You learn a lot about what a person meant to you when they’re taken away. Separation magnifies all the intricate and beautiful nuances of what you had, and absence pries open memories that may have lain dormant for years. Songs, sights, smells. The faintest hint evokes a cascade of reminiscence.
For about six weeks after she died, memories of when Suse and I first met dominated my thoughts. There were 21 years of history to draw on, and yet my mind fixated on nothing but the first couple of months. The early conversations, the phone calls, the dinners. The serious moments, the silly ones. I recalled just how happy those days of discovery were for both of us, as we got to know each other, and began to entrust ourselves to each other. Life, then, was ahead of us, and love was propelling us.
They were such formative times for me. Shaped as she was by God’s love for her in Christ, Susie loved unconditionally. The trust she had in Jesus’ sacrifice for sin, and the redemption it bought her, filled her with a freedom to divert service of self to service of others. As we got to know each other more, I realised she wasn’t governed by what she could gain from our relationship, nor did she demand I be anything else other than what I was. With Suse, I could be entirely candid without any fear of judgement. I was free to be me. Ironically, that only stirred me to be more than me. I yearned to be a better man for her. If she was going to be my wife, then I was going to be a good husband to her. In short, our love had a significant influence on my identity.
Fast forward twenty years, and as love mutated into grief, the delight of those early times was entirely supplanted by the desolation of separation. Perhaps this explains why my mind insisted on dragging me back. Maybe the depth of sadness I was experiencing at the end of our relationship could only be fully appreciated by contrasting it to the heights of happiness I’d experienced at the beginning. I was stunned by how such vastly opposed emotions could swing on the one fulcrum of love.
Central to the sense of desolation was the ongoing assault grief wrought on my identity. Love helped form me; grief was now de-forming me. Because not only did I lose Susie that night, I also lost my role as a husband (among other things). I miss Susie. But I also miss the responsibilities I had to her, and the validation being her husband brought me. Suse appreciated the way I made her feel safe, and I enjoyed being appreciated for doing that. It gave me significant satisfaction.
Beyond losing my role as a husband, though, Susie’s death also meant I lost my mainstay of (earthly) support in ministry. Soon enough my working life came under threat. My ability to fulfil pastoral duties was cast into doubt. This deeply impacted my confidence and multiplied my anguish. I loved serving in pastoral ministry. To lose that too would be another attack on identity and purpose. In all this, I began to understand why so many bereaved people often talk about their own life ending when their loved one died.
The impact of this attack on my identity has run deep. The initial feelings of pure sadness began to give way to fear. Self-confidence eroded. The most basic tasks took so much effort. I doubted almost everything I did. The trauma and shock of Susie’s death left me feeling jittery and nervous. I struggled to see purpose in anything. Such was death’s influence.
In truth, I hated what my life had become, and in time the assault on identity gave rise to self-loathing. I liked myself with Suse. I didn’t like myself without her, and I found it hard to believe anyone else could like me either. Grief left me feeling quite unlovable. That’s not to say I felt unloved, because I certainly wasn’t. People persevered with me with incredible patience, grace and generosity. But my sense of unlovability made me feel like a burden to them. I could understand why people would want to avoid me.
Thankfully, I was aware of how unhelpful this thinking was. The feelings were genuine and reasonable. But I knew I had to find ways to deal with them. On reflection, I would say my ongoing journey with grief has been largely concerned with figuring out strategies to deal with these identity attacks. Professional grief counselling has helped me with this.
But really, the most important thing has been to continually remind myself that my ultimate identity is and always has been in Christ. When God created mankind in his image (Gen 1:26), he shared something of his own identity with us. It is little wonder that our lust for independence from him caused him such grief (Gen 6:6), and that we suffer through the shock waves of that now in our earthly tents. But he has not abandoned us. In the person of his Son—the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)—he invites us to enjoy the fruit of forgiveness, a restored and redeemed identity in him. Jesus loved us when we were unlovable. He tolerated us when we were intolerable. He came near to us when the natural thing to do would be to avoid us. And it is this God—the God who came near—who, after suffering so much for us, promised to be with his disciples to the very end of this suffering age (Matt 28:20). There is the truest of identities and the truest of companionship. It is this love that has truly formed me, and I pray it will continue to reform me in the image of my Creator (Col 3:10).
I hate who I am without Suse. But I’m glad of who I am with Jesus. The two don’t cancel each other out. They co-exist. I’m not happy. But I have joy. Sadness and suffering are simply dancing, for the briefest of moments, on a bedrock of unshakable assurance in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:17). The answer to my self-loathing is not to look within as a first step. It’s to look out and see that there is one who loves me and who accepts me, as unlovable and intolerable as I may feel. I don’t need to love myself as a matter of priority. I need to know Christ loves me. Just as Susie did, but more. And irrevocably so.