A few weeks back, I got an amazing gift. Let me explain.
In 2005, on our honeymoon in Hawaii, my wife and I decided we would try to return every five years. Our lives are lives of service, and consequently contain a lot of chaos, but like Jesus slipping away from the crowds, our marriage’s survival requires some time of stillness and quiet apart from all that.
For our fifth anniversary, we actually did make it back, but this year, our tenth, things just piled up on us: there was too much going on at work, our vacation time was all used up on visiting family, we couldn’t find the money. And then, out of nowhere, my boss sent me an e-mail: he needed me to go and teach at a training event. It was being held in Maui.
Now bear in mind, eight years ago, our lives were touched by tragedy when our son was stillborn at full term (the first of six perinatal losses). Except our honeymoon, every vacation my wife and I have ever taken together has been “after”. I don’t even remember how normal people vacation. For them (I hear), it’s riding zip lines and flying over lava. For us, it’s finally having time alone with the one other person who is capable to understand. It’s finally, for once, not having to pretend.
On our way to Maui, the in-flight movie was Inside Out, about a girl named Riley and her emotions. At one point, the main character, Joy, becomes trapped in long-term memory with Sadness, and they meet Riley’s childhood friend, Mr. Bing Bong, who is dejected about being left behind as Riley grows up. While Joy uselessly tries to “snap him out of it” by bouncing around and being goofy, Sadness just sits beside him and takes his hand, acknowledging what’s happening and savoring bittersweet memories. At first, Joy is horrified and scolds, “Sadness, don’t make him feel worse!” But suddenly she realizes something: it’s working. After Mr. Bing Bong stands up, ready to keep going, Joy pulls Sadness aside and marvels, “How did you do that??” Sadness, she realizes, is capable of something that Joy can never comprehend.
As bereaved parents, we have had many people try to “snap us out of it” or get us to “move on”. Those became people we simply had to endure. The ones who were a blessing to us, rather, were the ones who understood the biblical advice to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
You may have heard the popular quote, “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.” We generally like to mix the last two. While in Maui, we developed one inviolable tradition: standing at the ocean every night watching the sun go down. One day we lost track of time, and had to leap up in the middle of dinner and sprint down to the beach. (We made it with about 2 minutes to spare.)
Why did that nightly ritual matter so much? I think because it was our special time to feel whatever we were feeling, without the usual processing required to filter down to what’s “acceptable”. The overwhelming beauty of the sky, aflame; the two of us, still standing side-by-side after all that life has done to knock us down; the many nights in the hospital wondering how much grieving I would have to do in the morning; the ebbing away of the day as it mirrors the passage of our lives; the power and unchangingness of the ocean; the connectedness to generations past and future, who have stood or will stand rapt in the same natural glory… in those moments I just felt connected to it all. Some nights brought tears, some simply brought wonder.
Out of all the lessons I have learned in surviving the past eight years, if one stands out, it is that my life does not have to make sense to anyone else but me. There was always one passage of scripture that used to puzzle me exceedingly, but after our first loss, I suddenly understood. “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” That’s from Ecclesiastes. To me now, its point is: not everything has a point. Some of it is just stuff that happens. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes the best we can make of it is to simply walk alongside of each other, bearing one another’s burdens. In those times, we can simply take Sadness by the hand, let ourselves abide, and wash in the salt water for as long as we need to, until we are ready to keep going.
Other recommended posts: