Hot, Angry Tears

On our 2017 road trip, Rob and I took our children to the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. Grass on the front lawn had already browned to a crisp that July day, and the Monroe Elementary School building offered a welcome respite from the hot sun outside. Our family had spent the preceding spring studying African American history together. The words of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the stories of Jacqueline Woodson and Rita Williams-Garcia. We wanted our children to visit this sacred place to make the stories we’d read together come alive. 

Hand in hand, we walked through the quiet linoleum school halls, reading plaques and studying displays. I narrated for the younger ones who couldn’t read well yet; Rob attempted to answer questions as best he could. But as we entered the multimedia exhibit about the history of Black oppression, a single question from one of our children stopped me in my tracks. “Why is the man hanging like that, Mom?” We had studied lynchings, but nothing could have prepared little eyes for seeing that image. My eyes clouded and my face grew hot as I searched for the words to convey so much anger and grief to one so young.

Over the last weeks, I have thought often of that conversation as I have followed the news of Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s deaths and watched protests form across the country. In the face of such heartbreaking news, I have often felt helpless and without words; the problem is so big. Reflecting on our country’s tragic heritage, my beloved seminary professor and thesis reader, the late Dr. Bruce Fields wrote, “Some crimes are so overwhelming to the senses and reason itself—inflicting pain and sorrow of unimaginable proportions—that no real restitution can be made for them. Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.” 

“Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.” Dr. Bruce Fields

Through the years, Rob and I talked with our children about racial inequality and the image of God imprinted deeply on each of us. As a family we sought to work for justice in ways that honored those whose rights and privileges, though seemingly identical to ours on paper, vanished when they needed them most. We tried to model for our children what gracious living looked like in the kingdom of God. 

And yet, I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to live under the oppression of generations-long racism. I do not wish to cast myself in the role of a white savior or preach a message I do not fully understand. I have confessed my own complacency and complicity. And in recent days, I have realized that there is something more I can do, however small. I can offer the one thing I have learned to do well in the last year. I can grieve.

Of all the emotions that startled me after Rob’s death, grief’s anger surprised me the most. Though Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified anger in her five stages of grief more than fifty years ago, for some reason I didn’t think it was an emotion I’d need to experience. I usually have a pretty high threshold; I don’t get mad easily.

Nevertheless, following Rob’s death, I was surprised to find that I grew angry. About the injustice of my four children growing up without their father. About the pervasiveness of sin’s stain that marked my life with tragedy. I looked out at a world indelibly scarred by pain and suffering, and it made me feel hopeless and helpless. And furious. Anger, I discovered, was a normal, healthy, necessary part of grief.

We often welcome peaceful discourse but see anger as crossing the line. But deep sorrow exhibits a wide variety of emotions, and anger is one of them. As I look at the broken world around me, my grief’s anger mourns fully and deeply for the sin of racism. It acknowledges the dreadful breadth and depth of our collective sin. This holy fury finds its source not in politics but in the same tragic truth that I mourn as I weep for my lost husband. This world is not as it should be. The curse of sin runs painfully deep. This world is so broken. Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.

“Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.”

As I weep with those who weep, I am looking for ways to listen and grieve better. In the words of Efrem Smith, I know I need to “sit at the well of the African American church, the church that was birthed from slavery, from oppression, and sit at the well and ask for a drink.” Even when — especially when — it is a bitter, sorrowful cup to drink. I know that I will love best when I listen attentively, when I am willing to be a companion to those who carry this deep grief of oppression. When I get angry about the things that break the heart of God.

We each must find our own expression of lament. We each must work for justice in our own way. To that end, I share these resources that I’ve added to my reading list. I look forward to listening and learning from these voices. I would love to hear which ones touch your heart and open your eyes to new ways of love and forgiveness. May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.

“May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.”

Black Grief Resources

African American Grief
Paul Rosenblatt, Beverly Wallace

Passed on: African American Mourning Stories
Karla FC Holloway

Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss
Fanny Brewster

The End Is Just the Beginning: Lessons in Grieving for African Americans
Arlene Churn

Lead Me Home: An African-American’s Guide Through The Grief Journey
Carleen Brice

The Ten Year Plan House

All of my life, I’ve been a long-range planner. I’ve loved thinking about broad swaths of time. My childhood journals charted out which boy I’d marry, the names of my children, even floor plan drawings of my dream house. When I met Rob, he and I jumped excitedly into planning together. Time seemed infinite, and we built our dreams as though our lives really would last forever, or at least for many decades to come. We developed five year plans and ten year plans and worked toward them faithfully.

In 2018, we moved across the country and bought a house — the home we called “the ten year plan.” It needed work, but we reasoned we had years to complete the job. We looked at the expansive property and imagined hosting our kids’ youth group bonfires and football games. We stood in the third floor attic room and envisioned a home office for the two of us, working side-by-side on careers that brought us joy as our kids headed off to college. We began big home improvement projects and worked on setting down roots. 

But, just a year later, Rob was dead. And all of the time he and I shared together became not the future but the past. Not hopes and dreams anymore. Only memories. The ten year plan vanished into thin air. I was left alone in a new place with a house that needed work.

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All winter long, I worked on home improvement projects; and this spring, I decided to sell the house. It’s a burden of work, but also a burden of memory. Bittersweet memories of all the ways Rob and I tried to carve out a new life in a new place. Painful echoes of the ways we failed. Reminders that life has ended. I’ve walked the property many times in the last year and wondered if I should stay. There are solid arguments for stability after loss, for avoiding change when grief is fresh and raw. But every time, my heart has told me to move on. This house was our ten year plan, but it isn’t mine. If I have to learn to do life without Rob, I don’t want to do it in this place.

Since Rob died, I’ve become acutely aware of the passage of time. Perhaps because my watch is the only one now to keep us on schedule. Perhaps because every moment of our lives now is measured in B.C./A.D. style — before Rob died and after. Every day is precious currency. Long-range planning has lost its allure. I sometimes wonder if the part of me who loved planning died too when my husband died. My perspective is so different now. Rob’s death has reminded me that I don’t know how much time I’ll have. Whatever time I get, I don’t want to waste it. I can only focus on today. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself.

I suspect that onlookers often assume my disinterest in the future reflects a depressive fatalism. A descent into “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” negativism. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm, they encourage me to think about the future, keep planning, raise my eyes toward the horizon. If you’re grieving, you know how hollow these encouragements can feel. Every place you look, every moment of your future, reveals the absence of the one you love. Especially in early grief, looking to the future can feel nearly impossible to do.

I have come to view my heightened awareness of the present moment is a gift. What others see as a casualty of loss, I see as a blessing. I have found that, in the words of the Preacher, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too … is from the hand of God.” Maybe someday I will plan for the future again. For now, I’ll just try to enjoy each day as it comes. In grief, that’s a challenging enough task to tackle.

Soon, a realtor’s sign will swing on its hinges on the street beside my house. I don’t know where I’m going when it sells. I have a couple ideas, but no plans. Honestly, I don’t want to make any right now. Last year at this time, I couldn’t have imagined my life would look like this a year later. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll say the same thing a year from now. Many widows who have gone before me tell me the second year is harder than the first.

When I sign the final papers to sell this house, I’ll get a lump in my throat. Another bittersweet goodbye. Wherever I live next will be a place where Rob will never live with me. I don’t know how to plan for that, so I hope I’ll find what I need when I get wherever I’m going.

Poetry Friday: “The Gift to Sing”

In 2018, after our cross-country move, I started a Spotify playlist I called “Life Songs.” I was deeply grieving the loss of my home and community, and I needed music that pointed me to hope. Over the last two years, I’ve added to that playlist until it’s almost eight hours long. A full work day’s worth of reassurance, hope, and peace.

Of all the comforts in grief, I have found music to be one of the most powerful. I love the lyric quality of today’s poem by the great Black poet, James Weldon Johnson. Its words remind me of this beautiful song that encourages my heart. Whatever life brings, I will choose to sing.

The Gift to Sing

James Weldon Johnson

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

45 Days to Go: A Lament

It’s June 4, 2020. Just 45 days until it has been a year since you died. I can’t believe I’ve lived so long without you. And yet, that is what my life will always be now — lived without you. The thought tears me wide open. I miss you like it was yesterday. 

I know you’d be proud of me. How I’ve held our family together. How I’ve stepped up to the challenge of doing this on my own. How I’ve found my voice. How I’ve fiercely cared for our kids like you always told me to. I’ve done all the things we talked about. I’ve honored you at every moment the very best I could. I have loved you with every breath.

But I don’t want to have to make you proud. I want you here with me. I just want to be me. The me that was with you, that was a part of you. The me that didn’t care about accomplishments or achievements because being loved by you was the only thing I ever really longed for. The me that found my purpose and joy in loving you and loving our family. I would give back every new opportunity, every accomplishment, to have you here with me again.

I don’t know how to move forward without you. I think I’ve found a path and then it feels empty. Or worse, I find a dead end. Everything is just an end where I still find you dead. Life means something different to me now without you here. It propels me forward, but many days all I really want to do is grieve. Weep and wail like those women who cast themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. I want to feel the weight of the loss of you. Let the loss consume me like loving you consumed my heart. I take comfort that your absence still pierces me through. I carry this sorrow close to my heart. It is a precious testimony to how much I will always love you.

In just seven weeks, I will no longer be a “new widow.” This life I’m still discovering without you will no longer be fresh, uncharted. It will be a painfully familiar road, one where each day I remember the twists and turns of the year before. I never wanted to travel this road once. But now, as I approach the year mark of your death, I realize it is a road I will travel every year for the rest of my life. Like those old fashioned cars at the fair that run with tracks beneath them, my life will forever run this course. A road always marked by the loss of you. Every day, another day further away from you and the life we loved together.

I want to believe that every day further away from you is also another day closer too. I long for you with every ounce of my being. We may be one flesh severed in body, but I carry you within my heart until the glorious day of our promised reunion. When hand in hand we will worship before the throne, rejoicing in all that is finally made new. So shall we ever be with the Lord. That promise is what keeps me going. You are at the end of this race I am still running. I remember your eyes when I crossed that finish line back in Chicago so long ago. Someday, I’ll recognize you by those smiling eyes. You’ll know me by my tears.

Last night, I walked out to the pond on this property that we’d hoped would be the “ten year plan” home. I stood on the bridge, watching the painted turtles slip into the water and the frogs send up bubbles from the muddy bottom. I looked back at our house that has felt like an empty shell ever since I returned to it without you. This house that in a few short weeks I’ll sell. A white flag of surrender. There are some things that are so hard I choose not to do them without you beside me. There are so many hard things. So much to grieve. So much to leave behind. 

I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m learning as I go. But I will keep going. You knew I would. I cling to your words like a life preserver: ““I love her, and I know she will make wise decisions if I am no longer able to be at her side.” I say your words over and over to myself like a mantra. Your love, my source of strength. I’m still smart, strong, independent, fiercely loyal — all those things you always said you loved about me. I still want to live to be 96 and see our children’s children’s children. I’m tenacious like that. I will tell them how much you would have loved them. I’ll do it. Every day. Even through my tears.

And I will believe that God’s love for me is nothing short of infinite. Even in this sorrow, I will choose to trust that good things were planned for me long ago. Days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. My steps are ordered. I wish that you were going to be part of those days. I know that, in some way, you always will be. Still, it makes my heart ache. I did not want to spend my life with you only in memory.

I used to think the veil was thin when we stood shoulder to shoulder, hands outstretched to receive the bread and wine. Tears would stream down my face, and you would reach out and pull me close and hold my hand as the words poured over us like blessing. Clarissa, Christ’s blood shed for you. Rob, Christ’s body broken for you.

Now, when I attend the table alone, I will trust that I can still find you there too. Your face, my beloved, in the great cloud of witnesses. When we recite these words and remember these truths, His name and yours will ever be on my lips. I believe in the communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins. The resurrection of the body. The life of the world to come. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Poetry Friday: “God’s Grief”

With everything happening in the world right now, I’ve been thinking of these words of Genesis 6: The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and he was deeply grieved. The first time grief is ever mentioned in the Bible, God is the one who is doing it. Only six chapters into the story, when God looks on the world he has made, it breaks his heart. Thorns and thistles, disease and death, hate and injustice have already polluted the world he created. There is so much to mourn.

What does it look like for God to grieve? Today’s poem creatively explores this question.

God’s Grief

Ellen Bass

Great parent
who must have started out
with such high hopes.
What magnitude of suffering,
the immensity of guilt,
the staggering despair.
A mind the size of the sun,
burning with longing,
a heart huge as a gray whale
breaching, streaming
seawater against the pale sky.
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Mountain Care

Today the church remembers the servanthood of Bernard of Menthon. While he is best remembered for the dogs who bear his name, Saint Bernard is honored as the patron saint of hikers and mountaineers. Born in the early middle ages to a wealthy Italian family, Bernard left his life of leisure to serve travelers on pilgrimage to Rome. He loved people, and he loved the mountains.

In the early middle ages, European pilgrims regularly hiked south through the Swiss Alps along the Via Francigena, through mountain passes filled year-round with snow. Concerned for their spiritual and physical welfare, Bernard established two hostels in the Alps at 7,000 and 8,000 feet elevation. There he offered food and lodging for the weary and aid to those who found themselves endangered by illness, avalanche or crime (robbery was common) on the trek. It was an arduous journey, and few pilgrims were prepared for the dangers of the mountains. Many had never even seen mountains before.

Photo by Chris Czermak on

The hostels Bernard established flourished, even after pilgrims found a different way over the mountains. Saint Bernard dogs, added in the seventeen century, rescued stranded travelers; and the small churches at the mountain passes were known for their hospitality and kindness to all who visited them. Even after Bernard’s death, the missions thrived, offering prayer and spiritual counsel to travelers. They also cared for those who died in the mountains.

I have never been to the Col du Grand St-Bernard where Bernard established his hostel, but I have received mountain care all the same. The very best. In the last ten months, I have connected with a handful of other widows whose husbands died like mine, in tragic accidents in the mountains they loved. Over and over, I have heard my story echoed in theirs — a story of helpers who offered care in time of need, efforts that went above and beyond, commitment to duty even in tragic circumstances.

On this, Bernard’s day, I am reminded of the courageous, kind and generous team who cared for Rob in the mountains on the day he died. Friends, rangers, helicopter evacuation pilots, medics, chaplains. All who carried out their missions with love in word and action. Like Bernard, they were people who loved hikers and loved the mountains. They cared gently for the one I love most, and I will always be grateful for their service.

Poetry Friday: “The Thing Is”

After a tough week, these are the words I have needed. Encouragement to pursue love and life, even as I think, “How can a body withstand this?” I love the way that Ellen Bass describes receiving life in the midst of grief. No flushed cheeks or starry eyes. That kind of love is from a time that has passed. Instead, now, a gentle touch, a steady gaze, and determination. “I will love you, again.” Whatever you face today, I hope you find an anchor in these beautiful lines.

The Thing Is

Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
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Meeting Rob Moll

Back in my college days, if you were a guy, you had to get past me to get to my sister. I was Rosemary Clooney straight out of White Christmas: “Lord, help the mister who comes between me and my sister!” Whenever my sister had a love interest, I made sure to research him well to make sure he was worthy of her affection.

My sister and Rob were both English majors at our college and shared the same circle of friends. When she divulged romantic interest in Rob, I scoped him out with the prowess of a private eye. I stalked Rob online, watched for him on the sidewalk between classes. I finagled my way into sitting with his friends at lunch in the cafeteria to observe him up close. After extensive research I told her, “He’s not your type.” Her love interests moved elsewhere, and I never considered Rob might be my kind of guy.

A few years later, after I graduated and moved back home to work, my sister called me from college to say that Rob would be coming to a wedding I was attending a few weeks hence. A group of our college friends were coming east for a friend’s big day, and my sister thought I should keep an eye out. Of course, my interest was piqued. I worked two jobs, and my life could use a little excitement. An evening with old college friends sounded perfect. And I’d finally get to meet Rob without my Sherlock Holmes persona. Legitimately. I couldn’t wait.

Of all the days that are special to me, May 18 is my absolute favorite. 19 years ago today, I met Rob at that wedding. We met in the church stairwell, sat together at the ceremony and talked all evening at the reception’s singles table. I have no idea who took this blurry picture of us that night. I wish I could thank them. I look at it and remember every moment. The excitement. The awkwardness. The feeling of coming home. The sense that something big and beautiful was happening right before my eyes. I adored Rob from the start. 

When he returned to college that weekend, Rob emailed my sister. He told her he’d met me at the wedding and wanted to share the title of a song we’d talked about. Could she forward his message along to me? The tables now turned, my sister looked out for me. She clicked send, and the rest is history. My sister used to joke with Rob that she was the first Band girl who fell in love with him. I’m proud to say I was the last.

Every May 18, I used to remind Rob what day it was. (God love him, he was never very good at remembering special dates.) He’d smile and say, “I fell in love with you when I met you on the stairs.” Today, I’m thankful for the marriage of the friends who brought us together all those years ago and for the sister who liked him first. 19 years later, I’m still head over heels for the college guy with the green eyes and ringlet curls who chose me to be his girl. I wish he were here so I could tell him.

Poetry Friday: “All You Who Sleep Tonight”

After seventeen years of marriage, sleeping alone in our bed evokes a deep, intimate loneliness. I miss Rob every time I turn off the light and slip beneath my blankets. Since he died, many nights I just can’t do it. I grab a sleeping bag and pillow and camp out for the night on the floor of one of my kids’ rooms. Grief has disrupted my sleeping patterns; and when I wake in the night, the sound of a child breathing in her bed nearby reassures me. I am not alone.

“No hand to left or right,” is not the way I wanted my life to be. If you are here, I imagine it is not the way you wished your life to be either. Wherever you are in your grief journey, “far from the ones you love,” you are not alone. The world shares our tears.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

Vikram Seth

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

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When Despair Speaks

Many people who mourn don’t feel they can admit the darker parts of grief. The days they don’t get out of bed. The feelings of anger or hopelessness or desperation. Oftentimes, when a grieving person tries to share these darker places, his or her feelings are diminished or silenced by others. “There’s always hope,” we’re told, even when we’re feeling hopeless. “Look on the bright side,” we’re encouraged, even when all feels dark. Few understand that deep darkness is a natural part of grief.

In my own life, every day of grief includes a conversation with despair. Even though I choose to move forward with grief, despair is a dark voice that still speaks, sometimes just in a whisper and other times as a shout. My past, my present and my future have all been touched by death. Sometimes life looks very dark. As I journey with grief, I am learning that despair’s voice is important too. To be whole, this darker voice must be acknowledged and heard, not silenced or diminished.

It’s hard to imagine feeling hopeless about my past. My life with Rob brought me so much joy. Yet, I am the sole custodian of that past now. Everything. From the big events to the seemingly insignificant memories now made priceless by his tragic death. I worry that time will take even our past away from me. If I don’t remember it all, it will slip away. The pressure feels overwhelming. I look through old pictures, and I don’t want to forget a single moment. But how can I ever remember it all alone? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”

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In my present, I have little time for conversations with hopelessness. I bear the weight of so much responsibility — four children to raise, a home to tend, finances to manage, a life to rebuild. I cover my ears, talk louder, move faster to drown out hopelessness’ voice. Yet when I’ve tucked my children in at night and the house grows quiet, my fears grow. What if something happens to me? How do I find the energy to really live again?  I’ve done this alone for ten months, but can I keep this up? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”

If hopelessness whispers in the past and present, it shouts as I look to the future. Lord willing, I have many years ahead. So many years without Rob. I’ll build the second half of my life without him in it. I’ll retire without him in the camping chair beside me. Even the anticipation of joy is tinged with sorrow. Standing at my childrens’ weddings. Bouncing my grandbabies on my knees. All without him. My daughter asks me, “How do I tell my children someday that they don’t have a Grampie?” I don’t know how to answer, and my future begins to look bleak. What will bring meaning to my life once my children are grown and flown? Will I age alone? How can I shoulder this sorrow for the rest of my life? Despair mocks, “You can’t.”

When hopelessness speaks in my life, I am learning to stop and listen. I no longer shush her or tell her to chin up. I don’t spout verses or platitudes or remind her to have faith. Instead, I attend to her. I listen and cry with her. I tell despair how sorry I am that life feels so dark. I remind her that what she has to say is normal, even if it isn’t the full story. I tell her that her presence, her voice, is important — a natural part of grief.

I want to believe that hope, not its lack, will get the last word in my life. I want to believe that resilience is real and attainable. Nevertheless, hopelessness still speaks. If I am to carry my grief in a way that brings life not death, I am learning that I must listen to despair. I must attend gently to her woundedness. In acknowledging this darker part of grief, in giving her a voice, I will find freedom and peace, life and light.

Important note: This post does not substitute for mental health care. If you are contemplating suicide, please reach out for help. Don’t let despair have the last word in your life. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 for free, confidential support. Reach out to them at 1-800-273-8255 if your despair feels really big and if you feel like you can’t go on. They are there to help.