Is my grief normal? A play in three acts.

Act I

(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?

Act II

(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 is alone.)

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.

Act III

(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 not.”

“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!

Epilogue

(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.

Decidedly, blessedly abnormal, Malia

It’s the little things.

In loss, there is pain. It’s debilitating. The good news is that the worst of it is temporary. It’s what remains after the worst-of-it that takes real work.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 comforts us not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are encouraged to carry on despite the heartache, despite the hurt and despair. We.have.hope. And His name is Jesus. My family is the bedrock of my human existence, my sisters and brothers in Christ love and support me spiritually, my friends and colleagues are my ballasts, but the personal friend I have in Jesus is what carries me through each day. He is hope. He is why I don’t give up.

It’s been a little more than a year since Paul died, and I am only recently starting to watch TV again. I know how strange and silly that must sound, but it was about 10 months before I could even sit on the couch let alone watch a show. Likewise, NPR was a staple in our cars for decades. We enjoyed the news and game shows and especially Prairie Home Companion. I walked out of the hospital the day Paul died, got into my car, and immediately changed the radio to a local rock station because I could not bear to listen to NPR, and I haven’t listened to it since. I do miss it, but I just can’t.

Those are just some of the little things I couldn’t or still can’t do. There are also things I won’t do. The grocery store, as evidenced by the recently posted picture of my very empty and very embarrassing refrigerator, is something I won’t do…along with cooking. Paul loved to cook. It was his domain throughout our marriage. It was a contribution to our family life in which he took great pride.

In some ways, I am still operating under the conditions of my former life. I just leave things around the house to be done. I don’t know who in the world I think is going to do them or if I’m waiting for Paul to come back and pick up where he left off. It’s the madness of grief. I can do laundry, wash dishes, and pay bills like a champ, but that’s because those were the tasks that previously belonged to me anyway. It was these little divisions of labor that evolved within our relationship over time that made our household work. These little things are really the last hold-outs of my former life perhaps because they are the most deeply embedded in my day-to-day living. The grocery store and cooking were exclusively Paul’s tasks. I think to myself, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I won’t do it. That’s Paul’s job.” There is an angry, stubborn, rebelliousness to it. I don’t know how long it will take me to accept this new reality and really take ownership of these tasks, but I am indignant and not in a hurry.

It’s been about a month now since my return from the Camino, and the adjustment issues are lingering. Initially, it had a lot to do with the time change, but it’s been so enduring that it can’t just be that. I think it’s me. I think I’m different. I think I am fundamentally different. The pace and rhythm of my daily walks on the Camino have filtered into the pace of my life.

I am continuously making connections between my daily routine and my Camino experience, faster here, slower there, the need for careful steps, what it’s like when the day is smooth or rough, connecting to others, when to dig deep, to finish strong, to stop and rest, to be quiet, to observe, to look for signs. It’s all here in my daily life. On the Camino, I had to physically adjust to many of these things.  In my daily life, I am making the connection to adjusting mentally and spiritually. It continues to be a journey and a profoundly interesting experience to witness in myself.

We’ve also had some really good things happening lately. My son has graduated from college, gotten engaged, and been accepted to graduate school. He and his fiancé have moved to the same city that I live in, and I am so excited to have them close by. My Camino experience was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I have recently earned a new, exciting and challenging position at work that I am very happy about. We’ve had a lot to smile about and celebrate which is wonderful, welcome, and certainly a change from the year that has preceded it. Some folks even say, “After the year y’all have had, you deserve it”, or “Y’all were due some good news!” or “God owed it to you after what y’all have been through.” When I hear sentiments like this, I smile politely most of the time because I know that people love us and mean well and are genuinely happy for us, and I am so grateful. But here, in this post, I feel like I need to set the record straight. We have done nothing to deserve anything. No one, least of all the Lord God we serve, owes us anything. It is, in fact, we who owe Him everything as much today, or even more so, as on the day we took our first breath and even on the day Paul took his last breath. We don’t deserve it……but by God’s grace, Paul and I had thirty years together. We were able to learn and grow from each other. We were gifted with the stewardship of another one of God’s children, our son. We had the opportunity to seek forgiveness from one another when we fell short of the promises we made each other. There’s no way to earn God’s favor. Faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. You see, both plenty and adversity, are worthy of our gratitude to God. I seek only to Glorify God and use my experience as an opportunity to tell others that any strength and grace of which I am possessed are not mine but His. It is a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God comforts me, and, for me, true healing means that after all the suffering and pain, we will say, “The Lord has been good to me.”

Now, I am not naïve. I know that this stance is counter-cultural. In American society, the denial of self comes with a sad sort of pity for a person who is unwilling or incapable of tooting their own horn. Some may even say it is anti-intellectual whatever that means. I take that back. Let’s be clear about what that means. That sentiment comes from folks who are trying to be socially correct and call other people dumb or backwards in the same breath. Either that or it’s an attempt to pigeonhole other people into a place where they are perceived as valuing the spirit over intellect, but I reject the either-or model and embrace the both-and model. I am both intellectual and spiritual. I value intellectual approaches to problem solving and seek the wisdom of the Spirit, and I think there is plenty of evidence in this blog to support that assertion.

I’m going to leave you with Romans 5:1-5 which really could be a sort of road map to my experience, my theme song if you will. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy spirit who has been given to us.”

But by God’s grace, I am standing! Malia

It’s about time.

Time is on my mind. Both literally and figuratively. Physically, the time change coming back from Spain has put a hurting on me. That combined with the excitement and activity surrounding my son’s engagement gave me a serious case of jet lag that lasted well into my first few days back at work. It was three days before I could even think about doing laundry or turning on the TV. It’s nearly two weeks now of trying to get another post completed.

Then, there’s this.

How on earth I can fly to another continent and manage to take care of myself but can’t go to the grocery store is fodder for another post. Ugh. Ridiculous. At any rate, I would like to officially add travel to the Griefwork Toolbox. I can certainly attest to its healing affect. One aspect that was made abundantly clear to me during the course of my travel is that it’s no credit to me, I get no sense of accomplishment or confidence, if I’m able to manage when things are going smoothly. I only learn about myself and my capabilities when things are going wrong. That’s not to say that I need or want things to go wrong. I am just saying that I am grateful in both sets of circumstances as I have opportunities to learn and grow. I spent the last 30 years in partnership with my husband. I do currently have a need to fully understand my ability to manage life on my own.

I’ve tried to adjust to the time change by sticking to my routines, exercise and regular bedtime, and not napping even though I really wanted to, but it was still nearly five days before I felt normal, like myself again. I felt like a person out of time, removed from a previous state of existence. The first time I experienced this was after the death of my mother. Even at that young age, barely 12 years old, I was aware that time, or the way I experienced it, was different. My very existence as I had known it was over, and a new existence had begun. A quick search of my posts yielded 107 occurrences of the word time. I have written previously about how my calendar is different, but it’s more than that. I experience time differently now.

This painting by Salvador Dali is titled The Persistence of Memory. I was fortunate to see it in person at the Museum of Modern Art during my unexpected stay in New York.

The title is so curious. In fact, it’s often called by other names like “Melting Clocks” or “Melting Watches”. But clearly, Dali, recognized, or pondered like myself, the connection between time and memory and perception. I am intrigued about the possibility that time and memory are actually one and the same and the potential of that equality.

I have a time machine. My memory is good. Too good sometimes. Memory is routed through the hippocampus and stored in the temporal region of the brain which is responsible for how we process memories and integrate them with sensory information, the way we perceive the world. I remember everything with nearly perfect recall. Many family members confirm that my earliest memories are from not too far past my second birthday. They are images only, but they are accurate. Lately, these memories of mine have been tricking me into thinking I am somewhere else or talking to someone else about something else, and I make mistakes in my references. I never noticed myself making these kinds of mistakes before Paul died or at least not to this level. A puzzled look from a friend or family member usually brings the mistake to my attention, and I say, “Oh, I meant, ______. I was in my time machine.” In other words, I associated the current circumstances for another place and time.

In his essay, “To Grieve is to Carry Another Time”, Matthew Salesses refers to this same phenomenon. He read and researched the mechanism and function of time hoping for a way to go back to before his wife died but with, obviously, no success. Salesses wrote, “So why, my grief asks, can’t we change times simply by changing our perceptions?” According to Salesses’ research, physicist Carlo Rovelli offers the mind itself as a time machine so that we may travel via memory. I, too, have attempted time travel by seeking the answer to this same question. The fact that we, the grievers, would even think such a thing is possible is yet another indication of the disorder, confusion, and madness with which grief wrecks the rational mind. Since Paul died, I have consciously worked on cultivating my ability to go back in time through memories to visit with him. Instead of my memories playing like a movie on a screen, I go inside my memories and walk around, talking, feeling. Salesses asserts, “This is a disappointing compromise. In mourning, memory is only another cause for mourning. It does not change time, only reminds one that time has passed.” I’m not sure about that.

We all know that humans experience time in a linear way, past, present, and future, like following a string. But I am thinking of that string wound around a spool. From the inside of the spool, we could view all of that wound up time and select a strand of time to experience. And, what if, just what if the string of time is not being wound up? What if it’s the other way around? What if the string of time is being wound out? Think about that. The past is something that has already happened right? If the future is something that is already set, already on the spool, whether it’s known or unknown, then it is equal to the past. This is actually comforting to me. The future may be a puzzle that I have struggled to piece together, but it is concrete.

I was talking to a friend recently about how long Paul and I were together, and I blurted out 31 years. Thirty-one years. That’s the number of years IF Paul was still alive, and I just blurted it out like our clock was still ticking, but it’s not. I was in my time machine. Our time is over. They say that time heals all wounds. In my experience, time heals nothing, but God does. Healing happens through faith and hard work.

He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. – Psalm 147:2

Indeed, He does. Malia