Speaking Honestly about Grief

Grief is a riddle.  What is invisible to everyone else, but you can’t escape? Grief. It is awkward to be a mourner disguised in normalcy.  I think that maybe our culture shouldn’t have discarded the tradition of wearing black during the first few months of mourning. I wouldn’t have minded it because it would have made my pain visible. In the first few months after John died, I thought, “I should be in torn clothing with ashes all over me, maybe even my head shaved so that everyone knows.” For those who are grieving, there is no outward expression of inner pain.  Honestly, it would have been a gift and a relief.

So, you shop at Target and go to Lowe’s and push your cart through Kroger, but you feel awkward, dishonest, and hypocritical. “I am not what I appear.” And, then there is the awkwardness of seeing people who don’t know yet or people who stumble onto your loss because they’ve asked the right combination of questions. It isn’t their fault. There is no way to know. No physical sign of distress.

I went through a stage of nervously laughing- painfully inappropriate laughter- because I knew that I was going to drop the Death-bomb on the conversation. “Um…our family has been through a very…uh… painful time recently…” I would stammer, trying to give gentle cues to the person who stumbled into the most. painful. place.

And, for the truest of my confessions: I have hidden from people who might ask. Pretended I didn’t see them.  Turned and walked away or out. Some days I just couldn’t say those awful words out loud. Frankly, I didn’t want to burden them either. I was sparing all of us pain.

In the early days of grief it is all so exhausting.

I wondered if I would ever feel whole again. I couldn’t imagine that I ever would.  And, I had no idea how to get there.

But, what I have learned is that healing from grief is similar to the body’s healing process. After each of our children were born I was doubtful that I would ever feel normal again. But, it happened. Hour by hour, day by day. Slowly, but surely, tissues were mending, muscles were repairing, strength was regaining. And, one unassuming day, months after the baby was born, I marveled that my body felt like it had recovered.  Was it fully restored to its pre-pregnancy state?  Nope. Things were never the same, but, everything was healed.

That is what I feel like now. I think back to how I felt in the first few months after John died or even how I felt a year ago, and I know that healing has happened.  I don’t know what day. There wasn’t a turning point.  I will never be the same, but I am not in pain like I was. Gradually, my mind has settled into this new normal.  My body doesn’t feel raw inside. My soul feels strong and resilient.  Love for John hasn’t lessened, but the shock and reality of his death have stopped reverberating in my mind, body, and soul.

I really want to encourage people that the pain, shock and sorrow they may feel today will soften in time. The jagged edges of grief do smooth. You will smile again and you won’t feel guilty. You will notice beauty and enjoy simple pleasures. You will have hope in your heart. It is a journey, but you will get there.

Hope has been the biggest gamechanger for my grief. Jesus gave me hope when He bought it for me with His life.  He tells me: John is safe with Him, and we are safe with Him.  For now we are living in two different places, but God is with us all, and one day we will be reunited.  This hope is like the whisper a child longs to hear in a dark place, “Don’t be afraid. I am here. I have a bright light.”  God is our brightest light in this dark place, and it is taming and calming grief.

Many of you may live with invisible pain. I understand that the grief of death isn’t the only grief people carry. If you are carrying the burden of grief-visible or invisible- Jesus sees it all, and He wants to give you rest.  “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29

May He continually whisper peace and hope to your heart.

loving Him for walking with me through grief,

A Story with a Different Ending

Jay and Katherine Wolf are on the other side of our story. In 2008 Katherine had a catastrophic brain stem stroke, very similar to John’s, but she survived. She was 26 years old and the young mom of a 6 month old baby boy. Their story is heartbreaking and inspiring. Jay’s commitment to love and Katherine’s willingness to persevere through suffering are simply stunning.

“Through some of the darkest storms this broken world has to offer, we have experienced a God of love and redemption and hope.”

And, here, on the other side of the country, but on the other side of the same story, I am experiencing the same living hope.

Jesus, we love you for giving us hope that is so big and so powerful and so real that we can’t take it all in. It just keeps unfolding…we live expectantly each day to see how your love will sustain us and lead us on.

In His Healing Hope,

Jay & Katherine’s site, Hope Heals http://www.hopeheals.com/our-story  This link will take you directly to their story. Don’t miss the video, you have to scroll down a little bit.  Guaranteed to inspire…

Living the Vows

They are the unwelcome words at a wedding. Those five words, “until death do us part.” On a day of beginnings, when death and separation are furthest from our minds, those words barge in. Like in a fairytale, when a vengeful fairy crashes the royal wedding with a curse of doom. Entirely unwelcome.

Yet, entirely true; the truest part of the vows we make. In our lives together we may never be at our worst or poor or sick and our passion may never diminish.  But, sadly, we will be separated by death.

On July 29, 1989, John and I made those vows. The most serious vows a person can ever make. So have many of you.
“To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; until death do us part.”

In my white gown gazing at my handsome prince, all I could hear was: “better…richer…healthy…loved…cherished”. Weddings are days for the glass to be full and running over with excitement and promise and joy. Don’t we all rush right on past those other foreboding words?

John always said that marriage vows aren’t for the good times. Who needs to make a vow for the days of health, wealth, and wedded bliss?

Vows are for the days of married life when life is tough…
when the worst days have come;
when we’re poorer than we want to be;
when sickness strikes and stretches us thin and caring is hard;
when we’re not loving or loved, much less cherishing or cherished.

Those vows make marriage a robust place where you can be real and vulnerable, without fear that it could all disappear. They keep love anchored and keep love flickering when storms and winds blow.  Reminding us: “There was a time when I believed the dream of us…”  We lean hard into the promise we made. Some days are just about the will to love, and the humility to know we need His help to do it.  And we had some of those days, sometimes seasons.

But, a day will come when those five words come true. Death parts us. We no longer get to keep our vows, no matter how much we want to keep loving. Instead, it is time to escort our love all the way to the edge of the hardest place.

And, the Lord walked with me every step of the way.

In those days following John’s death, I was incredibly aware that time was of the essence.  In those few days when grief is acute, people are eager to gather together and remember and speak their hearts. It is a window of time that quickly fades. Never again would there be a large gathering to recognize John’s life.

Yet, there was so much to do in so little time. Most of it I had never even thought about.  In the midst of my shock and grief, the Lord gave me focus and strength that still amazes me.

My heart simply wanted to love and honor John to the end, to finish this part of our story well. The Lord guided me through the maze: choosing a cemetery; making hard, painful decisions and plans; writing- an obituary, a program, remembrances; and finding the funeral service John had written the year before. And He kept bringing the right people forward to make it all happen. The helpers just kept on coming.

And together we celebrated the gift of John’s life,
and it was hard, but it was beautiful.

God gave me grace to keep walking with John to the edge of the hardest place. Love made me brave, and God helped me breathe. And, then it was over.  It was time to leave that place, but I didn’t leave with empty hands or heart. I took our riches with me: years filled with love and joy, four children whom love made real, and a God who has been there since the beginning of us.

And He is still here. Over and over again in the Bible He reassures us that He will never leave us. He says it often because we just can’t hear it often enough and because one day it will be the most important thing to remember.  No one else can make us that promise. And no one else can keep it.

May you be blessed with deepening love no matter where your vows take you. I am praying for your love to flourish.



Grace & Grief Meet

Over the next few days,  we pieced together what had happened to John. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and he stopped by the university on his way home to go for a run.  Security camera videos show him walking out of the gym into brilliant afternoon sunlight.

Several people saw him on the jogging trails, and he appeared to be fine.  But, at the top of a hill he collapsed.  Within moments he was found by a law student. She told John she was going for help.

He didn’t respond.

Initially, she didn’t know who he was because he was face down.  She recognized him when another passerby helped her turn him over and begin CPR.  As more people came and emergency personnel arrived, she tried to tell them John’s identity, but they were distracted.

Despite many attempts by two different emergency crews, they were never able to resuscitate him, nor did they know his name.  John was taken to a local hospital as John Doe.

For several hours, the university police continued to try to identify him but without success.  It wasn’t until John’s father showed up on campus trying to retrace his steps that his identity was discovered.

But the Lord’s grace was in all of the confusion and miscommunication.

If John’s identity had been known, the police would have come to our home, where three of our children were alone. I will always be thankful to the Lord for sparing our children the added trauma of having policemen knock at our front door; everyone anxiously waiting as they tried to locate me.

Also, the reality is that John could have died at home with us. I am grateful that he didn’t. The Lord pulled a cloak of privacy around that moment.  We don’t have to live with those images in our hearts and minds. For our children, their lasting image is our family breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast that morning. For me, it is kissing him at the door, watching him walk to his car, and feeling prompted to pray him.

I am comforted to know that John wasn’t alone on the trail when he died. The young woman who found John knew him through a Bible study at the law school- she as a student, he as a professor.

It took two months for the medical examiner to issue his report.  His autopsy stated that John died of a subarachnoid hemorrhage in his brain- a severe brain bleed- more than likely due to an aneurysm.   He died within moments of collapsing.

The day after he died we all went to the path…

wife, daughters, son,

mother, father, sisters

in-laws, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law,

nieces, nephews,


We walked the route he had run: down sidewalks, over bridges, up a gravel hill. We held bright spring bouquets because I just couldn’t come to that spot empty-handed.  Our love and life were too beautiful, too precious.

And I knew we were on holy, holy ground.  Our eyes couldn’t see it but the portal between heaven and earth was there, like the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia. John’s body may have collapsed, but I know his soul kept running. Straight into heaven. Straight into his Heavenly Father’s presence.

And we sang the song that was rising from my heart:

“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord. Wait on the Lord, be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait on the Lord. Yes, wait on the Lord.” from Psalm 27

And for 31 months, I have seen the Lord’s goodness. He has given me strength to do things I never thought I’d have to do. He has given me courage to live a life I never expected. His goodness keeps showing up. We haven’t had to wait.

The Day Life Changed

John had disappeared. For several hours we had been trying to retrace his steps. I knew something was very wrong because he left his downtown office late in the afternoon but never came home for dinner. It had been one of those teamwork nights for us: me at a meeting, him planning to come home from work to have dinner with the kids.

But, when I got back home from my meeting around 8:30, he wasn’t there and the kids said they had never heard from him. That wasn’t like John. Now it was close to 10:00, and every call to him had been unanswered.

Desperately, we were searching the city.

As I reached out to receive the phone from John’s mom, I couldn’t see her face to prepare myself for what I was about to hear. I was desperate to know but afraid to know. Sometimes knowing is the last thing you really want. Not knowing means you are still sheltered by hope. And hope still burned in my heart.

After all, maybe there was a reasonable explanation and my fears were unfounded. Maybe a work issue got complicated, and he was in a late meeting. Maybe there was a classic John story of helping someone fix their flat tire. Maybe he was in the hospital, and we just hadn’t been told.  Maybe I’d be wrapped up soon in his arms laughing and crying with relief and enjoying salty kisses and feeling silly for calling the police and assuming the worst.

Those were my last few seconds of life as I knew it.

I took the phone and heard the words I dreaded. My father-in-law told me John had collapsed and died late in the afternoon on a jogging path at the university where he taught. When he was found they tried repeatedly to resuscitate him but couldn’t. He was gone. Gone from this life. Gone from my life. Gone from our kids’ lives. And gone from everyone else’s life as well.

Impossible. Incomprehensible shock and sorrow slammed me like a giant wave, catapulting me head over heels in one stunning violent motion. Our life leveled.

Within moments of the initial wave of grief, I realized I had to tell our kids. “How am I supposed to do this?  How can I tell them their dad is gone? This can’t be happening. They are too young for this. I have four kids and only two arms.  I can’t gather them all up. I can’t even hold them all at once. God, please help us.”

I stood up, numb with shock, and turned to walk into the house.
The home where John and I had lived and laughed and loved,
where our four children were waiting,
and as I reached for the door, that is when I was aware of Him.

The Lord quietly, gently spoke to my heart, “There are enough arms here. I provided people to be here with you tonight.” He was right. Some of our closest family and friends had gathered to wait with us. People my children loved and trusted. We weren’t alone.

In the days to come I marveled at how He had made sure we were together and surrounded by friends and family when we found out.

I knew He was present in our pain. He had caught us in His arms. John’s death wasn’t a surprise to Him. The Lord was with us. And, I was also confident that John was safe. The Lord had caught him in His arms too.

 Because on that night, His cross broke our fall.

 Without the hope we have in Jesus Christ, John’s death would have utterly devastated me. Instead, the free-fall of despair was stopped by knowing that we weren’t meeting death alone and powerless. Jesus had been there first. He willingly died for us so that death would be replaced with eternal life. He knew a day like this would come and we would need Him.

The whole world needs Him because everyone faces death.

In the midst of the pain of that night, there was undeniable comfort and hope as death and faith met face-to-face. Somehow, even now, the best word to describe it is holy. The Lord provided Jesus Christ to take on death so we didn’t have to face it alone on March 8, 2012.

You will have to face death, but you don’t have to face it alone.