had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be
around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to
cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the
Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what
he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron
and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”
That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.
This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.
Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a holiday. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The holidays have been so fraught with emotion for me that I’m not capable of effectively writing about them in the moment.
I grew up near the ocean. It was always there in the background, either lapping or roaring. That’s how grief is, too. Always there. In the background. An ocean of grief, either lapping or roaring. If grief comes in waves, then the holidays are most certainly rip currents. I remember being taught from a very early age what to do if I was ever caught in a rip current. A rip current is a swift, narrow flow of water moving perpendicular to and away from the beach. It can literally take you out to sea, away from the stability of the shore. You may suddenly find yourself slapped about by a tumult of waves, bobbing up and down, coming up for a gasp of air but just as quickly pulled back down. With eyes squenched shut and cheeks taut with breath held, you’re catching only glimpses of the shoreline with each bob and weave. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to swim back to land. Everyone’s first instinct is wrong. In so many cases, that decision is fatal. If you struggle, fight against it, you might die of exhaustion. The key is not to struggle. You can do one of two things. You can change direction and swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, or you can just let it carry you until it has lost its power so that you can calmly make your way back to the beach. I think it’s good practice for grieving through the holidays, too. Change direction, or ride it out. I also think there should be grief signal flags like maritime signal flags. The holidays: storm warnings ahead, dangerous conditions. My holiday ship would be flying the delta flag, a field of blue with a yellow belt above and below it, signaling, “Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.”
The first holiday that came up on the calendar after Paul died was Easter. As a Christian, there is no other holiday with greater meaning or comfort, and no greater reason for hope than this one, but at the time, I was numb to all of that. In fact, that first Easter Sunday after Paul died, I didn’t even go to church. I had been at the hospital all night with Paul’s family. His mother had a very mild, cardiac event and was hospitalized overnight. Likewise, I did not go to church on Easter Sunday this year either. Instead, I was just stepping off a plane from my Camino experience in Spain. So, Easter Sunday at church without Paul sitting beside me is still an unknown experience. Yay, there’s that to look forward to.
The next major holiday on the calendar was Thanksgiving.
That one was blessedly normal. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a second
thought. Why? I was anxiously anticipating our wedding anniversary and
Christmas which nearly coincide with each other. I was already so focused on
how I was going to manage those holidays that Thanksgiving was little more than
a speed bump in the road. So, you might be thinking that I did well to get
through Thanksgiving relatively unscathed, and it’s true. I did. But
Thanksgiving, filled with family, quieter and less commercialized than
Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday. So, while I did indeed get
through it, I didn’t enjoy it, and that was hard, not enjoying my favorite
Paul and I were married 11 days before Christmas. It was a simple, lovely wedding. It was an unseasonably warm, 72 degrees, that day. The morning was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, but by the time I was walking down the aisle at two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was out and it was a spectacular, late fall, Lowcountry day. I loved our Christmas time wedding. It’s such a festive time of year anyway. There is so much to celebrate. It’s when the church celebrates the birth of Christ, and the church’s celebratory mood is on full display, hung with greenery and garlands punctuated by the brilliant red of holly berries and poinsettias. We, in turn, were celebrating the birth of our marriage and were looking forward to building a life together with the same jubilance and excitement of children in anticipation of Christmas morning.
I knew our first anniversary without him was going to be
difficult, and I really tried to get out of the rip current of emotion rushing
toward me, threatening to sweep me away, by swimming in a different direction.
I, in fact, went backward in order to go forward. I knew I had to go back to
where we started. I knew I needed to move forward from a place of strength. In a way,
I was revisiting our life, going on a tour of a place and time that created
what we knew as us. Reflecting on it
now, it turned out to be a critical, turning point in my healing process.
Paul and I met at a local, historic plantation. It’s where we got to know each other. We spent a lot of time there in the beginning of our relationship, walked the garden paths, talked about the flowers, trees, and history, smiled and laughed and shared ourselves, our stories.
So, I planned to take the day off from work and spend our anniversary there. Just me and Paul and our memories. However, it was not the spectacular late fall, Lowcountry day that our wedding day was. It was reasonably warm, but it was raining, a constant slow dripping all day long. I went anyway, umbrella in hand and rain boots on my feet. Amazingly, the plantation and gardens had been transformed by the rain. It made the whole experience other-worldly as if I had stepped through a portal in time and space.
In the rain soaked garden, the light looked different, the greens of the leaves and trees were clearer and sharper in contrast to the mossy grays and muted, tawny, December browns of the rushes and marsh grasses. There was no breeze. It was so quiet. The only movement was that of birds taking full advantage of the opportunity to bathe and preen, and dine on a smorgasbord of stranded insects.
Only the puddles registered my steps as I strode through pathways crowded with the heavy water logged limbs of blooming camellias. The light coating of water like slip glaze on pottery had given the flowers a pearl-ized, translucent quality casting them in a sheen, a glow.
I didn’t see a single other visitor to the gardens that entire day. You might think that felt lonely, but it didn’t. I felt very close to Paul, and enveloped in His creation as I was, I felt very close to God, too. As I stepped out from a pathway to a point where I could see across the rice fields and river beyond, I was greeted with the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. I had not heard or thought about this hymn in years, but it was with me all day. God, in His mercy, was singing over me.
a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.
There is plentiful redemption
through the blood that Christ has shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined,
by the glory of the Lord.
William Faber, 1862)
I had some of Paul’s ashes with me. I had no plans for when or where I might let them go. I just walked and remembered and waited for the moment because I knew it would come. And it did. I rounded a hedge row on to a rise that overlooked the river. The rain had slowed to a mist, and as I swept my arm and hand across my body to launch Paul’s ashes heavenward, a breeze caught him and carried him out over the marshes and river to be forever part of the landscape that he cherished and that shaped the early foundation of our relationship.
The next 11 days leading up to Christmas produced a lot of anxiety. For one thing, I had to do the Christmas shopping by myself. Paul and I always did this together. I spent a Saturday going from store to store with crying fits in the car in between. It was miserable. In contrast to my experience revisiting the place where we met, I didn’t feel close to Paul at all. In fact, I felt as far away from him as I could possibly be, but I was riding it out. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I opted, again, to swim in a different direction. Good move.
I hosted family dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. This included Paul’s family and my family. It also, blessedly, turned out to include a friend from my work family. She was alone for the holidays. Her husband needed to be with his ailing parents, her grown children were splitting the holidays between their families and the families of their respective significant others and so she was by herself on Christmas Eve. I saw a little of myself in that situation and reached out to her to come join our family for Christmas Eve dinner and was so glad I did. It was wonderful to have her there. We got in the kitchen and cooked together and talked and laughed and smiled. She fit right in with our crazy, blended family, and it was good.
On Christmas Day, my son and I got up and opened presents. We visited with Paul’s parents. The morning was quiet and peaceful. The sadness was there, but I just looked it right in the face and accepted it. Then, we joined some other family members and friends to cook and serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House. Ronald McDonald House Charities provide lodging, resources, and support to families of sick children who are receiving treatment far from their homes. It’s a beautiful thing, and it provided me with both distraction from my own feelings and a necessary perspective on my grief and the grief of others.
This past Father’s Day was our second without Paul. It was tough. I don’t really remember the first one being that hard, and I thought that was strange. It seems like all of the firsts would be more difficult, but here’s why I think that’s not actually the reality of it. During that first year, a holiday was no different from any other day because they all sucked. Every day was a difficult day, holiday or not. But then, somewhere along the way, everything gradually starts getting better, and the bad days start to stand out from the other days more so than they did before. Suddenly, holidays become like land mines, like islands of grief in an otherwise relatively calm, navigable sea.
There is a lot of really good advice out there about how tosurvive the holidays when you are grieving. And you can certainly do just that. You can survive the holidays. But you can also use the holidays as an opportunity to grieve, grow, and heal. I think I did a little of both.
Paul was not worried about dying, but he was worried about those he was leaving behind including his parents who are now in their 80s. I reassured him, “You made me a Dunn, and nothing is going to change that. I’m going to take care of these people,” and that’s exactly what I am doing not because I have to, not out of some sense of obligation or because it’s what Paul would have wanted but because I love them with the same deep, abiding love with which I loved Paul. They are my family and always will be. They have loved me as their own daughter. I may not be blood of their blood, but I am heart of their heart.
My husband came from a family of three boys. One night, we were all sitting around the dinner table as we frequently did, and Paul’s mom and dad were regaling us with stories of the challenges of raising three boys close in age to each other and how the risk of adding yet another boy to the raucous mix made trying for a girl a deal breaker. Then, one of them commented, “But then came Malia…” and my husband finished the thought with, “….and Mama got the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl she’d always wanted.” We all grinned at each other because we all knew it was true. I was so young when I married Paul and joined their family, and yet his parents were still young themselves. I could easily have been their natural child. No matter. They have surely and truly loved me as their natural child.
What’s more is that they possess memories of Paul that no one else has. He is alive in their memory. They tell stories about his childhood, adolescence, and the years before I met him. They keep me connected to Paul in ways that no one else can. I look at their faces, and I see Paul. His nose, his mouth and full lips, his narrow chin, and his deep brown eyes looking back at me. He’s there, in the slightest expressions in their faces, in their gestures, the way they walk and talk, the way they smile. I remember the same was true of my grandmother. Her daughter, my mother, died when I was twelve. My grandmother held my mother in her memory, in her face, her hands, her voice and her laugh, and as long as my grandmother was alive, I enjoyed that connection. She told me stories of my mother’s childhood and added dimension to my own memories by filling in details from her own perspective of the events.
When my grandmother died, a cord was cut. She took all of her memories with her, but sometimes shared memories can have a Droste effect becoming like a picture inside a picture inside a picture so that those we loved, but who are no longer with us, continue to live in our memories generation after generation. The memory becomes recursive. Now, I am remembering my grandmother remembering my mother, and one day, I will be remembering my husband’s parents remembering Paul, and I will be the one passing those memories on and keeping the connection alive.
In the Biblical book of Ruth, we learn about Elimelek and his wife Naomi who migrated to Moab because of famine in their homeland, Judah. Elimelek died, but their two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (Sidebar: Orpah is actually Oprah Winfrey’s real name.) The Book of Ruth goes on to say that after about ten years both of Naomi’s sons also died so she decided to return to her own family in Bethlehem in Judah because she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of His people and provided food in that region. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to also return to their own families. Initially, both Orpah and Ruth pleaded to be allowed to remain with Naomi, but at Naomi’s urging, Orpah turned back and returned to her own family. Only Ruth remained. She begged her mother-in-law to allow her to remain with her. Ruth pledged, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and so she did. Now, Ruth has her own book in the Bible. There’s only one other woman with her own book and that’s Esther. Esther was a typical Jewish girl who through God’s providence became Queen of Persia and is credited with saving her entire race. She clearly earned her Biblical standing. So, what did Ruth do to earn hers? Ruth was loyal and obedient as she navigated the series of changes life handed her. She, a foreigner, returned with Naomi to Judah, remarried a man named Boaz and produced a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Yes, that David, King David, whose offspring led to Jesus.
I can really relate to Ruth and her desire to remain with the family that God blessed her with, but it’s more than that. It’s about how faith and obedience go hand-in-hand. Ruth was obedient at every turn in her very difficult life. Obedience is not a word often used in our culture today. It has taken on some sort of uncomfortable connotation, but I think that both the word and concept have gotten a bad rap. Obedience is about turning control over to someone else, submitting the outcome to someone else and acknowledging that someone else knows better even if the outcome doesn’t seem better to us. I know. Really difficult stuff here but so important to a right relationship with God that bears fruit. It took me years to learn this. No, it took me years to even get a glimpse of what obedience looks like, sounds like, acts like. It took me years more to fully realize its potential, and yet I still lose my grip on this fundamental understanding. It’s like trying to grab a fish. You struggle to catch hold of its slimy, wriggling, flapping body. You finally manage to lasso it with your hands, and then it just slides right out of your grip.
Here’s how I discovered what Godly obedience is all about, but let me start with what it’s not. It’s not about following the rules. Yeah, I was shocked about that, too. I am a natural born rule-follower, and I think that’s what made my road to obedience longer and harder. I was outwardly clean but inwardly rotten, rebellious. I wasn’t following the rules because I wanted to or more importantly because God wanted me to. I was following the rules because that’s what good people do, and I was, of course <insert eye-rolling>, a good person. For me, that kind of thinking was literally the road to hell, to separation from God. So, one day, I just started playing a little what-if game. What if I do a thing not because I want to? What if I am obedient not because it’s a rule or a law or an expectation based on my race, gender, social station, or family dynamic? What if I do a thing because it’s what God wants me do, and it pleases Him? It’s life changing, friends. It’s trans-formative, and it’s hard.
I’ve also learned that, for me, when it comes to obedience, the train never pulls into the station. There is no arrival at success. There are many failures. It is an ongoing process. Case in point. Six years ago when life changed as it so often does, and I arrived at a new workplace I was unhappy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why God stuck me there. I protested. I pouted. I dug in my emotional heels. I was not obedient. I didn’t embrace God’s will for my life. In a lot of ways, I was lost. Now, as I’m about to embark on a new journey in a new workplace, I left my work family with this:
A love letter…..
I have a confession to make. My first year at OMS was really hard for me. The transition was difficult. OMS was so VERY different from my previous school district, my previous position. You see, I had been really comfortable where I was. Maybe even too comfortable. As a 20 year veteran, I suddenly found myself with a lot to learn, and that was a little hard to take. My confidence was shaken. I have another confession. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to like OMS. In my mind, instead of getting on with it, I wanted to keeping comparing it to what I missed so dearly in my former school and district. I was being stubborn and willful. I prayed to God and asked Him what in the world was He thinking? What purpose could He possibly have placing me here? I am embarrassed to say I wasted precious prayer time asking why, why, why. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me awhile to see that God was showing me why, every single day, in every single one of you. You won me over. You stole my heart. You made me love you, and I do love y’all.
I have learned so much from each of you. Y’all have inspired me to strive in my teaching, empowered me to press on, and comforted me through some of the darkest days of my life. You’ve picked up my slack when I just couldn’t rise to the occasion and celebrated with me when things went well. You’ve laughed with me when I allowed my silliness out to play, and cried with me when there were no words left to speak. You are among the finest teachers and human beings I have known. I will remember everything you have taught me. I will miss you dearly, and I thank God for the time I’ve spent with you all. Gosh, darn it, OMS! You made me love you!
I’m there in the picture with my work family, yet another family God blessed me with. These days, through all the changes and challenges that life has to offer, I want nothing more than to be an instrument of God’s will and trust all the consequences to Him. I’m doing my best to be obedient, to be like Ruth.
A man gave me a compliment……and I fell apart. It wasn’t untoward. It was actually a very nice
compliment, but it wasn’t just that. I want to make sure I describe this
compliment accurately because it has everything to do with my reaction to it.
It wasn’t “Nice dress” or “Your hair looks great today” or the casual “Hey,
beautiful” or even the dreaded cat call. It was a compliment with an encouragement. I had just been
to a workout, and in passing, the man said I “looked great” and whatever I was
doing I should “keep doing it”. See? Nothing to it. Right? I thanked the man,
wished him a nice day, got into my car, and dissolved into a salty sea of my own
tears. They came hot, heavy, and plentiful, and I felt ridiculous.
My body has only ever belonged to my husband. I don’t mean belong as in a possession or property. I mean belong in the sense that I was suited or matched to Paul. That with him I was in my rightful place. He was my home. I was part of him. I was his missing rib. In Mark 10:8, this relationship is described this way, “And the two shall become one flesh; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” One flesh. Exactly. Marriage is the emotional reintegration of the flesh to the original configuration of man created by God. I am finding it hard to think of myself as a single being.
I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that in my previous posts. I teach middle school, and middle schoolers are not known for their tact. Anyway, one of my eighth graders recently asked, “Hey, Ms. Dunn, you gonna get back in that dating game?” The world ground to a halt, screeching and crunching on its axis. I expelled an audible breath of air like I had just been punched in the chest. I literally had no response for that. I was lost for words, and that is rare.
Recently, I was shopping with an elderly family member, a man. Another man in the store approached us and briefly spoke with me. Moments later my family member said, “Malia, that man was flirting with you!” The tone in his observation implied two things: a) that I was somehow unaware of the flirtation, and b) incredulity that I did not respond in kind. My response to my family member’s comment was a hearty “Hmph” and “Phssh”. To that he added, “Come on, you’re still a good looking woman.” Suddenly, I felt like I had an expiration date stamped on my forehead. The implication of the entire exchange was that I should consider another relationship quickly while I am still viable. Do you feel like punching someone in the nose right about now because I do! I mean what the hell?! What fresh, new kind of hell is this where I better get on with it before I am no longer marketable?
All of these are pretty overt examples. I could provide countless more examples of the subtle pressure that exists in conversations with friends and family about the brother whose wife died last year, the friend who never married, and the single, church member whose name comes up over and over and over again. Enough already. When I ignore or politely decline these suggestions, these advances really, I inevitably get this response, “But you’re so young. You’ll find someone else.” For the life of me, I am not even sure what that means. I am not even in contact with a universe where that makes sense to me. I mean I understand people who remarry. What I don’t understand is how it’s somehow a foregone conclusion related to my age, or how a relationship with someone else will provide some kind of relief to those who love and care about me. I know people mean well and want me to be happy, but again this means that people think I can’t be happy or fulfilled unless I’m in a relationship or married?? This leaves me feeling confused and hurt as if I am not sufficient on my own. Is this the way it is for all single people or just widows of a certain age? Is there a constant, subtle pressure on singles to find someone? Uugggghhhhhh.
Just a few weeks before Paul died we were out together, and we saw a friend of ours whose wife died of cancer two or three years ago. He was with a lady. They were holding hands and smiling warmly at one another. I was surprised. It looked awkward to me. No, it didn’t look awkward. It felt awkward, out of place, out of time. It stirred feelings in me that made me uncomfortable. Our friend and his wife had been young sweethearts, married for more than 30 years, and were utterly devoted to each other. You never saw one without the other. Later, on the car ride home, it was still bothering me so I talked to Paul about it. I said it was so strange to see our friend with someone else. I was having trouble reconciling it. I told him it seemed disloyal. Paul disagreed. He said he was happy for our friend, and that it was right for him to share his life with someone else if it made him happy. I grabbed his hand and held it tight. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do the same if and when I was ever in that position. Paul said, “Well, that’ll be something you have to decide for yourself, but I think it’s fine.” The rest of the car ride home was very quiet, uncomfortably so. Did I ask Paul about it because on some deep level I wanted his blessing? Did his response represent how he really felt, or was he already taking care of me and my future?
I have no idea what the future holds. I do know that I place no expectations on myself one way or the other in terms of dating or marrying again, and I need others to do the same, to have no expectations or to assume what I will do. I am enough, and God’s grace alone is sufficient. What I have, what I don’t have, what I am and what I’m not, where I am in this place and time, it’s all God’s grace, and it is sufficient for me.
2 Corinthians 12: 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope
There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.
She was busy all day going here and there around the town,
and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied
that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of
supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important
documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled
with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the
king would be pleased.
It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the
distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back
to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as
she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were
only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those
days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of
all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to
heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky.
They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth,
dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the
branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest
The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant
neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She
was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential
sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in
place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there
appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream
of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without
thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever
in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a
Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.
“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the
leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his
other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going
to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger
because of her.
Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.
In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew
the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted
them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she
thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She
decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in
all things. The End
Proverbs 137:1-2 By
the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On
the willows there we hung up our lyres.
More about the Busy Trap
I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.
The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.
So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.
Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?
God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from
the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early
morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note
in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.
Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:
It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke
one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close
to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my
neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was
talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are
you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A
little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul
propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But
I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was
this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I
am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many
nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are
so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of
your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my
very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.
The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.
A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on
the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was
addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of
years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of
believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding
factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for
me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am
THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)
It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.
Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.
One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.
Again from Paul….
18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’
being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically
healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side
of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit.
Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue
about dying sooner just to win!”
As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.
At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.
Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.
Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.
It was 1989. I had just turned 18, and he was 30. He called me his date with fate. How very true. Family and friends thought the age difference was too much, but it wasn’t. Someone we met maybe two years or so before Paul died recently described us as glowing when we were together. It’s true. We glowed. We also laughed. A lot. Our home was filled with laughter. Paul had a tremendous sense of humor. He was known for his humor and his dimples. He had the most amazing dimples. He was handsome and charming.
I could go on and on. Really. I could. So, am I glorifying Paul through my writing? I’m not even really sure what that means, but another grieving blogger addressed the dissonance between the living person and the memorialized persona in a post about her daughter, and it got me to thinking. Am I remembering only the best aspects of our relationship, only the good times, not being realistic about the challenges and difficulties we faced? Who does that serve? Am I painting him only in the best light? Is it a case of rose-colored glasses? Yes, it is, if rose is the color of love. I loved Paul. There’s really no other explanation. I have to go to another language (eros, pragma, agape) in order to amplify the word we use in the English language because l-o-v-e is not enough.
Paul was interested in many things; music, art, nature, science, engineering, how things worked. He was curious about the world, an intellectual, but he never managed to truly find his place in the world. He did, however, find his place with me, within our relationship and marriage. We both did. We were each other’s shelter from the storm. I fully realize that other people didn’t experience Paul the way I did though. He was sometimes lost in translation. He wasn’t always easy to love. He could, quite frankly, be a pain in the ass at times. Even within our own families, with his parents, with our son, and among our friends, Paul’s remarks and reactions to situations were sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. At times, I found myself translating Paul to other people because I understood him in ways that other people did not. He didn’t always communicate well, himself or his feelings, to others. He didn’t typically allow others to deeply know him. He was often emotionally defensive.
It is not a case of me remembering only the good times, the best parts of our life together, because I do remember everything, the good and the bad, the ease and the challenge, the joy and the suffering. I do possess a full-view perspective. Moving forward, I am reflecting on the experience of my marriage to Paul in its entirety and using it to inform current and future relationships with those I love. I am talking to God about what He wanted to teach me through my relationship with my husband, and I am grateful for ALL of it. Even the bad memories are good, valuable, useful, and cherished. So, you see, it’s not a case of rose-colored glasses. What it is a case of, is love.
Not too long after Paul died, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a very long time. She said she was sorry about Paul passing away, about everything I had been through, and then said this, “It’s just not what you signed up for, is it?” I felt like I had been struck by lightning. A burning hot rumble of thunder reverberated in my ears. I paused and then flatly said, “Actually, it’s exactly what I signed up for. When we took our vows, I said I would be there in sickness and in health and until death do us part. It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our promise. I’m proud of us.” To be totally honest, for all my bravado in that moment, I never really felt like I had a choice when it came to loving Paul. We loved each other and that was that, through thick and thin, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was never perfect, but most of the time, it was really, really, good. Except when it wasn’t. That’s marriage.
We are all broken and flawed, and Paul was no exception. He struggled with addiction. Let me be plain here. Paul suffered from alcoholism. I don’t like to say that Paul was an alcoholic. You may think that is just semantics, but it’s not. One is a disease from which one suffers and for which they can attain treatment. The other is a statement of identity. Alcoholism is not who Paul was. There was a time when I was confused about that. My confusion actually made it more difficult for me to help him fight the addiction because when I was confused about who he was, I mistakenly thought that meant that I was fighting Paul, and in some cases, I was, which was not healthy or therapeutic for either of us. When I learned how to separate him from the disease, I was finally able to hate it and still love him. It was a breakthrough for us that ultimately led to his long period of sobriety and our recovery.
Joel 2:25-32 “I will
restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the
destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat
in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has
dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
Yes, we had significant challenges and times during our marriage that were very difficult. We had locust years, but they were redeemed by God as promised. I recently had a conversation with a long-time, family friend whose son has grappled with addiction for the better part of 20 years. She told me that sharing our family’s story about our struggle with addiction was part of the beginning of her own family’s road to recovery. She told me it was because we had been so open in sharing our struggle that they were able to make some progress. When I heard that, my heart sang. Paul would have been so pleased to know that. It’s a good example of what I mean when I write about the correlation between being thankful for suffering and achieving true healing, redemption, and restoration. My friend had begun the conversation by saying, “I don’t know if I ever told you…” and admitted that she didn’t talk about it much. You know, almost everyone I talk with who has dealt with addiction says something very similar. You see, addiction, and, yes, I am intentionally referring to it in the third person, wants to be a secret. It wants to be a private matter because that is where it can do the most damage, where it can use shame like a vice-grip to continue holding its prisoner captive. The worst thing that can happen to addiction is to blow it up, as they say. In that way, it loses so much of its power. Every person you tell breaks another link in the chains. We didn’t truly begin to recover, to live transformed lives, until we blew up the circle of accountability, started being open and sharing our struggle, owning our addiction story, and treating the whole family through counseling and fellowship with other families who were also battling addiction. For us, addiction was not just the third person grammatically speaking. It was also the third person in our marriage. I am so thankful I learned how to love my husband but hate and wage war against addiction. I learned to stop patterns of behavior that supported the addiction not him. Addiction was not Paul’s identity. Addiction, in the third person, can be hated, fought, and defeated, day in and day out, and each day of sobriety can be counted as a fresh victory.
Years ago, when we were in the thick of the battle, this passage from Ephesians 6:13-18 gave me strength for each day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”
This post is for all the men and women, children, and families who have been touched by addiction, for those in recovery and for those who are still battling, and there are so many. Addiction doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what family you come from, how smart you are, how much money you have, or where you work. In fact, it will use all of that to take the advantage if it can. If you are battling addiction in any form, take courage, friends, and fight. You are worth it. Your loved one is worth it. Start by firmly grabbing hold of that addiction and dragging it out into the light where everyone can see it and call by name. I know that is terrifying, but addiction is using that fear to terrorize you. Stop giving it the ammunition it needs to continue its horrific work.
Finally, I will leave you all with this. This hasn’t been an easy post in so many ways. The current revision count is 25. The highest ever for me. I have wrestled with it the way Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. As I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling with it, out-of-the-blue I received a text of pure encouragement, love, and positive energy from someone I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year, someone so special to both Paul and myself and who truly knew Paul as I did. Word-for-word she said, “…you rise to meet tasks with grace. Even when you feel like you can’t, you do.” Stunned, I replied that I was working on a post that I knew was important, but it was taking all the strength and courage I could muster, and that I was pretty sure she had just channeled Paul so that he could tell me I was doing the right thing. Her reply was that people needed to know that it’s hard, but it can change with God’s help. She said the cycle of destruction can end, and even in the darkest days, God sends light. And, she gave me a new name.
(MALIA enters an
administrator’s office from stage left. The director of personnel is seated at
a conference table, waiting.)
I just landed my dream job, and I’m devastated. Emotionally that is. My rational mind is so excited at the challenge of this new position and the opportunity to harness the full scope of my education and robust experiences. I am eager to stretch and grow and have a broader impact, but it also means leaving my current workplace, leaving my people. I cried for a week before the interview at the mere possibility that I might get this job and all that it would mean. I am worried about maintaining my connections, and then I came across this from one of my son’s former schoolmates and heart transplant recipient, Will Hunt, “When something big happens to you and you have to leave comfort and you have to change, it can be very scary.” I feel like I am having a figurative heart transplant. My emotional heart is leaving the comfort I have developed with my colleagues, and I am terrified. It strikes me as an odd reaction to good news. In fact, I almost never seem to be feeling like I think I ought to feel, and I often find myself having the opposite of the socially expected reaction to many situations. It’s emotional chaos in here, friends, and it makes me wonder how grief may have rewired my brain and altered my emotional processing system. Every experience, every interaction is filtered through the sieve of grief. Is that normal? Is it temporary? Or is this my new existence, my new state of being?
(MALIA is in the
kitchen of an Airbnb shared with her ladies tennis league teammates. A
celebration is underway. The ladies are exhausted but exuberant and celebrating
their state championship win. Everyone begins to trickle away from the kitchen
to get cleaned up for dinner, and MALIA
428 days. It’s been 428 days since Paul died, and on this day, after a big win and wonderful day on the tennis courts with friends, feeling spent but happy, I thought to myself, “I should call Paul.” Really!? After 428 days, I actually thought about picking up the phone and calling him. Four hundred, twenty-eight days, and, for a split second, I thought of him as still alive. I think something is wrong with me! How can I still be so disoriented? Even for a few seconds? Crouching tiger, hidden grief. It makes me long for the days last year when I could see the wave of grief coming in the distance. I had time then to run for cover, batten down the hatches, steel myself against the coming storm. I remember people saying that, in some ways, the second year is harder. I also remember indignantly thinking, “Ha! Well! There’s no way that can be true!” Ugh. This new normal doesn’t feel normal at all. Nowadays, it’s all about the sneak attack. I feel like grief lulls me into a seemingly false sense of wellness and then pounces. Maybe this is because the stretches of wellness are getting longer, and the periods of sadness are getting shorter. That’s a good thing. I’ll take whatever I can get and be grateful.
(MALIA is in a hospital room in the emergency department. Her son is dressed in a hospital gown and laying on a gurney, intravenous fluids are running wide open, monitors are beeping. He is febrile, tachycardic, and his blood pressure is dangerously low. He’s sweaty, white as a sheet, and his breathing is labored. MALIA is seated by Aaron’s side. Around her neck and clutched in her hand is a heart shaped, miniature urn containing Paul’s ashes. The room number is B17. Seemingly impossible but true, it is the exact same room she sat in with Paul on February 12, 2018, the day he was admitted to the hospital, three days before the diagnosis, and 34 days before he died.)
First of all, Aaron is fine, but it was scary. He had a very
dramatic, allergic reaction to a routine immunization he was required to have
for school. Aaron’s condition was initially mysterious. We couldn’t quite nail
down what was going on. There was, of course, a full battery of tests, but the
results made the situation less clear not more so. With medical support and monitoring
overnight, he was released early the next day. To say that I was utterly
stunned to find myself back in that room would be a gross understatement.
When the emergency staff ushered us into the room, I blurted
out, “Oh, my God.”
As if saying so would defy reality, Aaron shot back, “It’s
“It is,” I said with a heavy sigh.
“Did you ask to be moved to a different room?” my sister-in-law wanted to know in a later phone conversation.
“No,” I replied, “I just talked with Paul and told him that we had been there with him, and now we needed him to be there with us.”
And I did feel like he was right there with us. There was a bizarre, incomprehensible kind of comfort in being in that room where I knew Paul had also been, and despite the situation, I was not panicked. Instead, I was calm, steely, resolute. Why wasn’t I panicked? Why wasn’t I freaking out? I think I must be some kind of emotional weirdo!
(MALIA, party of one,
center stage. Behind her is her kitchen table in spot light, laptop open and at
the ready, a vase of cone flowers, picked and given by her niece)
In John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that if they loved
him, they would rejoice because He was going to the Father. Talk about mixed up
emotions. Down is up. Up is down. Here are the disciples having been completely
wrecked by the crucifixion, elated at the resurrection and Jesus’ return, and
now utterly decimated at hearing that Jesus is leaving them, and Jesus tells
them that they should be rejoicing. What!?! The poor disciples must have felt
like a June bug on a string. So, why rejoice? Two reasons. Jesus tells them
he’s going to the Father, and let’s face it, there’s no better place to be, AND
he’s leaving them with a helper, the Holy Spirit, our teacher and our memory of
the personhood of Jesus. Let not our hearts (our emotional seat) be troubled or
afraid. Indeed! Is rejoicing the socially correct response when someone you
love is going away forever? No, and yet that is the response that the disciples
are told is the appropriate response. Is this what it means to be in the world but not of the world? I am beginning to see that
my grief and my faith together are reshaping the way I respond to the world,
and it’s not necessarily normal. But, really, what’s so great about normal?
Isaiah 43:18-19 says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” And Revelation 21:5 says, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
Notice, friends, that it does not say, “Behold, I am making all things normal.”
So, no, maybe my grief is not normal, and I am learning that perhaps it is better that it is not. Paul always encouraged me to chart my own course. I don’t see why this grief experience should be approached any differently.