“Grief permeates most of the waking moments of those who are mourning. This book is a Christian message about the hope and fulfillment that can be known at the far side of that journey.”
—Ronald J. Greer
Ron Greer and his wife lost their two-year-old son Eric in a tragic automobile accident many years ago. In this brief, moving book, the author draws on his experiences as a father and as a pastoral counselor to offer hope, help, and healing to people who are grieving.
“Ron Greer has helped my wife and me grapple with many tough issues over the years. But all of them pale by comparison to his own personal tragedy. The loss of a child is the most devastating, life-changing event a parent would shudder to even envision. But as I have learned through the years, Ron has an uncanny ability to dig deep into our dark, unexplored emotional mines—turn on some lights—and then find those precious veins of hope.
There are no good answers to why bad things happen to good people. But there are good people who are able to use bad things as a lever to learn something profound about themselves and—in rare cases—to help others find the same emotional tools. Ron Greer has that tremendous gift. Thank God he is willing to share it with us.”
“For many years Ron Greer has skillfully counseled folks whose turn it was to ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death.’ Then it was Ron’s turn. By faith, transforming a terrible tragedy into a time of deepening faith, Ron shows the rest of us the way, when it’s our time to walk through the desert of grief. All of us are either preparing for grief, or dealing with past grief, and we need all the help we can get. Ron can show you how to do grief with faith, hope—and love too.”
—William H. Willimon,
author and United Methodist bishop
“Ron Greer touches our hearts and gives us some great insights into healing and hope with this book. Ron writes from the depths of his own grief and his journey to healing as he and his wife dealt with the death of their two-year-old son. I have known Ron for thirty-five years, and he is made of the ‘real stuff.’ He enables the reader to deal with ‘real stuff’ with his book. The reader will be amazed at the hope the book produces on each page.”
senior minister, Peachtree Road United Methodist Church
“Markings on the Windowsill is sacred ground. When a person of Ron Greer’s depth and compassion bares his soul, and that of his amazing wife, Karen, one treads with reverence and rapt attention.
Be careful with this book… When you pick it up, go to a very quiet place, and plan to be there awhile.
God will speak to you. Your life will be changed. I promise.”
ESPN sports analyst and speaker
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About the Author
Ronald J. Greer is the author of four books: The Path to Compassion: Loving with Heart, Soul, and Mind, Now That They Are Grown: Successfully Parenting Your Adult Children, Markings on the Windowsill: A Book About Grief That’s Really About Hope, and If You Know Who You Are, You’ll Know What To Do: Living with Integrity. He is the Director of the Pastoral Counseling Service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, having been with this ministry for over thirty years. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, and a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. A native of Louisiana, he has a Bachelor of Science from Louisiana State University, a Masters of Divinity from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, a Masters of Theology in pastoral counseling from Columbia Theological Seminary. Find him online RonaldJGreer.com
Read an Excerpt
Markings on the Windowsill
A Book About Grief That's Really About Hope
By Ronald J. Greer
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2006 Dimensions for Living
All rights reserved.
Moments by the Window
* * *
... with hands outstretched toward the window.
— Tobit 3:11
Eric was not yet two and was all boy. He loved adventure. He liked to try things out. And he had a pen. We had just moved into our new home. The freshly painted wood-work around the dining room windows looked like a great canvas to this budding artist. He let his creative juices flow.
I stood there that evening looking at the marks all over the woodwork and the windowsill. They were drawn with authority, etched deeply into the wood. They couldn't be washed off. I was less than pleased.
Four months later I was standing in front of that same window, looking at those same markings. This time there was no anger. This time there were only tears.
Eric had died tragically in the accident. Our older son, Patrick, was in the hospital with his leg in traction. My wife, Karen, and I were practically living there with him. I had gone home one evening soon after Eric's funeral to get clothes and check on the house.
It was quiet. It felt empty. All I could think of was Eric. I walked through the house crying, remembering. I paused for several minutes in the small yellow bedroom that had been his. I sat on his bed. I picked up his pillow to smell it one more time.
It was time to go. I turned out the lights as I went past each room. I stepped into the dining room to reach for the switch. And there it was: the window. There before me was Eric's art. Those same markings had gone from being a blemish to being priceless.
I couldn't leave without touching it. I knelt there rubbing the woodwork, following the lines our son had drawn. I treasured every curve and slant he'd marked into that painted wood.
I could picture the pen in his little hand, the wrinkle of his brow as he bent to do his drawing. It would never be painted over. It would be forever Eric's signature.
His markings connected me with him. I hated to leave them. I wasn't ready to go. But then, I hadn't been ready for any of this.
Psychologist Carl Rogers wrote in On Becoming a Person, "I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal ... has turned out to be an expression for which there is resonance in many other people.... What is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would ... speak most deeply to others"(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961, p. 26).
It is in that spirit that I offer what I have learned—in the hope that it might resonate with you and your experience. I offer these writings both as a person who has known profound loss and as a pastoral counselor who has been with countless others in their losses.
I am indebted to those who have allowed me the privilege of listening to their life stories. From them I have learned much of what it means to live courageously with grief.
My intention here is to write this as a conversation with a friend. I write much of this in the second person. I am writing to you. These reflections need not be read first to last. Read the ones that speak to you.
I have waited years to put my thoughts into writing. I did not want to bleed on every page. Instead, I wanted these words to be useful to you, so I waited until I had healed more fully and could reflect on all that I had experienced. I did not want to report as a journalist from the intensity of the battle scene; the emotion would be profound, but the perspective limited.
Perhaps now I am ready. Perhaps.
It has been over two decades now since Eric's death. I am still learning to live with my loss.
Also involved in the accident were Karen, Patrick, and our sitter, whom Karen had picked up just moments before. All were injured. Patrick, who had his femur badly broken, would be months in healing.
The emotional healing has taken years for all of us. In fact, it continues still. There is wisdom in the old saying, "There are some losses you never get over. You simply discover how best you will live with them."
This is my experience. Perhaps it resonates with your own.CHAPTER 2
* * *
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. — Psalm 23:4 KJV
Karen was to meet me at an intersection outside of Atlanta, where we would leave together for a speaking engagement in the North Georgia mountains. She was to pick up a sitter for our sons, let them off at home, and then meet me. I waited. The appointed time had passed. There were no cell phones with which to call.
I waited. What had begun as irritation gave way to concern. I knew something was wrong. From a service station pay phone I called my administrative assistant at the church. I remember her words to me clearly: "Thank God you called. There has been a terrible accident—"
My grief began.
The word grief sounds too small for all we are feeling. That one simple word is asked to carry so much emotion—so much sadness, emptiness, loneliness, confusion, heartbreak, pain. All of this, and so much more, is what mean by grief.
It is understandable that the word grief comes from the Latin gravis, which means "heavy." Any time I am experiencing my grief I am aware of the accuracy of its word origin. I feel the weight of the loss. My energy is sapped by the burden.
Grief involves mourning and anguish. It involves the loss of someone or perhaps something that had a special place in your heart. Grief involves death, either literal or metaphorical. It means saying "good-bye." It brings tears. It takes time.
The term grief actually refers to the experience of loss, while the term mourning refers to how those feelings of loss are expressed. Grief is the blow that hits you; mourning is how you respond, how you work through emotions and give them traction. It is common to use the two terms interchangeably, and I do the same. Still, it is useful to know that there is a difference between the experience and the expression. We have no choice about suffering the loss, but we have freedom in deciding how we will handle the suffering. We have to experience the grief. But mourning is a choice—and a very wise one.
To speak of "the grief process" is so very clichéd, but grief is indeed a process, a journey through which we must go. In a society that abhors anything that cannot be done quickly, this process, to be done successfully, takes time—often months, sometimes years.
My focus throughout this book is largely on the emotions that result from the death of a loved one. Yet, grief is hardly limited to physical death. Any significant loss—of a dream, a relationship, an ability—is a kind of death, and grief is experienced. Much in this book will apply to those suffering grief or loss of any kind.
We feel pain with any important loss. We mourn. The more profound the importance of who or what was lost, the more profound the grief. To express such grief is absolutely crucial. There are no shortcuts. Suppressing our emotions, pushing them down and out of the way because "I'm supposed to be past this by now" or rationalizing that "her death was really a blessing for her anyway" is ultimately a futile effort.
As time passes we find we are living atop a reservoir of old pain long collected. More and more effort is needed keep it packed down as the pressure builds. We are left tired, lethargic, unfocused, and disinterested in what had before been meaningful. We become less available to those around us. In other words, we are experiencing the classic signs of depression.
If you want to see grief handled this way, watch the movie Ordinary People and study the character of Beth Jarrett, played so well by Mary Tyler Moore. Following the drowning death of her son, Beth quickly moved on with her life in order to avoid the pain. Look into her face—her hardened, rigid face. You see both her depression and her anger. Listen to her voice—not the lyrics, but the score. She speaks with the staccato rhythm of suppressed grief and unexpressed rage.
Suppression can bring depression, but expression can bring a kind of resurrection. A friend once said, "Most of us aren't willing to hang on our crosses long enough to experience resurrection." Most of us want to hurry by the terrible pain. We don't want to feel the pain of the loss. Yet that very experience is what enables us to get to the other side.
Give your grief a voice. Cry it out. Talk it out. Write it out if you find journaling to be valuable. Express it as it comes. Keep it current. Giving a voice to your pain enables the wound to heal.
Again, scripture shares its wisdom: "Weeping may linger for the night, / but joy comes with the morning" (Psalm 30:5). It is a joy that is earned—one that comes out of having the courage to feel what you feel, and to mourn the depth of the loss that is before you.
Your grief cannot be hurried. Take your time. Joy will come, with the morningCHAPTER 3
The Rock at the Bottom
* * *
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. — Matthew 5: 4 RSV
Iremember too well the pain. The awful, gut-wrenching pain. The sobs. The kind of crying that goes on and on and on. The heartache. Literal. Real. Not a metaphor. My chest aching from the sheer physical effort of it all.
I remember. The hours spent at the cemetery over Eric's grave. Sobbing. Talking to him of how much I loved him, of how much I missed him. Of how empty I felt without him. The tears came and would not stop.
I remember. The cemetery in the pitch-black dark of night as I came to let out more pain. I cried best alone, when I didn't have to take care of anyone, anyone but myself. I must have looked crazy out there in the middle of the night. I was. Crazy in my grief. The hurt was so deep. It was like something toxic that I had to get out of my system, or something inside me would die.
Grieving is an act of enormous courage.
To grieve well requires a willingness to open yourself to the depth of your pain. It can be a frightening experience. There are many who simply do not choose to go there. I heard some speak of their anxiety about "letting go" giving in to their grief out of a fear of being swept away in it. It seems like a bottomless pit into which they could fall forever.
That has not been my experience. I remember a comment made when several persons were consoling a friend who had been through a very difficult time. She said she had hit rock bottom. There was a pause, and one person in the group said, "But isn't it good to know when you hit rock bottom, that at the bottom there is a rock?"
My experience is that there is a rock at the bottom. At the depth of our grief and pain, we arrive at a place within us that feels grounded. Ironically, the way to find that substantial footing is to be willing to "sink" into experiencing the pain—to be willing to have the courage to take on your grief as it comes and to hold nothing back.
To mourn fully and to mourn well is to allow yourself to be genuine. It is to be all that you are and to feel all that you feel. This is working through your pain, not wallowing in it. As you work through your grief, you will live out of a greater spiritual and emotional depth than you ever experienced. You are at a level within yourself that is of greater substance, strength, and maturity than you have ever known. You are in the presence of God. It is surely this spiritual place to which the psalmist was referring: "He only is my rock and my salvation, / my fortress; I shall not be greatly moved" (Psalm 62:2 RSV).
Some grief researchers have found that persons of faith tend to grieve their losses with more passion just after the death than persons who are not spiritual. Follow-up studies show that two years later, the spiritual persons, having expressed their grief more intensely, are doing better than the nonspiritual persons. They tend to work through their grief more readily and perhaps more successfully.
I believe this is connected with the insight of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). As Christians, we grieve as those with hope. We grieve with the faith and the hope that we are supported by the grace of a deeply loving God—the God who is the rock at the bottom. We sink into the sadness and the despair knowing the grounding is there; that no matter how dark the valley, God is with us.
I distinguish this kind of active mourning from passive hurting. Many times people have come to see me for counseling regarding their depression. On some of these occasions I feel that their depression may be related to a major loss that has occurred sometime earlier in their lives. I ask about the deaths they have known and how fully they have grieved these losses. Sometimes I hear, "Oh, I hurt with it for years."
I do not minimize the depth of their pain, but often what we discover is that they were not getting it out. They weren't giving a voice to their grief. Active mourning means expressing the pain. It means to let out your tears, and to talk to dear and trusted friends. Passive hurting is more like an internal retreat—a withdrawal into your self. Its focus is more of an effort to cope, rather than working through the grief.
As Christians, we also grieve as those with another hope. We grieve as those with the faith in a spiritual realm into which the soul of the one we loved has now entered. No matter how deep our pain, as persons of faith we can grieve without the concern of their wellbeing to distract or burden us. We can pour out the pain for our own loss knowing that our loved one is well and in the loving care of God.
As Paul wrote, "You may not grieve as others do who have no hope." His words are both an affirmation of faith and an affirmation of the need to work through the pain.CHAPTER 4
* * *
I am weary wit my moaning; / every night I flood my bed with tears. — Psalm 6: 6
Ididn't want time to budge. With each passing day I would be a day farther away from the time when I had held him and played with him. Would my memory of the details fade? I wondered. Would I forget the sound of his voice or the smell of the back of his neck?
I didn't want time to budge. It was late October when Eric died. The leaves were changing. I looked out the back window one afternoon a few days later and saw that many of the leaves had fallen. The world was changing. Life was going on without him. I was that much farther away from him. It was a crazy moment. I desperately wanted to put leaves back on those bare limbs.
But the journey had begun and would not stop just because I wished it so.
Nearly every book on grief has the obligatory "stages" chapter that walks through the process of grief, alerting the reader to the emotions one likely is to expect. At the risk of fitting the formula, I include this brief chapter for any who may fear you are crazy in your grieving. Of course you are. It's a part of the process. But you are not alone.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying, wrote of the stages of grief as applied to a terminally ill person. "Stages" may have been an unfortunate choice of words; there are no neat, predictable stages. Your experience depends on much that is distinctive to the uniqueness of your life. What was your relationship with the person who died? How close, how meaningful was the relationship? How long was the relationship? How did your loved one die? Was it expected or was it sudden, with all of the grief coming after the unanticipated death?
Though the grief journey is unique for each of us, there are broad parallels that most find in common. There are phases of emotion you can expect. They are not precise. They overlap. But grief is a process, and there is a moving ahead—though it is painfully slow.
These phases are not neat and orderly. You can expect drift back from your current phase into emotions associated with an earlier one. In my grief I have never known to which emotion I might awaken next.
I once read a sports column about the unique personality of a college basketball coach. This coach was a brilliant man who would sprinkle wide-ranging quotes throughout his interviews. The columnist wrote that listening to him talk was like listening to an AM radio on scan.
Similarly, I find that my heart may land on any emotion at any given time. My grief is always on scan. Many find this process to be a cycle they revisit over and over again. Yet, it isn't regression. There is movement. There is healing. Grief that has gone awry, "complicated grief" as it is called, is seen when someone becomes emotionally arrested for an extended period in one of these phases. Professional help may be needed when, over time, there isn't a sense of process toward healing.
Excerpted from Markings on the Windowsill by Ronald J. Greer. Copyright © 2006 Dimensions for Living. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
MOMENTS BY THE WINDOW,
THE ROCK AT THE BOTTOM,
RESPECT THE SEASONS THAT WILL COME,
TRAGEDY MAKES NO SENSE,
WHERE IS GOD IN THIS?,
THE NEED TO GRIEVE IN ONE'S OWN WAY,
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY: IN IT TOGETHER,
"HOW MANY STOCKINGS SHALL WE HANG?",
AS IF THEY NEVER LIVED,
SUPPORTING THOSE WHO GRIEVE,
CARE ENOUGH TO LISTEN,
A STRENGTH AND A SPIRIT,