I stopped in my tracks, my eyes glazed over, and I commenced to have a meltdown, right there in the produce aisle. It was the sight of the artichokes that did it.
I know, I know. Very few people in the world assign strong emotional content to the sight of artichokes. But these were beautiful artichokes. And, okay, more to the point is that my dad loved artichokes. And he attached an importance to them, because he considered enjoying them and eating them correctly to be part of our Italian heritage. In our home it was a rite of passage when each of us kids became old enough to have our own artichoke and not just a few leaves of his. I remember my little brothers and sister, at age 4 or so, proudly showing him their little teeth marks on the leaves, hoping to pass the artichoke test.
Certainly this is more information than you need regarding my family’s quirky dinnertime traditions. My simple purpose here is to make it clear that the things that bring me to the point of emotional overload as I grieve the death of my dad are unique—because I am unique—just as you are.
Grief comes to the surface again when the day’s events and pressures shred my thin layer of composure and remind me that something has been lost. It is shaped by all the details of life; where I’m at, what I’ve been through, how I think about life, God, and the purpose of it all. Every big and little thing in my life has an affect on what grief looks like at any given moment. It’s truly fascinating that this universal experience is such an individual one.
My artichoke meltdown was at the intersection between where I was at that moment (the produce aisle, after a long day of work), and something (the artichokes) that brought on all my wonderful memories of family life with Dad. It was a simple but overwhelming moment of missing him and knowing I will always miss him from here on out. The sadness took over.
But grief is more complicated than that, isn’t it? Many of my grieving moments are not about Dad at all. Sometimes the focus moves from losing Dad to fear I will lose someone else—my husband, my kids, my mom, my siblings. Experiencing a death reminds me of the very hard truth that everything can change suddenly. The scariness of an unknown future can take over.
And sometimes my grief goes even beyond me and my family. I think about the hard realities of life—there is so much hurt and so much sorrow out there. And as I weep, it joins me to that suffering and enlarges my sense of world’s brokenness. I cry for the people I know who are in pain, and I cry for all the ways people have hurt in all generations. And then the longing for something better takes over.
As I look carefully at the specifics of the sadness, fear, and longing that I’m feeling, I have to come to a conclusion: my grief says a lot about me.
If I were to come to you for counsel, what would you do? Are you going to pull out a book on “stages” of grief and tell me that I’m fitting some standard pattern and will “get over” it in 1 to 4 years? Or will you be concerned that I’ve seemed to skip a step or two? Please don’t do that to me.
Instead, explore the specifics of my sorrow, my fear, and my longing—with me. Let this be a time of growth and enrichment. Because you, dear Christian, have the very best answers to these feelings that anyone can give. But you will also know not to rush to answers. First, you weep with those who weep. I am vulnerable right now, and I am sharing very deep things with you. Don’t rush.
There are big fat categories of typical responses to grief that my experience does fit into. But if you counsel me in generalities, checking off boxes on a prefab list, you’re not going to be a lot of help to me. Certainly, I do want to hear that I’m not crazy, and I might need to be reminded that everyone experiences grief in their lives, but I don’t want to be lost in check-lists or categories. Treat me as an individual, because I’m hurting and feeling very alone. Generalities will make me lonelier.
But once you know me well, telling me how I personally fit into the bigger picture of life is not speaking generalities. It’s helping me make sense of what I’m feeling.
Connect the sadness I feel to the compassion and comfort of Christ. Address my fear with the security of knowing that God is sovereign, and though his plan is beyond our understanding, it can be trusted to somehow be right and good, even when it seems wrong and hurts terribly. Take my longing for something better and remind me that God is in the process of bringing about the very thing I’m hoping for—only better than I can imagine. And, top it off with the fact that grasping all of that will bring me a peace that far surpasses human understanding. I can live a life of joy even while feeling the pain.
The plain fact is, living in this world hurts. And as Ecclesiastes teaches, it makes no sense without the knowledge of God to anchor our experience into his plan. We need to see each enjoyable moment, each glimpse of beauty, each smile, each sunrise as a gift from Him.
Those silly artichokes cost $3.59 a piece—way too much. But you know I had to buy a couple. My husband prayed before dinner that night. He thanked God for the both the joys and challenges of life, and for the grace to live through them well. And then we lifted our glasses and made a toast to my dad, and artichokes, and all things that make us unique human beings.