A freight train ran over me last week. I saw it in the distance and tried to tell myself that we weren’t on the same track. I wanted to deny the potential of what was looming on the horizon line. I wanted to turn the other way so I couldn’t see the puffs of steam getting closer. I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and hum loud enough to drown out the constant chugging. I wanted to close my eyes and pretend that I lived somewhere else, in a land untouched by grief and the Christmastime loss of my dad. I wanted all these things, but they didn’t happen, they couldn’t happen. While I saw the train coming, I was unprepared for its arrival.
I had no real expectations for Father’s Day, no distinct thoughts about my heart’s well being. I knew our schedule surrounding the day and tried to allow for a few moments of quiet time. In the midst of feeling the loss I also wanted to celebrate my husband Dan, who is an amazing father to our kids. We were going to spend the day together, and host a picnic in the evening for my family. No big deal, right? I told myself that I could do this, celebrate Dan throughout the day and honor my dad through the dinner. Sometimes though, I lie and tell myself that I’m capable of things that are way outside the realm of possibility. This was one of those times. I hoped that if I said it often enough, that it would indeed be true. In the end, a lie is still a lie.
I don’t know the precise moment when the train hit, although I would guess it was pretty much about the time my eyes opened and I took a deep breath of the morning’s gentle air. I awoke to a day I’d never faced before, my first fatherless Father’s Day. I pursed my lips and exhaled slowly, reassuring myself that I could do “this”. I rolled over and said, “Happy Father’s Day” to Dan. At the culmination of those 3 simple words, a solitary tear went streaming down my face. I knew that the game was up, my lies were over and this was going to be a very exhausting day.
By 10 am I had applied mascara 3 times, discovering that it’s practically impossible to separate and coat wet lashes. I wanted to look like my normal self even though I felt awful. I’m not a “cute crier”. My eyes get puffy and my nose gets red. No amount of makeup can hope to mask my emotion. I discovered this 20+ years ago, but I haven’t given up trying.
The day was filled with activity, some planned and some created. Constant movement seemed to be my final attempt to hold my emotions in check, when what I really wanted was to throw myself face down on my bed and weep until my eyes shed their final tear. This approach of busyness was as unsuccessful as the first.
Upon the arrival of this grief train, it parked itself in my station and refused to move. I pushed and I pulled, but I was no match for the size and weight of this train. It’s not like I haven’t grieved my dad’s death in the past 6 months. I’ve spent a lot of time pouring out my heart before the Lord, my husband and friends. I’ve gone through countless boxes of tissues since Christmas. I’ve mourned the individual and cumulative loss over our family: it covers my mom, my kids, my husband, my siblings, my nephew, and me. It’s complex. I know this well. What I did not know was that today, the loss would feel fresh and new, as if it just happened all over again. The train hit hard, pushing me back to square one where a million memories from past days played like a movie reel in my mind. The past infringed upon my future and spoke of all the things we would never do again. It was a crushing blow. My head already understood this, and while it wasn’t fresh there, I was reliving it in my heart as if I’d never felt it before.
Today there was no ability to hide behind the thoughtful processing of this loss on my family. It was all about me. This was Father’s Day. I did everything I could to change the focus, to stay busy, to maintain emotional control, but I felt helpless. I thought back one short year to a different time. My dad was battling lung cancer, he was weak from the treatment regimen, but he was here. I was thankful. Last Father’s Day we celebrated with his favorite cheese steak from a local sub shop and milkshake to wash it down. We teased that he could eat as much as he wanted—the doctor’s would love a little weight gain. The rest of us would have to ration our bites so that we didn’t pack on the pounds. We talked about “next year” when he would be feeling better and the world would be brighter. There were so many memories we wanted to make together. Now, those conversations felt like empty promises, hopeful grasping-at-straws that yielded no results.
As I stood in front of my dad’s grill, making his signature meal—burgers and hotdogs with baked beans on the side, my heart was broken into a million tiny pieces. Smoke from the grill stung my tired eyes. I’d finally stopped the trickle of tears that flowed off and on all day. Now my eyes watered from my responsibility of “head chef”. I thought to myself, “I can’t win.”
Dinner was good, dad would’ve been proud. This year we all laughed that I didn’t quite succeed in replicating his style—my burgers weren’t as dry as his typically were. On the outside I smiled, inside I sternly reminded myself that there would be no tears during the picnic.
Night finally came; darkness covered me, offering a quiet place to rest my head and cry. My responsibilities were finished and I was free to weep. The sorrow and anguish of my soul poured forth, and like the grief train, there was no stopping it now. I wept for hours. Dan laid beside me in silent support.
Finally sleep enveloped me.
Monday dawned, my eyes opened and yesterday’s emotion resurfaced. I tried to shove it away and hoped this day would be better. To some degree, it was. I still felt Sunday’s sting and wished that it would go away. As the day wore on and my emotions remained unstable I had a life-giving realization. Once again I’ve been looking with eyes of disgust at grief, when really, it calls to me as a friend. Grief offers the opportunity to validate my feelings and the legacy of the one who has left me behind. The piercing of my heart reminds me that I’m vibrantly alive; I still have the capacity to feel pain and loss, and this is wonderful.
I knew from past experience that brokenness is beautiful and suffering produces deep peaceful joy within me. So I yield myself to feel the pain completely and will allow this loss do its complete work. I will not shield my heart or turn away. Grief is like a mountain that I overcome only by tunneling through it. I step aboard this grief train. I’m not afraid of it anymore. I see the conductor give the signal—it’s time to leave the station. Methodical shoveling fuels the engine’s fire. The resulting steam puffs over my head, the chugging begins its gentle lullaby and my heart awakens to a different perspective. This train did not come to run me over; it came to take me somewhere. I don’t know where we are going, but I trust the One who’s in control of the adventure. There is a mountain that I must go through. God knows my heart, he sees the pain and he promises beautiful redemption for my pain. This knowledge doesn’t make the loss any easier, but it promises that loss is not the end; it is the beginning.
As we depart the station and head out of town I settle into my seat. I look out the window and see familiar places; I wonder how long it will take to get through the mountain. I lay my head against the glass and close my eyes. The gentle bumping of the tracks settles me. Shallow breaths become deep and steady. I feel a new invitation come as Jesus extends his hand and offers me a place of rest. He sees my weariness; he knows I need stamina for this trip. He asks me to close my eyes and lean into him. Jesus offers safety and peace. I don’t have to figure it out. I simply have to trust that he is holding all the pieces in his hand and that somehow he will make a beautiful mosaic out of my tear stained shards of glass. His rest envelops me, this time it’s different. This rest does not simply cover my sorrow; it infuses me with strength and a promise:
“Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.” Psalm 126:5 NIV