Tomorrow Is Not Our Anniversary

(As in the past, I'm going to write in what follows about the specific place in the grieving journey I find myself today. If you want some other reflections or information about our story, look here.)

My Dear Elizabeth,

We got married fourteen years ago tomorrow. It was a sweet time, full of celebration and excitement for an unwritten future. I remember the nervous energy of the morning and the seriousness of our vows and kissing you at the altar and the way we looked at each other that night, a particular mix of excitement and terror, as we gave ourselves to each other as husband and wife.

Last year, we suddenly weren’t married anymore. Our vows were completed. We were one until death did us part. I held your hand as you slipped away and I kissed your forehead in the casket, hardened from embalming, and I took off my ring and we planted you in the dirt.

All of which makes tomorrow a deeply ambiguous day, one of happy memories colored by sadness. Which seems fitting, since grief at this stage for me is a deeply ambiguous process.

Compared to some friends I’ve walked through the valley with, I know my journey since you passed has been relatively easy. I have not faced the absolute devastation or sense of divine abandonment of some dear ones. I’m not sure why; perhaps because of the years of entering into it before it happened, perhaps because of the way we so openly talked about it all, perhaps because when it came it felt like time, perhaps because I have relatively few regrets and many happy memories. Mostly, it’s that God has chosen to be gracious to me in this season in a way He doesn’t for everyone, and I have vividly sensed his presence and affection.

Yet “relatively easy” is in lived experience still an ongoing series of punches in the gut. I’ve encountered moments that explode like landmines, triggering tearful memories that are almost lucid dreams. I have days where there is an overwhelming urge just to see you, just to talk to you and hear your voice, and there is this raging futility in my heart as that desire beats against the impenetrable veil of mortality. I have for the first times in my life been "triggered," a word I hate but can't think of a good alternative to convince society to adopt. (Maybe "suckerpunched by trauma?") I cry a lot more than I used to, even during stupid kid's movies and saccharine advertisements. I am more tired and less sure of myself. I am very much still grieving.

I am still grieving... and yet I am also coming alive again. Which is, on this eve of our anniversary, the thing I most struggle to know how to express. One of the hardest parts of grief is that I feel like I am in some sense failing to do it right all of the time, both on the bad days and the increasingly common good ones.

The guilt for bad days I saw coming. As much as I give myself permission to feel sorrow, there is still the unavoidable fact that I have people depending on me. Kids, friends, members of my congregation. I have, objectively, failed people at times because of grief, and while that is understandable, it is still a real failure I have to bring to Jesus and allow to be nailed to the cross. Especially with the kids; while their love is in a sense unconditional, they hurt too, and there are times that because of my sadness I cannot give them what they need.

It is the guilt for good days that has been harder to navigate, especially as I have more of them. The truth is that, while I will be walking with sorrow over your death for years to come, I also find great joy in the present and have begun to feel excitement about the seasons ahead. I am thinking about who I am as a person, discovering parts of myself I gladly set aside when we were a couple. I am forming new friendships and anticipating a new pastoral call. All of that feels like life, and it is sweet.

It is also a source of deep struggle and shame. Some of the shame comes from admitting that fact publicly. One of the challenges of grieving, especially in a culture that refuses to set customs and guidelines, is that I never know what anyone is thinking and I am pretty sure most of them are judging me. Which is especially painful when what they are judging is, in a retroactive way, my love for you. I have met people who do seem to believe, in some deep part of their souls, that the proper posture of the widow is to cast themselves on the funeral pyre of their beloved, and that anything short of self-immolation is a failure of true love.

Yet the shame and guilt are also internal, because on some level those are lies I half-believe as well. Part of me feels like there is something disloyal about redecorating the house or enjoying nights alone or treasuring the closeness I have with the kids as a single parent. I feel it even writing those words, and of course, they are also complicated—single parenting is exhausting and those nights are lonely. All of it is a jumbled mess of excruciating beauty and sharp brokenness. Which is why I feel so ambiguous about this day.

I've been rereading the novel Hannah Coulter, and recently read the part where she loses Virgil, her first husband. It so perfectly expresses the tension of grief. On the one hand, continuing to live feels like a sort of betrayal: 

"The pleasures that came [in grief] had a way of reminding you that they had been pleasures once upon a time, when it seemed that you had a right to them. Happiness had a way of coming to you and making you sad... How can you be happy, how can you live, when all the things that make you happy grieve you nearly to death?" (p. 49)

At the same time, living must and does continue: 

"The living can't quit because the world has turned terrible and people they love and need are killed. They can't because they don't. The light that shines in darkness and never goes out calls them on into life. It calls them back again into the great room. It calls them into their bodies and into the world, into whatever the world will require. It calls them into work and pleasure, goodness and beauty, and the company of other loved ones." (p. 57)

So here is what I know.

You will always be a deep part of who I am. We became adults together. We made three incredible kids together. So many of my stories and joys and heartbreaks are interwoven with you. Many of my best qualities I learned from or had sharpened by you. There is one sense in which you still move with me as I walk through each day.

You are not my future anymore. There is purpose and service, discovery and experience, love and laughter and tears and pain ahead of me, parts of me that you will not know or share. You made me more than I was before you, but Lord willing, I will continue to become more than I was with you as well. And that is okay, even as there is a deep sadness in it.

The hope for each of us is Jesus, not another person. He is the thread of continuity that runs through the past and the future for me. Both in our marriage and in my widowerhood and in whatever might come later, my purpose is still to serve Him. Both before your death and now afterwards, there is joy and blessing in a life lived for Him. I am excited to see where He will lead me, even as I weep that the journey has caused our paths to part.

I look forward to those paths reconverging on the far side of the Jordan, when every feature of this age (including marriage and death) is swallowed up in life. Because of Jesus our story is not over, but neither is it the only story He has for me to live. I know that, as you rest with Him, you are okay with that; I pray that I can learn to be as well. And I look forward to meeting you there. While we will no longer be husband and wife, I feel certain the resurrection will not remove your crinkled smiling eyes and lilting laugh, your radiant warmth and your good heart. It will be good to see you again.

Tomorrow is not our anniversary, but I miss you, and I am grieving. Yet Jesus is faithful, so life with Him is still good.

Until the resurrection,