A little less than five years ago I found myself in my first grief group meeting held at my church. I had gone with my mother in law and a friend, who had just lost her husband to brain cancer, GBM, about a week prior to Kory. All three of us were merely a month into our loss and probably still in what I now know to be the “shock” phase of grief. I am sure the leader had great and insightful bits of wisdom to share with all of us, but I was truthfully too numb to hear or retain any such wisdom. The only memory I clearly have from this event, was when we had to share why we were there with the other people at our table. One woman stood out in my mind. When it was her turn to share, she said that she was a widow and had lost her husband five years prior.
Five years! And she is still going to a grief group!!!
Yes, I judged.
My mind could not wrap itself around this woman’s words. How could she still need a grief group five years after her husband’s death? Could it be possible that grief could last years? I vowed that day in my head that was not going to be me. In true Rory fashion I never set foot in a grief group after that day. Perhaps to make sure that it was not going to happen to me.
I loved five-year plans. I had the five year plan for college: four years to get a B.A. and an extra year to get my teaching credential, check. I had a five year plan for work: teach for five years and then go back for my M.A., check. I had a five year plan for family: get married and then five years later have my first child, check. So, it would make sense that in my mind I should have a five year plan for grieving the loss of my husband.
Five years are a good block of time. It should be enough to accomplish this goal. However, as time passed I realized that grief and grieving do not abide by set goals.
There is an ebb and flow to grief, not a beginning and an end. It is not a race, and you never reach the finish line.
I remember feeling a rush of panic set in after the widow of five years shared her story that day. How long can I survive this pain I feel for the loss I have experienced?
During the period from diagnosis through the first few months of my husband’s death, I had what I call a boulder on my chest. Some may call it stress, despair or panic. I thought of it as a physical boulder that would suffocate me if I did not consciously focus on my breathing. I remember countless times in the car driving, when I would get this overwhelming pressure on my chest and all I could do was concentrate on one breath at a time. One breath at a time would hold off the suffocation. One breath at a time would allow me to take the next step. One breath at a time allowed me to survive the pain, panic and stress.
A friend found this quote hanging in his father’s office after his death.
“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.” –Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God does not fill the gap, the hole left behind, when we experience the death of a loved one. We have a tendency to fill it. We fill it or substitute it with anger, despair, panic, fear, stress, drugs, food, alcohol, and distraction trying not to feel the pain of this missing piece in our lives. It was not the hole or gap left behind by Kory’s death that was causing me to suffocate. It was what I was filling it with that made it hard to breath.
Stress, panic and fear became the weight of the boulder on my chest, but breathing, no matter how heavy the air was, opened the hole a bit. Over time, as I practiced breathing in life, light, gratitude and hope, the boulder reduced in size. The weight lifted and the gap opened.
The definition of gap can be defined as a hole in between two objects. “For the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us.” The gap is the conduit. The gap is the absence of weight. The gap is air. The gap is life and love and connection.
However, with every wound, gaping hole, loss there will be pain. Pain in the longing, the memories and the absence of Kory in our lives. “Even at the cost of pain,” God keeps that emptiness as a reminder of the love and connection that cannot be broken by death. This gap allows us to experience grief. Grieving becomes not an end goal, but a process and by-product of the space God has gifted us. We can breath in life, hope and gratitude at the same time we experience pain. Grief and hope can go hand in hand.
So, I breath through the pain, feel the gap open in my chest and walk into the second grief group meeting of my life. “My name is Rory, and I am a widow. My husband Kory died five years ago from brain cancer.”