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The vulnerability of grief

Just two weeks after my mom died, I found myself sitting in a classroom at a Christian college outside of Chicago, looking up at a young chaplaincy student who was intent on using Scripture to pick apart something I’d just said in class.

“It’s not biblical to say death can be beautiful,” he fumed. “Death is the result of sin.”

Just minutes before, the professor had been leading a discussion about end of life as part of the graduate bioethics program I’d hastily enrolled in.

As he talked about what the dying process is typically like, tears trickled down my cheeks as I relived my mom’s final days.

He knew I’d been a hospice nurse and asked me to contribute to the discussion. When he realized I’d been crying, he apologized and said it wasn’t necessary if I didn’t feel comfortable participating.

However, as I looked around the room at all those young faces, I was pretty sure few knew what it was like to be with someone in their final days, hours, and moments—or what a precious and sacred time this can actually be.

So I told the professor I’d like to contribute and described my experiences with patients over the years—including that with my own mom in recent days.

A big believer in the critical and effective role of symptom management at end of life, I closed with an emphasis on the fact that with the right type of support, death can actually be beautiful—because in my experience, that’s been the case.

Well, apparently such a seemingly-unbiblical statement was too much for my young classmate to endure—which is why he was so eager to tower over me to teach me a thing or two.

As if that wasn’t enough, he continued his rather loud and hand-flailing, finger-pointing critique with others as I walked through the lobby to get as far away from there as possible.

I have to say that my response to our initial contact wasn’t as gracious as I’d have liked, since I slowly stood to meet his stare and then laced my tone with as much condescension as possible as I delivered my own critique about the inexperience of his youth.

“Come back and talk to me in ten years,” I said.

Then, when I left the building, I fell apart.

I wept as I walked and walked, looking for someplace to land where I could just be alone.

I finally found an empty bleacher along a football field and settled onto the cold, hard surface to have a good ugly cry.

I just couldn’t believe I’d been treated with such a lack of compassion at a Christian school by another Christian—who was training to be a chaplain, no less.

But looking back, I realize it wasn’t that young man’s fault at all. He was just doing what college students are often encouraged to do—discussing concepts and arguing their points.

And this is an excellent school with a wonderful reputation and most there treated me with great compassion and support.

However, I shouldn’t have been there in the first place during that time in my life.

Instead, in such an early phase of my grief, I should’ve been in the comfort of my home with Dave and Blue amidst the love and support from family and friends both near and far.

Not halfway across the country all by myself attending a bioethics conference and even post-conference classes for a master’s degree I had somehow convinced myself was part of a perfectly rational plan.

The bereavement plan that wasn’t

I’d tried to convince myself that I was ready for my mom’s death.

After all, her health had been declining for some time and we’d had many honest discussions about what she did and didn’t want.

Most importantly, she knew Jesus and was looking forward to the day when He would finally call her Home.

Knowing that her time was growing short, we tried to savor every experience knowing we couldn’t be sure which would be our last.

So with all that preparation and anticipatory grief, I kept telling myself it would all be okay. Still, I wasn’t sure how I’d do after she was gone.

Mom had lived with us in her own apartment for almost ten years, and I’d taken care of her pretty intensively throughout the last four—so I knew a huge hole would open in my life the moment she stepped into Jesus’ arms.

So, true to my typically-organized nature, I started to create a bereavement plan in the months prior to her death. It included all the ways I was sure I’d be able to cope after my precious little mom was no longer there, such as:

  • I’d attend a bereavement group (which I never did).
  • I’d run races and raise money in her memory (which I never did).
  • I’d stay busy with my remote-work job (which fell apart a few weeks after her death).
  • I’d immerse myself in education (which is why I was enrolled in not one, but two graduate programs at the same time).

The last is how I ended up in Chicago so soon after my mom died, sitting in those bleachers, weeping and wishing I was home.

The fickle nature of grief

I’ve found grief to be such a fickle thing and in retrospect, I realize how many things I’d have done differently if I would’ve known how hard it would hit me.

Since I’d enrolled in classes for the bioethics degree that equaled nine graduate hours (my classmates thought I was nuts, and rightfully so), by the time I returned home I had 15 bioethics books to read and eight papers due on the same day at the end of the semester.

Dave was such a loving and patient support in so many ways—including his even-keeled responses when I’d tell him I was heading out on foot for the day and didn’t know when I’d be back.

“I’ll check in every once in a while,” I’d say as loaded up my backpack with the schoolbooks I needed to somehow get through.

We lived quite close to the Pinellas Trail, a 43-mile linear park that weaves through Pinellas County, and walking in the fresh air had become an important strategy for helping me cope.

So, I’d walk along the trail with a book and pen in hand, using my peripheral vision to stay on course while I read and highlighted passages I wanted to revisit for the papers I’d need to write.

I was so grateful for the ability to multi-task in this way, since it helped me to get through all that dry material and was a great outlet for my grief.

And if you’re wondering if I met all those deadlines on time—15 books and 8 papers to write—the answer is yes, but it cost me dearly to do so.

After one particular episode of falling apart, I returned home to my wonderful Dave, who was concerned enough to have found a cruise for us to take after the semester was through.

I can’t begin to explain how much I needed exactly what he did—which was to arrange every detail so I could take his hand, let go, and mindlessly savor absolute relaxation for an entire week.

The vulnerability of grief

It’s been over five years since Mom died and I’m grateful that over time the acuity of my grief has faded.

Of course, I still miss her deeply, but I know she’s delirious with delight in the paradise she’s enjoying with Jesus, my dad, and all the loved ones who were waiting for her there.

And knowing that I’ll join all of them someday brings me incredible joy and peace.

But in this world, I’ve come to realize how vulnerable acute grief makes us in a variety of ways—which we’re often unable to grasp when we’re in the midst of it.

So, my encouragement is for gentleness during this time.

If you’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one, know that whatever you’re feeling or not feeling is okay. Please remember to be kind to yourself, patient with your progress, and seek the support you need.

Everyone experiences grief differently, so no two journeys through this season look exactly alike. Don’t compare yourself with others or think you should or shouldn’t do or be any certain anything.

And if you know someone who is grieving, extend the loving support to prop them up during a time in which their world has been turned upside down—which is something we’ll all need at some point in our lives.

The fertile soil of grief

Although I experienced great pain during my season of acute grief, I also discovered a much deeper intimacy with Jesus during this fertile time.

I must admit that I was a bit surprised by that, but I shouldn’t have been.

After all, it’s not typically when we’re feeling our most confident and self-assured that we scramble after the peace and comfort only He can provide—but when we’re all out of steam and hanging on by a thread.

In the depth of our pain, when it seems no one really understands how we feel, we can count on the fact that Jesus does.

He gets it. He gets us. And He’s able and willing to help if we’ll only ask and open that door to Him.

So that’s the other encouragement I’ll offer—to make the most of grief’s pain by allowing God to use it as fertile soil to deepen your intimacy with Him.

Grief can make us vulnerable in so many ways, especially in the acute season right after a loved one dies. That time may last longer for some than others. Regardless, it’s important to consistently be good to yourself; soak up the support and love that’s around you; and step into the peace and comfort that Jesus wants to provide.

This post first appeared in the latest edition of The Empowered Traveler™ Newsletter. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can do that here: Subscribe to Sue’s newsletter.

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