In the last couple of weeks, two more of John’s and my friends from college have passed away from cancer, both leaving behind orphans and grieving spouses. That’s something like 11 people now that John and I went to college with, who have passed away from cancer in the last 3 years. All in their 40’s. All from a theology college of less than 1200 students. A college that closed its doors 3 years after I left and no longer exists, except in memory.
Our alumni community as a whole is shocked and grieving, as two of our best fought hard and died. And as my worries since John’s death have multiplied and as our wedding anniversary approaches just before Christmas, I would be lying if I said I am not struggling to survive every day. John and I would have celebrated 23 years together on the 23rd before Christmas. We got married on Christmas weekend to make it easier on our friends around the country to be able to attend. I struggle with a lack of luster and motivation now that I never knew possible, even during John’s fight. A lack of motivation that only comes from loss caused by death. I think perhaps my lack is more significant than expected in part because of how long and hard the fight was. If he’d passed away suddenly, there wouldn’t have been time to hope. He wouldn’t have worked his butt off, hoping doctors would learn as much as possible from him, only to feel like it meant nothing. At least during the fight we had hope. But in the end, I could not save John’s life. And either neither could, or would, God. Now, there is no hope in the physical life. There’s only hope in death. When you’ve lived a life of service and it’s all you know, such terrible losses and traumas are extremely hard to justify, or recover from. If what I do here on this plane does not make a difference, then where is the motivation in this life.
Megan Divine is an expert in extreme grief and loss. You can find her website at https://www.refugeingrief.com. She created a helpful video titled, How Do You Help A Grieving Friend?, which I’ve shared below.
In my struggle to find words, I’ve voiced much of what this video points out. It’s all true. Witnessing is the most powerful thing in the enduring and bearing of grief. Opportunity to speak and experiences to be heard are invaluable.
When half of you dies and life speeds on and everyone else goes back to living, we feel trapped in a madness no one else sees. Because it *is* a madness no one else knows without having experienced it. And the only way out is to give it voice with witnesses.
My experience with the trauma of glioblastoma and John’s death has made me think about my philosophies on parenthood even deeper. When my kids fell and got hurt, I didn’t interpret their pain for them (that must really hurt) nor did I deny it’s existence (aw, you’re not hurt) either. I held them as they cried, let them tell me about it while taking care of anything I knew needed attention and then figured out how to guide them in their emotions based on how they were processing them. I realized that there were times that my children felt trapped, waiting for someone to notice that something was wrong. For someone to stop them and give them the chance to speak. Part of my job was being a detective too and not just expecting that my kids knew they could talk to me, but proving it. They needed to process and they needed to feel safe with me to do it in a healthy and useful way. They needed a chance to evolve carefully emotionally. I didn’t need to tell them how they felt, they needed to voice it out and share with me and sort it verbally. I wanted my kids to know their own voice, so they could find it when they need it most. And I wanted them to know I would listen, in everything, little or big. As a result, my relationship with my kids is stronger, when they and I need it most. I listened to everything, so they’d never doubt if I could be trusted when the big things came up.
Grief is much the same way, just a large-scale experiment. It’s a two-way street, but when the grieved feel their hands being truly held, vs. slapped, denied or even a vacuum of no hand to find at all (silence is the worst), it makes a difference. Witnessing helps most of all. Tell me your story, the real one, not the pretend one. Hasn’t genuine friendship always been about that? Don’t real people, good people do that for each other?
Some really traumatic and horrible things happened that no one wants to acknowledge, not even I want it to be real. And yet if they’re never acknowledged, healing will never truly take place. It helps me when my friends will bring up and speak John’s name, when they acknowledge his fight and that it was hard, not easy, when they ask questions and are willing to hear the truth. It helps when friends let me be genuine and don’t expect me to put on a “good face.” It helps when my friends don’t seem to disappear into a black hole too, when they don’t avoid me so as to not experience my agony. It helps to know my friends are not afraid of me.
Thank you to those who will take the opportunity to learn with me and who will bear to witness.
As many of us come together as a community to support a variety of trials and losses and hard experiences, some very recent and painful in the loss of our alumni friends, and all the cancer fights in our circles, this is the introspection I have today.
This video is hosted on YouTube and is copyright Megan Devine and Refuge in Grief. It is shared here with permission. You can learn more about Megan and her work at https://www.refugeingrief.com.