The Suburb Woman
Bittersweet
Posted on September 22nd, 2015

​When you’re pregnant, you pick up the classic “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” Once the baby arrives, there’s the “What To Expect The First Five Years.” To help you plan a wedding there are guides, planners and shows. You want to cook? You can find limitless instruction videos, cable channels and books. To take a trip you pick up a travel guide or scour the internet so your vacation can be as planned or as carefree as you’d like.

I often wish death were that easy. You could just pick up a book or a guide when you’re panicked and be assured by a bevy of experts what you’re feeling now lasts x-number of days and the next feelings will be blank. It would go on to adequately prepare you how to best approach comforting your children, consoling yourself as well as knowing how and why not to feel guilty on the days you smile. The book would take you through milestones and timelines, so you wouldn’t have to guess, overthink, fret and worry about what you’re doing wrong or right.

Just like there are no detailed guides for death, being able to find someone who knows what you’re feeling exactly how and when you’re feeling it during this inescapable journey at my age and with children is rare. Two weeks after Michael died, in an uncharacteristic move I sent two messages to total strangers who I had seen obituaries of their spouses on social media via mutual friends. One was a woman whose husband died suddenly the same day as Michael. The other was a man whose wife died suddenly a couple of weeks before. I simply shared my sympathy and my pain.

While I never heard from the woman, a few days later I heard from Robert. He answered my question of “does it get easier?” with, “I can stay busy during the day, but the nights are still painful.” Even with the support of family and amazing friends, this kind of grief is lonely and isolating. His words brought comfort to me.

I was armed in the ensuing weeks with about two dozen books on grief, grieving, pain, loss, heaven, faith and grace. Since I couldn’t sleep, I spent significant amounts of time reading. Some books I finished in one setting while others I read over a period of days journaling thoughts and dog-earring pages with highlights I wanted to reflect on later. A few I only made it partly through because I couldn’t relate or identify with the messages at that time.

My plan was to seek a life comforted by solitude, encouraged by independence and buoyed by continuing my vow to Michael. When I left for a short trip to Nashville in mid-July, I felt it was a good place to start applying next steps for this new plan. Although the pain followed me – walking the streets of Nashville, visiting music venues, dining on my own, smiling, “dancing it out” (of which you must be a Grey’s Anatomy fan to understand), and spending time with dear friends solidified my view of my new normal alone.

But the key word in this idea of how to go forward in life was “my” – it was MY plan, not God’s. The stages of grief are real and the fact you can experience all in an hour or over a period of weeks is true. But how you cope, struggle, agonize, heal and move forward are uniquely individual and must be put in God’s hands no matter how confident one is in their own strengths and abilities.

One book I picked up is called Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist. I started reading it while traveling to Nashville, but put it down because I couldn’t grasp the message of death and rebirth, the value of bitter with sweet and that “there is a sliver of lightness on even the darkest nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a splinter of sadness.”

However, time is a friend and I can see now how God has been working in my life in ways I was simply too blinded by my sadness to see over the past several months. It began when Robert offered in his reply to meet to share our respective experiences and pain. God took my uncharacteristic message and his unlikely response to shine a “sliver of lightness” into my dark night. I distinctly remember the rawness of our first meeting. It was a Sunday afternoon at a restaurant. Mere strangers, yet for two hours we openly shared our loss, guilt, regret and struggles.

I found comfort in talking to someone who knew what I was feeling and thinking without having to explain or who wasn’t panicked or hurt by even my darkest thoughts. We agreed it was helpful to talk and planned to find time every couple of weeks to meet as an impromptu “support group.”

Robert is an accomplished and respected chef. I’m a foodie. So, many of our conversations revolve around food as have our “support” meetings. When a conversation this past weekend involved his explanation of the importance of bitters when it comes to complimenting and enhancing the sweetness of certain foods and drinks, I recalled the book I started in July. I picked it back up last night.

Niequist describes bittersweet as the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter with the sweet, and a life with nothing but sweetness rots both your teeth and your soul. Bitter is what makes us strong, what forces us to push through… Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. It is courageous, gutsy, earthy.

She also explains how when you haven’t yet had your heart really broken, the gospel isn’t about death and rebirth – it’s about life and more life. But when you’ve faced some kind of death – the loss of someone you loved dearly, the failure of a dream, the fracture of a relationship – all of a sudden rebirth and new life is very, very important to you. I’d never thought of life that way. I guess I’d always seen God’s blessings coming only through what I perceive as good things, sweet things. But it is bitter – excruciating painful – to watch a dream die and then to attempt to embrace God’s blessing of rebirth. I also now understand by putting my life and plans in God’s hands I can make it through more than I thought.

I’ve received wise counsel from those who’ve traveled this road before me. Early on they told me not to commit to alienating myself from the possibility of feeling again. A dear friend recently reminded me when I shared my feelings of guilt with her that I kept my vow and I honor Michael’s memory and our love by being happy and thriving versus just existing. My counselor said he believes if Michael is able to see me from heaven he now sees me through God’s eyes and wants me to be happy.

The truth is I began mourning Michael’s terminal illness and untimely death two years ago this week. While I didn’t let go of hope, I learned I was capable of more love than I ever imagined. I fought fiercely for his life and I gave Michael the most peaceful passing I possibly could. I kept my vow. I walked every step with him and he had no doubt I loved him and always will – and there aren’t too many people who could understand that as personally as Robert does.

While reading Bittersweet again, it was as if these words leapt from the page and into my heart: “I don’t believe God’s up in heaven making things go terribly wrong in our lives so that we learn better manners and better coping skills. But I do believe in something like composting for the soul – that if you can find life out of death, if you can use smashed up garbage to bring about something new and good, however tiny, that’s one of the most beautiful things there is.”

Amen.

The truth is a guide to life after the death of a spouse would never work with a set of timelines, guidelines and detailed explanations. A journey such as this is uniquely personal and one you have to take at your own pace and your own time with God's help.

And what do I ask God for when I think about my future?

I want His continued guidance and hand in my life. I want happiness and comfort for my kids.
I want to smile more than I cry.
I want to grow new dreams from the ashes.
I want to bring life from death.
I want to taste the bitter with the sweet.


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