“What is grief if not love persevering?” — Vision (WandaVision, ep. 8)
The cardboard box near my feet is worn. Across the top the words “family pictures—basement” tell me it was packed as we consolidated things in our Michigan basement before moving to Austin. The box holds about eight large-size Ziplock bags stuffed full of photos that really have no rhyme or reason to them. Pictures are strewn around me, moments caught on film before the days of digital photos. I notice that my heart is particularly tender as I pull pictures from the bags and sort through them.
The pictures tell our story, like chapters in an epic book spanning decades. I have started sifting through this box in search of the right photos for a special celebration for my husband, who turns sixty in just a few weeks.
A large stack of pictures is from his fortieth birthday. The faces in those photos are largely young adults, the first members of a ministry we birthed in San Antonio named The Call. Everyone looks so young. Sprinkled in with them are the faces of friends, couples we were close to at that time. I remember thinking those friendships would last forever.
There are hundreds of photos from the early years of marriage before kids. Then, one by one, the original three arrive. They are dressed in matching outfits, posed for yearly studio photos, because that is what all the good moms were doing at the time, and I wanted to be a good mom too. Those are some of my least favorite photos–posed and stiff, forced and unnatural. We’ve made mistakes with all of our kids, and the first three got the full weight of our youth, inexperience, and lack of wisdom. I look in their eyes, noticing things today that I missed back then.
Celebration and grief intermingle as I sift and choose pictures. The photos invite me to “if only”, “what if”, “should have”, and “could have”—fantasy thinking that ultimately leads me nowhere but towards getting stuck in the past.
I am face-to-face with the reality that there are no “do-overs” in the realm of relationships. I think this is why we get drawn into regret and stuck there so often. In my fantasies I make better choices, and I say the right thing. I have perfect responses crafted from having thought and rethought scenarios until I have exactly what is needed to make everything well again.
Fantasy do-overs dishonor the story that is real; they say the actual story doesn’t get to belong. The alternative to engaging in fantasy do-overs is to enter what is real and listen to what that story wants to teach me. To allow the ache to come along with the memories and to feel difficult emotions like loss, failure, betrayal, abandonment, and shame.
To bear difficult emotions is to know the depth of our humanity and the gravity of our need. For me, it is an acute reminder of why I need Jesus. Do-over fantasies are part of fleeing from my need for Jesus and what he offers me. In my fantasy I don’t need comfort, forgiveness, rest, compassion, or the sense that I am held by someone bigger than me.
As I stare at the evidence of change, loss, and not what I had hoped or expected, I feel sadness and sorrow creeping in, feelings I had not been planning on when I pulled the box from the shelf in our garage. To hold the fullness of the life imaged around me I must feel both the beauty and the sorrow because that is what is real.
Every moment of beauty in our lives in dipped in glory and loss.
I have learned that grief is needed when love has been disappointed; when friendships suffer rupture that isn’t repairable; when time and distance create an ending to relationships that once felt like family; and when looking back reminds you that you didn’t engage your children from the fullness of a healthy heart. Grief honors the sorrow and sadness that comes when love has been disappointed. It says that love is worthy of persevering, of feeling the ache that comes from having loved and continuing to choose love over the convenience of shutting down, forgetting, dismissing, or living in a do-over fantasy.
Sitting with both/and as I sift through photos yields twice as many photos as I need for the celebration project I am working on. Love is worthy of persevering, always.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 33 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.