It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since this pandemic started. An entire year of social-distancing, masks, and a whole lot of plexi glass. Finally, there seems to be a hint of spring in the air, a glimmer of hope that we might be able to return to “normal.”
But I realize not everyone can just get back to how it used to be.
This is where I am.
At the height of stay at home orders and a country scrambling for toilet paper, my dad found out that he had stage four lung cancer. In the summer, we were talking on the phone several times a week, and by fall, he was gone. It was a heartbreaking turn of events in a time when the world already felt completely upside down.
Those last days with my dad were bittersweet in the truest sense. If you know what it’s like to be with someone in their final moments, you know how the ordinary becomes sacred. You know how your heart manages to be utterly broken for what has been lost yet fuller than it has ever been with what little you still have. Yes, death felt like an ever approaching shadow. And cancer against a backdrop of a world in crisis was the perfect storm.
But somehow, my dad stayed fully present in the moment. He always had a knack for being content with the simplest things. Even as breath drained out of him, he was able to keep his thoughts on what we might all enjoy for dinner that night (even when we all knew cancer had stolen his appetite). “I want to fight this,” he told my sister in the hospital room after he got the diagnosis. But making it to treatment in a healthcare system at the peak of a pandemic was like manuevering through a nightmare in slow motion.
My dad died on a record cold and windy November morning, just a month after his diagnosis. I stood there beside his hospital bed at 3am, with the sound of the breathing machine beeping and tubes all around, and laid my head on his chest to feel his presence one last time. He had turned to Jesus just a year before, and I remember my mom tearfully but courageously telling him, “It’s okay. You can go to Jesus now.” Of course, nothing in her wanted him to go. But it gives me comfort believing my dad died as content as he lived.
Then I did the most painful thing. I watched my dad take his last breath and struggled to catch my own.
As the world prepares to move on, I find myself on the path where the familiar feels empty and normal is different. Now, normal is living in a world with a thousand triggers of how things used to be and a thousand reminders of how things will never be the same. It’s tears that well up in unexpected places and unwelcomed times. It’s my mom navigating this crazy, pandemic world without her rock. Normal is living with a piece of my heart gone.
I realize it doesn’t matter if you’re 40 or 100, losing a parent even as an adult shifts and upheaves your world permanently. I’m thankful my dad got to walk me down the aisle, be my kids’ hero, and live a full life. But a treasure of memories doesn’t fix the present grief. Four months later, I still can’t wrap my mind around his absence from this earth. Grief drops you off in a strange intersection where loss feels as unreal as it does real.
But I am learning that I can miss the past where he so vibrantly lives, and yet still move forward. I don’t have to get over the fact that my dad isn’t here, but I know I will get through.
And while there isn’t an easy way through, here’s what has been helping me to take baby steps forward.
I’m moving through by being still.
I am accepting that grief can’t be rushed. Sometimes, I promise you, as it all sinks in, it feels like I’m going backwards. But I am being patient with myself. In those first weeks, when grief was raw and gut-punching, I would sit and fold laundry for two hours in the laundry room. Two hours. And this wasn’t because I was carefully folding my kids’ shirts Marie Kondo style. I needed to do nothing but sit in a mess of laundry and fall apart. Stillness looks weak. But it’s stopping on purpose to accept what is, and for me, this has been the beginning of moving through.
I’m moving through by letting go.
I am learning how to let go. Jesus says to cast our cares upon him because his yoke is easy and his burdens are light. But how many times do I cast off only to heap it all back on myself, wondering why it feels like there’s an elephant on my chest? I realize bringing my cares and burdens to God is the start. But I also have to trust him to take it all from my feeble hands. So I am trying to let go of my timeline, my expectations, my need for control through the process. I have to remember that God not only cares for me but carries me. But I have to trust him to hold me through.
I’m moving through by not letting death win.
Death feels like the enemy. It has left an empty chair around the table. But it only wins if it doesn’t change me. If it doesn’t make me more heavenly minded, more purposeful about my numbered days, more appreciative of every sunrise, sunset, and everything in between. Watching my dad pass from this life, I decided, I will not let death win. Because Jesus didn’t let death win. And that’s my hope, not just on Easter morning when I sing with an extra measure of enthusiasm, “because he lives, I can face tomorrow,” but on every precious, run of the mill day when I need to be reminded that this life is not all there is. That in a world stricken with a pandemic, sin, and every other horrific thing possible, on days when nothing goes right, I need to remember he turns things right side up again. He will make it right! Loss does sting fiercely, but hope in a savior who has defeated death and loves me conquers all. I believe he will turn mourning into dancing, brokenness to hope, pain into purpose, death to everlasting life.
So yes, I am moving through to a new normal, where there are a lot more tears, but somehow a clearer vision … of hope so much brighter than any hint of spring.
I love you, Dad. ‘Til we meet again.
Happy Easter, world! Take heart.