Death teaches as it takes. As a professor, it is patient and exacting—demanding much of us with lessons we can delay but never escape. Death is also pretty inconsiderate. I’ve never been where I wanted to be when death took those I loved most. I was always still travelling towards—never with—them. Never home.
One lesson loss has taught me (and still teaches me) is that I must separate my mourning from my guilt. After my mother died, I berated myself for not being there. After my grandmother died, I wished I’d called her the day before. It was energy I could have better expended elsewhere.
Guilt has a way of intruding on mourning—at least in my experience. And it is as unwelcome a companion as that funeral guest whose actions make everyone uncomfortable.
I suspect only sociopaths are immune to guilt. If you care, if you love, guilt comes whenever you feel you’ve fallen short. But that’s perception more than reality. The dead hold no grudges. We cannot fail them or betray them. Our actions no longer affect them—no longer make them proud, sad, or angry. All we can do is remember—and honor their memory.
I loved my mother, and my mother loved me. I know both those things unequivocally. I can regret that I wasn’t there when she died. I can regret that before my maternal grandmother passed I didn’t call her one more time. But I can’t let that guilt outweigh or obscure all the occasions I was there or did call. My relationship with my mother (or my grandmother) is not defined by the end of her life or the aftermath of her passing. It is the sum of all our shared memories—not the death but the life.
Learning that lesson and getting through the heaviest of the mourning seasons takes time. The happiest days will be the hardest days for a while. There will be a shadow (sometimes a full eclipse) darkening holidays and special occasions. There will be progress and relapses. You will take two steps forward and eighteen steps back. Mourning is a long-lived process—confusing, depressing, fatiguing, daunting.
No one can grieve for you, and you can’t fast forward, though you do sometimes get to press pause. It simply sucks until it doesn’t, and even then the loss never diminishes or disappears, it just feels less foreign.
When mourning, you are the infant struggling to stand. Falling. It’s hard and it hurts, but it’s the only way to relearn how to walk through the world. God isn’t far. He’s just not picking you up right now.
When mourning, you’ll be confused. You’ll wonder why. There are no easy answers. Enlightenment takes tremendous amounts of toil and time. What purpose does all this pain have? What lies ahead that you’re being prepared for? Life—life lies ahead—and all the people you’ll encounter and be better equipped to empathize with and/or counsel on a deeper level with your hard-earned knowledge.
There are no shortcuts through sorrow. Anything you attempt to skip today will find you tomorrow. So seek out companions in your grief—people who are safe, loving, and wise. They can be friends, family members, or someone with professional credentials. They are the ones who know how to push you when you’re stuck or give you a safe space to fall apart.
No one can do it for you, but don’t feel you must grieve on your own. Mourning is a heavy burden. At least find someone to talk to while you labor on.
“A person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them—they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke
“In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger—something better, pushing right back.”
~ Albert Camus