I know couples in their 50’s who have both sets of parents still alive, children grown and healthy, happy marriages…. sometimes they’re lovely and your heart sings for them but sometimes, usually more to do with my mood than theirs, I call them ‘the smug marrieds’. How do they do it? How do they sail through life unscarred, undamaged, untested? Some of them will tell you about difficult house moves or employment choices as if these things really matter. And I bite my tongue and try to understand that if this is the worst they’ve known, then it’s quite simply the worst they’ve known. Not their fault.
But would you ever take bereavement counselling from them? Or marriage counselling? Or any life advice at all?
When we lived in Johannesburg I was pruning the roses in the garden one day, and Lou (three years old) was playing on her trike in soft soled shoes. Rose thorns in Africa are great big cruel things and Lou kept stepping onto the rose bed and I kept telling her to step off it. Finally, in mild exasperation, I picked her up and plonked her down on the path saying “Now just stay there.” And she said, quite reasonably and not at all rudely “Momma, why are you so horrible to me, when I’m so nice to you?”
It became a family saying. So, Now…. Why am I so prickly when these married are so sweet? Why can’t I be like them? Well, take a look at recent history for the answer;
My Grandad died when my Dad was 7 and he was sent away to a seminary, where his life was changed for ever. Banished from his Lancashire family, he was dumped in a Welsh speaking environment in Aberystwyth – losing not only his father but his mother too, his large family of siblings, the environment and school he knew, the food he was familiar with, and even his own language. It wasn’t a choice to learn to speak Welsh – no one in the seminary spoke English at all. And he was 7.
He didn’t become a priest, going instead into the Army, serving 25 years as an Infantryman, surviving Dunkirk, fighting the Mau-Mau post war… rarely at home. No wonder that he didn’t know how to relate to his own children. No wonder that he believed in duty rather than love., No wonder that when his wife died , leaving him with a 6 year old daughter, and two sons, 11 and 16 years old, he didn’t know how to help them.
I lost my Mum, his wife, of course. And I’d lost a brother, and a half brother by the time I was 11. My remaining brother and me (the eldest was in the army at 16) were housed with a bastard uncle and venal aunt and again, my dad didn’t know how to care for us in that situation. It left Peter with a stammer and alcoholism and it’s no wonder that he died young, in a house fire. I was fortunate and made my way in the world but it’s no wonder that I was a mess, and then just as I was getting my act together and forging a family life of my own, my husband dropped dead leaving me with our 14 year old daughter who, like her Grandad and her Mum had to learn about bereavement early. The third link in a chain of bereaved children.
No wonder we bear the scars of those three generations.
So, how do some people manage it? How do they get this gift of an untroubled life? And am I left with a lingering sense of .. well, if not quite injustice, is it maybe a sense of envy?
No. I wouldn’t swap my experience of grief and the difficulties of my childhood for any charmed life. I can’t be glad that my Mum died, or James or Anthony or George…. of course not. But I am grateful for the experience of sadness and loss and alone-ness. Even of shame. It’s life, my old chicklets, and grief comes to us all. Whether your Mum is 30 or 50 or 94, she is going to die. And whether you are 6 or 60 when it happens, there will be loss and grief.
Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble”.
God’s time is not ours. He is out of time, beyond it. I doubt that I will have suffered more than you when the tally is made. I just came to those hurdles earlier. And see, I cleared them, but not on my own.
When I look back now I so clearly see the hand of God at all these times. It was my mother’s death that gave me, I believe, the longing to know God. It was my brother’s deaths that taught me that I am not the most important person in the world (I am, really) and that grief wears many faces. And it was my husband’s death that pulled me up short. I had relied on him for so much. I didn’t know what family life was, didn’t know what a mother did, or how to love a child, but he did. And suddenly, in four brief minutes, he was gone and I had to learn and do all these things. It was my early experience of death that enabled me to bring our daughter through her shock and grief. And it was my experience, too, that showed me the cost it would demand from her, and understand it. And I suppose it’s those early years that helped me to survive the last 26 years alone.
Listen, my life now is so good. And wherever you are just now, your life can be good, full of peace and joy and looking towards the future. Yes, there are days when I struggle, but they are few and far between, and getting rarer. I am stepping from the tunnel into the light. That’s what it feels like.
I know that someone who reads this blog is in dire dire despair. I know that she is near to damaging herself. For her it’s not about loss, but it’s about illness, raging mental illness, Frightening and isolating illness. This is my message to everyone but especially to her: Whatever you are facing, you are loved. You are loved as who you are, and with all you have been through, you are loved with your confusion and your sorrow. You are not loved in spite of them. You are loved totally with a perfect love. God loves you.
He knows what your life has been. He knows the life dealt out to you. He doesn’t compare you to the smug marrieds or the untroubled lives. He doesn’t compare you with anyone. You are not lacking. Has your life made you as awkward and chippy as mine has made me? Hah! So what? God can deal with us both, change us both, bring us through.
You are his precious creation. He made you just as you are because he wants you, just as you are. You don’t have to change before He will want you, you don’t have to heal or put on a brave face. You come to God as you are, and He is waiting for you. He loves you, my little chumlet. The thought of you pleases Him. And when you turn to Him, what a miracle you’ll discover. This will be the first step in a new life. Come to God as you are, despairing, broken. You can’t heal yourself, mend yourself, but He can.
He will. Chins up, take a deep breath, know that you’re not alone. We are with you. Everyone reading this blog is with you, and I know they’ll pray for you, even those who aren’t quite sure about praying. But most of all God is with you.
Tonight, you are not alone.