I just sat down at my computer to catch up on some editing when a notification popped up on the screen. I had a new email from Monica (not her real name) whose husband had died less than a year before. She had just survived the first cycle of Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year-Valentine’s Day without him.
February was a rough month for me for some reason. Maybe it was because the year anniversary was coming up or that Valentine’s stuff was everywhere. Man, that was depressing. But I guess what I’ve got to understand is that sometimes there doesn’t have to be an event or reason to get into a blue funk. Being somewhat analytical, that’s hard for me to comprehend. How long will I keep doing this? I know everyone is different but please tell me that one of these days I’m going to quit crying.
That last line got to me, and I shed a few tears on her behalf as I read it. Then I did my best to tap out a comforting response.
Monica was not the first or the last to ask me that question. Seems like everyone wonders when the pain will go away.
A few years ago a church in a nearby town was preparing to launch a grief support ministry and they invited me to speak to their group leaders. I have to say, there’s a dynamic of quick connection that happens among grievers. I had never met anyone in that room, but I knew I was with “my people” almost immediately. We all understood why we were there and what it was that tied our hearts to one another.
When I ended my talk, one of the ladies asked if I would take questions. And then she began to cry. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to ask about leading a grief group; she was looking for help with her own sadness.
This precious lady explained that her daughter had been killed in an accident (I don’t recall how long ago it had happened) and that she couldn’t get through a day without breaking down. “Will this ever go away?” she asked.
There it was again. Different person. Different circumstances. Same question: When will the sadness go away?
Most of the grievers I’ve met are realists. Their loss has made them so. And witnessing this lady being so gut-level honest in front of her church friends and me, a stranger, I knew that only an honest answer would do. In essence, this is what I said:
Your sadness is not going to go away completely. In time it will come less frequently and with less intensity, but no one can promise it will fly away someday and never return. It's a part of who you are now.
But your soul can multitask. It can feel sadness and hope at the same time. It can grieve and grow at the same time.
You can still love the one who is no longer with you. In fact, I think of grief as posthumous love—as much as we loved someone in life we will grieve them in death.
Maybe not the happiest of answers, but an honest one. And being honest about our here-to-stay sadness will make us better able to endure it. Which brings to mind the Stockdale Paradox.
Admiral Jim Stockdale was a prisoner-of-war for eight years (1965-1973) during the Vietnam War. When Jim Collins was writing the book, Good to Great, he interviewed Stockdale, opening with the question: “Who didn’t make it out (of the prison camp)?”
Stockdale replied, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists . . . They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”
After a long pause, Stockdale continued, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your own current reality, whatever that might be.”
My fellow grievers, you and I will do better if we bring that level of realism and grit into the long night of our sadness. Not that we’ll erase the sadness but that by God’s grace we can endure it.
Because morning is coming.
© 2022 by Tim Grissom. All rights reserved.
I have a friend who is a land surveyor in the piney woods of East Texas. One morning over coffee he told me about a job he was going on that involved a boundary line that had shifted due to the effects of erosion and accretion. That was a new one to me, so I asked him to explain.
The land records showed that the boundary line between two properties ran down the middle of a creek. However, over time the creek had changed course because the running water had cut into the bank and creekbed in places (erosion) and redeposited the dirt and sediment on the bank and creekbed in other places (accretion). Because the course of the creek had been altered so much, the property line was no longer where it used to be. My friend’s task was to determine where the line had been before the creek changed course so that permanent boundary markers could be put in place.
Erosion and accretion. Loss in one place meant gain in another.
You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?
I have a favorite book on grief: A Grace Disguised, by Jerry Sittser. I quote from it often. The book’s subtitle does what a subtitle is supposed to do; it summarizes the message of the book and tells the reader what they’ll learn by reading it. Sittser certainly delivered through his subtitle: How the Soul Grows Through Loss.
When I first learned of this book, I wasn’t seeing much growth in my life. Honestly, I was just trying to get through the day. But I was open, ever so slightly, to the possibility that grief might bring about some good in my life. Perhaps my soul could grow.
As I was pondering this, it occurred to me that I actually was changing. I took a quick account of the year or so that had passed and saw that my life was different in the following ways:
I had become more empathetic toward the sick, lonely, dying, and sad.
My circle of friends had gotten larger and many of my friendships had gone deeper.
I was learning to cook.
I was becoming a more involved parent.
I was developing a higher level of personal confidence and courage.
I was honestly evaluating what I believed about God and whether I would trust Him.
I was gaining an eternal perspective while also learning to value moments and days.
I had simplified my schedule and clarified my priorities.
I was making better use of time, becoming more productive and efficient.
Some of those changes mattered more than others, but the point was that I was making progress. I was growing. My life wasn’t all about erosion, there was some accretion happening, too.
You may not be ready to embrace this yet, but I sincerely hope the day soon comes when you can, because it is true, your soul can grow through loss.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
© 2022 by Tim Grissom. All rights reserved.
Have you ever been around someone who likes to finish your sentences? It’s pretty annoying, isn’t it? And they often get it wrong, taking your words in a direction you weren’t planning to go. It takes a minute to tamp down your frustration, collect your thoughts, and get the conversation back on track.
Loss has that effect on us, too—on a much larger scale. It interrupts. It takes life in a direction we weren’t planning to go. But unlike a conversation, we can’t reverse the interruption and shift things back to the way they were. Life is forever changed.
However, as difficult as it was to accept, the day I admitted that my life would never be the same was also the day I started to move forward. Though it stung to acknowledge the post-interruption reality of my life, I had to accept it. All grievers do.
This doesn’t mean we can’t still have a good life; it doesn’t mean this present heaviness will keep us pinned down forever. Sure, we now have a limp, an empty space, a lingering sadness. And we all know that a big loss cascades down into many smaller losses. Even so, all is not lost.
So here we are, you and I, facing an interrupted life. Limping, but (hopefully) going forward.
We might say, Well, what choice do we have? We’ve got to go on. And that’s true . . . to a point. But here’s the thing about interruptions: sometimes they help us learn new things. “Going on” doesn’t have to mean just coping; it can actually mean that we’re changing. And growing.
There are conversations I might never have had, lessons I might never have learned, stories I might never have heard if some sentence-ending friend hadn’t interrupted me and moved our conversation into unplanned territory.
I’m not trying to put a positive spin on loss and grief. I’m the last guy who would try to do that. But I do believe that interruptions, while disorienting, can ultimately make us wiser. I believe that good can come from bad.
I’ll say more about the good changes grief can bring in another post, but here I’ll just say that I’ve seen this play out in the lives of many who’ve walked the hard road of loss. I’ve seen chronic complainers become grateful; I’ve watched grouches develop kindness; and I’ve seen timid people learn to be courageous.
There is life, good life, on the other side of the interruption.
© 2021 by Tim Grissom. All rights reserved.