Grief has no resolution. It ebbs and flows like the ocean–a compounding, building brick-upon-brick grief that picks up the debris and carnage around it until it is monstrous, then erodes away only to begin again.
It does not look backward or forward. It is the very top of the drop of a rollercoaster, the uppermost apex of tension and anticipation for both the best and the worst. Will I ever come down? Can I go back? It is too late. What awaits me?
How do you define yourself? I can tell you how I would answer. I am a 26-year-old who loves reading, writing, and I generally prefer discussing the meaning of life over awkward, pointless small talk. I love to sing. I am a teacher, a learner. I look forward to starting a family with my husband someday. I care deeply for my friends and family. I like to think, to challenge myself, to achieve.
All good things. All good things that can so easily, quickly, unexpectedly fall away, disappear, fade into the black. Who would I become then? What would I do?
As I’m building up this house, I wonder what of it will stay; it seems you just take things away.
I have watched illness and chronic pain ravage and thrash at my family’s well-being and tear away at the things they’ve built up. Good things that have defined them, given their life meaning, granted fulfillment–chronic pain and illness can take all of that away, and we all stand speechless at the scene of the crime. Helpless. Baffled. Hurting. What do we do now?
Grieve. We have to grieve the loss. There is no way around it but through it. Loss asks for nothing more and nothing less of us.
People ask how I am doing. I am grieving; I am unresolved; I am dissonant. Tomorrow may be better; next week it may be worse; next month it will assuredly be different. But it will not leave.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds in the way people think it does.
A country boy, rebel-without-a-cause with calloused hands and a warm heart, has grown into a young man has grown into an adult. He has traversed the many hills and valleys of growing up–death and loss, sickness, addiction, depression, exhaustion, the existential dream that is early adulthood, late nights, babies, doubt, crises of faith. He marries a woman whom he loves and who loves him; they ski and hike; they go camping and enjoy an active life. He works his fingers to the bone to provide for his growing family–night shifts to day shifts to sleepless nights to babies and wondering how they’ll afford diapers and formula. He is smart, savvy, kind. He quickly climbs up the ladder of success, from the cement floors of warehouses to the corporate offices of management and directorships. High-stress, high-stakes, high hopes. He wakes up before the sun; he follows it home. He takes pride in his work. Affable and generous, charming and funny, he loves people, and they love him. What a good man, they say, even when he’s not around. I’d never want to work for anyone else. And they mean it. His children never see his stress; when he is home, he is Dad, who wrestles and plays catch, who tells funny stories and laughs, who rides bikes and plays around-the-world in the driveway, who rescues kites from roofs and crashes BMX bikes on rickety ramps…
We learn about this man by what he does and how he does it. We piece together who he is with these scenes: Able-bodied. Energetic. Down to earth. Active. Humble. Fun.
I prefer to call him Daddy. He is all of those things and more.
I do not know when it came, but chronic pain and illness snuck into the corridors of my daddy’s body like a thief in the night and made dirty, crusty homes in his joints and connective tissues. They acted quickly, eating away at what made his body strong and fluid, eroding his activity and mobility, his energy and well-being. In the swift blink of an eye, chronic illness threw a wrench into the gears of my father’s life. I cannot say when the rheumatoid arthritis crescendoed from cumbersome to crippling. But it did.
This is part two.
He is in pain all day, every day. He cannot work without causing further damage to his body, but he works anyway–for as long as he can. He loves his job, and he is nowhere near retirement age. There are bills to pay, too. Gone are the hikes and pick-up basketball games, the crawling on the floor with kids. His joints are aflame. The flight of stairs in his house are Mt. Everest. He grapples with a disease he cannot stop, enclosed by the unfairness of it all.
His wife is struck down by a brain aneurysm, which she miraculously survives. But now they both live with chronic pain. With limitations and nasty assumptions. Forced early retirement. Astronomical medical bills. They are thankful to be alive, but their bank accounts do not express the same gratitude, nor do bill collectors. They foreclose on their home. His identity shrinks and sheds as everything he has worked for all his life are crumbling. Was it all for naught? Did he overcome so much just to end up here? How can he find meaning now, at mid-life?
It seems you just take things away.
That was years ago.
The disease has since progressed. The pain is worse; medication does little other than cause side effects. My parents’ lives are shaken; at every turn, there is a monster to fight. Loss, so much loss. Infinite losses that compound upon one another and are woven together and loop from here to there and back again, much like the negative feedback loop of symptoms that occurs within my father’s own immune system.
Loss of stability. Loss of health. Loss of energy. Loss of faith. Friendship, family. Loss of community. Loss of intimacy. Loss of the future. Confidence, dreams, hope. Mobility, ability. Trust. A way of life. Quality of life. Resources.
Depletion. Defeat. Being emptied out.
Identity. They have been forced to redefine and refill themselves, to redraw the lines of who they are, plugging picked-up pieces of themselves into the empty spaces the best they can as they travel down the road away from the carnage. Some days it feels more like they are outlining who they were in chalk, covering what’s left with a white sheet, and departing from the scene of the crime. A ghost.
Does this have a point to it? God, I wish I could hear you. Why did you take this away? I wanted it! Can I move on now that it’s gone?
Daddy is still Daddy in more ways than not; for that, we are grateful. Mom, too, who has fought back her own demons and damage from the brain aneurysm.
Dad cracks jokes to break tension. He is ornery. He is charming. Nurses and staff adore him. He itches to work; he doesn’t idle well. In fact, the last time he was hospitalized, Mom is certain it was a result of his insisting to mow the lawn a few days prior. The day he was released, we caught him out watering the plants multiple times, claiming, “The nurses told me that I should walk around!”
Lies, of course; the nurses said no such thing. But that is Daddy–work ethic, affable charm, stubbornness, a need get his hands dirty, even as they swell and throb from the pain and damage of RA. I worry at times, but I also know he’ll never change; that’s okay. He is picking up the broken pieces of himself, putting life back into the carnage, clinging to who he is, giving a hearty, “F— you!” to his disease in the best way he knows how.
There is much to be thankful for, and that is no mere platitude of piety or feigned strength. It is the honest-to-God truth; I stand upon it daily. It is my sword and shield–it is Divine Light of God in the dark that I can say even so, He is still good, and even so, it is well with my soul. (That’s my hearty, “F— you!” to disease and loss.)
But the grief hovers; it is tireless. Like the slow, pulsating light of a star, it fades in and out, taking its time to travel toward me, sometimes hidden or out of sight, yet always there. Even as the first light reaches me, always I know there is more to come, in waves of light–or of water, sound, color. Deep down I know, too, that in some distant, unknown future time, there will be grief that will hit like a supernova, a blast of radio static, a tsunami, a kaleidoscope. Whatever loss I experience now, there is other loss to come, and by God’s grace, I’ll find a way to stand up under it then, too.
So I am at once grateful and grieving, both accepting and angry. There is tension, an odd simultaneity and equality between grief, gratitude, and fear, empathy, sadness, anger. It is not either/or; it is all.
But how can one feel all of these things at once and not implode?
By giving each thing its place and its space.
When I think about life before my family’s chronic pain, I see snippets of scenes that are far away, so far removed that they feel more like mythology than history, more fantasy than biography. I don’t really remember what life was like before pain and sickness became part of the family, and perhaps I am protecting myself from the mirage of “the good ol’ days,” from the bitter kind of grief about how things were and how things are supposed to be not being how things are. Perhaps I am merely resting at a bend in the road where the scenery around me prevents me from seeing clearly behind me or ahead. At the top of the hill, perhaps I’ll see more; perhaps I’ll be ready for it.
All I know now is, I am struck with a grief with no resolution as I watch chronic pain and illness chip away at those I love most, to see them grapple with not only pain but crises of faith, of identity, of worth; they were not ready. At 25 years old and 23 years old, Jordan and I were not ready for this either. So I don’t look back, and I only look so far forward as is necessary. There is no relief when looking back brings only anger and sadness and looking forward brings no hope.
Where do I look?
I can only look up and around–the here, the now. I see the good; I feel pride in watching my loved ones press on. I see the bad, and I curse it. I look heavenward when I am baffled, broken, bruised. I seek grace upon grace, joy, clarity, and peace, and I allow God to fill in the dry spaces of my heart that need Him.
I swallow the bitter seed of pain today, and tomorrow, one of sadness, and a week from now one of anger. I will digest it, let it settle, plant it. Looking up, trusting that even seeds of grief grow beautiful things when they are quenched by the Living Water.
I give each thing–good or bad, ugly or beautiful–its place and its space. I can’t weed out the bad until I see it for what it is; to do that, I must give it space and a place. Acceptance and surrender.
The only way around it is through it.
Grief will whiplash us if we try look beyond or behind it; it grows and crystallizes like old honey, becoming perverted and unpalatable if we ignore it. And yet, there will never be complete resolution to it because time does not heal all wounds in the way we think it will.
So what else can I do but call it what it is–heart-wrenching, unfair, painful; love well–even when I want to run away; and do the work. Give each thing its place and space.
The only way around it is through it.
*Quoted text is lyrics from Wavorly’s “Time I Understood.”