By Dana Bowman
Depending on how you look at it, my son Henry is either very brave or very reckless. It is five o’clock in the afternoon. I have no idea what to prepare for dinner, and we’re all dying of starvation. It’s the Bermuda Triangle of parenting. Of course this is when my son flies in with a broken toy that needs immediate attention. Henry chirps at my side. “Mom? Mom? MOMMY? Can you help it? Can you fix it? The kapeller is broken.
I have just discovered that I am out of canned tomatoes and am trying to manufacture spaghetti sauce out of ketchup and hope, and so I barely glance at him. “Yes, honey. Just give me a minute. I’m…” I sigh and push back my hair from my eyes. “I’m trying to ‘fix’ dinner.
“But, mom? It’s broken.”
Something in his voice makes me pause, and I halt my frantic search for tomato sauce and look down. Henry cradles a small, green metal plane very gently and looks up at me with dark eyes, waiting for me to breathe the toy back to life. And then I see it: he has broken one of my brother’s collectible planes.
I stole the plane from Chris’s house on the morning he died. I knew he wouldn’t mind, and it was the only thing I wanted, a Spitfire World War 2 fighter plane. As I held its weight in my hand, I saw Chris as a boy, running and breathing, and sputtering machine gun noises as he dive-bombed me and my sister, and we would squeal and run away. I lifted the little plane off his living room shelf when the hospice people were in the other room covering him up. As they wheeled him out, I clenched its sharp corners in my pocket.
Chris, once, had dreamed of flying.
And now, Henry has broken Chris’s plane. Its propeller is missing and one wheel is bent crazily, and Henry studies it in his hands like an injured bird. But I cannot see because my eyes have filled with tears.
I am also filled with rage.
After that, the rest of the evening is pretty much a wash. We eat orange macaroni and cheese, and I go to bed early. It’s probably best for everyone because that sauce wasn’t going to be any good anyway.
Chris died young. What I mean is that he was young, even at fifty, with his shock of dark hair and handsome face, and his deep laughter. He loved good food and bad jokes, and he filled the room with life. But then he poured his life into a bottle, and he took himself away, because he was an alcoholic. His death was a tragic mess. Months later, the grief is still sharp, elbowing its way into my life with no warning and no welcome.
“Months later, the grief is still sharp, elbowing its way into my life with no warning and no welcome.”
I Google “grief” and am told over and over about five stages one travels through, but I think I lost my road map. I am simply too disorganized for traversing anything. I do grief all willy-nilly, but with random intensity, like our Kansas weather in the spring. Grief hits me as I am sipping a cup of coffee in the morning, staring out at the battered tulips in my garden. It pinches hard at me as I fold laundry, or watch a movie, or hug a small boy during a thunderstorm.
Grief has no sense of manners.
When my son presented the plane to me, I took the toy and simply sat down on the floor. With a scary-mommy quiet voice, I said, “Henry, please leave the room.” I think he backed slowly away. I was angry at my son with such undistilled venom that I am sure he sensed it. As I clenched the plane in my hand, its metal wings pinching my palm, I thought, How dare he. How DARE he play with this. It’s mine. My hands were shaking. I wanted to shriek and stomp and throw. Jesus surely took pity on me at that moment and covered me in a thick blanket of fatigue. I sat on the floor, a lump of angry exhaustion, and I realized something.
I was angry at my brother. And, more than that, I wanted an apology.
Grief has no sense of logic. Its current runs through me, and I leak out rage. And rage, unless you are quoting that Dylan Thomas poem, usually does more harm than good. Grief asks for impossibility. It asks for dead brothers to come back and say sorry. It asks me to understand and predict eternity. It also asks me to function as a normal person when I’m pulling laundry out of the dryer and I suddenly remember that my brother used to call me “Brainabus.” I hear his low voice, teasing me, right here as the sun is shining and my laundry room smells of lavender and bleach, and all I want to do is sit and cry, and desperately try to hear him again, right here among all the mismatched socks.
Grief can make us all a little crazy.
My good friend once told me, “I grieved him, and I got better, and then something else happened, and the whole thing just started all over again.” She flung her arms about her dramatically, as if to say, “We have to do this over, and over, and over.” I sighed. She laughed. “I guess I just had more I needed to learn about grieving.”
Her father had committed suicide. I wondered, perhaps, if she had learned enough about sadness. I certainly thought so. But then she smiled. “I think it’s like that song, you know, the hole in the bucket one?”
“Dear Liza? Dear Liza? Oh, I love that song!”
“Yep.” And I see it. She’s right. As I muddle through all my tangled analysis, Harry Belafonte sweetly sings the answer. The ballad describes an endless, comedic argument between a couple about a broken water bucket and an equally broken plan to fix it. Each verse only adds to the tangle. There’s a hole in us. We must fix it. And as the chorus wears on, we realize, trying to fix grief only widens the problem.
“There’s a hole in us. We must fix it. And as the chorus wears on, we realize, trying to fix grief only widens the problem.”
So, what do we do about grief?
Perhaps the first option is to not really do much at all.
When I arrived home after Chris’s funeral, I thought it would be best to take a day off from work and just rest. Perhaps I would read a bit or go for a walk. I figured I needed some time to think and be alone. And then, I wandered through my empty house and surveyed my kitchen floor. It needed a good scrubbing. And I should do laundry, and wipe down my refrigerator. And from there, from floorboards to closets, I emptied my house of dirt and worked myself to exhaustion.
Perhaps the whole episode was one of those stages. Denial maybe. I will clean and all will be well! my brain might have said. But the cleaning didn’t feel like denial, and the shiny floors didn’t usher me neatly into the second stage of anger. I just felt emptied out. I didn’t really do any of it to feel better. I was just doing the next right thing.
A good two months after Chris’s death I woke one morning and didn’t get out of bed. I slept for nearly fourteen hours straight. I would wake, blink at the light seeping through the window, and then pull up the covers and turn over and sleep again. Evidently, at that point I needed a rest. I felt like sadness had settled in my stomach, all fuzzy and sick. If I had tried to explain to anyone that some two months later I had finally realized he was actually gone, and that I would never hear his voice again, I am sure they would have said, “Who? Whose voice?”
Mourning my brother at that point seemed very random and a tad weird. From one day to the next my emotions and whims sputtered out all over the place, like those crazy shootouts you see on bad seventies cop shows: men blindly firing only feet away from each other, but no one gets hit. Bad aim. Random misfires. No focus. Outdated clothing.
What do we do about grief?
My friend tells me to relax and just let grief teach me a thing or two while I just sit around. Romans 8:28, that favorite verse that serves as sort of the “universal remote” for comfort, tells us that all things work for the good, even tragic, awful things. We can look for the good in grief, and learn from it. I know I am stronger now. I know there are many good things that stemmed from Chris’s death. My own recovery from addiction, for one, and so, my life.
“We can look for the good in grief, and learn from it. I know I am stronger now. I know there are many good things that stemmed from Chris’s death. My own recovery from addiction, for one, and so, my life.”
So of course I can find goodness in grief.
I can use it to help others. Christ blessed me, the mournful, and I now I can come to the aid of those who are mourning. Grief is messy. I have two young boys, and thus I am very familiar with mess. Constant mayhem sometimes forces me out of the house, and the same remedy works on pain. Grief is so jumbled and chaotic that my best recourse at times is to force myself out of my head and into a recipe book, making mediocre chicken and dumplings for someone with the flu. Or I can teach the four-year-old Sunday-school class where the mess is so colossal that I am much healed. There’s no way that sticky four-year-olds will let you hold onto sadness for very long at all. They are blessedly nutty and distracting that way.
On my really good, strong, I-am-Queen-of-the-world days, I go to battle with grief. Pain can fracture our faith, so I suit up and combat it with my Bible, the literal healing word of God. I read Psalms, and highlight all of David’s questions. When I’m done, the pages are rainbows of yellow and pinks. Emboldened by David’s struggles, I scrawl just as many queries in my own journal. I know God doesn’t mind the questions.
I study in Mark about the woman whose trust was so complete that she simply stretched out her hand for a brief touch of Jesus’s cloak. With a longing heart I whisper over and over, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole. Go in peace.” The words heal; I am becoming whole.
All of these actions are certainly healthy. They expose and refine and strengthen me. Like a daily dose of kale in my smoothie, they are green and virtuous. But truthfully, I have also learned that dealing with grief means simply breathing next to it. It’s as if grief and I are strangers stuck in the same line at Walmart, attempting small talk and trying to be pleasant to each other while we wait an eternity to check out. “Nice day,” I would offer. Grief might shrug and counter, “It’s due to rain later.” I ask you, how can you get cozy with something that has so little sense of social cues? We’re good just tolerating each other.
Blessedly, sometimes I forget all about grief. I play seven million games of Go Fish with my children, I continue making shamelessly uninspired dinners, and I research how to deal with ugly linoleum. I take up knitting. A week or so after Chris’s death, I wondered if all these projects are just more denial. Maybe so. Perhaps denial isn’t so bad. Or perhaps, this is just life, and in life we all have to just scootch over and make room for grief instead of trying to fix it. Either way, I have some really mediocre hand-knitted scarves to show for it.
But on some days I mess it all up again. My bucket is broken and I halfheartedly try to fix it, and my prayers start to sound too shrill. I run back to anger because I just miss Chris so very much, and that’s when grief steps aside, to be replaced by his ugly stepsister, wretchedness. And here, I would stay, maybe for a whole day or two, and then curse my staying. “I’m not doing this right,” I would cry. “What is the point of all this?”
It is when we are most feeble that Jesus comes knocking. Thank goodness.
The day I sat on my grimy linoleum floor sobbing about a toy plane, I knew I was very wretched. But then Jesus said, “It’s okay. This has made you weak, and that is wonderful because, did you know? I am strong. Let me be strong for you.”
Jesus tells me it is all right. He was sad, too, for Chris. He has grieved for all of us.
“It is when we are most feeble that Jesus comes knocking. Thank goodness.”
And then he got me up off my floor (quite a feat since it was so sticky) and into the living room where Henry sat, playing Crash Things Over with his bulldozer. I watched as he careened about, over cars and Legos and our poor cat. He sputtered like a diesel engine and squealed his brakes. Chris would have been impressed with all the sound effects. I sat down next to my son. “Henry, I’m sorry,” I say. “I miss my brother, and that was his plane.”
“I know, Momma. I’m sorry I brokted it.”
“It’s OK. It’s just a plane.”
“He was your brother.” He looks up at me, and then scoots into my lap, a small, solid bundle of boy.
“Yes. My brother.”
“I have my brother. I’m sorry you don’t have yours.”
I lean my head down and breathe him in, and there it is, the tide of grief, washing me away. Henry holds still in my lap, and he anchors me down.
“Yes. But, I did. I did have him. And I thank Jesus for that.”
Grief behaves badly. But for good reason. The pain we feel and all the endless attempts to fix the holes left behind can be tedious and faulty, and there are no instructions. When we grieve we struggle through a swamp of emotions—anger, sadness, apathy. But what I forget is that grief springs forth from God’s purest invention: love.
Grief’s point is right in line with what Christ asks of us. Keep on loving the living, and love them well.
The plane now sits upon my spice rack right above the stove. I see it every time I reach for a spoon. Its “kapeller” is still mangled, too tiny and fragile for fixing, a reminder that life is full of broken things. I grab it and swoop it over my boys’ heads when I have a few moments, and while I do, I share stories about Chris with reverence and glee. And sadness.
There is goodness in all of this.