He Would Want You to Live

Let sorrow do its work.

Elizabeth Prentiss, “More Love to Thee”

Since Rob died, a number of people have told me, “He would want you to keep living.” I always appreciate that encouragement. It gets at the heart of what loss can do in your life, if you allow it. Honestly, after a year of grief, I have realized that’s a big “IF.” It is a hard, oftentimes painful, decision to chase resilience and growth after loss. Sometimes I’m so exhausted by grief I don’t even want to try. Some days, grief weighs me down so much that I’d rather dig in my heels and tighten my fists — let sorrow crust over the already hardened places in my life instead of breaking them apart.

Post-loss growth doesn’t mean sunshine and rainbows in the face of gut-wrenching pain. The only way to grow through grief is to feel the full weight of its pain. You can’t pretend it away or push it down and expect to flourish again. Post-loss growth simply means that we commit ourselves to the vision that the pain won’t be wasted. We choose to allow our grief to make us better not bitter.

If we allow it, the death of our loved one can become the catalyst that begins a chain reaction of good — relationships repaired, purpose pursued, learning gained, perspective reoriented. I’m not talking here about making lemonade out of lemons or looking for the silver lining in clouds. I’m staunchly against romanticizing grief. Instead, this is the simple truth: grief always offers us a choice of how we will respond. Turning toward good in the midst of grief is hard, especially when there is residual hurt. I know. I live it. But I believe it’s necessary. In fact, I think our lives depend on it. Here’s why.

North Shore tidal river, Photo credit: Rob Moll
Healing Our Hearts

Recently, a dear friend’s husband underwent a significant heart surgery. Literally his heart was broken, and it needed to be fixed. Pronto. When I talked to my friend after the surgery was complete, I was shocked. Just four days after her husband’s heart endured massive invasion, his medical team had him out of bed and walking around in the hospital room. I was aghast. How could someone who’d endured so much be expected to start moving? What about rest?

My friend explained that movement after her husband’s surgery wasn’t just preferred, it was necessary for the health of his heart. Even with its newly installed parts, his heart actually couldn’t work right again unless his body started teaching it how. To really live again, he had to get up and start walking. Sure, rest was vital and required; but so was movement. Choosing to move instead of stay still was his ticket to healing.

The same is true in grief. Regardless of how we respond to grief, we are changed by it. Why allow ourselves to be hardened, compounding our pain? Why not use such a sorrowful experience to allow new movement in our lives, to learn and grow? As we move forward with our loss, our broken hearts will find new strength. We can become better people for the sorrow that has shadowed our paths. We can allow our suffering to draw us closer to others, to remake us more into the image of Christ. Grief may always be our companion, but we can have a fruitful relationship with our suffering.

When I think of Rob, I know he’d want me to allow grief to make me better not bitter. He’d want to see my old familiar gripes disintegrate into new wisdom and perspective in the face of his death. He’d want to see me work hard at relationships instead of allow old unhealthy patterns persist. He’d want to see my heart begin to work again as I moved toward living more like Jesus. He’d want me to truly live.


Below you’ll find a list of “He’d want me to’s” that encourage us to pursue growth and life in the face of death. If it’s helpful, put your loved one’s name into the sentences, and read them aloud. He (or she) would want you to live.

He would want me to become tender, not harden.

He would want me to learn compassion.

He would want me to bury the hatchet.

He would want me to reassess my priorities.

He would want me to forgive.

He would want me to make good use of time.

He would want me to say “I love you” more often.

He would want me to gain perspective.

He would want me to carry, not bury, my pain.

He would want me to try new things.

He would want me to cry.

He would want me to laugh.

He would want me to do the things that really matter.

He would want me to invest in relationships.

He would want me to look to the future with hope.

He would want me to pay attention.

He would want me to find joy.

He would want me to become more like Jesus.

He would want me to live.

Do any of these resonate with you? What “He would want me to’s” do you have? Feel free to share them in the comments below or send me your thoughts. Let’s teach our hearts to work again as we move toward growth in the face of painful loss.

Poetry Friday: “When Great Trees Fall”

Welcome to Poetry Friday! Today we journey through grief with Maya Angelou. I love the cadence of her words and her connection to the natural world. As I reflect on the early days after Rob’s death, Angelou’s description of grief especially rings true to me.

I wonder where you find yourself in today’s poem. Does memory gnaw at you? Does your soul feel wizen? As you consider the arc of your loved one’s life story, do you begin to feel that soothing electric vibration Angelou describes, the feeling of life returning to your body? I hope you enjoy these timeless words from one of America’s great poetesses.

When Great Trees Fall

by Maya Angelou

When great trees fall,

rocks on distant hills shudder,

lions hunker down

in tall grasses,

and even elephants

lumber after safety.



When great trees fall

in forests,

small things recoil into silence,

their senses

eroded beyond fear.



When great souls die,

the air around us becomes

light, rare, sterile.

We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,

see with

a hurtful clarity.

Our memory, suddenly sharpened,

examines,

gnaws on kind words

unsaid,

promised walks

never taken.


Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Walking My Land, Saying Goodbye

This acreage once housed my dream. When Rob and I bought our property in 2018, we sensed a shifting as our children eased out of homeschooling and into hybrid schooling. For the first time since our early marriage, I would have some time to spare, some extra space to breathe and dream. Rob and I had always longed for land, and I began to pour myself into dreams for this acreage. Our move had been hard for me, and I was hopeful about this land offering me new purpose.

The plan was that when our family returned from our road trip last fall, I would renovate the interior of a workshop on the back of our property and turn it into a quiet retreat for local artists and writers. Rob helped me brainstorm and create my business plan to turn another outbuilding into a rental space. Instead of looking outward for purpose, I would turn inward to this 2.5 acre plot we’d chosen together.

But last summer’s road trip ended in death, and last fall was — and every day since has been — not a shifting but a sifting. Sorting out the dreams I could keep alive. Saying goodbye to the ones that died with Rob’s death. As I realized I couldn’t manage our big property alone, I had to admit that my vision for our acreage was a dream I also couldn’t keep.

Walking the Land

Yesterday, I walked my land for the last time. I traced the old stone wall lined with oaks and maples that have guarded its boundaries for generations. I said goodbye to the hydrangea and her blossoms, to the lavender my sister planted for me after Rob died. As I neared the little unfinished workshop overlooking the pond, a quiet deer bounded off into the woods, its white tail waving a farewell. The workshop’s windows stared out at me like mournful, empty eyes. It never lived the life I hoped it would.

As I walked my land, I wept. Deep sobs that exhausted me, emptied me. I carry so much sorrow. There is so much I leave behind. The memories of Rob. The dreams for my future. The good, good life we lived together. Grief has lived on my land as long as Rob did. As I stood in silence, listening to the birds in the marshland nearby, I could not help but think. I am weary of grief’s companionship.

The Companionship of Grief

I didn’t want to move to Massachusetts when we came here two years ago. I didn’t want to return after Rob died. Over the last year of grief, I have struggled to shoulder the burden of maintaining this acreage without him by my side. I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want to do it alone.

But yesterday, on that last day, I wished I could take it all back. I wanted to cling to this place, the last one that will ever have memories of Rob in it. I wanted to somehow resurrect our old life, revive all the dreams I’ve had to bury since he died. I wanted the little workshop with its broken glass panes to miraculously become before my eyes a dream realized, not a dream lost. I do not love this place, but I have loved this land.

I write often about the growth I believe can be born from grief. I firmly believe that transformation is possible. But we will never get there unless we allow ourselves to experience the full weight of our sorrow. Unless we open the door to grief, let her drop her suitcases in the hall, offer her the spare bedroom and invite her to sit down to tea. Transformation after loss only happens when we acknowledge grief as our companion.
There is no other way.

When I signed the closing papers for my property, I came across this line in the legal writing: “I, Clarissa C.B. Moll, being unmarried…” I wasn’t expecting it, and it hit me like a gut punch. I still have to remind myself of its truth many days. I came to this acreage a wife but am leaving a widow. I dreamed new dreams on this land but am leaving with different, fledgling ones. I leave behind the marks of a life with Rob and take with me only memories of our life together. Grief, not Rob, walks beside me into this new chapter.

For the last year, this land has not been mine alone. Grief has walked every inch of it with me. My new unwelcome companion has marked this land as much as I have. As I say goodbye, I am reminded of these words from one of Rob’s favorite novels, Hannah Coulter:

“Sometimes…I wander about in this house that Nathan and I renewed, that is now aged and worn by our life in it. How many steps, wearing the thresholds? I look at it all again. Sometimes it fills to the brim with sorrow, which signifies the joy that has been here, and the love. It is entirely a gift.”

Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

This land. This life. This love. This sorrow too. Somehow, in ways I still cannot understand — entirely a gift.

Falling Asleep

When our first child was born, Rob and I quickly realized the all-consuming nature of baby bedtime routines. After the evening feeding, Rob swaddled our little girl snuggly, hoisted her high onto his shoulder and slow danced her through the kitchen to the melodies of old church songs and Crosby Stills and Nash.

As she quieted in his arms, Rob gingerly tiptoed into our apartment bedroom to lay our sweet girl down to sleep. Swaying before her little crib, he slowly lowered her into bed, a deep knee bend worthy of any yoga instructor’s praise. He held his breath so even that would not wake her.

But no sooner had her head touched the mattress, our baby’s eyes sprung open. She locked gaze with Rob and let out the wail of one who feared banishment forever. Alone? In a crib? Sleep? Never! Back he’d head to the kitchen dance floor to start all over again. “Just let yourself fall asleep,” we’d plead with her, as if she could understand us.

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com
Giving in to Sleep

After weeks of this routine, there eventually came a night where baby’s belly was full enough and her body tired enough that she’d give in quickly to sleep. Rob lay her down in the crib and backed slowly out of the room, waiting to exhale until he crossed the bedroom threshold. For the rest of the evening, we sat in anticipation. Would she wake up? Would this be the wondrous night we’d heard so much about — the night our little daughter would sleep a full eight hours for the first time?

The longer we sat, the more the quiet surprised and unsettled us a little. Was she okay in there? Should we be watching her? What was previously relief evolved into worry. We poked heads in, letting our eyes adjust to the bedroom’s darkness. Yes, her little chest rose and fell with the rhythms of her sleep. She was just fine. After many nights of bedtime struggle, she was finally resting in peace.

Asleep in Christ

Rob and I often talked about the different ways we name death — crossed over, died, passed away, resting in peace. We both particularly loved the Apostle Paul’s phrase “asleep in Christ.” Its subtle eschatology expressed our faith, and its gentle imagery touched our hearts. The phrase conjured up images of our babies, wrapped in their swaddling blankets, curled up against Rob’s warm chest, swayed gently to and fro in his arms to the soft music of his calming voice. This solace, this comfort and rest, was what we longed for in our hour of death. Asleep, resting without care. Safe in the bosom of Jesus.

This past Sunday, August 9, marked a year since we laid Rob to rest in the little mountain cemetery in Washington. When I think of that day, I can’t help but see the parallels with those baby bedtime routines of long ago. Jesus took Rob into his arms in death. But in an earthly way, Rob’s burial was a bedding down. A little folding of the hands in sleep. August 9, 2019, was a bedtime ritual of its own.

As I think of Rob now, buried in that quiet cemetery 3,000 miles away, I’ve come to see his grave for what I know it really is — a resting place. When I become anxious about him or the physical distance between us, I remind myself that a year ago we repeated a ritual he and I did so many times with our babies over the years. We lay our beloved one down to rest, and we quietly stood back. Holding our breath, watching for signs that he was okay, allowing him to give himself fully to sleep. And when we saw that all was well, we walked away. A normal, natural pattern to bedding down writ painfully deep on our hearts. August 9, 2019, was the hardest bedtime routine I’ve ever enacted.

The Dawn to Come

Years ago, Rob and I were talking to our pastor and his wife, commiserating about child bedtime struggles. Why was it so hard to turn off the light at night? Why did our kids seem to fight sleep with every ounce of their beings? As adults, we saw rest as something to embrace. Our kids seemed to want to avoid it at all costs. “Every night is a little death,” my pastor mused. “And every waking in the morning, a resurrection.” His words struck me. No wonder it could be hard for our children to let go at night, to offer themselves up to the unknown vulnerabilities of slumber. The letting go necessary for restful sleep could be a mammoth endeavor.

August 9, 2019, was a day of mammoth letting go, a bedtime ritual deeply painful. I know that Rob is dead. I’m not afraid to use that word. However, neither am I afraid to say that Rob is asleep, asleep in Christ. And like Jairus’ daughter, like Lazarus, like Jesus himself, someday Rob will awaken. This burial, this bedding down is not the end. Someday, from his resting place, Rob will rise to see the dawning of the new creation, the rising of the Son of Righteousness with healing in his wings.

A year later, I’m still waiting for that day. I’ve laid my beloved to rest. I stand at the threshold of life’s door, holding my breath, waiting for signs that he is waking. In a curious twist to the old familiar bedtime routine, it is I who now fight the sleep that has overtaken him. I want Rob to wake up. I’ve never been more ready for resurrection.

Even so, I must say, “Beloved husband, just let yourself fall asleep.” You — and I — are safe in the arms of Jesus. You rest in peace. I wait in expectation. Both of us, for now, in these corruptible bodies. One day, together awakening to the passion, the glory, and the beauty of the incorruptible.

Maranatha. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

The Right Way to Grieve

Six months after Rob died, a global pandemic began. What a crazy year in which to grieve. While COVID-19 has complicated our grief process in myriad ways, foremost, the pandemic forced me to reevaluate the wisdom of cross-country travel this summer for the anniversary of Rob’s death. I wrestled for months about giving up that plan. I’d already made the itinerary and carried it in my day planner since the winter. I didn’t want to give it up.

With every fibre of my being, I wanted to be there in that place to remember the day Rob died. I wanted to visit his grave, spend the day in the mountains. Eventually, though, as COVID cases surged in the west and other states along our route instituted travel restrictions, I made the hard choice to give up my plan. Saying goodbye to the hope of a Washington summer not only meant saying goodbye to road tripping and being with friends. It meant giving up the opportunity for on-site grieving, which I assumed must be the most valuable and important kind.

Healthy grieving relies on understanding your limitations, and I finally had to acknowledge mine. The things I could control, and the things I couldn’t. I grieved the reality that, because of COVID, a cross-country trip with four kids didn’t seem wise this summer. And I came to accept it, albeit begrudgingly. I felt no pressure from Rob to be there. He wrote a book about dying; he knew how hard grief was to navigate. He would have understood and supported my choices. He trusted me to make good decisions for our family. Instead, I felt pressure from myself to “do this right.” I’d fallen into a classic trap: I believed there was only one right way to grieve the first anniversary of my husband’s death.

Once I made the decision to stay local instead of travel this summer, questions arose. How to mark this day that changed our lives forever? What could we do if we couldn’t grieve on-site? Would anything we did be even close to adequate? Well, come to discover — grief isn’t site specific. You can do it anywhere.

Photo by Melanie Wupperman on Pexels.com

Hitting the Road

A few weeks ago, we loaded up our camper and drove south to spend four days on Cape Cod. If you were to rank vacations, it wasn’t the greatest. COVID restrictions limited how many cars could park at beaches, making access almost impossible for out-of-towners. All of the souvenir shops we loved to browse limited customers, and the oppressive heat left us craving exclusive access not to their merchandise but to their air conditioning. Large crowds outside of our favorite walk-up fried clam joints made local seafood less appealing. Add to all that a consciousness of why we were going away in the first place. At one point, my son astutely observed that perhaps we shouldn’t have expected much from a vacation planned on the anniversary of Rob’s death. For a bit, I thought maybe he was right. Maybe this had been the wrong way to try to grieve.

But as we drove along the Cape’s quiet back roads, we began to reminisce. Here was the place we’d stopped for ice cream with Rob that summer we’d camped a stone’s throw away. There was the baseball field where we’d watched a summer Cape Cod League game together. As we filled the car with memories, I added ones the kids had never known — of the years we’d vacationed on Cape Cod when they were too small to remember. Rob body surfing at Nauset Beach, his husky voice growling out a Creedence Clearwater Revival hit on karaoke night at a dive bar in town. Funny stories of our younger years, wistful memories of times gone by.

Another Sort of Burial

On the evening of the anniversary of Rob’s death, the kids and I set out for our favorite beach, a place full of memories. Memories of a dad who helped his kids collect crabs in tide pools, of a husband and wife relaxing together in beach chairs while their children happily played in the surf. Memories of happiness before it was marred with sorrow.

The kids and I wrote notes to Rob and sealed them with corks in tiny glass bottles. And when the tide stretched out as far as the eye could see, we dug a hole deep in the sand. As the hole began to fill with water, we plunged our hands deep, burying our messages safely into the ocean’s floor. We laughed as the water rose. We splashed each other and chased each other with seaweed. Our own little haphazard seaside burial, marked by a mixture of all the joy and grief of the last year. Life lived defiantly in the face of death.

When we settled into the camper that night, I sighed and said, “Well, we made it.” “You’ve been saying that all day!” one of my kids exclaimed. I hadn’t realized it. The words had been my litany over the day without my even paying attention. Maybe I hadn’t grieved the way I thought I wanted, but the day felt like a finale nonetheless. We’d grieved the best we could with what we had. And somehow the day felt complete.

Here’s To Making Do

As much as I talk about flourishing after loss — and I’ve come to ardently believe in its possibility — I also believe in simply surviving after loss. Sometimes surviving is more than enough. Surviving a crappy COVID vacation. Surviving a year of navigating life with grief. Surviving the absence of my beloved, not simply 3,000 miles away but seemingly an eternity away. Grief doesn’t need to be deeply symbolic or ceremonial. It doesn’t even have to be site-specific. There’s a lot to be said for just hanging on, for making do with what you have. There’s no one right way to grieve.

I discovered that day that our family didn’t need to be in Washington to say goodbye to Rob again. Life asks us to do that every day. Though I’ve restricted our travel this season, grief has still joined us wherever we’ve gone. We could bring our grief wherever we traveled.

If that’s the case, if grief will companion us wherever we go, here’s to simply hanging on, to surviving the very worst, to making do with what we have. Here’s to lackluster vacations and grieving rituals, to the shifting of tides and the ever-presence of memories regardless of location. Here’s to grief and love that know no geographic boundaries. Here’s to making mistakes and reworking plans and pointing our feet forward, however awkwardly, toward new life after loss. All of this is the right way to grieve.

It’s Alright to Cry

Since having kids, I’ve become a real crier. Perhaps motherhood’s hormones tipped the scales. Maybe I’ve just developed more empathy as I’ve aged. Whatever the cause, the result has been lots of tears in our house. Happy, sad, angry, wistful, frustrated. All the tears. They’re all welcome.

As a regular crier, I’ve always disliked the term “ugly crying.” In my book, no crying is ugly. Body shaking sobs that make my mascara run? Sacred. Weeping that leaves my eyes puffy and my face red? Endearing. Humans are the only living things on earth that cry. What a sacred honor to be able to express our emotions in such a visceral, physical way. Expressing our emotions in tears is never ugly. Tears are healthy, cleansing, empowering, precious.

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Since Rob died, I’ve cried a lot. Weeping. Bawling. Wailing. There has been so much to grieve. An outsider might say my tears haven’t been pretty, but I think they are beautiful. Every tear reveals the depths of my heart, a heart that is full of love and wrestles with loss. I cry when I think of the happiness of my past life with Rob. I cry when my heart aches from his absence. The Psalmist tells me that God keeps my tears in a bottle. None of them are ugly to Him; all are precious.

Many times, grieving people find themselves apologizing for crying. In the grocery store or the doctor’s office, they tear up and find themselves saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cry.” They believe their tears are ugly, something to hide, unwelcome. They think grief is an emotion nobody wants to see. I’ve done it myself, found myself explaining away my emotions to make someone else more comfortable. How unfortunate.

Rob used to tell our kids about a song he sang as a child in school. “It’s alright to cry. Crying gets the sadness out of you.” Hokey lyrics, perhaps, but scientifically accurate. Tears are not only beautiful expressions of our emotions. They release hormones that ease pain, improve mood, and relax us. Far from being ugly, crying offers our bodies the opportunity to rest and repair.

Recently, I was talking to my grief therapist and she stopped me short. “When did you last have a good cry?” she asked. I was surprised by the question. When I thought about it, it had been a while since I’d teared up. I hadn’t realized I was carrying my emotions without giving them the opportunity for release.

A few days later, the tears began to fall. The catalyst was so insignificant, I can’t even remember what made me cry. All I remember is how much better I felt afterwards. Beautiful, painful tears had brought relief.

Poetry Friday: “Farewell”

Recently, my kids and I enjoyed a getaway respite at my sister’s home down on the farm. Moving in the midst of grief and pandemic is challenging, and we all needed a break. My sister’s acreage abuts farmland that is under conservation, preserved for generations to come just as it’s been farmed by generations before. It’s a beautiful place to rest and recharge.

As I watched the cows happily moving across the field, their babies trailing along behind, I wondered what parts of my life will be thus preserved, protected for time to come. Since Rob’s death, life has felt entirely upended, the future now feels so uncertain. In the face of death, what truly can last?

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I own no land that will be passed down to generations after me. I have few possessions that bear lasting value. I am reminded of the words: “all flesh is grass.” And I realize that no attempt to preserve or protect my little life will ever be successful. If even great men and women are forgotten, surely someday I will be too.

And then, I remember Rob, my grandparents, my friend who died of cancer. Though now absent, their lives continue to bring meaning to mine. They are preserved in memory, protected in the heart from the weathering effects of time. My love for them and their love for me is forever imprinted on my heart. Outward remembrances may fade away. But love stands the test of time.

I have no gift of land to place in conservation when I die. My descendants won’t jockey for any valuable possessions. But I hope my love will be preserved forever in the hearts of those I have cared about long after I am gone. What a joy to discover that is conservation work I can start right now! I can invest in relationships, plant the seeds of remembrance by loving well today.

Today’s Poetry Friday poem comes from Anne Bronte. As you reflect on her words, consider the parts of your loved one that last after her death. What investments can you make now to offer others a loving, lasting memory of you?

Farewell

by Anne Bronte

Farewell to thee! but not farewell
To all my fondest thoughts of thee:
Within my heart they still shall dwell;
And they shall cheer and comfort me.
O, beautiful, and full of grace!
If thou hadst never met mine eye,
I had not dreamed a living face
Could fancied charms so far outvie.
If I may ne’er behold again
That form and face so dear to me,
Nor hear thy voice, still would I fain
Preserve, for aye, their memory.
That voice, the magic of whose tone
Can wake an echo in my breast,
Creating feelings that, alone,
Can make my tranced spirit blest.
That laughing eye, whose sunny beam
My memory would not cherish less; —
And oh, that smile! whose joyous gleam
Nor mortal language can express.
Adieu, but let me cherish, still,
The hope with which I cannot part.
Contempt may wound, and coldness chill,
But still it lingers in my heart.
And who can tell but Heaven, at last,
May answer all my thousand prayers,
And bid the future pay the past
With joy for anguish, smiles for tears?

Attending to Children in Grief

Just two weeks before he died, Rob taught our youngest to swim underwater. On a hot summer night at a campground pool in Salt Lake City, she jumped off the deck into his waiting arms over and over again. Perhaps the thrill of jumping made her brave. When Rob asked if she wanted to try ducking her head underwater — something she’d resisted for years — she said yes. I captured her big moment, and we all cheered. She’s beaming in the picture I took. Years of failed swim lessons ended that night. A year later, I can’t keep her out of the water.

Photo by julie aagaard on Pexels.com

Kids experience newness very differently than adults do. Sometimes they resist it with every fibre of their being. They defiantly hold their heads above the water and tell the instructor, “No, I will not put my face in.” Other times, they slip beneath the water with so much finesse you’d think they were born swimming. As parents, we cajole or threaten, encourage or stand back in silence. We feel we need to intervene in (or worse, control) the process. Many times, though, when encountering something new, our children simply need us to trust their innate wisdom. They’ll do the new thing when they’re ready.

Attending to Children in Grief

Engaging with children in grief is a similar task of waiting on their wisdom. Children carry the weight of loss differently than adults do. They articulate and grow around their grief in ways that are unique to their developmental stages. They are hardwired for resilience and most often intuitively know when to take the next step in their grief journey.

It’s an easy mistake to project our grief onto children when we have experienced a mutual loss. When moodiness arises we might say, “You’re missing your dad, aren’t you?” Or make comments like, “I know soccer won’t be the same without him on the sideline.” Really what we’re saying is that when WE look at the sideline WE will miss him there. And when WE feel moody it’s often because WE are missing him. The moodiness we observe may simply be adolescent hormones. Soccer may be a place where the child celebrates not grieves his father. Rather than listening to and observing the child, the conversation really is about us.

Even when the loss is mutual, our experience of it is not the same. It’s important to remember that we need to avoid projecting our grief on children or, worse, pulling them into our grief. These kinds of behaviors can have lifelong consequences. We may grieve a mutual loss, but really the similarities end there. Each child — like each adult — will experience bereavement that is unique to them.

Do you have a grieving child in your life?

Consider these four ways you can support them as they process their loss.

1. Let the child lead in conversation. If she doesn’t want to talk, that’s okay. If she does want to talk, be an active listener. Rather than ask your own questions, simply reflect back to the child what you think you’ve heard her say. Ask, “Did I get that right?” Her words are more important than your own in those moments. If the child asks questions that are hard for you to answer, graciously receive the questions and acknowledge your limits. If you need help, a trusted grief counselor can facilitate conversation further.

2. Assume the child understands his own emotions. As adults, we regularly operate under the assumption that we are older and wiser and know more about the world. But when it comes to feelings, each person is his or her own expert. If a child tells you he is happy, celebrate his happiness with him. Don’t assume he’s covering up deep sorrow. If he seems gloomy, let him describe his emotions to you without fear of judgment or interrogation. In either case, celebrate and commend the child for expressing how he feels. When grieving, children manifest their emotions differently than adults do. Expect that your grief experience will look different than theirs, and accept theirs at face value.

3. Beware of turning the child into a living icon of the lost loved one. Adults can be particularly prone to this danger when the mutual loss is a family member. The child may have his mother’s eyes, his grandpa’s wit or his dad’s shoulders, but he’s still his own person. He may have received a quarter or half his DNA from his family member, but he’s still uniquely himself. A child should never be used — overtly or inadvertently — as a living memorial to their lost loved one. Be careful not to search a child’s face looking for your loved one instead. Children, just like adults, long to be seen for who they are.

While some children appreciate comments that draw attention to traits they share with their deceased loved one, other children find the comparisons uncomfortable. If you’re not sure whether your comment will be well-received, err on the side of caution and keep it to yourself. Or, ask the child for her thoughts. “Would you like it if I shared with you some ways you’re like your mom?” You might be surprised by what she tells you! Be sure to listen attentively and respond with her needs in mind, not your own.

4. Expect and celebrate growth. Children’s bones heal much more quickly than adults’ do. It’s the beautiful design of nature. Kids have lots of growing left to do, and their bodies know it. In a similar way, children will move forward with their grief in ways that are very different from the adults around them. Their pace of processing will look different, their outward manifestations of loss will change as they age.

If a child no longer cries about a deceased loved one or talks about her, she may simply be moving forward with her grief in an age-appropriate way. We need not grieve this growth. We know that grief is a companion who will walk with that child through her life; we know there’s no such thing as “moving on.” So don’t worry as your child’s grief experience changes as she ages. Lord willing, she’s got lots of living left to do. Celebrate her growth and resilience.

This post is not a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice. If you have concerns about your child’s wellbeing, please consult your family physician or therapist.

No One Told Me Marriage Was Like This

“We realize it’s not about what we get out of our marriage but about what we become in our marriage.”

Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage

A year after we were married, Rob wrote a piece for MarriageTrac about our rocky adjustment to wedded life. He and I were both independent and more than a little stubborn; and, like all young couples, we fumbled our way toward wedded bliss. Many times, we discovered to our dismay and dislike that marriage pinched. No one told us it would involve so much self-sacrifice. I chuckle as I read those old words of Rob’s now. We were just kids back then. Our brains were barely done growing. We had no idea what we were doing! 

Now that Rob is gone, it would be easy to gloss over those tough early years, to only remember the prettier picture of our marriage matured by time. When I think of our early marriage, I cringe a little when I remember the awkwardness, the petty arguments, the hurt feelings, the “me first” attitudes we both had to shed. I’m embarrassed to say our marriage was sometimes messy. 

And then I remember that perfection was never our goal. In that first year full of foibles, we also read Gary Thomas’s Sacred Marriage together. And we chose this question from Thomas’ book to guide us as we developed our relationship: “What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?”

As I reflect today on what would have been our eighteenth wedding anniversary, I can say with full assurance that my marriage to Rob made me deeply happy. I loved our life together. I see that it sanctified me as well. The years of iron sharpening iron, the wearing down of those rough edges, the commitment to love each other like Jesus loved us. 

Through almost two decades of marriage, I learned to love someone wholly other than myself. I learned to put his interests before my own. I learned to listen rather than speak, to support rather than critique, to serve rather than seek to be served. I was — and am — no saint. My attempts were marked by all of the sinfulness in my life that still calls out for redemption. I never reached perfection in my marriage. But perfection was never the goal. That’s something only God can do.

On their anniversaries, some husbands tell their wives, “You’re still the same girl I married.” I hope that Rob wouldn’t say that of me. After all of our work in the trenches of marriage for all those years. After the beautiful, though imperfect, pursuit of holiness together. After all we endured as our love formed into something that would last. Instead, on this day, I hope that Rob would say, “You’re not the same girl I married. I love the changes I see in you.”

Poetry Friday: “Club Sorrow”

Grief can be such an isolating experience. I talk to so many people who feel ostracized from their social networks after the death of a loved one. It is challenging to navigate relationships with a heavy burden of sorrow, and many bereaved people feel abandoned by those they considered close friends. They find that their friends simply don’t know what to do or say in the face of loss, and they quietly slip out the door.

What if you could find a place in your grief where you belonged? Where you felt truly heard and loved and accepted? What if you could become a card-carrying member of “Club Sorrow”? Today’s poem explores this idea.

I love that Maude Hutchin’s club of sorrow encircles the earth. Rather than walk alone, those who grieve stand hand and hand with one another. What a poignant picture of the universality of grief and the companionship to be found inside it. Whatever you face today, I hope you find a hand to hold, a friend to walk with you through grief. I’m honored that you walk with me in mine.

Club Sorrow

by Maude Phelps Hutchins

Lots of people are sad
Let’s all cry
And make a noise
As deafening as the sea

Each will bring a member in
And a member each another
And end to end
We’ll encircle the earth
And let none by who laughs
Aie Aie

A smile we may permit
But circumspect
We cannot be responsible
For loss by theft or fire
Our movements will suggest our sorrow
We’ll carry a furled flag
We’ll learn the chant of widows
And the wail of younger pain

And secret grief we also will admit
Provided the bearer writes in a book
The cause and content of his woe
Provided the girl reveals
Something
As proof of her seduction
To the sad