May 21 is just a date. I’m sure many things happened on this day but only one thing surfaces in my own mind and heart. It’s the day that John Robert Dobbs died. It’s been ten years and that’s still hard to write. Before that terrible day I regarded grief from a distance. As a minister, I officiated at funerals. I was sincere in my condolences but truthfully I had no idea what the person mourning in front of me was going through. That kind of empathy is not something you can learn in school or from a book.
With some caution I’d like to share some things I’ve learned from ten years of being acquainted with grief. Maybe this post will help someone in a particularly needful time. I use the world “help” loosely, of course.
I’ve learned that grief is a real thing. It hurts physically. I thought the term ‘heavy heart’ was just a metaphor. It leaves us exhausted. It makes sleeping through the night difficult. It causes us to have difficulty concentrating. People sometimes lose their jobs because they can’t function in the same capacity. Sometimes people stop eating, sometimes they can’t stop eating. Grief is a real experience.
I’ve learned that grief is not a temporary experience. It may vary in intensity. It seems unbearable at first. It eases up at times. It comes back unpredictably. I suppose as long as I love John Robert I will always live with a subtext of grief in my life. Because I know bereaved parents who are much farther away from their loss, I know that grief is not going to go away. I’ve often said that grief was like a stranger who moved into our hearts and just won’t leave.
I’ve learned that the first two years were the hardest. I’m reflecting on my own experience, not telling you what yours will be. Grief in the first two years was intensely and jaggedly painful, disorienting, debilitating. If it remained at that level I doubt I would still be alive. It will always hurt. It will not always hurt like this. I learned that from those who walked before me.
I’ve learned that there is healing and strength to be found alongside fellow strugglers. My involvement with GriefShare and Compassionate Friends became lifelines for me. Mike and Mignon Riley took us to lunch with their old friends French and Marilyn Smith. I sat at a table and looked another father in the eye as he told me he knew how I felt because his son died too. When I attended their meeting I could sense the pain in that room but I knew that everyone there was walking through the same fire I was. That’s why I still attend those meetings. I also learned a lot from GriefShare and Royce and Carol Ogle. Leading GriefShare seasons has given me an opportunity to give hope. I would not be where I am now without those who were willing to walk with me in support groups. There is healing in helping.
I’ve learned that grief is both a unique and a common experience. It is unique in that every person grieves in their own way. They had a unique relationship with the one who died. Even within families, there are different experiences, remembrances, feelings … your grief is your own. So I do not speak for Maggy, Nicole, Claire, or any other family member or friend. But the truth is that grief is also pretty common. When I started reading books about grief I realized that many of them said the same things, even if they used different words. Ultimately, how many different ways is there to say, “this hurts like hell“? Still, each book and article I read affirmed my own feelings and I didn’t regret reading them.
I’ve learned that guilt is not a grieving parent’s friend. Every bereaved parent I’ve known has that one question that hangs on longer than the rest. What if? I wish I could tell you that the answer to that question will relieve all your anxiety about the death of your loved one. But it won’t. Even if you knew all the answers to all the What If questions the fact would still remain that they are gone. It is natural for a grieving parent to feel guilt, after all, it is our job to protect and raise our children safely. We’re not supposed to out-live our children. But we have a reality to face and nothing is going to change that reality. So let guilt go, there are so many other things to which you can give your attention.
I’ve learned that grief impacts faith in a dramatic way. There is much to say on this, but, grief can either drive us to God or away from God and the choice is yours. For me, I began reading my Bible in a different light, realizing that the first family in the Bible was led by bereaved parents. I’m moved by the grief stories of the Bible. Job at the loss of his children, the heartbreak of David and Bathsheba in the loss of their baby, the surprised widow of Nain who received her son back (but ultimately he died once again at some point), and when Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus – all of these tell us that loss is a part of the faith story. I do believe John Robert is more alive now than he ever was on earth. Because of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and the empty tomb I have sure hope that this life is not all there is. I don’t know how I could face this loss otherwise. I know others struggle with that, and I acknowledge you in that struggle.
There is more to learn on the grief journey but this is growing much too long. My prayer for you, if you are a newly bereaved parent who is reading this, is that you will know that there are brighter days ahead. They might be far off in the distance. But you are not walking alone. our Gentle Shepherd knows how to walk with us through the darkest of valleys.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4
If you’ve read this far and you are one of those precious friends who has walked with us through this ordeal for a decade now … thank you. We probably didn’t acknowledge every act of kindness from the visits to the funeral to the food to the calls to the cards … everyone did everything they knew how. But there was still that empty chair at the table. We just had to learn how to live with that. We had no choice. We did, however, have support. So thank you. Truly.
Because of you, Out Here Hope Remains. JED