Grief is like dorm room ramen– it comes in many different varieties, and it always sucks. Like cheap noodles, when grieving life feels cheap and bland, and you just muscle through it. Those who experience grief may be surprised by the range of emotions they feel: anger, convulsive sobbing, relief, cynicism. In my own experience, I think what shocked me most was how quickly the world moved on after my trauma (if it ever paused at all), and seemed to ask me to do the same.
In this reflection, I share my challenges with carrying on “as normal” while grieving, and how it shaped my day-to-day over the past 12 months. My hope is this provides insight for those in proximity to someone grieving; to help them “misunderstand a little less completely” (Gresham, Introduction to A Grief Observed). And for the bereaved, I want you to know I understand. It can feel as though no one does, and that we “should be isolated in special settlements like lepers” (A Grief Observed). But while the long shadows of grief may darken your present days, the sun does come up again, and with it warmth and life once more.
It has been one year since my daughter died of leukemia. I remember the night she passed like I remember my name. After our last goodbyes were said, my wife and I went for a walk. There was a mist in the humid Houston air, that sort of salty mist you can taste and smell. When I closed my eyes, for one merciful moment I was at the coast. The sea means a great deal for our family. For years it has been a place of refuge and restoration. I know it was a great kindness that God used the apparition of our oasis to tear the veil of our deepest sorrow.
We walked to the hotel the hospital was kind enough to get for us. This way we wouldn’t have to drive through the night and return to our other children minutes after watching our daughter die. A night away was nice. We needed a month. I remember having to walk to get something for us to eat. Something so ordinary and casual after something so disorienting and excruciating. I remember struggling to get my wallet, having to consciously think about handing over my credit card. As the college student behind the counter handed me the food, he asked such a simple question: “Are you having a good night?” I half considered being fully honest and saying “Actually, no, my baby girl just died about an hour ago.” But people aren’t used to that sort of candidness. People are afraid of grief and death. I knew it would destroy his night. So I just didn’t say anything at all.
I remember the morning after Maggie passed away. We woke and checked out, along with the other visitors. As I waited in line to return the keys, I listened to the tedium of everyday life for the Average Joe. I thought to myself, “How can you possibly complain about the continental breakfast? Don’t you know my four-month-old daughter just died in our arms last night?” But of course he didn’t know that. I thank God the heaviest burden that man had to carry in that moment was whether there was a banana or blueberry muffin in his bag.
I remember driving home in separate vehicles from my wife. We had driven to Houston on different days, so we returned separately– symbolic of how we journeyed together yet apart through our daughter’s leukemia. Joleah spent most of her time in Houston with our daughter while in treatment, and I stayed home working for the medical insurance, and trying to maintain some sense of normality for our young boys. I remember screaming insanely during the drive. A guttural, tortured scream summoned from the depths of Hell. I moaned like this for much of the two hour drive. For this reason only I was grateful to be driving separate from Joleah.
I remember arriving back at our house. The home was full of pizza and barbecue and my teary-eyed in-laws. I wanted to throw up. They ran interference with our boys for a while. And less than 24 hours after Maggie released her grip on this world, we began the cold hard business of calling funeral homes, pricing out caskets, and choosing graveyards. It felt criminal that hearts in such a delicate state should make these matter-of-fact decisions. But there is a business to death, and we are its patrons.
I remember trying to engage with my kids, bravely facing their need for their dad and play, still so young and uncomprehending at ages 1, 3, and 5. At some level they understood their sister was gone. On another level they wanted to play tag with dad and feel “normal”. The same “normal” that I tried to provide them for months during Maggie’s treatment. So I sucked it up and numbly said, “Okay, I’m It”.
I remember working out with my neighbor at his garage-gym a few days after the funeral. He talked about squats and plyos, and nothing about my daughter. I know he had prayed for her and for us. But I don’t think he knew how to handle unanswered prayers of this magnitude. So he didn’t say anything about it at all. I’m still waiting for him to say something. He probably won’t.
I remember returning back to work, a mere 8 days after Maggie’s passing. The trite condolence emails that crowded my inbox were considerate and enraging. They had all the empathy that one would expect for someone who recently lost their goldfish. Cliched, predictable, well-meaning. How wonderful would it be for once to read, “I pounded the heavens and the earth begging for the healing of your daughter. And when I heard that she had passed away, I was devastated for you and your family and couldn’t get off the floor for an hour. Does anyone know where the love of God goes when your heart is amputated from your body?” But many people don’t seem to feel deeply. Or they haven’t dealt with trauma at an earth-shaking level. So instead I get, “I’m sorry for your loss”. Sorry doesn’t begin to touch it.
I remember a month after Maggie passed away; I became sharply aware of how stiflingly dull my world had become. As far as work was concerned, budgets and projects still need to be managed, and the death of my daughter was in the rear view. For the machine must continue to be fed, and it is illiterate in the ways of bereavement. A few more months later, it’s as if Maggie never existed. A mere blip on last fiscal year’s calendar. I wanted to quit my job.
“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t” (A Grief Observed). And when they do ask it’s distanced, as if sorrow can be contracted like COVID. But now the awkward exchanges of, “How are you doing?” have died off. They seem grateful to avoid stepping into too muddy of waters. People want to feel like they offered, without ever having to get their khakis dirty. That’s ok, I wouldn’t share much with these folks anyway.
I remember one particularly lifeless virtual meeting that really highlighted the bureaucratic absurdity of my workplace. I walked outside to our memorial garden for Maggie and in a moment of total clarity said, “What the hell am I doing? Isn’t there something more than this? Wasn’t everything I just went through worth something?” For months our soundtrack was filled with the drum of bruised-knee prayers and encouraged hope. The crescendo of seeming recoveries, suddenly diminished by a rapid change in diagnosis and ultimately death. Now, all this is replaced by Excel spreadsheets and status meetings. And then I went back to my desk. I’m still sitting there.
I remember the tears on my wife’s face when we’d encounter a baby girl at the store or park. Tears or sorrow, mourning, and blessedness. I looked at her knowingly, a secret language amongst mourners. A language that no one in our community seems to be fluent in. Thank God for that, I guess. They have been preserved from the wounds of grief for the time being.
And now, a year later, some attempt to sympathize, saying “Wow, has it already been a year?” Behind their voices is a note of “Are we still talking about this?”, as if we were talking about last year’s Super Bowl. And so the fiscal year turns. And so memories fade. The sound of her giggle. The look of her smile. The feel of her hand around my finger. The smell of her head. “Yes,” I think to myself, “It has been a year. And no I am not over it yet.” We’ll carry these wounds to the grave. There is no expiration date for a lacerated heart. Healing, yes, but the scars are everlasting.
There is a holiness in sharing our grief. In my year of grieving, I admit it is easy to feel alone in the journey. Frankly, I still struggle to find people to talk with that understand. Praying helps. But there is something so visceral about talking to another’s flesh and blood. If you are not grieving, but are witness to one who is- offer to listen. Keep in mind all of lament’s feral adaptations, mercy is needed. Conversely, if you are grieving and others are authentically reaching out, take them up on their offer. As Sheldon Vanauken described in A Severe Mercy, “We are all so alone in what lies deepest in our souls, so unable to find the words and perhaps the courage to speak with unlocked hearts, that we do not know at all that it is the same with others.” So speak we must, to heal our wounded souls. And by unlocking our hearts we stand in the face of grief and death, and forbid it to have the final word.