Growing up on a home with an older father – one of old-fashioned, strict, stoic Norwegian heritage – one thing I learned early was now to soldier on no matter what else was going on. Bad day at school or big test the next day? Didn’t matter. We got off our 1.5 hour bus ride home (school was 50 miles away) and off we went to Wednesday night church service, a 30-minute drive the opposite direction. I only missed one Wednesday or Sunday church service my entire growing up years. Huge snow storm and -40 degrees? Didn’t matter. Off to church or school we went. Argument with my mother about wanting to wear jeans to church on Sunday night? Didn’t matter. Out came the positive attitude and the nice-y, nice-y smiles if someone called or dropped by. One big, happy family.
I recently had a discussion with my sister about a bluegrass group we saw that was made up of siblings aged 7, 10 and 12. As a person who sees both sides of the coin on nearly everything, I wondered equally at their amazing talent and whether they had been coerced into forming a family band. The girls looked uncomfortable at times. The boy (7 years old) did most of the talking and sounded very scripted. He just didn’t sound like a typical 7-year old would sound. I guess it reminded me of our growing up years.
Our discussion included whether we felt coerced to perform or whether it was just the life we knew. One of my earliest memories was being paraded on stage and standing beside my sister as she quoted the 23rd Psalm to the audience. I’m sure it was really cute to have these two little girls up on stage (we were probably 2 and 4; we’re 16 months apart), but I remember feeling uncomfortable and looking up at my sister, wondering how she could remember all those words.
Was it our choice to perform at church, on the radio? I honestly don’t know. It was the life we knew from our birth. With both of my parents being school teachers as well as my dad being a pastor and all of us being on the radio every Sunday morning, I grew up feeling like I had the word “example” tattooed on my forehead. My dad felt a very strong mission to preach the gospel, and he took his family along on the journey. I would rather have gone on the journey than be left out. Sometimes it was really fun, sometimes it felt like a burden. But we always did what was expected of us and soldiered on.
This morning I did something that was unusual for me. I’ve had a bad cold that has settled into my lungs and sinuses. I stayed home a couple of days last week when it was at its worst, mainly because I didn’t feel it was fair to share it. Because of a cough that I can’t seem to kick, I have hardly slept at all for quite a few nights. However, I have gotten up and gone to work every day this week, no matter how tired I was or how bad I felt. That “soldiering on” mode just keeps kicking in. I learned it well.
Anyway, this morning I was just dragging. I thought, “What am I doing? What am I trying to prove and to whom am I trying to prove it? I just need some extra rest!” So, I sent a message to my boss that I was going to work a couple of short days and try to get some additional rest so I could feel better. Take care of myself. What a novel idea! His response was positive; he was okay with that. I laid down on the couch and immediately fell back asleep for over an hour. The extra rest was what I needed.
After Jason died, not knowing what else to do, we all went back to what we knew. Jenna and I went back to college. Joe went back to work. Eric went back to college and work. Jason had died on a Sunday. By the following Monday – six days after the accident – the memorial service was over, Jason was buried, everyone had gone home, and we were back on the treadmill of the life we knew. Soldiering on.
Except that the life we knew was no more. The “we” we knew were no more. Relationships we depended on were no more. People we counted on were gone. Everything changed. Absolutely everything. You can’t soldier on when everything changes. It’s way too exhausting and simply not necessary. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.
Grieving is such hard work – mentally, physically, spiritually, in every other way you can think of, even if you have lots of support. We had no resources and very little support. We were exhausted. I have come to the opinion that, without resources and support, grief and the things we experience and the secondary losses following the death of a child go much deeper, affect us to a greater degree and stay with us a lot longer.
I am so thankful that there are so many more resources now than there were when Jason died. If a griever or friend of a griever really wants to, they can find a resource that may help. Not to say that finding a resource in any way diminishes the depth of grief; it just may provide some guidance along this long and difficult path and let the griever know they are not alone.
My suggestion to parents and families who have lost a loved one is this: don’t try to soldier on. Take care of yourself. Take care of your family. Give yourself time to grieve, no matter how long it takes. People who have not walked this walk of deep grief won’t understand the journey or how long it takes, anyway, and you have nothing to prove to them. Be true to yourself and your own journey. Some things have to be taken care of, that’s true. Do what you have to do and let some of the other things go. Give yourself permission to get off the treadmill. Give yourself permission not to solider on. Give yourself permission to grieve.
© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney