The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
My Dad planted red raspberry bushes in the back yard. In the summertime, we got up early in the morning and rushed outside to beat the birds to the berries. We picked the biggest, reddest berries from the bushes and filled a big bowl. Then, we sat on the front porch swing, and ate them as we talked about anything and everything. Those were the days.
There was just something about that fresh summer air and those juicy berries! Raspberries reminded me of simpler days. They reminded me of that precious time I spent with my Dad. Berry picking was something I looked forward to every summer.
Then my Dad passed away in February of 2004.
After that, I couldn’t eat raspberries anymore.
I left them for the birds that following summer. My Mom sold the house the following spring. When I passed by raspberries in the grocery store, I looked the other way. If I dared to stop, I saw the ridiculous price tag and used it as an excuse to pass on buying them.
It wasn’t the price tag, though. I just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t eat those berries …. alone … without Dad.
Although raspberries were one of my favorite things, I feared that tasting them would bring back memories and I would melt into a puddle of grief. It was hard enough living without him. I was afraid to do something that would make me miss him even more.
I didn’t eat raspberries for years.
Then, one day, I walked by the berry stand in the grocery store and the raspberries looked amazing!
Red and round and perfect.
I stood there for a moment, deciding what to do.
Should I buy them? Was I ready?
I picked up the plastic container and held them in my hand for a moment. Before I could think too much, I set them in my cart and walked away from the produce section. As I shopped, I tried not to look at them. I even covered them with a loaf of bread. I considered putting them back and then decided I would buy them. I went back and forth but they were still in my cart when I got to the checkout. The cashier commented that the raspberries looked good. I took that as a sign that I made the right decision.
I got home and put the other groceries away and set the raspberries aside. I always ate them warmed by the morning sun so I set them in a sunny spot on the counter.
Then, I took them out of that plastic container, washed them, and put them in a bowl…
and left them there.
Later, I went back to the bowl of berries, took a deep breath, and put one in my mouth.
An explosion of flavor … just as I remembered.
Sweet, yet tart.
Just like that moment.
I tasted the berries … and the memories … all rolled into one.
I closed my eyes and memories played in my mind like an old 8mm movie reel.
I imagined myself on that porch swing, in the sweet summertime.
I felt the swing moving beneath me, the warm breeze blowing across my face.
I smelled the flowers in the hanging baskets.
I saw my Dad’s smile.
I heard his voice,
I felt his love.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I ate that bowl of raspberries … the whole bowl.
Happy tears. Sad tears.
Longing tears. Peaceful tears.
It wasn’t just a bowl of berries.
It was sweet release …
and it was tart acceptance.
My Dad was gone from this earth. I missed him every single day. Those berries that we loved were here for me to enjoy, to remember. I couldn’t sit next to my Dad on the porch swing with a bowl of berries; but I could sit down to a bowl of berries and a lifetime of sweet memories of him.
After my father passed, I feared those berries would bring sadness;
but, that day, they brought me healing.
It was human to protect our hearts by distancing ourselves from things, from places, from activities that were attached to memory and emotion. It was human to avoid those things that caused a lump in our throats and tears to well up in our eyes. Sometimes we were aware it would happen and sometimes that reaction caught us off guard. Sometimes those things that carried memories of lost loved ones were things that once brought us happiness and joy. When we experienced loss, we were forced to navigate a new world. A world without a loved one, a world in which we faced a new situation, a new normal. We longed for the way things used to be but we sometimes compounded that loss by depriving ourselves of other things too. Sometimes, we weren’t sure how to move on. Sometimes, we felt it was easier if we relinquished things that used to bring us joy because those things now brought us pain.
Maybe we didn’t think we deserved it? Maybe we felt guilty when we felt happiness after a devastating loss? Maybe we felt if we enjoyed life again, we were forgetting about the bad stuff that happened or that we were disrespecting the ones we lost?
But that wasn’t what my Dad would have wanted for me.
That wasn’t what God wanted for me either.
It wasn’t just about berries.
It was everything.
I used to write a lot. I wrote poems, I wrote short stories. I wrote essays and children’s books. I kept multiple journals. After my Dad died, I could no longer find the words. I was overwhelmed with the grief of losing my father and I didn’t want to open those emotional floodgates for fear of drowning in them. I used to read a lot too, but I didn’t make time for that either. My Dad used to read all the time. At the end, my Dad’s eyesight was so bad that he couldn’t read anymore. Maybe I felt guilty reading when it was something that was taken from him? I’m not sure why I stopped reading for pleasure or writing for release. I dove into my work. I never took time off to rest. I accounted for every minute of every day. I didn’t sit still. Maybe I made a point of ‘staying busy’ so I didn’t have to remember that my Dad was gone?
In time, I started opening my heart to some of those things I had been denying myself.
I bought a new book and started reading again…
I opened a new notebook and started writing in my journal again…
I bought some berries at the store and enjoyed them again…
I found that I could escape my emotions through the stories in a book.
I found that I could release my emotions through my own words.
I found that those berries still tasted sweet.
I found that I could find joy again.
It may sound crazy, but once I got sick, years after my Dad had passed; I felt even closer to him. I remembered when he found out he had to start dialysis. I remembered when he was removed from the transplant list and told to enjoy the time he had left. I remembered the chronic pain he suffered. I remembered when he had good days and bad days and when the bad days began to outnumber the good. I remembered when he told me that he was ‘getting tired’ and knowing what that meant but not wanting to accept it.
Now, I could better empathize. Now, I wasn’t trying to deny what my father was going through because I didn’t want to lose him. Now, I was feeling similar emotions and fears. Now, I understood how he felt and why he did some of the things he did. I gained strength from those memories of the way Dad dealt with his declining health.
I couldn’t run from those memories. I needed to learn from them.
I also remembered that once my Dad got sick and couldn’t work anymore, he spent his days doing things he wanted. He spent his days visiting friends and family. He spent his days reading. He spent his days gardening and canning and cooking meals. He spent his days doing sweet things for my mother. He spent his days helping other patients at the dialysis center. He spent his days sitting on the porch and enjoying the sunshine. I wanted to remember all those wonderful things about him because I drew strength from his example.
I remembered how my Dad managed his situation. I applied it to my own.
My Dad suffered at the end of his life; but I felt that it was at the end of his life that he really started living. It was at the end of his life that he slowed down enough to enjoy it. My Dad faced many challenges. He was in pain but he didn’t complain. He got bad news at the doctor and even amidst his devastation, he found the resolve to keep fighting. He was too tired on some days to do much more than sleep the day away but on those days he felt good, he fit in all the joy he could.
He wasn’t a man who would want me to deprive myself of things I enjoyed.
He was a man who would want me to eat a bowl of berries for him too.
He was a man who would want me to read as many books as I could, just like he did.
He was a man who would encourage me to write whatever and whenever I wanted.
He was a man who would want me to squeeze every drop out of every single day.
So why did I deprive myself of those things for so long?
Grief was a process. There was no timer. There was no expiration date.
I still missed my Dad every day. I still thought of him when I ate raspberries, when I walked into a bookstore, when I saw those scratch-off tickets at the convenience store…
I thought of him all the time.
But my stomach didn’t get tied up in knots when I saw raspberries anymore. My breath wasn’t sucked out of my lungs when I heard a few bars of my Dad’s favorite hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross”.
Those things that once brought instant tears to my eyes now brought a moment of quiet reflection and a smile to my heart.
I made a lot of detours through the produce section and I left a lot of empty notebooks and unopened books on my nightstand for a while.
It took a lot of tears and a lot of time.
But then one day, I put that plastic container in my shopping cart.
And I tasted the sweet memories I had been missing.
So, to all of you missing someone right now …
Allow yourself to grieve.
Be patient with yourself.
Cry those tears and feel those emotions.
But my wish for you is this:
May your bowl that is emptied by grief today,
be overflowing with memories tomorrow.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)
This post is dedicated to the memory of my father, Donald E. Lilley. He was larger than life and losing him left a big hole in the hearts of our family; however, the way he lived and the way he loved continues to bring us comfort as we navigate this world without him. Rest in peace, Dad. We love you and we miss you.