Grief Shamed and Buried

If only I had known that none of this was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

Within the first year of Mom and Dad’s divorce, all of the loss became too much to bear. Unable to withstand the pressure any longer, my strong façade collapsed. Baring my soul to Dad—to anyone—for the first time, I expected to receive understanding, compassion, and Dad’s trademark bear hug and kisses. Instead, Dad stood frozen in the middle of the living room, his black eyes blazing as the dam of my pent-up grief burst in a torrent of words and tears.  

“You can sit around on your dead ass feeling sorry for yourself, or you can decide to make something of yourself! This is weakness.” Dad’s face contorted with disgust. “And I hate weakness.”

My stomach clenched as if he’d punched me in the gut. Shocked to composure, tears I dared not shed lodged in my throat, as I stared at this stranger before me. Dad had never shamed me for expressing my feelings before. He was the one I could talk to about anything. But it was now clear that that was no longer the case. I’m bad for crying, for making Dad upset. I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought to myself. I had broken my vow to myself the night Mom left with Stevie to not burden Dad with my pain or problems.

Wary, I kept my eyes fixed on Dad as I wiped my face dry with the back of my hand, determining to never again express my pain over the divorce, or any forbidden feeling, to Dad. But how was I to know which ones were forbidden?

I need to make something of myself. Whatever that meant. But I’d figure it out. I had to. I believed that my survival depended on pleasing Dad so he would still love me and not leave. Aside from that, I adored Dad and wanted to please him and make him proud of me. My desire to please Dad and my sense that my survival depended on doing so entangled together like Silly String. This moment heralded the decades of my hiding behind an unflappable, competent, smiling mask, disguising the ever-present terror, confusion, loneliness, and grief that swirled inside me.

From that point on, I grieved only when alone, the last time when I was about fourteen. While walking home from school one day, I saw a childhood friend laughing and chatting with her mother as they drove up Main Street. Although Mom and I had never shared a close connection, I longed for one. I barely made it home before breaking down. Consumed by grief and not expecting Dad home for another four hours from work, I didn’t hear him come into the house. His appearance in the doorway to my bedroom jolted me back to my senses but too late to hide my tears. Genuine concern registered in his warm, cocker spaniel black eyes.

“What’s wrong, honey bun?”

Recognizing pre-divorce Dad, I felt safe telling him the truth. “I wish I had a relationship with Mom like other girls have with their mothers.” A fresh stream of tears ran down my face. I felt so relieved to let everything out, to finally be heard.

But Dad’s black eyes now glittered like an angry Doberman pinscher. “There’s no point bawling over something that neither one of us can do anything about!” His roar filled the tiny room. He then spun on his heel and stormed away.

In hindsight, I now see that Dad, too, was drowning in grief over the divorce, and that his response to his pain was work, work, and more work—hence, the “make something of yourself” declaration—in an attempt to fill the gaping black hole he carried inside. I suspect that my unhindered expression of grief triggered Dad’s grief, along with his powerlessness to fix or change the situation, both of which he was trying so hard to keep a tight lid on, resulting in his rage.

But my fourteen-year-old self didn’t have that awareness. I stared, frozen, at the empty doorway as the undeniable reality stared back at me: I had nowhere to go with my grief. I didn’t dare alienate Dad. He was all I felt I had left in the world.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that Dad wasn’t all I had left in the world and that I wasn’t alone in my grief. If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that God was with me every single second and that I could pour out my grief to Him at anytime, without restriction or reservation.

If only my fourteen-year-old self had known that none of this—Mom’s rejection, Dad’s pain and rage—was my fault and thus my responsibility to somehow fix.

But I didn’t know any of that. So, while Dad was burying his grief with work, I buried mine through pleasing and taking care of Dad, Stevie, and, as time went on, everyone else around me. However, in doing so, I was abandoning myself.

I didn’t know that either.

The True King and I

“Relationship with Jesus Christ–not anyone or anything else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.”

When I was five, Grandma Rose started taking me to Sunday school along with my aunts Cheryl and Kathy. If not for Grandma, I never would have seen the inside of a church. This is Grandma’s greatest legacy in my life, and I am and will forever be deeply grateful to her, for there I was introduced to God and His Son, Jesus. I didn’t know until four decades later that this relationship–not one with Dad or anyone else–is the most precious relationship in life and the only real lifeline.

After Sunday school each week, Grandma took us three girls with her to worship service. The sanctuary held a reverent air. People greeted one another in hushed tones and waited patiently for the service to begin. Reverend Simon Kvaale, an elderly native Norwegian, led the service in his thick, broken accent, his unassuming yet commanding presence inspiring veneration in the congregants. After I had learned to read in first grade, Grandma ran her finger beneath each word in the hymnal she shared with me so I could follow along. Each service concluded with the “Doxology,” which I sang with gusto. The resounding bass of the organ played by Mrs. Kvaale filled the sanctuary as Reverend Kvaale wafted down the center aisle to greet his flock, his long, white robe billowing around and flowing behind him like angel’s wings.

I waited with bated breath with Grandma, Cheryl, and Kathy to greet Reverend Kvaale in the receiving line after the service. When he took my small hand in his smooth, warm one, he emanated kindness and patience, which was reflected in his bespectacled eyes and gentle smile as he bowed down to my level to speak to me. In my young mind, a pastor was privy to God’s mind and heart. As such, I believed that Reverend Kvaale reflected God’s character and His feelings toward me: I was safe and loved for myself.

I loved reading Scripture and the weekly lessons in our workbooks, which I often read weeks in advance. Although I found the King James Version difficult to grasp with all its thees, thous, lests, and verilys, I hung onto every word, knowing in some incomprehensible way that I was on hallowed ground, in the presence of greatness. Although I could not fully understand what God was saying through His Word, something deep within me came alive as I read it.

I felt deeply honored when, in fourth grade, I received my first black leather-bound Bible with gold-embossed lettering on the cover. I delicately held and turned its onionskin pages, relishing their comforting softness between my fingers while receiving comfort through their words.

God also showed up right at our front door in the most unexpected form–Jehovah’s Witnesses. Resembling Boris Badenov and Snidely Whiplash, sans the sinister vibe, these mysterious, grim-faced, buttoned-up individuals clad in dark, professional attire carried black briefcases or satchels, leaving hardcover books on the rare occasions when Mom answered their knock and tracts in our screen door when she didn’t. Mom headed straight for the garbage can with their material, but one day, out of curiosity, I asked her if I could read it. She absentmindedly handed the tract to me. Sequestered in my room, I lay on my bed, surrounded by my favorite stuffed animals, studying every word. I recognized Scripture in these writings, yet much of the Jehovah’s Witnesses interpretations struck a false chord within me, although I couldn’t explain why.

As time passed, Mom handed me these tracts without my having to ask, and I continued reading the scripture passages, reveling in every word, embracing what felt in my gut as the truth and discarding what felt off in the interpretations. God brought Himself to me through His Word, providing balm and sanctuary to my lonely, scared mind and heart. Sensing His soothing, constant presence, I instinctively poured out my heart to Him, not in the traditional prayer posture, but rather like having a conversation with a beloved, trusted parent or friend. Although I was often physically alone, I sensed that I was never alone, which soothed me in the most inexplicable way.

After Mom and Dad’s divorce, confirmation class in seventh and eighth grades was the extent of any consistent relationship with church during my adolescence. Grandma’s initiative and faithful transporting me to and from church with Cheryl during my seventh grade year and Kathy during my eighth made it all possible. For one hour every Saturday morning, twelve of us confirmands met with Reverend Kvaale, where we recited our memory work for the week from Luther’s Small Catechism, discussed the lesson, and went over the questions in the workbook. We were also required to read one chapter from Scripture. I soaked up the material in these lessons, relished learning about my Lutheran faith, and diligently memorized every word assigned. Class was held in our damp, austere church basement. What it lacked in aesthetics it more than made up for in serenity, which my mind, heart, and spirit craved. This was one hour during the entire week where I felt totally at peace and safe and could just be myself.

At the end of my eighth grade year, I decided to not be confirmed. I knew that confirmation was a sacrament of the church, one in which I would be making a promise to God, but I wasn’t clear as to what exactly I was promising. Grandma Rose explained to me that I would be promising that I would never drink alcohol, dance, or play cards. How could I make and keep these promises given that, first of all, I had already gone to school dances in middle school, fully enjoyed them, and intended upon doing so in high school? Second, never drink alcohol? How could I make such a promise at the age of thirteen? And third, why on earth was playing cards considered a mortal sin? Certainly there were more damning activities. Still, I could not in good conscience promise that I would never play cards. In my opinion, I was too young to make such promises to anyone, especially to God. I held the firm conviction that it was better to not make a promise at all than to make one and not keep my word.

But I did want Stevie and I to get baptized and was resolved we would be. This was a burning issue with me all throughout my childhood. I had begged Mom and Dad to have me baptized, and when that didn’t work, I rampaged about it, insisted upon it, even resorted to trying to guilt them into it, accusing them of banishing me to an eternity with the devil. Nothing worked. Even Grandma couldn’t convince them. All of our appeals fell upon deaf ears for reasons that are still a mystery.

I told Reverend Kvaale about both of my decisions. He sat studying me a long few minutes before responding, “You are such a mature young lady.” He continued studying me, silent. Then he said, “I really would like you to reconsider your decision about being confirmed. But if you don’t change your mind, I respect your decision and would be happy to baptize you and your brother.”

I announced my decisions to Dad, Mom, and Grandma Rose. Neither Mom nor Dad fought me about Stevie’s and my baptisms, perhaps because I had already discussed it with Reverend Kvaale. Maybe they, too, felt that pastors had a main line to God, and they were not going to mess with that. So on Saturday, May 3, 1975, Stevie, at the age of four, and I at thirteen were baptized in a private ceremony with Terrell and Dortha Morris, Dad’s uncle and aunt, as our godparents. Although Grandma Rose never said so, I suspected she was thrilled and relieved.

Nine years later, on December 15, 1984, I was confirmed in that same church on the day my then husband, John, and stepdaughter, Mandi, became members of the church. Grandma and Kathy were in attendance at that service, sitting in a pew near the back as usual. A full-blooded Norwegian, Grandma never was one for physical displays of affection, not even in private. But after the service, with a shy smile, Grandma softly stroked my arm with tears filling her small, light brown eyes as we stood in the narthex afterward. When I got home, I opened the gift she had slipped into my hand before leaving. It was a simple silver cross necklace.

The Sound of Silence

For a while, I felt secure and comforted nestled within the familiar four walls of our house, now quiet as a mausoleum. The shambles of my former life lay strewn around me, but at least now there was no more name-calling, backbiting, or seething, rage-laden tension.

But there was one thing I hadn’t anticipated: the silence made me aware of every creak and pop in my surroundings. Not a good thing with my Technicolor imagination.

As soon as dusk fell each night, I flipped on the outside lights that illuminated three sides of our house to discourage any would-be lurkers in our bushes. I made sure the doors were locked at least a hundred times every hour, and although I rarely used the gas stove, I checked and rechecked that the burners were off lest the house blow up. Only when Dad finally walked through the back door did I breathe a sigh of relief for having made it through one more night alone. If my instincts were accurate, Dad did too.

The silence also magnified the yammering inner fear that haunted me every waking second:  Dad leaving me too. I tried to drown it out with blasting the TV or stereo until the windows rattled and my obsessive focus on the door locks and stove burners and, in the winter, the thermostat. On top of that, I became the model daughter–agreeable, obedient, and sympathetic to Dad’s pain and problems (not a stretch since I had been Daddy’s girl from my first breath)–so as to not give him a reason to leave. Yet for all my efforts, my fear and anxiety deepened rather than waned.

Many nights I tossed and turned, terrorized by the thought of Dad leaving me and wondering, Who will take care of me if I can’t take care of myself? I racked my brain, but kept coming up empty. I certainly couldn’t get a job yet, as I was only twelve years old. I reasoned that even if Grandma and I managed to call a truce–as likely as hell freezing over–she was raising two daughters of her own and certainly didn’t need one more. Despite our animosity, I didn’t want to be a burden to Grandma. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.

And Mom wasn’t an option. I had never felt loved by Mom, and as a young child I often wondered why she hated me. Her leaving without a word to me convinced me that my perception was right. Dad had told me that he thought Mom left without saying goodbye to me because she couldn’t face me. My shattered heart told me that I didn’t matter to her and was easy to leave behind.

What will I do if Dad leaves too? Fear and panic were my constant companions.

I wasn’t yet aware that I was never alone, and that no matter what happened, I would always be loved and taken care of.

 

Our Journey Begins . . .

And continues . . . One. Day. At. A. Time. That slowly. That deliberately. That mindfully. I need this reminder, and this discipline, every single day, and perhaps you do too. I hope that my experiences encourage you to begin–or to continue–living your life rather than focusing on or obsessing about someone else’s life or living the life someone else demands you to live from the identity someone else has assigned to you. I’ve been there. Oh boy, have I.

Long before the shocking discovery of my real identity and throughout the painstaking recovery of my true Self in Christ, my quest has been and remains this:

  • Be present
  • Be real
  • Be kind

So, please, join me. None of us can do this alone, and I would love the company.