How does one re-enter life when you suddenly realize that a good part of that life has been based on a myth? How do you begin to untangle all the pieces you’ve carefully assembled to protect the myth? I had pressing questions on my mind when I touched down in Philadelphia on April 1. Something happened in Israel, and now I was home again and facing real life.
When I began to tell the story to friends, a trusted mentor asked me with some alarm, “What is the myth, Merideth? What is no longer true for you?” It’s a fair question, and I’ve had to think hard on it to boil it down to one succinct thought. The myth is more fairy-tale than Greek legend. It is simply this: for fourteen years I lived my life as if I were still married to Carl. I’m not. My marriage ended on February 16, 2000. And I have fought long and hard to convince myself and others that Carl is still my husband, and that I’m still Mrs. Carl Robert Mueller. I wore his wedding band around my neck. I wore my own wedding band on the ring finger of my left hand. Carl is still listed on the deed of the cottage. He still receives mail at my current address on Tony’s Drive, though he never lived here. I have pictures of him all over the house and all over my office. I am still caring for his mother.
It has dawned on me recently that I probably went into the ministry to help me feel closer to Carl...substituting intimacy with him for intimacy with God. The pastorate was the safest vocation I could find, and it allowed me to perpetuate the myth — even celebrate the myth and pass it off as eschatological doctrine: Because of Jesus, Carl and I will be together forever in eternity. That may be true, I hope it is, but it’s likely far more complicated than the fairy-tale happily ever after ending I was dreaming of. In truth, I’m not at all certain that we maintain any sort of individual identity after this life. If we do, I don’t think we harbor any sort of exclusive feelings of love for one and not for another. I’m fairly convinced, our eternal souls don’t give a hoot about what’s happening back here on earth. I have a sense that Carl is well and whole and happy , like he was in this life only much more so. I also have a sense that if he can or does think on me in any way, it is with profound love and with the desire that I be happy. I have been anything but happy since he died.
I am alone. And I have grown more and more isolated as the time has passed since his death. I’ve cloistered myself away in the pastorate; neutered and safe from any possible relationship. There was not a chance a man would find me attractive as a minister, and they couldn’t reject me if they never considered me in the first place. It was as safe a vocation as I could possibly imagine. And I was growing closer to God in the process, doing important work for the Kingdom, and helping people...what could be better than to devote my life to this? Except that I haven’t been a whole person. I stuffed an important part of me away when I became a pastor.
So my day to day living, my theology, my vocation — these all perpetuated the myth. I am stunned that people close to me let me get away with it. On the other hand, would I have tried to talk a friend out of this belief and this life-style, if this were her way of dealing with the death of her husband? Probably not. But I would do something now that I know. I would confront them, even if it meant hurting them.
The bottom line is this: grief is a destructive force. It is life-sucking and death inducing. We should shake people out of their grief rather than risk losing them for fourteen years. I have often described my grief over the loss of Carl as if I had lost a limb – specifically a leg. I was alive, but an important part of me was gone. I would continue to suffer the pain of that loss every day – phantom pain in a lost limb is atrocious, I hear. I would have to alter my clothing, and throw out one of every pair of shoes I bought. Eventually, and with a lot of work, I would learn to walk again, though it would never feel the same as my own, natural gate.
When I landed in Philadelphia that morning, I was amazed to discover I hadn’t lost my leg after all. And all the great pains I took to make up for that loss, didn’t really matter. I could still wear my old clothing, I still need two shoes, I could walk....no, I could RUN on my own two legs, with no pain, no unnatural gate....I just had to remember how.