Friday, February 24, 2017

Living with Grief

First, I’ll give a quick update on my happenings. I’ve been getting my house ready to Air BNB to help with the bills. That’s been a pretty good distraction and, hopefully, I can use it to witness and share Julia’s story more. Here’s the link if you know anybody who needs a short-term place to stay in Hamilton.

Now for some EXCITING NEWS - *drumroll*…I have decided to start a new website! Ok, it’s not that exciting, but it will be a resource to help other caregivers, and especially spouses, of people dealing with cancer. It can be a complicated thing trying to ease the suffering of your spouse, researching and advocating for the best treatment, navigating the many services that exist to help those with cancer, the mental anguish of trying to fix the unfixable. I’m hoping my thoughts on my experiences with this will help others be the best support they can to their loved ones, while also taking care of themselves. I'll keep this blog to more personal ramblings and that site will be more practical resources. I’m a beginner when it comes to creating new websites by myself so please bear with me; it may take some time but I hope to have it up and running soon.

In this post, I’ll share some experiences of grief that may not be consistent with the prevalent ideas of grief – things that I was not expecting to experience. Hopefully, this will help both people who have experienced and who will experience intense grief. I’ll save thoughts on what has helped, how others can help, the theology of grief, etc for another time. Disclaimer 1: These are only my experiences at this early stage of the grief journey and there is a good chance that others may experience grief differently, or that I will experience it differently later in the journey. Disclaimer 2: Julia didn’t sugarcoat her cancer journey in this blog, and I will carry on the tradition of non-sugarcoatedness in my journey with grief.

Last week I watched the critically-acclaimed and Oscar-favourite Manchester by the Sea. It’s definitely the best movie I’ve seen this year and I think it should win Best Picture. The reason is that it takes a real look at grief. It doesn’t shy away from fully exploring the gritty, messy, uncomfortable aspects of grief.

Without giving any big spoilers, Manchester by the Sea is about a man named Lee (Casey Affleck) who works as a custodian in Boston. Near the beginning of the movie, he finds out his brother has passed away of heart disease. Lee discovers that his brother has named Lee as guardian of his son. This forces a reluctant Lee to move back to his hometown to care for his nephew. Through flashbacks, we learn more and more about Lee – why he’s reluctant to move back to his hometown, why he is a quirky loner, and why he has bursts of anger. He’s grieving his brother’s death, but he’s also grieving something more.

Those who have seen it will understand that Lee’s situation in the movie is much more complicated than my situation. The reason I bring up this movie is that it does a masterful job of portraying the less commonly portrayed aspects of grief. These are the same aspects that I have been surprised to encounter in my own experience of grief, so despite the dissimilar circumstances I was able to identify quite a bit with Lee.


Most other on-screen portrayals focus on the intense sadness and heartbreak of characters after experiencing tragedy. This definitely is part of it – I cried more in the first few days after my wife’s death than I had in my whole life up to that point. But much of what I have experienced since then is the opposite of intense emotion. Numbness. Fog. Wandering. Wandering around, grasping for thoughts and feelings that always seem to slip away just as you grope for them. This quote about grief from C.S. Lewis (who also lost his wife of a few years to cancer) in A Grief Observed is spot on:

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting.

Watching Manchester by the Sea made me realize how lazy grief must look to those around the griever. I suppose it is somewhat lazy in the sense that you feel like any activity won’t significantly add to your happiness, so it’s hard to see the point in that activity. But in another sense, it’s very hard work. You give every ounce of your energy to try to think, feel, remember, converse, live. You spend so much wattage on the basics that anything else is beyond doing.

I think this “aimlessness” aspect of grief is largely because when your close loved one dies, it immediately eliminates one of your main purposes in life. You spent so much of your focus caring for and thinking about the well-being of your loved one, and now there is a huge hole where that purpose was. I know that as a Christian my primary purpose is glorifying God. But it is still very disorienting to eliminate the other major purpose in my life.

Another observation I’ve had is that this “losing purpose” is one of four main types or experiences of grief (sidebar: I haven’t looked up any academic theories of grief yet, but I’m interested to know whether I’m totally off-base here or not). Each one leads to a distinct kind of feeling, although it’s all feelings of loss. Along with losing purpose, there is the experience of missing the activities you did together. There is the experience of losing out on hopes and dreams you had for your future together (e.g. raising a family, travelling to new places, etc). And there is the experience of a piece of you being gone. The first three have certain clear triggers, so the painful feelings peak and valley. The last one is much more constant – it’s hard to describe but the best analogy is that of a limb amputation. You’re unlikely to fully forget that you don’t have a hand – the loss is always right there in front of you.

Lee also struggles with anger. Anger for me has manifested much more subtly than for Lee, and I wouldn’t call it a big struggle – but it’s there nonetheless. Thankfully, I’ve been able to deal with it pretty well by talking/yelling things out with God, exercising, listening to loud music, etc. The anger isn’t necessarily at anything or anyone in particular, it’s just there.

Near the end of the movie, Lee answers the question of whether or not he can “beat it”. “It” meaning the grief, the sadness, the burden, the horror, the guilt, the what-ifs, all of it. To find out his answer you’ll have to watch the film, but in my experience so far, you can’t beat “it” – at least not fully. Of course, there are things that help: prayer, reading God’s Word, meditation, music, looking at photos, reading letters, talking with friends and family. But just as I was against thinking of Julia’s experience as a “fight” with cancer, I don’t want think of it as a “fight” with grief. Just as you don’t “beat” cancer, you don’t “beat” grief. You live with it – with help from God, friends, family, professionals, of course. But once you learn you can’t beat it, you can learn to live with it. And over time it begins to feel more and more like living again.

I try to read comments but if you'd like to chat I'm found more often on Twitter - @andydbayer or Facebook, so feel free to follow/friend. Beware, I talk a lot about sports or other random things too.


  1. One of the most authentic books about grief and faith I've encountered is Jerry Sittser's "A Grace Disguised". Check it out when you're in a place where you feel like reading. Praying for you and your family from Los Angeles.

  2. I so appreciate this Andy. Thank you for your honesty. Also super amazing about the AirBNB! What a great idea. I will pray that God use you in incredible ways by sharing Julia's story. Lots of love.

  3. Grief is a realization of emotions we never knew or wanted.

  4. So glad you read a grief observed by c.s Lewis, thank you for sharing with vulnerability Andy

  5. So well said Andy! It's good to hear from you. Congrats on the AirBnB idea. Also, I'm sure there's Mac students who'd benefit greatly from staying at your place for a semester or two as much as the occasional traveler.. Everything you've described in terms of grief and loss is pretty much the norm, if there is such a thing as normative. As for resources, I like Trusting God Through Tears by Jehu Thomas Burton. We tend to have an idea of the 'natural order of things' in the sense that older people go first. Children bury parents. And not vice versa. Because this author lost his son, he writes from that perspective - the shock, the anger, the need to process this 'abnormal' incident, including mourning anticipated losses of what might have been.

    On a separate note, in my humble opinion, I think your idea of a web page - something that you would start and complete, is a fantastic idea (rather than an ongoing blog).

    Finally, I wanted to let you know that a week ago Friday, a Bible study that my husband and I lead covered the topic of suffering. We dug into the scriptures during the week, but at our meeting we watched the video that you and Julia did for Huntley Street. Virtually everyone in this group is actually going through something pretty major at this time and the video was very powerful testimony that encouraged us greatly. Thank you for doing it.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


I'd love to hear from you. Please jump in on the conversation or just say hi!