Years ago, a dear friend of mine’s husband died of brain cancer. He, along with their two sons when they were growing up, had been actively involved with Boy Scouts, and recently some old scouting friends and their current troops decided to do a walk in his honor and raise funds to fight the cancer he’d had. I called my friend after the event to hear how it’d gone and see how she was doing. She wasn’t doing very well.
“When I got there and saw all of them wearing their shirts with his face on them, I don’t know,” she said, “it just hit me. I wanted to run back out to my car and cry.” And then she said, “What is wrong with me? It’s been nine years.” And we talked about that, particularly her question, what is wrong with me? and the expectations and beliefs driving it–that grief has an expiration date, that the death of someone you love is something you are supposed to “get over” at a certain point (and that point is a final and definitive moment), and that the process of getting over it is a steady, linear progression, like a healing cut or a broken bone reforming itself.
Before I go any further with this, I need to acknowledge that every person’s grief is different, which makes sense given that every person is different, as is every relationship. Some people seem to genuinely embrace the idea of “moving on” in the straightforward sense we think of when we hear that term, and by all appearances this seems to be working for them. I might have some doubts about what’s really going on beneath the surface, but I also recognize that I am never in a position to judge someone else’s emotions or experience just because it’s different from my own.
At the same time, the fact that my friend felt bad about being sad about her husband’s death “nine years” later reminded me of how often we put pressure on ourselves and on others to be “better” according to an arbitrary time frame or define it as a once-and-for-all event. Part of this, I think, stems from an erroneous (and largely subconscious) view of human emotions as some kind of binary system. In other words, if you’re sad, you aren’t happy. If you still miss someone, you’re not living a full life. If some memories still cause you pain, you’re not healthy. For Christians, you can add that if you’re devastated by loss, you don’t trust God enough or have hope in the resurrection. You should be glad your loved one is in heaven.
In my experience, this is bullshit. It’s not an either/or. It’s an all-of-the-above. I have a good life full of joy and enjoyment and the mundane. I get excited about new possibilities. I enjoy my friends. I think about what I need to buy the next time I’m at Target. I delight in eating chocolate and look forward to seeing a movie I’ve read good things about. Stupid cat videos on Facebook make me laugh. But even though my mother died over twelve years ago, I still have dreams about her now and then that make me cry. Or I’ll see a mother and daughter shopping together and, out of the blue, find myself wanting to follow them and ask if I can just hang out with them for a little while because I miss that mother-daughter kind of relating. I also know that I’m going to get a little sadder than usual every September and October, because that’s when things started to get really bad for my mom. That’s when the tumors spread to her bones and the pain that neither oxycontin nor morphine could relieve began to torment her day and night. That’s when my own helplessness began to rise like bile in the back of my throat.
That sadness is part of who I am now, but it’s not the whole me nor is it my whole life, and I don’t think there’s anything strange or unhealthy or un-Christian about it. I have moved on with my life, and part of my moving on is missing my mom. Part of my moving on is remembering–years later–things that were too overwhelming and painful to process at the time. And having a healthy Christian perspective about her death means recognizing that death is the enemy Christ came to defeat. Anger and devastation are an appropriate response to disease and death because that is not what we were created for. Relationships with the ones we love were never meant to be severed in such a way.
Time helps, the love of friends and family helps, the grace and comfort of God helps. But the only thing that will truly and fully heal the pain of that suffering and death is to see her fully alive again in her resurrected body and embrace her. Which hasn’t happened yet. So no, I’m not “over it” yet. I’m happy/sad. I’m content/longing. My life is full/missing something. And that’s okay, just as it’s okay for my friend to want to sit in her car and cry nine years after her husband’s death, even though she’s also learned to be happy again and enjoy the many good things in her life.