The Many Shades of Grief
I have watched three people die.
Last week, it was sitting by my grandfather’s bed singing hymns. Watching his chest rise and fall in labored breathing. Seeing him quiet more and more. Listening to family cry and laugh, make music and tell funny stories. Glancing over to see that he was no longer breathing at all.
Nine years ago it was preparing a meal in my mother’s kitchen. Peering through the doorway into my step-dad’s room where my mom sat in vigil. Listening to those terrible gasping breaths. A once-strong body, refusing to give up. Then still listening as there was only silence.
Twenty-eight years ago it was doing CPR for the first time. Chest compressions until my arms trembled. I wouldn’t switch with my mom. No one wants to “kiss” their dad. Vomit and cold and realizing that the ambulance wasn’t going to come as our road was too remote and icy.
Death dredges the struggle of life to the surface. Death is hard. It is a battle. It is that greatest, final toil with the physical world. Whether it is a sudden accident, the ravages of cancer, or the long march of age striping the body and mind, death is shocking. It takes a living, laughing, feeling being and turns them into a thing. Yes, the body is warm for a moment. Yes, the image of your loved one is still close and dear. Come back to the bedside in an hour. The body grows cold and stiff, blood pools at the bottom of that husk, leaving the top pale and gaping.
Watching death come, shows a truth in glaring brilliance. We do have a soul. That presence leaves and what housed it becomes nothing but a crust of flesh. And so we grieve.
Our loved one is not here. They are … elsewhere.
I am so grateful that the three men I lost were all servants of God.
It doesn’t mean you don’t grieve. We are strange about grief. I was trying to write a children’s book about grieving. It was back at Thanksgiving. When my grandfather was still toddling around and so very alive. What exactly will help a child grieve? The advice we push upon one another is so often confusing and faulty.
You should cry.
Stop crying so much.
This is a celebration.
Laughing is disrespectful.
Don’t be loud.
Just let him go.
Don’t run in church.
He’s in a better place.
I was at a writing retreat where Brandilyn Collins taught. She talked about how character emotion often feels flat because the author chooses only one shade of that emotion. They choose adoration to express love, joy for the new mother, weeping for the grieving child at the cemetery.
She held up a necklace. “What color is this?”
We said orange.
But when she moved the necklace closer, we saw that many beads were shades of orange but some were red, pink, black, and even green. The whole necklace looked orange, but that was not the precise truth.
Then she described shades of love. The woman waiting up with a fancy homemade dinner for her husband is going to show something that looks an awful lot like hate when he is four hours late for their date. It’s actually love, just one of the more fierce shades.
The young mom who hasn’t slept well in two weeks who gets up at 2:00AM with her baby might be weeping and depressed or stumbling about in a zombie-like stupor. That is love, too. It is also a shade of joy. Wiping those exhausted tears away and feeling your baby finally fall asleep against your shoulder. Yeah, the same shoulder that is soaked and smelly with spit-up. Joy. Pure, sweet joy.
Then there is grief. As a people, we try to prescribe a formula for grief. Weep, we say. Don’t despair, we extol. Think of Heaven, we demand. But grief comes in all shades and that was something I wanted to paint for the reader in my children’s manuscript.
I’ve been there. Watched my grandmother, my dad’s mom, get the news that her baby was dead and then turn to us and ask if we would like a cup of tea. I saw her embrace his body at the funeral and kiss that terrible pale face. It wasn’t him. Not at all. But it was the form he had among us. The form we had loved. I saw the stoic face of my twelve-year-old brother. His thirteenth birthday was twelve days after Dad died. The conflict. We were supposed to celebrate him becoming a teen. We longed to celebrate, at least I did. We were supposed to grieve and be sad. We were sad. We were destroyed. How could we possibly feel everything we were supposed to and at the right time and place?
And as I think of Brandilyn Collins’ “orange” necklace and all the shades that made it, I know that she was right. Grief has many shades. We should not demand that it be organized and tidy as it gouges at our hearts.
Grief is not the surgeon’s knife, precise and strategic. It feels a lot more like an enemy catapult, launching a plagued body of a cow over your castle wall. Do you scream and run, laugh, duck, die, all of the above?
We feel it all. When that flying cow smashes into your world, everything is grief. The tears, the frozen and expressionless face, laughing and then feeling guilty, not laughing and also feeling guilty, the insane activity, the sleepless nights, the long long naps, the nervous babbling, the silence, the wondering, the pain. It is grief and it simply means that we have loved.
Last Sunday was a combination of every shade. Sorrow at seeing a loved one wasting away, struggling in those final hours. Pride at a long life lived with purpose and love. Laughter at the remembered story of the bear and the marshmallows at Yellowstone. The chance to eat good food together, all while slipping away, one at a time to check on Grandpa in his room. My mother playing the piano. Singing hymns and ridiculous songs from Grandpa’s youth. Industrious cleaning and numb inactivity. All of these colorful beads were strung onto our necklace of grief.
Trying to express that in 1,000 words for children … well that makes you really take stock. What is the most important thing? What will help the most? What exactly have I learned in watching these three dear men as they died.
You grieve because you love.
Grief comes in a thousand shades.
We grieve with the hope of Heaven.
Even with Heaven, grief is still grief.
There is victory in that final breath.
There is peace in seeing the struggle end.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be happy about it.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be happy about it.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t feel both with equal strength and honesty.
None of this surprises God.
I think of the many views of God that the Bible reveals. God the creator. God the betrayed. God the angry. God the sorrowful. God the conqueror. God the merciful. God who sees. God who morns. God who beckons. God who leads captives free. God who is silent. God the human. God with us. God the hungry. God the dusty. God the weary. God the healer. God who loves. God who dies. God who wins. God who calls. God.
Though He is too much to handle, I still trust Him. He has spoken to me each time death came near. He is with me and I am His. It is no wonder we live so many colors of grief. He has not made us simple but blazingly complex and breathtaking. Like Him.
So if you grieve today, take heart. Whatever shade your grief is at this moment, God knows it and knows you.
He made you to reflect His love in every glorious color.
6 thoughts on “The Many Shades of Grief”
Oh My Kristen, how did I miss this one! Thank you for your words of insight and clarity.
Wow, I can’t believe it has been a year since we lost Grandpa. I love you so much, Mom.
Such beautiful words and beautiful reflections on grief.
Your mom just sent me a link to this poetic essay. Nice honor to your Grandpa and the feelings that go with actually being there. I really miss that guy. He was my buddy, and we had some great memorable times together.
Thank you, Stephanie. I’ve been mulling over it a lot lately. We lost someone this year, too. Hard times, but good times mixed in, praise God.
Thank you, Dixon. I remember some of the adventures you two had! What great memories!