My process in dealing with life’s confrontations is to write.
In my adolescence, I put words on paper. My childhood scribblings filled white page after white page with ink—preferably blue—helping me work through whatever was going on. From the experiences of high school that did not seem trivial at the time, to the adult challenges of leaving the security of my parents’ home for college, the trauma of losing grandparents and classmates, the repercussions of a bad marriage, the joy found in a good divorce, daring job changes, the despair of dissolved friendships, and the various calamities humans experience as we continue to age.
Through everything, I write.
Yet, there are times I have no words.
The Newton, Connecticut shootings left me speechless—word-less. Each school shooting before and since has done the same. I have nothing to contribute except prayers that the Christ I believe in would give those families the strength they need to survive such an unfathomable loss.
The first death of the young in my generation of our family was when my cousin Davey died in an accident at age thirty-five a mere two months to the day after his wedding. To cope with his loss it had to become about what we need to learn, who we need to be in getting through, in rising day-after-following-day and winning against the struggles.
After my cousin’s death, his co-worker told me, “I no longer leave for work in the morning without hugging my son and wife, kissing them both and telling them I love them.” Is that a cliche? I think it sounds like a man learning to appreciate every moment he gets with his family.
When Davey—a soul whose mission on earth seemed to be bringing everyone he met into his light—died, my faith came out of the shadows and started to grow into his residual brightness. It was simple: There was no way to believe that Christ was not in the world or Christ in the after world because Davey couldn’t end, could not simply be gone without an echo. He had to keep shining somewhere and heaven seemed a very likely place for that to happen.
Searching to fill the empty left in a life without Davey, I began to truly believe. I bought an NIV Life Application Study Bible and read the New Testament straight through. Twice.
Different crises to go through
My nephew-in-law was in an accident two years later and one month after his marriage to my beloved niece. While he was in surgery, I prayed with an ardent heart that couldn’t do anything but pray: “Please Lord, heal the burns on his hands, please Lord, heal the burns on his hands.” He had been thrown from a ladder due to an electrical arc and landed on his back. His spine was damaged, yet my faith was so little that I didn’t understand that I could have prayed to God to heal each part of him. I focused on his palms and that those burns would not cause permanently damage. They healed. He is a competitive cyclist, a skier, a man of wide-ranging interests who happens to be a paraplegic. Daily, he teaches others how to Go Forward after a loss.
During his rehabilitation, they let their story out into the world via the early days of a blog. People worldwide came to them with prayers and offers of assistance. It was stunning what we on the outside learned from their private struggle to prevail and life a large life.
Over the years, I have lost many young people. There were calls my parents made as I lived far away to tell me that this accident happened and this person is gone. There was losing Sue, so young, the sister of a boy I briefly dated after high school. Dad called to tell me about the car wreck and I curled into a corner of my apartment and wept, Dad stuck on the other end of the phone, unable to do more than repeat, I’m sure sorry, honey. I have wept many tears and always wonder how I have any left to cry again.
But I always do. And with each loss, I wrote about that person.
There is a story inside of me I have needed—need—to write since my parents died.
I stubbornly refuse to sit still and work it out, spill the words onto the screen, because the journey to do so is too onerous. The story starts like this: My parents each weighed 110 pounds when they died. For Mom this wasn’t that far off what she had been most of her life, give or take depending on pregnancies or health issues. But for my larger-than-life, robust, and strong as Hercules father, this was 70 pounds less than usual.
We lost our folks within eight months of each other. Probably there are daughters and sons who have lost parents with an even shorter gap between the deaths. Probably it doesn’t matter to a child if it was eight months, six years, or four decades. The passing of a parent is awful. No, I am still not ready to use my process on this loss.
Not a Parent
I am not a parent, so the loss of my child will never been known to me. But I am an aunt. When my sixteen-year-old niece left my Montana house for the first time to drive herself the nineteen miles home, I watched her go out the 500-yard driveway, thinking how much I loved her. Then I went to pieces, calling Jackie, demanding that she surreptitiously call when Jenny arrived home, staying in a panic for a half an hour until I knew she was safe.
When I left Montana, a terrible moment was saying good-bye to my nephew. At fifteen, he was already strong and gentle. We hugged and stepped apart and his shoulders shook with trying not to cry. After all he was at football practice, so get real, no emotions like that in public. I hated myself for leaving him. I thought: oh my God, what have I done to cause him pain? I have never forgiven myself for that moment.
Caregiving Our Parents
When Mom was fighting cancer and Dad battling ALS, we siblings each assumed certain roles. Jackie was in charge of medicines, doctor appointments, the VA. I handled financial, estate, and communications with the ALS organization. Joey was the primary caregiver, giving up nights with his wife half a mile up the road in order to stay with our parents. Joanne was in charge of meal preparation, ensuring the freezer was stocked with healthy fare.
Each time Jackie flew from Montana—usually every six weeks to stay for two weeks—my beating heart was lodged like a stuck piece of food in my throat until I picked her up or she again landed safely in Billings. Safety, being safe, traveling safe—we have no control over this, over accidents, over the things that hurt our loved ones and cause dramatic changes in our lives. To know that she was out of harm’s way was one thing to celebrate during a terrible time.
I love my family. Let me re-state that: I. Love. My. Family.
I love the Griffith clan (and our add-ons) with an abundance that never ends. These people nurtured me throughout my life. My cousins tortured me as a child (the only redhead—how could they not?). We fought. We played. We laughed. We hugged.
Oh my God the hugs.
I love my family. I love the way they descended upon our parents’ home and were in and out constantly the ten days my mother was dying.
I love how they came at the drop of a hat when we declared “Cousin’s Party!” or “Luau at Dad’s this weekend!” every time we shouted it throughout Dad’s fourteen months of dying.
I love that at Mom’s funeral viewing, a cousin forgot to shut her cell on vibrate and as she left the casket, it went off: “Ring, ring ring, ring, ring ring ring…” Each one progressively more shrill. Stricken, she looked at Dad, at his kids, and we burst out laughing. My mother would have loved that.
Then we came up against a new loss to process. Another cousin left us.
Having survived too many other deaths, I still do not know if anyone in my family has been able to fathom what happened. In the months following her death, we fought to understand what happened. We were our pragmatic selves, talking, spending many sleepless nights thinking it through.
Grief is hard.
Grief should be taught in schools, taught at home, learned from the earliest age.
We lose people. We lose them to accidents, to war, to terrible diseases that shrink them from the inside out. Sometimes we lose them to suicide.
Loss will always be in us and if our hearts are open to love, death will devastate us each time it connects to our life. Knowing that does not make our sorrow any easier. Knowing that makes me understand that we can either shut down the abundant tenderness inside our hearts and hide from family and friends or we can break open the hard shells surrounding our emotions and tell the world: I hurt.
I hurt for the world when someone who filled our lives with utter joy has chosen to leave us. I have no writer’s imagination to fill in the blank left by her absence, to fill the empty hole with anything better than her.
We continue to live
In the years following the deaths of those we love, come the anniversary dates of these harsh losses. We note those dates the way we do the birthdays. Our hearts re-live the pain and fall into danger of breaking to the Humpty-Dumpty point where putting them back together again is beyond comprehension.
Have we healed? We pray and hold fast to our faith. We get out of bed every day and move forward, one foot following the other. We seek salvation from our grief through our relationships, through celebrating the days of sunshine and wallowing in the days of rain. We heal even though everything is changed without the people we love here with us. We recover because we choose to.
And some of us write. I share my pain through words. It is the thing I know how to do. Write out my words of sadness and share them with the people who care. Soon, I’ll be able to write about my parents. I’m sure I will.