2014. What a year.
Engagements. Weddings. Graduations. Pregnancies. Birthdays. Dreams. Projects. New loves. New places. New choices. New careers.
A year full of exciting adventures and life-giving discoveries.
But for some, 2014 was anything but a dream.
And for my grandmother, Mamaw, it was a relentless year, full of punches at every turn.
It’s been said, “When it rains, it pours.” and, boy, has Mamaw weathered some pouring rain.
On February 5th, my Papaw, her husband, was diagnosed with a very aggressive esophageal cancer accompanied by blood-clots in his lungs.
Shortly after, he began radiation and chemotherapy treatments that wrecked his body, leaving him unable to lead his normal life. Graciously, Mamaw took up the slack and made sure everyone and everything was taken care of.
On April 28th, a tornado ripped through our hometown, destroying Mamaw’s house with her, Papaw, and my cousin Brooke inside. In the aftermath, Mamaw was left with no house to go home to, numerous priceless family mementos lost, a broken foot, and a body bruised worse than I’ve ever witnessed. Papaw was also left with stitches, scrapes, and bruises.
In late July, Mamaw and Papaw lost one of their closest friends in Tupelo after complications from heart surgery. Losing anyone is difficult, but losing a best friend of almost 30 years hurts like losing a family member.
On September 11th, Mamaw lost her mother after suffering complications from a car wreck.
And on December 16th, cancer violently claimed the life of Papaw.
In a short 10 months, Mamaw lost her house and a majority of her physical possessions, her best friend, her mother, and her husband.
All of that on top of the common struggles and frustrations that come with raising two teenage girls.
When I found out Papaw had passed away, I had no idea what to expect from Mamaw. I didn’t know how anyone could still be standing after suffering all of those things in a relatively short time. But when I asked, with slight confusion in their eyes, everyone who had been with Mamaw the night Papaw died assured me she was handling it well.
How do you handle the death of your husband well? How do you handle any death well?
But when I finally got to see Mamaw for the first time since that December 16th night, I understood what they meant. It wasn’t that she hadn’t cried, or that she was acting as if nothing was wrong, but there was something in her eyes that assured you she was okay. There was something inside her that assured her she was going to be okay. She had fight in her heart, and she wasn’t giving up.
And as I stood by her for a total of 7 hours over those two days for visitation and the funeral, I was amazed at the things she said, the wisdom she shared, and the things I learned. And when someone remarked that she was like a modern-day Job, I thought there couldn’t be a more fitting description.
So, in the midst of suffering and loss, these are some things I learned from my modern-day Job.
1. Crying is good for the soul, but danger comes when you invite yourself to a pity party. As countless people asked how she was doing or if she needed anything, she would always respond with “I’m okay right now. I’ll probably take some time later and just cry it out, but I’m okay right now.” To me, this was obviously a normal response. But what struck me is the one time she answered, “I might throw myself a pity party after it’s all over. Well, actually, no we don’t have time for that! We have too much to be thankful for!” I’m sure my eyes bugged out when I heard her say she had too much to be thankful for to feel sorry for herself. Thankful? You’ve suffered more loss in a year than most people do in 10 and you’re saying you still have things to be thankful for? Which brings us to point 2…
2. Always, always, always look for the silver lining. Count your blessings, even if you feel they are few, and find something to be thankful for. What does it profit us to focus on all of the things that are going wrong in life? Literally nothing good can possibly come from reciting to ourselves over and over all of the horrible things that have happened to us. But you know what can help? Shifting our focus to the things we have to be thankful for. Even if it’s something as seemingly insignificant as good weather, find something. For Mamaw, she started naming things like a new house after the tornado took her old one, insurance that has helped replace what was lost, family that is still alive and able to help out, a church family that cares, a God who never leaves us, a Savior who suffered for us, the hope of Heaven and the assurance that Papaw’s life didn’t end the day his earthly body died. Regardless of how many awful things life has thrown at you, start naming off everything you have to give thanks for. Once you start, I guarantee you will be uplifted when you remind yourself all of the things you still have to be thankful for.
3. Never let the fact that someone else seems to be suffering more diminish the pain you feel, BUT acknowledging that other people have it worse, does help keep your suffering in perspective. As someone was talking about how unimaginable the circumstances were, Mamaw mentioned that she had a friend who had lost 2 brothers, a sister, a son, and her mother all in the same year and commented, “It could always be worse.” It goes back to being thankful for the things you still have. Count your blessings, not your problems. And recognize that it’s never as bad as it could be.
4. Fall down 7 times, stand up 8. Life can only beat you up if you give it permission. So many times we are tempted to wallow in self-pity and have a “woe is me” attitude, justifying it by siting the awful circumstances surrounding our lives. But regardless of the circumstances, we can only be beat down if we allow ourselves to. We control what we let effect us and to what extent. It doesn’t mean life doesn’t hurt, or we can’t express that pain, but, rather, that we acknowledge the pain and commit to continue moving forward. However fast or slow we move, just keep moving. Never stay down.
5. Find someone or something that motivates you to keep living. Remind yourself of your reason to continue. For Mamaw, this is often her 2 granddaughters that she’s raising. I can’t count the number of times she would tell people, “I can’t fall apart. I have 2 girls I have to be there for. They need me.” Whether it’s a parent, a friend, a child, or a goal, find something that motivates you to keep going. To keep pushing. Never give up. As long as there is breath in your lungs, you have a purpose. Keep. Going.
6. When life brings you rain, grab an umbrella and keep praising Him. Never stop praising. Never stop PRAYING. In times of trouble, run to God with everything you have. Use those times of sorrow to grow closer to Him and strengthen your relationship. Take advantage of those vulnerable times. God has so much love and comfort ready to share, run into His arms and enjoy His embrace. He’s waiting for you, as He always is. Use this time to show the world the reason for the hope that is in you. Let God shine through you and bring more people to Him.
There are so many more things I’ve learned about handling life and loss from Mamaw, but these are a few of the biggest ones that have stuck with me.
Life doesn’t always happen the way we wish it did. We all experience pain and loss, some to a higher extent than others. But, thankfully, we all get to experience joy and blessings as well.
Some seasons of life bring showers. Some bring rain storms that last for days. But after every good rain, comes beautiful growth. Flowers, green grass, and rainbows.
He will turn our mourning into dancing. And we will dance with our loved ones again one day. What a beautiful day that will be.
In loving memory of Charles “Papaw” Milam. We miss you everyday.