My eyes are glazed over, wrestling between the road and the Redwoods. The trees feel close enough to touch, close enough to run through and nap in. My mom sits next to me. Crying, crying, crying—it’s the Niagra Falls. I’m tired of the crying.
One hour earlier:
Three text messages and one missed call. The reverberation wakes me—before the sun, before the alarm, before I’m ready for the day to get going. My grandpa wants my mom to call him ASAP. I crawl out of bed and use my phone as a flashlight through the house. I’m half-awake, half-asleep. In my familiar zombie morning temper I say, “Grandpa wants you to call him.”
“Why?” She asks. My sarcasm is wide awake: If I knew, I would have told you. I ignore the question, hand her the phone, and find my way back to my cotton and feather cocoon.
A few moments later she comes in, makes unnecessary noise, and I pretend to be asleep. In my head, I know what’s going on, but for some reason I’m tempted to believe that if I fall back asleep I’ll realize it was just a bad dream. I’m hoping that I’ll wake up, pinch, pinch it was all fake. We’ll go to Yosemite, look at the mountains, buy Ansel Adams postcards and eat trail mix.
The reality is that Nama is sick. Sick, sick. About-to-die sick. Of all things, it’s not the cancer; it’s her heart that’s failing. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met, has more capacity to love than any other human I’ve ever known, and it’s her heart that’s cashing in.
I sit up and stare blankly as my mom begins to cry. It’s an uncomfortable moment for both of us. There she is, naked in her release, and I’m unable to express the slightest emotion. She cries and I sit there. Blank.
“Give me the phone.” I’ll get us a flight home.
And that’s how the story goes: she cried and I drove.
By the time we ended up in Florida, Nama was gone. Flew away, no longer sick, whatever else they say to make you feel better. But nothing made anything feel better.
It was in her death that I knew that the depth to which you love someone is the depth to which their absence stings. That’s the risk you run though; the possibility for pain comes when you decide to love someone well, when you decide to let yourself be really known by another human being. The deeper you get in it, the wider you open yourself up, the harder it’s going to hurt when they aren’t around anymore.
In her death, I found myself staggering from moment to moment, unsure of who to be or what to feel. For the first time in a long time I had little to say and a distinct inability to identify how I felt. Mostly, I just didn’t know how to mourn. Not that there’s a formula or anything, but no one ever modeled for me how to be sad. Chances are, no one has shown you either.
No one ever lets you see them with a broken heart. We go into our bedrooms alone, turn up our music and press our faces to our pillows. We let songs and television and all our vices collectively say it and feel it for us. We cover our mouths and drown out the pain. We don’t know how to be silent and feel the weight of a lost life. We are so uncomfortable with death, with pain, with not having the answers we need, that we work tirelessly to avoid all of it. And still it comes. No matter what, it’s going to come. Death reminds us of our frail humanity.
We live and eventually we die. No one’s getting out of here alive.
Still, there is no getting used to death. There is only pain and regret and the tension of unlived memories. There is darkness that doesn’t seem to want to leave our side. And even in pain, even in the freshness of our wounds, we tell ourselves to carry on. We have been told our entire lives to dust off our shoulders, pull up our bootstraps and keep going. We are people who get off the ground and get back to life. We have school and 9 to 5’s and to-do lists that successfully keep our pain at bay.
There is a funeral to plan, family to entertain, pasta salad to make, phone calls to answer and credit cards to cancel. We have a number of ways to keep ourselves distracted from the profound needs of our heart.
And I propose that we put up of a fight in all of this. A reckoning with the way things “should be.” Life should not be a rush. Moments should not be rushed through, good or bad, they must be felt. We must be willing to feel, even when the discomfort overwhelms us. Death and mourning should not be rushed, but rather a slower coming to terms with the void and pain that our hearts feel.
For me, it took a number of days for the feeling of numbness to fade away. But when it did, it would be more painful than even the initial blow. Grief comes when it wants and lingers longer than you’d like. It doesn’t ask for an appropriate setting—it just comes like a tidal wave to the emotional core.
Grief is exhausting and time-consuming, but we must not fail to realize the importance of it. There is need for the human heart to be filled again—for the Father to heal the fault lines that have made home within us.
In death, we are left with a sense of complete humanity. A pinch to the skin reminding that life is real and that it most certainly hurts.
Above all, in our grief and in our pain we must also believe we are not forgotten. We must send away the lies that keep our hearts hardened. God has not forgotten us in our pain, and He has not left us to deal with it alone in dark bedrooms. We are told that God is close to the brokenhearted. He is close to the struggles of our lives; especially in our most tender of times.
God has not run off to save the rest of the world, leaving you hanging on your last thread. In grief and in all things we must cling to the one who clings to us. We must begin to believe that He loves us as much as the Gospel proclaims, even when we feel beyond repair.