Living In-Between

Today we have a guest post from Nancy Ortberg, author of  Seeing in the Dark.  

Living in-between is hard work. It’s much simpler to make a choice, color it black or white, draw a line. But even though this living in-between is more difficult, it’s better. Definitely better.

What lies in the in-between is nuance, richness, and meaning. It’s only in the in-between that we can live in color, with heartaches and joys combining hues.

My friends Paul and Ellen lost their twenty-one-year-old son to a drug overdose. Six days after his son’s funeral, Paul called me. I asked him how he was doing, and he said that the day before had been his first day back at the office.

“I was pretty much good for nothing those few hours I was there,” he said.

“Completely understandable,” I told him.

He said, “It’s getting harder. The shock and adrenaline are wearing off, and people need to get back to their lives. The reality is setting in that we are living life without Matty.”

He went on to tell me about four kids who, since Matt’s funeral, had come forward to family or friends to admit that they, too, were struggling with addiction. The rehab center where Matt spent the final nineteen days of his life was overwhelmed by the financial contributions that had poured in, and the staff came to Paul and Ellen to ask how they wanted those donations spent.

“Scholarships,” they said. “Assistance for kids who need this help but can’t afford it. We’re clinging to the hope that we might be able to save one kid.”

That’s living in-between. The sorrow I heard in Paul’s voice about how it was getting harder, followed by the lilt a few seconds later as he described the impact of his son’s death—the ripples and repercussions, the redemption at some level.

My guess is that Paul and Ellen will be living in-between till the day they die. Their hearts and minds being pulled in such opposing directions, often in the same moment. Rending. Wrenching.

Living in-between forces us to recognize that grief is largely a nonlinear process. There isn’t a neat, clean, stair-stepped process that delivers us whole at the end. It meanders, twists, turns, and stalls. Denial, bargaining, and anger turn us around like the spin-dry cycle. Depression invades all the stages. And acceptance? It shows up at some levels, maybe; but in the deepest parts of grief, no.

Time gets all mixed up, and here and there, then and now are barely decipherable. The smallest thing can trigger a memory, and there we are, squarely in the past. The smallest thing can thrust us back to the present with a whiplash-like sensation, and the future becomes almost unbearable to imagine.

Recently, when some friends of ours went through the sudden loss of their child (as Paul puts it, “a club no one wants to be in”), I wrote to Paul. “Tell me,” I said, “what to tell them.” I think it is those who have gone through it and are going through it who become our teachers in how to help others.

Here’s what Paul said in response:

Words can never express the loss this family has suffered—remember that. Sometimes just being with them is more healing than words.

Comfort will come from unexpected places and people; those you expect the most from may be the least involved in your grief.

Forgive those who disappoint you; embrace deeply those who hold you and give you hope, even in the smallest ways.

You will have many people share their story of addiction and/or depression. Listen to them; they have already walked this road.

People will walk alongside you on this journey, but at the end of the day, no one can walk it for you.

Take time with your grief. The second year is tougher than the first.

People will allow you three to six months to grieve, and then they go back to their lives.

Talk about your loss; frequently use the name of the one you lost. Do not be afraid to cry a lot and in public.

Let people know it’s okay to laugh around you and tell stories; you will be blessed, and they will be more comfortable.

Say yes to every invitation you get so people will keep you involved in life.

Look at pictures and videos only when you want to. Don’t overdo it.

Psalm 116:15 has been like a balm to me: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (nkjv).

Chris Tomlin’s song lyrics, especially “I Will Rise,” have blessed me beyond anything I could ever have expected.

The “unexpected visitor” of grief will appear when you least expect it. It is okay; God is bigger and greater.

These are holy words, formed from a broken heart that is clinging to God. I took to heart Paul’s first sentence and sent the rest on to my friend, who was deeply blessed by them.

Paul and Ellen are halfway through their second year of grieving the death of their son Matty. Their second Christmas without him is rapidly approaching. During this time Paul has gotten to know other parents who have been through this unthinkable journey of losing a child. Seeing some of them years down the road from the loss, he can glimpse a kind of hope and healing that he longs for.

The temptation is, knowing that he has experienced some semblance of healing, wanting to leapfrog to that less painful point in the future. But, as he knows, through is the only way.

Nancy Ortberg is the Director of Leadership Development at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, in Northern California, and the author of Seeing in the Dark: Finding God’s Light in the Most Unexpected Places and Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands, Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership .  A highly sought-after speaker, Nancy has been a featured presenter at the Catalyst and Orange conferences, and has been a regular contributor to Rev! Magazine.  She and her husband, John, live in the Bay Area and have three grown children: Laura, Mallory, and Johnny.