Introduction

“Paul 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 resulting 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.

Happy New Year

My calendar is different now. Yesterday marked one full year since my husband, Paul, passed away. So, that makes today the first day of a new year.

In the spirit of the new year, I am reflecting, looking to the future, and making resolutions. First of all, I have three words to live by during this new year, three words by which to set goals, guide my choices, and grow. My words are…..

Remember, Release, Emerge

I want to remember fully and robustly. I want to speak Paul’s name into conversations, share memories with others, and tell stories about Paul and our family. I want it to feel easy and natural. I want to savor the memories. I want to be able to remember the difficult times, too, because they are equally important and valuable. I want a depth of learning from those difficult memories that transforms the way I do things and the choices I make in the future. What I don’t want to do is forget. That is wrong. I want to laugh and cry in the face of all of it and be stronger because of it.

1994

I want to release anything I’m holding onto that is no longer serving me as I venture forth. This might mean moving out of some of my comfort zones, gradually releasing some of the security blankets I’ve developed for myself, and cutting the cord on some of the grief and sadness that weighs me down from time to time. Not so long ago, I drew the scribble below in one of my grief workbooks. It occurred to me recently that I should draw in a pair of scissors, right?! When I drew it, it didn’t occur to me that the cord attaching me to that black cloud is not permanent. Each day, I am feeling a little bit stronger, and on this first day of this new year, I am looking ahead to the day when I can take out my scissors, cut that cord, and let it go.

Grief Doodle

I want to emerge like the trees that rise from the emergent layer of the rain forest’s canopy. The emergent layer is the name given to the mature tree crowns that tower over the rain forest canopy. It’s sunny up there above the canopy and only the strongest and tallest plants reach that level. Trees in the emergent layer are evergreen. Evergreen. As I head into the new year, I am growing ever upward to the emergent layer where I can soak up the sun, grow stronger leaves and branches, and be ever green.

I realize that these are great expectations, but I believe it is important to set the intention. I know I won’t get there all at once, but I will get there!

Onward! Malia

The story of Paul’s last day.

Friends, this post will be difficult for all of us. If you’ve had a very recent loss, it’s probably not the best time to read this one. Save it for later when you’re stronger. I am not even sure I should be sharing this. I don’t know who it will help. Maybe you, but maybe just me. I do know that I feel called to share it, and I am very sure that it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Modern medicine has essentially removed death from our everyday lives. People today don’t experience the number of personal losses to a death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have common place treatments and cures, accidents, and the prevalence of livestock in people’s everyday lives. We had so many rituals and social structures around death that supported and ushered people through the process. Mourning jewelry that contained images and remains were prevalent. People do still wear mourning or remembrance type jewelry, but it is typically disguised as regular jewelry so that no one but the wearer knows that it contains ashes or a lock of hair or is actually a finger print or the imprint of the electrical impulse of a heart beat from an electrocardiogram. Death has become something to be handled discreetly, privately. I believe that has made it more difficult for those who are grieving, and we are all grieving. We need to talk about it! Candidly. But we don’t. People don’t talk about it when they have been witness to the final moments of life. It’s painful. It’s intensely personal. It’s packed with conflicting emotions that are difficult to describe in words. Perhaps it’s not considered polite to share the contents of that experience. Honestly, manners—superficial, defined social structures—don’t matter that much to me anymore. People, feelings, experiences, being totally present, deeply listening, understanding, and questioning are the things that I care about and pour myself into these days. Transparency, vulnerability, truth. These are the conduits to healing.

The last two weeks leading up to Paul’s last day had been a constant effort to keep him comfortable. The cancer was pervasive. It was everywhere, lungs, brain, abdomen, colon, liver, intestines, everywhere. Our chief concern was, of course, managing pain. We soon arrived at a crossroads where, in order to manage the pain and keep him comfortable, we would have to relinquish his ability to remain conscious. This was an insanely difficult decision making process for us to navigate. We knew every choice we made about the medications that were being used could mean that we were interacting with the essence of what made Paul Paul for the last time. Some of the drugs being used to manage pain could, in fact, lead to his death. During this time, Paul would have what we described as long pauses. There would be periods of time when he would just stop breathing. We would all huddle close to him thinking that the moment had come. Then, after up to two or three minutes (an eternity!), he would start breathing again. These long pauses happened multiple times a day for days on end. It was traumatizing. Because we would frequently take turns going home to sleep, shower, changes clothes, and walk dogs, there were several times when a period of long pauses occurred when one of us was not at the hospital. When this happened, we would call the one who was not there and stay on the phone while we hurried to get back to the hospital terrified that we might miss Paul’s final moment. Like I said, traumatizing.

He had not been conscious in over a week. The Paul we knew was gone, but his body remained. It was hard to understand what was keeping him tethered. A member of the palliative care team explained that sometimes the dying have a need for privacy in their final moments. So, we left the room for several hours at a stretch, both of us, for the first time since Paul was admitted to the hospital, but it only seemed to agitate Paul. Even unconscious, he rested more comfortably when we were in the room. I asked a member of our palliative care team why Paul was lingering when it was so difficult. I just didn’t understand how his body could possibly be enduring. The palliative care team member was an older doctor, and he gently explained to me, in the most beautiful way, something that had never occurred to me before. He said that, in his career, he had been present at countless deaths and countless births. He said that not all people arrive easily. For some, the birth process is difficult, a struggle, and that the same is true of the death process. For some, it is difficult. It is a struggle. I’m not sure why that had never occurred to me. Again, I think it might be because we as a society do not talk and share enough about the ubiquitous human experience that the dying process is. It makes sense, though, right? Birthing is called labor. There is pain. Then, so, too, dying is also a labor, and some labor more than others just as in the birthing process. Paul was in labor, struggling to be born into the next life, and we were witnesses, but after talking with the doctor, I saw myself as a coach as well and began to think about what Paul needed from me, how I could come alongside him as his partner in the process instead of merely his care-giver and advocate.

The morning of the last day, I arrived at the hospital early. Our son had been with Paul through the night and headed home for a little while. Shortly after our son left, Paul’s breathing became labored and noisy, loud. It was difficult to be in the room. It was brutal.

I sent this message out to family and friends. “We are on our knees this morning. This road is very, very difficult. But we are not alone. We feel the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. Any strength you perceive in us, I have to tell you is not us, but Him. I am running on His Grace alone. There is nothing left but His Grace. Everything else has been stripped away. We are laid bare in the pain and struggle of it. I have honestly never experienced anything worse than this, and yet I rest in the comfort of my Savior’s embrace. We love you all.”

In desperation, I cried out to God to be merciful. This was my prayer that day, “Please, Lord God, have mercy on your servant, Paul. He belongs to You. He has always belonged to you, Lord, and now I am begging you to have mercy. I am thankful for the days you have given us. I am sorry for the many ways I have fallen short. Please, Lord, be merciful.” Then, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Paul, the way a wife talks with a husband. I told him that we were trying everything we knew to keep him comfortable, but we were failing. I told him that we could not heal him, but God could. After 30 years of complete and utter love and devotion, I told Paul for the last time that I loved him, but that God loved him more. Yes, God loved him more. That was an important realization for me. I had always thought that I loved Paul most and best, but that was actually never true. God always loved him more. I also talked to Paul about all the wonderful, fun, sad, difficult, normal, extraordinary things we had done together. We were always together, but this was different. He would have to do this last thing on his own, and I told him I knew he could do it. He had to go on ahead of me, and he had to do it by himself.

Our son arrived back at the hospital about noon, and the labored breathing continued throughout the day. In the evening, he was suddenly quiet. The three of us spent the rest of night together peacefully. I awoke at about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why because on the surface nothing had changed. Paul was still quiet and peaceful. So, I just sat there with him holding his hand. The pace of his breath quickened, and I spoke with the nurse about a medication change. She administered the medication, but his breathing continued to be erratic. I woke our son up. He and I surrounded his dad with love and joy and gratitude and saw him traverse the threshold from this world to his eternal home.

When it comes to cancer, everyone prays for a miracle. Well, we did have a miracle. It was not a happy ending in the traditional sense as in a cure, but it was a peaceful, dignified ending. The miracle is that, given what we were facing, Paul died peacefully with dignity surrounded by family, friends, and so much love.

I have used this picture in a previous post, and you may have thought, as I did, Why am I (is she) smiling? When I saw myself in this picture, that was my first thought. Why am I smiling? Initially, I didn’t have an answer for that question. Over time, I realized why. For me, the hardest part was watching Paul in pain, watching Paul die, and that part was thankfully, blessedly over. I could not even cry. I felt so ridiculous, not being able to cry, but I was so happy for Paul, that the pain and suffering was over. My grieving was delayed by relief. I recently saw a picture of another young widow, an acquaintance of mine from high school. Her husband died of cancer, 49 years old. In the picture, the day of her husband’s funeral, she is smiling, just like me. I know why.

Be blessed, Malia

Puppy Love

A neighbor’s dog had a litter of ten puppies, Boston terrier and Lab mixed. There were only three puppies left, a boy and two girls. We knew we wanted a girl so we just needed to pick one of the two that were left. Easy. Right? Not so much. After an hour of holding, petting, playing, and cuddling, I was no closer to deciding which one than when we arrived. Finally, I turned to Paul and said, “I just can’t choose between them.” He didn’t miss a beat, didn’t even hesitate before saying, “Well, then, we’ll take them both.”

That’s how it happened. That’s how we got our girls in January 2012, and they have brought us so much joy. Choosing names in a family full of history buffs is no joke, but we landed on Eleanor (as in Roosevelt) and Beatrice, after General George Patton’s wife. It wasn’t long before the formality faded and Ellie and Bea became the norm.

Our girls, Ellie and Bea

Pets are a lot of responsibility and a lifetime commitment, but we would never trade it for the love, joy, and companionship that they provide in return. Pets have always been part of our lives, and pet therapy has been an incredibly important part of my journey through Paul’s illness, his passing, grieving, healing, and now growth. When Paul was in the hospital, he would sleep restlessly and often call for the girls or snap his fingers for them to come. Because we were not able to be transferred to hospice, we had a very large, private hospital room at the end of a wing. The doctors graciously made it possible for the girls to come and spend an entire day in the room with us. On other days, we had many visits from therapy dogs. The pet therapy visits never failed to brighten our mood and provide a welcome distraction from the stress and anxiety of what we were experiencing. The benefits of pet therapy are numerous. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health, releases calming endorphins, and reduces pain. The act of petting induces an automatic relaxation response that can even reduce the need for medication in some cases. It’s also social. It brings people together. It makes people smile! Read more about the benefits of pet therapy here in the blog, The Psych Talk.

The time we spent in the hospital leading up to Paul’s passing was difficult and sad, but as sad as what we were going through was, it was sadder still to walk down the hallways and see so many patients who were totally alone. No family. No visitors. In contrast, Paul’s room was filled with people, friends and family, and LOVE, day in and day out. Through pet therapy, we can share that love, the love Paul had for his family and our fur babies. I have written previously about how full circle moments have greatly contributed to both gratitude and growth in the grieving process. Pet therapy is a prime example of that. Several months ago, I began the process of getting one of our girls, Bea, certified as a therapy dog through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She has such a good temperament and is well suited to it. Our other girl, Ellie, is less gregarious and would not likely enjoy it. It’s so important to carefully consider a dog’s personality if pet therapy is something in which you are interested. Very soon, Bea and I will walk the same hallways to visit patients in the same hospital where our family spent all those difficult days and nights during Paul’s illness and passing, but this time it will be for something good. It somehow redeems the awful for the beautiful, something positive that helps others. No, it doesn’t replace the bad memories, but it does supplement them with some better ones. It creates an emotional counter-balance. We are so grateful for the care we received that we are moved to do for others what was done for us.

So, recently, I have found myself asking the question, what is Paul’s legacy? The short answer to that question is we are. The people he loved so well are his legacy. Paul believed in leaving things better than you found them, especially people. The people in your life should be better off because they have known you. It’s a legacy of love and encouragement shared with others. Getting involved in pet therapy is helping me live out that legacy.

Here’s hoping this blog leaves you better than it found you, Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part II, or The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room? Seriously. I’m running an elephant sanctuary over here.

We’ll start with the baby elephant, anxiety.

In the early weeks and months after Paul died, it was difficult for me to leave the safety of the house. I wanted to be where he was. Paul and I did everything together. We enjoyed each other and enjoyed doing even the smallest activities together. I don’t even remember the last time I was in a grocery store by myself or pumped my own gas. Now, just riding in the car by myself feels like a foreign country. I am not sure I fully realized it until Paul was no longer by my side, but he made me feel safe, emotionally safe certainly, and, in some cases, physically safe.

I admit that I have long been a bit of a “nervous Nellie”, a little hypersensitive even from my childhood, but going through my days alone has caused me anxiety like I have never known it before. It is at its worst in the morning. Big surprise <insert sarcasm>. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. It’s a struggle just to get my feet on the floor. Sometimes I get stuck in the kitchen. I’m dressed. I’m ready. I’m standing in the kitchen, and I can’t move from that spot. The other prime locations for getting stuck are in the driveway and at the traffic light as I’m trying to leave neighborhood. When I’m stuck in the driveway, I just sit there and watch the garage door go down trying to decide if I’m actually going to leave the house or not. If there is no one waiting behind me at the traffic light, I will often just keep on sitting through the next cycle or two. If I’m forced out the neighborhood by people waiting behind me, then I make my way to my destination but struggle to get out of the car when I arrive.

I’ve attempted to deal with this anxiety in several ways because what I’ve really learned about anxiety like this is that it’s not going away anytime soon. I have to manage it. There are times when I am able to confront it. I can muster my courage and force myself to take the next step. That works. Sometimes. Other times, I find it best to avoid that which I know causes anxiety. I order my groceries online, and go pick them up instead of doing the shopping in-store. That is a reasonable, acceptable avoidance that does not impact my quality of life. I have used interventions such as medication (short term), controlled breathing, meditation and prayer, exercise, connecting with others, and counseling. I doubt I am going to be anxiety free any time soon, but I have enough strategies at my disposal to manage. For now.

So, that’s anxiety. Next up, anger.

Anger has always felt wrong to me. Wrong on a sinful level. I have always tended to be less expressive, even stoic. It’s hard for me to remember many times in my life when I’ve been out-right angry. It is also useless, honestly. It’s not productive or helpful in any way as far as I can tell, but anger is a very natural, biological emotion, and it’s present very early on in life so it must be important. Even babies get angry. Anger in its basic form is used, I believe, to draw attention, to demand attention. And perhaps that’s what anger in the midst of grief is all about. A demand for a wound to be attended to. Anger can be sneaky. For me, anger over my husband’s death comes out as irritability, being short-tempered with others, having impatient outbursts that take me by surprise, and I think to myself where did that come from? My anger forces me to attend to something within myself that I have pushed aside for too long. The message to me from me is…..Deal with these feelings, or they will deal with you. And, by the way, I’m fed up with all the feelings. It’s exhausting, and I’m sick of it.

The anger usually abates when I acknowledge what I’m angry about. So, what am I angry about? Here goes. I am angry that Paul left me here by myself. No, he didn’t do it on purpose. I am angry about the way Paul died. No, there was nothing that could have been done differently. I am angry that I was completely helpless to do anything for him. Yes, I did everything I could. I am angry that I have to do all this grief sh*t (excuse me). Yes, yes, the grief work has helped me grow. So, do you see? Do you see how senseless anger is? And, yet, it is there.

I think the best way to sum up anger in the midst of grief is with this clip from the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.

These elephants are getting bigger. Ugh. Next, the twins, hurt and guilt. Marriage, any relationship for that matter, is not all goodness and light, my friends, as I’m sure many of you well know. Conflicts occur. I suppose it is inevitable in any relationship as we are all flawed. Old arguments come to mind. I think of things that I said or did that hurt Paul and things that Paul said and did that hurt me as well. Some of the arguments were the ridiculous kind that all couples seem to have, but some of them were more serious incursions, and the hurt and the guilt are deep and impossible to forget. I have to say here that I think it’s really important to remember the love and the good times, the happy memories, and to remember the difficult, hurtful memories, too. It’s not good to over-romanticize the relationship. While it is painful to remember the hurtful things I did and how I was hurt, it also allows me to continue to learn how to improve my current and future relationships with those I love. Guilt is good. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that hopefully(!) prevents us from erring repeatedly.

And, finally, Jumbo makes his entrance. Regret. I most regret the missed opportunities, missed opportunities to be more attentive, patient, to be a better listener, more accepting, to know my husband in deeper ways and to be more open so that I could be fully known. I regret the times that I fell short of being the wife he wanted and/or needed. I don’t mean to say that I wish I had necessarily agreed with him more because sometimes that is genuinely not what a person needs although it may be what they want. I just mean that I can think of times when reacting differently to what was happening in our relationship would have been the more loving and honorable way to be my husband’s wife. One of my deepest regrets came in the weeks and days before Paul died. I was in full caregiver mode. Decisions about his care had to be made every day and had to be made quickly. I so wish I could have stepped away from my caregiver role and could just be with him in those last days, but it was impossible. I was being Martha because I had to. I wish I could have been Mary.

So, how does all this junk get resolved? Three words. Mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Mercy is when we don’t get what we have coming to us, when we have behaved wrongly and should rightfully be punished but are spared. With forgiveness, we can surmount the anger and resentment. We can let it go. And then there’s grace. Grace is the clincher. It’s the life changer, the freedom bringer. It is completely unmerited, cannot be earned and is the highest form of love. It takes all three of these to make a relationship work. Marriage is hard, but a promise is only a promise if it is kept. The following passage was read at our wedding as it is at so many, but it remains, for me, a guidebook to being in a right relationship with others.

The Way of Love (1 Cor 13:1-13)

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Our wedding day, Dec 14, 1991

So, go ahead, dear ones. Talk about the elephants in the room. Call them out by name. Mountain climber, adventurer, and completely blind for most of his adulthood, Erik Weihenmayer says, “You lean in to the thing that sort of scares you, that overwhelms you, so that you can kind of get up close to it and you can experience it fully and then it kind of loses its power over you.”

Get up close to your elephants, friends, and the room will be yours!

Blessings, Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part I

“How are you doing?” It should literally be the theme song, the catch phrase, of grief. The real answer to that question is complicated and unpalatable for most people, even those closest to me. There’s always a real response in my head followed by the more polite, socially acceptable response that comes out my mouth.

So, why can’t I tell people the real answer to that question?

Because some days the real answer to that question goes like this. “Well, I’m not thinking about driving my car into a tree anymore” and “I’m finally able to ride over bridges without thinking about jumping” or “I am seething with sinful jealousy because you are sitting next to your husband, and I’m not sitting next to mine”. There’s also, “My heart is breaking right now, because, as I am watching you spend time with your son, I am remembering those same moments between my son and his father. I ache for my own son who will spend so much of his life without his father. I’m in pain because I know the intense daily sadness of living so much of one’s life without a parent.” Like I said….keeping-it-real.

I realize these responses would startle folks. Most people expect the typical response, “Fine! How are you?” or “I’m doing ok”, and when they don’t get the response they are expecting, they are flummoxed and stammer for a way to respond appropriately. I don’t want to put my burden on others especially not in the middle of the day at work or in the store when I run into an acquaintance. I think most people who are grieving do this. They wear this mask because it’s the only way to get through the day. It’s not intended to be deceptive or untruthful. It’s just not practical or possible for me to tell people how I feel because we have to be able to get through the rest of the day, and if I told people how I really feel, none of us could. Believe me.

The bottom line here, the lesson for all of us, is that it’s really impossible for anyone who is grieving to be “ok” regardless of how they look, act, sound, or respond to the “How are you doing?” question.

I’ve run across this sentiment in two other contexts just this week. Here in John Pavlovitz’s blog and here in Michael Gerson’s sermon where he candidly discusses the ravages of depression. Apparently, Facebook knows I am grieving just as well as it knows when I’m shopping for shoes because recently my news feed is rife with articles about and references to the grief process. One of the pastors at my church also referenced the Gerson article. And it’s no wonder why because Gerson nails it when he says, “At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.” Depression, grief, anxiety….willed cheerfulness is the mask we wear to get through the day. Pavlovitz’s article is more of a decidedly welcome, public service announcement regarding the grieving people who we come in contact with every day but don’t realize their pain. He says, “Everyone is grieving and worried and fearful, none of them wear the signs, none of them have the labels, and none of them come with written warnings reading, I’M STRUGGLING. GO EASY.” Speaking of his own grief after the death of his father, Pavlovitz goes on to say that if people did realize what pain is hidden beneath the mask “…it probably would have caused people around me to give me space or speak softer or move more carefully.” Honestly, it makes me long for the days when widows would wear black for up to a year, and people wore a black arm band for up to six months after the death of a parent or spouse. In that way, we could “wear the signs” to alert others to our fragile condition.

Surrounded by friends the day of Paul’s funeral.

It occurs to me that encountering death in everyday life used to be more commonplace. People just flat-out dealt with death more frequently in the past. High child mortality rates before the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, world wars, pandemics like the Spanish flu (50-100 million deaths in 1918). Death was, well, normal. Society had many ways to manage grief through traditions and expected behavioral responses. It wasn’t that long ago that a viewing or visitation was actually held in the home of the deceased not the funeral home as it typically happens today. The modern death experience has been sanitized particularly in the West. In my opinion, that has not served us, the bereaved, well. When did we, as a society, become so uncomfortable with others’ emotions that grieving is now something that is expected to be done in private? The isolation of grief does not aid the process. It, in fact, can delay healing and growth. But I’ve digressed.

So, how do we respond to the “How are you doing?” question in a way that is honest, healthy, and facilitates the grieving process?

Do this: Develop one or two standard answers that are truthful but don’t suck the air out of the room. Keep the response short and generalized, something that is honest but doesn’t require awkward, uncomfortable detail.

Some of my go-to responses are “I’m struggling, but I’m here” and “I’m having a tough time. I miss my husband.” You can always add, “Thank you for asking. I appreciate your concern.”

Come up with responses that work for you. Practice them out loud if you need to until you are confident and won’t be searching for the words when people ask because they will. They always do. Thankfully, they always do.

Take care of yourselves, Malia

“Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

I have written a lot about the importance of connections. Connecting with others has perhaps been the area of greatest personal growth for me during the grieving process. Paul knew it would be. The title of this post is literally one of the last coherent thoughts he was able to share with me. He knew my ability to “make some friends” would be critical. It’s not that I was completely friendless, but for me, my family was not just enough, they were my everything, my all-in-all. I didn’t feel like I needed more.

I.was.wrong.

I have worked hard to deepen current friendships and cultivate new connections, and it has made all the difference. Cultivate is exactly the right word here. Like a gardener cultivates flowers, growing a friendship takes time, work, attention, and the nourishment of emotional sunshine. I am learning how to do that because my connections, my friends, are teaching me. I have the most amazing group of what I call support sisters. They have taught me and are still teaching me how to be a friend. They show me every day with love, support, laughter, and tears, the sad kind and the happy kind. They are the real-deal steel magnolias. Here’s what I’ve learned so far about making and keeping friends.

Reach out

Ask for and offer help. Easier said than done. I know. I am the queen of “I can do it faster and better if I just do it myself.” Not true. What people really mean when they say something like this is that it takes less of their own energy to engage others in the completion of a task. And while that part may be true, it is, at the same time, a loss. The contributions of others have enormous value both to the outcome and the emotional well-being of those engaged in the process.

Be present

If you are invited, go. It doesn’t matter whether or not it is something that necessarily appeals to you personally. That’s not the point. Go, and enjoy being together.

Support their efforts

Whatever they are into, support it with time, energy, and positive contributions. Be their cheerleader!

Use multiple ways to communicate

Social media has many drawbacks, but it can be really useful for staying in touch. If you are an introvert (like me) and there is a limit on the number of face-to-face conversations you can have each day, use other ways to reach out, communicate, and support. Phone calls, Facebook, texting, Marco Polo, Instagram, Snapchat….the list goes on and on. Snapchat’s tag line is, “The fastest way to share a moment!” It’s pure marketing genius because it’s true. Making and maintaining connections is as much about sharing the little moments as it is about being there for the big ones.

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, the rest of this post will be worth a million.

The women in these photos have been my rock. They have cried with me and laughed with me. They have been with me to mourn and to celebrate. I could not get through this journey without them, and I am so grateful! I am still learning about friendship. I am sure there are lots of ways that I fall short, but I am growing. Thanks to them. They are still teaching me every day. My hope and prayer is that I am able to return even a small portion of what they have given me.

Much love to all my sisters, Malia

When Grieving, Dive Deep

In a previous post, I wrote about psychic injury and how to care for yourself as you heal. This post moves on to discussing the healing process. After the death of a loved one or a significant loss, people may refer to you as grief-stricken. Grief-stricken. It’s an interesting description, as if one is stricken with an illness, but I agree with it. It does make sense to refer to grief as an illness because illnesses need treatments and so do psychic injuries. I also agree because people recover from illness, and people recover from grief, too!

Grief is a noun, but grieving is a verb. It is active. Make no mistake. Grieving is difficult work and takes a sustained effort, a multi-faceted approach. For me, I felt like I had to get it right. I have a lot of life left to live. I also want the rest of my life to honor my husband and his love for me. He took such good care of me, always wanted the best for me. He wanted me to spend the rest of my life happy and healthy and emotionally free even if it was without him. The only way to ensure that is to do this grieving thing to the hilt.

So, I have pursued grief, sought it out, searched for it in the darkest corners, fought with it, chased it, dug it up, and wrapped myself in it. Grieving is indeed a profound experience, but it is not who I am, the little girl who lost her mother, the grieving widow. God alone, not my circumstances, determines my identity.

I.Own.Grief. It doesn’t own me.

My treatment plan evolved over time. I began with one strategy and gradually added more until I had a full array of tools with which to do my work.

Welcome to my Griefwork Toolbox!

Individual and/or Family Counseling

I began by seeing a counselor. Best decision I ever made. She saved my life (I’ll save the rest of that story for another post). I began with weekly visits and gradually increased the time between visits depending on how I was feeling. Sometimes I had setbacks and needed to return more frequently. Sometimes I felt stronger and could go a little longer without an appointment. I recommend choosing a counselor who specializes in grief and someone who will support any particular religious beliefs or traditions you may have. I also recommend that you think ahead about whether or not you want a male or female counselor. Be sure to consider any other characteristics unique to your situation and history. The more specific you are the better your counseling experience will be. 

Reading

Reading books about grief can be very helpful. Small, short books with vignettes are best. Long narratives are challenging for an overloaded brain. A brain overloaded with emotion struggles to concentrate and pay attention. A quick search on Amazon will yield many good options. Read just a little each day. Make it a habit. Five to ten minutes a day is all you need.

Choose and pursue an expressive outlet

There are feelings and emotions in the human soul for which there are no words and for which an ocean of salty tears would not be enough to express. For that reason, an expressive outlet can do a world of good. It could be anything – dance, theater, poetry, music, art, sculpting, crafting, scrapbooking, painting, textile arts, drawing. For me, it was music. My husband was a teenager during the seventies. His vinyl record collection is epic. I spent hours listening to those records. They made me feel close to Paul when I was struggling to adapt to his physical absence. I was able to picture him listening to and enjoying those same records, and it made me feel like we were together. They were a great comfort to me, calmed me as David used music to calm the madness of the king. Then, my father-in-law gave me a piano. I had played as a child so, even though many years had passed, it was still familiar to me. I ordered some books and began practicing each day. I was astonished at the way it literally switched off the rest of my brain as I focused on playing the notes and tune. When I am playing the piano, I lose track of time. I lose track of time. A miracle.

Try a Grief Group

I say try because you may find that it is not for you. It also has a lot to do with timing. If you try a grief group and it’s not working for you, by all means, discontinue, but don’t throw out the idea completely. I did not join a grief group until 6 months after Paul’s death. The group I joined was organized around a video series with an accompanying workbook. That aspect was extremely helpful to me. The discussions we had were short, limited to about 15 minutes, and I didn’t speak too often. Only one other person in the group had experienced the death of a spouse. The rest of the members had experienced the death of adult children, parents, or siblings. My point is that the most important benefit I received from being in a grief group was acquired by listening. There is so much value in listening to and understanding the perspectives of others.

Full Circle Moments

Look for and take advantage of full circle moments. I call them goodbye moments. These usually happen at places that were special to us, a restaurant, the beach, gardens, cities we liked to visit, vacation spots. One of these goodbye moments occurred recently at a local plantation. The last time we had been there was Mother’s Day 2016. Our son wasn’t able to be with us that day. I was feeling a little blue about that so Paul planned for us to enjoy a day out. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We strolled the gardens through walkways of flowers. We talked and smiled and laughed and held hands. We thoroughly enjoyed just being with each other. On this recent visit to the same plantation, I was with my brother and his family. As we walked in through the main gates, I recalled the memory. Shared it with my family. Smiled at the thought of it. Celebrated Paul’s life. Embraced it, and let it go. Full circle.

Mother’s Day 2016, Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, SC

Exercise                                                                                                              

Any form of exercise will do, but I encourage you to choose an exercise that has the potential to be social, a two-for-one as it were. The physical and mental benefits of exercise are, of course, numerous. By adding a social component, you also get the benefit of connecting with others. In addition, I encourage exercises and/or activities that have a meditation or mindfulness component as well as a focus on breathing, something like yoga or the martial arts. All of this together will help ease anxiety and the processing of intense emotions.

Church

If church was part of your life before the death of your loved one, try to continue to go. I know it is difficult, but it can be an important and stabilizing force in your healing process. I think the way to get through it is to not have any expectations. Just be there in His presence and trust. The rawness of grief in the midst of worship can be very challenging. Go anyway. Do it anyway, but make sure you have escape routes, places you can go, people you can go to if you get overly emotional or completely overwhelmed.

Journaling

My counselor encouraged journaling early on, but I was not able to do it. I couldn’t gather my thoughts together well enough to get them on to paper. I couldn’t concentrate. My emotions just didn’t translate. It was months before I was able to write short responses to questions in my grief workbook and several months more before my ideas began to freely flow. If you are not able to journal initially, try again after some time has passed. It can be a powerful means for reorganizing thoughts and memories, integrating new experiences, and assimilating new routines and life patterns.

Pet Therapy

Spending time with pets can have a profoundly beneficial impact on anxiety, depression, and mood. Try spending more time with your own pets if you have them. Walking them and playing with them even for a few minutes can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and improve your outlook. If you don’t have pets of your own, spend time with a friend or family member’s pet. Many organizations have access to pet therapy. Handlers volunteer their time and their pet to visit with people undergoing medical treatments or in need of emotional support. I will write more about our own amazing experience with pet therapy in a future post.

Connect

Connect with others in a meaningful way. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Griefwork truly is a labor. By connecting, we can help each other through it. Work on strengthening your current connections and reaching out to others to form new ones. Everyone is experiencing some type of grief. No one gets through this life unscathed. The more we reach out and connect with each other the better off we will all be.

Serve

Find opportunities to serve others in need. Yes, even though you are in a position of need yourself. Serving others grows gratitude for your own circumstances. It also takes your mind off of whatever your mind is on. On our first Christmas Day without Paul, my son and I volunteered to serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House, a place for families experiencing medical hardships. It was the best place for us to be that day. We were busy serving others. It took our minds off the absence of our beloved husband and father if even for a little while. I was recently reading Luke’s account of Tabitha. Tabitha was a disciple of Christ and worked to help the widowed and poor by making clothing for them. Tabitha fell ill and passed away. Her community was so distraught that two believers went to get Peter who was visiting in a nearby town. Peter arrived and prayed to God on behalf of Tabitha, and God restored her to life. She got her life back. Every time I do something for someone else, when I serve, I feel like I get a little bit more of my life back.

Go. Serve. It’s good for others. It’s good for you.

Embrace

Only what is embraced can be transformed. Only by embracing the grief can it be transformed into peace. Embrace it all, the emotions, the memories, the hurt. Breathe it all in so that you can breathe it all out. Don’t run away. Run towards it! Memories are so interesting. When my mother died, I purposely did not remember and forgot so much, whole swaths of time from my childhood. The pain was too overwhelming, and I had no support. Now, I use my memories as a way to visit with Paul, and it brings me joy!

Cry. Wash. Repeat.

Cry. A lot. Then, wash your face. I received this advice from a widower, and he was right. There is great power in the physical act of washing your face. The water is refreshing. It takes the tears with it down the drain. It’s energizing, too. It gives you a moment to catch your breath, gather your courage, and face the day once more. Repeat as often as necessary. It’s an emotional cleanse that’s good for your psyche.

If ANY of this is helpful to you, dear reader, then I have been of service and have gotten a little bit more of my life back.

Be blessed, Malia