All The King’s Horses and Men: Lessons In Grief

I learned strength from a woman whose falls from grief would have made Humpty Dumpty himself marvel that she ever got back up. Born into a family of blue eyes, I got mine from the hazel-eyed woman who was put back together again and again. My grandmother sang me this nursery rhyme in the same red room where she taught me to pray. She knew what it meant to be broken and rebuilt, but she would never once tell you that she was put back together exactly the same. All the King’s horses, all the King’s men, try as they might, they were not the King. They didn’t make her and she became well aware they couldn’t save her. She wove this into me when we road tripped through the mountains or picked cotton on the sides of the South Carolina highway. I heard it in her drawn-out sighs when she laid flowers on the graves of her sons and cleaned the picture frame of her father in a casket, the one she lost at six years old. 

She used to wake up in the middle of the night and piggyback me into the kitchen for peanut butter and crackers. She never met a secret she couldn’t keep for me and sometimes I carry them now with a wish that she could be here to help bear them again. But I hear her in the syllables of “all the King’s horses, all the King’s men”. She would tell me now that she was just the King’s woman. That even she couldn’t put me back together again.

She died when I was just twelve years old, but by then she’d somehow taught me more than most I’ll ever know.

She raised me up to show up, even when the breath leaves your lungs and your heart threatens to never beat again, you still get up.

I watched her do it. She re-learned the melody of laughter and the joy of children, though she’d once lost both. When we buried her, I became determined to never let grief be her legacy to me, because it had not been her life. But it could have been, might have been, if she’d chosen to stay at the bottom of the wall the pain had thrown her from time and time again. 

What life might have been if she had given up when all the King’s horses and all the King’s men had shown up only to shake their heads and walk away with bloody and empty hands. But instead, I learned from the strength of a woman who used to wrap me up in her soft white sheet, carry me to the breakfast table, serve me something to eat, and read her Bible next to me. Seventy-one years broken and rebuilt: the loss of a father, sons, sisters, brothers and she laughed more than us all. Yet somehow, I’m still learning how to stand, how to breathe, and I’ve lost much less. But now grief is now held in these similar green eyes, having often depended on the King’s horses and the King’s men. Wishing she could tell me what and how long it takes to be put together by this King again.

I still eat peanut butter crackers in the late hours of the night and audibly count the hours if I hear the chime of the Grandfather clock. I love a road trip, repeating a good song, dancing in the shower. I slowly learn that these are the things the King uses to mend again. The life He gives when you let Him come in instead of pushing Him away when war, pain, grief, tell you He left you broken and never to be fixed, never as okay as when it all began.

Grief is something you may have to carry, but it doesn’t have to be your legacy. The King’s horses and the King’s men cannot fix you or save you. And this too, no matter what it is or how broken, can also be redeemed.

Exchanging The Grief for The Good

My friend died.

And I remember the exact spot where my knees hit the hardwood floor of my house as soon as I read the words that no fifteen year old expects on a Monday morning.

That was the beginning of a series of stories that no matter how many times I tried, I never knew which shelf to place them on. I also didn’t know then that I’d spend years shoving and shuffling them around. I just knew that I wanted to keep them in plain sight.  It felt so wrong to just put them in the closet, or in an old wooden box beneath my bed. 

I never would have known after that first loss of the sweet blonde- haired boy, five more would follow.

Since then, I’ve never really known how to knit their names into conversations. I made their stories a piece of decor in my life, but I never know how to explain them to new guests.  How do you explain these books of loss that sit there in the center of your mantle, a focal point of your home?

“Well, these are the six people I carry in my heart and on my sleeves. I keep them close so that how they left never becomes casual. So that I don’t forget how important it is to use words, to look people in the eye, to plant myself and not run away.”

I spent years asking God to fill each of my limbs with as much love as they could hold, but every phone call that came after that first one, gave me reason to pull the plug and let the good spill out.  

The weight of love, along with the heaviness of grief, became too much for me to carry.

I thought I needed those books of grief to be front and center. I needed to remember, to make it all matter, to find some sort of higher meaning in the how and why. I needed them to be there, to remind me to find the answers; to be the one to carry the candle.

I exchanged love and living for grief, because I thought it would give their deaths some kind of meaning.

I put my laughter, my joy, and my peace in boxes that I stored in an old dusty attic and quickly forgot about the way that burnt orange leaves and the yellow lines on the pavement give me a sense of adventure. I lost touch with the way that the shades of blue in a sky, a shirt, or a set of strong eyes can stir my heart.

I think I lost myself when I lost them…and I’m starting to see how that was never a noble cause.

So, I’m learning how to take them off the mantle and put them into boxes. I’m learning that it’s okay to pack them away. It’s not wrong, or unloving, or failure to replace them with pictures of laughter at baseball games and birthday parties. It doesn’t make their lives less. Nothing could do that.

I never even let most people read those stories, because I knew if they did, they’d see the evidence of my tears on those pages. I knew they’d see the stains of my own doubt and fear scattered throughout. Those stories brought out the worst of me, the parts that I thought, if ever seen, would cause a person to leave.

I’m learning that this loss shouldn’t be the center of my story. Those aren’t the books I want others to read when they come over for coffee and a game night. I want them to hear lullabies of laughter and about stories of “fudgery almond” ice cream and to watch the fullness of joy that has come, now that I’ve decided to pack away the years of grief.

There will be times, when strangers become friends and then become family, and I’ll occasionally take them to that attic. I’ll pull out those dusty books and I’ll show them the stories of those people; the faces of the kids who made me better. The ones I miss, and the childhood we shared and how they made me laugh, called me great, played footsie with me, picked me up and swung me around. I’ll tell them about the car crashes and the weapons and the choices so dark that I’ll have to ask them to bring a flashlight, because I might still get a little afraid.

I know these stories will always be around. They’ll always stay somewhere inside these walls, that’s the price we pay for love. But I can’t keep them on this mantle, on the shelves of this living room. Because they are books that have will always questions that I can’t answer, and pages that are blank and that I wish could have been filled. But there’s just no more to be added, there’s nothing I could say or write to change what they were, what they are.

It’s another Monday morning, and I’m now seven years older. I’ve finally let God lift me up from the floor, I let him help me pack these boxes.

I’m letting him bring down the ones I took up there a long time ago, the ones that find life and joy in the good things like colder weather, sunsets and stories that aren’t so sad.

I finally see how that’s perfectly okay and it doesn’t make me selfish and it doesn’t mean I love them any less or that I won’t let it remind me to  use words, to look people in the eye, to plant myself and not run away”. 

But this life…it’s for living, for laughing and for loving. Yeah, sometimes we find ourselves losing, but I don’t want that to be the center of my story.

I’m learning that it’s brave to live on, to live fully, when you’ve lost people you love. That it’s not heartless or reckless, or careless to pack the sadness away.

In our monkey bar and sandbox days, we lived in the moment and laughed without fear. I’m seeing now that’s what we always wanted for each other, and those are the memories of them that keep me strong. I’m not sorry that I felt their loss, that I let it make me cry, but I’m sorry that I let the grief outstay the good.

So the good things are what I’ll keep in plain sight and I’ll let God pack the grief away.

Their stories were beautiful, but this one is mine and I think it’s time that it become stronger, braver, and the laughter-filled kind.