In September of 2016 I had a brand new puppy in my lap and a broken heart in my chest. It was the beginning of Sam's senior year in high school, and I bought the puppy because I needed something warm and soft to hold. For three weeks I’d laid on the couch crying every morning, and the only reason worth getting up that I could imagine was to go visit the pet store. It was the only thought that made me feel good during that first month back to school. But I hadn’t acted quickly enough with the first two puppies I met, so when Rory caught my eye I didn’t hesitate. I filled out the paperwork immediately, and she came home with us two days later.
A week after we got Rory, Sam decided not to go to church anymore, because Sam didn’t believe in God anymore, and my grief became more complicated. Not only did I have a kid who would soon be leaving home for the first time, Sam seemed to be running away from us as well, as fast and as far as possible.
Around the middle of October I started regretting my decision to get a puppy. Rory was six months old by then. She was sleeping through the night just fine, and had house trained really well; but her personality had blossomed into a boisterous, barky one, and she was driving everyone crazy. It was November before I realized what I’d done—tried to replace a child with a dog. Getting a puppy was my attempt to fill the hole I knew would be left when Sam went away to college. I guess I thought I could just bypass the grief I knew was coming, but my solution had turned out to be a loud mess, who only amplified the emptiness in my aching heart.
I don’t remember much about December except that I started getting stomachaches and couldn’t eat anything but bowls of cereal. When I finally went to the doctor they put me on Prilosec and upped my dose of antidepressant. By Christmas I was feeling better, but when we were getting ready to leave my family’s house my sister hugged me and told me they’d see me again at Sam’s graduation. I burst into tears. It was the first time I’d visualized that moment, and the reality that it would be happening in less than five months overwhelmed me.
If all this makes me sound like a drama queen, then so be it, but I’ve never been one of those moms who cried when their babies went off to Kindergarten. I’m not the kind of woman who yells at the TV during football games, or makes a scene at a restaurant. I don’t like to be the center of attention, and I’m super embarrassed when people make a big deal out of me. I don’t even laugh very loud, unless I’m caught off guard, and I’m rarely caught off guard.
Maybe it’s because my siblings had dramatic personalities, and it never felt like there was enough room to add my own feelings to the mix; but somewhere along the way I learned to keep them all zipped in and buttoned up tight. But the more you stuff things inside the more likely it is that they''ll bust out and make a really big mess one day.
(Welcome to my mid-life crisis. Did I forget to mention I turned forty that year?)
Well I did, the last day of November. A couple months later a good friend of mine died without warning. Her name was Lexi, and she was only thirty-four. February was kind of a blur for those of us who knew and loved Lexi, and Tanner, and the four kids he was now raising alone. I remember how terrifying it was to be alone those first couple of weeks. So much for writing. I was no longer able to stay home and concentrate while my kids were in school and my husband was at work. So instead I went to lots of yoga classes and hung out at the church office and cried with my friends. We all tried to remember to breathe.
In March I distracted myself from all the sadness in my heart by trying to get a book contract for the memoir I'd been working on. One of my writing friends introduced me to her agent, so I sent him some of my work and we exchanged a few phone calls. He told me that he loved my writing, but since I didn’t have much of a platform, perhaps I needed a bigger idea. “Christian publishers aren’t very interested in memoir,” he told me. “They’d rather print books that have a definable take away,” he said, “since they're more likely to sell in today's Christian market.” As I reread all my stories and tried to brainstorm, I noticed a theme running through many of the essays I’d written in the past ten years—the theme of grief.
"Just great," I thought, "bet that'll sell books ... even better than memoir."
But after my cynicism wore off I began to wonder what it was that kept bringing me back to the topic of grief. I scanned through the working titles for my memoir and stumbled upon the answer: All my life it seemed, I'd been looking for permission to grieve. Why? Because somewhere in my spirit I sensed that grief was a helpful thing, a necessary thing, maybe even a good thing.
These thoughts led me to reorder the chapters of my book, and to write a few more chapters explaining a new idea behind the book—that in our ever glossy modern lives, we need to be able to talk about the shadowy places. Yes, in the year 2020, sadness, loss, and death are still big parts of life, even the Christian life, and learning how to navigate these darker paths is a worthwhile pursuit.
I'm afraid it's still a memoir though, and I'm not sure if it has a "definable take-away." However, it does have some tough stories from my life, and it attempts to honor those stories, which for me, has turned them into hope. Yet twenty years later, I still struggle to give myself permission to grieve well. So, the current title for this book is Good Grief: A Pilgrimage Toward Hope. Because it's a journey I'm still on, and might be for quite a while.
On Friday I posted a photo of some lit candles on Instagram and wrote a note that said, "Some days you have to do a lot of extra searching to find the beauty, but I believe it’s always there." It was a response to the loneliness I'd been feeling that week, while my husband was out of town. And as my friends left encouraging comments and likes, I kept thinking about how long it's taken me to get here, to be the kind of person who keeps digging until she finds hope. How three years ago it took a literal puppy to keep me going, but now I can find my way with a match and a couple dozen tea lights.
To be fair, the grief of a child leaving home is quite a bit heavier than that of a husband traveling for work; but the ability to share that sadness, to walk through it honestly—with myself and those around me—is a gift that comes with practice. I pray you don't have to write a whole book to be able to open that gift and utilize it for yourself. But if you do, I think you'll find that the work is worth it in the end.
**author's note: Some parts of this post were originally written for a talk I gave at Hutchmoot, in 2017.