For When You Haven’t Finished Grieving

In my last post, Grieving Is For Grown-Ups, I shared about the death of my great-grandmother when I was 8 years old, and about how feeling grown-up enough to attend her funeral with the adults prompted me to stop sucking my thumb. I hate the term “cry baby,” because I believe it takes deep maturity to face loss and grief and not run from it or pretend it doesn’t hurt.

Sometimes, although facing the reality of grief is the hard first step, it can be more challenging not to pretend you’ve finished grieving even though you still cry at bedtime every night.

I remember my own loss that left me shedding many, many tears almost a year after a family member’s death–much to my surprise.

After spending a year overseas after college, I returned home to greet my dear cousin–only one year younger than I was–struggling with cancer. The disease was conquering her body, and I realized that the time was drawing near to say good-bye. Jeanna, who grew up with three brothers, sometimes referred to me as her sister. She was the single, solitary person whom I knew would want to sit down with me over a glass of sweet tea and hear all about my life in eastern Europe. Two weeks after I flew home from Romania, Jeanna passed away in her hospital bed.

I must have told God that this didn’t make sense a hundred times in the days that followed Jeanna’s death. I cried. I talked about the loss of our cousin with my sister. I prayed and wept and at some point months later, though I knew I would always miss Jeanna in this life, I thought that I’d cried out all my tears over the loss of my cousin and friend and sister in Christ.

Then, over a year after her death, I moved to a new city to begin a new job and live in a new apartment. Did you notice all the new in that sentence? I felt slammed with an avalanche of transition–even though I had pursued this and wanted it. Night after night, as I prepared to go to bed after reading under the covers until I felt sleepy, I found myself reflecting on Jeanna’s death. Not intentionally, but as I turned out the lights, the tears would flow. Astonishing, unwelcome, hot tears. I fell asleep with wet cheeks night after night for weeks–more than twelve months after my sweet Jeanna went to be with Jesus.

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Not only did I feel surprised at the resurgence of my grief, I thought I was supposed to have already set this aside. During the span of time Jeanna spent in the hospital before her death, I re-engaged at my hometown church. I’d been away from it during my years at college and then my time in Romania; now I wanted to reconnect. I went to a class on a Sunday morning with a few college students, taught by one of the church staff. The teacher opened the class time with questions about our week, how we were doing, prayer requests…I began to share about my cousin, the cancer and the hospital and the tears my family members and I were shedding. Then I said, “Y’all, I’m afraid my cousin is dying.”

The other people in the class looked awkwardly at their laps, their Bibles, the walls. The teacher cleared his throat and stated, “Well, let’s turn in our books to…” I felt embarrassed, immediately concerned that I’d over-shared and made the others uncomfortable. Without saying so, that class sent me the message that I should keep my sad story to myself.

So when I arrived at my new grown-up job and living situation, I not only had no inkling that my grief about losing Jeanna would resurface, I had no intention of talking about it with my new co-workers. So I told nobody, not one person, about the nights I spent sobbing in the dark in my one-bedroom apartment. Not my fellow teammates who did ministry to college students right alongside me, not the folks at the church I’d begun attending in my new location–nobody.

During those first few weeks in my new place, I found myself at a big group event with my co-workers and the student leaders in our ministry. The serious meeting portion had ended, and the rest of the night was meant for fun and laughter. Then one of the students commented on the lime-green sweater I was wearing; she complimented it and exclaimed that she had one just like it.

I looked down and realized that I had on one of Jeanna’s old sweaters, one that my aunt had given me when she cleared out Jeanna’s closet. And that was it for me. I smiled my thanks to the warm, friendly student. Then I approached my team leader to tell him that I wanted to head home. He looked a little surprised but didn’t insist that I stay.

I went home to my apartment, and I cried. I never told my leader why I needed to leave, why I felt overcome with emotion–or even that I felt any emotion at all. Not until years later did I realize that I still needed to grieve Jeanna’s death, that I had finished mourning the loss for a while but that I had tears left to shed.

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As I look back to all those years ago, I wish I had explained to my new team what I was still experiencing when I moved up to join them in ministry. I wish I had trusted them to respond with more compassion and empathy than I experienced at that Sunday school class in the days before Jeanna passed away. And I wish that I had given myself the grace not to be finished mourning just because a certain amount of time had gone by.

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