Accepting the benefits of grief.
by Virginia Jelinek
An accident has happened. John, my husband of thirty-six years, is gone. A widow I’m now called.
Grief and Sorrow — unwelcome, uninvited guests — invade my life immediately. They rule my days and awaken me at night to whisper the ugly truth: John’s dead.
Our four adult children, grieving their father’s passing and my loss, say, “Mother, please try to just take one day at a time.”
One day at a time? It’s an impossible goal. Experts say it takes about two years to grieve a loss. That’s 730 days of one day at a time; 17,520 hours in Grief and Sorrow’s company. The thought terrorizes me. I can barely do one minute at a time.
At the cemetery I touch the ice-cold granite headstone bearing his name — and mine, etched for a future day. Two names, two lives intertwined — two who became one. So then, don’t I also lie deceased beneath this stone? I feel more dead than alive.
The cold October wind slaps my face confirming, No, I am not dead —simply numb with grief.
Studying the map
I think Grief is like an illness. I study the five stages of the grieving process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — hoping to find a cure, or minimally, something to relieve Grief’s pain.
But studying the stages, I despair. They seem a detailed map, outlining the mountains of difficulty I’ve yet to climb. I recoil. I’m only at the starting point. I pitch the map, vow to detour Grief’s rocky process.
I feel exiled from my past, compelled to move forward. To what? I ask.
My future appears a blank book waiting to be written. What am I to do next? I pray, seeking guidance. Then on the radio a psychologist says to those recently losing a spouse, “Don’t make any major decisions for one year.”
His statement brings Fear. It begins challenging my every act. Suddenly I’m afraid to do anything, afraid to do nothing — scared to move ahead, scared to stay put.
I find waiting intolerable. I detest these empty pages of life! I yearn to scribble across their sheets something that will define my “new” life.
“You’re remarkably strong,” my friends say when, within four months of John’s passing, I move from our homestead where memories dwell, carrying blueprints for a new house. Overseeing its construction occupies me, gives purpose, and convinces me I’ve overcome Grief’s challenge.
As I move in, a housemate waits. Aloneness. It’s different from loneliness — poles apart. Loneliness merely visits and then disappears. Aloneness persists, continually taunting, You have no one to cry or laugh with, to kiss, or to hold.
The spacious house, and my heart, fill again with Grief. I grasp for another plan to dull its presence. I fling open my house doors, offering retreat to hurting women. The mission, though, is slow to evolve. The delay leaves rooms silent, my heart empty.
Ready for rescue
Then, unexpectedly, a man walks into my life. He says he’s “godly, church-going,” scoring him points. His wit cheers me, putting Grief on the run. But in his absence, it returns.
Oh, I long for rescue from this prison of aloneness! I want to erase the word widow from my existence. I yearn to end my mourning days, to empty my closet of drab clothing, to wear bright blues and perky greens. I desire arms that will hold me, a warm body next to mine at night.
Yes — I will marry this man who appears God sent.
When my children first meet him, I expect they’ll be pleased and say, “Mother, how wonderful!”
Instead they show alarm; they say they don’t trust him. “You don’t know him well enough. Why marry so soon? You’re acting immature — like a foolish teenager,” they scold.
My heart, overtaken by what I perceive as love, fails to slow down, count the cost, or consider my children. I don’t understand their apprehension or why they appear inconsiderate of my needs, hopes, and dreams. They warn, “You’re making a mistake.” I disagree.
Desperate to trade sorrow for joy, life’s ashes for beauty, I entrust my heart to this one. We marry and move to his home state, far from my family and friends.
I soon discover in him what my children saw. His charm, which had won my heart, is a deceitful disguise hiding his controlling, abusive, unfaithful nature.
Life with him is agony. He repeatedly threatens divorce to control my actions. He demands things done his way, giving Fear total reign. He insists I make no close friends, denying me outside support. Aloneness prevails.
Despair and depression
“You’ve changed; you’re not the Mother we once knew,” family says, asking for emotional distance.
They don’t like the new me or my rebuilt life; neither do I. I can understand their disappointment. I used to show wisdom in my choices, follow a higher code, be a stable person, live a solid life — smile.
The distress of my marriage, plus the load of guilt and personal failure I carry, renews and strengthens Grief’s grip. Despair hits hard. Depression settles in.
Three years pass, then I’m called divorcee. A title I believed I’d never wear — a badge of defeat and dishonor, to me.
I return to my home state, to my shattered family and former acquaintances who had considered me a woman strong in spirit and faith. Now I hide from them, disgraced, embarrassed, and ashamed. Sorrow weeps with me. How far I’ve fallen.
I sit in the ashes of my life but see promise as family relationships partially mend. Hoping to hurry complete restoration, I interfere.
My interventions prove disastrous and me unwise, forcing family and I apart — again. Will Grief ever end its visit?
Feeling shunned, I withdraw, agonizing, weeping, and praying that God will repair what I’ve undone.
I cease running or seeking purpose. I accept my empty life and broken heart. Humbled and repentant, I pray to grow in this desert place.
Grief, I gradually notice, is changing faces, appearing kinder now. I discover it’s not an enemy to flee from or a weapon sent to destroy or a dreaded disease attacking me. I sense Grief’s benefits working within me, soothing, calming, and healing.
Now I understand. All Grief had needed was time and acceptance, but I had refused — like an impatient child unwilling to wait, wanting tomorrow today.
Presently, ten years removed, my life abounds with joys — a restored family and numerous other blessings.
My season with Grief severely tested me and my faith; it forced me to mature. Thankfully today I no longer depend on superficial, material things or on relationships to give me self-identity and esteem, or to describe who I am. Yes, I treasure and enjoy God’s blessings, but trusting the Giver of those blessings is the only certain and lasting Foundation on which to build — or rebuild a life.
Grief’s tenure proved to me that endings are merely the beginnings of something new. Darkness will again give way to light; sorrow will turn to joy; losses will become gains. And when Grief departs, having taught the soul that life is enriched (not impoverished) by trials, Hope arrives, enabling Faith to prevail over Fear.
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