Last month I celebrated my mother's birthday, three years after she died, too young and too slowly. In the same week, both of my oldest friends shared news about their mother's health. One appears to be cancer-free, after a terrible prognosis late last year. The other said goodbye to her mother for the last time, after another long, slow departure.
And in walks grief. The uninvited house guest.
Grief is inevitable of course after any loss, but in the most final – in death – we find ourselves in the presence of something that is deeply uncomfortable, often inconvenient, and sometimes overwhelming. For most of us it's not just uninvited, it's unexpected too. And even when death is slow in coming, we are all too often unprepared for grief.
Our lives are lived at a distance from grief. A relative or friend who has made room for this unwelcome guest is rare, and yet we could all do with such a companion. Someone who would walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death and show us there is nothing to fear.
For while grief is always unwanted, its very presence is the sign of something significant. Whether our loss is close or distant, easy or complicated, it is a sign to us that we have lost someone forever. And this uninvited guest, that has arrived in their place, provides an opportunity to explore that loss in a way we'd rather ignore.
Grief can of course just be sent to its room. Loss can feel like someone has rearranged the furniture and we're tired of bumping into it. We long for everything to return to normal. But there's a new normal now.
And grief unacknowledged or undealt with, shut up in its room, has a habit of turning up at the dinner table. Its weight, its reach, and its unwillingness to be confined to one room seems to be telling us something. It seems that if we don't pay attention to grief, it will remind us of its presence in other ways.
Grief may follow death but allowing it space in our lives is not inevitable. I found myself happily showing it to its room. I could acknowledge its presence but it wasn't welcome in the rest of the house. However my loss was unavoidable and grief meant I kept bumping into the metaphorical furniture that it had rearranged in my life. Within two months I literally ran into a tub in our living room which seemed to result in nothing more than a stubbed toe. Until I couldn't walk two hours later and was forced to physically slow down.
This physical change of pace caused me to face the facts that tiredness is as much a part of death as it is at the time of birth, as even the body tries to keep up. But this was not something I was prepared for. While I was trying to return to normal, grief's work was just beginning.
So what does it look like to pay attention to grief? And why would we choose to do something so painful? Can we, should we, welcome grief despite acknowledging it as an uninvited guest?
For many of us, just acknowledging the loss of a loved one is too painful, but that acknowledgment pays respect to the deep tear that has taken place in us. Loss can literally shake our world, our sense of identity, purpose and of course our own mortality. Allowing grief some room to do its work, while seemingly the last thing we would want to do, is a kindness to ourselves.
In grief we acknowledge the loss. We might face regret or disappointment about the relationship, and feel we've lost the chance to make that right, but grief allows us to feel all those complicated emotions without judgment. There is only grace in grief.
And as we allow grief to do its work we find that the furniture of our lives has been re-arranged and we no longer bump into it at all the wrong moments. Somehow by having come to an uneasy agreement with grief, we are able to navigate life more carefully.
Allowing grief to do its work in us enables us to feel pain more deeply. It is not a gift we would ever ask for, but somehow others find us more compassionate, more able to sit with them in their moments of confusion and uncertainty. Because grief also shows us how connected we are and how much we need each other.
Some of us can be tempted to make grief our only companion, to encourage those who usually occupy our lives to move out. Perhaps they don't understand this loss and it may be that we need to create new boundaries with them during this time. But grief is not a good companion for the lonely.
Each of us need other voices too. Some professional, to help us know how to work with our grief. And perhaps someone in our life who could care less about grief and just reminds us that life does go on, and joy is all the richer for experiencing sorrow.
Jesus said in John 16:7, 'It's better for you that I leave.' Where he had been physically present with his disciples, the Holy Spirit would come and take his place, in every place, bringing new life within.
And yet the physical presence of Jesus in their lives was truly the best thing that had ever happened to them, so how could something resulting from their loss ever be better?
Death is never good. Only one death gained for us more than its loss. Facing the inevitable with grief as a guest, however uninvited, is never easy. It's not where we wanted to be or how we wanted to live. But death is as much a part of life as birth and making room in our lives is every bit as vital if we want to live our lives in all their fullness.
Karen Sturrock is a lawyer turned copywriter. Follow her on Twitter @karenlsturrock.