It’s a funny thing about grief. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Sometimes it shows itself in unusual ways and in ways that are tempting to ignore.

It doesn’t always look like the sadness or depression you might expect. Sometimes it manifests itself through anger or listlessness.

It can be brought on by a song on the radio or a funny story. You can be having a great day and suddenly can’t breathe because the horror of your loss is so all consuming.

No matter what it looks like, it won’t go away on its own. You can’t just decide that you’re done grieving. There really are no rules. How you’re feeling can change without warning, can worsen at the drop of a hat and can ruin a good day like ants at a picnic.

When we talk about losing a person, we think about just that. The loss of that individual and what they meant to your life. You’ll miss their laugh, their brutal honesty, their pumpkin pie. You’ll miss the routine of having them in your life and the way they stopped by just to say hi or because they were lonely. You’ll miss having that contemporary, the person who has known you all your life and with whom you have a shared history.

But no one talks about the other sense of loss. When someone is part of a unit, say a group of friends or part of your family, you will experience a completely different kind of loss when they die. You will suddenly recall every lost member of that group and each tragedy as vividly as if it just happened yesterday.

For example, when my Aunt Mary Ann died this summer, her passing summoned memories of the deaths of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin. All these people left empty seats at our table and each of their deaths represented a shift in the family dynamic. When my grandparents died, we lost our core, those people who bonded everyone together. When Mary Ann lost her husband and daughter, we got closer. When Mary Ann died my dad lost his contemporary, the only person left in this world who knew him from birth and who shared the stories of his formative years.

We grieve and change each time someone dies and we often look backward, embracing the bitter with the sweet. I suppose we do this because it seems easier than looking ahead to that ever shrinking table that awaits us at the next holiday.

Depressing, I know. And yet, it’s a part of our journey. All of us will lose someone important and all of us will have to navigate the trials of coping with our troubles. Time stands still for no one and every day we can wake up and get out of bed seems like a good opportunity to work through those problems and to find healthy ways to cope and to move forward as our loved ones would want us to do.

When Mary Ann lost her husband and later her daughter, you could see her struggling but she did her best to live well and to keep going. She spent time with friends, turned to her Bible, cooked and baked and devoted hours to her family. It was hard but she showed us that it’s possible to forge a new path forward.

We each have to find our own path when we experience loss. It could be spending time with family and embracing the new dynamic. The peace we need to move forward could be found on walks in the woods, in quiet meditation or in reminiscing about the good times. Maybe it’s found in journaling or in talking to someone.

I’m not a professional or an expert but I do have vast experience in this area. If you’re going through something difficult, I hope you will remember this. There can be brighter days ahead. There is nothing wrong with admitting that life has been hard. There’s nothing wrong with seeking counseling or guidance of some kind from a professional.

It doesn’t make you weak to need help and it doesn’t make you crazy. It makes you human.

Musings on Christmas Memories In A Time Of Sorrow

Santa at Dogwood Pass in 2017.

On Saturday, I spent much of the day baking cookies at my parents’ house. Afterward, we watched Christmas movies while a kitty cat purred in my lap.

Their house is always warm and it was cold outside when I left. The shock of cold and the starry sky reminded me of a Christmas Eve long ago when we spent an evening with my grandparents. I was small and all the adults kept talking about how a certain little girl needed to go home to bed so Santa Claus could come.

The colorfully lit tree was decorated with an assortment of ornaments accumulated over time and I sat under that tree to open a gift from my grandparents. I don’t recall the gift but I do remember the little candy dish filled with old fashioned hard candy that you buy at the store. I remember the laughter among adults and the warmth of that old house.

The memories made me smile as I hummed Bing Crosby’s White Christmas on the way to the porch.

This year is much different. Most of the people who provided the laughter and warmth of that home are gone now. Many who are left are too young to remember those people and that place.

This year has been haunted by hardship and loss for so many. This will be our first Christmas without my aunt Maryann. Another family member recently received a terrible diagnosis. My great aunt Marcella died over the weekend. She was the last of her generation in my grandma’s family. A college friend lost three immediate family members just days apart during this season of cheer. We have lost longtime family friends including one who just passed on Sunday. My mother is coping with injuries from her fall at Walmart over the weekend but is probably lucky to be alive.

Things aren’t going well and it’s a far cry from the picture perfect Bing Crosby moments of my childhood. It gets harder to be joyful at Christmas as you age because you’re more aware of all the troubles of the world around you.

However, as I write this I keep glancing at something written on a post-it note that I stuck to my desk months ago. Little did I know it would come in handy today. It simply says “Gratitude turns what you have into enough.”

It isn’t always easy but I’m choosing to be grateful for the memories and grateful for the time we had with all those who have left empty seats at our table. I’m grateful for the people and all the good in my life today. And when you look at it that way, it still hurts but maybe it hurts a little less.

When A Church Closes

Yesterday brought some bad news. The church my grandfather built will close next month. It’s a Nazarene Church in Chesterhill, Ohio that he pastored a long time ago.

Sermons will cease, the doors will close and the building will be sold by the District. The eighteen souls who pray there will no longer have their community house of worship.

This congregation has been dwindling for some years but they pay their bills on time and faithfully minister to the spiritual needs of those who enter.

My mother is beside herself with grief and worry. It’s a part of our family history but it’s also a good building. It was well built and has been maintained over the years. And yes, it is a small congregation but they are faithful to the church. The nearest Nazarene Church is too far for most of them to drive every week as so many of them are elderly.

She called the District Office yesterday and was more or less humored by someone who listened to her complaint and who provided less than satisfactory answers to her questions. What will happen to those eighteen souls? What would God think of you selling His house?

This isn’t a new or unique problem for small churches and communities across America. I see it all the time in my backroads journeys – these old churches and aging congregations struggle to compete with the new churches and all the modern, fun conveniences they offer.

It’s also hard to survive in a church conference that appears to value money more than souls. That statement may sound harsh and maybe it isn’t fair but that’s how it feels.

But you see it in other areas of small town life. Wander around long enough and you’ll spot the signs of communities being left behind – abandoned hospitals, schools, churches and stores are all too common.

I suppose it’s just a sign of these times but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

There’s a lot of good in our small communities. What we lack in population and wealth we make up for with fresh air, room to roam, friendly neighbors and kind strangers. Our rush hours involve school buses rather than traffic jams. People here tend to mind their own business until you need them. Then they carry in food when someone dies and offer to help when there’s work to be done.

Our residents tend to feel a sense of place and belonging that comes from knowing your neighbors and from sitting in the same church pew every Sunday for a lifetime.

Too bad there’s no money to be made in local character.

I don’t know what it would take to convince a community of less than 280 people to rally behind the church down the street. But it’s a slippery slope as every loss leads to another. Our small towns like Chesterhill can’t afford to lose anything else.

Longtime readers may recall a story that I wrote a few years ago about a day in the Chesterhill area when we visited this church. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, I fear its days are numbered and there’s nothing I can do to help.

Remembering Janice

In a year that has been defined by loss, my family took another hit this week. We lost an elder, my Aunt Janice. She was a spirited woman with a vibrant personality that filled up a room and her loss has left a void yet to be measured.

There were ten kids in my mother’s family. Janice married the oldest son Howard. Growing up, family dinners as we called them (you likely call them reunions), were held twice a year – on the Sunday closest to Christmas and the Sunday closest to my grandparents‘ birthdays (August 14 and 15). All my aunts and uncles and countless cousins packed into my grandparents’ house for a potluck meal that ranged from the lazy cook’s bucket of chicken to delicious pies and a line of crockpots containing such delicacies as homemade noodles, garden fresh green beans and venison.

If you were smart, you knew which of the aunts were the best cooks and what they had brought. Janice was one of those who could make anything taste good, a skill that came in handy during the years she ran her own restaurant. She also knew how to stretch a dollar to feed a crowd. I once saw this woman transform four eggs into a steaming hot pan of delicious scrambled eggs that fed a table full of people.

It was always evident when Janice was present because you could pick out her laughter from any crowd. She knew how to capture your attention, how to tell a story, and how to make you laugh.

She loved having a good time and wanted everyone else to share her joy. Simply hearing her laughter could make you happy too.

Janice was an avid reader who enjoyed critical thinking, travel and anything that exercised her mind. Janice was quick witted, a no-nonsense straight shooter who wasn’t known to back down when she thought she was right. Which was most of the time, by my estimation.

She was what you might call a gutsy broad.

Janice was a talented quilter and even ran the local library branch for some years.

She especially loved western travel and sharing stories about the places she visited. I regret not hearing more about her trip to Glacier last fall because I’m sure it was a good one.

She was a proud mother and grandmother who encouraged her offspring to work hard, to do good, and to be strong.

There’s also a chance she was the best pie maker in the world. Seriously, friends. The Best.

In fact, Janice taught me how to make pies a long, long time ago. I was a tiny little girl with blonde hair in pigtails when she and my uncle Howard came to visit. She made an apple pie and let me help, telling me that maybe someday I could make a pie of my own.

A few days later, inspired by my newfound “skill” of pie making I got up early and made one in the middle of our very new white linoleum kitchen floor.

Assorted cereal, potato chips, flour, food coloring and other scavenged ingredients spilled over the sides of my tiny doll pan and onto that white floor.

Imagine my mother’s unbridled horror when she discovered my culinary achievement. Let’s just say that I was in trouble all day and possibly for days after.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Janice heard that story! I’m guessing she enjoyed it immensely.

I use pictures to tell stories and am grateful to have this one from last year’s family dinner.

Janice was sitting on my parent’s front porch, quietly taking in the scene as people arrived with covered dishes and young children in tow. I was lurking in my usual stance with my zoom lens in hand. She caught my camera and gave me this look.

Anyone who knew Janice can tell you what came next. She smiled, said something witty and laughed that fabulous laugh.

And this is how I will remember her.