“Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty look, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form”
― William Shakespeare, King John
The wipers are intermittently clearing the large flakes of snow off my windshield as I continue with my errands on this cold February afternoon. My eyelids clear the tears welling in them as my heart is transported to another time, another place, so very long ago. There are some things that never really go away; they punctuate the present unexpectedly. Things buried beneath the passage of time, obscured by a lofty stack of days, weeks, years, errands, appointments, people, and events. But it will surface and surge and at those unpredictable occasions and for a little while I allow the memories and accompanying feelings to have their holiday.
Sitting quietly in my living room two days earlier, while drinking coffee and talking with a friend on the phone, I kept looking at an old picture on the wall and realized something was wrong. The mat just did not look good anymore. It was faded and not at all a match for the picture or my décor. This certainly is not what I would choose now. Well, I can change it! I love to go into the art store and see the beautiful work of Anne Loveless, two time Art Prize winner, and her husband Steve.
Today is the day. Taking my “to do” list and the picture off the living room wall, I head for the car.
“Come on Shmoey!” I called to my dog as he jumped into the car. “You can come too. I just have a few errands to run.” I carefully laid the picture in the back seat after filling the trunk with bags of items to go to Jerry’s- the local consignment shop. Driving the seven miles to Beulah, a tiny town on the east side of Crystal Lake, I see the shop. Perfect, a parking place right in front.
Slopping through the slush as the snow continues its silent descent; I carry my picture, using my hip to open the heavy glass door. The hanging bells jingle. A woman, probably in her early fifties, comes from the back work room and greets me. “Hi, what can I help you with today?”
“I would like to replace the mat on this portrait.” I replied. “It seems faded and too coral colored.”
“Yes, I can see it is dark and faded. Did you have a color in mind?” She asked.
“A light pink would be pretty.” I answered.
“I have several samples in various shades of pink.” She brought an assortment of 90 degree mat samples for me to examine.
“Could you give me a price on just the cut mat versus you doing the whole job?” I asked.
“Of course, can I take it apart and get the exact measurements?” She inquired.
“Sure, I guess whether you do it or I do it, it has to be taken apart.” I answered.
I watched as she took a sharp cutting tool and removed the paper backing, and dismantled the piece of art. She laid it on the counter. I noticed some pastel dust clinging to the glass.
This portrait is very old, I thought to myself, I hope she is careful with it.
“I thought the artist would have sprayed a fixative on the paper to prevent ‘dusting’ of the chalk.” I commented.
“She may have, but a little dusting is normal over a long period of time.” She responded.
Long period is right. The portrait is over thirty years old.
I positioned several 90 degree ‘corner’ mats of varying shades of pink around the picture. Eliminating them one by one until a light pink was pleasing.
“I like this one.” I said as I handed her the sample.
“This color is nice; it really matches her dress,” she replied.
She was very kind and patient, and seemed to know what she was doing. The price was right for “the professional” to do the matting and put it all back together, so I went with that.
“Probably sometime next week I will have it done and I will call you.” She stated as I gave my name and phone number.
Standing there for a minute I stared at the pastel portrait lying naked on the wide counter. No mat, no frame, no glass. It is just an old delicate piece of paper with a soft colored pastel drawing with a likeness equal to the real life image in my mind. So many years have passed since my eyes gazed at that face in reality, seeing the twinkle in her blue eyes as she smiled sweetly and laughed at the antics of her 8 year old sister, Stacy.
Turning to leave I paused and said “Please be gentle with it. This is a picture of my daughter who died.”
Gazing at me attentively she spoke, “I am sorry. I know what it is like. I lost my son ten years ago. He died of leukemia…How old was your daughter when she died?”
“’Almost one.” I answered.” She died during open heart surgery. I am sorry for your loss too. How old was your son?”
Her voice was soft as she replied, “He was twenty-four. It is so heart breaking to lose a child.”
“Yes, it is.” I said, as memories tap the shoulder of emotions buried in my soul. “No matter the age of your child it is devastating. I have known elderly people whose children were fifty or sixty years old, and others who lose infants before birth.”
In those moments, during the brief exchange of words between two strangers, a common bond was recognized. A connection formed through experiencing the ultimate loss, the supreme misery of burying your ‘babe’. We know, and wish above all things we did not know the agony of our powerlessness, the months and years of craving for the beloved. We understand the challenge of living again when you do not want to. We know the arduous task of piecing your life back together when it has been forever altered. Similar to a crash that tears up your body but you survive and must learn to compensate, adjust, and walk again… limping but moving forward just the same. I am reminded of a passage in a book I read, over and over.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I prayed for the woman I had just encountered. I want to talk to her more, and I will when I pick up my picture. We belong to a club we did not request to join and unwillingly share. If there is any comfort at all it is the fact I am not alone. A support group called Compassionate Friends, for parents who lose children, helped me feel less isolated and odd, that all those crazy thoughts and feelings are “normal”. There are millions like me, like her, and more will continue to join this grief guild; death has not been defeated yet.
I think incredible sorrow carves out within us a deep capacity for compassion and empathy. We express our concern in our words, a hug, tears, a look in the eyes, and sometimes holding a hand and walking through the rugged terrain of mourning with a bereft parent. After my daughter died I received many cards and letters, often from people who read the obituary in the newspaper .These strangers reached out to say “it will get better.”Sharing their personal journey of loss and healing with me as an encouragement. I indeed can do the same, as the following scripture states:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Yeshua the Messiah, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Messiah are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through him. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5
Grief is still a process we must walk through and endure, there is no shortcut. Reading through an old diary revives the thoughts and emotions I encountered shortly after my daughter Megan’s death. I wrote almost daily. As the days, weeks, and months passed I wrote less, and less. At first I visited her grave several times a week; that too gradually diminished over time. Initially I thought I will never get over and get through this. I can’t do it, my life is over. But I did not die. Eventually healing came and I was able to laugh again without guilt.
By faith I know I am a child of the Living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, I know I will see my child again. The following scripture is not only my greatest comfort, but my greatest joy.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.
Since we believe that Yeshua died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Messiah.
For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first.
Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord.
Therefore encourage one another with these words.