Too many people I love are facing the weight of grief this holiday season. When the commercials and billboards scream “If you get this, then you’ll be happy,” they shudder with the reality of the truth. Stuff and glitter and bright red bows do not make a soul happy.
The juxtaposition of what many may remember as the best time of year now echoes the empty chair. The empty bed. The empty arms.
As I try to wrap my brain around the reality of this season for so many that I love, I was struck with some of my memories of the Chicago marathons I ran. And I couldn’t talk about those marathons without one common element – Susan. My dear friend. The woman who always has her fist in the air cheering for me!
In my first marathon, she appeared at four spots throughout the race. Her fists were pumping and her voice was yelling encouragement. The love I felt that she was with me was palpable. But, I cared enough about my ‘time’ to keep moving. If she wanted to ‘be’ with me, she had to hop out on the streets and run alongside of me.
Which she did at about mile 21. I was so worn down and her quick neck massage and southern energy was just what I needed to finish the race.
And yes, she was at the race finish. I don’t fully remember seeing her, but if my memory serves me correctly, she was seated on a pillar in Grant Park to cheer me as I made my way to the finish line. Only Susan.
As much as that touched my heart, something she did for me a week later blew me away.
She had this crazy idea that after stuffing our six little children into her van, we could drive the marathon route. Not so she could just see it. No. She wanted to listen to me verbalize aloud what had been racing through my mind as I ran those 26.2 miles. Running 26.2 miles is one thing. Driving 26.2 miles with 6 little kiddos was another. But I talked and she listened. It was a holy car ride.
When we stopped for lunch in Chinatown (about mile 19), I realized that few people knew how to enter into my world like Susan did. She had fully set aside her agenda for that day and decided that my thoughts and feelings about something as inconsequential as a marathon mattered. That day will go down as a day where I felt loved through and through.
But, it got even richer. Even though she lived in Colorado, she decided that the next year, she would run that same race at my side. So she trained for her marathon in the mountains of Colorado (and I might add by running up and down her stairs in her house while her children napped) while I trained for that same marathon in the suburbs of Chicago. We planned to run the next race together.
And we did. For about the first 14 miles. Until my gut got the best of me and I had to let her go ahead.
“Even if I can’t see you, we are still in this race together.” Always.
I was only a couple of minutes behind her throughout the remainder of the race. I kept her orange hat in my line of vision. It was the marker I needed to remind me that we were still doing this together. Even though we were not side by side, we were in the same race.
What in the world does a marathon have to do with grief?
I think my experiences with Susan give me a picture of ways I can walk with someone when grief takes away their breath. And energy. And joy,
First, I can stand on the sidelines and as they pass by my heart or mind, I can give them a word of encouragement. Not bad, right? That may be just what they need.
Second, they may be too weary to run. They may be in recovery mode, but would love the opportunity to have someone sit by them in the ‘van’ to listen to their heart. To their memories. To their moments that they do not want to forget. Would it cost us that much to give up some time to just listen? I hope not.
But, finally, I don’t know how to always walk side by side. But, I do know that my marathon where I ran next to my dear friend in the orange hat will always be my favorite run. Where I will never forget how we leaned on one another. And encouraged one another. And finished the race that was laid out before us.
That’s what I think it means to enter into grief with another person. We have some choices. We can cheer for them from the sidelines. We can listen. And we can even walk step by step along side of them.
Thanksgiving may have some empty chairs in your home. The people still sitting and trying to eat turkey and stuffing and pie may need us to enter into their grief in concrete ways. I’m not sure what that looks like for me, but I think my marathons have some images to grab hold to.
For those of you who have sad hearts when the world seems to be giddy with the holiday spirit, I am sorry. Perhaps this blog will be a form of ‘standing’ on your sidelines while you are simply trying to put one foot in front of another. Perhaps you feel the fog of each day like this.
But, I pray for each of you who read this, that you will find someone who comes alongside of you like this.
I’m sorry that the image is blurry. The conversation and the moment is not. Susan and I tracked step by step by step. And I will always treasure her orange hat which marked the way forward for me.
I have told my daughter so many times that everyone needs a Susan. An encourager. A fist in the air friend. A person who will jump into the stuff you are running through. My prayer as I write this is that your heart will not feel forgotten this holiday season. May you find a friend who has the equivalent to an orange hat to help guide your way.