When I was little, this was the month school started, the nights became colder, and we celebrated my oldest brother’s and my mum’s birthdays. Now, school’s been in full swing since August, our cool nights compete with unseasonably hot days and wildfires, my brother and mum share their birth month with my precious nephew Benji, and all of this is tinged with the slightly nostalgic melancholy memory of those weeks 15 years ago as my dad lay dying. September.
Perhaps I was always meant to be in education since shopping for school supplies was the highlight of my fall. Browsing through the aisles of not-yet-used pens, pencils, and notebooks filled me with a sense of euphoria. Nothing called to me quite like the neon designs of Trapper Keepers or Lisa Frank folders. We’d place new school clothes on layaway back when department stores were still a thing and there were no Targets or Walmarts, teaching us patience and the joy of delayed gratification as we had to wait a few weeks to wear our fresh duds.
This September found me frantically browsing Pinterest for bulletin board ideas and rejoicing in the small box of supplies the front office ordered for me – various types of special tape created just for books, post it notes, fall themed bookmarks, and other library necessities. Mum and I dug out our autumnal decorations from various boxes in the garage to fill the house with the semblance of fall even when it was still 109° outside.
I love fall. As someone who is constantly overheated, I embrace the time of year when our excessive Southern Californian heat gives way to cool breezes and crisp weather. Honestly, I should live in Seattle, London, or Edinburgh – somewhere the sun is not quite as prevalent as the middle of a desert in one of the sunniest states. Halloween is my favorite holiday, cinnamon apples my favorite scent, and hot toddies a favorite drink.
Yet this is the season in which my father died. Even now, 15 years later, those weeks in the hospital form some of my most vivid memories. Though I will never stop missing him, his absence has been assimilated into my existence, a normal part of who I am. As a woman who never married, he still remains the most influential man in my life.
So what to do with September? Two things: be okay with being a bit more sad this month and also celebrate as much as possible, giving thanks to God for both the joy and losses.
Grief is like a muscle memory, it often hits without thought, somehow present in the body before the brain and heart catch up. There are days I’ll wake up feeling wistful – melancholy, yearning for something but not knowing what, and then I’ll remember suddenly that it is September. My body remembers this month. So instead of fighting it, feeling confused or bad about still getting sad all these years later, I have learned to accept grief, to trust my body. There is a huge difference between wallowing and experiencing. I don’t allow myself to sit in my pain all day every day, dwelling on the hard memories or what I’ve lost – but I do allow myself to cry if I feel like crying, to remember him, to talk about him or just quietly acknowledge to myself that I have felt true loss.
I pray about this too, thanking God for giving us a good dad for as long as we had him. My family is well aware how rare and special he was. It’s an oddly beautiful thing to be able to pray with joy and deep grief at the same time, to thank God while tears slip down my face.
One of my favorite hymns expresses this dichotomy better than I can:
It Is Well with my Soul by Horatio G. Spafford
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
it is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well with my soul,
it is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed his own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
if Jordan above me shall roll,
no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
the sky, not the grave, is our goal;
oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!
And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
even so, it is well with my soul.
As Christians, we often focus on how we’re supposed to be filled with joy, as if smiling all the time will somehow bring those around us to fall in love with our God. The older I get, the more I appreciate the Christian’s call to lament. I can think of sermon after sermon that paint Christians as needing to have a positive attitude all the time, but can’t think of many I’ve heard on how we should also lament – mourn with God, cry out to him, let him see our pain and grief, let him be part of that.
There is deep beauty in simultaneously being grateful to God for what has happened in our lives while grieving what has happened, to be able to be sad,yet fine. Just as our country marks days to remember great men who helped form our ideals like George Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr., just as we build memorials and lower the flag to half mast on 9/11 and other such days of loss, it is important for us to allow these moments, days, even months of remembrance.
I know those who fear grief, who push it back and try to ignore or forget it with the mantra of moving on. I know others who cannot escape grief, who let it drown them, unable to function. There is this third option – that of trusting God in the midst of acknowledging our grief. To thank him while crying out to him. To turn our eyes to those God has placed in our path, loving and serving them, while still recognizing we are a little extra broken right now and we might need some space or more hugs or greater patience or a cup of tea. Or perhaps a trip to Disneyland to see the fall decorations.
And somehow after a couple particularly difficult years, September regained its seat as one of our favorite months. Autumn reigns once more as the best season. My family relearned how to celebrate the birthdays, the weather, the flavors and scents, the holidays, the changing leaves. Perhaps experiencing loss in this season is a bit easier, as fall represents the beautiful merging of life and death – harvest and the coming winter, leaves changing color to bright reds and yellows, then falling away for the year. Halloween and Dia de los Muertos bring the dead together with the living. Warm days merge with colder nights. It is the perfect time to be filled with joy and melancholy simultaneously. We don’t need to choose one or the other, we can dwell in both.