Saturday, March 03, 2012

Three Years Since He Left

Feb. 7, 2012 marked the 3 year anniversary of Andrew's death. I bet many of you, like me, can hardly believe so much time has passed.

Grief is a funny thing. It is unpredictable and whenever you think it's been gone so long, maybe it'll forget to return, it shows up. Then, instead of a few minutes, it stays several weeks. And just when you've come to expect this unwanted guest is never leaving, you wake up one morning, and it has taken off in the middle of the night. The air is clear again and the suffocating fog it brought with it has lifted. You look out the window and you say, "Oh! that's what the sun looks like. I almost forgot."

Now that I am feeling better after a difficult month (the weeks before and after the anniversary of Andrew's death), I'm finally posting the blog I wrote about it last month:

People ask me if the holidays are difficult for me. The holidays aren't particularly difficult. But,

- weddings (for some reason I still go to all of them, though inevitably they remind me of my hopeful day and how all those hopes were dashed to pieces)
- the weeks surrounding Andrew's birthday/September 11th
- my birthday/Mother's day,
- and Andrew's death day

are the difficult parts of the year for me.

The weeks leading up to the anniversary of Andrew's death were difficult and emotional for me. My Pastor Warren said that I should expect it to still be difficult for me, because anniversaries like this tug on the scar tissue. He said he always compares emotional injuries to physical injuries. So if I had been in a severe car accident three years ago and had suffered a spinal injury, I might still be in a wheelchair, still making my recovery.

Most of the time, nowadays, I know 3 years has passed. I know all the events that have passed throughout these 3 years and all that we've made it through. I know how much I've changed in the last three years.

The distance that three years has provided means all the memories I blocked out, that I couldn't face remembering the first few years, I am now able to remember. Because I've processed a lot of my grief and memories, I am now able to access the beautiful memories - I am able to be honest with myself about the profundity of my loss. I no longer have to minimize it to myself in order to cope. Strangely, the more time and distance that has passed between now and Andrew's death, the sharper the pain is when it does come. The sharper the realization is of the profundity of my loss.

And so sometimes, a beautiful memory of Andrew will fly at me all of a sudden, and my heart longs to be near him desperately, more than it ever could the first year of his death. In that moment, suddenly, I remember what it's like to be in love - though I had blocked out that remembrance the first year. Being in love almost does feel like magic - the way you feel like you belong together. A connection that goes beyond a list of things that you like about each other. It's just like you're two puzzle pieces that are made for each other. And in that moment, I remember that "I can't live without you," is not just a sentimental line from a movie. And in those moments, suddenly, three years have disappeared. I feel the knife stabbing my heart relentlessly and I cry out, "God, I can't do this! I'll never survive this!"

And then, it will come to mind, "Wait a second, Grace. You have survived this. He didn't die two weeks ago. It's been three years. You and you're children are still alive. And you are all moving on with your lives. The kids are doing well and so are you. You made it through the worst part. Obviously, you can manage as a single mother. You have survived this. Just keep doing what you're doing. Keep going."

Now that I am here at the 3 year marker, it is interesting to see the differences between where I am now and where I spent the first 2 years after Andrew's death.

In retrospect, that first 2 years, I lived every single day with pain. I felt like I daily was managing my pain. I had to "manage" my pain, because if I didn't control it and didn't pace myself, the pain was too excruciating to confront all at once. This was my way of coping. Honestly, I have only sobbed about three times since Andrew died. Yes, I did cry every single day the first year, but not uncontrollably. More like a faucet. Not a fire hose. Whatever didn't come out in tears, stayed in all my muscles. So then, I returned to my old love of dance and found some dance classes, in order to deal with the grief that was stuck in my muscles. I had heard physical activity was an important aspect of dealing with grief. In fact, until I finished the first draft of my manuscript in August, if you pressed on my shoulders, it would have literally felt like putting your finger on a hard rock.

My muscles did not release until I had laid down the burden of my memories and my story into the first draft of my book and looked the beautiful memories of our love story in the face. My muscles did not relax until I had reached the point in my grief process where I could look those memories in the face and finally grapple with them.

The way I dealt with my grief, I suppose it would be like if you were giving birth, would you want to have contractions over a few hours or over 15 minutes? Many of you might say the latter. But as someone who had a normal birth with my first-born, AJ, and an unexpected 15-minute labor with Gracie, it is a terrifying thing to make all that progress in labor in only 2 major contractions. The two contractions feel like you're a bomb exploding over the course of a few minutes and you expect you are going to be splattered all over the wall in the explosion. So in my grief process, I didn't explode in a short period of time like a bomb. I had to leak the nuclear waste (my sadness) over time, so I could maintain my sanity and keep my hands moving and making sandwiches for my children at lunch time. It would have been too unbearably painful to sob uncontrollably on a normal basis. My chest would have exploded and my children would have starved.

I always imagined that I could last as a single mom on my own for 1.5 years. Then, I figured God would just have to provide some unexpected means of grace once my strength ran out. Just as my strength ran out, AJ came out of his grief. And the Lord provided Lydia, a college student from our church, to move in with us. The kids were happy - no longer grieving, which I wanted them to get through before I could check out - I had help, and I finally checked out for a year.

I am a testimony that God's grace is sufficient. I saw a movie this summer where this woman has a nervous breakdown. I had to turn it off half-way through, because her behavior in the days leading up to her breakdown reminded me too much of myself. It caused me to realize that before the Lord provided Grace Lindeman last fall and then Lydia (as I talked about in my entry, "I Grace Have Risen from the Dead"), I was probably 2 inches away from a nervous breakdown. I had no experience with such things, so I didn't know what a nervous breakdown looked like until I saw that movie. Between trying to manage the pain, not accepting I was a single mother and so still living like my husband was just on a business trip but just hadn't returned yet, I had worn myself out. Having help move in was an acceptance that Andrew was never returning. Having help move in was a realization that I had to change my life and I couldn't keep living like I only had to hold down the fort until my husband returned any day now. So I am incredibly grateful that The Lord certainly did provide the grace I needed and faithfully protected me from going over the edge into a nervous breakdown.

Every year, on the anniversary of Andrew's death, I have someone take my kids for the weekend. I did this the first anniversary, because I suddenly found that there was no way I could "manage" my pain at the anniversary. I did it again the second year because since my Fall 2010 meltdown, I thought things were only getting worse, so I feared the 2 year anniversary would be even more unmanageable than the 1 year anniversary. But when I had the 2 year anniversary weekend by myself, I was able to realize the progress I had made since the 1 year anniversary. The Lord used that anniversary to show me that hitting rock bottom in the fall had been my getting worse before I got better. And I was getting better. At the 2 year anniversary, the Lord showed me He had freed me. I felt resurrected. And that was the turning point. And thus began my upward recovery.

So last winter, spring, and summer, I continued to recover. I put both the kids into school 25 hours/week. I had Lydia's help two nights a week and one Friday-Saturday a month. And I hired a babysitter an additional night of the week. I did have every morning with my kids at least for an hour or two, read the Bible to them, and did chores with them. They enjoyed our morning routine, as usual, and found security in that, as usual. They also still had time with me whenever they were home and there was no sitter. While physically I was still present, and went through the motions when the kids were around, for the most part, I completely checked out. And then, over the summer, finishing the first draft of my book was a significant part of that recovery.

And so, this fall, I returned to my body, so that it was no longer a moving shell, but actually contained Grace in it.

"Moving on" with my life has been such a difficult thing to do, because I didn't really know what it meant to live without my life entirely in reference to Andrew. We still lived in the same house we had lived in with him. I was still surrounded by all the furniture I had chosen and/or put together with him. Everything reminded me of him. But Andrew had said to stay in our house, rather than move, after he died. Nothing changed in my life, except that he was gone. "Nothing" changed in my life, except that everything changed in my life. I had no idea what "moving on" looked like. I may have thought it was going back to how life was before Andrew. But before Andrew I was in college and had no children. This Grace is a totally different Grace than the one whose face turned red as she spoke to Andrew for the first time in that large auditorium at Rolfe 1200 after Bible study in the Fall of 2001 (His first memory of me was "red." I said that makes sense, because I was wearing a burgundy shirt and my face probably was bright red). That Grace was in the past.

I can't reference the pre-grief/pre-cancer-trial-Grace in order to recognize that Grace has returned to her body. I was 26 when cancer first descended upon our household, January of 2007. I'm 31 now. Too much has happened since then. The Grace I am today is a completely different Grace even than the one that stood over Andrew's casket as he was lowered into the ground. That Grace entered the casket with him. So what would the post-Andrew me be?

My personality is still the same. I still find all the same things funny, come off as shy when in a new situation, but am always dancing around while talking incessantly when I'm comfortable. My personality is still me, but the person that I am is not the same.

I used to say that I was the right leg and Andrew was the left leg of the relationship. We were such extreme people, we wondered how we ever survived before we met each other. We thought we couldn't survive without each other. Andrew had said in one of his letters, "Any time you don't know what to do in a situation, just think 'what would Andrew do?'" I did that a lot the first year. And now after 3 years of having to survive without my other half, I would say I am a full person. But it is because of Andrew. Really, I am Grace/(Andrew). He is a part of me and always will be. I learned so much from him. He was the practical one, anchoring me, as I always had my head in the clouds. He was the steady one, while I was the roller coaster (which he got a kick out of). I focused on the details to the point of myopia and slow-motionness, while he loved the bigger picture and was super-efficient - he taught me to run from the car to the supermarket, instead of walking like a snail (hey, I was preoccupied with figuring out how to turn the walk into a story. The sun glinting through the trees made the leaves look like dangling coins. The beauty was distracting) as one time-saving tip. He taught me when I got to the dwindling hours of the afternoon, to consolidate the last few things on the to-do list to somehow get them all done at once, instead of leaving them to the next day(s) to finish. Like, instead of running errands at 3 different stores 15 minutes away when you only had 30 minutes left, just do the next best thing and pay $2 extra to get everything all at Walgreen's on the corner (He said, "Time is money").

But more than all those practicalities, Andrew embodied the gospel more than anyone I have ever met. I think many of you who knew him would agree with me. He grasped better than anyone what a wicked sinner he was and how gracious God was to save someone like him. We all are wicked sinners; he just grasped it better. Most of us don't want to admit just how bad we are, how we judge others, but don't see we do the same things. Even if we are moral on the outside, we won't admit to ourselves how capable we are of wickedness, the stuff that's in our hearts, even if we successfully don't show it on the outside. That humility is what gave Andrew the ability to love me so constantly, so persistently, in spite of my continual sinfulness.

I would not have been able to survive as a single mom had he not taught me and demonstrated the multitude of those things first. It was the 5 year apprenticeship I had with Andrew that prepared me to live without him. He gave me my left leg.

The Lord's Faithfulness at The 3 Year Anniversary

Just after Andrew and I left our UCLA fellowship group to move to Washington state, we heard a new woman had joined the fellowship group's staff. When a friend visited us in Washington and told us about this new woman, I heard she was a young widow in her late-twenties. I remember as a newlywed trying for one second to imagine what that would be like. And after that one second, I shook the idea out of my mind and said, "How horrifically unimaginable" - meaning it was too painful for me even to think for one second about it. So I didn't.

After Andrew's death, as I visited friends in Los Angeles, I heard after 8 years this young widow - I'll call her "C" - had re-married. It turned out when she got re-married, C had moved to Minnesota shortly after Andrew and I had moved here (Fall of '07). I lived 35 minutes away from C, but I never met her.

Finally, last spring, I emailed C. I wanted to learn from someone who had been a long-term young widow and survived. Though she had never had children with her first husband, I thought she might still be a resource. I feared she might not want to meet, since I might trigger too many hurtful memories for her. But instead, even though she was sleep-deprived, having just given birth to a second baby a couple weeks earlier, she was eager to meet right away. Since then, we've continued to get together.

During our times together, I loved that rather than fearing memories of her old hurts, she had a heart for young widows. I loved that I could ask her all kinds of questions that I had always wondered. I loved how honest and open she was. I loved that I could tell her anything and rather than be surprised or judge me, she completely understood. I loved how when she spoke Biblical truths about God's faithfulness to me, she wasn't preaching to me. She wasn't being glib. She was testifying to what she had experienced first-hand. I loved how when she spoke those truths to me, it was in a non-condemning, non-judgmental tone. It was a gentleness that could only be the fruit of having experienced profound hurt over a long period of time.

When C came to visit me a few weeks ago when I was struggling, I didn't know what I was feeling. At least if you know you're sad, you can just have a good cry and feel better. But often, I don't know what I'm feeling. And so I just feel like my insides are about to burst. Like each of my cells are a bomb. I'm unable to cry, because I'm still not convinced it's because I'm sad. Since very early on after Andrew's death, I've always been hard on myself - "You're not still sad about this are you?" I'd tell myself. But then if I'm able to talk about it with someone who has already lost a spouse, then they can validate my feelings and then I don't feel crazy.

C said to me, "People often don't realize that sometimes you still feel like you've been torn in half."

And I felt like, "You mean it's normal to feel that way sometimes still?" By her expressing my feelings in a sadder way than I thought I was allowed to feel - and that was if I admitted to myself that I was even sad - took off the pressure for still feeling that way. I felt relieved.

And she said, "And that on those 'torn-in-half' days, you feel like you are walking through wet cement."

"Yes! That's exactly it!" I said. The craziness I was feeling began to subside.

The first two years after Andrew died, basic tasks were difficult. Andrew said in his letters to put one foot in front of the other. Putting one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, was like crossing an Indiana Jones rickety bridge over a vast chasm. I couldn't look down. I couldn't think about what was lost. I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I couldn't panic. I couldn't give up and fall off the bridge. I had to stay alive for the sake of the kids.

But now that I have crossed the bridge, putting one foot in front of the other is simple. Walking is a basic task. Walking across a rickety bridge over a vast chasm is not. Rather, it is the greatest challenge of your life. When you are crossing a rickety bridge that is so long you can't see the end of it and is so long, you've forgotten that real ground exists, basic tasks like getting out of bed, making breakfast for my kids, eating a meal myself - what huge tasks they were! (Food was difficult in particular, because Andrew had not been able to eat the last 11 months of his life - and if anyone loved eating, it was Andrew. Not to mention Andrew and I got to know each other over apartment dinners with all our friends. I associated loss and stress with food).

Yet day after day the Lord helped me to accomplish my tasks. But how there was no room left in my brain for other things! And how incredibly exhausting it was. While neighbors were planting gardens and having friends over for dinner, those tasks seemed like monumental impossibilities to adding to the one-foot-in-front-of the other task of now-it's-time to-make-lunch. I remembered how Andrew and I always used to have people over for dinner, not only when we were married, but before we were together. And I wondered how I ever had done such monumental impossibilities.

Wondering such things, while not realizing I was not doing regular walking but one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-rickety-bridging, I added guilt to the weight of crossing the bridge.

And, on top of grief making basic tasks difficult, it was so hard being a single mom, particularly of little children who had just gotten out of diapers. Pastor Warren told me that he is always telling everyone that being a single mom is the hardest job in all the world.

When C arrived at my house, my cell phone rang. While I was distracted, Lydia told her which coffee shops were nearby. Normally, I never remember Dunn Brothers Coffee. While I used to like Dunn Brothers, I stopped going when Andrew died. It was down the street from the cemetery. And while I occasionally found comfort visiting Andrew's grave, I also associated the cemetery with death and sadness. And so, due to its proximity, I now associated Dunn Brothers with death and sadness. When I went to coffee with friends, I wanted to relax, not be haunted by the idea of the cemetery down the street. When I got off the phone, C said Dunn Brothers was her favorite. So we went. And as I drove, I mentioned that Andrew's grave was down the street.

She said, "Maybe if we finish coffee early, we could visit Andrew's grave?"

Nobody, other than family, had ever asked me that before. It had never occurred to me that that would be something I would even want. But when she said it, it sounded like it might just hit the spot. So I said, "Okay."

At his grave, having her to stand beside me, and just understand, I found myself beginning to feel better.

On the actual weekend before the anniversary of Andrew's death, the one in which I always send my kids to someone else's house, I usually like to be alone. I don't want the anniversary to pass me by unacknowledged without having to take the time to remember Andrew. Ignoring my grief doesn't make it go away. If anything, it makes it linger. And it makes it attack me at inopportune times. At least if I take the time to deal with it, I can have some say in the timing. I don't want the anniversary to pass me by, while I find myself distracted talking about pancakes or something with friends. But it kept coming to mind that this year, I should not be alone. I found myself only wanting to be with people who knew West Los Angeles, where Andrew and I had fallen in love.

And so C came to see me again. In spite of having two small children and living 35 minutes away, C came to see me a lot during those difficult weeks. She understood what a difficult time I was having.

The second person I wanted to spend time with the anniversary weekend was someone who had just moved to Minnesota - I'll call her "J." J was a freshman at our fellowship group when I was a senior at UCLA, so I did not know her very well back then. But since I was the only person she knew in Minnesota when she moved here in the Fall and her husband's job kept him away most of the time, we got together regularly.

Her husband - I'll call him "K" - had just gotten a job with the Timberwolves. So on the weekend of the anniversary, after spending the afternoon together, J took me to a game. Afterwards, I finally met J's husband (he had been so busy with work, I had never met him before). They invited me out to eat with them after the game.

As we sat at the restaurant, when I mentioned in passing that it was the anniversary of Andrew's death, J's husband mentioned that his mom died of cancer. J had told me this a few months before, but I had forgotten. J was very close to K's mom, even before they were married, so both J and K grieved the death of K's mother. Realizing his mom had died of cancer and at such a vulnerably young age for him (college), I sensed that it was safe to talk about Andrew, rather than needing to hold in all that I was thinking. I could be myself and uninhibited, and they would not cut me off to judge or correct me.

J and K had been married for three years. Andrew and I had been married for three years before his first cancer diagnosis. I found things J and K said kept reminding me of stories of Andrew before cancer, and I found myself sharing those stories with them, as well as stories about grief and loss. It was obvious that talking about such things did not scare them, nor stories about the good 'ole days with Andrew. As I told them all about Andrew, most of the stories made me laugh and smile - something that I could not do in earlier years of grief.

At the end of our conversation J said, "God answered my prayer from earlier today." She said, "I prayed that memories of Andrew, rather than make you feel sad, would cause you to smile." And those memories did make me smile.

How Am I in General?

At three years, I do feel a lot better. In fact, there are many times where I will say this is the happiest I've ever been in my life. I feel God has freed me so much from so many things. I'm grateful for all the ways the Lord has stretched and grown me through profound pain and all the accompanying challenges. I'm grateful that I can testify firsthand that God is and has been a Husband to the husband-less. I love the closeness with which the Lord walks with me. Honestly, I wouldn't change what I've been through for anything, because the fruit of it is worth it.

So I've experienced profound pain. Even if I had experienced all of human suffering in all of history put together all in one (and obviously I haven't), compared to the glory of God, it's depth is just a pin prick.

Life is short. Before we know it, we'll blink, and people will be at our funerals. Ask any 70 year old. They'll tell you they were 25 years old a second ago. In light of eternity, whether you die at 27 or 99, there's not much difference. The only thing that matters is God's glory. And in some people's lives, God gets more glory when that person dies young. David Brainerd was 27 when he died. I am eternally grateful that Jesus died at 33. So, in light of that, well, this pain, now that I'm out on the other side of it, I am able to say it was worth it. I'm grateful.

I will probably always miss Andrew. And I will probably continue to write about missing him and the accompanying trials. At times, I still live with weeks-long periods of pain, such as these recent ones. During such weeks, I just know that pain is a regular part of my life and I co-exist with it, as I go about my day and my responsibilities, even if it does make basic things, like cleaning up after dinner or (not so basic things) like wrestling my manuscript into revision - like walking through wet cement. I get less done and what I do get done, I get done slower, but I get done the important things that God both calls me to and gives me the grace to do.

During the first year of my grief process, at times the periods between pain was a few seconds. Sometimes, they stretched to a few minutes or a few hours, then a few days. Now, more and more time stretches between the episodes of pain. This year, there are several weeks between periods of pain. Even months between periods of deep pain, though there is always more mild intermittent pain and missing of Andrew. The fact that the time between pain is longer than the weeks of pain, means that pain is no longer the dominating emotion of my life.

I wrestle with these simultaneous feelings - gratitude and relief that the Lord has rescued me in numerous ways from myself through my trials, while at the same time I still experience profound hurt. How does one feel grateful for pain (due to the fruit it has produced), while at the same time still cry over the pain? How does one feel one wouldn't change the past because of its fruit, while at the same time it is still so painful that all I have to offer my children is me and not me-and-Andrew. While there are times I miss him so much it could kill me?

I wrestle back and forth between these two profound feelings. Gratefulness for the fruit of the pain. And longing for the past before the pain. Both legitimate. Both valid. Both real.

My Pastor Warren says that Psalm 139 says, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made." He says he takes that to mean how incredibly and wonderfully complex the human being is. He said human beings are capable of feeling completely opposite feelings at the same time. Knowing that has helped me, as it takes so much of the pressure off. It means I don't have to wrestle between those opposing feelings. I can simply embrace them.

I am excited for whatever the Lord has in store for me and my children in this next year. I am excited to see what God will have done at the 4 year anniversary. Andrew wrote in his letters, "Smile at the future. The best is yet to come." I smile a lot now. I love my life. I love my kids. And for the first time in years, because I'm finally happy and secure, I am excited for whatever unknown future the Lord has in store.


  1. It is wonderful to see Christ work through His body. Truly "C" and "J" and "K" were prepared for the ministry they would have with you,in addition to many ministries before and after their times with you. Similarly, truly you are being prepared for Christ's ministry to many others in the future as you've been an instrument already for the comfort and illumination of others. THANKING GOD for you, Grace!

  2. I have been encouraged as I have read your blog for the last couple of years. Thanks for sharing. I was wondering if you might have any suggestions for resources for a family that is also struggling with a similar situation. The dad has been fighting renal cancer for the last 3 1/2 years. This is a young family with 4 children ranging from 9 years old- 1 year old. Also do you have any suggestions specifically for how to prepare their children for the possible death of their dad.

  3. Hi Michele, I would love to speak further to you. Perhaps you could email me at gracemark7(at)