Shawn René Blackburn
16 July 1953 - 8 June 2007
Today marks 7 years since my father's passing. It's a day of many mixed emotions. I won't endeavor to express all of them, but I felt like it was important for me to finally attempt to write about my experiences and emotions regarding his loss. I wrote this post for me, but a recent conversation with my friend Ashley changed my mind about publishing it. She recently wrote about her own grief from losing her mother here, and she so poignantly articulated many of my own thoughts. So for the sake of my family, or anyone else who is making their way after the loss of a loved one, I decided to post this.
I think I'm finally at a point in my life where the pain is more like the current tender scar on my leg than the overwhelming sensation of the freshly broken bone a couple months ago. Time has not diminished my grief, but it has refined it. It has refined me. The pain is still very real to me, but it is less raw and more manageable.
I miss my father, sometimes desperately. But I miss him for my own selfish purposes. I miss laughing at his contagious laugh and rolling my eyes at his goofiness. I miss his vast knowledge about anything and everything being at my disposal with just a phone call or an email. I miss his courage and strength... thinking he would beat all of his cancers by sheer force of will and the miracle of faith... and his ability to encourage my own through his quiet example.
I hate that the last words he consciously heard me say to him were so inconsequential that I don't even remember what they were. I hate that he was taken just as he was finally able to overcome his own demons. I hate that I feel robbed of all those moments and conversations--big and small--that my father should be a part of... my university graduations, meeting my future husband, my wedding, figuring out my career, spoiling my children, etc. I hate all this for my sake, and for what I'm missing out on.
As Ashley described so accurately:
"I'm sad because I wanted my last moments with my [father] to be different last moments than the ones I have. I'm sad because my life is so filled with [his] absence. I'm sad that it is [his] death that defines a large part of me and who I am today. I am sad that, one day, I will have lived more years without my [father] than with [him], and that that number will only get larger while the latter stays the same. I'm sad because I'm starting to not be that sad. That while I do have real moments of deep anguish and grief, where the tears flow so heavily and it feels like I can't breath, they occur less frequently now. I worry that healing means I won't miss [him], or that I'm somehow disrespecting [his] memory, though I'm finally realizing that what it does is just transform the pain from a gaping hole to a tight scar. It's taken me [seven] years to be okay with that, to be okay with letting go of the open wound and letting it close."
Sometimes as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we unintentionally brush aside others' grief and pain by focusing on our hope and faith in God's Eternal Plan of Happiness. This is not altogether a bad thing. However, I can't even count the times when I was told (especially AT my father's memorial services) "not to cry," "to be strong for my family's sake," and that "I should be happy because I know he's not in pain anymore." I'm not judging those who've said these things to me... they've all meant well. And I'm certain they never once meant to imply that my grief was inappropriate...
And yet, how unfortunate that we sometimes use gospel-inspired platitudes to shame people into not allowing themselves to mourn. Privately crying myself to sleep every night for 3 months was the only real external mourning I allowed myself for a long time, because in public I felt I at least had to pretend to be strong. That was no one's fault but mine... but still, how comforting it would be for someone to just hug me and cry with me without the fear that they were encouraging a crisis of faith. You can grieve and still believe. In fact, my testimony has never been stronger as when I was in my darkest hours of mourning. I wish more people understood this. Sometimes I wish more people were really willing to "mourn with those that mourn" (Mosiah 18:9). I want to be better at this, too.
I love that I know I will see my father again... And that in the mean time, I have so many reminders of him in my life. Tanner has the same infectious laugh and self-deprecating humor. Erika has the same strength of faith and force of will. Skylar inherited my father's temperament--the great, the good, the bad, and even the ugly--but I see it most when he walks into a room and immediately looks for an opportunity to reach out or serve someone else. Logan is incredibly private like my father, and he shares the same overwhelming desire to love and provide for his family and be useful to his fellow man. I am not sure if others see parts of my father in me, but I've inherited his love for history... particularly as it relates to the scriptures and Church History.
I know that the Atonement of Christ is real, and that through the Savior the bitterness of death is swallowed up. I KNOW that. And I feel its veracity every day of my life. But that knowledge doesn't remove the grief, and that's ok. As the Prophet Lehi so poignantly taught, "men [and women] are that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). However just before he said that, he taught that "it must needs be that there is an opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11) and that one can't know joy until one knows misery (2 Ne. 2:23). Ashley also wrote, "This all sounds really depressing, but in fact it is hopeful. However, happiness and hope are not the same. You can have one without the other, but [a] mistake people make is confusing the two."
Although I hate that I had to lose my father in order to really understand this eternal truth, I'm grateful to now have this eternal perspective to guide me throughout the rest of my life here on earth. I have always had hope... Hope my father would beat each new discovery of cancer, hope that my family and I would survive his loss, hope in the Atonement to heal, hope in the temple blessings for an eternal family, and hope in the promise of the resurrection. My father's death increased my hope one hundredfold.
And yet I was not happy. That I had to climb my way back up to... using whatever tools I could find: hope, faith, service, art, music, temple service, journal writing, family history, Priesthood blessings, missionary work, visiting teaching, and of course my family and friends. It was such a gradual climb that I cannot recall any moment when I specifically thought, "Now. Now at last I'm finally happy again." But I am. I have known misery... the depths of which I didn't think possible for me. But I have also known joy overflowing to the point where I thought I'd burst. And through it all, my hope has been an anchor to my soul (Ether 12:4).
Now, 7 years later, I've been able to see more of the Lord's hand in how life has unfolded. Many of the things I previously said that I hate or make me sad about my father's absence are also many of the things I've come to be grateful for. As President Uchtdorf taught so eloquently in this past General Conference how this happens: "Those who set aside the bottle of bitterness and lift instead the goblet of gratitude can find a purifying drink of healing, peace, and understanding." I know that's true! I've seen how gratitude has been my own Balm of Gilead.
I am grateful for the continued opportunity I have to get to know my father better through my family history efforts. I am grateful that now, no matter where I am in the world, my dad will always be able to help me out when necessary. I am grateful that I continue to learn and apply lessons from the life my father lived. I'm grateful to know that Families really CAN BE together FOREVER. And I'm grateful that mine will be if we all continue to do our part. I've personally received the purifying blessings of healing, peace, and understanding... and for this, too, I am so grateful.
I still have a long way to go before I can be reunited with my Dad... but I fervently look forward to that glorious moment. And I hope that until that day I might honor him by honoring the faith and testimony he so deeply cherished, as well as humor him by laughing as much as possible. So here's to you, Dad.
P.S. As the 7th year, instituting a personal 'Sabbatical Year' seems an appropriate way to honor my dad's memory... In Ancient Israel, the seventh day of every week, the seventh month of every year, and every seventh year were consecrated to the Lord. I'm still coming up with a plan of exactly how I will do this, and this post is already far too long, so I'l write a separate post about it. But since this particular anniversary is the reasoning behind it, it seemed silly not to at least mention it here.