As I was traveling to my destination this morning, minding the road’s familiar twists and turns, navigating the occasional pothole, I was taken with the notion that grief is much like a journey down a road well traveled. After the loss of someone dear, we may find ourselves on an unfamiliar though well traveled highway, with grief as our traveling companion. We may even find ourselves a bit lost at times along the way.
There may be days when the sun shines warmly on our faces, and others when the glare blinds our eyes. A storm may erupt when we least expect it, but we navigate the slippery road of grief nonetheless. Many times we simply wish to stop and stare longingly into the rearview mirror at our past, becoming engulfed in the memories of what once was.
But like driving a car, though, we must glance occasionally into the rearview mirror to see where we have been; we simply cannot fix our eyes there and move forward safely. Of course we must remember the past. It is the foundation of our present life. Our past, with its challenges and joys, and all that transpired in between, has made each of us who we are today. But we can’t live there. However, we can use our memories as a springboard to a hopeful future.
I visited with a gentleman who was receiving visitors at his deceased wife’s showing recently. He shared sweet stories of his life with his beloved — how they met, their growth as a couple and even their retirement plans — and spoke of how blessed he had been for over 34 years to have loved this dynamic woman who had lost her battle with cancer. He spoke of the journey they shared as her health declined following a reoccurrence of the 15-year-old disease.
“I feel like I was blessed with twice as much time as what some others get with this disease,” he said, confiding that research reports a six-year reoccurrence rate for a high percentage of patients in remission. “I will always miss her, but I know things will be alright eventually,” he concluded.
This gentle man had looked to his past and even through the lens of grief felt only love and gratitude for what he had. With hope fueled by faith he turned to his future and rested in knowing that life would go on eventually — a different life, but one built on the past he held dear. There was no urgency in his voice for this new life. He simply was sifting through his memories as he mourned his loss.
I have heard some say those who grieve must let go of their past memories. But how is that possible when they are truly the stuff that we are made of? Others have said the memories bring such pain that they won’t look to the past. But how can we have hope for our future without healing our past?
I have learned that remembering our deceased loved one and all that they meant to us can be painful at first. There is a very real loneliness to those memories as we ache for their very presence in our lives. But there is healing there as well. As time marches on we have the choice to work through our grief and move forward or remain in the pain and live in the past.
Griefshare.org, a bereavement website, recently offered, “Our hope lies before us, not in the memories of our past. Life’s path leads us forward and our decisions must be made based on our present and future needs not on our past memories.” Doing the hard work of mourning means looking to the past for a time and allowing ourselves to move through those painful feelings that are stirred by our longings — and then, in time, moving forward to create a new life, all the while holding our precious memories dear. Our future, you see, stands on the shoulders of our past.
This road we travel with grief at our side is a well-traveled road. Many sojourners have traversed this path before us finding their way to hope. In that hope there is the promise to each of us that we are not alone — never alone. In the pain of loss — our seeming constant companion — when we may find ourselves lost and weary, the support and wisdom of others who are familiar with this sometimes-agonizing road can sustain us.
As we journey into the future, we may find that as we work through our pain we learn to slow down and appreciate life’s landscapes in a different way. We may even reach out to others who have merged onto this chaotic highway with a loss of their own. Our compassion and grace grow as the road of healing opens before us.
So, though the rearview mirror is useful at times on our journey down the road of grief and loss, it is only for short and healing glances into the past rather than long fixed stares. Our grief work will drive us forward to the crossroads and when we are ready, we will move into the future with hope in our hearts.