Lessons Learned in Grief and Gratitude
Phillip Alan Wright
February 24, 1998-February 21, 2017
I lost my eighteen year old nephew to suicide two weeks ago today. The grief has been dark and deep. The sorrow has been heavy and hard. Like the sun’s rays through a darkened sky, however, moments of love and hope and clarity have shone through. God has revealed Himself to me daily. His grace and His gifts have been both evident and abundant in the midst of our grief. Everyone experiences grief on a very personal level, and I can only speak to my own. I am learning that grief is a multi-layered process. It is a state of being that involves many emotions that change from moment to moment, day to day. My own grief coexists with joy and laughter and sadness and doubt and happiness and insight. In the past two weeks, I have learned these truths about myself, God’s presence, and my relationship with Him. I did not choose to learn these lessons, but I am grateful for them.
Beautiful, healing vulnerability. I am introverted, introspective, and emotionally very guarded and private with my feelings. I am learning that the middle of grief is no place to put on armor nor build a wall. Grief has forced me out of my comfort zone and begged me to express real and honest truths. It is not healthy to hold this grief inside, and I certainly can’t hide it. My wounds are open and raw, and I am unashamed and unafraid. This vulnerability is both humbling and healing.
The essence of family. The presence of a loving and supportive family has been essential in this grief process. It is such a strange thing to be overwhelmed by such a deep and brutal grief and an immense and powerful love both at the same time. We have taken turns hurting, nurturing, supporting, caring for, and allowing ourselves to be cared for by each other. This is the essence of family at its core.
He draws us close. There has been a constant presence surrounding me that, though intangible, can be physically felt even when I am alone. I can feel the love around me, the prayers, the presence, and know that I am held. I can feel Him drawing me close.
The feeling of safety in the storm. I was caught without warning in storm raging all around me, yet I know that my whole family is loved and protected and calm and held and hopeful even in the midst of all of this. I know my God loves us and is holding us very closely. This sense of safety and peace is a gift that has been given to me over and over again. I have been daily reminded of His calming presence and the peace that only He can provide.
The clarity of knowing what is truly important. After two weeks, the grief whirling all around me, completely out of my grasp, like dandelion dust in the wind, is settling into place. Only two times in my life have I felt so grounded, and never before have I had a clearer picture of what is truly important and what is not. I believe that is a gift from God.
The abundance of joy, love, and gratitude in the midst of grief. This grief feels heavy and deep inside me. One thing I am learning about my own grief is that even as it digs down deep, swelling up and hollowing me out, it is making a space for such an abundance of love and joy for others that I have never felt. I feel the fullness of joy and love welling up inside myself, as I am finding much more joy in other people's happiness than I usually do. This is a gift from God, and I am grateful for it.
Our community shares our grief. Suffering this loss in a small town and tight knit community, I am so aware of the whole community mourning with us. Through the years, our lives and families become interwoven through school, sports, church, friends, marriage, business, and service. Our family is not grieving alone. The whole community is mourning with us, sharing in our grief. No one can take our grief, but there is comfort in knowing that loving friends and neighbors share the burden.
We know who loves us and how to love others. The outpouring of love has been incredible, from visits and phone calls to food deliveries and house cleaning, to bringing paper products and stamps, answering phone calls and running errands, and just being present to sit or to listen or to laugh and cry together. I came home a few days after Phillip’s death to a foyer full of greenery, flowers, and a stack of cards which continues to arrive in the mail daily. I have friends who drove three hours for my nephew’s funeral just because they love us. Sure, there are friends who have not reached out like I thought they might, but I don’t fault them. I realize that some people don’t know what to say. Maybe they have never hurt this way and don’t know how it feels. Maybe their family is not as close as ours and they don't realize how painful losing a nephew can be. Likewise, there have been times that I have missed the opportunity to reach out to my friends who are hurting. I am learning from all of this, and I hope that this experience teaches me to show more love in the future to others in need.
The gift of empathy. One thing I am learning from my grief is how much more aware I am of others' grief. When I am witness to another person's loss, my heart aches more deeply and I pray for them a little bit longer. I feel more inclined to reach out and offer my support. I think this awareness and empathy is another gift from God. Thank you God for making me more aware of others and more empathetic to their suffering.
The beauty of a memory. I can’t tell you how many time I have heard the saying, “Cherish the memories,” and didn’t fully know what that meant or felt like. In my grief I have been grasping for anything that I can hold onto of Phillip’s, anything he did not or could not take with him to the grave. He took with him the present and the future, but he could not take our history. We will always have the memories. The sense of ownership and permanence has helped me to feel grounded in this time of unsteadiness.
God uses music to speak to us. Two weeks ago tonight, driving home alone on a country road at 2:00 in the middle of the cold, black night, listening to Christian radio, I heard the song “Even If” by MercyMe for the first time. My friends, that was God’s timing. We use music to offer praise and worship to Him, and sometimes He uses those songs to speak directly back to our hearts. Several days after Phillip’s death, my sister Emily, Phillip’s mom, was looking through her car when she found Phillip's New Ablaze CD. The song “Always”by Kristian Stanfill was the first song on it! Phillip loved this song, and Emily was able to share it. God uses these songs to remind us of His unwavering love for us and His constant presence.
The desire to live fully and freely. If you had asked me three weeks ago how I would have reacted in regards to my children following this tragedy, I probably would have said I wanted to shelter them and keep them wrapped up in a bubble, free from the harms and hurts of this world. Even I have been surprised that my reaction has been quite the opposite. I already hug my children tight. I already cherish every moment. What I want for them is to live their lives freely and fully. I want them to experience the trials and the hurts, I want them to learn and grow and figure things out. I want them to look upward and dig deep. I want them to learn independence and problem solving. I want for them to do the really hard work involved in fully being. I am ready to let go a little more so that they can grow a little more.
Love is easy. Following my nephew’s death, emotions ran high and tempers flared around me, yet I could not bring myself to be angry, not because I was so strong, but because I was so very weak. I was so emotionally drained and mentally weak that I didn’t have the stamina to be angry. All I could feel was love in a time when I thought I should probably be angry, too. I have heard that it takes more energy to hate than to love, but until I was at the place of emotional and mental depletion did I realize how true that is. It absolutely amazes me that God designed us so that even when we have nothing left to give and nothing else to lose, that we are still able to love.
He makes beauty for ashes. Two weeks ago while selecting a burial plot for my nephew, my step-father, mother, sister, and I all gathered around my father's grave. My step-father reminded us that we all stood in that exact spot 36 years ago wondering how in the world God was going to make something good from my father’s tragic death. My step-father was my father's friend, coworker, fishing and hunting buddy, and finally a pallbearer at his funeral. Two years later, he and my mom married and had three more children. Our incredible family of 7 was born from these ashes. Last night I celebrated the citizenship anniversary of a child whom I love dearly. Adopted from Ukraine, he became a citizen when his plane touched ground at JFK airport nine years ago yesterday. Six years before his parents lost their prematurely born twin daughters within two days of each other. Nothing can replace the children that were lost, and nothing can stop the heartbreak they endured. When I look at this child, though, I see what a blessing he is to his parents, to my own family, and to my children who love and adore him. And I think about what a blessing my friends have been to this precious child who might still live in an orphanage in a war torn country if not having been open to God using them in their time of heartbreak. God may not cause our suffering, but He can create good and beauty even in the midst of it. I pray that your grief and mine will help to create something beautiful. I pray beauty will be made for these ashes.
Every person experiences grief differently on a very personal level. I hope these things are an encouragement to you if you are in the midst of grief. Please continue to keep this family in your thoughts and prayers. If you or someone you know needs to speak with a pastor of a church, Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Danville wants to speak with you. They can be reached at 434-724-7118 or on the internet at www.mhbchurch.com. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Southern Virginia Mom