I have spent the last 364 days becoming an expert in grief.
I never knew grief before like I know him now. Grief and grieving were obscure, abstract, therapist-terms that had little to no application in my life. Until my brother-in-law died, one year ago tonight. Then we became very close.
I always heard things like, “You have to let yourself grieve,” and wondered how grief could possibly be a choice. There were a lot of things people said about death and grief that did not make any sense until Johnny died. Now I know that grief – both the act of entering into it and the method by which it is experienced – are, indeed, choices.
Now, when someone says to me, “I had to let myself grieve this,” I nod in absolute empathy. I know what that choice feels like.
One of the things people said that I did not understand until I experienced it was: “The firsts are hard. The first year, the first Christmas, the first birthday.” I presumed they were correct, and of course, they were. But it turns out to be more nuanced that just “hard,” and that it what I want to help you understand today.
Some things, I have found, are harder in the anticipation, than in the actual event. The entire week leading up to Father’s Day, Johnny’s Birthday, Thanksgiving: these were cloudy and foggy at best. I cried often. I dreaded the uncontrollable approach of these days, knowing full-well that I would think of nothing but missing our Johnny on these days, even more than most other days. I could hardly focus. I became irritable and impatient. I had bad dreams and sleepless nights which did nothing to ease the pit in my stomach and the haze in my brain.
But then, as if there were some mercy in the world, after all, the day actually came. And, like the last page in, “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book,” the days themselves were not quite as grim as the days leading up to it. I was depressed and upset, of course. But all the anxious anguish leading up to a particular day on the calendar was replaced with solace and contemplative somberness on the actual date. It was never as bad as leading up to it. It was as if everything I had worked up in my head was replaced with the eventual, timely acceptance of what actually happened.
There were the other kinds of days, as well: Mother’s Day, Katie’s graduation day, Theodore’s Birthday, and Christmas. These days, I was hardly prepared for the emotion which struck me. Sometimes I was too busy preparing for the event, or distracting myself with nervous excitement. The days and weeks leading up to it were mostly chaotic and rushed. Then the moment arrived, and a deluge of despair descended all at once.
It hardly seems fair, since it is impossible to anticipate which holidays will give me which feeling. And, neither is better or easier than the other. Either way, I am wrestling my demons and feelings, while simultaneously attempting to live in the moment, enjoy the little things, and make my toddler’s young life as full of joy and Goodness as possible. I fail at all of these things, either way.
So many days I have spent on grief, and so many nights. This process has been exhausting.
I am reminded of the parable of the builders in Matthew 7. Jesus told his disciples that anyone who hears his words and puts them into practice is like a wise man, who builds his house on a rock. “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”
Jesus warns, though, that everyone who hears his words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man, who builds his house on sand. “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27).
Grief has beat on my house this year. The wind screamed, and the waters filled the basement and pelted the window. The earth became soggy and sank around me. But I felt as though we have been huddled in the center of our home, waiting out the storm on top of our rock. My Massimo, my Theodore, and I have waited and wailed. But our house has not fallen. The following is the rock we have found as our foundation:
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 1Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary:
‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:9-21).
Now spring is coming again, and the year of firsts is over. The skies are clearing and the trees are blooming. Tomorrow will will re-live last year’s April 26, in which the storm began and we swarmed to the safe space.
Grief is never leaving us, nor will this knowledge thereof. But I welcome the year of seconds, then thirds, then fourths. Yes, each year we get farther away from the last time we heard and touched and saw our Johnny. But, with each year, we also get closer to our sweet reunion with him, as well as the freedom from these days of grief.