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Trains, tracks and grief

By 2008, if you had asked me, I would have told you that grief felt like a freight train with no tracks. It could bear down in a way that left no choice but to try outrunning it. If I could just go fast enough, far enough, and zigzag enough, then I could leave the pain behind. For a long time after reading “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, I kept a quote from the book in my head: “As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer’s long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn’t touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn’t stop.”

This character’s tactic made sense to me. If grief is the enemy, and you can’t defeat it, then run. But over the years, my intent to dodge at all costs has changed, and when I recently heard an author talk about her grief, she put words to my thoughts. She confirmed what my experience had been, prefaced it by saying we “tend” (understatement) to “run from grief.” And then she added, “Sitting in grief can be healing.”

Sitting can be healing? It seems counter-intuitive and counterproductive when your insides are shrieking to outrun the train, out-swim the dark stuff. But I now recognize that her advice sits in truth. When the editor of “Hey, God? Yes, Charles.” requested photos for the book a couple of years ago, I started looking through my treasured Charles things. In the seventh year of widowhood, I was doing just fine. And yet, in the middle of reflecting on some great memories, the freight train suddenly plowed me to the floor. I just stayed there, and sat, and didn’t try to outrun the tears. Twenty minutes later, I didn’t just feel better. I was better.

I know there has to be a balance between under-allowing our grief, and over-wallowing in it. But if grief is a freight train with no tracks, then maybe, sometimes, even briefly, it’s okay to just let it stop us in ours.

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