In the months since Rob died, our family has developed a dark sense of humor. On the ride to school the other morning (when all our best conversations seem to happen), my children batted around jokes of the “Yo Momma” variety.
“My Daddy’s so awesome God wanted him to live with Him.”
“My Daddy’s so rich he’s got a heavenly mansion.”
Our jokes might sound irreverent to anybody who has never lost a loved one, but my fellow widows agree. You can’t cry all the time. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Even at death. I’ve often said there’s nothing so terrible in life that a little dose of sarcasm can’t lighten the mood. One of the complexities of grief is the way joy continues to inject itself regularly into life. Joy’s persistence is remarkable and often surprising. Sometimes, it’s just a chuckle after a long cry. Other times, we belly laugh till our sides ache. An outsider would never guess our world exploded seven months ago when the one dearest to us died. We laugh and we cry. We poke fun and we mourn.
This mixed-up way we live can be puzzling for those around us. Our cultural narrative about death tells us that grief is linear. We mourn, and when we’re finished we’re happy again. Oftentimes, there’s even a timestamped plot line. It’s okay to cry in the first three months. But by month six, we should be smiling more. By a year, we should have moved on. (For an insightful discussion of “moving on”, check out this indispensable TEDtalk by Nora McInerny.) We inaccurately describe grief as something that can be traveled through in stages. A string of emojis beginning with “mind blown” and ending with “heart eyes.” But grief, like life, never follows a neat progression. It isn’t an obstacle course to be completed.
If we weed out the linear metaphors for grief, you’ll find my very favorite — grief as a companion. Grief moved into our house seven months ago. She appears to be a staying for the long-term, so we started to let our hair down around her after a while. You might say Grief is no longer a formal guest but a close family friend. I cried when I woke up and was so distracted that I forgot to shower. Grief doesn’t mind if I stink. My son burped at the dinner table and made everybody laugh. Grief is not offended. I sat on the couch and sobbed through an episode of The Office. Grief doesn’t feel awkward. She doesn’t think I’m crazy. My daughter confessed to not thinking about Dad today because she was having such a great time at school. Grief nods with understanding.
Grief is demanding. She can be all-consuming. She is dark and heavy and long-lasting. But, contrary even to our own belief some days, Grief isn’t all there is. She’s not the only one who’s made a home with us. We are made of many parts. And while Grief touches and colors every place of our lives, if we are to survive and thrive again, we must acknowledge, welcome, and nurture these other parts as well. Joy. Courage. Thoughtfulness. Adventure. Persistence. Love. All of these parts of us will forever be informed by Grief. She entered our life and has shaped us powerfully. And she, like all the other parts, will always be welcome. She has important things to say around our table, important truths about love and life and perspective to speak into our lives.
I’ve written about the persistence of grief, about how our loss will travel with us for the rest of our lives. But I would be amiss to fail to mention Joy. She will travel with us too. Sometimes holding hands awkwardly with Grief. Other times walking far ahead of the crowd, leading the way. Joy, like Grief, has made herself indispensable. Learning to live abundantly in the face of loss requires that we welcome all of these companions on our life journey.
On a recent commute through the cemetery on the way to school, my 7 year old rolled down the window and yelled at the top of her lungs, “Wake up, dead people!” At first, I was mortified. (Ooh, what word play!) A word of reproof lay on my tongue until a chuckle shoved it out of the way. She didn’t realize it, but she was quoting Isaiah 26:19. “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” Is it appropriate to yell in a graveyard? Yes, I think so. Is it okay to laugh when your heart is aching? Yes, for sure. Can Grief and Joy both live in the same body, in the same household, in the same lifetime? I don’t like to speak for others, but I know Grief and Joy pretty well these days. I have a hankering they’d both give a hearty yes. They’ve learned to get along just fine as companions. If they could, on the front door of my house they’d hang a sign: “All parts are welcome here.”