I go to sleep at night with so many thoughts swirling around in my mind, and I awake in a similar condition the next morning. It can be maddening; sometimes fascinating; but most often, just frustrating. I feel like it would help to write them down, but they are so swirly I can’t seem to find a place to start. So today I’ll just start.
My dad died on New Year’s Day of this year at 3:30 am, after 5 or so days of seeming like he was going to pass on any minute. It was a beautifully sad experience to sit with my mom and 3 of my 4 siblings (my older brother had COVID and couldn’t be there) and pray, sing, talk and simply sit silently as he made his way to the end of his earthly life. He had some form of dementia – often called Alzheimer’s, but never officially a diagnosis – that slowly took him from us over the past 10+ years. The last time I spoke with him, about a month before he died, in a less unintelligible way than usual, he asked me about his Buick, which I was charged with keeping for him when we moved him from the house my parent’s were living in not far from my husband and I, and into an assisted living facility. Not thinking before I responded, because….why would I when I hadn’t had a “normal” conversation with him for a few years? – I told him that I had sold it. “You sold it?” he exclaimed. And I was shocked, disappointed with myself, and thrown for a loop, to say the least. He remembered, in a rare moment of clarity, that I had his Buick and he wanted to know how it was or what had become of it. I wished with everything in me that I had lied and told him it was still in my possession and looking as beautiful as he had always kept it. But lying doesn’t come naturally to me, so I did what does come naturally and simply spoke the truth without thinking of the consequences. He was, it seemed, disappointed with me, and I was sad that I had caused him that disappointment. Shortly after this last visit with him, he came down with the flu, was hospitalized, stopped being able to swallow, was discharged back to the nursing home and put on hospice a few days before Christmas.
Another swirly thought – Three or so years ago, my husband and I attended a class on grief led by the counselor/pastor we first visited with a couple of weeks after our 25-year-old son lost his life in a car accident. This pastor had also lost a young adult son, and knew the anguish we were experiencing. On the first night of this class, which was attended by about 100 people with differing types of grief, he stood at the podium and spoke about his own experience with grief, most of which I’d heard before, until he said he had been the pastor presiding over both his parents’ burial services and they were “a walk in the park” compared to burying his son. That statement has come back to me many times over the past year or so, as I’ve prepared for my dad’s passing. I have to say, though I wouldn’t use those particular words, it is a good description of the differences between the two. When your 86-year-old father, who has suffered with dementia for a decade or more, passes on in a peaceful atmosphere, surrounded by those he loves, it is just that – peaceful and loving. Normal. The natural progression of life. My son passing on felt like someone took a chain saw to my body, mutilating it in such a way that complete healing can never take place. My dad’s passing will leave a scar, but it will be a clean scar that eventually fades with time. The scar left by my son’s passing still throbs with pain so deep it is indescribable; not as often, since I have done a great deal of grief work over the past 7 years, but it is definitely still an ongoing work and a slow-in-coming healing. I will miss my dad. But I have dealt with that missing for a very long time. I miss my son with every longing breath.
My third swirly thought – My dad said 2 of the most impactful things to me, the first, changing my view on life as I approached adulthood; the second, allowing me to be who I am during the grief process in the past several years. When I was 17 years old and dating the young man who would become my husband a couple of years later, I was in a bit of a conundrum trying to decide what path to take. I remember lying on my mom and dad’s bed, trying to rest a headache away, when my dad came in and sat on the side of the bed to see how I was doing. I have no memory of what I said to him, but I remember clearly him telling me that “there are 2 paths women can take (it was 1978!), the career path or the path of a homemaker and mother. I believe you are the latter one of the two.” He saw me and knew me. He knew my heart, and this simple description of differing paths set me free to be who I knew in my heart I was. I’ve never forgotten that. I questioned it a few times, when I was deep in the trenches of raising and homeschooling 5 rambunctious kiddos! But it steered me through those years like a north star, keeping me on the path I knew God had laid out before me. The other thing he told me came at a time when many people were offering unsolicited advice on how to walk the path of grief after tragically losing our young adult son. These offerings made life so much more difficult, placing on my husband and I many unrealistic expectations. What my dad told me helped me to understand that the only person I really needed to listen to was me. He simply said, “Sweetheart, I’m sorry for this burden you have to bear.” This simple statement of compassion helped me to begin living with my loss instead of trying to do what it seemed everyone was telling me to do to get over or through it. Of course, this wasn’t a corner-turning moment in the progression of learning to live with this loss. But it was a moment that helped me have compassion on myself and stop berating myself for not being how it seemed others were trying to get me to be.
My fourth swirly thought does have to do with a corner-turning moment, though I’m not going to share extensively about it. (If you’ve stuck with me so far, thank you!) I think the first emotion I felt, besides shock, after we were told our son had not survived a car accident, was anger. I was so, so angry. I felt I had served the Lord to the best of my ability my entire adult life and I was being rewarded with a tragedy of enormous proportion. It seemed so unfair, and I was so angry about it. I stayed angry, at one level or another, for about 6 years. I didn’t want to be angry. And I wanted to move through the “process” of grief, but I couldn’t seem to let go of the anger brought about by the disappointment of losing a much beloved son. Last year hubby and I attended a Christian conference in Oregon, hosted by a few pastors and leaders we’d been listening to on YouTube. We wanted to learn, in person, some of the things we’d be hearing them teach about on the net. We also wanted to join with them in worshiping the Lord, as we knew in our hearts that it would be an unforgettable experience. It was, indeed, unforgettable. For me, though, it was unforgettable because the Lord healed my heart of that stinking anger one night during worship. I’d been trying to enter into worship, but couldn’t seem to stop the tears; tears that were nearly ever-present when we attended church since our son’s passing. I was so choked up, this particular night in Oregon, that I couldn’t sing, and it made me so irritated I cried out to the Lord for help. I heard Him say to me, “Go to the restroom.” “Umm….okay”, I thought, and I obeyed. I barely made it through the door of the restroom before I released a loud sob. Checking to be sure no one else was in there, I entered a stall, shut the door, and immediately heard my Lord say, “You have got to forgive me.” And He said it in the way only my loving Heavenly Father can say a command to me – with all the force of an edict, but dripping with love, mercy, compassion and the grace to obey. I choked out, “Lord, I forgive you” and I had the sweetest peace wash over me, as I thanked and praised Him in that bathroom in Bend, Oregon. I went back out to the service and worshiped God with a freedom I’d not had since my son died.
My fifth and final swirly thought of late – In about 3 weeks it will have been exactly a year since we went to Oregon and I was enabled by the Lord to forgive and let go of the anger that had been plaguing me. And I remembered as I’m writing today that it was our son’s birthday when that freeing night occurred. In 3 weeks our middle son would be 33 years old, if he were still with us here on the earth. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Lord met with me to help me forgive and move along this very difficult path on what would have been my son’s 32nd birthday. There are no coincidences in the Lord.
Our oldest child will be 37 years old tomorrow. She, her hubby, her cousin and her hubby went to Florida to visit with another cousin this past week to celebrate her birthday. We’ve kept their three beautiful daughters for a few days while they’ve been gone, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
What has changed as a result of forgiving God and letting go of the anger? I can see forward again. My vision has changed. I don’t continually long for things to be the way they were, before my son died. I miss him, and I miss who my family was before he passed. But I can be Grandma, now. I can accept that my kids will never be under my roof again, they will never be a “full quiver” again, at least not in the way they were, and I will always be a bereaved mother. But I can live with that now. And I can, once again, love, serve and worship God without that awful knot in my stomach causing me to bawl like a baby through every church service.
“Life is hard. God is good. Glory is coming. Therefore, stand firm in grace.” John Piper