Since Rob died, I’ve struggled to make and keep any plans at all. Should I book a family spring break trip? Can I commit to volunteering in my child’s classroom? Should my teenagers register for a field trip two months hence? Once upon a time, I would have booked the tickets, signed up right away. Now, I hesitate. What will our life look like in two months? Will we still be here? How can I say with any certainty that I will do this or that so far in advance? I have no other plans, mind you. Nothing else that may conflict with these opportunities that request inclusion on my calendar. Still, I hesitate. Life has become so uncertain now.
Sudden loss brings with it the unique experience of a universe instantly undone. Unlike prolonged illness which allows participants to anticipate an end, a loss like mine gives no advance warning. One morning Rob was alive. By noon that same day, he was dead. I go back to look at the time stamp on pictures he texted me the day that he died. 11:19am. 11:23am. By 11:46am, his death certificate tells me, he was gone. Twenty-three minutes between life and death. He sent me a picture standing atop Barrier Peak; and twenty-three minutes later, he was dead. I look back at my photos and realize that I stood taking pictures as he fell. He was dying, not five miles away from me as the crow flies. I drove my children out for a day in the national park, and I came home a widow. Who can plan for that?
Last year, as I struggled to cope with the changes born of our cross-country move, I taped this question above my kitchen sink. I’d heard it on a Dave Ramsey podcast while Rob and I did the dishes together one night. What am I working on that is taking me where I want to go? I hoped this motivation would help me find a new sense of purpose in our new home. I took the slip of paper down months ago and discovered it again as I went through some piles of papers on my counter. For the first time in my life, I have no idea where I want to go. I’m not sure I want to go anywhere. Well, that’s not true. I’d like to go back in time. But the future? The future feels awfully uncertain now. Who can say what the future will bring? I know now that life can change in a moment’s notice. That all of our best laid plans can fall away in the face of tragedy. Now, all of the future — a month, a season, a year hence — looks daunting. Do I even want to ask this question again? Do I dare make any plans at all? Many days, I’m not sure I even want to try.
I hesitate to plan; but, in grief, I find many others stand ready to plan and offer their input about my future. They don’t understand how Rob’s death has changed the way I see time. “I’m sick of everyone’s plans for me!” I burst out yelling in the car the other day. My eldest lifted her head from her book in the backseat and asked, “What was that all about it?” I tried to explain the weight of the myriad opinions I receive, the plans for my future others have drawn up for me. They’re all well-meaning, of course. Just trying to help. But in grief (as in all other seasons of life, frankly) helping most often comes in the form of companionship, not opinions. I often feel like others are working on plans that will take me where they want me to go. All while I can barely commit to a field trip two months away.
As Rob fell to his death, I stood on a roadside in Mount Rainier National Park and took this picture. When Mount Rainier erupted last, hot lava flowed along glacial ice causing it to cool quickly in these slender, andesite columns. I love geology, and I wanted my children to see these amazing formations, signifiers of Earth’s capacity for rapid, dramatic change. I pulled over into a car turn-out, killed the engine, and we ran across the street to see these columns up close. As I ran my hands over the smooth stone columns, unbeknownst to me, my own world was erupting, changing suddenly and dramatically forever.
During the years we lived in Seattle, friends from east of the Mississippi would often ask me if I was afraid Mount Rainier would erupt. We lived 30 miles from the mountain, on a hill surrounding a valley that lay within the lahar flow danger map. Every month in a neighboring town, sirens would break the Monday morning silence, a regular test to warn citizens the mountain was erupting and danger was coming. The sirens blasted their eery warning that the future could change in a moment’s notice.
In all our years in Washington, I never worried about a volcanic eruption. We never made an emergency kit or well-developed plans for such an event. We simply lived each day with the future unknown, trusting that whatever life brought us we’d be okay. I heard the sirens and stopped worrying they were calling for me. I am learning that grief, and life, are best engaged with that same posture. In light of all that has happened, is it okay to look at the future with apprehension? Yes. Is it okay to hesitate to make plans when my world has been turned upside down? Yes. I will find my way in fits and starts. Many days I will just. Not. Know. Someday, I hope, I will be able to look to the future with less uncertainty, more courage. In grief, it is okay to say, That time isn’t now.