My African Year of Grief
National geographic wrote an article about the way some people groups in Africa handle grief. The part that stayed with me after reading it, was that when someone experiences the significant loss of a loved one the expectation is that for a year they are given space and freedom to grieve. A whole year.
Our fine country, the US of A may lay claim to many freedoms but doesn’t offer much in the way of space and freedom to grieve significant loss. We hurry-up, plan and pull off a funeral in a matter of days. Some work/school environments offer benefits to have a few days off. Days. And not everyone can or will offer that. Beyond a couple weeks post loss there is a generalized expectation that we “should” move on. I mean life keeps needing be lived right? I deeply dislike the word ‘should’ yet it’s common enough to hear in the context of how friends and family speak of the bereaved, weeks after their loss. There’s a lot of opinion about what the grieving ones should or should not be doing after a certain (short) time frame.
Grief has a job, takes its own sweet time, and left to do its work will lead the grieving to a healthy new chapter.
Because I lived in this and through this I have the right to say, let’s offer all people groups the freedom to grieve. For more than a few days. Right here in the USA.
Most young kids have an answer or two or three for the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My answer was: to be a mom. I told my brand new hubby that. He said, how about we do ‘just married’ for a year first? That was a good life choice. A year later I brought it up again. He said, how about a puppy? Our darling golden retriever puppy Bailey was a great source of distraction for another year. We knew when the time was right, only our idea of good timing turned into a lot more time. Eventually a lot of time passed and we were introduced to the concept and treatment of infertility. And then the time arrived to be a mom, for us to be parents. Our first ultrasound showed us our insta-big-family. We were going to go from a couple to a family of five.
During the time of pregnancy we were middle school youth leaders. Each week I went to the doctor I was given an ultrasound VHS tape recording the growing babies. That movie was a highlight at our youth gatherings. During the time of pregnancy, there were some unexpected issues, days in the hospital, hours on monitors and eventual bed rest. One day, at my 23 week and 5 day appointment, I found myself on the way from my doctors office to a hospital with a level three NICU, via ambulance. Hours later JR and I heard the cries of Calvin, then Leah, and finally Andrew DeGroot. Each weighed in at one pound, with the tiniest fingers and toes. They were living, they were baptized, they just didn’t have enough lung development to live long.
It was the two of us there without little ones, and a remarkable staff. Oh, and the Spirit of the Living God who made himself known right after we were told the babies would be born living but not survive long. We looked at one another and these were the words we said out-loud:
“I look up to the mountains — does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”
There was more, is more to that prayer. We had all the words to Psalm 121 given to our minds to speak into that sacred and scary and sad, so sad space where we were alone. But not alone at all.
Thus began my African Year of Grieving. No one could have prepared me for being a mother that would bury her first three children. I didn’t want to be a grieving mother. I wanted to breastfeed, complain about not enough sleep, push a stroller, get puked on, read Where The Wild Things Are, rock babies to sleep. I won’t ask you to imagine what its like to bury a child though some of you reading already know. Others of you know similar unexpected and devastating loss. It unsettled every part of my being, including my faith.
Grieving was deep, grueling, exhausting, and long. A majority of the sympathies and sentiments are initially full of grace and shared sadness. Yet, there is a subtle undercurrent of ‘get better soon,’ which morphs into well-meaning words and expectations for you to be back to your old self by, say, a few weeks later. Certainly after a couple months.
But what they don’t get, I didn’t get either, was that the old self won’t come back. The old self wanted to get pregnant, have a baby, be a mother. This self, the one that did have the baby, that is a mother but doesn’t have children to raise will require the freedom of time, tenderness, tears, tantrums, tons of sleep, to find whatever self is next.
And what about God?
I knew about God. I grew up with healthy church experience, a mother who prays and taught us to pray. Youth group, camp, serving projects, Bible classes, were part of my foundation. But in this grief all I knew about God so far, really didn’t make any sense at all. Six months into the year of grief, I walked my dog, stopped in the middle of the field, released every fiber of my highly emotional self, and shaking my fist at the sky I screamed, “If you are for real God, WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH ME?”
Immediately God replied, “I want all of you.”
There in the field at the crossroad of bitterness or joy, I heard the very audible voice of God for the very first time. I was prepared to let go of believing. I was ready to live a dark, inward, hard-hearted, shut-down, imprisoned existence. But there must have been hope too, quietly pleading behind the pain. And because he spoke to my raw, honest self in such a tangible way I chose the path of joy. It didn’t begin with sudden feelings of happiness, it began with a hunger to Know God, the one that talked to me, not just know about him.
In my African Year of Grieving, I was set free to Know and Love Someone. Jesus knows and loves me already. He knows all of me, wants all of me. He told me Himself. And so many years later, I deeply believe His words were not only for me alone. They are for you too — you who might be devastated, desperate, on the long road grief. You are not alone. The God who speaks, who loves, who heals, who has freed us, is present. He wants all of you too.
One year later, I can honestly say I was ready for something new. Good grieving work happened in many ways, with a few people who went the distance with us. We had a memorial ceremony then, acknowledging the loss and placing bulbs in the ground as a symbol of new life that had and would continue to come. I turned the page and began a new chapter.
My freedom story continues. Two years after the triplets, we were in a hospital room and said hello to Lyndsay and Lauren. They’re remarkable humans that I can’t believe are mine! I continue to be hungry for an ever changing relationship with Jesus and his loved ones. His Word has informed but is transforming me and I’m so thankful to have been set free to remain free to surrender my life and pursue life — the one Jesus wants to fill with healing, wholeness, hope, and love.