Monday, January 25, 2016

Writing Through Grief, Part 2

I have some darling friends who remember occasionally to ask me what I’m writing, or what I plan to do now, after Mom’s passing.
                That’s a very good question. The very one I keep asking myself these last few weeks: what now?
                I managed very little writing last year, in the midst of Mom being with us. During the weeks I was couch-bound with my knee injury, I finished another novella (unpublished at the moment), but later, with caring for Mom? Not happening. And now? Still not really happening. (Although I do have a start on a new story; more on that later.)
                There are times as writers the words flow so fast we can hardly get them down quickly enough. Times when we can’t help attempting to capture our emotions on paper, whether that means joy or sorrow. Grief, though, is such a strange blend of emotion—not just sorrow, but anger and apathy and disbelief. We hardly know what we're feeling. We peck out a few words, but they sound stupid. Or inadequate. A story we love just refuses to sing for us any longer. A concept we’ve longed to write suddenly seems the most pointless endeavor ever known to mankind.
                Depending upon who we are and what commitments we have, though, we keep pressing on. In retrospect, I’ve done some of my best work, if most raw, while riding the wake of grief. Ten or so years ago, while trying to write a young British campfollowing wife, newly widowed, I found myself pouring out the real-life grief of losing a child, freshened by the recent stillbirth of a friend’s baby. As hard as that situation was (and I still get choked up thinking about it—almost more than thinking about my own loss), it was an honor to be there for my friend, to help her walk through a situation so many women experience but I’d never wish on my worst enemy.
                Is it any less an honor to be a troubadour of words, to offer support and comfort and understanding through my stories? It doesn’t always feel that way when grief takes over, picking us up like a rogue wave and tumbling us over and over, scrambling what’s left of our fragile brains and finally leaving us spent on the beach, just trying to breathe and get our equilibrium back. The words slide out of our reach, as impossible to capture as the foam on those waves. Writing? What is this writing of which you speak?
                But after everything, when breath returns and we stagger back to more solid ground, we find ourselves the ones who can toss encouragement to others in the same situation. Like with real riptides and rogue waves, the advice is the same: don’t fight it! Go with it, ride the wave! Don’t exhaust what energy you have in fighting the power of an ocean, sloshing under the influence of the moon’s pull—nobody is that strong.
                Still we try to fight. We think we have to “hold it together” for others. Maybe we’re just afraid what will happen if we give in and let the tears come. Will the tears ever stop, or will we drown? Although, sometimes it feels like drowning would be the easier choice. (Think Jars of Clay ... “it’s the breathing that’s taking all this work.”) But laundry needs washing, and people need fed, and it’s those needs of the living around us that keep us from our own dying.
                Again, the parallel with writing. The story itself demands telling. On the days I’d like to lie down and quietly die, as a writer, God sends out the noisy, nagging hounds of my characters’ voices, reminding me that my job isn’t finished yet, that someone out there needs to hear what I have to say. And that humbles me to tears. Who am I, to attempt to offer life and hope to others? When I struggle so to live out my own calling?
                A calling it is, though, and so I always know, however much the wave tosses me or the riptide yanks me farther down the shore than I expected, that God will eventually tell the wave to spit me back out on the beach ...
                Where I’ll catch my breath, drag myself back toward land, dry out, and—at some point—start writing again.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Writing Through Grief, Part 1

There’s a teaching that says because Christ Himself bore our griefs and sorrows, Christians never really have to suffer those things. It’s true that God’s mercy and grace mitigate so much sin-based pain and sorrow we’d have to bear otherwise. But if you live for very long at all, loss and therefore grief are unavoidable on this journey across Planet Earth. (I almost wrote Thulcandra ... see C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet.) The point of Christ taking our griefs and sorrows was not to completely remove them in the here and now—there’s still the business of refining us, while we walk this earth—but so He, as God Incarnate, could taste the fullness of human experiences and then someday let us trade them for glory. But in the meantime ... they are still our experiences.

I have dear friends suffering from many kinds of loss. One, a beloved husband after a long, painful battle with cancer, and then, as if that isn’t enough, fractured relationships with family because of the resulting stress and strain. Another, the bitterness of watching a child make terrible choices, and others with medical diagnoses in their family which may or may not result physical death, but certainly mean a loss of “normal” life and expectations. Others struggle with the death of career dreams.

For myself, it has been watching my beautiful, talented, independent mother lose her mobility, her sight, and her ability to care for herself. Each visit, usually coinciding with some medical crisis, broke my heart afresh to watch her struggle, to hear her process through the questions and doubts over God’s fairness and grace. (In case anybody wondered, you can’t have both. But that’s another discussion entirely.)

Mostly, it broke my heart to see how much she’d lost.

There were things she gained, of course. A new gentleness, a tenderness for her husband that somehow had been lacking before. Lessons in the high price of choosing bitterness and resentment over gratitude. And an amazing ministry of prayer, not just our immediate family but beyond, since she had little to do but sit most of the day.

We talked often of heaven, and a few months ago I reminded her, when she bemoaned never again getting to see her granddaughters’ wedding dresses, or the faces of her children and grandchildren, that the first face she’ll get to see, when she opens her eyes in Heaven, would be Jesus. And as I hoped, she seemed to find comfort in that.

2015 was a particularly hard year for her, with at least two serious brushes with death. Each time we wondered, is this it? And, how much more can she endure? Each time she pulled through, held on just a little longer. Weeks and weeks of hospitalizations, in and out of intensive care, more weeks of nursing home stays ... in between all that, a summer with us, here, in North Dakota. She loved sitting out on the porch, with the sun and the wind.

Tuesday before Christmas, she was finally able to come home to my stepdad. We’ve speculated that this was the final thing she was waiting for, because on the afternoon of January 2, she went to sleep one last time ...

... and opened her eyes to Heaven.

As happy as we are to know beyond a doubt that’s where she is—and relieved that her suffering is finished, that she’s whole and healthy and beautiful again—we’re left with this hole in our lives. Her passing shouldn’t have taken us by surprise, but it did.

And so ... we grieve. “Not as others, who have no hope ...” but we miss her—her wit, her humor, her love. Because whatever faults she had, we knew she loved us. And as that line from the film Gladiator says, someday we’ll be with her, but ... not yet. Not yet.