The thing about grief . . . Part 4
There seems to be a prevalent myth that only the first year of grief is the hardest. Don’t get me wrong it is enormously difficult to encounter the “firsts”. For me it was things like the first St. Patrick’s Day with one less leprechaun trap, the first birthday without a birthday boy, the first day of school with only 3 backpacks, the first football game without a left guard named Stevens, and the first Christmas with an empty stocking. All of those were difficult, but honestly, sometimes the anticipation of the day was worse.
Earning an Olympic gold medal in worrying, I fretted about if we could handle it. For the most part, the day eventually arrived and we survived. Often times quietly, but never alone. God would place it on the heart of a friend to reach out and make that first better. We were buoyed by the friend who offered to pack those backpacks and the friend who showed up with a batch of cookies for the first football game, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have the heart to bake that day. I have said it before, but I will say it again we are RICH in friends.
The first year is awful, but the truth is “firsts” happen for years to come. When it comes to grieving Reed, later year milestones hurt as bad as the first Christmas. He didn’t get his driver’s license nor earn a letter in football, and neither will he walk across the stage at the upcoming emptiness of graduation. I can only imagine all the firsts that will happen for those, like the Newtown families, who lost one so little.
Heart-wrenching are the events that you didn’t think a whole lot about but yet sneak up on you. Those firsts apply to all the losses we grieve. I tried to call my Nannie on Christmas day only to realize that I don’t know heaven’s extension. I grieve our three miscarried babies. For my little ones, the hardest days have always been the time of the loss, the first day of school, and the day we hang Christmas stockings. Those days always hit me hard. I seem to go through the motions, while my heart is literally aching.
What I didn’t expect was the physical and emotional response that I had two years ago at my church. We give Bibles to the first-graders. It is such a sweet day. These little bundles of energy are given a child’s Bible with parents, grandparents and congregation looking on. There are flashes from cameras, big smiles, and rousing applause. There I sat, when suddenly I broke out into a sweat, my heart was pounding, and I started to feel flush. What in the world is going on here? Am I ill?
Eventually, I knew the reason for the reaction; I should have a little one up there on the altar steps. I should have a camera, giving “a big thumbs up” to my little boy. Tears began to trickle down, slowly at first. Those tears turned to gushes of anguish until I had to excuse myself from the sanctuary. I sat in the foyer sobbing for a little boy that I never held in my arms, but I still hold in my heart.
The hardest part was I knew that it was “Bible Sunday”, and I hadn’t paid it any attention with my habitual worry and fret. It just snuck up on me. Those are the firsts that are the most challenging – the ones you didn’t even know you should be worried about. We all do it. It can be a smell that reminds you of your grandma’s cooking, and then you miss her more. It can be a song on a radio, and you wish you had your mom to sing the harmony. It can be the fishing spot that was your best friend’s special place. They sneak up and grab you when you didn’t have time to batten down the hatches on your emotions.
Thankfully, there are those who have walked this road before me. One of those friends told me, “The first year is difficult as you experience all the firsts, but the second year is much more difficult as your heart begins to realize that the ache and emptiness are always there.” Her words didn’t make it better, but they did offer hope. Hope that we would survive and that we weren’t alone. But her words were also like “marching orders” that someday we would be able to offer the same encouragement to another grieving family.
I wonder if that is how God created grief. It is painfully debilitating, eliciting physical responses and numbing to the mind and soul. You walk through it – not always well – but somehow you pick up one foot and then another, until you wake up one day and it isn’t the first thing that you think about it. Sadly, you do revisit it. Just as physical scars remind us of past injuries, heart scars remind us of our loss but also of our survival. Maybe God’s plan is such that we can put that grief to good use to someday walking along someone else as they experience their own heartache.
I don’t know for certain if that is true, but I do know that God sent people to comfort me in my darkest hours. Even though it hurts like crazy, maybe just maybe, all those firsts, seconds, and even thirds will help me to love someone else.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (New Living Translation © 2007)