Mourning in Times Such as These

Today I am grieving. Grieving over 70,000 lives lost in my country from one virus in just a couple of months. Grieving yet another black man murdered months ago while his white killers still walk free. Grieving the defensive excuses so many people (mostly Christians) I know are making in order to not have to truly mourn these losses. 

Yet, while I grieve, I still sit at my computer updating the school website for the teachers. I wait for phone calls from our textbook reps to get quotes for next school year. I research free ebooks and read alouds and virtual field trips for my students. I increase the tip on my instacart order to make up for the income loss due to items not being in stock. I pet my dog, who comes to visit me in my “home office” for a quick snuggle. I text my global prayer group about books I’ll be dropping off for their kids. I drink my morning coffee, and turn on the fan as the day begins to heat up. 

And yet, I mourn. Or at least, I try to. 

In the middle of an email about school accounts, logins, and passwords I feel like bursting into tears. It passes quickly, and I move on with my tasks for the morning. Lately, my days feel like this – a slightly jumbled mix of emotions as I try to balance living life day to day in faith and hope (one of the most difficult things for cynical me – hope), while experiencing grief for these deep losses we are facing globally and locally. 

I have friends that can’t even try to balance this. And I get it. Friends who are so focused on the pragmatic side of life that they just can’t give in to any emotion right now. The economy, kids at home 24/7, working from home, getting groceries – this is what they can focus on. And, often, only this. 

Then I have friends who are paralyzed in their grief and mourning, lamenting and gasping for breath at the mere thought of the immense loss surrounding us. They become unable to deal with the practical side of day to day life.

But most of us are somewhere in between, just trying to figure out how to survive this time without becoming callous or overwhelmed. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t think I know anyone who has gotten it just right. Most of us lean one direction or the other, becoming either too cold or too emotional, prioritizing either the compassion or the practicalities. 

I challenge each of us to continue to seek ways to be both practical and survive, yet compassionately mourn. If you lean toward just getting on with life, and accepting all of this death and injustice as “normal,” “inevitable,” “necessary,” or “not that bad,” I challenge you to learn to lament. My dear friend, an incredible woman who lives with chronic illness, has a blog called The Curse and the Blessings which can walk you through lamenting via the Psalms. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been recording a series of Songs of Comfort as the pandemic rages, that can help you process your emotions. Spend time in prayer, asking God to help us “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) during this season of loss for so many.

For those of us who lean more toward the emotional side of things, and are struggling to get through the day to day tasks of life, I encourage setting aside time to pray for God to help comfort you, but in a way that makes you capable of reaching out and comforting others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Don’t let this overwhelm you, keeping you in your head. Set some practical steps, like limiting your time on social media and the news. Make a To-Do List that has one achievable goal for each day that week. Bathe your days in gratitude for every little gift from God, from spring flowers outside (even if you’re allergic to them) to a bed in which to rest.

I’m trying to take one or two small steps each day to help me continue to live life and be useful where God has given me tasks to do, but also hold a compassionate heart for those who are hurting right now, including myself. 

If you have anything that is helping you lament, or helping you continue living daily life, please share with the group. We can all use the encouragement and support!

A Sudden Ambush of Grief

On my way to work this morning, I drove past the long-defunct Hometown Buffet. It closed down ages ago, but this time it was in the midst of being gutted. Walls were smashed by large machinery, insides exposed in the process of being laid to ruin. I’m sure the no-longer-with-us Toys “R” Us next to it will be next.

Glancing out my window and seeing the red and green sign still hanging on, declaring “Hometown Buffet” over wreckage hit me out of nowhere. I went from benign coffee drinking and podcast listening to brushing tears out of my eyes. My heart did that little skip, that almost-hurt. It came as a surprise.

In that second, memories of my long deceased grandpa flooded in. Birthdays and Father’s Days spent heaping plates full of meatloaf and limp salad, looking forward to soft serve ice cream with sprinkles on top were brought to mind. Thoughts came of joking with my brother and sister about how only old people ate here, about how mediocre the food was, about the birthday song played over speakers.

And my grandfather? Man, he loved that place. A typical WWII Veteran of “The Greatest Generation,” he desired the most food for the money. Even though he didn’t actually eat much, and barely ate meat after a stint working in an abattoir in his younger days. But as one who lived through the Great Depression, he couldn’t bare to see food go to waste – thus his love of a buffet.

My grandpa (my mom’s dad) was my last living grandparent, and the one to whom I was closest. He told me I was like him, that I had inherited his wanderlust which led him to enlist in the Navy, then to move around Southern California from place to place in his RV when my mom was a little girl until retirement.

He passed away about one year after my dad. That was a tough year as he was in heart failure for much of it and couldn’t get around much. He fell a lot. We sold our old house and bought a new one, moving him in with us (mom and I, and Josh on the couch during summer break from university). Lavender got married to one of my best friends and grandpa got to be there. Greg had my first nephew, Graden, a gift from God, my father’s first grandson he never got to meet. And grandpa died.

All of these memories flood back just from one building in the midst of being gutted. Grief is a funny thing. 16 years later, and it can still ambush me. But I don’t mind, not really, because these memories make me smile through the tears. I’m reminded of my grandpa’s deep and eternal love for me and all his grand-kids. Grief has somehow softly transformed over the years, and by the grace of God, into an old friend who comes to visit, bringing all the memories with them, but not staying for long.

To my friends experiencing grief that is much more fresh and raw, know that God is with you in it. Our God is a God who can lift up the downcast, he is the God of steadfast love (Psalm 42). Hope in him, and know that someday the ambushes of grief will be softer, bringing joy instead of pain.

From Sprained Ankles to Leaky Hot Water Heaters

This time of year is always a mixed bag of emotions. In the span of one week we celebrate my mum’s birthday as well as my littlest nephew’s, then move right into the anniversary of my father’s death. This year my life decided to also throw in a mild ankle sprain and a leaky hot water heater.

In the midst of hobbling through my usual workday, birthday parties, a writer’s group dinner, the Downton Abbey movie, GriefShare, a going away party, church, heating up water on the stove, and all the various other little details of daily life there was a low-lying hum of something just not being quite right. For others in my family this year, the hum this week was more like incredible sadness or constant anxiety, but for me grief remained under the surface. It doesn’t always, some years they are pretty unaffected and I’m the one with more obvious symptoms. It’s rarely the same for all of us at the same time, which is nice because we can help each other through when needed. 

So this year I managed to get through the 17th anniversary of dad’s death without too much sadness, but with a couple tears alone at night, digging up a beautiful old photo of us snuggling, and stopping every once in awhile to recognize how much I still miss him. The moment of digging out his old crutches from the garage, the very ones he and I used to trade off between our constantly sprained ankles, brought memories flooding back. And I know the thought of “I wish Gordon was here to help deal with this” is constantly in the back of my mum’s head as she deals with the broken hot water heater. But God gave me encouraging students to help cheer me on as I hobbled around this week, and an endlessly kind and patient neighbor to come rescue us with his special vacuum, and tools, and truck, and knowledge. 

Ah Fall, my favorite season and yet one filled with so much emotion. Our house is already decorated with fake fall leaves, pumpkins, scarecrows, and various adorably haunted things. The nights are cool enough that I can snuggle under my top covers again, bringing me better sleep. Even the days are finally cooling down – I’m even wearing a long-sleeved top as I type this! We are burning pumpkin or apple scented candles non-stop, and may even fire up the fireplace tonight! I love it. But I also have that undercurrent of melancholy coursing through my body at all times.

Perhaps that’s part of growing up, of becoming an adult: we learn to hold both joy and sorrow at the same time, to celebrate life and grieve death simultaneously, to yearn for something lost or that we know we will never have while also reveling in the beauty that surrounds us. I no longer fear holding both things at once, no longer feel the need to only experience one at a time. Part of how I’m able to do this relies on talking to God about it, letting him know what I’m experiencing throughout the day and relying on him to give me peace.

Philippians 4:4-13 keeps coming up, at GriefShare, in my own study, and at church again this Sunday. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

I’m learning that rejoicing in everything and not being anxious require facing the truth of what’s going on and relying on God to get me through it, knowing he always has done and always will. Peace and contentment don’t magically appear after I pray, or throughout the day as I talk to God, but this week I’ve experienced moment after moment when I can choose anxiety or peace, when I can panic or trust God, and this week God’s been gracious enough to grant me the peace. 

As September turns into October, I’m looking forward to more and more crisp, cool weather and nights by the fire with cups of tea and delicious smelling candles. I know the melancholy will be there, but so will the joy. And, as I’m about to dash out to go shower at my sister’s house, I’m really looking forward to hot water again. Praise God for fall, and for healed ankles and appliances.