When this house was rebuilt to make a safe space for Johanna, we completely reinsulated it from the ground up. Though we had more than heating in mind when we did this work, it served us well this past winter. For a few days in January, the frigid, polar air mass that usually resides over the arctic had shifted to the upper Midwest. While its blistering winds dropped windchills below -30 degrees Fahrenheit, our house stayed toasty within. Thankfully, the polar vortex passed after a few days, and by the time April hit, I’d turned our radiator heat off, and the nearby neighbors had pulled out their grill. Suddenly, after we’d enjoyed sixty and even seventy-degree weather for a week, the majority of central Minnesota was smothered in six or more inches of heavy snow. It was a storm that took many by surprise. When I went to get groceries to make Johanna’s food, I dug out my buried hat and gloves again. Despite my attempts to wipe the snow off my car, a pile on the top slid to my windshield as I drove. I saw the neighbor’s newly brought out grill pulled under the house’s awning, and people bundled up as if it were the dead of winter. In the past I imagined the transition between winter and spring to be gradual and fluid, but recent Minnesota winters have had me thinking otherwise.
In the many years Johanna has been ill, I’ve had much to grieve. I’ve lost the gift of sharing physical intimacy with her, the job I love, and the normal, joyful interactions which were once scattered throughout my daily life. For a while now I have viewed these losses as events of the past, thinking that feeling grief over them at the time was sufficient to move on emotionally. I made the mistake of thinking of grief as a brief season, instead of viewing it like a Minnesota winter, lengthy and liable to rise unpredictably. As I’ve been reflecting on the grief Johanna’s illness has brought to my life, I’m beginning to see grief can work in much the same way as Minnesota Winters and April snowstorms. Its acute severity seems to lessen over time, only to suddenly rise when least expected.
For me, grief often pops up, unannounced, after I’ve had a run-in with normalcy. A few weeks ago, I spent time with my sister, her husband, and my young niece and nephew. I enjoyed a meal and talked to them about life, all while enjoying being an uncle. I got to hold my youngest niece and talk sweetly to her. I played imaginative games with my nephew, ones that involved rolling and running and all-around ruckus. Upon returning home, and for the next couple days, I felt restless, discouraged, and anxious. It took me a while to put a finger on these emotions, but I eventually realized that the ‘normal’ time I had spent with my family made the painful realities of my life as a caregiver more poignant. I felt lonely coming home from my sister’s house, walking upstairs to a vacant living room. I felt the pain of having interactions with Johanna be so limited and brief. I felt the loss of normalcy and realized I was walking through the wintery cold of unexpected grief.
A similar experience occurred when I recently returned to my former workplace as a teacher to get an important document. I was glad to learn there wasn’t school this day, because I couldn’t have borne seeing my old students. Later that night, as I reflected on the memories stirred while being back at my old school building, I wrote,
‘My memories of school are happy memories. I do not look back on these times as stressful and strenuous. I look back on them with pleasure and joy. The joy of teaching students fundamental concepts and chasing them around the playground stand unmatched in my assessment of good memories. Teaching was good work. It was hard work. It was rewarding work. I haven’t let myself think about teaching a whole lot because it feels like paging through old photo albums of a better time. It feels like prying the cap off a bottle of past joys, the substance long gone, but the enticing scent still there to remind me of better times. I’m reluctant to draw near to those scents because they are a reminder of things gone.’
These kinds of experiences are not comfortable places for me because my favorite place for grief is in the past. I’d rather not acknowledge it’s come anew, because that means I need to experience its unpleasant emotions again. Many times, I have vented these emotions in anger, or deafened them in distraction. Yet recent unexpected moments of grief have reminded me of the importance of lament. Whether by journaling, writing short prayers or poems, or listening to heartfelt music, lament reminds me that God is not absent in the troubles of my life. Without God’s presence and the comforting promises found in the Bible, my grief would only end in despair. In lament, I can admit my troubles with boldness by telling God these circumstances are too much for me. Unlike anger and distraction, lament helps me open my heart and hands to God and others. It invites God’s healing presence in my weakness.
As I continue to care for Johanna amidst her horrible illness, I will face many other moments and stretches of grief. Like Minnesota Winters, many of them will pop up unexpectedly. Normal moments with family and friends, trips to places I used to visit often, and even reflecting on the past may bring a surprise storm of grief. In these times, I want to remember the power of lament as a way to voice the grief I feel. It invites the Lord’s presence and I can grieve in faith, believing:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.” – Psalm 91:1-2