Someone close to me who is going through a frightening time with his son who is struggling with mental illness said I was the strongest person he knows. I care about this person and his son dearly, and I appreciate the sentiment, but I always feel uncomfortable with being described that way. I know people mean it as a compliment; I just don’t think it’s true. First of all, any strength I have comes from God. Without His support I probably couldn’t get out of bed most mornings. Even nearly six years since losing Rachel I still can’t believe I am living in a world without one of my children. But, what choice do I have? Putting one foot in front of the other is not strength, it’s endurance.
(As an aside, I’m also baffled when I’m having a hard grief day and people are surprised that I’m not “over it” yet. But, that’s a topic for another post.)
Anyway, I was especially surprised early on in my grief when people said I was strong. I wrote the words below in my journal just six weeks after Rachel died.
May 23, 2017
When people tell me I am strong, it makes me angry. Please don’t take offense; I’m not angry at the people saying it. I am angry at myself because it’s a lie. I am not strong.
Maybe people think I am strong because I am writing. Folks, I am writing because I am scared and angry and writing for me is a way to process some of my emotions. The words I write keep at bay the words that otherwise play through my head on an endless loop at two o’clock in the morning.
I look at pictures of Rachel every day because I don’t want to forget her face or her expressions. And I get angry when I look in the mirror and see my face that people say is so much like hers. I am scared because I know the face I see will get older and will change and hers will not and soon the face in my mirror will no longer look like her face in pictures.
I am angry because I’m afraid of stupid little things. I almost cancelled a doctor’s appointment I had today for a routine physical because the form they ask you to fill out asks if you have had any major life changes in the past 6 months. And I was afraid of checking that box because it makes this s**t real.
I am angry because I’m a coward. I don’t have the strength to go to a little local restaurant where we have had breakfast almost every weekend for the past 15 years. We exchange pleasantries with the same people every week. The owners know us by name. When the grandkids are here they go in the kitchen and the chef gives them chocolate chips in a little plastic cup. And the last time we were there they asked us all about Rachel’s wedding and made us promise to bring pictures next time. So far, I haven’t had the strength for there to be a next time.
I don’t know how to be strong. I know how to love and how to grieve and, most days, how to live in this world that is different now. I’m not angry all the time, just sometimes. And maybe I’ll eventually get used to my mirror again.
Four months later I jotted down these two sentences:
September 27, 2017
Being strong is an illusion. If you can manage to stay an inch away from the end of your rope you’re doing good.
Six years later I am handling my emotions better. My face in the mirror is older, but it doesn’t bring me to tears most mornings. When we moved and I changed doctors, I had to fill out the standard health history forms. For women, one of the questions is how many pregnancies you’ve had and how many living children you have. I choked up a bit when I told the doctor about losing my younger daughter. But, I didn’t break down in sobs. I still occasionally run into old casual acquaintances and if they ask about my family I can mention Rachel’s death, say “thank you” in response to their condolences, and move on in the conversation. But, again, I don’t see that as strength as it is just coping with life.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs. But, the reason I’m writing this is because I have heard so many other grieving parents express the same sentiment. “I’m not strong. I just have no choice but to go on living.”
If you are reading this and you think I’m overreacting, then I expect you have not lost a child. And for that I am oh so thankful. But, I hope perhaps it will help you understand why a grieving parent may not react positively if you praise their strength.
If you are that grieving parent, and you wonder if your negative reaction to being called strong is rude or strange, the answer is NO. You are normal. If you fall to your knees every night and every morning begging God just to help you get through one more day, that’s okay. God sees and knows our frailties, our grief, our weaknesses. He will be your strength. And if others see His strength in you, you too can be a light on a dark path.
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