From the first time I met Ruth, I wanted to call her Mom. My own mother died when I was a young adult, so having Ruth as a mother-in-law was my second chance at being a kid again. Plus, she just seemed to embody every motherly quality ever penned on a Hallmark card. My orphaned heart—along with the hearts of so many others—often found a soft landing with her.
I was thinking of all this as I stepped outside her room in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, my insides churning with astonishment and grief. Ruth’s symptoms had emerged so suddenly we’d barely been able to make the flight that now allowed us all to keep vigil at her bedside. Only twelve hours before she was enjoying dinner with family. Now she lay motionless, dying from a heart condition none of us saw coming. Then in the age-long process of 48 hours, she crossed the threshold of life here with us and went to be with her Jesus. My husband and I just stood there looking at each other, an unspoken question hanging in the air between us.
How will we ever survive the loss of her?
Even as I write this, its still so hard to believe she’s gone.
I’m no stranger to grief—thus this website. The death of my dear mom-in-law brings me again to a familiar place of loss, and has me recalling some ways I’ve responded to grief in the past. I am learning that some grief is helpful, moving you forward, and some grief is harmful–meaning, it can actually prolong the process or stall you out altogether. So as I learn to let go again, I thought I’d share some of my experience with you. If you’ve read this far, maybe you are learning to let go of something too.
Grief Response #1 Get Angry
Anger seems to be my catch-all response when I can’t quite process all I’m feeling. I can get critical and short-tempered, prone to lashing out. This is especially (and ironically) true when someone is brave enough to offer me help. While anger does bring some emotional release, the relational repair a verbal “blow-up” requires makes the anger response a rather costly choice. This has been a hard-won lesson for me.
Grief Response #2 Deny Reality
If I say I’m fine, then I’m fine, right? Well maybe for a little while. Denying the pain I feel is kinda like the plot in the Emperor’s New Clothes–everyone sees the problem, but no one acknowledges it. It’s a crazy-making situation, which is usually what I wind up doing–making myself and everyone around me feel crazy. Grief demands expression and if I refuse to acknowledge it, it will find it’s own weird way out of my heart.
Grief Response #3 Let it Be
Just let the grief be.
Insider tip: the first two responses do not require the intentionality this one does.
Giving myself space to grieve can feel like every raw nerve gets exposed. It’s so very hard and can be just as hard for loved ones to watch. But lots of hard things end in good places, and grief is one of these things. Allowing grief to surface gives me the option to be in charge of it, to process it productively. Sometimes I choose to look at old pictures or videos letting my gratitude and/or regret pour over the memories. I might go for a walk, asking God to forgive me for letting petty irritations rob precious parts of our relationship. I may write a list of thanksgiving, acknowledging all the ways the person or situation has impacted my life for good. But most often, I find its just me and the Kleenex box. Heaving sobs may threaten to hurl me into a bottomless pit, but they have yet to accomplish it. Instead, they help me begin to accept the reality of a priceless treasure lost. If I give grief some room, my mind and body will do the work they need to do. Little by little, letting grief be frees up the space I need for my heart to find rest.
A few days after Ruth died, I found this little prayer in a box labeled “Important Papers”. It is dated April 2008. I have no idea what circumstance motivated Ruth to take down these words, but I do have an idea of how she chose to respond to that circumstance.
They say Jesus was “a man acquainted with grief” Isaiah 53:3. He knew the anguish of desperate prayer Luke 22:44 and can empathize with our human condition Hebrews 4:15. He sat often with the hard stuff of life, but eventually arose victorious over it all. Incredibly, He invites us on the same journey. One day all our tears will be past tense. My dear mom-in-law knows this first-hand now. This thought anchors me, giving me strength to grieve the loss of all she meant to me and our family.
A favorite book right now: What Happens After I Die? by Michael Allen Rogers