One of the decidedly unpleasant parts of this midlife is the increasing frequency of loss. It is becoming rare to have a friend who hasn't experienced the loss of a parent. What is becoming more disturbing is the number of friends who have lost spouses, siblings, or God forbid, children. While we can look at loss as the inevitable downside to a life lived surrounded by people we love, it does not lessen the sting. As I think about those I know who are grieving, I struggle to find words to ease their pain. When we look for words to comfort, we realize the limitations of our language. There truly are no words that will ease the burden of grief. Time seems to be the only balm for aching souls.
I have experienced the loss of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, father, and father in law. I don't claim to have any special insight or experience- many of us in this age group have similar losses. What I am learning is that just as every relationship is unique, every loss is also unique. Whether the death is sudden, expected, or drawn out; there is no one way that is "better". Loss is still loss, and we will grieve. No two people (not even in the same family) will grieve in the same way, or in the same time frame. It is a process that is deeply personal and at times frustratingly lonely.
I can best describe grief as a box. When you are newly grieving, you are inside the box. The box is deep and dark with sides that are unnaturally tall and slippery, with a lid that fits firmly on top. There is very little light inside the box. It is scary and claustrophobic and you are pretty sure you will never get out. There are moments when you aren't sure that you want to get out because the struggle is so hard. You aren't just in the box, you are the box. There is no separation between you and the grief.
One day, in a time and place that may surprise you; you will notice a crack of light near the lid. The box will no longer be sealed shut. For the first time, you will see a little light in what is still a very dark and unnerving place. The respite is brief and the lid may close again, but that little beam of light shining through the crack offers some hope of the peace to come.
As more time passes, you will realize that you are no longer trapped inside of the box- you are separate. The grief still lives in the box, but you will no longer dwell there. The box will still spring open often spilling its contents across your mind and there will be little control over when and where that happens. But, you will still be relieved to have some momentary separation from the grief.
While you are thankful that you are no longer in the box, you will continue to carry it around. The box will become very heavy to carry. At some point, it will be time to put down the box of grief. As you set it down, you will tentatively examine the box from the outside and realize it no longer looks quite as menacing as it once did. You will no longer fear that you will fall into the box and never get out.
In the course of time, you may choose to pick up the box and look at it carefully. You will start to see beauty in the box that you never noticed before. You may open the lid and explore what is inside. Memories that were once jagged and painful now seem smoother and more comforting. The desperate darkness that was once there has been tempered by time and light.
Even though the box has been put down and packed away, the lid may still open unexpectedly. The grief that spills out will feel sharp, but more familiar and less consuming than it once did. It will never be perfectly clear what makes the lid open. The box can be mysterious and inexplicable. The lid may occasionally spring open for the rest of your life, momentarily overwhelming you with emotion but not overcoming you like it once did.
Comfort will be found in those who are willing to share your grief--the ones who are not afraid to climb into the box with you and let you know you aren't alone, the ones who will sit outside your box and let you know they are there for you even though you may not be able to see them. There will be a precious few who will actually carry the box for you when it gets too heavy. The thoughts and prayers of many will sustain you, but ultimately it is still your box and your box alone.
As I write this, I am nearly overwhelmed by the grief of the families of Parkland, FL Their grief is palpable, their circumstances unimaginable. The hole their loved ones have left behind is enormous and their families and communities will never stop missing them. I pray that they will find comfort in their faith and that they will experience peace beyond all understanding through God. The most helpful piece of advice that I can offer to those who are currently grieving is to know that you won't always feel the way you do today. The early stages of grief may feel endlessly brutal, but it does get more bearable over time. Try to hold on to the fact that you won't be in the box forever.
There is never a time frame for grieving, but remember that letting go of the grief is not the same as letting go of the person. Your loved one will always be with you. Remembering their lives, talking about your memories of them, and sharing your stories will help them to live on in a new way. We can look forward to the day when we are reunited in the heavenly realm, but until then our love forms a bridge across time and space. Til we meet again...
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16