As a high schooler when my Grandma Gilreath passed away suddenly, I experienced grief for the first time over someone I dearly loved. I felt the pain of loss and grieved over never getting to witness the way she would see to everyone’s needs when all the family gathered to visit. I cried during the funeral service for my own self but for other family members who were feeling the same sting as I. It hurt me that they hurt and therefore, my grief exponentially intensified.
It would never be the same.
I had questions. Did she suffer? Would she miss me as much as I would miss her? Did she worry about how her family would manage? How would I get through the void of her absence? What was life going to look like without her? Would I always feel so brokenhearted and raw with emotions?
The very first time I can remember what grief felt like was when I was a child, about four years old. I was an only child at that point and relied on my dog, Peanut, to be my companion. He was faithful to be with me wherever my two little feet would go. After being told that Peanut had gotten sick and was found dead under a parked vehicle, I was overcome with grief. (Why I associated death with the color red, I do not know, but I would not drink red Kool-aid after that for a long time. Weird, I know.)
My little heart was broken because of my worry.
Was he in pain? Did he suffer? Was he cold? Was he lonely? Was he scared? Did he see Jesus? Was he going to miss me too? Would he go to heaven? All these thoughts lingered in my heart for a while.
The next major grief I felt was not over a person, but a circumstance, a loss of a dream. Having been such a dedicated student all through my school years, I grieved the fact that I had failed to continue college past my freshman year. Education was highly prized in my family and represented success and all things good and smart. I felt as if everyone was counting on me–I was to set an example for all my younger cousins.
What a big, fat failure with a capital F!
That’s what grieved me anyway. I had done everything I could to survive day to day…independently…while keeping my own bills paid without help from anyone or any government assistance. Working to stay alive and keep my financial obligations fulfilled was the maximum I could do with the time and energy I had…
…and it had not been enough.
I thought that anyway. That grief would travel with me and haunt me for decades. I would not feel as an up-to-par human because of the lack of that fine paper hanging in a frame on a wall. This low self-esteem also caused low self-confidence and a need to prove myself over and over again–to prove my intelligence, my work ethic, and my being-good-enough for years and years to come.
One of the single most, worst cases of grief I have ever and possibly will ever have experienced was the unexpected loss of my childhood friend, Marti Sue at 19 years old. She was placed in a medically induced coma to keep her from fighting the ventilator so she could breathe after suffering a terrible case of bronchitis turned pneumonia. After seven days in ICU, she slipped away.
Before going to the hospital, she had been with me at my hew home as I moved in so she could celebrate with me. For years I would blame myself for not have gotten her to a doctor sooner. I would believe for a long time afterward that her death was due to my lack of care for my friend and not getting her medical care sooner. My grief on that day of her funeral turned me into someone I had never had the guts to be before.
I was stone cold.
I did not want to hear anyone’s words of condolences or be touched by anyone trying to console me. This was a bold action considering I had always conducted myself in a manner to keep from hurting anyone’s feelings. That day I didn’t care about anything but my anger. My heart had been shattered, and there was no one that could pick up the pieces and put it all back together. It was an impossible task. So, I drove myself two hours home where I would spend the next year and a half in a state of shock and numbness. I didn’t trust what life would throw at me next, and my hope of goodness had been snuffed out.
I questioned God. Are you even there, God? How could you let this happen? You had the power to heal her and you didn’t? She had her whole life ahead of her…why did you take her so soon? How could you? Don’t you love me? Are you there? Do you even exist at all?
Life carried on, but I lived in a constant bubble afraid of everything and trusting very little of anything. I had slightly forgiven God for taking my friend. (Ironic, huh?) I married, bought a house with my husband, and had two daughters in those next 18 years after Marti’s passing.
In the spring of 2008, the biggest cheerleader in my entire life grew increasingly ill and left us on Mother’s Day that May. I knew my mamaw was better off where she was going than to stay here and suffer, but it hurt to lose our incomparable bond.
More questions arose. How am I going to survive without her? Who is going to listen and support me in the same way she did? How would my children ever know just how wonderful she was? What would happen to our extended family now? Would we fall apart and go separate ways? Would we make the time to care about each other as she had cared about us? How am I going to go the rest of my life without being able to see or talk with her, hug or drink coffee with her, laugh and exchange stories with her? How could I tell her all my worries and receive nothing but love, encouragement, and support in return? How?
Just two and a half years later, I would lose my grandpa and experience the grief of losing one of the most important elders in our family. Despite his quirks, he was going to be missed in ways we couldn’t even fathom at the time.
How are my girls going to know and experience hands-on and ears-in family history and family togetherness without him and my grandma? Would our family drift away from each other? What am I supposed to do? I don’t have the strength or energy to plead for us to come together to visit and enjoy the company of one another, so how will it all work out?
Prior to losing my grandpa, I experienced a life-altering grief that still affects me today. It is not over a person per se, but over control. After suffering two separate relapses, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in January 2010.
So many questions soared through my crowded mind it would put a presidential candidate in a debate tremble. What is this? Why did it happen to me? What’s going to happen to me? To my marriage? To my three daughters? Our livelihood? Will I be a burden on my family? Do I have anything left to offer at this point? I’m no good for anything now, God, why not just take me on?
Now that was some crazy grief talk! But in all honesty, that is how grief attacked. I do still grieve over this diagnosis especially if I am having trouble with a relapse or a side effect from the medication that I take to try and keep it in remission. Through prayer, friends, family, my dear husband, bible study, reaching out to connect to a larger community of people, changing my focus, I can now try and rehearse THIS question everyday as best I can…
What can I do today versus what can’t I do today?
This has helped carry me.
My most recent grief does not have to do with death or self-esteem, lack of a college degree or even a chronic diagnosis, but grief over a child making poor, life-altering choices and shutting out everyone who has ever loved her to be with a boy. The situation is bleak watching her drop out of college, be satisfied with homelessness and temporary housing, with no money, no job, no car, little to no food, and with someone who lacks ambition. Everything she’s been taught in the last 18 years seems to have gone down the tubes in a matter or months.
I am inundated with questions. How did this happen? How could she be so hooked with someone who has so little in common with her? What is the appeal? Can’t she see what is happening right before her eyes? How can she shut out her family and even her closest childhood best friends? Doesn’t she see a problem with this situation? How can it be that if she were to see it happening in one of her friends’ lives, she would be adamant about helping them see the light? How can she let opportunity pass her by so easily? Doesn’t she know how hard it will be to survive? Doesn’t she care about all these debts incurred for school only to throw her education away? And for what? How could she put us through such worry and anguish. I thought she loved us more than that. Doesn’t she? Does she even love us at all anymore? Since when do we not matter in her life but the family of another does?
And the questions keep circling around my mind like vultures picking apart my sanity.
I have cried louder and harder and with such earth shaking agony than any other time in my 42 years of life.
This is a new grief for me.
And, I am trying to navigate it as best I can.
I hurt. I hurt a lot.
I hurt emotionally and now physically.
Like it has been in all other incidents with grief, it is difficult to see around the bend and know for sure that I’m going to make it and that everything will be okay eventually.
What if it doesn’t become okay? If it doesn’t, how can I find the place and land on that space of All Will Be Well?
Because right now, it doesn’t feel well at all. I’m not well. My heart is broken, and I don’t know which way to turn to make it better. (I know that I can’t really.)
It is the grief of not being able to check things off a To Do List to neaten things up and start moving forward. It is the grief knowing that it is not MY To Do List.
So, here I sit.
Grieving. Wailing. Agonizing. Feeling miserable in mind and body. I know I need to ask more questions. I need to listen to that still, small voice that is there if I can turn down the volume on all the other voices.
What is it that I can do instead of what I can’t do? I can love.
How can I make this excruciating pain lessen and the heartbeat in my ears go away? I can love (and maybe see a doctor.)
How can I get through this day? This week? This next month, the holidays, and beyond? I can love.
That is the thing I can do.
And because I can love, I can experience God in ways I never encountered before. I can pray for the ability to extend grace. I can hope for change. I can pray for protection. I can take time to start healing this gash in my heart. I can trust that people will understand when I need time to just “be” instead of to “do.” I can pray for skills and resources, friends and family support, and the wisdom and peace that I am only going to find in the loving arms of Jesus Christ.
I can manage a true method of getting through grief–to manage one day at a time.
My question after a period of time and experiencing different types of grief has transitioned.
It once was a question to God. Do you even exist?
Now it is a question I ask myself in the sight of God. Do I exist evenly in You?
I understand that grief is just a natural part of life, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it. I can even hate it if I want to, but I must remain in the same room with it because I have no choice. Nobody ever does. I just need to sit with it awhile. I can’t make it go away, but I can learn how to navigate the room even with it here. I don’t have to give it permission to paralyze me. I do realize that it buddies up with its friend, fear, to intimidate my faith, my hope, my love. And even though it is hard to breathe right now and I am battered beyond belief, I will stand again. I will be strong again. I will keep my convictions and beliefs intact. I will tend to my bruises with prayer and good self-care. I will hobble if I must. But, I will pull up a chair for now and just sit. And take the time necessary to heal.
I’ll sit with grief for a while.
I might not like it, but I’ll do it.