I used to call myself a morning person. The feeling of peeling back the covers in the early hours and stepping into a new day thrilled me.
I’m not sure what I am now, but I’m often awake in the middle of the night—my body either unable or unwilling to sleep through a full night. When I wake, the morning feels harsh, like a bright fluorescent light shining into my eyes. Pain washes over me before my feet have even touched the ground, and grief waits for me in the corner, an unwelcome and intrusive guest who will long overstay his welcome.
In my morning fog, I put the water on to boil and look out at the trees in our backyard. A dogwood blooms pink and white amidst the grays and browns of early spring. This specific tree had a number of branches grafted into it so that it flowered the colorful blend every spring. When I see it, I think of my family—a family grafted together with my aunt and uncle’s family. Growing up, my cousins were more like siblings, and their house was as much a home to me as my own. My life grew out of the trunk of both my family and theirs.
In December 2016, my aunt was diagnosed with cancer. Less than a year later, in 2017, we buried her body. It was a few days before Christmas. But the cancer had taken over almost every organ. Grief became a regular visitor in each of our lives.
My uncle, having just celebrated his twenty-fourth anniversary less than a week before my aunt died, slept in an empty bed for two and a half months. He talked about her, about how he couldn’t sleep, about how much he missed her.
Then, less than three months after my aunt’s death, my mom texted me something about chest pains and come quickly and where is your cousin Emily? When we arrived at the hospital, my uncle was already gone. “A heart attack,” the doctor said, “We did everything we could but weren’t able to save him.”
As the water on the stove boils, these are the memories that flood my mind. I look out at the tree in my yard, its colorful pink and white blossoms defying the lingering winter, and I wonder if my family’s tree will ever stand tall again or if we have been hacked away and left to rot.
When I open my Bible to read, grief stands in front of me. I try to focus on the words, try to take in the passage, but I am distracted. The letters pool on the page. When I finish reading, I can hardly remember what it is that I read. When I look up, grief seems happy with himself. He never smiles, but the corners of his mouth curl upward into something very close to a grimace.
When I dress, grief stands beside me, and I don’t bother asking him to move. I choose a blouse and pants for work and move on to picking out a necklace. The box of jewelry on my dresser is the hostile landscape of too many memories and too much pain. But still I step toward it.
I pick up a long string of pearls and place them around my neck. Grief is behind me, suddenly, except I knew he would be. He grabs the pearls and pulls them around my neck so tightly I can’t breathe. I look into the mirror and notice how beautiful they are—I have always loved the simple beauty of pearls—even as they are choking me. She knew I loved pearls better than anyone. It was something we shared. On an unassuming evening she sat at the table with me, her eyes glossy and yellow with the toxins her liver was unable to filter out of her body. She handed me a string of pearls, the string now pulled tight around my neck, the string she wore to my wedding earlier that year. In all my life I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as skilled in the art of giving gifts. It was so thoughtful, so kind, so her, and yet when she handed them to me, I wanted to push them back. Please don’t give these to me. Please. It was the last gift, and we both knew it.
When I arrive at my cubicle, grief settles in the corner opposite me. He allows me the pleasure of getting lost in my work for a few minutes before leaning over the back of my chair and whispering in my ear. The hair on my arms and neck stand up straight when he talks. I will never get used to his quiet, slick voice, the way he draws out words for too long and lingers at the ends of sentences as if waiting for a reply.
I work through lunch either because I am busy or because the thought of eating nauseates me. I stopped forcing myself to eat lunches weeks ago when I caught Grief pulling out my sandwiches and replacing the peanut butter with sand. Instead, I snack throughout the day, popping Goldfish crackers into my mouth before he has a chance to stick his bony fingers into the bag. This has worked. Goldfish feel like a victory.
After work, Grief quietly sits in the passenger seat and waits for me. On the way to pick up my husband from his job, I get stuck in traffic. The cars are all squeezed into one lane for almost a mile of stops and starts before I notice that the traffic is from a car accident. My mom calls me, a current of panic in her voice that she tries to hide. My husband calls me too, the same panic in his voice and the same attempt at masking it. They saw an accident reported along the route I travel every day and wanted to make sure I was okay, that it wasn’t me, that they weren’t going to have to identify my broken body in a cold hospital room. A year ago, there would have been no calls and no panic; a traffic accident would have been a traffic accident. But death has made us fearful. It is as if we are waiting for the next terrible thing to happen, the world to shift, the next funeral. We all know that the words we speak to each other may be the last, and we are afraid.
My husband and I drive to my aunt and uncle’s house. My husband sits in the passenger seat—grief climbs into the back and sits with a glittery gift bag on his lap, tufts of white tissue paper poking out the top. Today is their daughter’s seventeenth birthday. Her friends have planned a surprise party for her. And I arrive at the house to see bright yellow ribbons, a banner hanging from the ceiling, and a cake onto which her best friend has carefully piped little cacti with green icing. The house is filled with so many people giddy from the excitement of a surprise that I hardly notice grief standing in the corner, his hands hanging next to his sides.
When Emily opens the door and hears us shout Surprise! her eyes fill with tears. Grief is standing beside me in an instant, his hand tight around my arm. I think about how much of a surprise it would be if her parents were suddenly here in the crowd of people wishing her a happy birthday. I think about how they would have brought the perfect gift and helped her friends string up the decorations. We would all cry tears of only happiness at the sight of them and there would be no room for anything but joy. Grief tightens his hold and I can feel his sharp fingernails digging into my skin and drawing blood. You took them for granted, he whispers before loosening his grip.
Emily’s friends swarm around her lifting her up in celebration. When it’s time for her to open gifts, I watch as she unwraps a cactus, a stainless steel water bottle, pajamas, a notebook. There is a gift missing from the table, though. It’s a gift her dad had picked out for her and showed me online a few days before he died. He had planned to buy her a sweatshirt with music notes and Mickey Mouse on the front, a perfect gift for her and a perfect gift from him. I had forgotten about it until a few days before her birthday, and I placed the order immediately. It hadn’t arrived in time for the party, but I didn’t want to give it to her in front of everyone anyway.
When the party ends, she thanks everyone for the surprise and starts to clean up the paper plates and napkins. Grief places his hand on my arm and I flinch, still sore from the last time he touched me. A seventeen-year-old shouldn’t be cleaning up her own birthday party, but she has had to grow up fast in the past few months. I help her with the trash, but it still feels awkward somehow. I am inadequately filling a gashed hole in her life, and grief tells me in his quiet voice that my very attempts at it are insulting. I hold open the trash bag anyway, and I pray for the Holy Spirit to fill in the places where I lack.
At the end of the day when I crawl into bed, grief crawls in next to me—fitting his long, angular body into the space between me and my husband. I look into Grief’s gaping eyes and notice for the first time how sad they are. He waits for me to begin crying, silently, and he begins to cry too. It’s awkward. Grief and I both crying there in the dark; we are unwilling companions forced together by terrible circumstances. Wouldn’t he have preferred to walk beside people as joy does, in singing and celebration? Wouldn’t he have preferred dancing and happiness rather than the darkness of mourning?
We are both weary and I realize in the quiet warmth of my bed that grief has visited nearly every person who has ever lived. Grief has shared company with King David and the prophets. He was there in the dirt and ashes as Job cried out to God. He has borne witness not just to my own pain, but to every moment of pain that death has caused throughout history.
I imagine grief squatting down beside Jesus as he wept for Lazarus. Was he shocked that Jesus, the Son of God, had made himself vulnerable to his own terrible power, and was weeping? Was he weary then, all those years ago? I imagine Jesus lifting his head and looking into grief’s sad eyes, his own eyes spilling over with tears. I wonder if Jesus told him what he planned to do, how he planned to redeem not only death but grief himself. I wonder if he whispered to grief the upside-down promise that those who mourn will be blessed because the Father draws near to them and comforts them.
This, I realize in the darkness of my bedroom, is the beauty of redemption. Something as terrible as grief has been redeemed, though not in the way I would have expected. In the dark room, I instinctively reach out to grief and place my hand on his shoulder in an attempt to comfort him. It is the first time I have ever reached out to touch him instead of him reaching out to touch me, and pain and memories of pain flood my mind. I feel as though I am in the emergency room and the empty house and the funerals again. Instead of panicking and gasping for air, tears slide down my cheeks, and I am calm.
The memories are painful, but there is comfort there too in the presence of a Savior acquainted with grief, a Savior bent down in the dust weeping and whispering secrets of the Kingdom to grief. Until the final enemy of death is defeated, grief’s presence and companionship usher in the comfort of the Father. Jesus’s own words ring true and he is near to the broken-hearted, he is near to me.
Cover image by Saffu.
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