Eight years ago today, I woke up to the biggest living nightmare I’ve walked. I thought my husband was having a nightmare as I woke to his irregular breathing, but it turned out to be a massive heart attack caused by an underlying condition we had no idea was there.
The day before, life had been blissfully ordinary. We were in the Keys on his work trip and then driving home along the coast as we reminisced, he made work calls and we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant where we’d dated all the way back in high school.
On June 17, life forever changed for 8 of us. I kissed Dan for the last time, slipped off his wedding band and memorized every feature of the face I’d loved since I was a girl of 16.
Our seven kids lost an incredible father that day. Fathers provide security for their families and life felt fragile and thin without him. We’ve missed his strong hands clapping the boys’ backs and slipped around his girls’ fingers. We’ve missed hearing him come in the back door after work; his easy smile; his steady, sunny take on life; his godly leadership and mentoring.
Eight years is both a long time and so short. I’ve learned so much. I’m a different girl than I was 8 years ago.
8 things I’ve learned in 8 years of grief.
1.I’m glad I don’t know the future. We think we want to see ahead. To know how all the days and chapters of life will play out. But I’m so glad God doesn’t let us see it. We lived thousands of ordinary days protected by blissful unknowing. We threw our whole selves into full life without holding anything back because we didn’t know it would end early. We made dreams and stepped into some of them because we thought they’d always be there. It wouldn’t be easier if we knew tomorrow. God in his kindness only lets us see this day and this moment so we can live it full and rich and free of what tomorrow brings.
2. Every celebration is laced with loss. The highest moments of celebration – the weddings, new babies, birthdays, holidays and graduations – are a mix. There’s laughter and gratitude, lots of love and joy, but also someone missing we’d desperately love to share it with. His smile is missed in every family snapshot, his gift is missed under the tree, his presence is missed in the pew.
3. His life and his death made me better. I am not the girl I was 8 years ago and as much as I miss Dan, I wouldn’t want to go back to the old me. I’ve seen God in ways I’d never give back. I’ve learned what matters and what doesn’t. I think parts of me are softer than before and parts are stronger. I am better because Dan lived, better because he loved me, better for having lived through his death.
4. I carry him with me every day. Though life moves on without Dan physically here, he is with me in so many ways. Not that I communicate with him.; I know he’s absent from this life and present with the Lord. But I see him reflected in my children’s faces, their passions, their personalities. The memories we made, the inside jokes we got, the foundation he laid for our family are with me every day. I carry him with me as I press on with the vision we had for our children and help them remember their dad with stories and traditions we made together.
5. Desperately dependent on God is the best place to be. Only in my darkest season did I discover where God wanted me all along – desperately dependent on him. God created us for a relationship of complete dependence. For years, I gave him parts of me, trusted him in spurts and in seasons when I needed him. When life imploded, I had no choice. All of me, all of my parenting and decisions and excruciating pain needed God. I want to stay here forever. When life feels better, don’t let me move one inch away, I’ve begged God. How I pray I will forever begin every day with the declaration that “This is too hard. I need You so desperately.”
6. God can reshape a broken heart. God never puts a broken heart given to him back the same way. God has reshaped my broken heart in countless ways. He’s given me deep compassion. He gave me a window to his agape love – where he knows us fully and loves us completely. He’s taught me gratitude in the midst of pain and cemented my faith when I can’t yet see it. And once my heart was broken open, it was ready for God to clean out all manner of junk.
7. There’s a difference between grieving with and without hope. Both are excruciating. Both take us to depths of overwhelming physical pain, missing, emotions and loss. Grieving with hope doesn’t mean pasting on a smile. Grieving with hope means that in the depths of despair, in our loneliest moments, in untenable pain — we can cling to God’s sustaining grace. We can cling to his promises when circumstances are screaming different. And we can cling to the heavenly hope that lies beyond this life.
8. Agonizing loss does not prevent breathtaking life. This is what I would tell the girl I was eight years ago. Hang on. Do the hard work of tending your broken heart but know this: Life will widen around the loss and though never eclipsing it, new life will mollify it. In eight years, I’ve watched my kids find new passions and realize their dreams. We’ve laughed and loved around a dining table while missing Dan at its head. We’ve moved into an unfolding Chapter 2 and found it holds life abundant. We’ve had engagements and weddings, birthdays, graduations and babies. There have been surprises and deep satisfaction. God has filled an unbucket list I never wrote.
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