Once upon a time, I was a stranger to grief.
Not to say that I’d never felt sad or downhearted. What I’m talking about is the kind of grief that tests your faith, shakes your world and leaves you breathless. I remember my mom once saying,
“We’ve been really lucky as a family. We haven’t had to deal with any hard losses. I look at other families struggling with cancer or losing children or grandchildren and we’ve been really lucky not to have to suffer in that way.”
I think back to those early years of my marriage, back when my mom had made this comment. How right she was. Those were probably the happiest, or at least the easiest, times of my life. Life wasn’t free from challenges, but in a sense I was very sheltered and lived in a happy bubble.
As it goes with luck, ours ran out. Turns out, you can’t hide from heartache. There comes a point in every person’s life where they become acquainted with grief; there is no escaping it. I was lucky enough to live my first 26 years of life relatively unacquainted with deep sorrow, but the past ten years have more than made up for that absence.
There were many “pins” that popped this sheltered bubble that I lived in, starting with the brutal murder of a close friend from my youth, which made national headlines. It shook the world I thought I lived in; things like this didn’t happen to people that I knew. Shortly after that, I lost my high school choir teacher (and good friend) to cancer. A year after that, my beloved grandma passed away rather suddenly and unexpectedly; six weeks later, my grandpa followed.
Around the same time as my grandparent’s death, my mom started exhibiting strange behaviors and personality changes. It wasn’t long before she started forgetting words for things and forgetting faces of people she’d known for years. Two years, six specialists and one trip to UCLA later, she was diagnosed with a rare brain disease, called semantic dementia. She was just 50 years old. We traveled a very heartbreaking road over the next 5 ½ years, as we cared for my mom throughout her illness. Just a few months ago, I held her hand as she took her last breath and left this life. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life.
The heartbreak didn’t stop there. A year after my mom’s diagnosis, I stood by the sides of my twin brother and sister-in-law as she delivered my sweet nephew, stillborn, at 36 weeks. Following the devastating events of that year, one of my dearest friends was murdered by her crazy ex-brother-in-law. Not only did he shoot Katie, but he shot her husband and 5 children as well. Only one child survived. Most recently, I feared for my aunt’s life as she fought to save herself at the country music festival shooting in Las Vegas. Fortunately, she made it out alive, but my heart aches for what she, and so many others, have been through.
There is no hiding from heartbreak and tragedy. And just when I think I’ve caught my breath, something else happens. There have been many moments when the pain and grief have been so intense that I’ve been unsure if I could ever recover. There have been moments when my broken heart felt beyond repair. There have been moments when my faith has been tested; why is God allowing this to happen? How can I ever feel joy again after feeling such deep, immeasurable pain? And when will the pain and suffering end?
There was one particular incident that began to change my outlook on life. One day, shortly after my mom’s diagnosis, I was sitting at my computer, researching her disease. The things I had learned-the prognosis for her future and what to expect-was devastating, to say the least. I sat back in my chair, looking away from my computer screen, overwhelmed at all I had learned, and I began to sob. Huge tears rolled down my cheeks and my whole body shook with grief as I asked God why? Why did this have to happen to my mom? Why do bad things happen to good people? I thought of the other losses I had endured up to that point and wondered how I could possibly get through what was to come.
I fell to my knees and cried and prayed for answers. As I knelt there, feeling broken-hearted and defeated, a song began to play on the music track I had been listening to in the background. It was a song written and sung by one of my favorite Christian singers, Hillary Weeks. Through the tears, I listened to the words of her song. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:
He knows your heart ,He knows your pain
He knows the strength it took just too simply breathe today
He sees the tears that you cry, He knows your soul is aching to know why
He hears your prayers each humble word
When you said you couldn’t face another day he understood
He knows the path that you will find
Though you felt alone he’s never left your side
Chorus: He knew there’d be moments when no earthly words could take away your sorrow
And no human eyes could see what you’re going through
When you’ve taken your last step and done all that you can do
He will lift your heavy load and carry you
He’ll bring you peace and leave you hope
And in the darkest night he’ll comfort you Until you know the sun will rise and each new day
You will have the strength to live again
I can’t tell you that I had all the answers- not then and not now. But what I did have was a very distinct impression come into my mind, a clear question of:
What can you learn and how can you grow from this?
I admit the thought took me aback. But the thought was very clear. What can you learn and how can you grow?
I didn’t know at the time exactly what that meant, what I needed to learn, but I began to realize that with every trial or hardship we face, we have a choice to make. We can choose to consume ourselves with grief and let these things turn us bitter and miserable, or we can choose to find ways to grow and become better in spite of it all. I knew that the time left with my mom was going to be hard-really hard. But I resolved that I was not going to be left with a bitter outlook on life. I was determined to come out of this stronger and better than I was before. I knew that my mom (and my dad) needed me and I felt that I needed to learn how to give more of myself; to serve and love unconditionally.
Make lemonade out of lemons, I thought. I made a choice that day that I would do everything I could to take the lemons life threw at me and make lemonade out of them; to focus on the sweet things in life.
This hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been far from that. I am no longer the same sheltered, naïve girl living in her bubble. My heart has broken more times that I can count. I have moments of overwhelming sadness; moments where all I want to do is lie in my bed and cry. I think it’s okay to feel that way. It is okay to feel sad; it’s okay to lie in bed and cry on occasion. We need to allow ourselves to grieve. But we also need to learn how to pick ourselves back up again and find a way to move forward. I often think back to the words of this song and the feelings I had that day. It is a reminder to me that there is a higher being who knows my pain; who will carry me through this life. It is a reminder that I can get through hard things; that I can enjoy this journey of life and find beauty in it, even through the ugliest of times. It takes a conscious choice and a lot of hard work to get there, but it is possible.
There is joy to be found in life. I find it in my children and in my husband. I find it in my friends and family. I find it in my hobbies and in developing my talents. I find it in helping other people. I find it in the beauty of the earth God created. There is joy to be found for all of us, if we choose to not let our grief turn us bitter. If we choose to make lemonade out of our lemons.