Have you ever wondered how you would respond if your most horrific nightmare came true? I had. Would unexpected resources rise from within - or without? Or would I shatter into a thousand unrecognizable pieces, randomly strewn across the landscape of the rest of my life?
What was my most horrific nightmare? As far back as I can recollect, that nightmare depicted my husband killed in an automobile accident - a strange image indeed, as his driving was the best I had ever seen.
I thought of it as I waited at the front window of our home in early marriage - when a Washington DC snowstorm turned his 11-mile commute from work into a four-hour ordeal. The small sporty cars he preferred to drive did not take kindly to that snow-slick incline on the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
I thought of it as we played two-car tag from Virginia to Arkansas, bound for our new home in Hot Springs Village. And I thought of it every Monday morning when he pulled out of our driveway - on his way to that week's FDIC bank examination assignment in some other Arkansas town.
Perhaps it became my 'companion' of sorts because I had so often thought about it. What started as worry more than 35 years ago could not remain so. As he, banker to the core, said, "Worry is interest paid on trouble before it comes due." And worry could not co-exist with a strong trust in God's plan for our lives.
Then the day came. It was raining, not snowing. It was Arkansas, not Virginia. Yes, it was that 'most horrific nightmare' played out in living color. Always the epitome of punctuality, his non-arrival at the expected time had 'nightmare' written all over it. The minutes stretched into quarter hours, then half hours as I checked the driveway repeatedly for his car's headlights appearance. Finally...headlights. But there were two sets rather than one. Instantly, I knew. The sheriff's chaplain's words simply confirmed it. My husband Bob had died in an accident no more than 25 minutes from home.
Thus began my journey into what is commonly referred to as the grief process. Oh, I thought I knew quite a lot about it. I had read numerous books and articles on the subject for the purpose of under-standing what others were going through. And that was helpful. However, my education was incomplete. Only traveling the months, and now years, of that grief process journey (yes, I am still a sojourner on it) could reveal to me the stuff of which it - and I - are made.
The publications said that one should prepare ahead - pre-planning they called it. But no one ever indicated the vast number of decisions which must be made - and at a time when I was least capable of making them. That first evening, I heard someone say, "She's in shock." "Could this be shock?" I thought. "My organized-by-nature mind is trying to put together the plans for a memorial service. How can I be in shock?"
Just as healing of the essentially-same physical ailment consumes differing amounts of time for each individual, grief recovery does not come in a one-size-fits-all package. Some of the manifestations, however, are common to many. "How are you doing?" I was asked. My response those first few months was usually, "Well, the sun gets up in the morning and so do I!" It was one foot in front of the other, only on command. The hole in my heart was large enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. "But the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen and protect you." 2 Thessalonians 3:3
Weariness was at times overwhelming. Grief processing is hard work and fatigue is its accessory. My 'want to's' frequently exceeded my 'can do's.' So my motto became, "I can only do what I can do!" It was my response to those who seemed to expect above-and-beyond activity. And it was my (sometimes unconvincing) answer to myself when lack of progress and productivity caused guilt.
I queried other recent widows, "Do you have a short attention span?"
With manufactured enthusiasm, I would approach a task, then discover within a very few minutes, the interest in it had vanished. Usually a focused individual, this came as an enormous surprise to me.
So many occasions define 'alone.' One car in the garage. One person at the breakfast table. A singular hostess where once there were both a host and a hostess. Eliminating table games that require a partner - or the alternative, always inviting another party-of-one participant. Car maintenance. Handling finances. Decisions that mock the solitude. Locating that 'single' seat at a meeting or an event. Then returning home - with no one knowing whether or not I had arrived there. Accepting the fact that life will never again be what it had formerly been. The finality is penetrating. It is uniquely and strange-ly life changing.
Just about the time I would gratefully discover, "I am really doing well!," a torrent of grief would blind side my buoyant spirit. It could be triggered by something as innocent as hearing an entertaining story and wanting to share it, or driving past a home and seeing several friends' cars, realizing that the couples therein were having a good time together. Finding a note in his handwriting, walking where we had walked.
Some said tears were good, a welcome and healthy release. For most, it was cause to turn away, unable to comprehend or address the pain that caused them. Trying to avoid their obvious discomfort, I found I started to build a wall of expectations - mine and theirs. One by one, I found the bricks for my wall. Don't cry in public. Act normal (will someone please tell me what 'normal' is?). Avoid talking about 'it.'
It's a funny thing about walls. They protect, but they also shut out. The trick is to use them only long enough to regain a sense of stability in an environment that is inherently unstable. Were it not for understanding friends and the strength God gave, I might still be hiding behind my wall. As it was, brief forays into the 'real world' were so encouraging, I discovered that the scenery on the new road I was on, though this path was certainly not one I would have chosen, could be as beautiful as the old one.
How often in those early days, I heard someone say, "Time will help." And it does. But for me, it was not just the passing of minutes, then days, then weeks and months that helped. It was the fact that during that time, new experiences and new accomplishments were filling my reservoir with new memories - not that they would ever replace the enjoyable recollections of years gone by, but they consistently provide new wells of joy from which to drink. And the hole in my heart? Whereas at one time, it would accommodate an 18-wheeler, in time, only a pick-up would fit into it, and eventually, a Volkswagen Beetle.
At times I wish my life-long approach to problematic situations had not been 'What am I supposed to learn from this?' But learn I must. And that which I have learned about the grief process (from books and experientially) has already been put to use again in my life. It is with gratitude that I read in Jeremiah 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."