You are so strong, another friend said.
I don't know how you do it, they said. I admire your strength.
I know they mean well. But what does being strong have to do with anything? And what does being strong look like? Sometimes it feels like people who tell me I'm strong have failed to see the real me--or that I have successfully hidden the real me from them.
Aidan died. We observed his memorial day, the two-year anniversary of the day he died, on November 11. Since that day two years ago, we have disappeared. We have tried to relearn how to breathe, battled the demons of PTSD, and grappled every day with the changes that made everything both easier and harder.
This is the real me.
There have been weeks when I felt I was past the worst that grief could throw at me, and I was finally beginning to be able to do more than just put one foot in front of the other. But in the past few months, I have been reminded that recovery from grief is not linear, and that anniversary reaction is a thing.
|Aidan, C. Peevie and M. Peevie, September 2010|
One day on a long car ride several months ago, American Pie came on the radio. Aidan's favorite. I started to cry, and couldn't stop. I cried for three straight hours.
Does this qualify as strong?
Sometimes still I cry so much that my eyes don't stop being red and puffy all day long. One day I started to cry at church, and cried off and on for three days. On the third day, Mr. Peevie came home and asked me why there was a roll of toilet paper on the couch next to me.
"Because we're out of tissues," I said. We had started the day with a full box.
Is this staying strong?
I'm a different person now. I used to love parties and gatherings with tons of people. I enjoyed meeting new people, and could always strike up a conversation with a stranger. I would always go for the joke. I loved to make people laugh. I tended to be optimistic and positive. I think I was fun to be around.
Now I'd mostly rather stay home. Occasionally I'll go out for a quiet dinner with one or two friends. I have little energy or inclination to socialize. I feel like grief is written across my face. It feels like an infection that has the power to suck the joy right out of a room.
In Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote
Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.
Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea.
Every second of every minute of every hour of every day I feel the loss, the absence, of Aidan. It never, ever goes away.
This is not being strong. This is surviving.
November is the worst month for anniversary reaction. We have many significant family dates, each with its own unique sorrow. M. Peevie's birthday is a time for celebration--but at the same time, it's a reminder that she is growing up, and Aidan didn't get the chance to do that. She turned fourteen this year--the same age as Aidan when he died.
November 11 is the day we will always remember as the day Aidan died--his memorial day. A week later we observe Mr. Peevie's birthday, which also happens to be the day we buried Aidan. Mr. Peevie deserves to be toasted and celebrated, with festivities and presents and badly-decorated cake. But now his birthday is inexorably tied to the second worst day of his life. It's a terrible incongruity.
Aidan's birthday comes next. Every year I wonder what he would have looked like as he grew into adulthood. On every birthday, I mourn the passing of another year in which our celebrations, vacations, and new memories don't include him. On Thanksgiving, the family gathers around the table, and there is a gaping hole, the glaring, excruciating absence of a goofy-grinned, crazy-haired boy.
I am changed, weak, broken, sad, feeble, distracted, fearful, untrusting, and unproductive. I keep searching for evidence that I am doing this grief thing right. That I'm not crazy or unstable. That though I'm broken and messed up, I won't feel this bad forever.
I keep getting up in the morning. I keep doing what I need to do--although some days it's just the bare minimum.
Is that what they mean by strong?
"Why is it so important to act strong?" Wolterstorff asked.
I have been graced with the strength to endure. But I have been assaulted, and in the assault, wounded. Am I to pretend otherwise? Wounds are ugly, I know. They repel. But must they always be swathed?
I cling to faith because of what I know about Jesus. I can't not believe. I hold the hope of the Resurrection close, and I don't "grieve as others do who have no hope."* But I struggle to participate in the communal, emotional aspects of worship. I can barely sing at church, unless the song depicts the "not-yet" part of the "already/not-yet" equation that represents the work of the gospel. I cry during communion, because I remember how seriously Aidan took the purpose and promise of the shared symbolic meal.
We're well into the new year. I used to love New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. I loved the feeling of the clean slate, the opportunity to start over, to set goals and imagine a new world and a new me. Even though I knew that resolutions were made to be broken, I still felt optimistic and hopeful. I might not be able to make all the changes I hoped for, but I would be able to change some things some of the time. I could learn to do new things, make different choices, travel an untrodden path.
I think there is a still a tiny kernel of my original sanguine nature buried deep inside me; but the new me, the Aidan-less me, is so different now that the seed is dormant. Hope is covered with a permanent shadow of sadness. The heavy weight of this grievous loss dilutes my optimism.
Sorrow is no longer the islands, but the sea.
I will go to bed tonight thinking of Aidan. Tomorrow I'll get up again, and my first waking thought will be about Aidan. And maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, or next week or next month, the scale will tip slightly over to hope, or peace, or joy.
*I Thessalonians 4:13