When Anthony and I were engulfed in the raging sea of disbelief that our son had died, we were grasping for any tools we could get our trembling hands on to deal with our grief. One of these was meeting with a counselor.
Of course we had no experience with grief counseling before this, and our counselor was an interesting one. She would start with asking what we were feeling.
I feel like I am generally a self-aware person and I don’t have a whole lot of trouble being honest. So I would lay it all out there. The sadness, the shock, how overwhelming it is to function each day, the searing physical pain…
She would nod and wait a few seconds and then say, “But what is going on in here?” and she’d make a box with her hands and hold it in front of her heart.
I would feel a little confused and then go back through and reiterate the pain and loss and basically, how pretty much awful everything is.
And she would nod and wait and then say, “But what is in here?” and hold the imaginary box up to her heart.
Uh… isn’t that what I just told you?
But we didn’t know what we were doing or how to process this sudden death so we went back to her again. Because surely she knew best how to help us. She’s a grief counselor after all.
On our third (and final) visit I lost all patience with her and her stupid little heart box and probably made it pretty obvious. So she gave up on me and turned to Anthony to ask him repeatedly about his little box. And being more diplomatic and gracious than me, he tried to explain to her that we keep answering the same thing over and over. So she pulled out a “feeling chart” with all these mad/sad/angry faces and asked him to point to the face he most identified with.
Um. Are you kidding me?
If only grief could be solved with heart boxes and emojis.
When we got in the car and I wiped frustrated tears from my eyes, we agreed that someday this could be funny.
And some days it is. But many days, grief is just still too overwhelming to find much comedy in a lifeline we were grasping for in the midst of drowning sorrow.
It was just so discouraging. She was supposed to be the one who had grief figured out. Because we sure didn’t have the first clue how to navigate this nightmare. What now? How do we fix this? How do we figure it out so we can function and equip our family to get through this?
Since that first failed attempt at “figuring out grief,” I have read many books and I have gone to grief groups. And I have spent many hours in prayer and processing with wise and godly people.
And I still haven’t solved anything.
While I still feel like I am fighting for oxygen in this surviving without my child nightmare, I have certainly learned that part of dealing with loss is acknowledging how impossible it is. I still spend many days in shock and just sorting through the emotions and pain.
And I grieve many things. Mostly I grieve the loss of my son and his life in my home. I grieve everything about him and everything that is gone. I could write pages and pages of what I miss about him and how raw it still feels to face the death of a child and how the shock that this is my life still takes my breath away every day. And while that is obviously the most overwhelming aspect of my grief, there are still many, many other things I grieve.
I was once on a happy little path of life. And then a bomb unexpectedly went off. And my trajectory detoured on a scary awful route I never would have chosen. And all around me I feel the expectation of, “So, you are ok now, right? Back to the original route? Just a scary, painful detour but then everything works out?”
But grief is so much more than just losing Mason. It’s all about adjusting to a whole new everything, an entirely new track my life started down and there is no reverse to take me back to the course I actually want. Grief is being constantly aware of how life is different and always bracing myself for an onslaught of emotions that can come out of nowhere, catch me off guard and suck the air from my lungs. Hearing a song, seeing a certain toy, remembering a forgotten moment. Hearing a laugh from another room that sounds just like his.
GriefShare calls these ambushes. I like this title. Just add the chaos and unimaginable horrors of war and I think it’s quite accurate.
Even nearly three years later, grief pervades much of my life.
When its the first day of school and my kids have on their new uniforms and their backpacks full of fun new school supplies and eager smiles on their expectant faces, I grieve. I miss homeschooling all my children. All of us together… rich experiences and closeness. Our time snuggled on the couch or learning in nature. I grieve what once was and what might have been.
When I read my sometimes hilarious and always thoughtful Mother’s Day cards from my kids, I feel loved and cherished by my family… and I deeply grieve the one that is missing.
And when my 5 year-old makes life observations through the lens of losing an older brother, I grieve the loss of his innocence.
When entering a new social situation and facing the question of “How many kids do you have?” or “What made you decide on such an age gap in your children?” I grieve the days I didn’t dread going out in public or making small talk with new people.
At church when we sing a song from my son’s funeral or one which references the grave and death and someday heaven, I grieve for a time I didn’t have to force my mind to think of something boring like making a grocery list for fear that if I don’t, I will sob uncontrollably and not only bring awkward attention to myself but completely humiliate my poor children.
And when I read a news headline about the tragic loss of someone else’s child, I selfishly grieve the obliviousness I once had to tragedy and the days I would say “oh how awful!” and then forget about it a minute later.
Yes, there is truth about God’s goodness in all this. And how he makes beauty from ashes and all kinds of other clichés that makes those not actually holding the ashes feel a little more comfortable. And he redeems and he heals and there is great hope in the certainty of eternity.
But also. There is pain. And grief. And sometimes, I just sit with it. And I just grieve.
Because once, the very son of God came to this earth and in the face of the painful loss of his dear friend he didn’t say, oh, but God is good! He’ll redeem this. Hang on, no need to cry! You’ll see him again!
Every child’s favorite verse to memorize tells us he grasped that pain. He sat with it. “Jesus wept.”
Weeping takes it out of you. It’s not just wiping some emotion from your eye. It’s some serious ugly face crying from the depths. He wept. Jesus was in the moment of grief and he let it wash over him. He faced it and dealt with it.
The truth is, I will grieve forever. In little ways and in massively overwhelming ways. I will sort through memories of a little boy I held for 6 years and said goodbye to way too unexpectedly. I will take each seed of grief as it comes and identify it for what it is. And weep over it and be honest about it.
Because if I don’t, it will burrow its way into my heart and grow some deep roots of bitterness and blossom into some pretty harsh fruit and become a plant I will be eager to water. Because its real and true and I have every justification to validate its growth.
For the rest of my life I will have to do this. Maybe more often in some seasons than others.
I always see Mason missing from his age group. I feel his absence at the soccer field. I’m aware of which classroom would be his at school or church.
And what about that little girl I prayed for? The one who was going to grow up into the woman Mason would marry? The one I prayed would be cherished and nurtured in a safe and loving family and would someday bring out the best in my son.
Well, she vanished on a dark day in September along with my little boy.
The thing is, I will never have grief figured out. But there are a few things I know. Grief will perpetually taint this life. Because being a mom is a forever thing. And, it will always ache.
God is always good and always faithful.
And sometimes his goodness feels overwhelming. And the hope of eternity is so rich I feel like I am breathing it in and out.
But other times, like September, the ache is crushing. And the tears come and the air is sucked from my lungs and grief lingers awhile. Hovering around with memories and shocking reminders of my reality.
And I don’t have a solution for it and I don’t have it figured out. I just know it means sorrow and anguish and missing my little boy.
Sometimes grief peers in through the window for a bit, a sort of lurking sadness. Other times, it violently kicks the door in, and its intrusion is chaotic and terrifying.
And sometimes, it pulls up a chair and sits awhile. An uninvited guest, it stays as long as it needs and does not leave just because of sheer willpower or stubborn denial.
But grief is not the enemy. Grief is the reality of a fallen world. And it may leave a door wide open for all those awful visitors like bitterness and despair, but grief itself is not the enemy.
So when grief makes itself comfortable in spite of desperate pleas, I have found that even though I haven’t figured it out, I am willing to sit with it. And be honest about it. And let the waves of sadness come. And identify the loneliness. And feel ok with being misunderstood. And sort through memories that make me laugh and make me weep.
And while grief will always be an unwelcome visitor, there is a Permanent Resident whose presence is always a buffer of peace. And who constantly applies the filter of eternity over every painful moment.
And when I weep in the midst of lonely pain, I feel him whisper…