On Grieving

I’m not sure how to begin this entry. It’s one I’ve been thinking about for a week, yet still I sat, staring at the screen, unsure of the words to type. So I opted to start with what’s most natural: the unsure, the unknowing.

In two months, I feel as though I’ve had a crash course in learning how to grieve. I’m amazed at the variety of ways that grief can manifest itself. Just under seven weeks ago, I was on a plane leaving Haiti, experiencing an entirely new kind of grief, that of leaving a foreign place that I had come to love so well. The grief  that accompanies the uncertainty of when I’ll be able to return. The grief that comes with having my heart broken for a place and a people unlike any I’d ever known. Here is a good kind of grief, I think. The grief of love, of loving well. The grief that inspires prayer and action, the grief that transcends into hope.

Then there was the grief of re-entry. The grief of knowing that a mere 9 days changed my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The grief of feeling like a piece of a puzzle that didn’t quite fit right anymore, whose edges had morphed a little bit so that the fit wasn’t tight and perfect anymore. The grief of wondering, “What next, Lord?” How could I carry Haiti with me while still working, teaching, writing, doing all the things that didn’t exactly have anything to do with Haiti?

Then came the grief of losing two family members just 17 days apart.

On Wednesday, January 25, I was in the check-out line at Publix when my dad called. I hurriedly answered, said I would call him back in just a second, paid, and walked outside in my car. When I called him back, I knew from the tone of his “Hello” that a tragedy had happened. My Uncle Aussie–Dad’s sister’s husband–had died, suddenly, tragically. A kind of death that can never be rationalized, never be accepted. The kind of death that rips a huge, irreparable hole in the fabric of my family. I was alternately heartbroken and weeping or numb and stoic. The next evening, after work, I made the three-hour drive home to be with my family. When I climbed out of the car, I actually collapsed on the ground from a grief and a sadness that I’ve never experienced before. But my family had come out to greet me, and as we made our way into the house, they shared incredibly news. My uncle, a devout evolutionist who never had any interest in Jesus, had accepted Christ just two months before. He’d joined a church and was scheduled to be baptized in three days. I wept again, this time in praise of a God who can bring light to any darkness, in a God who never gives up on His children. My uncle’s loss was still heavy, and my family had to rally around my now-widowed aunt to support her throughout the funeral and the days after, but the burden was lightened, and God’s glory was revealed.

In the midst of all this grief, I had to find the energy to write the first chapter of my thesis, to teach my students, to live my life. The questions of “How are you?” or “How was your weekend?” that seemed so innocent before suddenly became penetrating questions that I avoided with those I didn’t know well and confessed the truth to those I did. Yet I still didn’t know how to grieve. Back in Greenville, away from my family, the loss didn’t seem so glaring, and I also needed to focus on writing to meet my thesis deadlines. I didn’t think I even had time to grieve.

Then, on Saturday, Feb. 10, my dad called, once more with bad news. I was taking a rare break–sitting on my bed reading a book for fun. I thought it strange that Dad was calling at dinner time because I knew my parents had plans to take my aunt out for dinner. When I answered the phone, I realized that I’m grateful that Dad doesn’t pull any punches. He asked where I was, hoping that I was alone and somewhere private, then said, “Your Papa Ting is dead.”

My mom’s dad. The only grandfather I’ve had. The man who spoiled me as his first grandchild, who made me laugh with his quirky characteristics, who gave me $500 when he found out I was going to Haiti. My Papa Ting.

My grieving for my grandfather is different than for my uncle. Different than when Mama Kat died. These family members each held a different position in my life, each had a different impact on my life, and my grief for their losses has been unique to each circumstance.

When I got home the next morning and sat talking with just my dad, I was weak, dizzy, overwhelmed by the grief. But by that evening, when I joined the rest of my family members, I realized that I don’t grieve in front of people. I’m good at pasting on a smile and answering questions of relatives who haven’t seen me in years. During the visitation, when the funeral home was flooded with people who’d known my grandfather and loved him, I played the role of a charming granddaughter–happy to see people, thankful for the overwhelming response of friends, full of good stories of a childhood with my grandfather. I lost my voice from talking to so many people, but I never shed a tear at the visitation.

The funeral was on Valentine’s Day, just a week ago. A cold, rainy Valentine’s Day. I ruefully admired the irony of such a situation and the recognition that, if I thought I hated Valentine’s Day before, now the day would forever be the anniversary of my grandfather’s funeral.

In the week that’s passed since, I’ve dealt in mostly the same way as my uncle’s death. Throwing myself wholeheartedly into writing my thesis, or preparing to teach my students, or working in the library and the writing center–all the areas of my life that could only be put on hold for so long. Then, Sunday night, our pastor began talking about Lent, about a season of death giving way to life. He used a long sermon illustration about a funeral that was just too much, and I started crying while I sat at the back of the sanctuary. Two of my friends came to sit with me, understanding immediately what my reaction would be. They brought tissues, wrapped arms around me, and sat with me as I began to realize that I don’t know how to grieve–publicly or privately.

I’ve been fighting to ignore my broken heart. I’ve been numb to life around me, to joy and to sadness. I’ve sought escape–quite successfully, I might add–in working, and honestly, with my thesis deadline just three weeks away, that might be exactly what I need to do.

This cannot last, though. I’ve been considering the grieving process. Writing this post is one step because I’m addressing the hurt that’s inside right now. I’m also planning to spend most of my upcoming spring break with my family. Just enjoying them. Taking a drive out to the farmlands where my grandfather’s house is, spending some time on the swing in his backyard, and admiring the land that he spent most of his life working. I think grief will come, a healthy grieving, if I can recognize that the presence he’s had on my life isn’t gone, if I can hold onto the memories, and if I can tell the family that I still have how much I love them.

I can also recognize that a time will come when I can think about these people I’ve lost and not feel numbness or overwhelming sadness. In the fourteen months that have passed since my grandmother died, I’ve begun to heal from the loss. I miss her dearly, but the memories I have of her now are the good ones, not the ones in the last years of her life when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. The same will happen in time with these losses. I also know that God will use this time of grief for His glory, just as He’s used all the times of intense joy.

In the meantime, life goes on, seeming, for now, slightly faded and tired. A little dimmer than before. I know from experience that it won’t be this way forever. Seasons will change, life will bring new challenges and joys, and (soon, hopefully) I’ll stop looking to the future as if I’m anticipating yet another tragedy. Maybe I’ll stop equating grief with weakness, maybe I’ll be vulnerable in front of other people, maybe I’ll start believing that tears aren’t a character flaw.

And God will bring healing. And joy will come in the morning.

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I remember you like yesterday.

Yesterday morning, I found out (via Facebook, no less) that my friend Keri’s father had died earlier that morning. He found out last year that he had leukemia, and the last I’d heard, they thought it was in remission. It came back, and Mr. Lou was on his second round of chemo, but it was already too late, and he died in the hospital.

What makes this situation so difficult is that, on February 13, it will have been 14 years since Keri’s 16-year-old brother Jim died from leukemia. Keri and I were nine years old then and best friends. In the last days of Jim’s illness, she spent a lot of nights at my house while her parents stayed in Charleston with Jim. We never really talked about him much–Keri never really talked about Jim at all, even throughout high school. Jim’s death obviously affected her tremendously, and I can’t imagine what it must be like now to have lost her brother and father to the same disease.

My mom called me just a little while ago, after she got home from the visitation at the funeral home. She called to tell me that Keri and her husband Andrew are expecting their first child in July. For Christmas, they gave Mr. Lou a copy of the ultrasound picture.

It doesn’t seem fair that Keri has to lose her father just months before her baby is due. But at the same time, I can see that this must be God’s divine plan: as tragic as their loss is, Keri and Andrew and Keri’s mom have something miraculous to look forward to now. Something that can help heal their broken hearts. At the same time, they realize that Mr. Lou and Jim must surely be rejoicing in heaven over Keri’s pregnancy.

Because of having to meet with my professor tomorrow, I won’t make it home for the funeral. But I’ll most likely go see Keri on Saturday when I head home. It will definitely be bittersweet. I’m not really sure what I’ll say, but mostly, I’ll just remember that God, in all His infinite love and wisdom, has His hands on us all.