Rob and I took this picture the day we set out on the road in 2017. We hoped our three months of traveling would be the gateway to living on the road full-time. Our family traveled over 50,000 miles over the next three summers, but we never made it to full-time status. It didn’t end up working out well with four growing kids. Not to be dissuaded, he and I began planning instead for when we could full-time camp as empty nesters.
This past weekend I took my kids up to the mountains to camp. We’ve camped a number of times since Rob died, and each time it gets easier. The practical parts become more fluid, more intuitive. The emotional parts sit differently, hold a different sadness. We’re figuring out how to do this without him, how to reclaim this thing we loved together so that camping isn’t just another casualty of his death.
I miss Rob at night when I douse the campfire and turn in early alone. I miss him when the water hose gets jammed at the spigot, and I’m not strong enough to get it off without a wrench. But I miss him most of all when the Airstream pulls up at the campsite beside us. When the retired couple sets their two camp chairs beside the fire ring. When he releases the awning while she gets the utilities hooked up.
Envy isn’t one of the five stages of grief, but I’ll admit I envy those couples. I want what they have, what I feel was taken from me. The length of years with my beloved. The easy partnership of a relationship that has stood the test of time. The companionship of the one whose face I still see in every dream I have for my future. I do not covet my neighbor’s Airstream or his shiny half-ton pickup truck. But I do covet his life.
As time passes, I’m discovering that grief isn’t just a burden. If we embrace it, grief can also be a spiritual discipline. Grief is a daily surrender of the one I loved most in all the world. It is a relinquishing of the dreams I held tightly. It is a moment by moment opening of my hands to a future that I cannot see. Grief asks me to trust that pain can shape me if I allow it, that it can teach me if I am willing to listen. That all of the sorrow I experience in this life can be a passage to intimacy with Jesus.
When an Airstream rumbles down the gravel campground road, my kids all shout out, “Look at that one!” The camper’s shiny rivets gleam like my wedding diamonds, painful reminders of the life I longed to live with Rob until we were old and gray. I’m tempted to simply stand and follow the Airstream with my eyes as it fades into a cloud of dust. Wistful. Longing. Jealous. It is a symbol of everything I wanted. Everything I lost.
Instead, I’ve started trying to wave to the driver instead. If the couple parks in the site beside me, I stop and say hello. I engage my grief by turning outward not in. I release my envy by celebrating someone else’s joy. I’m not super good at it yet, but that’s the essence of spiritual discipline, right? The half-hearted attempt, the faithful fumbling. The trust that even the slightest move in the right direction is one that can be blessed.
Grief is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Saying goodbye to Rob, moving forward without him, is the biggest call to trust that I’ve ever had to answer. I’ve been a Christian for many years, but grief has worn down more of me than any other discipline I’ve ever engaged. I trust that this is God’s good design for me. That, as I relinquish my own desires and embrace grief as my companion, “the suffering will produce perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And that hope will not disappoint.”