Surviving to Die

Though it’s now been over six years since Nancy embraced her Savior, Grief still haunts me in the dark recesses of the night. I can mostly evade it during the day – drench it in sunshine and hang it out to dry. But at night, I hardly dare look behind me, the shadows are so long. I brush my teeth in a frenzied panic, hoping against hope that if I can just manage to steal away to my bed before I feel the familiar weight of Grief’s bony hand close in on my shoulder, maybe just maybe tonight I’ll manage to slip quietly away and escape into a dreamless sleep before Grief is able to catch up with me.

It seems a reasonable request, right? To have just one night of restful sleep where I’m not forced to confront what broke me? To have just one night of sleep that will allow for the alleviation of some of the weight I’ve been lugging around in the bags under my eyes? I’m so desperately tired. Even my bones groan under the daily burden of carrying my flesh. It seems as though there is not an atom within me at this point that isn’t spent.

I climb into my bed, hoisting my covers up to my chin and tucking them tightly around me like a straight jacket. I’ve made it. I am safely in my bed, and I’ve left no room for Grief to crawl in beside me. With a smile of self-satisfaction, I contentedly close my eyes against all of the ugliness they’ve seen and drift blissfully off to sleep.

The problem with avoiding Grief like this, night after night, is that one night rapidly multiplies into many nights. And many nights add up to weeks, weeks become months, and months become years.

And before I know it, Grief has created a stranger out of the person I meet in the mirror. For though over six years have passed since losing Nancy, more often than not, I still feel as lost and traumatized as I did at seventeen when the policemen showed up at our house with her license in tow.

At the time, I was on the cusp of growing up, and I hadn’t even had the chance to figure out who I was yet. How was I supposed to effectively steward and manage Grief too? How was I supposed to face Grief, when I had’t even had the chance to face myself?

“No one ever told me that Grief felt so like fear.”
– C. S. Lewis

I found myself lost in all directions. As time relentlessly charged on, I found myself facing circumstances (much too soon by my estimation) I’d never encountered (leaving my home and community, and everything I’d known previously) in the midst of a circumstance I’d never anticipated (Nancy’s death.)

I began drifting, hardly managing to stay afloat. My grades in college slowly began to drop. I got into several car accidents. I began to linger longer and longer in my bed each day as depression began to close in on all sides. I had trouble maintaining relationships. The normal tasks of early adulthood felt impossibly daunting. I was perpetually overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion by even the most basic tasks. I was always tired and never felt rested, yet I slept constantly. I was consistently stressed, on edge, and maxed out, yet I was hardly capable of meeting the bare minimum asked of me. Getting a grip on my life felt as impossible as attaching a handle to moving body of water. For someone who, previous to Nancy’s death, was very high performing and thus very much used to being celebrated for her accomplishments, not being able to perform was devastating. I felt lost and very much alone; trapped by and resentful of the limitations imposed by my own humanity, a stranger occupying someone else’s body, haunted by an ache for a home I’ve yet to know.

I put all my energy into simply surviving Nancy’s death. I released my expectations of what surviving had to look like, realizing the goal wasn’t to make survival look pretty, the goal was to just keep breathing. I figured, if I could just stay alive long enough to get to the other side (don’t ask me what the “other side” is, because I don’t actually know myself) than eventually, it had to get better right? It just had to. It’s, like, a law of nature or something.

I got help. I went to counseling at numerous points, with more than one counselor (I actually will be returning to counseling once again in a few weeks.) I worked out. I found a church. I journaled. I began casually dating. I laughed. I read my Bible. I developed new hobbies. I binge-watched Netflix. I reinvented myself. I drank water. I got a tattoo in Nancy’s memory. I went on antidepressants. I lit candles. I invested in both things and experiences that brought me joy.

And while none of these things are bad in and of themselves, nor am I diminishing their worthiness on the journey towards healing – they were all done with the wrong destination in mind. All this time I’ve spent since Nancy’s death trying to survive her loss, I was actually supposed to be dying.

On December 14, 2011, the Wednesday after Nancy died, I found myself staring down the what seemed to be, simultaneously, both the longest and shortest church aisle I’d ever encountered. Though the aisle wasn’t a new one to me, as it was a part of the church my maternal grandparents have attended my entire life, it felt fiercely unfamiliar, even menacing in that moment. I’m unsure I’m even capable of naming all of the emotions that washed over me in that moment as I looked ahead at the casket awaiting me at the end of the aisle, where I knew my sister was laid out, readied for burial, though I couldn’t quite make her out yet.

It’s one of those moments that you’ll never be able to prepare for adequately. Nothing, nothing, prepares you to say good-bye to those you love. You cannot be prepared. The only choice you have in moments like these is just to face them as they come.

Every ounce of my body felt leaden with dread. My heart was racing, confirming with every panicked beat that yes, this was real, and no, I wasn’t dreaming. Even if I had wanted to pinch myself awake and out of this nightmare, I couldn’t have, because every inch of me felt detached and numb. Still, somehow, I was able to summon the supernatural strength to lift one ton-weighing foot after another. Before I knew it, I was making (admittedly slow, but still steady) progress down the aisle. With every step, my sister’s casket loomed closer and closer.

Before I was ready for it, Nancy’s face came into view.

Her face and neck were caked with far too much make-up, due to the mortician’s brave attempt to mask the many cuts and bruises she had sustained during the final moments of her life. Her face was swollen, and her cheekbones, a facial feature of hers that she favorited, were unceremoniously hidden as a result. Her hands, cold and stiff, were lightly folded on top of the sparkly lilac dress I had selected for her to be laid out in. Her hair was gently curled, and fanned out in wispy, dreamlike waves away from her head on the pillow of the casket. The combined effect was supremely ethereal. She looked serene, almost angelic, with the shadow of a forgotten smile still playing at the corners of her frozen mouth.

I was destroyed as I stood there, frantically attempting to memorize every detail of her face, her hair, her hands, her body – seized by the unyielding panic and harsh reality of the fact that this was my last opportunity to look Nancy full in the face on this side of heaven. I thought that maybe, if I could somehow absorb and sustain all of the details of those last moments with her, it would start to become more real. Perhaps the numbness would finally buckle under the weight of the obvious reality that stood before me. After all, I was literally staring reality in the face, accompanied by its garish and unforgivingly harsh florescent lighting.

My sister was dead. My eyes couldn’t lie.
My sister was dead. I had now confirmed it with my own eyes.

And yet, even as I stood there, an elephant I didn’t even know had taken up residence on my chest left as suddenly as it came, leaving me slightly light-headed and even giddy. In its absence, I found myself finally capable of inhaling for the first time since Sunday, when, upon hearing the news of Nancy’s death, I had collapsed and felt as though I got the wind knocked out of me.

Seeing Nancy lying there did more than assure me of her death. It assured me of her life.

Weirdly, though seeing her corpse was devastating, it also gave me such a relief. Because her corpse was literally just that: her corpse. It was an empty shell. Not one bit of the person I knew as Nancy had survived that car crash. Yes, her body was there, but she was not. And bearing witness to that, knowing concretely that nothing I loved about Nancy would be buried with her, brought more comfort than I’m able to effectively put into words, even now. Her soul was departed. I would actually see her again – and she would not only be everything I knew and loved and remembered, she could only be more and better.

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

2 Corinthians 5:1-5

Retrospectively, it seems so ironic that I’ve spent the last six years trying to skirt death, when God provided me with the mercy of very literally bearing witness to the fact that death is just a doorway to a new and better life. To live is Christ, to die is gain. Jesus came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Death, ultimately, is not a loss. It is an allowance of that which is mortal to be swallowed up by Life.

Thus, for me to submit to the death of myself ushered in by Nancy’s death – for me to bury who I was, who I thought I’d become, and what I thought my life should look like (to name a few) is not to experience death compiled on top of death, but rather to experience life compiled on top of life. After all, I worship the God of resurrection. To lean into the dying is to allow that which is unnecessary to fall away.  I can choose to become bitter at the fact that I’m standing knee-deep in ashes, or rejoice at the fact that phoenixes are born from ashes.

“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Ezekiel 36:26

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but He will heal us;
He has injured us
    but He will bind up our wounds.
 After two days He will revive us;
    on the third day He will restore us,
    that we may live in His presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    He will appear;
He will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”
Hosea 6:1-3

The fact that I’m realizing all of this now, in the midst of the seventh year since Nancy’s passing, is not altogether surprising to me.

Seven is a number that is deeply significant in Scripture – a number that traditionally represents wholeness and completeness, due to the fact that in the Genesis creation account, God created the world in seven days. It is used metaphorically again and again in Scripture, both in the giving of the Old Testament laws that governed the Israelites, as well as scattered throughout Hebrew poetry in the books of Psalms and Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 24:16 reads, “for the righteous fall seven times and rise again.” So according to Hebrew tradition, how it actually reads by implication is as follows: “though the righteous fall and are completely defeated, they will rise again.” Biologically, your physical body also replaces itself cellularly head to toe every seven years or so (give or take.)

This year, I am literally being reborn.

I’ve stopped running from Grief, and started embracing it as a friend and bedfellow. After all, Grief ceases to be something to be feared when death becomes something to be welcomed.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'”
Matthew 16:24-25

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