The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Goodbyes

It was late spring of 1992 and I was driving away from North Georgia College, as a recent graduate. It was the longest time this military kid had ever lived in one place. (This one was at least move number 15. I had so many, they are difficult to count.) It was the first time I

A few years ago, I took a stroll down memory lane. I love this place.

A few years ago, I took a stroll down memory lane in Dahlonega, at North Georgia College. I love this place.

had friends I knew that I would be connected to for the rest of my life. It was where Jesus and I began the conversation we continue to this day, where I discovered something of who I am and what I am on earth to do, and where my life’s trajectory shifted so profoundly, I am still in its wake today. It was the first time I had the opportunity to, and let myself love and connect to anyone or any place.

And I got about a mile away, on the other side of Crown Mountain, and began to ugly-cry so hard that I had to pull over and let the chest-heaving sobs works their way through my heart and body. Just for the record, at that time in my life, I almost never cried. In fact, I was such an accomplished emotional stuffer, that in the car that day,  I was actually having two experiences simultaneously: grief over leaving people, a place, and a season of life that I loved…and more than a little concern that there was so much emotion exploding out of what I thought was a rather neutral and numb heart.

Looking back, with the life story and professional knowledge I have now, there was quite a bit of profound information about how I am wired and my core brokenness in that one moment. The bruising in my heart around goodbyes is very, very deep and very, very tender. 

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While this photo shows my head at RGU, my heart got quite an education also.

Fast forward to this weekend, and another beloved season of life is coming to a close. I am receiving my masters degree in marriage and family therapy from Richmont Graduate University. It’s taken 3 long, busy, and stressful years to complete. My classmates and I have shared a beautiful and transformative part of our life’s journey. As our studies and experiences have surfaced our own junk and darkness, we created a safe place for us to explore our own hearts, share it with each other, and invite Jesus to heal it – so that we can be a part of the same healing process in the lives of others.  I am about to begin a whole new chapter of my life as a therapist and trauma clinician.

A lot of life has passed between these two graduations and life transitions. Marriage. Kids. Missions and life overseas. One more kid. Broken dreams. Settling into our permanent, yet unexpected home. Cancer. Heart breaking tragedy. Two teenagers in the house. Three years of graduate school and training. Re-found joy and hope and purpose in life.

And yet, with all of the change, growth, personal healing, and experience encompassed in the passing years, this graduation has surfaced and banged the same tender bruise from the last one so long ago – the one that is linked to goodbyes. I’ve had to say so many over the years. They hurt. In a way that brings up ugly-cries and chest-heaving sobs.

In my experience, I’ve found that if we commit to searching our hearts and seeking healing there,  we rarely unearth a lot of new themes – instead we circle around familiar core ones over and over… but at newer, deeper levels. Which is why my time with my cohort at Richmont has been so special. Because with them, as I’ve re-circled around this painful theme of mine, I’ve discovered that goodbyes, as awful as they are, aren’t all bad. In order to embrace new things, we have to let go of old ones. Grief allows us to release what we can’t hold, and would hurt us if we tried. The past can’t become the past without working through loss. Cooperating with our goodbyes, while painful, actually creates space for whatever is next.

And next can be awesome.

With my North Georgia friends, I learned to relate. With my Richmont friends I’ve learned to grow and become. And ironically, I can’t walk most fully into either of those gifts without leaving the ones who gave them to me. Without saying goodbye.

So this weekend, I’m doing this complicated, conflictive emotional dance of grieving, and celebrating. Of letting go, and looking forward. Of being sad and glad…all at the same time. It’s a good thing the years have grown my heart so…because this is an awful lot to hold.

Richmont Graduates

RGU’s Atlanta Campus class of 2016. There are some wonderful friends, amazing human beings, and gifted counselors in this photo.

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Grief Is This Funny, Freaky Thing (A Mother’s Day Post For Those Who Have Lost Their Mom)

(I wrote this 2 years ago.  I still miss her.)

My mom has been gone four years now. Four years. Four years. I loved my mom. And now, even now, I can’t believe I’ll never see her again.

The first few days after she passed were a blur. We had just gotten home from years in Europe and hadn’t

The last photo I have of me and mom, before she got sick. I gave her the necklace she is wearing. She told me it was one of her most favorite gifts I ever gave her. I have it now.

even unpacked all our stuff yet. I didn’t have clothes for a funeral. None of us did. I remember holding it all together through the details, tearing up occasionally as emotion welled to the surface. But…I just didn’t have time to cry. I did what I had to do to get through. People needed me. And I was afraid to let it all go for fear of the force of what lay hidden within me.

The next few months were…weird. I kept waking up at 3am with a compulsion to clean house. I felt so much better when a friend told me she did the same thing after her daughter died. My grief was, at least in this circumstance, normal. Whatever that is. But still, somehow I needed at that time to know I was…normal. Because so much of my life did not feel normal.

Grief continued to rear its head unexpectedly as time marched on. Sometimes I would call dad’s answering machine, just to hear her voice. And I remember the first call after he changed it. Reading her handwriting on notes left around the house…looking at photos of all of us…fragrances that brought her to mind. All pushed something deep within me, something I was often afraid to say hello to for fear it would never leave.

As the years pass, I see how our family has this huge hole in it, one we still haven’t figured out how to navigate. I began to realize that all I had lost wasn’t in the past, but in the future also. My kids weren’t going to have a grandmother. Abby would have no memories of her. I wasn’t going to have a mom anymore. I was the mom. Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays…all different. Lacking.

I live in her house… although I guess it is my house now.  I had a dream a while back where she looked like herself, when she was still healthy. She was wearing purple, just like she said she would do when she got old. She spoke to me. I realized I hadn’t heard her voice, the voice that lived with me every day of my life, in four years. It felt so familiar, like a part of my brain that had been asleep for a while, woke up. She said something to me I never heard her say in life, but needed desperately to hear. I tried so hard not to wake up, to stay there with her for a while. I couldn’t. She slipped away again.

Just the other day I looked out in the backyard and saw some stray roses blooming. Beautiful pink and red roses she planted with her own hands and loved. Just like my life that now blooms here also – she planted and loved that too. I wept. And wept. Then sobbed. So random. So not random.

I am too young to be motherless.

I am learning how grief is this funny, freaky thing. It has a life of its own. It will not be dictated to or controlled. It comes and goes when it chooses, yet never really seems to leave. Sometimes I think it is my friend, giving immense relief to the pressure of my inner world. Some days though, I am not sure. I can cooperate with it, letting it have its way when it shows up – or I can try to swallow it. Swallowing grief however, is a bitter pill… doing more damage than help. I am finding it is much healthier for me when it stops by for a visit, to sit with it a while . Maybe have coffee or tea together. Then, let it drift off again to wherever it goes when it isn’t front and center.

Doors to the past may close, never to be opened again. But they are often made of glass. I can still see what lies behind them, always in view, but out of reach.

 

(originally published 9/13/12)

Meditations On Grief

(Earlier this week I wrote Meditations On Pain. Now I turn my attention to grief.)

Grief is the heart’s and body’s natural response to loss. It is God’s gift to us, allowing us to experience, process and survive things we weren’t meant to endure in Eden. It enables us to eventually go on – even when we aren’t sure we will ever recover. In light of my experience with loss over the last few years, that include my mother’s passing, death of some very precious and personally defining dreams, several heart-wrenching moves and the overflow of years of unresolved grief that finally made its way to the surface, here are some of my thoughts on it:

Grief is universal – One of the unifying experiences that all humans share, regardless of culture, generation, economic or educational status or health is that we all grieve. (Pr. 14:10) We all lose things: People we love. Seasons of life we hoped would never end. Precious relationships. Prized possessions. Opportunities we really wanted. Futures that are robbed from us. No one on planet earth escapes unscathed. (Eccl. 3:4) This is important to remember because…

Grief can be isolating – The world doesn’t stop moving, even when our individual worlds do. In the face of loss and the resulting grief, we often still have to go out there and keep operating and interacting. This means we that often, we have to create a public face that is very different from our private heart. When people ask how we are doing, we answer, “Fine,” even if we are feeling the opposite of fine. We still have to go to work, small talk with acquaintances and rub shoulders with those in our relational circles. Because of social convention and practicalities, we can’t (and shouldn’t) share our heartache with everyone. And this can make us feel very, very alone. (Job 7:11-19) Many have had the experience of walking into a room with others, yet carrying great pain, caring about such different things than what others are talking about and with their mind and heart being a million miles away from where their bodies are. It is the feeling of being misunderstood. Unseen. Unknown. Not present. Because what we must present to the outside world in the situation is so far from who we really are. And it makes us want to disconnect, disengage and judge others for their lack of depth, compassion or awareness. It isn’t other people’s fault that their lives are in such different places at the moment… but still. It is so ironic that grief, what should be a most unifying experience, can also be a most isolating one.

Grief has no master – Many describe the experience of grief as waves of emotion. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you most likely understand this metaphor. It is like the emotion within you bubbles to the surface – maybe at random times or maybe with a specific trigger – and it washes through and over you. When someone you love hugs you and shares your grief with you. Looking at a photo or smelling a familiar scent.  And few can stop it. No one can say to their grief, “Go away!” and it obediently tucks its tail behind its legs and goes to the corner. Grief demands its say. It comes and goes when it wants, stays in our lives as long as it wants and with a magnitude of its choosing. In those moments when grief rises, some can squash and conquer it, swallowing it and denying its expression. But this is only temporary. The grief doesn’t really go away. Unresolved grief is a most dangerous thing to carry in our lives. (And so many of us carry A LOT of it around – because we’ve never given ourselves space to fully and healthily process the loss that has come our way.) If our grief doesn’t eventually surface and make its way out of our bodies the traditional way, it finds a place in our faces, in our muscles, in our backs. In our unhealthy relational patterns, our tempers, our inability to control our emotions in different places. Grief will have its say one way or another. This is why…

Grief should have the freedom to show itself – People grieve differently. It is individual. It is cultural. It is generational. Some people wail and sob and beat themselves. Some grieve silently. Some need others. Some want to be alone. Some post things to Facebook and some want privacy. Some people create works of beauty and art and others want to destroy things. Some people grieve in the moment. Others need time to pass before they can let it go. The common thread? People should have the freedom to grieve in the way that makes sense for them, that brings relief to the immense pressure in their inner worlds and that helps them make sense of and resolve their pain. (Pr. 32:3) When we tell people things like, “Don’t cry,” we are trying to deny grief its say. This hurts people.

Grief carries a deeply spiritual component to it – With loss can come the terrifying awareness that we aren’t in control. We couldn’t stop the cancer, the runaway car, the economy, that person’s choices, the timing of events, etc. And we can’t make things reset to how they were. Life is forever changed. In these places, we are faced with the reality that God is in control – and sometimes He makes choices for us, or allows things to happen to us, that are not anything we would choose for ourselves. Loss confronts us with God’s God-ness and our humanity. When we awaken to this reality (if we do…and not everyone does), grief presents a beautiful opportunity for us. (Is. 61:3) We can lean into our experience and ask God the really tough questions. We can grab a hold of Him and wrestle with our faith until He answers or gives us peace in our hearts that He is good, even without the answers. Or not. When we choose not to, we multiply our grief. Not only do we lose something or someone, we lose a bit of Jesus at the same time. (for Christ-followers that is.) We may not walk away from Him directly, but we may trust Him less. We may hold a grudge and deal with Him, not lovingly, but out of a sense of duty. When we do this, grief becomes exponentially destructive. Loss piled upon loss. Because of this…

Grief appreciates honesty – When we allow our emotions to surface as they truly are, when we give ourselves permission to grieve honestly…not as we think we should or how others think we should…grief responds. It moves through us. It deepens us and our faith. It strengthens us for the future, showing us that we can survive things we never thought we could. It links us to other people. It invites Jesus to come in and be our Healer, Counselor and Friend, knowing Him in newer and richer ways than ever before. It allows our broken hearts to heal. Part of the problem however is that grief can surface some pretty raw emotions. Things we are afraid to admit to ourselves, let alone to other people.  Maybe we are secretly relieved by the death of someone because it makes our lives easier . Or ashamed by how we respond to the loss. Or guilty because the role (real or perceived) we think we played in something happening – or not happening. When we deal with our grief honestly, not hiding the potentially ugly and dark things that pop out of us, we get the emotion of it out of our system. Denying it or glossing it over can be like leaving a bullet in a wound. It may close itself up and eventually look ok from the outside, but it is going to get infected. When we face our grief head on, deal with it honestly, welcome it to stay in our lives for a while and lead us to wherever it wants to go, it allows us to work through our loss. (Ps. 142:1-7) Then, we have the potential to recover.