The One Before

by | Nov 6, 2011 | 3 comments

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up the Elizabeth Edwards book entitled “Resilience.”  She would know about this- having lost a young son, grieved unfaithfulness in her marriage, and finally battled breast cancer until her death last December.

As seems the case lately- and I’m not sure if this is because these books are choosing me or because grief is just so self-centered, but already just a few chapters in, I am nourished by metaphors that articulate my own place.

She grew up in Japan because her father was in the military and she speaks of the wounded soldiers in the hospital during the Vietnam War:

“they all talked about the same thing: going home.  Even if they knew they would be headed back to combat, all they wanted to talk about was home.  And the home they talked about was the home they left- left when they had two legs, left without shrapnel scars across their chest and neck, left before the images of war that would scar the places where the doctors couldn’t reach.  That’s the home they craved.  The one before.”

Now, I would never compare myself or my situation to that of a Vietnam veteran; though they both dig deep into the nerves of our humanity- war and grief seem two different things to me.  And yet they both hinge upon loss and this craving for home- the one before- certainly fits.

She goes on to tell the story of the closing of a Maytag plant in Iowa and how many of the the workers who lost not only their jobs, but the center of their community and lives for decades, symbolically took off their work boots and left them at the plant, neatly standing side by side, walking to their cars in their socks.

Elizabeth writes,
“The longer a Maytager sat pining for what he had lost, the more lost he became.  Sometimes we have to give ourselves space to grieve what we have lost: a person, a way of life, a dream.  But at some point we have to stand up and say, this is my new life and in this life I need a new job.”

I know that she is right.  I have never believed in longing for the past.   I have often quoted Ecclesiastes 7.10 “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.”  That verse quelled some of my longing over time periods in my life- like when I graduated college and left most of my close friends in Virginia and returned jobless to my parents’ house in New Jersey.  It was so much easier to say then- in my early twenties, single, just starting out.

But this is not a season or a chapter in my life that has been lost.  It is not a job or a time period- but a person…a human being that knew me better than any other, and I him.  With him have gone the way of life, the married status, dreams of other children, a home, and many, many more plans.  Those are painful to let go of, but I would give them up and accept another life if it still included him…even if he was alive but on some other continent, I often think.  It isn’t the missing so much as the mystery.  Is it the pure sting of death- or is there still the hope of justice and beauty and mercy?

Ms. Edwards’ words are difficult to read- they are not comforting, but more like a push on this forced march.  You cannot go back she says quoting Edna St.Vincent Millay, “How easily could God, if He so willed, set back the world a little turn or two!  Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!”  But the turn or two is not possible, says Edwards.  

“This is the life we have now, and the only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation, is first to accept that there is a new reality.  The life the army wife knew before her husband went to war, the life of the patient before the word ‘terminal’ was said aloud, the life of the mother who sat reading by her sons bed and not his grave, these lives no longer exist and the more we cling to the hope that these old lives might come back, the more we set ourselves up for unending discontent.”

This is a pep talk for those who grieve.  Definitely not one you could hear too early on in the journey because it wouldn’t make much sense.  But I seem to be reading it at an appropriate time.  Sixteen months tomorrow.

Yes, there is a new reality.  This I cannot dispute.  Acknowledgement, not acceptance- I still prefer.  I cannot get back my old life, though every cell in my body screams for it, though my unconscious mind dreams it every night, and though there is a small human being made with your DNA growing right before my eyes each day.

Resilience.  I think I and every other widow still breathing has already shown this if they’ve kept themselves alive, as JCO says in her epitaph.  Unending discontent- this isn’t something that I wish for, but it’s also not something I fear.  Contentment and peace seem artificial if there is no greater meaning to life.  They become just gaudy accessories on a lifeless mannequin if we live in a universe where children can starve and men can die in war, and you can drown on your day off…just one day, a few hours.  (Why, oh why didn’t I call you at your hotel that morning, stall you, talk to you, tell you I love you- I think this every day…) Everything in me screams that these things are not OK- and I’m not sure I can say any of them are unjust without God and meaning and a much larger picture than what I see here.

It’s a fairly simple argument, but Tim Keller puts it like this:

“People, we believe, ought not to suffer, be excluded, die of hunger or oppression.  But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak- these things are perfectly natural.  On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust? … If you are sure that this natural world is unjust and filled with evil, you are assuming the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard by which to make your judgement.”

Today, at just a few hours until sixteen months since your tragic death- a death that could have been so easily prevented- I am able to say that this – your death- is my reality.  But it is not all of reality.  I will not consciously hope for our old life to reappear (though I can’t help it if I still beg you aloud to come home every now and again, or if I dream it nightly ), but I will hope just the same.  And I cannot just hope in this life, in my own resilience or contentment.  But I will hope in goodness and beauty, and the victory of the underdog.  I will grapple with faith and theology and philosophy and both shake my fist and bow my head at the hidden Creator.   Because, I have finally realized, I have been grieving the loss of not one, but two great loves for the past sixteen months.  I believe tonight (with the very real allowance that this belief may change tomorrow) that your body is buried, but you are elsewhere…and very much alive.  A new friend reminds me in an email, “Maybe not everything makes sense but cling on to what does in your faith.  You have to hold on to these tethers, however frail, because at the end is Dan.”

I’m not sure if this hope will one day lead to contentment or endless discontent, but I do think it is the doorway to my own personal resilience.  I am holding fast to these tethers.


November 6, 2011


  1. Jane Jasmine

    Such a beautiful, insightful post, Julia. Thank you for sharing.

  2. megan

    how to even be here when the god you knew, beneath everything, also randomly suddenly died. – As you say, the loss of two great loves.

  3. Anne D

    I am sitting here crying at your beautiful, tough words. What a journey you are on. Thank you for letting us ride along at a distance.


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