Have you ever heard the saying "keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer"?
When I was in middle school, I had my first experience with a bully. It seemed as soon as my foot stepped off that big yellow bus, his day of mental torture and intimidation could finally begin. I would walk down different halls. I would choose different routes to classes. Yet somehow, he always seemed to step around the corner as soon as I was alone. It was as though he knew what I was going to do before I did. That is, until I learned how to deal with the bully.
For some reason, even though this guy caused me more torment than anyone else in the world, I felt sorry for him. He didn't seem to have any friends. He was always alone. He wore the same clothes for days at a time and was two years older than the rest of us. I remember sitting up in my room late one night dreading going to school the next day. I was thinking through various plans to avoid him when I had the strangest idea; instead of avoiding him, maybe I should approach him. Crazy. I know. But, it seemed like a good idea at the time, so that's what I decided to do.
As I sat on the cold, rubbery-vinyl seats of that bus the next morning, it was almost as though I was walking the green mile on the way to my own demise. As we rounded the corner and the school came into sight, my stomach began to churn so much that I thought I would be sick. I barely heard the squeak of the breaks over the pounding of my own heart as the bus came to a stop. I nervously looked out the window, and to my surprise, I didn't see him anywhere. Stepping off the bus, I gave myself every excuse to blend in with the crowd and make my way to homeroom. I passed by the first building and didn't see him. So far, so good. The nerves began to subside as I walked down the breezeway approaching the seventh grade hall. "Maybe he was sick today! Maybe his dad got a new job and he had to move out of the country overnight!" I was thinking of countless scenarios, all of which involved his removal from my once peaceful, innocent 7th grade world when I heard it: the shout that seems to ring through the halls of every school multiple times a week, "fight! fight!"
A crowd was gathering in a clumsy circle as two pimple-faced adolescents faced off. I stepped over backpacks and lunch boxes to get a better view. There in the midst of a crowd of letter jackets and too much hairspray was my nemesis. On this day, he had found another poor soul to torture, and it seemed it was going to be a violent beginning to this poor kid's morning. As the air filled with threats and profanity, I heard a voice that no one else could hear. It was a voice inside reminding me of my intentions that morning to approach my bully. I tried to rationalize with myself, but it was too late. Before I could even realize what was happening I found myself standing next to him.
"Hey!" I said. He didn't seem to hear me, so I stepped closer and raised my voice. "Hey!" He turned and looked at me. "You want some, too?" he said through his gritted, unbrushed teeth. "Listen." I said sternly. "Everyone knows you could kill this kid. They all expect it. So, when you do, no one is going to think any differently about you than they already do. What's going to happen is you will be suspended and this kid's family will probably sue yours for assault. Basically, you are risking everything for nothing. But, if you walk away, no one will see that coming. They will still know you would have won that fight, but they will think you're smart, too."
When I think back to that day, I still don't know where all of that came from. But, it worked. He walked away and the other kid lived to see the sunrise again. I'd love to say that I became friends with my bully, but I can't. We never hung out after that. But, it did open a door of communication between us. I was able to sit with him at lunch on occasion, and I even chose to sit near him in class. I was determined to keep him near me and to build whatever superficial relationship I could. I felt that any joy I could find in the midst of that weird acquaintance was better than the fear I felt each day through my failed attempts to avoid him.
Grief is like that middle school bully. It intimidates us. It tells us we are worthless. It's presence alone makes us feel defeated. It's so much easier to find every way possible to avoid it, but it always finds us. Jody and I are learning that our approach to grief must be like my approach to that bully. So, we are taking deep breaths, suppressing the nerves, and facing it head-on every morning.
As a result, we are finding joy in the midst of our sorrow. Time is a major factor in our ability to reason with grief, but our hearts do not hurt any less today than they did the moment we had to let Ella go. We are simply learning how to look for joy and happiness through the tears. It's like a light in the darkness; we can choose to focus on the darkness or to admire the glow of the light.
Ella's passing wasn't our first hard loss. No hurt we've ever known is like the loss of our child, but this December will be 5 years since we lost Jody's brother, Eric. We have missed him every day since we heard the news that he was gone.
This picture is an example of keeping grief close enough to find the joy in it. It's a picture of Eric holding Ella the day she was born. Neither of these amazing people are physically in our lives any longer, but the happiness we felt when we found this picture recently is immeasurable. Our hearts ache that we can't speak to either of them or give them a hug, but we smile at the fact that they were, and forever will be, ours. (And you know we were blown away by the fact that he is wearing a green shirt in this picture.)
Maybe you've never known grief in a personal way. Or maybe you and grief are on a first name basis. Tragedy comes to visit when we least expect it and more often than not, grief becomes a close companion as a result. So whether you find yourself walking in grief or not, it's best to recognize that grief is a reality all of us will face.
Look at this picture. Allow it to burn into your mind. This is what grief looks like. Yet, it's also the face of joy. On those hard days when you are looking for every way possible to find a different hall to walk down or a hidden path home, remember that grief is a bully you can't hide from. So, call him out by name, look him in the eyes and don't back down. Your joy stands there, too. It's the tormented kid that is sure to be defeated, waiting for you to step in. When you finally do, you will find that the beauty of loss is not in what we no longer have, but in the things that can never be taken from us.