What happens when you fail to grieve?

National Cemetary in Beaufort, SC

This Thanksgiving is the anniversary of my mother’s death. She died after a four-year battle with cancer. I was 18 years old. It was unquestionably the worst four years of my life. Because of the pain, rather than grieving her loss, I suppressed my grief – for twenty years.

But the grief came out in other ways. I wouldn’t go to funerals. I wouldn’t visit people in the hospital. People who were going through cancer treatments made me uncomfortable. Because she died the day before Thanksgiving, the holidays put me in the foulest of moods.  As odd as it may seem, I never made the connection during all those years.

It all came to the surface when I was in the formation program to be ordained a deacon. God had decided that I would make a lousy deacon if I avoided funerals, hospitals, and people who were sick, not to mention being a grump from Thanksgiving to Christmas. 

God literally sent a hurricane to redirect me, from suppressed grief to healthy grief. We were packed and ready to go on a family vacation to Emerald Isle, NC, but Hurricane Fran decided to visit the island first. We searched for and found a place unaffected by the storm on Fripp Island, SC. Not coincidently our destination was within a few miles of my mother’s gravesite, a place I hadn’t visited since the funeral. My wife cajoled me to stop by, “for the children.”

When we arrived, I couldn’t find the grave marker. I started walking around in circles looking for her. The words of Mary Magdalene echoed in my mind. “They have taken the Lord and I don’t know where he is.”  They had taken my mom and I don’t know where she is. In my pain and confusion, twenty years of unexpressed grief poured out of my eyes.

It was a Kairos moment. The flow of tears from my eyes opened the gateway for the flow of healing to enter my heart. I look back over that time and am incredulous that I missed so many signs. 

November is a month when we remember the dead.  It neatly coincides with Thanksgiving, where we can be thankful for all the blessings in our lives, including those who have blessed us. With the healing grace I received, I can now both appreciate the memory of my mother and thank her for the many blessings she gave me. God has also given me a unique appreciation for others who are struggling with similar pain.

If you’re one of the many who experience grief during the holidays, I pray that God will show you a pathway toward receiving the same healing grace.