing balm. The memories shared, prayers said and scripture read, reminding us that believers do not grief like those who have no hope.
Grief is a ‘both-and’. Sudden loss rocks you to your core, but anticipated loss is no less a cause for grief. Loss is always a punch to the gut. Grief stomps around on your heart and tries to leave you much the worse for wear. But God in His time reaches down, tenderly gathers the pieces to put the heart back together and sends Grief packing, kicking that suitcase to the curb. In its place He leaves a small overnight bag, replenished with comfort and peace each time we open it to share our heart with Him.