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The Faces of Grief

Enjoying time together at a minister's study group in 2017.


Two weeks ago, a beloved friend, mentor and colleague, the Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs, died from cancer, just over two and half years after retiring. It was no secret that she was living with an aggressive cancer, nor was it a secret that she had recently entered hospice care. We’d known her death was coming, and still, when I heard the news that she had died, I felt a wave of grief wash over me. 

In the days that followed, I also felt some numbness and disbelief. Janne was a big hearted partner, minister, mother, grandmother, and friend. She had a larger than life personality. She was someone who shaped my life (and so many lives) in profound ways. How could she be gone? 

Over the past two weeks, I’ve noticed that I’ve been more irritable, cranky, grumpy, and short tempered than normal. It took me a few days of feeling this way, of feeling “off,” before I realized that my irritability and shorter than normal fuse was my response to the grief I was feeling. My dull anger, and general annoyance, impatience, and snippiness with my family was my grief coming out sideways, but it was grief nonetheless. Recognizing and naming this reality has been helpful. This understanding is helping me slow down, and be more gentle with myself, recognizing that I’m grieving, and my grief needs room to be noticed, honored, and felt.

The loss of Janne is a big one; it feels like there’s a hole in the world with her gone. I miss her wild, explosive laugh, her radical hospitality, her loving heart, and her rock solid belief in the transforming power of Unitarian Universalism. Her death is a visceral, heartbreaking reminder that nothing is guaranteed or promised to us. So I am waking up each day with the intention to try to take nothing for granted, to appreciate family, friends, food, the sunrise, and the sunset, because I know my life is simply on loan from the universe and none of us know how much time we have left. 

Two nights ago, my wife and I were walking in the bitter cold on our way to a restaurant. We were talking about Janne, and the grief we were feeling, and Juliana turned to me and said, “Don’t die.” I knew that this comment wasn’t about her denying the reality of my eventual death; instead, I heard this as, “I love you. You matter to me. You’re my person. I can’t imagine the world without you in it.” And the truth is, we both know that eventually the world will exist without either one of us in it. That day will come, but in the meantime, we hold tightly to each other, clasping hands, grateful we’ve found one another, and committed to letting the best of Janne (her extravagant hospitality, her love of people, her holy irreverence) live on in us, in whatever number of days are ours still to claim. 

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