It’s as if my body and heart remember first, then my mind catches up. In late summer I start feeling not quite myself. I have moments of feeling sad, seemingly for no reason, and my body slows a little. A little strength leaves. I sit a little more often, and it’s a little harder to get up. I start wondering – am I getting a bit run down? My life is going okay, why am I so emotional? Then my mind catches up.
It’s February. Six Februaries ago, I lost my mum. And somehow even if I don’t want to focus on the ‘anniversary’ of that day in February, and I’d rather focus on celebrating the day she was born, March 25th, it’s as if my body remembers the beginning of February, lodged in me, and won’t let me forget. I cannot forget her and wouldn’t want to forget her. But I want to forget the day she was taken from me, and what happened in the weeks and months after that.
I know, six years on, I’m supposed to be able to reflect on things with a little more balance. But I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to remember the look on my dad’s face when I first saw him after the accident as he sat in a hospital bed at midnight. In all the thousands of expressions I’d seen on my Dad’s face as I grew up, I never saw this one before. In a single moment, he’d lost his wife.
I don’t want to remember seeing mum’s body on the white bed or in the casket.
I don’t want to remember standing inside a church in the stifling February heat, my mum’s casket at the front of the auditorium, asking people to help me move the plastic flowers that were in the church out into a back room before the funeral because she never liked fake flowers. I only wanted the real ones there on the day of her funeral.
Somehow getting every fake flower out of the room became something so important in the middle of everything. I had to have real red roses at her funeral because she liked those. And there had to be an unlined book for people to write in, not a book with lines. And stickers. Because she liked those too.
I don’t want to remember that I needed sleeping pills for a while, and that I needed to turn the radio on all night at a very low volume because sometimes it felt like darkness or death was in the room with me as I tried to get to sleep, and hearing the radio meant I felt a bit less alone.
I don’t want to remember meeting the man who caused the accident that made her lose her life. I don’t want to remember because there are flashes of anger embedded in that. Him walking into the room. Him wanting to get as small a punishment as possible for the charges: careless driving causing death.
I don’t want to remember the days, months and years of wrestling and surrender, wrestling and surrender, sweating fire, to get to the point of forgiveness; the wrestling and surrender continues whenever I allow myself to remember – the continual journey back to forgiveness that might still be an ongoing, active, repeating journey of surrender for the rest of my life.
For the first while, I was okay with remembering because I felt like it was part of ‘processing grief’. I let myself remember and let myself feel sad, accepted that feeling of strength draining out of me as tears burned. I liked looking through all the photos of my mum. Reading her handwriting. But maybe after the first two or three years, I told myself I didn’t want to keep feeling grief. It felt like I’d spent years of my life crying and adjusting to the shock of her being there one minute and gone the next. I didn’t want to feel it anymore.
I had some happy moments too of course even during the process of grief but there came a point where I just didn’t want the grief anymore. And it felt like I never found a person who I was comfortable to talk about things fully and unfiltered (yes, I had few counselling sessions and a Sozo or two) so it was easier just to try to not remember.
But I also made a promise to myself (I know some of you have heard it before) that I would not stop sharing my experience of grief in some way, even if I couldn’t articulate everything. And even if there were parts of me that didn’t want to remember. When I was in the most intense part of shock, trauma and grief, I tried to find church messages, teaching, sharing, of any Christians who had experienced grief, and I didn’t find much.
So I decided that as long as I still felt like there was some grief there, or was walking through processing it, I would share what I could at times. I would, even if I didn’t want to remember, put bits of my story out there, stubbornly throwing my words like a small silver offering into this large dark void in my culture of a grief that no one seems to want to talk about.
So here I am. Writing about grief. Six years later.
I lost a friend a couple of weeks ago to cancer and my experience at the marae where her body was laid impacted me greatly. I felt too vulnerable to go, but another friend offered to go there with me. I asked her to tell me what to do at the marae as I had no idea of tikanga. We stood outside the gate, waiting for the group before us to leave.
When they left and we heard the kaikaranga welcoming us, I instantly broke down. I remember Michelle’s conversations and debates with me about karanga. I remember saying to her that I didn’t feel comfortable with that feeling that came with karanga – that feeling of grief. I never thought I’d hear one at her tangi so soon. We walked slowly over the concrete, took off our shoes and entered. Michelle’s body was lying in the casket on the floor. And I still couldn’t stop crying. Not pretty crying. Ugly crying. I felt like, what are they going to think? I’m losing it. Usually I can rein it in at least a bit.
We went forward to the left side of the casket. Michelle’s body with carved wood in her hand; little warrior. Crying uncontrollably still, following my friend, worrying about tikanga and respecting protocol, kissed the lady on the cheek. Then to the right side of the casket, crying uncontrollably still. Kissed the man on the cheek, trying to even out my breathing while spluttering tears and embarrassment.
My first hongi. Crying uncontrollably. Not knowing where to put my hands or how to even my breathing.
And sitting on the seats to hear a man korero in Maori, me still crying uncontrollably. Catching a word here or there. And then when he translated in English, he gave tribute to Michelle then looked directly at me and said ‘If I can suggest something…’ and I was thinking oh no, he’s going to tell me I’ve forgotten some protocol or done something wrong. But he went on to say he wanted to acknowledge my bravery in letting my tears of aroha fall. And he gave me the honour and opportunity to say a few words in honour of Michelle, in whatever language I wanted.
So I stood up – there were only about six of us in there altogether. Just me and my friend on the right. I apologised for my lack of knowledge of tikanga, then spluttered and cried, my voice cracking, and got a few sentences out in the most undignified English I’ve ever spoken in my life, probably. But somehow I felt brave. My friend followed with a beautiful waiata. The man who saw my awkwardness in my grief, my out of control-ness, my not knowing what to do, chose to also see my bravery. He said ‘your tears are like the clothing Michelle wears as she goes to her heavenly father’. I’ll never forget this moment, someone drawing attention to my tears, in stark contrast to hiding or covering tears, or feeling awkward around tears, which is often what my own culture does.
So if you are grieving, in whatever way, loudly, quietly, or in not wanting to remember, you are brave. Remember that. You are brave.
What do you know – grief doesn’t have a neat, defined finish line. It has a rugged edge that rakes through you even when you’ve been through a lot of healing. It doesn’t take one form. It changes over time. It is a season that is finished and yet at the same time, it’s not.
I do feel that God has done a lot of healing in me and I’m so grateful for that. I don’t often have moments of feeling deep grief now – those moments are rarer, and moments of joy are much more common. And yes, I know I’ll see my mum and my friend again because they know Jesus. I grieve with hope. But I still grieve. And I still feel there is unfinished business.
There’s unfinished business in wanting more healing. And there’s unfinished business because I want to see God’s power healing people miraculously and raising the dead – with bolts of the Holy Spirit more powerful than death itself. I want to see Kingdom avenging for what happened to my mum and everyone else who had their best years stolen from them.
I’ve also decided that I never want to speak at another person’s funeral, if possible. Because I want to say how much I love and appreciate my friends, family, mentors and teachers BEFORE they die, no matter how imperfect our relationships may be. This means, for the rest of my life, I’ll be looking for little moments to speak and write to people to tell them how much I honour and value them, and tell them what I value about them.
So be encouraged – if you are experiencing grief or anything like it, you are not alone. If you have had some healing and yet still feel that rugged edge of grief raking through you at times, or that dysfunctional urge to be in denial, or the desire to forget, or that feeling of not knowing what to do with this memory or that, it’s okay. You are brave for simply grieving in whatever way you do. God is acquainted with grief, not far removed from it. May you know He’s with you. He sees your courage.