”Don’t just cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
I have a confession to make. I don’t always handle relational loss as courageously as I should. When someone chooses to walk out of my life, no matter the reason, I seem to get stuck on the rejection, pain, and disappointment I feel at the moment they stepped away, as though that was the sum total of my experiences with them. But no, we also laughed together, attempted great things for God together and created awesome memories together. I needed to learn how to look at the big picture and celebrate everything that the relationship meant, not just the disappointing end.
When I was 11, my paternal grandfather died. We were living with him at the time. He was a good, honorable and gentleman. He was the one place where I experienced unconditional love during my formative years. The call came in the wee hours of the morning that he had died on the job while working the midnight shift. The house was instantly filled with wailing and sobbing. A shocked look of denial appeared on everyone’s face. Could it be true? Is he really not coming home? For many years thereafter, when I thought of my grandfather, all I seemed able to focus on was how it ended and the grief that I experienced. But then I remembered all the warm and sometimes humorous interactions I had with this amazing man who immigrated to America in the early 1900s to make a better life for himself and his family.
There was the time he was grinding horseradish one summer. He decided to have some fun at my expense. He called out to me, “Stephen, come here.” As I approached, he held up one of the jars of freshly made horseradish to my nose and said with a smile, “Smell.” Not knowing what I was in for, I took a huge sniff. My sinuses and lungs were instantly filled with a form “tear gas” and I stopped breathing. I don’t know what the expression on my face looked like, but it was concerning enough to change my grandfather’s ornery smirk to a look of horror that seemed to say, “Oh my God, I just killed my grandson.”
Then there was the day he decided to show me how parchment paper is made. He worked for decades at the Patterson Parchment Paper Co. and was so proud of his job. We went to the kitchen where he started to lay out the materials: old newspapers, pieces of cloth, and a concoction of chemicals that made the kitchen smell like a toxic waste site. We used my grandmother’s cheese grater to grind up the paper and cloth (an action that made her mutter in Czechoslovakian. I think they may have been curse words). We then mixed the materials with the chemicals, and let them foment for a while. Then we took the paper and cloth mixture out of the pan and laid it on a towel that was spread over the kitchen table (I distinctly remember hearing more Czech swear words in the background). We rolled it out with grandma’s rolling pin and then set it out in the summer sun to dry. When it was all said and done, we had made some crude parchment paper. I/we were so proud.
My grandfather, John Sabol loved to give me whiskers. That is when he took his rough face with lots of stubble and rubbed it against my smooth, boyish face. It hurt and tickled at the same time, so I laughed and begged him to stop at the same time. Interestingly enough, I have done that same thing to my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Funny how that happens.
Today, when I think about my grandfather, not only do I shed a tear because it’s over, I smile because it happened!
When I was 12, my mom asked me to choose who I wanted to live with, her or my father, because she was going to leave him the next morning. I was devastated. I didn’t want to have to choose. I loved them both. For many years after the breakup, the only memory and feeling that prevailed was what I experienced the day it ended in 1962. At some point, I started remembering some positive things, too. Like the trip to New York City, the cruise down the Delaware River trips to Seaside Heights, NJ for some beach time. Now I can smile because it happened, not just cry because it’s over.
During our 42 years of ministry, you better believe Nancy and I have experienced many losses. Sometimes people walk away from you for seemingly the most trivial of reasons. But in most of those cases, after enduring the grief and confusion that accompanied the loss, we were able to come to a place where we could remember, not only the painful ending but the many joys we experienced together.
It’s what I think Job meant when he said in the midst of his incredible losses, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
So, my friend, when you think about your relational losses, ask God to help you get to the place where you don’t just cry because it’s over, but you can smile because it happened.