Grief is tough because death is confusing

I used to like watching movies about kids whose moms died.

That’s odd, maybe, but it’s true. My mom died when I was eight. I liked seeing how kids in movies reacted — how they might be like me.

They never were like me.

That’s because movies make death clean. Typically, the whole ordeal appears appropriately sad and involves lots of crying, like in real life. But screenwriters always make clear what’s going on and how it’s affecting everyone involved. When a kid’s not taking it well, for example, that’s made obvious — little Billy doesn’t talk for months after his mom dies, sister Sally literally runs away, big brother might even turn to drugs (so cliché).

But grief isn’t like that. It’s confusing.

When someone you love dies, there’s no telling how it might affect you, and no telling just sad or confused you might be. And if you don’t take it well, no one around you will know what’s going on inside you. They’ll worry about you, be confused about you, maybe even get frustrated with you.

If these things weren’t true, grief wouldn’t be so hard.

When someone you love dies, you might even do weird things.

I can remember trying to smile just a few seconds after my dad told me my mom died. It wasn’t hard. I felt terrible about smiling, but I did it — just for a second, and not where anyone could see me. It was easy. I’ve never forgotten that feeling. It didn’t last long because I almost immediately felt guilty for having the energy to smile after hearing that my mom was dead. I was only eight. For some reason I just had the urge to do it.

I think it was so easy to smile because most of the sadness had already come and gone. Death can be awkwardly slow — especially when brought about by a drawn-out terminal illness. I knew my mom was dying for six months. She told me herself one day at the kitchen table. I cried then. In fact, I cried more in that moment than I did when she actually died. She was barely conscious for the last two months of her life. I remember playing her favorite song on the piano a few rooms down from her hospice and running back in to see that she had slept through it all. She was so drugged up and so skinny and so, so pale. Yellowish, really — the color of the latex gloves her nurses sometimes used when they gave her shots.

So by the time she died, I think I’d cried most of my tears. Maybe I was relieved. It was hard, you can imagine, going through second grade knowing that your mom was going to die near the end of the year. But I honestly believed (and still do) that she’s “in a better place.” Isn’t that worth smiling about?

I digress a little. What I’m trying to say is that death is not clean. If it were, it wouldn’t be so hard. If we knew what was happening, why it was happening, and what it really meant, we’d handle it a lot better. It wouldn’t be so devastating.

In other words, death and grief aren’t awful because we, and those around us, know how awful it is. It’s awful because the whole thing is almost always an ugly, awkward, terrifying mess.

Something else confusing is what to do afterwards. A death happens, but that’s not the end. In some ways, it’s a beginning.

When my mom died, I remember thinking: Should I talk to Grandma and Grandpa anymore? Should I put away the little pictures of mom hanging in my room? When should I go back to school? Tomorrow? Next week? Never? How can I think about her without crying? Would it be wrong not to? Should I just quit playing piano (she was my teacher)? Should I tell everyone who talks to me assuming I have a living mother that my mom is, in fact, dead? No way! That’s the last thing I wanted to do. But then what happens when they find out months later and feel embarrassed and terrible and get overly-apologetic with me and, God-forbid, start ugly-crying in my face?

You see what I mean? It’s confusing. Death is confusing. It’s awful. And grief is unscripted.

I learned that last line in a “grief group” in college. I was depressed and hadn’t really gotten over her death even by then, so I sought counsel with peers who’d also lost a parent (or both). All of them had lost a parent within the past three years. I lost mine 12 years before. My problems were different. Was I welcome there? I didn’t ask questions. Grief group helped, though.

Death is confusing. Grief is unscripted. Read that over and over again. Let it soak in — especially if you’re facing the impending loss of a loved one to some terrible disease, or if your own death is coming up (though I don’t know much about that). Or if you know anyone who might die one day.

Maybe I’ll look back on these comments and regret ever saying them, but I figure it’s better to say something that might help than to say nothing at all. Death is more than just confusing, but it’s definitely nothing less. This is just a good starting point. God knows there’s lots more to say.

What I learned from my brother

I shared this note on Facebook yesterday.

It seems to have encouraged lots of people, so thought I’d share it here.

I hesitated to publish this anywhere, at first. I wrote it for myself—to get my thoughts on paper. I hadn’t been able to do that in regards to my brother until last week.

But I want people to remember Matt. And there’s no point in hiding the hard truths. Unfortunately, we all lose we people love, at some point or other—sometimes in terrible ways. What’s important isn’t that we avoid these things, but learn how to put it all into some workable perspective.

Here’s a quote to go along with the note:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of secondary causality – in nature or history – is governed not only by a transcendent providence but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But one should consider the price at which the comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of – but entirely by way of – every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines (and so on). It is a strange thing indeed to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.

David Bentley Hart

Grief is unscripted

To grieve doesn’t mean to be depressed. It doesn’t mean to be sad, distraught, or devastated. If it meant one of those things, it would be called one of those things.

To grieve is to experience what happens after someone you love dies. This is different for everyone, and its form depends on circumstance.

Grief is a word, which means it describes something. Somewhere along the line, some creative person decided to label the experience “grief.” The word did not exist ex nihilo, or come into existence on its own power. It is not prescriptiveWhen someone dies, you aren’t supposed to grieve. You do grieve. Grief is whatever you feel or think or see or do after a loved one dies that you know, in your heart, is related to their death.

Grief does not suddenly begin and promptly end, either. Grief surfaces in a small way when we first come to truly understand that someone we love will die one day. This realization happens slowly—over the course of many years, even—but it changes everything. It colors the way we see things and how relate to our loved ones. It manifests as all forms of emotion as we mature. It’s always somewhere in our hearts and minds. It morphs and intensifies around the time of a loved one’s death (especially immediately after) and it runs it course until we ourselves die.

This doesn’t mean we will always be sad after a loved one dies. Grief, remember, is not the same thing as depression or sadness. Usually, after some weeks or months of a loved one’s death, it morphs again. It may not manifest as tears quite as often, or ever again. It may turn into a steady feeling of having lost something, or a subtle feeling of tiredness or mental exhaustion. For others, it may even turn into some form of energy or a powerful source of inspiration.

Grief is different for everyone. No one’s grief is better than another’s.

But no matter how our grief morphs and shapes and manifests in our lives, it stays with us. It is part of us—part of being human—and, in an odd but true way, enriches our understanding of just what’s important in the world.

Let grief happen. Be sad for a time. But also let grief morph. Let it anger you, frustrate you, exhaust you, inspire you. Talk about it with others. Remember the one you’ve lost or are about to lose. Say whatever you want to say.

Grief is unscripted.