Grief is an interesting experience.
This is a personal story, but I do have a more public point. I’ll get to it. I promise.
A year ago today, I went with my husband, Eric, to the BMV to renew my driver’s license (more than a month late—I had forgotten!). My phone rang while I was standing underneath a sign that said “No Cell Phone Usage,” so I waited until we were finished to check to see who called. It was my mother, who left a message that my Dad had fallen. When I called her, it was clear that he had not fallen, but that she had found him, unconscious, flopped over on the couch in his basement office. I promised her that I would be there in two and a half hours, and Eric and I raced home so that I could pack a bag. I called my sisters and asked them to call my brothers. I looked at Eric and said, “this could be it.”
It took a bit longer than two hours to get back to Bowling Green (rush hour traffic: ugh!). My mom still didn’t know exactly what was going on, but Dad had been taken by life-flight to a hospital in Toledo. He was still unconscious. When we got there we found out that my dad had had a hemorrhagic stroke. This is really bad. And we found out from one of the neurologists that there wasn’t much that could be done. So we began to say good-bye. My sisters, from Oregon and New York made arrangements to come home that night. My brothers came a few days later.
Overnight that first night, my dad showed some mild responses to stimuli, so the neurologists opted to perform surgery to remove the blood from his brain just to “give him a chance.” Dad tried to open his eyes several times over the next couple of days, but never really regained consciousness. My mother decided, and all of her children, children-in-law, and grandchildren agreed, that it was time to put a stop to life-sustaining measures. He was moved to a step-down unit. He was removed from the machines and gizmos. We gathered in his room and sang songs that he liked. And then, because we could, we decided to take him home to die.
Over the course of that week, my back gave out. Day by day, the pain in my heart and in my mind played its way out through the pain in my back. There were times I could barely stand, and sleeping on the hospital furniture in Dad’s room was excruciating.
These memories are vivid. I can picture these days with such clarity. I remember my family, the way we gathered, the moment by moment living of what I still consider to be sacred time. We brought my dad home to hospice care, set up a hospital bed in the living room, learned how to give him pain medications. I held his hand as I watched the pulse in his neck slow and then stop.
My dad died on October 23 at about twenty minutes after midnight. This meant that he lived just a few minutes beyond the one year anniversary of his broken hip. He clearly did not want to be part of that “x-number of people die within a year of a broken hip” statistic. We stayed up until about 4:30 in the morning, and remembered his life, his accomplishments, his curmudgeonliness, the twinkle in his eye, his integrity, his many hobbies. And over this last year, we have figured out how to be present to each other and to my mother, who found herself widowed after a very happy, 65 year marriage.
Almost a year later, I was driving home from the grocery store thinking about all of this, and as I walked into my house, my back went out. I didn’t twist or fall. I was simply, suddenly stooped over and in excruciating pain. It was the same back pain I experienced while my dad was hospitalized. Once again, the grief in my heart and my mind is playing out through a physical pain. It’s better today than it was on Tuesday. But I know why the pain is there, and what it requires me to do: I have to process through my grief, again and again. I have to claim it, hold it, confront it, feel it. Ignoring grief doesn’t work.
The reason I write this today (here’s the public point to the private story), is that there is considerable grief all around me today. A dear friend is remembering the anniversary of her mother’s death from cancer (much too young). One of the students here at Otterbein is dying of cancer. Another student lost a brother, suddenly. And a member of the catering staff, someone you probably saw or who prepared your meals at some point, died last night unexpectedly.
So here’s what I want people to know. First, grief is all around us, all the time. Living and dying are two sides of the same coin. It’s fall right now—a season of dying, that will give way to a time of stillness and winter, and then, in spring, to rebirth. Grief is a reminder to be alive and be present in each and every moment we have. As irritating as it is for me to have this back problem again right now, it’s a reminder that I’m here, I’m alive, I need to pay attention to things both in my spirit and in the world around me. Grief is hard, but it is in itself not a bad thing. It’s part of the spiritual experience of our human existence. As I have said many times over the past year, I wouldn’t like to not feel the grief, because it means that I loved my dad, that his life mattered to me and that I miss him. How sad it would be to not feel the pain that is associated with the love!
Second, because grief is all around us, we need to be kind. Perhaps my favorite aphorism is “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (sometimes attributed to Plato; more likely the source is Ian MacClaren, a Scottish author). We cannot see the grief that others bear. We do not know the stories that are close to the hearts of those around us. So every single person deserves our compassion, our kindness, and our patience. Every. Single. Person. Imagine how the world might change if we were really kind to one another!
I am heading up to Bowling Green tomorrow to spend the weekend with my mother. We will look at the stack of condolence cards that she got last year. We’ll remember together Dad’s dying, and more importantly, his way of living. We’ll look at pictures and talk again about the trips they took together. We’ll cry a little bit, and laugh, too. And maybe my back will ease up with the honesty of my felt grief.
Final point: if you’re part of the Otterbein family, and you’re grieving and need to talk, I’m here for you.
Blessings and Peace.