Winter has come upon us a little early this year, and that’s to the delight of some. I’ve spoken with several friends who are taking advantage of an early snowstorm as an excuse to put up their holiday decorations ahead of schedule.
One excuse is as good as another for those who like to launch the holidays before the Halloween candy is gone. I’m honestly still a little circumspect about the idea. The coming season has a different impact on me nowadays— not because I don’t love the Christmas music before Thanksgiving (yeah, I’m one of those)—but because our family is coming up on a melancholy anniversary.
For those of you who missed my previous post, it was just past midnight in late November last year. I was dozing on a cot next to my father’s hospice bed when I realized I wasn’t hearing his breathing anymore. For the first time in my life, I was staring at Thanksgiving and Christmas without him—and wondering if I really wanted to participate in the holidays at all.
Bob Cook had been there all my life. He taught me how to bait a fishhook and swing a hammer. He was a sounding board for my biggest life and career decisions. For 16 years, I’d been caring for him in one way or another. And now I had to face life without him.
I’d be lying if I said last Christmas wasn’t a tough one.
Over the years in my role at Kensington, I’ve encountered hundreds of people struggling with the loss of a loved one. They have friends who are with them in their grief; but sooner or later, a question comes up—either from their community or from within:
Isn’t it time to move on?
That question can seem well-meaning enough—especially when everyone is feeling done with the pain. But I’ve found (in my life, at least) it’s simply not realistic. It sometimes feels like I still see my Dad everywhere. In a whole lot of ways, I have not moved on.
But as I’ve sat in the quiet, considering my grief journey over the last year, I find myself asking different questions:
What if I stopped “moving on” from the loss of my Dad and embraced “moving with” the loss instead? And what would that look like?
I’ll be the first to admit that this adventure is still unfolding. New situations come up every day to challenge it, but here are some of the practices I’ve put in place to try out this idea:
I’m Looking Back with Gratitude
For all of the stress and sadness our family navigated in my Dad’s decline and passing, there are moments I can pick out in those last days that make me smile. I have come to view even the bittersweet season addressing his most basic needs as opportunities for holy moments where I got to care and advocate for him when he couldn’t do it himself.
I know many who have a much more complicated relationship with the person they lost. Things were left undone or unsaid. There may have been prickly exchanges or outright abuse. It may require the help of a skillful friend to unwind the good out of something so hurtful; but if all you can say is, “I survived it,” that is something to celebrate.
I’m Honest in the Here and Now
Not long ago, I sat on a stack of lumber watching my contractor set a wall in place on an addition to our house. Years earlier, my Dad had told me that my wife and I should hire an architect and “draw the dream.” Not only that, he was going to foot the bill for the drawings. Busyness got in the way, but we talked about it often.
And as I watched that wall go up just a few weeks ago, I looked at the spot next to me on that stack of lumber and realized, “Oh yeah. He’s gone.” I couldn’t experience the dream becoming reality with him by my side.
And my heart ached again.
But I let it ache when it needs to ache. I talk about it with my most trusted community and don’t look for something to numb the pain.
Social researcher and author Brené Brown rightly observed that we can’t selectively numb emotions. When we try to numb painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones. When I reach for that piece of chocolate to quell the heartache, I also deaden my experience of joy and gratitude for knowing him at all. It’s a tall order, I know, but I’ve found that as I keep talking and processing what’s inside of me, I’m a better person and everyone around me gets a little braver as well. (Thank you, Dr. Brown).
I’m Looking Forward with Intentional Optimism
Early on in my journey without my Dad, I caught myself saying and thinking a lot of “nevers.”
I’ll never go fishing with him again…
My daughter will never again be able to stop by Papa’s apartment for Cheez-Its after school…
That marvelous trip we took a few years back? Never happening again…
It would have been easy to stay there (and it was important for me, at least, to say those out loud for a while), but it was in this season that I found real encouragement from God. As I sat in the sadness, the truth of the love of Christ came into a new focus; and I got a reminder from the verse in the Book of Hebrews:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” Hebrews 12:1
What did I realize again? Because of what Christ did for us, that cold night in November is not the last word in my relationship with my Dad. In a way that I do not totally understand, he’s still there encouraging me, delighting in the wins, consoling me in the losses—and quietly reminding me that there is still work to do.
Really. Important. Work. But I’m fueled by a power source far greater than me.
One last caution:
Avoid the Trap of Comparison
If you are struggling in a season of loss like I am, remember that your journey is uniquely your own. You are where you are and you need not apologize to anyone for that. Celebrate the work you have done and embrace the work that is yet to be completed.
Keep working, and life can be better. I’ve seen it—many times.
Surviving the Holidays
Our Care Initiatives offer support, practical skills, and community as you walk through life’s challenges. If you’re dreading the holidays, our upcoming workshop, Surviving the Holidays, will help you face this season after the loss of a loved one. Info and registration at kensingtonchurch.org/surviving.