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

Every.Damn.Morning.

I wake up. Ugh (insert eye rolling emoji). In the fractions of a second before I am fully awake, I believe that Paul is lying beside me. I can feel his weight, his warmth in the bed with me. I even think to myself that I should be quiet so as not to wake him. Then, I remember. I remember that Paul died, and the hurt is quick and fresh and infuriating. Every.damn.morning.


I keep on through habit fitting an arrow to the string, then I remember and have to lay the bow down.
  – CS Lewis

CS Lewis wrote those words after the death of his beloved wife. I mean, honestly, how long can this go on? It’s been almost a year, and I forget that he died. Really?! Someone in my grief group reminded me once that it took 30 years to weave our lives together. They pointed out that I need to adjust my expectations for how long it will take my brain to understand that we are not us anymore. Adjust. Who knew that could be such an ugly word. I don’t want to adjust.

So, this morning, February 12th, is particularly challenging. This is the day, a year ago, that was the beginning of the end. Three days from now, will be the day, a year ago, that we received the diagnosis. And 34 days from now, will be the day, a year ago, that Paul died.

There are other times during the day that I forget, too. During my break at work, it was my habit to call and chat with Paul for a few minutes. It was a ritual. It got me through the day. It gave me a sense of peace and calm in otherwise hectic days. That particular routine is one that my counselor and I anticipated being difficult. We worked together to create a new routine and what to do in the emotional aftermath of a day when I forgot and reached for my phone anyway. That new routine includes prayer, meditation, and breathing exercises. But the sleeping routine has been one that has been difficult to manage and/or work around. When Paul was at the hospital, I slept as I always did, on my side of the bed. When he died, I began sleeping on his side of the bed. There. I adjusted.

Sometimes I don’t even know why I am doing this, this as in writing this blog. Paul is not here anymore. How is that even possible?  I mean it’s completely confounding. I try desperately to wrap my head around that, and I can’t. It’s like trying to comprehend an extraordinarily large number or galactic distances. They won’t fit inside your brain without putting them in some sort of comparative perspective, but there is no comparative perspective for Paul not being here. How do you explain the unexplainable, relate the un-relatable? It’s impossible, incomprehensible, but I write anyway. Perhaps it’s a way to dispossess myself, to purge the emotions, or perhaps it’s a way to encapsulate the memories before they fade. I can feel them daily slipping away. Either way, I just know it’s something I have to do.

I had a panic attack this morning. Scratch that. I had two. They usually do happen in the morning. Shocking. I know. I get lost in my memories. It’s like being in a time machine. Trying to reconcile the past with the present and future in the same moment is too much for my psyche to handle, and I panic. In her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, author Joan Didion whose husband, author John Dunne, died suddenly after 42 years of marriage describes this getting lost in memories as a vortex. I’ll go along with that. But my vortex includes my dreams as well. I live in my dreams, literally. Nightly, I live out my comfortable everyday life with Paul. We talk about what’s for dinner, TV shows we like, what’s happening in the world. We hug and kiss and say I love you and hold hands. We ride in the car together. We laugh. My real life feels like trying to run through waist-deep water, through a swimming pool filled with emotion. It just takes SO MUCH ENERGY to do the simplest things.

I’ve had another flashback recently. In fact, I’ve had a lot of them. Most likely due to this anniversary of his illness and passing.

We waited in the room with him for a long time before a technician from the morgue came to get him. He was placed on a gurney with a very nice curtain draped over a rectangular frame above his body. My son and I followed closely behind the gurney as we made our way down the hallway toward the elevator. I watched until the elevator door closed, and he was gone.

And, so, dear ones, *sigh* the journey continues.

Malia

One of the many memories in “the vortex”.

Church is so hard.

I’m a Christian. Beyond that, my spiritual life and personal relationship with Jesus Christ is far more important than any religious affiliation I have. So, why go to church? I believe, and the Bible, God’s Word, tells us that we are called into fellowship with other Christians. We are, in fact, adopted members of the family of faith. We are members of one body, and we can no more remove ourselves from the body of Christ than remove one of our own arms or legs. We go to church for support, accountability, instruction, and challenge, and quite frankly sometimes out of sheer obedience, obedience to a loving Father who knows what is best for us when we don’t know it for ourselves.

Sundays at church were such a wonderful time for me and my husband. It was our special time together. There was nothing more peaceful to me than sitting beside him in the pew, both of us so grateful for everything God had given us. We attended the same church where we were baptized, confirmed, married, and where we Christened our son, the same church where we held my husband’s funeral, and I said goodbye to Paul for the last time among our friends and family. In a way, that was a proud day for me. Twenty-seven years earlier, we had taken our marriage vows in front of some of those same family and friends. It was not always easy or pretty, but our marriage had endured “…until death do us part”. It was also my great privilege and joy to watch my husband grow and mature spiritually. God loved him, and he loved the Lord. It was amazing to watch the Lord work in Paul’s life and heart.

Easter 1990, at the church where Paul would be baptized and confirmed, and where we would be married and Christen our son.

Going to church without my husband is still pretty hard on me. No, that’s putting it too mildly. The truth is that I suffer. I weep. I cry. I have to excuse myself to a quiet, prayer room off the vestibule so that I can regain my composure. We always sat toward the back. It might be easier on me if I moved to another pew, but I am glued to that spot. I cannot leave the pew where we sat. I just can’t even though it makes me sad. Kneeling at the communion rail makes me sad. I know that I am sharing in the Great Communion of all believers, and in that way, I am as close to Paul as I will get until that day. I know it should bring me joy, and it does, but at the same time, I also experience the deeply painful loss of his physical reality and it hurts! It physically hurts me. The songs, too, make me sad, the hymns we sung together for so many Sundays. I sit in my pew, an open wound. I kneel at the rail, an open wound. I worship as I suffer. I suffer as I worship.

So, why? Why subject myself to such pain and misery? Because I count my sadness and brokenness before God as a pure act of worship. Because, to me, worshiping fully means worship, thanksgiving, and trust in the midst of intense grief and suffering. Because I have learned that suffering is good. Useful. Important. It’s ok for me to suffer. It is an important element in the Christian walk of faith as demonstrated time and time again throughout the Bible not to mention that it’s an inescapable aspect of the human experience. Living out the Christian life is fine and good, but living out the Christian death is an act of worship and eternal hope.

I was reading Tramp for the Lord by Corrie Ten Boom recently when she reminded me of James 1: 2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into difficult times. Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” I count my sadness and brokenness before God as joy. I am determined to worship in the midst of the suffering because I am grateful. God measured the length of Paul’s days before he was born, and I was blessed to have the time God provided for us to have.

“Then, he turned my sorrow into joy! He took away my clothes of mourning…” Psalm 30:11