Learning about God: A Personal Story
Part 5 of 6
Editor’s Note — This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my wife, Eleanor, who died from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in South Africa. For all of those 20 years I have tried to support people walking the grief journey as I was supported in that crisis time.
It is only in the last few months that I have been able to write something I can share with others about the many crises of that experience and what I learned about God in the midst of grief. This article is part of that series. I pray it will be helpful to others walking the grief journey.
By Bob Terry
Editor, The Alabama Baptist
Two ambulances awaited when we arrived in Birmingham but I insisted on riding with Eleanor. It would be the last ride we would ever share. The next day, Monday, July 20, family members joined me around her bed as we sang, prayed and said goodbye. Then the ventilator was removed and within minutes Eleanor quietly and officially died.
During Eleanor’s funeral a strong thunderstorm struck the Birmingham area. Trees and limbs were down across many roads causing the police escort to change the route to the cemetery. That storm became a metaphor of what awaited me.
Grief is an arduous journey under the best of circumstances (if there is such a thing as “best of circumstances” related to death). But an out-of-season death, a sudden and traumatic death compounds the difficulty.
No two grief experiences are alike just as no two persons or no two relationships are alike. But there are signposts along the way.
One has to form a new sense of identity. For 34 years we had been a couple. I knew myself as Eleanor’s husband. That was no longer true and I had to determine who I was without her. It was like losing a part of my body. I had to learn to live and function without that vital part.
In seminary I received special training in pastoral care and death and dying. As a pastor and minister I had comforted bereaved families. I thought I knew what lay ahead. I was wrong.
I had little appreciation of the impact grief makes mentally, physically and emotionally, or its power and trauma.
The directors of The Alabama Baptist were considerate of me as I recovered from additional surgery and as my physical wounds healed. Yet, when I came back to work I had trouble thinking clearly. I could not remember things. At times I would sit and stare at a blank computer screen unable to write or edit.
Physically I renewed my exercise routines but I was weaker. I moved slower. Not even simple routines processed as quickly as before. Even my speech pattern had changed.
And inside emotional storms kept me from sleeping. I did not eat properly. Both contributed to unhealthy patterns which developed.
Later, information provided by Community Grief Support helped me realize I was not losing my mind. A common characteristic of grief is increased forgetfulness, inability to process information and slower reactions.
That is part of the reason people in grief have a higher rate of illness and a higher rate of accidents than the population at large.
In some ways society acknowledges these facts by the old adage telling the grieving not to make any life-changing decisions for the first year. But business expects the grieving to be back at work and at full speed a week after burying a loved one. That is not only unrealistic, it is impossible.
Someone said the best thing one can do to prepare for grief is to make friends 20 years earlier. I found that to be true. Expressions of sympathy from acquaintances were appreciated but comments by those who had known Eleanor and me, shared life with us, provided much more comfort. Perhaps it was because they lost something in Eleanor’s death too. They lost a friend and we shared grief, although at different levels.
Friends patiently listened as I told my story over and over again (at least parts of it). Grieving people need to tell their stories. They need to hear others say the name of their loved one and hear how that person was important in the lives of friends. Silence makes people think the loved one was not important or already forgotten.
Reality of my new status
My church reached out with food and visits. My church also was the first place I experienced the reality of my new status. The first Sunday I was able to go back to church was the day dual Sunday Schools began and my former class had been dissolved.
The printed material announced couples’ classes and singles’ classes for my age group. Men’s classes were for older men but I decided to try one anyway. That Sunday I skipped worship in order to try two Sunday School classes. The first was a singles’ class. I felt like a fish out of water. I was not emotionally ready for that yet.
On my way to the second class a college friend stopped me in the hall and invited me to the class he attended. My response was that I did not qualify. The class was advertised as a couples’ class. He assured me that did not matter and I went in. It is still my Sunday School home today.
These several years later, churches generally have abandoned advertising classes as “couples” unless they are special purpose classes. To me that is a good thing.
When grief work begins
Most of the time churches and friends rally around the grieving for about six weeks. Caring does not stop at that point but other deaths have occurred by then and life goes on. Unfortunately, purposeful church care ends just about the time numbness and shock created by death begins to wear off for the survivors. That is when the grief work begins.
For me a grief support group sponsored by Community Grief Support Service in Birmingham was a godsend. I did not think so at first. My first reaction was that I did not need it. I had my family, my friends, my church and I was a minister with special training and experience. I could handle this.
I went to the first meeting only because my pastor said he thought it could be helpful in my grief journey. Out of respect for him I went. I am thankful I did. With others who were on similar journeys, I learned about grief intellectually. I learned from the experiences of others. Sometimes others learned from my experiences.
Community Grief became important enough to me that for more than 15 years I served on its board of directors assuring its services were available to those grieving because of death. And I am grateful my church continues to support that ministry.
Despite all the support, storms still awaited me on the grief journey, storms that had to be faced. Unless one sets his face and walks into the storm it is easy to become mired in neurotic grief. That is not where God calls us to live.