This past Monday, more than 100 people – young and old – streamed into our church parish center for Vacation Bible School, and it was my job to make sure it all ran smoothly. It was the sixth time I’ve overseen the program.
I originally volunteered for the position a month or so before my husband was diagnosed with cancer. The church religious education director graciously gave me an opportunity to bow out, but I assured her I would be ok.
While it’s up for debate whether I was ever really ok, VBS seemed to be a success that year. And it has seemed to be a success each following year – including the year in which I learned my husband would die, the year in which we buried him and the year in which the numbness wore off and reality set in.
In fact, once we knew the clock was ticking, my husband and I spent a lot time quietly hoping and praying that his exit from this world wouldn’t coincide with some other big event, like a Christmas or a birthday. Also on my list? VBS.
Turning the Mute Button on Grief
That may sound a bit obsessive, but it’s right in line with my normal MO when it comes to grieving. As my Dad was dying, I set up the laptop in the hospital room and tapped away while keeping vigil.
When my husband got sick, I did the same in emergency rooms, waiting rooms and chemo rooms. My laptop was my constant companion in those days. While he was getting CT scans, I was writing about online colleges in North Dakota. When he died, I told my editors my work might be delayed for a few days but I’d be back on track by the end of the week.
Some may say working without pause is avoiding the situation. And I say, so what?
So what if someone is working without end rather than pausing to soak up the horror of their current situation? Some people argue we should be really present in the moment and let ourselves fully experience our emotions.
I say bologna, and I have to wonder if the people who believe you should let yourself be immersed fully in your grief are also people who have never truly experienced grief. Because I’m not talking about the type of grief that comes from losing a job, a house or even a beloved pet.
I’m talking about the type of soul-crushing, I-can’t-breathe-for-months grief that comes from having the carpet pulled out from under your entire being. The grief for which there is no comfort. The grief for which there is no fix.
You can’t face that type of grief head-on. It’s like getting too close to the sun. It will burn you up.
Working Convinces Us We’re Doing Ok
And so we work. Our jobs – whether paid or volunteer – mute the pain. We might not do our best work, but that’s beside the point. Having a job gives us a distraction, a reason to climb out of bed in the morning.
What’s more, by working we talk ourselves into a narrative that says ‘everything is ok.’ If we’re still plugging away a job, then whatever awful thing that’s happening in our life really can’t be that awful, right?
That’s why I’ve never dropped VBS or the city planning commission or almost any of my other volunteer positions. It’s why I never took an extended leave from my work. Because once you quit, you’re acknowledging that yes, tragedy has hit. Even though my heart knew it to be true, my head would never let me go there.
Maybe we work too much. Maybe we should sit back and let the grief wash over us, but I’d rather not drown. I’d rather let 100 VBS participants take me to another place.