My friend Emily, who recently just lost her baby boy, unexpectedly, after 30 some odd hours of life and I talk daily. I allow her to ask me the hard questions. You know, those really tough questions about grief and loss. However, last week when she asked me the simple question,
"Oh do you still wear your rings? I don't think I've asked you that, or I don't know the answer."
As easy as it was to answer, "Nope." I felt she deserved more of a reason. Maybe she didn't expect more, but I didn't realize how much I needed to dive into that box.
Let me unpack that for you.
I've recently discovered grief is like the moving process. You pack up boxes, you label them by room and content, you tape them up and then you put them somewhere safe until you're ready to move. You travel somewhere new. You unpack the truck. You organize the boxes in their designated area. Then you return the truck. The work has only just begun.
You can unpack things sporadically. You can do one room at a time. You can unpack the things of importance, but there's always certain boxes that are stored away for unpacking later. See where I'm going here?
There were certain parts of this grief process I was ready to take on. The day Joel actually passed according to the time (there's actually like multiple death times- the time during the night that I believe he left after dinner, during his sleep; the time at which he had 3 heart attacks the next morning before being stabilized on life support in the hospital; the time the 3 specialists agreed to the same- that he was gone and unresponsive; then the time at which organ donation said he took his last assisted-breath). Y'all count that- it's 4 death dates. By the time I got the call on the last day, we had already said our goodbyes.
My family was in town (they had driven across 3-5 states). My sister helped me sort through all his clothes-that day. It sounds crazy. But, I couldn't (and she knew) face doing that months later alone with everyone so far away. We sorted piles. I didn't want to touch every single piece of clothing. To look at every shirt, it made death sting. It made it real. So she helped. We sent clothes to the foster closet. We kept some for keepsakes and giving to family. 98% of all his shirts were cut straight up the back to make it easier for me to clothe him, so they weren't things we could wear or cherish and hold him tight. There were kids out there that needed his clothes more than I (or we) did. It was almost like donating organs. I know most of you will be appalled at that thought, but his clothes were everything to him. His wardrobe was on point. He would never have wanted me to hoard it, let it collect dust in a closet. He didn't need them anymore. He would have been proud to share them with kids in need.
That was easier than I thought it would be, probably because it wasn't real yet.
February rolled around and the 15th was the day he proposed to me 6 years ago. Do the math... that's only a few weeks after his death (January 16th- by my date). It was going to be a hard day. I wanted to do something that Joel would want me to do. At the time I was getting ads on fb for those rubber rings by Qalo. So, I shopped. I wanted it to be perfect. I sorted through what I would want imprinted on it. But ultimately it was easy. "GROW", which y'all know was Joel's word of the year for our family.
Call me crazy, but I know that Joel knew it was time for him to go be with Jesus. I look back and see it written all over his facebook posts. I hear it in the whispers and visions I had from God preparing my heart to be Freddie's mama and that alone. I didn't want to believe it. I would never have chosen it, but I am reminded that Joel made this choice. Joel had had multiple encounters with God. He nearly went home to be with Him at least 3 times that I know of over the last 9.5 years. He knew. He chose it, along with God.
I have a real problem unpacking these boxes of grief. I'm aware of it. Emily asked me another question, "What are you afraid of?"
That one took me weeks to answer.
What I am afraid of is that the grief will be too much for me. That the weight will be too heavy for me to bare. I've seen people take their own lives. And I understand why. In my mind, that's unpacking all the boxes at one time. I'm not ready for that. I know my pace. I need to be pushed. Yes. However, I know that I have limits. I know that I can't rush it. I am not ready to see the other side. I'm living in this house (both physically and emotionally) and I've not unpacked ALL my boxes of grief. I think time has a natural way of hiding some boxes in the depths of dark closets. I think some aren't meant to be unpacked, for our mind's sake. And they are never meant to be unpacked alone (without God).
I haven't not dealt with any of it. I'm just not pushing myself, because I don't know which one to unpack and when. My boxes are in the spare house (we have little house on our property where I have a few miscellaneous items) or the spare room, so to speak- the one that's not used. I only stumble on them when I need something out of those boxes, on occasion.
Last night, my husband brought one of those boxes to me. I had a dream we were renovating that house, because yes, we are about to do that. My uncle texted me last night and gave me an update on the siding and told me he was working on the quote. But I dreamt that they were here to begin, and they put red bubble wrap on the roof. Red is his color. It's the color of his Georgia Bulldogs. It's my least favorite color. It's also the color of my beloved red barn (we were also married in a red barn), which I love. I was like... "Now... we aren't making the roof red, right?!" I almost felt Joel laugh at me in my dream. I have thought about using the sun porch off the side of that little house as his room- decorated in all his UGA junk, as I would lovingly call it. (I take on any challenge, but red and black and white with obnoxious football and bulldog logos... that is only ok for my husband.) You can sit out there on that porch and also see the garden that will be dedicated to him behind the house.
Just before that dream, in my deep sleep, I was unpacking a box. I cannot even remember what the box held. I don't know what I unpacked in my sleep, but when I woke this morning, my heart was heavy, along with my eyes and my body. I felt like I had cried all the night through. Maybe my husband brought me that box to unpack, because he knew I was ready for it. It was time to take another step, against my wishes. Maybe my waking mind is protecting me but I started unpacking it.
Now back to the rings...
I sat on that topic for a while. I pondered when I remember wearing them last. I knew where they were, but I hadn't put them on since we unpacked the truck here at the new homestead. I get my hands dirty here. I stay in the dirt, around the animals, I put up fencing and use equipment on the reg and could easily get my hand or finger caught on something dangerous wearing them. But, for months I would put them on and take them off. Put them on and take them off. This time, they haven't been put back on.
I remembered why I chose the word "grow". I also remember picking the color. You see, this ring is a pale pink. I chose pink because everyday of my freshman year of high school I would wear the color pink. That year I met Joel. I was named pretty in pink by our freshman teachers in our yearly paper plate award ceremony. He got me all things pink for Christmas that year- a pink beaded necklace, matching pink gloves, scarf and hat (the same one my mom had gotten me too- they have great taste). It was the color that made me feel like me. I chose green for the back color- because green and grow made sense, I guess- I don't really remember thinking too hard on that color choice.
I also remember how upset I was that it didn't fit my ring finger (because I'm a half size on that finger). Now I realize why. When I got this ring for the anniversary of our engagement, I knew it was a reminder of him. I've struggled with the infamous questions- What am I now? Am I a wife? Am I still a wife? Am I a single-mom? I chose to be a wife. I chose to be a mom. I chose to live life as Joel's caretaker (because that's just what needed to happen). But I didn't choose this- any of this- to lose him, to lose me, to lose being a team. Those rings keep me in the past. They reminded me that I was married. And in all honesty, I am not. I am not still married. I am still and will forever be Joel's wife- but it looks different.
When I took my rings off- for good, I realized I was accepting this new life. That GROW ring reminds me to keep growing. He chose that word. He knew. He knew of all the words in the world, I would need that word. I would need to focus on that word. I cannot stay stuck in the past. I cannot stay stuck here. I don't have him here with me in the present in the way I did in the past. To wear those rings, it's a symbol that I haven't accepted that. Oh my GOD (literally)-- As I'm writing this I hear these words from Jesus (replay in my thoughts):
"16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you."- John 14:16-18 NIV
Advocate (here in Greek means): summoned, called to one's side, especially called to one's aid. To pray or plead on behalf of someone.
You see, Jesus was bound by human limitations. Just like you and I, He could only be in one place at one time. However, He promised to send us a helper. This helper isn't the same use of the word helper in terms of a wife (like God uses when He spoke about creating Adam's wife). This helper or advocate could be in all places, at all times, with all people. If you're new to understanding the Holy Spirit that can be a lot to bite off, but Jesus basically said that He had to leave because greater things were to be done if He could send His Holy Spirit to be in all the places. His Holy Spirt could dwell among His people. And in dwelling in us, we would do greater things.
Jesus didn't go away. He wasn't forgotten. He simply moved over... for growth... the same way my ring did. I know one day, that there will be a day where God sends someone physically, not to replace Joel, but to sit beside him. (Ugh I hate even writing this because I'm being stubborn and honestly I'm just sitting in the present and content right now. In this moment I have no desire to even think about the future and what that looks like. And if I'm really honest, I don't want it right now.) But that someone will help me in a similar way the Holy Spirit helped Jesus accomplish the glory of God. He will help me in a way Joel longed to, but couldn't because he was limited by his physical abilities. So, I won't have to replace those rings when the time comes. The fact that my ring was a little big... it just moved over. (It reminds me of the necklace Joel gave me years ago (during the crumbling of my first marriage) that was a reminder to keep my heart open.)
Our finite minds are so quick to think that only one person can fill a place. We put so much emphasis on having ONE person who is everything to us. We can only have one best friend. One mom. One dad. One person who is our forever (but what happens when you're in my shoes and you had it and it vanishes like vapor?). That's simply not true, friends. God wants everyone to have a role in our lives. He has a time and a season for everything under Heaven (Ecclesiastes). Remember, grief and loss doesn't mean it's the end. And when that happens, we realize we cannot be nor can anyone else be our everything. It means it's time for something new. It's time for growth and expansion. For you- for your family- for your future. Even if you can't quite see it yet. Even if you're not even ready for it.
What's the purpose?
This is a question that my friend Sallie and I ask ourselves. To me, everything has to have a purpose. It must. As I look back over my life and the last few months, I find a new purpose for things I've done, thought or the way life has just been unpacked. Sometimes I unpack my boxes by myself (rarely). Sometimes my friends help me unpack them. Sometimes my kid. And sometimes, when I won't, my husband unpacks them for me in a dream.
Today, I had plans to work. He had other ideas. Today, for me, he needed me to write. He needed me to unpack. It's my place of healing. And sometimes, perhaps, I don't want to be healed. Not because that's not a glorious thought, but because I don't want to admit I'm broken. I'm vulnerable. And... I'm hurting. Sometimes I'm just not willing to unpack the things in the little house, because it's just easier to leave them in the dark and forget about all those little boxes. Oh and that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the big boxes with hundreds of little ones packed inside of them.
But, I also have to remember that unpacking means I'm settling in. I'm ready to decorate. I'm ready to invite people over to do life with me. Sometimes it means that I am helping someone else when I choose to unpack a box, even when I think I'm just not ready.
Today, I met a new friend, through a silly instagram edit hack class on facebook that I created. Today we laughed at life- and joked about how often people take poop for granted. (Sorry, TMI but it's true.) Today, we found joy in similar life scenarios simply, because I made a commitment to be authentic and open with our lives, long before I knew how life would turn out. Today, I saw purpose in unpacking- not only for me, but for her. Perhaps you've got some unpacking to do- if not for you, for someone else. And when you do it with someone, you might just find healing in it and purpose in it too! Life is like that.