The phone rang the first week of November with news that altered our lives forever. It’s the kind of news that hits you simultaneously in the chest and also behind the knees. By the end of the day, we had launched into high gear and rearranged everything to savor the last moments of life with someone we treasured, Steve’s mom.

During this time, Steve packed a suitcase and flew out of state immediately after Thanksgiving.  He returned after Adrienne took her SAT test and then we all traveled together to his family’s home, where we stayed for over a month. Never have we so aptly appreciated the flexibility of homeschool, plus owning our own business. Mobilizing was somewhat stressful but we were so grateful to have the power of choice.

Grief is a Disorienting Experience

Have you ever been tumbled by a series of massive waves? It was as though we’d been knocked down and the ocean continued to pummel us until we didn’t know which direction was up. We were in the grip of it, with neither control nor certainty about what would happen next. The one thing we wanted to preserve was slipping away from her family day by day.

Gratitude is an Energy in Grief

After the New Year, our family returned home in angst, only to send Steve right back. He stayed for over a month to be his mom’s primary caregiver up north while I held the fort down in the south. Now, our family is unique in that we have spent almost every day together since Adrienne’s birth 17 years ago.  The immense grief made us all reach for each other more than ever, so you can imagine that this separation was especially wrenching. At the same time, enormous gratitude flooded us: for the strength of our faith,  for financial freedom, for control over Adrienne and Addison’s academic calendars, for friends who helped us catch our breath, for the gift of life itself. Like sailors caught in a sudden gale, we learned how strong our crew is.

Time slowed to a crawl for me and the kids. I assigned the bare minimum of school work and we shut down what extracurriculars we could. We were drawn to one another like magnets, always winding up snuggled under the same blanket. Our home felt extraordinarily quiet, as though all the noise had been turned down low so we could accommodate grief. This strange peace was another gift from God. Also, there seemed to be a special quality of sensitivity humming through the house. Each person stayed vigilant to the needs of one another- a glass of water, a hug, help with chores, company on a walk. Never before had our family functioned so utterly graceful.

Practical Ways we Coped in Crisis

I took note of this new rhythm in our house and acted in a way that would perpetuate it. Whatever felt joyful, the kids and I went with it. A hike at the beach, a splurge at our favorite ice cream shop, some new card games. We made soup and fresh bread together from scratch umpteen times- a therapy I wholeheartedly endorse. Comedy movies were like weekly medicine, as much as daily phone calls with Steve. Downtime at home was vital because we could fall apart there. No one was shocked to see tear-stained faces and red, drippy noses. Being in public was like stepping under too-bright lights. I allowed us all to say no, cancel plans, and back out of commitments.

I am so grateful that Steve and I long ago prioritized having an active family and eating nutritious meals. We’d incorporated small changes throughout the years to stay consistent. Especially during a crisis, this became essential for self-care. Overwhelmed? Go for a long nature walk. Feeling drained by big emotions? Replenish with real food. These were actual tools that helped each member cope.

Watch Out! Givers and Takers

More than once through this whole season, some completely rude people who should have known better blindsided us. I would say they meant well, but the truth is when someone lacks self-awareness, the ability to be sensitive to others is beyond their scope. I would be mortified to ever behave this way towards hurting people in my path. I’m called to be the antithesis of this type, as a follower of Jesus. This is one of the inevitable ways that the experience of grief remade us.

In my friendships, I expect myself to be strong and give at least as much as I take. For this reason, it meant the world to me that the friends held me up when I had nothing to give back. We remained surrounded by old friends who surprised us with their strength, friends whose words were lifelines, friends who gave selflessly. The Holy Spirit coordinated our care plan in the same manner that Steve and the hospice nurses cared for his mom. Every single kindness doled out was impactful. This depth of kindness is also a way that grief changed us forever.

The Psalms Are Real Experiences

Steve’s mom passed after the new year. It was without a doubt, the hardest and most beautiful thing we have ever experienced. The Bible says, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Now we know exactly what this looks like in real life. The death of someone who loved faithfully and lived out their faith is– even in all of its overwhelming sadness– such a wonderful gift. It changed me. I have never been more in love with my family and with Jesus. I want to serve God and trust Him for all my days because of his kindness and goodness to the Brendtros. Someday a long time from now, I hope to give my family such a beautiful gift.

Except for our family Lent readings right now, I have been in the book of Psalms for months. I simply cannot absorb anything else. One passage that means a lot to me this year is Psalms 31, particularly verse 7, “I will be glad and rejoice in your unfailing love, for you have seen my troubles, and you care about the anguish of my soul.”

Also, we continue to keep worship music playing all day in our home. When we didn’t have words left to say through all this, we borrowed from modern-day psalmists. Worship has always been special to our family. On a regular basis, I hear my husband or son with a guitar or my daughter on her keyboard. We open our mouths to sing words from the Holy Spirit, and it starts a deluge. Worship is how we engage with heaven; it’s a taste of the life we will step into fully when we draw our last breath. Just like we were drawn tighter to one another in our grief, we all now feel an even stronger pull towards Jesus. The grief still comes in waves, and we need to be close to Him. Nothing else will substitute. It is yet another way in which grief altered us, and I know my mother-in-law would be proud.

Written by Melissa Brendtro