If you want to know what grief looks like, picture me, a reasonably rational, respectable woman, standing outside my front door at 6pm, dressed in a T-shirt and pyjama bottoms, holding my arms out like a zombie and sobbing freely. This is the story of why.
I have been grieving. I know many others have been grieving, too. Rachel Held Evans was a writer with a massive following in the US whom I respected her for giving a voice for so many to articulate their doubts in faith and want to ask the hard questions. I also knew her to be an amazing advocate for many voices on the margins of faith or society – including mine. She died after an unexpected, quick illness and sudden seizures at the age of 37, leaving behind two tiny children and a devoted husband. Milly and Toby Savill were friends of my friends – a young married couple who were committed to each other and Jesus and died tragically last month in a buggy crash while they were on holiday in a Greek island.
While I have been sad that I will never get to meet Rachel or thank her in person for how much her essay on healing has helped me, I have mainly been experiencing secondary grief – grieving alongside my friends who were closer to her and feeling the injustice of these untimely deaths. It is not okay. Death is not supposed to happen in this world, and we feel its wrongness. My friend Tara M. Owens has wisely written that any grief brings up all our griefs, and I have found my tears for these awful deaths wrapped up alongside the other losses in my life.
Out of the blue, a few weeks before a long-awaited romantic break, I had an M.E. relapse, where the symptoms worsen for a month or two and I need to be extra careful about not overdoing it. When you are pretty much bed-bound with chronic illness already, this looks like is being unable to stand unsupported, feeling so nauseous, with chest pressure and weakness that an ordinary person would be calling an ambulance but you know that sometimes M.E. feels a lot like having a heart attack, and you just have to live with it. By the time the trip came up, I still hadn’t (still haven’t) recovered, so I had to cancel.
Sometimes, without knowing it, we bargain our way through life. X is hard, but I have Y, so that will make up for it. We don’t realise we’re doing it till the disappointment hits us hard, and we cry out to God, ‘this is not fair!’ After coping fine for a while, it can be the seemingly little things that push us over the edge – in this case, an M.E. relapse and the cancellation of something I’d been looking forward to.
And that’s how grief has been hitting me this week. I cry for the injustice of good people taken too soon, and I cry for the whole, suffering world at the same time. I cry for my illness and the person I used to be. I’m sad and disappointed that we had to cancel a long-anticipated trip away – again – and I’m tired, oh so tired, of being constantly limited by my illness and not having my own independence. Then, naturally, I feel guilty about these griefs when others have deeper griefs, and I cry for the suffering of all those isolated in their houses, abandoned by doctors or abused by their carers. Then I tell myself not to be guilty but to feel what I’m feeling, and I cry again, but this time I can’t be sure why, other than that this world is not as it should be, and I am feeling it. It all gets wrapped up together.
Our grief can occasionally be in the socially acceptable place, but sometimes it leaks out into the middle of life. Grief does not work to our timetable. Grief comes in waves and bursts – and intrudes upon our lives at unexpected times as well as the time we have allotted it.
So let’s get back to me standing outside my house, looking eccentric.
My dress – I had got half-dressed because I was having a Skype call, and only had the energy to dress the half that they’d see – hence the pyjama bottoms. (It had been a good chat with some good friends – this helps).
My hair – I hadn’t been well enough to wash my hair for several days, so you could have made sculptures from the matted mess on the top of my head. Birds may well have mistaken it for their home.
My face. The face of chronic illness is not all ‘beautiful people with heroic pain’, although we need those photos in the media to gain sympathy, so I’m not knocking them. But the actual face of chronic illness – which is to say, my face – is literally peeling off because it hasn’t been washed for a few days and the layers of dead skin are building up and flaking off when I touch them.
I decided that I would watch a situation comedy on TV to distract myself – that often helps. It turned about to be a comedy about bereavement. I cried so much that my eyes shrank and my face was extra red and blotchy.
I decided to choose life – and risk my health for the sake of the sunshine. Sometimes that helps – nature, light, birdsong. I got out of bed, feeling slightly faint, and went to the front door, stretching out my arms into the sun so at least my hands would get some vitamin D and, while crying, also laughed because I must have like a zombie. It helped, a little. I ordered a take-away and ate more than my fair share of junk food. That helped, too.
But really, I just had to cry. Grief affects different people in different ways, and illness-grief also has its own times. There is a season for laughter, but there are also seasons for crying, and everything in its season.
This is my crying season. It might be your crying season, too. It is only for a season, and that helps, but it is hard. So be gentle on yourself if you are crying at the wrong times, in the wrong places, in the wrong amounts.
And if you happen to see a man or woman half-dressed, on their front doorstep, looking like they’re the walking dead, maybe don’t assume they’re mad. They might just need a whole lot of love from you. (Plus an Indian takeaway and a cathartic TV program.)
“There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:…
…a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance”
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 (NIVUK)
*M.E. stands for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a debilitating neurological illness
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