Grief is a pain in the soul

empty bed

Grief is a peculiar thing. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, creeping into your consciousness through images and hidden memories come to life.

You see his picture on your phone – the same picture you see every time you open it – but this time, it surprises you to see him again. A dream awakens you in the early morning hours with a start because it was so real. You’re sure he’s back.

You look at his side of the bed to find the pillows and blankets in the same position as when you finally fell asleep last night and the night before. Still, you imagine him there, sleepy eyes opening to see you, his hand reaching over to touch you, to calm your fears.

Grief jerks you into reality.

Like a little girl awakened from a bad dream, you slip out of bed, eyes straining to adjust to the harsh light of day. You look for something familiar to propel you past the shadows looming across the floor. You put on his robe, savor his scent left at the collar, and feel his hands pulling the belt tight across your waist.

Grief is lurking just beyond the thin layer of healing that you thought was beginning to cover up the hole in your heart.

You try to shake it off. You tell yourself not to pout, not to dwell on the heavy fog settling in. As if grief is a nasty habit you can conquer with positive thinking.

Well-meaning people say, “But you know he’s in heaven, with Jesus, and one day you’ll be together again.”

The words intended to bring hope drive the sword of grief even deeper into your soul. You’re not interested in tomorrow, in a promised future. You want to see him today. You want just one more day to look into those eyes that saw through you and still loved you.

Grief gets under your skin, irritating the protective layer of faith that makes sense of suffering and sorrow. It makes you scratch yourself ‘til you bleed tears that sting like salt on an open wound. Who can you call? What will relieve the burning sense of aloneness?

You cry out for him. You ask God to give him back. You wait.

Grief knows when you’ve had enough. It knows when to stop to let you catch your breath.

And then, like a spring rain bouncing hard off dry ground, pooling in the crevices and then vanishing beneath the surface, your tears fill up the barren spaces of your heart and preserve even the smallest root of faith. You are nourished from above, love poured down. The will to keep believing is restored. A new hope has blossomed and you are empowered to go it alone one more day.

Grief goes as quietly as it comes. It leaves you exhausted, but somehow refreshed. You know it isn’t through with you, but it doesn’t scare you as much anymore.

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Signed, sealed and delivered

writing-letter

I have always looked forward to getting the mail each day. (Is it any wonder I married a mail man?) Rarely is there anything more than bills or marketing offers addressed to “current resident.” But every now and then there is an envelope with my name hand-written on it, and I can hardly wait to open it to see what’s inside.

This was especially true after Paul died. I received dozens of cards from friends wanting to express their condolences. Every one of them evoked my emotions. Some made me cry because of the verse or the personal words they wrote. Others inspired me to stay strong through this difficult time. And still others overwhelmed me because they were from people I didn’t even know telling me how much my husband had meant to them.

I keep four of those cards in the pocket of my journal so that I can read them when I need a dose of comfort. Old friends from Arizona wrote that it was Paul’s “deep, passionate love for us” that fueled his battle to remain on this earth as long as possible, and that “the impact of Paul’s love inside each of you keeps the essence of who he is alive and active.” I take such consolation in those thoughts.

Just last week I got a card from Marlene, saying she was available for a meet-up for some coffee and a listening ear, or a good movie. A few weeks before, Judi wrote to say she was praying for us, knowing that it would be difficult to “celebrate love without thinking of Paul.” Nancy and Cindy sent similar messages of remembrance and hope and offered their generous support.

What’s especially moving about these cards is that they’re from women I haven’t been in regular contact with. Women from the church Paul and I used to attend who took the time to let me know the girls and I are on their minds, in their prayers, not forgotten.

Such a simple, yet profound, gesture of love delivered right to my door.

Knowing how much these cards mean to me, I’ve had to ask myself why I don’t send cards to people more often. I think about sending a get-well card to the sick or a sympathy card to the grieving, but that’s where my intentions end. What gives? I still have the birthday card I intended to send to my friend in February sitting on my desk. I texted her instead!

To cut me some slack, it seems fair to place some of the blame on the digital age. It’s so much easier – and faster – to send an email, shoot off a text, connect on social media, make a phone call or FaceTime. Much easier than selecting a card, writing the message without the benefit of spell check and the backspace bar, finding a current address, buying a stamp and getting it to the post office.

And there’s the rub. Mailing a card takes extra time, a good deal of effort, and a few bucks – not to mention some faith in the postal service to deliver it to its destination. Maybe these cards carry so much meaning for me because I know the effort that went into sending them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got hundreds of texts and emails saved on my computer and phone sent to me by family and friends who mean the world to me.

I just think there is something very special about holding a card or letter in my hand that was touched by and written with the sender’s own hand. From their hand to mine, it is human contact on paper that I can feel in new ways every time I open my journal and read their caring words over and over again.

I got one of those handwritten keepers today from my four-year-old granddaughter. She passed out a single sheet of note paper to some of our Easter dinner guests on which she’d “written” a message in hash marks and scribbles. She told us we should keep the note in our pockets so we could look at it whenever we wanted to. Yep, a girl after my own heart.

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So how about you? Do you like getting personal cards or letters in the mail? Do you save them to re-read in the future? Why or why not? Or are you just as happy to get an email or text? Do you send handwritten messages to your friends and family? How often? What supplies do you keep on hand that help you follow through on your good intentions?

I’ve got an idea. I’d love to send you a hand-written card to cheer and inspire you. Just send me an email at writejoann@gmail.com with your address and a brief explanation of why you’d like to receive one, and I’ll send you a card in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of mailboxes, if you don’t want to miss a word I say, sign-up to follow me via email so that each post is delivered straight to your inbox.

Thanks for reading, friends. You just made my day!

How ancient words gave me hope for the journey

desert sun

A few months ago I heard a preacher on the radio say something like, “God is willing to break you to remake you.”

As scary as that sounds, the words gave me courage. In fact, they were in sync with the on-going conversation I’d been having with God.

A few days before, while reading Deuteronomy 8:1-6, I was struck by verse 2. It says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, to find out whether or not you would obey his commands.”

Call me crazy, but that passage was a welcome dose of hope for my weary soul.

With cancer as the unwelcome guest in my husband’s lungs, the last few years have felt like a very long journey through barren stretches of scorched desert land. Like bare feet on hot sand, my tender heart has pranced awkwardly between faith and doubt, joy and grief. Some days I can’t stop crying over the way my life is changing, the way the pain of God’s hand on me hurts like hell. Other days, I just keep wandering on, hoping that our prayers for healing will lead us back to the lush green landscape we once enjoyed.

This shot of encouragement was delivered to me after what had been a stretch of gloomy days that left me panting for some relief: A kind word spoken by a fellow sojourner that goes down into your soul like cool water on a dry tongue. A story shared that fills you up with faith like grilled steak and corn on the cob at a summer barbecue.

In this passage, Moses was urging his people — as their time of testing in the desert was about to end — not to forget it was God who sustained them on their long journey. For me, his words helped me to refocus on what I already knew: That God is at the center of every moment, every situation in my life. Nothing touches me that hasn’t been consecrated by God, motivated by his abiding love for me. He stops at nothing to fulfill his promise to complete his redeeming work in me.

Though I feel battered and bruised from being knocked off my feet in this storm, I know I am not alone. Like the silver lining in a foreboding cloud, God is with me. I dare say He is the storm, stirring into being a new faith that is able to stand up against even the darkest of days.

If being broken as I am comes with the promise of being remade for my good and God’s glory, then I can bear another day in the hot sun.

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How about you? How is your character being tested these days? Where do you go for encouragement? I’d love to hear your story.