It’s a blistery, fall day. The leaves are beautiful outside, but there is a biting wind. It’s a good day to be inside a coffee shop. I’m holding my freshly ordered maple latte, enjoying the warmth of the cup when the sinking feeling hits me.
The last time I had a really good maple latte was in Des Moines, Iowa. I remember it well because it was absolutely delicious - the best one I had ever had! Discovered in the midst of a challenging trip as Josh and I were on our way to the Mayo Clinic. We stopped in Iowa as a halfway point, enjoyed the coffee shop and walked around the sculpture garden. Josh was doing okay, but still was struggling with cognitive issues, making the trip interesting. We were on our way to Minnesota, seeking more hopeful answers.
Sitting here now - two and half years after that trip, on the other side of the "what if" - this sinking feeling of sorrow hits me once again. My eyes tear up in the buzzing coffee shop, but no one sees that detail. Grief hits like that - it is as if you are suddenly hit by an imaginary, oversized balloon hammer - I know oddly specific, but that’s what I imagine. Not so much a mac truck but still an uncomfortable blow.
These feelings don’t hit me every day, or every time I go to a coffee shop, but they do today. This is the constant challenge of grief – its unpredictability. How easily it unwelcomingly enters a moment or scene, and how often it makes no sense to anyone else. And especially how often it can make you feel alone and lost within it.
Pondering this all, I continue to sip my latte, blinking away the watery eyes - opting to tackle these feelings once again by writing (instead of avoiding and working on another problem I could solve). Writing still provides a way for me to process.
It’s no secret I still miss Josh. It’s a fact - as is the fact he isn’t here. Accepting this fact is still hard. Grief is hard. And I know other people feel these same feelings about their own special loved ones. Missing Josh doesn't stop me from enjoying this day but it does cause a stumble. I'm embracing the stumble. I write my thoughts not solely to put my personal journal into cyberspace, but I write with hopes of encouraging others out there struggling with their own beautiful yet agonizing memories. Grief requires us to look backward and forward - figuring out this balance is complicated. Maybe it’s too simple, but after sitting a few moments trying to figure out a solution for myself once again, I take five deep breaths and in my head (and on digital paper) offer up a thanks:
Lord, thank you for that special memory.
Thank you for Josh.
Thank you for our life together
Thank you for being with me even right now.
Thank you for TODAY’S maple latte and for whatever you are going to do next.
Five lines of thanksgiving. Five deep breaths.
This exercise doesn't erase my grief or memory but does help.
I hope it provides you grounding in the moment you might need it too.
Today’s verse of the day also happened to be one Josh's favorite ones:
He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. - Micah 6:8
Getting a tattoo wasn't something I always dreamed about but it was something I had talked about before. The challenge was always - what would I want on myself forever. Josh and I had talked about various ideas - he was always going to do some Hebrew or Greek word. For myself, I wanted to draw something unique or use the words "hope or joy" - maybe a bird.
Since Josh passed away, I had really wanted to get a tattoo to remember him - not that I need a tattoo to do that but still . . . For the past two years, I debated what. I almost stopped and got one in California, then had an idea to do it in Denver with Erin but the timing didn't work. After much time debating, I figured out what to get one night driving home this summer.
The Wilco song, Everlasting Everything, came on my playlist. Something about it seemed perfect! I should get the word Everlasting in Hebrew or Greek then add Love and maybe Josh's signature. From this point, this was the plan. I wanted to then do this on a special day; the anniversary of the last day I saw him, our anniversary or maybe his birthday. It ended up being his birthday.
The day before Josh's birthday, another cool thing happened. I was doing some extra cleaning and actually looking for a good signature of Josh's to use for myself or his sister - who was also considering getting one. Inside his old computer bag I found old Hebrew study cards - and the one that fit was there. One side had the Hebrew word written in Josh's version of how he thought it looked. The other side the definition: - Always, Everlasting, Forever. It was not written perfectly but it was HIS handwriting - making it, to me, perfect.
I then went to work photoshopping together a version with this writing and the word "LOVE" from an anniversary card he gave me.
I scheduled the tattoo time, was super nervous as the artist went to work. Now this writing is permanently printed on my ankle. To me it's perfect. It represents us, but beyond this it also represents and Everlasting Love that is way bigger than us. It's about God's love. A father who loves me and us with an everlasting love. When I look at my new tattoo - I find encouragement and comfort. A reminder of a person that loved me greatly and a God who loves me even more.
Also on this day, Josh's sister and younger cousin Emily (who has the same birthday as Josh) also got tattoos representing Josh. We basically did it together but in different locations (me in Missouri, they in Colorado). It was a truly special day!
The clock strikes midnight. October 29. It’s your birthday. If you were here, we might have been awake for a birthday wish, hug or kiss . . . keyword being “might.” Yet today, even after a long day I am fully awake, wishing I could utter birthday words and wishes so you could hear them. “Happy 44th Monster. We’re both the same age for three more months, hahah!”
While the heartbreak of Josh’s absence doesn’t sting quite as sharp this year, my eyes still fill with tears thinking about how much I want to celebrate another year of his life, which still feels abruptly short. I know it was a full and beautiful life for all that it was, but I selfishly wanted more. I try not to linger in this space, but still must acknowledge it.
Comments like, “He’s celebrating in Heaven” don’t quite cut it either - even if my beliefs and hopes for eternity are high. I am not even sure if there are birthday celebrations in Heaven. Seems silly.
Anyway . . . clearly, pausing to express my feelings at this early hour about Josh’s birthday has me rambling. How do I turn the narrative around? How do I still find the hope or silverlining in this story? It’s there but hard to see (often!). Perhaps, this is simply a day where I wrestle with the questions and the feelings as they are. I offer a word of thanksgiving for Josh and the 41+ years he did spend on this earth. I say another thanks for a random bird necklace I found in his old bag tonight that said, “Believe” on it. (Pretty sure it was for me but I have no idea why I hadn’t found it before today.)
And . . . I post a sappy grief blog for the occasion because it’s what I do. I say to whoever is reading this or wrestling through their own heartbreak(s) that "I get it." You aren’t alone in your sorrow, please know that - and somedays you just have to feel it deeply.
Turning the narrative a little more . . . I offer a challenge to each reader . . . to keep celebrating birthdays as much as possible - yours or someone else’s. Enjoy each day God has given you because each day is special. And . . . if you want to have extra fun today, enjoy some Chick-Fil-a for Josh because he loved that place and especially Sweet Tea.
I admit, with all this positive advice, it seems like I’m about to break into the lyrics to that goofy song from the 90s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," but I'll spare you.
Bringing it back down . . . I know that even the best advice or song lyrics aren't able to block out grief or heal a broken heart. Boy, do I know that. Thankfully, I (and we) have a loving God who is with us in the process. He is the ultimate healer in this life and beyond.
Sitting down to write a reflection of this September 30, and even now – two years later – it still seems unfair that Josh isn’t here. Of course, there's a lot about life that is unfair, so does saying this help? Maybe not, but it is a true statement that represents my feelings and others also.
Navigating grief has been and still is, an ongoing challenge. It’s like walking uphill in an elevation you aren't prepared for. It doesn’t escape me that today’s adventure outing with Erin (Josh’s sister) represents grief so fittingly.
On our moderate hillside Colorado hike, I found myself pausing way more than I wanted to catch my breath. We even deemed the term, " the mountain mosey,” as a way of walking extra slowly up the hill. I debated turning back at one point but powered through to the next level. In my mind, and out loud, I wondered often, “Why is this so hard?” Of course, there are some logical answers to this question, such as the elevation in Missouri is much lower, I haven’t trained for this, I ate a lot of carbs for breakfast, etc . . . but still it was frustrating; so is grief.
While you can gear up and train for a mountain climb - navigating loss is harder because it so often catches you off guard. Even if you have experienced grief before, each time and story is unique. What I have found is that once you are in it, there's work to do. Moving through grief slowly, with honesty and intentionality is helpful.
I still don’t believe our culture shares enough about grief. We tend to shy away from how we really feel, and how a loss can impact us so deeply. We tend to try and bounce back into our busy lives - without making much of a change. We quickly stop talking about how the loss of someone has impacted us or how it’s changed us - because it does change us at some level, always (or should.)
Navigating my own grief process ever still means continuing to step up that mountain. It might be slow at times and might feel selfish at times, but the reminder that self-care is not selfish is always good.
My grief and self-care “training regiment” is still a work in process, but today, it includes pausing for special occasions, writing, and taking time to be outside to explore and wrestle out the various emotions that still come with grief. It means talking with a counselor. And, it means continuing to remember the incredible, beautiful moments Josh and I shared while at the same time investing in friends and family who still surround me today.
This “training regiment” is still a work in progress, but so I am.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” - Phil. 1:6
Within today's grief narrative, I find there is a pit in my stomach as the date of when I last sat beside my loved one living and breathing approaches. Today is Sept 29, 2021, nearly two years before the "tomorrow" when I officially said goodbye to Josh. I recall that weekend not going well and my anxiety was high. It was a Sunday - but not a typical Sunday with church and all the things. In fact, none of the Sundays for the past six months had really been typical. Our life had been flipped upside down. Ugh...brain cancer. I can still feel the weight of anxiety within me as I reflect back.
Fast forward, two years and I am free to travel on a road trip through Kansas to see my sister-in-law. Currently, my dogs are laying at my feet as I type this post with the door is open inside a KOA cabin in Wakeeney - it's glorious outside and the highway noise reminds me that life does indeed go on.
My life that existed two years ago is very different today - yet I am still Jenn Brown. A person who still enjoys life, music, road trips, puppies, shoes, new adventures, relationships, and my ongoing journey with God. How my life displays this day is quite different, with the primary change being that Josh (my husband) is not around to share in these adventures.
On top of all of this, I find myself wrestling with trust - both trusting myself and God with what is happening and what might happen next. I don’t believe I am alone in the challenge of trusting again after loss or change. It would be easy for me to just say, “God is good! Just keep trusting him! All will be fine!” These are true statements. Yet, it is harder to say them, believe them and feel them – often it is REALLY hard to feel them.
There are times when I don’t truly believe I’ll be fine or that it will all "work out," but that is part of the trusting part – believing at core that God has a much, much larger perspective than I ever will. Trusting that there is still so much beauty discover if I keep stepping forward in my grief, in my story, and with the hope and peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.
So with this thought in mind, I make a "toast" . . . here’s to today, where once again I am asking God to be WITH me (both today and tomorrow) in a different way, and as the rest of Philippians 4:7 says to guard [my] heart and [my] mind in Christ Jesus.
Another version of the same passage (below) in The Message version is even stronger. I especially like the last line: "It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life!
Whew! I am not there yet and may not ever be but what a challenging thought.
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.
Grieving is such a personal thing - even when engaging in this process with other friends and family around there is still so much that is tackled independently. This work is a heart issue and a head issue. It takes physical strength and time — so much time, and it can easily become “all about me.”
On a recent trip down memory lane when visiting familiar sites in Arkansas, I found myself really wrestling with all the thoughts. Here are a few questions that filtered through my mind …
“Will I ever get over this”
“Can I move forward?”
“Will I never stop missing you?”
“Why can’t I get this grief door to close a little more?”
“Am I making progress?”
“Am I actually helping anyone else with my experience?”
As you can see there is one recurring item in each question -- I.
With this realization, I started to wonder if at times I am too self-absorbed within my own narrative. How can I turn this around and use my story to encourage someone else. How do I encourage a new widow whose spouse passed away this week, or maybe even today? After a day of moping a bit and trying to figure out what’s happening, a new thought hit me this morning.
I can chose to let my grief define me or refine me.
Looking at the big story of God, I know that He is always trying to work through me to refine me (and us). This process means looking more like Christ than ourselves and it means caring more about other people than ourselves - not always easy!
Don’t get me wrong, self care and honest introspection is important, but while we work on our hearts and minds, there is room and opportunity to see other people and care for them also. This isn’t easy because our own grief really takes a toll and can take over. We can also try to counterbalance too much where we focus on others so much that we fail to do our own grief work - also not good.
Here I am somewhere in the middle, realizing a need to have a little more of a grief strategy - if there is such a thing. Here are a couple things I am going to try to shift the focus in a different way. This means doing two things for others and one for myself (with hopes of it going beyond this week).
This week specifically, I am going to do a random act of kindness for someone whose spouse is in the hospital and send a card (or two) to a fellow widow. For myself, I’m going to focus on truth from God's word that is both a reminder that God has seen the good and hard parts of life and still is with me (us) going forward.
Psalm 42:8 (The Message)
When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse everything I know of you, From Jordan depths to Hermon heights, including Mount Mizar. Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night!
My life is God’s prayer.
(Sidebar: Interestingly this was the verse of the day when I sat down to write this! I was going to use another one but this seem 100% perfect! This whole chapter wrestles with doubt and hope.)
Hi! It's Jenn Brown, writing my story that is now slightly different as we enter a season of new grief. On September 30, 2019, my dear husband Josh passed away after battling brain cancer.