Doing a lot of study and pondering around suffering lately, and with a funny -sounding idea that came to me this morning, it really seemed like this might be a timely sort of thing for people new to the pain of this new normal. WARNING: Some of what you read here just might be outright stupid. I have a goal, and it’s an odd ride. A long ride, but a good one.
I want to take you back to the summer of 1991, because I’m old. I was a young high school graduate at Basic Combat Training for the Army. My platoon slept in a 60-man bay, and we had a problem that time wasn’t fixing: We didn’t know how to go to bed. When the lights went off, people didn’t know how to shut up. Word kept getting back to our drill sergeant, and he was embarrassed and ticked off. That’s a really bad spot to be for a trainee.
So, one beautiful Fort Jackson afternoon, during Sergeant’s Time (which is time left to the Drill Sergeant to train his soldiers in whatever they need), we were called out to the line. That was a black line of tape that formed a “U” through our barracks, and that’s where ‘training’ got really intense. Drill Sergeant Nunn let us know about our bedtime failures, and that it was going to stop today. He gave us the task, condition, and standards: Within 1 minute of the lights shutting off, every soldier in that room would be in their bunks, quiet, and heading to sleep. One minute is all we had to do. It took us three hours to get it right. Really.
For a long time, every time we got close, by buddy Paul would yell, “Guys, we’ve almost got it. ” As a Christian, I wish this dork wasn’t named Paul, but that didn’t work out. Every time, immediately, the lights would go on, and we’d hear “Oooooooooookkaaaaaaayyyy, sollllllldiers. ON THE LINE!!!!” That was the phrase that told us we were about to pay.
We did push-ups, we did sit-ups, we did everything that Drill Sergeant Nunn had in mind, and we were sweating like crazy. At one crucial point, he introduced us to something called the Dying Cockroach. It sounded easy: Lay on your back. Put your hands and feet straight in the air and lay there. We were confident. We were cocky. We let him know that we could do this all day long. My buddy Paul reminded us how good this would be for our abs. Drill Sergeant Nunn responded with, and I quote, “THERE IS NO EXERCISE BENEFIT TO THIS ACTIVITY! THIS IS PAIN, PUNISHMENT, AND HUMILIATION!!!!!” Paul tried to discuss it with him. We all yelled “SHUT UP, PAUL!” None of us were getting the point.
It started easy. We’re just laying down. That’s so easy that even Air Force guys can do it. Eventually, it started to burn. We felt the burn in the triceps and the quads, the lactic acid and whatever settled in, and the burn grew and grew. The burn got more painful as we went on, and arguing with the Drill Sergeant didn’t seem to make the pain go away. Then the limbs got shaky, and we all heard “Don’t drop those feet!! Don’t drop those hands! I’m not tired yet.”
It went on and on. I didn’t time it, because my watch was up in the air, and I was busy trucking on through the pain. Eventually, though, the cockroach part came to an end. The pain didn’t subside for quite a while, the embarrassment of the whole thing didn’t face quickly, and the annoyance of that cockroach position still lingers in 2013. That was a truckload of pain. In our case, it had a simple reason. We were too stupid to shut up. We paid for that.
There’s a picture here of what I know about grief so far. I remember the beginning, and racing through that first few days. There were people to notify, a funeral to arrange, and things to get done. An odd mix of faith and adrenaline carried me through those first few days. It was terribly hard, but in retrospect, it was kind of the easiest part, because it wasn’t all real yet. I knew the facts. I’d held Doria’s body. I’d planned her funeral. I was at her funeral. It was still so new, though, that it wasn’t nearly as real as it would become.
Then time starts to pass. My daughter still wasn’t there. Reality set in, and became more real every day and every week. Just like the limbs starting to hurt, the mind started to hurt. It was a little harder to get things done. There were even more tears yet. The world might not have had enough tissues to make it through there. I was still confident, though, because even this level of pain was so very new. I could dig a little deeper, and still sort of drive on.
But the cockroach never let go. Grief is a stubborn thing. Everything got harder yet. Suddenly, I really couldn’t focus at all. I couldn’t read. I would pray through passages like Psalm 23, Matthew 11:28-30, Hebrews 3-4, and seemingly a billion others. God promised to be there and provide rest, and at those times, He chose to let me wait. That left me there to grapple with some extremely hard questions, and left the choice: Which road to follow? Where to go? What to do? It was not getting any easier. On my calendar, that hit just in time for Christmas, which is a really bad time for parents of dead children.
Just like the cockroach position, it still got worse. I actually dropped a course, and I’ve never done anything like that before. I don’t quit. It’s not my thing. It’s just not stubborn enough. I was running out of answers. The pain was getting worse, and even getting paralyzing at times. I found someone to talk to, and got some counseling. Things started to turn around, and some of it was pretty drastic. I’m so far from perfect, but it started to get better. It was like standing up from the cockroach position. The pain is still real, but eventually I could start moving around.
This is as close to preachy advice as I want to get for people, but here’s something: Be the griefroach. At Fort Jackson, it was our fault. We earned our pain. Those of us grieving our children didn’t. I’m not going to pin that on anyone. No way. But here’s something important:
The pain is going to happen. There is no way around that. The cockroach position is going to hurt, and the loss is going to hurt. That’s unavoidable, and it’s not a bad thing, even though it feels awful. We hurt because we love our child. That’s an excellent thing. Feel the hurt. If you deny the hurt, and deny the love for your child, you deny a really important part of our design. That’s a bad idea. Don’t do that.
In the middle of it, it’s easy to feel like it will never end. Those pain-filled limbs that start to shake are the only reality that we know. It feels like pain. It feels like punishment. At that moment, there is no benefit to see. It stinks. We hate it, because it hurts like crazy and it never stops. The thing is, it’s important not to let those limbs touch the floor. It’s important to hang in there, even though it’s impossible. It’s that time when 2 Corinthians 12:10 becomes more real and still impossible to understand, when Paul (not the annoying one) wrote, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” This is the time when we’ve just got nothing left. That’s the crucial time to keep on living, even in that limited way that we do.
At the same time, while we acknowledge the shaky limbs and all that, at some point we will be standing up again. The hurt will be real, but we become functional, maybe even excellent. The memory won’t fade. I’m quoting something 23 years old. I still remember to shut up at bedtime (sort of, unless Becky needs to hear my brilliance). Even in the pain, we learn something. We end up better for it. We learn about comfort, like in Matthew 5:4, where Jesus says “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” That mourning is a continuous process that describes the whole person, but that person who goes through the pain is the one who receives comfort. You can’t receive comfort without acknowledging the pain.
Grace is free, but comfort has a price. That price is pain, and pain hurts. Like the Dying Cockroach.