The Pain of Grief: Trusting in God When We Don't Understand
+JMJ+ Last weekend, time seemed to stop when I received the unexpected news that my 23-year-old cousin had passed away in his sleep after suffering a seizure. Joseph was one of the sweetest, kindest, most humble and thoughtful young man I have ever had the privilege of knowing. He would have celebrated his 24th birthday this week. A part of me is still wondering when I will wake up from this terrible nightmare; my family feels the same way.
Joe suffered from seizures for several years. His treatment and the search for answers has been ongoing. Medication helped keep the seizures somewhat at bay but he was still getting them occasionally. Family and friends are shocked, numb, and speechless as is anyone who has lost anyone unexpectedly especially at so young an age. We have shed more than a few tears, prayed, wept, shared sweet memories of days gone by, wept again, prayed some more, and asked that question to which there doesn't seem to be an answer: "why?" Articulating such a painful loss seems impossible. When you experience any kind of tragedy, it feels as though a hole has been torn in your heart. In the beginning, you walk around in a mental fog as you wonder how on earth that person could possibly be gone. The world doesn't seem right or complete without them. A part of you feels forever lost and, the truth is, you do lose a little part of yourself. I've lost a part of who I was every time I experienced any sort of tragedy or trauma and, as a result, I have grown and changed with each loss. Cousin Joe was like a little brother to me when we were growing up and the grief I am feeling strongly resembles that from when my oldest brother, Matt, passed away unexpectedly 18 years ago when he was just 22 years old (the autopsy showed a heart condition). I remember feeling so excited when my aunt first became pregnant. My uncle and aunt had struggled with fertility issues for years and so were devastated when their first pregnancy ended in a late-term miscarriage just days before my aunt was to give birth to a precious girl. A few years later, they were set to adopt when, by some miracle, my aunt became pregnant again. They were overjoyed to welcome a healthy baby girl into the world. A year later, Joe came along adding to their joy. I distinctly remember meeting my cousin for the first time in the hospital after he was born. I remember his soft, bald head and big, blue eyes. I fondly recall watching him grow (and he grew fast!) into a sweet, sensitive, and thoughtful little boy - always looking for adventure, always finding some new hobby or interest. He especially loved the outdoors and wildlife and he was forever finding some new exciting creature to watch (especially snakes). I particularly remember one day when that precious little boy climbed into my lap for a cuddle and, as his blonde head rested against me, my heart was bursting with love. I was completely overcome by his innocence and sweetness. I thought to myself, "I can't wait to be a mom someday!" Joe and his big sister gave me my first taste of what it might be like to be a mother and I started to look forward to the day I might be blessed with a family of my own. I was also privileged to bear witness to Joe's growing love of Christ and his faith over the course of his life and it was truly beautiful. When someone so young is taken, we can't help but ask, "why?" I've certainly asked this over and over in my mind. Why was Joe taken and, yet, why I was not taken when death came knocking at my door just a few months ago? Why was my life spared but not his? What could I possibly have to offer this world that my brother and cousin didn't already? I'm not nearly as smart as they were, not nearly as talented, athletic, outgoing, good-looking, eloquent, etc. I just don't know. I may never understand. Only God knows. Only He understands His plan. We aren't expected to understand. What is asked of us is that we trust that God knows what He is doing. That's not an easy thing to do when we are in the depths of so much grief. Understandably, we want our loved ones back. We want them here with us. When you love deeply, you grieve deeply and grief is a reminder that you have loved and been loved. I consider myself to be a very simple woman with a very simple faith. I don't think like a philosopher or theologian nor do I often actively strive to discover the answers to life's most persistent questions. All I know is that God created each and every one of us out of love in order to be loved and to love, and Christ reassures us that our lives do not end with death.
"The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace."
Actually, death is only the beginning of something far greater that we cannot even begin to imagine. This earthly life is meant to prepare us for that everlasting happiness with God in Heaven. That is what we all must strive for most of all during whatever time we are given on this earth. The life of a human being, however short, is a precious gift. My cousin's 23 years on this Earth were a gift to so many. I, for one, am so thankful for the gift of Joe! I am grateful to have loved and to have been loved in return; I will always love those who have gone before me. For me, grief after loss is a reminder of the love and joy that my loved ones brought to so many lives, my own included. My cousin wasn't perfect of course (no one is) but, much like my brother, Matt, Joe was one of those rare rays of light who helped to illuminate this very dark world. Right now, I'm not seeing the full picture and that's okay. My family is devastated. We are all experiencing different parts of grief: some are angry, some sad, some in denial. Somehow, the world around us goes on and the clock keeps ticking despite the fact that, in the beginning, everything seems to have paused when we first heard the news. It was as though time itself stood still in that moment. It's an all-too-familiar feeling for me. How can the world go on when my very heart has been ripped out? How can I possibly even begin to pick up the pieces and ever expect to be whole again? The fact is, whatever the pain, our suffering changes us and it's a tough reality to accept. We naturally grieve our losses and learn to patiently rebuild from there, but we are never the same. Over time, those who grieve learn to live with a new reality based on the acceptance that their world has changed. The physical, earthy body of their loved one is no longer present. How can we not miss that presence? We are physical, social beings. We miss their voice, their face, their touch - we miss feeling physically and emotionally connected to everything about our loved ones who have passed. When we have faith, we believe that the soul lives on but, nonetheless, we miss what we have always known. There is no end to grief but, rather, the way we grieve and heal changes as we change. Some days will be better than others. Some days we will take 10 steps forward and the next we may take 10 steps back. Yet, our mourning will one day be turned into something beautiful. I have to hold onto God's promise! Even when our grief becomes overwhelming and a seemingly impossible cross to bear, we have the hope that our sorrow will be turned into joy. We have hope in the Resurrection and Our Lord's promise of eternal life and happiness with Him forever in Heaven if we follow Him faithfully here on earth.
"You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy….I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."
(John 16:20, 22)
Despite the seemingly endless tears and occasional doubts, I find comfort in knowing that God knows and understands everything we feel. He sees our tears...every single one of them. Padre Pio once said to someone who was grieving, "Your tears were collected by the angels and were placed in a gold chalice, and you will find them when you present yourself before God." Life doesn't seem fair sometimes, does it? When things are going well, trusting in God is easy. Believing in His unfailing love seems easy. It's easy to say, "I surrender all to you, Lord!" when we are feeling comfortable and confident. The trouble is, that's not true surrender. Surrender means trusting in God even when things aren't going the way we want them to. We don't always understand why. We are only called to trust. It sure is tough. I'm in no celebratory mood even with the holidays coming up. There will be one too many beautiful faces missing this year and I'm having a hard time accepting that reality. A part of me wants to completely ignore my birthday tomorrow, but we will do something to celebrate because our kids look forward to birthdays with such eager anticipation. I know I have much to be thankful for. I have been so blessed and God has kept me on this earth in order that I might fulfill whatever His will for me might be. Considering what happened with my heart back in June, I'm very lucky to still be here.
The past can't be undone and experience has taught me that we can only look to the future with hope and trust in God's love, mercy, and goodness. I need to accept that it may be difficult to feel "happy" for awhile which is a normal part of grief. I need to trust that God will give my family and me the patience and strength we need to persevere and the courage to look to the future with joy. I trust that, over time, my eyes will once again be opened to God's gifts of grace in my life. Right now, they're just too full of tears. Healing isn't going to happen overnight. Healing of the mind and spirit doesn't often happen in a single moment. I expect I will always grieve for Joe just as I continue to miss my brother after all these years, but I have learned that, with time, grief does help to heal the wounded heart. My heart will never quite be whole again but God is calling me to persevere in faith and hold onto the hope that the future holds peace and joy even in sorrow. As I bring all my sorrows and suffering (which at times seem endless) before our crucified Lord, I am reminded of His unfathomable love for all. I am reminded of what He has done for each and every one of us. Hardships come and our lives are forever changed as a result, but His love and grace remain ever constant. What are my trials compared to what Our Lord has done for me? Yes, there is suffering and pain in this life but He will take every trial in our lives and transform it into something beautiful and sweet. Forget what the world defines as "true happiness." True joy and peace are found only through God. God is love, He created us out of love and, therefore, we are meant to love even when it hurts and even when we don't fully understand suffering. Who am I to question the One who loves me so much - to question His plan in my life and in the lives of those around me? To return even a small fraction of God's love, I am called to surrender all to Him...even when it hurts, even when nothing makes sense, even when I would rather turn away and give up. God's grace will always shine through the darkness. To those of you who grieve, be open to God's glimmers of grace and seek to embrace His love, grace, goodness, and mercy. Allow His light to shine through the darkness and surround and comfort you. And remember that there is always hope even if you don't feel it right now (and it's ok if you don't). You will get there. I know that I will too. Have faith.