grief is not a process; it's a part of you
I used to have two dead ferns hanging on my front porch. Nobody really told me that you’re supposed to water plants every day; that was apparently something I missed in Botany class. Anyway, one day I noticed that a bird had made its nest in one of them, and that there were teeny little bird eggs in that nest, so I just decided to take the hit and let people think that I was a fern-watering failure on purpose so that I didn’t ruin everyone’s little birdy lives. The mama bird was huge. The fattest bird I’d ever seen. And she’d be there every morning when I left the house and she would just look at me and I’d say, “Good morning, Harriette,” and she’d still just look at me with her big bird eyes, not blinking. I looked forward to it. I know that sounds weird, but I did.
But then one day Harriette and her little baby birds were gone. She didn’t need my dead ferns anymore. After Maggie died, I took them down. Mags loved pink flowers, so I drove straight to Home Depot and found the very best ones and I brought them home and hung them up and the first thing I do every morning now is water those flowers. I took the little tags off of the planters and I researched how to take the very best care of those exact flowers, and so when I see them start to wilt, I water them a little more. I keep a watering can by the front door. There’s a giant rosebush in my front yard, too, that blooms these beautiful hot pink roses. I water that every day, too. I know it’s in the yard and that the rain can probably handle that, but it helps me. It helps me to water all the pink flowers I can get my eyes on, even the ones that have somehow sprouted in the crack of the sidewalk that leads to my front door. I water every single one.
The flowers help me tremendously because they remind me of Maggie every day. Which I need. But it also means that the grief stays fresh; that things are gone. That the birds are gone, that Maggie is gone.
I used to worry about this. I tell my therapist every single week that everything in life is so much harder to do without Maggie. I tell her, and everyone else, that things seem to be getting harder as more time passes. Or that they certainly don’t seem to be getting easier, at least. I’m blessed to have a job that I love, a job with coworkers who love on and support me well, that I can wake up for every day, excited to go to because I know there are kids at a school who need my help. It’s a job that Maggie and I would have had in common. I’m at an endpoint that she and I worked together to figure out how to arrive at. (She would fuss at me for ending a sentence with a preposition, but I’m just going to smile at that.) Her picture is right beside my computer and I tell anyone who will listen about her. I use her as my inspiration every day. That’s the thing about the job and the flowers. The loss becomes more real, and sometimes it feels as fresh as the day I found out.
I think that’s all part of grief.
Imagine if your arm got ripped off. It would feel horrific at first. The pain would be blinding at first, even as you lived the next few days and weeks without your arm. There would be a healing process where the bleeding stopped and the wound closed up, and you’d start to take the bandages off and figure out how to do things not without your arm. And it would be awful.
But the fact that your arm is missing is a part of you now. Its absence is as real as its presence once was. And you’re going to have to do things differently now that your arm is gone. You might even feel angry that everybody else in the whole world didn’t have their arm ripped off, too. That everybody else wasn’t having to re-learn how to do everything in life without their arm. That your arm didn’t just grow back, that all the wishing and praying and crying in a blanket fort on the floor of your bedroom won’t bring it back. That it’s gone now.
Your grief didn’t just stop because eight weeks went by and the flesh wound healed up some and you started figuring out how to do things again. No. Your grief is a part of your life now.
I had a lot of trouble embracing that idea when it came to Maggie. I floated around between anger and denial and some sadness, and decided that I was completely uninterested in figuring out life without my arm, without Maggie.
The thing is, that’s not the answer.
The answer is to keep going. To figure it out even though that’s as excruciating as the loss itself.
There’s another side of the coin. You can’t just stop enjoying your life because your arm is gone. It’s not what Mags would want for me or for anybody else.
That's where the silver linings come into play. The signs. A few weeks ago, I visited Windy Gap, the Young Life camp I was a summer intern at in 2011, but one afternoon I went off by myself to a bakery I used to frequent and ordered some key lime pie. There was an old man sitting near me who told me that it was the best key lime pie in town, and that the Grove Park Inn used to have it, but they stopped serving and I should go there one morning for Sunday brunch, but only if I called ahead and made a reservation for a table by the window. I promised him that I would. And about that time, as I soaked in the kindness of that stranger, Adele’s version of “Make You Feel My Love” came on the radio. They played that as the opening hymn at Maggie’s funeral, and I use it now as a lullaby whenever I can’t fall asleep and just imagine she’s singing it to me. But it came on, and for a moment I could feel her again. That’s sort of what it’s like watering the flowers, or any time a Maggie song comes on when I’m out somewhere. It’s like she’s interrupting the world to pop in and say hey, which is such a Maggie move.
I know that grief is a part of me because I’ll keep looking for those signs forever. And every time I find a sign, I’ll smile for Maggie, for the memory. But then I’ll get a little sad for the loss, for the hole that’s there. I think both are important. I think both are part of the new journey I’m on.
All the pink flowers and Jack Johnson songs in the world won’t bring our girl back.
I so resent that.
And yet…neither will choosing bitterness. I think we’re tempted to choose bitterness because it feels, at least to me, like the same thing as having the power to change the fact that our arm is gone. Maybe we choose it because things really are that awful. Our pain hurts that much. Maybe we need to hold bitterness for a minute to see how it feels. I tried that for a little while.
And the truth is that bitterness keeps me focused on my pain. And if I do that, if I stay that way, I’d miss all the beautiful things that are still happening around me. I’d miss the wedding I attended this month and the one I was in this past weekend. I’d miss the friends landing their fun dream jobs. And I’d also miss people in their hard moments, who are still waiting on their ship to come in, for their real lives to begin, or are stuck in a job that they can’t stand, or who have had relationships crumble, or who are trying to find the strength to pick up the phone and call someone because they still just don’t feel any better.
Checking out and going to Young Life camp for a week helped me re-center, hear the Gospel again, and refresh my spirit. Sitting in church reminds me of the closeness of Jesus in the middle of yet another hellish experience. Talking with friends and my therapist and being honest about when I’m having a hard Maggie day has made me feel loved and surrounded and carried and held and cared for. All of those things. Bitterness has never accomplished one.
So I pick listening to Jack Johnson and watering all my pink flowers. I pick staying open and honest. I pick crying when Drake comes on the radio as I rap along to it.
No part of this is easy, or fair. But the best way I can cope right now is to stop thinking of grieving Maggie as a process, because to me, processes are either cyclical or they eventually come to an end. Dealing with losing Maggie may not ever be "over" for me. Instead, I’m learning how to live my life without one of the most important elements of it. It’s a lot of re-learning. It's a lot of discovering all the secret little ways she was embedded into my life without my knowing. I was changing my guest bedroom sheets the other day and it reminded me of a debate she and I once had about whether the little buttons that close up a duvet cover go at the top or the foot of the bed. So I put them at the foot of the bed, and I teared up as I tucked those buttons underneath the mattress.
It’s a lot of crying over duvet cover buttons, or getting emotional when something happens that I want to text her about. It’s a lot of weird stuff. It’s a lot like learning to write with my left hand because I lost my right arm. Phantom limb pain, really.
So I guess all I’m saying is that all of this, the struggling between bitterness and celebration, floating around between emotions, it’s all okay. It’s okay. I know I’m not the only one. Your arm is gone. You have to grieve that. You’re not the only one with a missing arm, and it’s my prayer that we’ll all have the people we need alongside us to help us figure out how to do life after our loss. The things we’re remembering Maggie for are things like her spirit and the way she made you feel like you were the center of the universe when you were talking to her, like you hung the moon, and like you could make it through even the worst things and seasons. Those are the things I want to cultivate in myself. I miss my friend. My very best friend. I had no idea how important she was to me until she was gone, how many levels we connected on until she was all of a sudden not with us anymore. But I want to be better for this; I want to make meaning out of this. I want to own my grief and find a way to make me stronger and better able to help people. And so really, I don’t want it to be something I ever really “get over.” I’m a little done with going through entire rolls of toilet paper crying in blanket forts on my bedroom floor, but I’m ready to figure out how to make missing Maggie something that enhances my life.
It’s my hope and deep, deep prayer that we can all find that. Whether it’s writing letters to her, or keeping pictures of her on our desks at work, or telling our stories about her to whoever is in earshot, or making everyone we come into contact with play "top five favorite things" or feel just as special as she made each of us feel. It’s my prayer that we’ll have the strength to only try on bitterness for a moment, if at all, and instead choose celebration and tiny baby steps forward, and more than anything, giving ourselves time. There’s no timetable for this. We all get to decide for ourselves how this hurts and how we’re going to let our pain motivate us, whether that’s into therapy or pillow forts or bitterness or making high school kids feel loved, like Maggie did. But it’s all okay. Just be where you are. No timetable.
To quote one of the music queen’s favorite jams, “Little Miss":
“It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright; it’ll be alright again.”
If it’s not now, it will be.
Give it time. Give yourself the grace to grow into the new “you.”