“You need to lead a grief symposium,” she said. “So many people need encouragement.”
That was a new thought, in some ways. And one for which I was unprepared.
I promised to pray about it and give it some thought.
I know so little about grief. It doesn’t seem like too long ago when I was thinking death seemed to have skipped our family altogether. My parents were living into their mid-90s and all my siblings were alive and well, into our 60s and beyond. And then, maybe I spoke too soon….
Our youngest brother Charlie died in ’06, our Dad in ’07, and Mom in ’12. Our brother Glenn went to Heaven after that, followed by my brother Ron’s only grandson Micah, in his mid-20s. And then my wife of 52+ years died in January of this year.
The hits just keep on coming.
As a veteran pastor, I know a great deal about funerals. And, having cared for hurting families over these decades, I thought I knew a lot about grief. I did, but it was all from the outside. I was an observer, a reporter, never a participant.
These days I’m learning about grief from the inside.
So far, the main thing I’ve learned is I don’t much like it. Grief accompanies bad things in our lives. Grief saps the joy out of our days and robs us of sleep at night. It takes away our appetite and dampens our enthusiasm for the activities that used to fill the spaces in our lives.
Grief is an erratic guest in my house. Some days he does not show up at all, and then suddenly with no warning, descends in full force and causes the tears to flow. HIs visitations are triggered by the oddest of prompts, everything from an old photograph to a forgotten note in a file to something written in the margin of the Bible. Sometimes grief’s presence is like a dark cloud over the house and at other times a jab with a pointed stick.
A symposium, says the dictionary, derives from the Greek and originally meant a drinking party (sym meaning ‘together’ and the rest of the word being a cousin to our potion).
“Can you drink of the cup from which I will drink?” our Lord asked His disciples (Mark 10:38). He had in mind suffering, whereas they wanted something less bitter.
Grief can be bitter. It can rouse bad memories, deliver overwhelming guilt, and call forth forgotten anger even. Grief leaves an unwelcome aftertaste.
I wonder if my grief over Margaret’s passing is typical. For that matter, I wonder if any grief is typical, or does every human carve a new path through this awful swampland, one never traveled before and his or hers alone.
It’s been over 7 months now since my wife drove herself to the nail salon down the highway and, according to the ladies there, sat in the chair, coughed a couple of times, and collapsed. After five days on life support with no response whatsoever, she was unplugged and died the next morning. The mahogany box with her ashes sits where we placed it then, on a small round table just to the side of the chair in the living room in front of the window where she read her Bible and kept her study books. A framed photo sits nearby, one of several pictures I took last year when we visited the English Tea Room in Covington, Louisiana.
I cannot type this without the tears flowing.
Mostly, I look at the photo and smile. She was having a good day then. Sometimes I talk to her as I pass through the living room or sit nearby at the dining room table at the laptop working on articles for this blog. But I think the same thing as when I visit the graves of my parents and brothers in the church cemetery outside Nauvoo, Alabama: They are not here; they are as much with me at the family farmhouse as they are here. If they are with the Lord, and if He is with me–which He is–then, aren’t they with me also? Same with Margaret.
I understand so little about any of this. Introspection does not come naturally for me. But I’m trying.
We see through a glass darkly. We know in part. We walk by faith, not by sight.
The jabs or stabs of grief that hit me from time to time–less frequently now than earlier, I notice–seem to be a combination of so many things, but mostly just sadness from missing her.
If we could break down the grief and analyze it chemically, with a weight of 100, let’s say, perhaps it would be composed of the following:
1) The first 40 parts would be love and sadness. I miss her touch and the sound of her voice. Even at the age of 70 plus, her voice was still youthful and sweet. And the touch of her hands was so healing and comforting. I miss her counsel, even when it was not always what I wanted to hear.
“That’s boring,” she might say when I read an article to her I was working on. Or, “Who do you think would be interested in reading this?” I smile at that memory. We all need someone in our lives who can speak such truth to us, knowing their saying it will not jeopardize the relationship.
And I miss that.
As a good wife, she knew a thousand things about running a home we husbands have no clue about. She knew medicines and food preparation and psychology. And she knew her Bible. In her memorial service, Pastor Mike Miller held her Bible up and said, “You will know Margaret was a serious Bible student when I tell you she had Leviticus marked up!”
2) Another 20 parts would be guilt. I should have loved her better and told her more how special she was to me, how lovely were her eyes, and what a vital role she had played in my life for nearly 55 years. I should not have left her so often when our children were small to visit church members in the hospitals when she needed me a hundred times more than they. Why did I travel to the other side of the earth to draw an evangelistic comic book for the missionaries–being gone from home a full two weeks when our children were 8, 11, and 14–and give her hardly a thought while I was engaged in such pleasurable activities? I was so self-centered.
And yet I know.
This is how life is. No one is faultless, not even she. I’m well aware I could fill my days and nights cataloging my absences, my preoccupations, and our misunderstandings, but there is no point in this. My dad often worked double shifts in the coal mines to provide for his family of six children, leaving mom to manage us. Margaret’s father drove a Greyhound bus and was usually gone overnight. It’s how life is. But still….
3) Perhaps another 15 parts would be pure gratitude.
I’m so thankful for the Lord leading us together in 1960. I can recall something I would never have told her in a million years: I never felt the usual stuff we associate with fairy-tale romance–the elevated heartrate, the loss of appetite, the preoccupation with thoughts of her, and a thousand other such stuff of movies and Harlequin romances–but I knew from early on that God had chosen her for me and me for her.
The years proved that. She was a good mother and a loving wife, and she became a great companion in ministry. She was bright and intellectual and a constant reader. She was not a writer in the way her husband tried to be but she had great instincts as to what sounds right, which word would go better in that place, and when something was working.
I’m glad for our years together, for our love, for her beauty, for our children, for memories and laughter and ten thousand things.
Her last ten or fifteen years were increasingly painful, due to a combination of troublesome health issues. She never liked me to tell people what they were when I explained that “No, my wife will not be accompanying me on this revival.” She would say, “Just tell them ‘My wife has health problems.'” So I did.
She was often in such pain she would say, “I can’t go on living this way.” And when the Lord took her in late January, He did it in a moment. As painful as this way–surely, the worst pain I have ever known in my years–I’m eternally grateful to Him for taking her without suffering. I’m thankful she did not linger on a sick bed for months or even years. And I’m thankful she was with people when this happened, and not driving on the highway when her collapse could have been tragic for so many.
4) I have no clue what the last parts would be.
Introspection is not my thing. I’m not good at this. Margaret was the psychologist in the family. We used to tease that her choice of a movie involved people having nervous breakdowns, whereas Joe wanted nothing but Mayberry. I would insist that this was because my days were filled with trouble and conflict and heartaches–I am a pastor, after all–and for rest, I need something light-hearted and relaxing. But she was the deep thinker and the analyzer.