Requiem

*This is a difficult post that discusses addiction and suicide. Please be cautious about reading this material if you are sensitive to these topics.

Just one, short day after I wrote the grief-bomb post, a member of our extended family took her own life. Because I was immediately needed to support my loved ones, I found myself, unfortunately, in close proximity to the incident itself. I have registered the accompanying shock-waves like a seismograph as they have rolled through my emotional landscape. Shock, horror, disgust, anger, pity, indignation. Sadness. Sadness. Sadness. In the midst of this thick, hot stew of unreconciled emotions that have been difficult to manage because they don’t seem right to me, I struggled most with my feelings of anger. I felt ashamed and guilty for feeling angry with someone who was clearly hurting and in so much emotional pain that taking her own life seemed like the only solution. I asked myself, Where is my love? Where is my compassion? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel anything other than anger in this moment?. I prayed to God to remove what felt like heart of stone inside my chest.

I hesitated to write about this so soon as there are so many people surrounding this situation that are hurting so badly, and I want to be respectful and courteous. I am torn to pieces, but I can’t. I can’t not write about this. I know, grammar. Whatever. The impulse to write about this is overriding whatever polite sensitivities I might have. And you know what? Screw politeness. Being overly polite, keeping secrets, not talking about it is killing people. Literally!

Transparency saves lives.

So, here goes……She was a lovely person, so kind, so giving. She wanted to help everybody. She was a give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back kind of person. Her family loved her dearly. Her fiancé loved her dearly. She was positive and vibrant with a radiant smile. She had a generous heart. She grew up in a sweet, loving family, a family of five. She has a brother and a sister and many nieces, nephews, and cousins who enjoyed spending time with her. She was funny and adventurous, a free-spirit.

My own relationship with her was rocky at best, and I never really understood why. We were very, very different people. We were always cordial, but we had to agree to disagree on just about everything. I didn’t feel comfortable around her, but she was never anything but kind and welcoming. There was something about her that I could never quite put my finger on. I didn’t trust her, but I had no logical reason to feel that way and it confused me. I could never make sense of how uneasy I felt around her. Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense now. There was a part of her that was always hidden. She was in pain, but she hid it. She was depressed, but she hid it. She was battling addiction, but she hid it. The truth is I never really knew her at all. I never had the opportunity. Her life and mine didn’t intersect until she was in the final stages of depression and addiction. The addiction kept her true self locked inside a prison of stigma, shame, and fear. The version of her that I knew was altered by addiction and over-compensated for everything, and I think my codependent radar, engineered by my family’s own experience with addiction, was just constantly ringing the emotional alarm every time I was around her. My subconscious perceived her as dangerous and signaled my flight response. That leaves me with feelings of regret and heartache that I didn’t get to know her. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed, “Please forgive me for missed opportunities to reach out with kindness and compassion. I am so sorry that I couldn’t bridge the gap between us.”

This is perhaps what addiction is best at, best at making everyone surrounding it think that everything is okay so that it can continue to do its dirty work in secret. Concerned friends and family members are the greatest threat to addiction. They are addiction’s first targets to be eliminated at, unfortunately, any cost.

She was trying. She was trying to break free and had periods of sobriety. AA chips were here and there throughout the house. Stacked Bibles with copious amounts of handwritten notes are evidence that she was reading and studying God’s Word. She was trying. And she had won many a battle, but in a fraction of a second, the impulse to escape won the war. And that’s what it was. An impulse. There was no indicator that that day was different from any other. There were none of the typical behavior patterns leading up to a suicide. No plan. No note. Just a single impulsive moment that ended everything.

Several days ago, we celebrated her life at a memorial service. The service was very well done. It helped me reconcile those unresolved feelings of anger and guilt, feeling guilty about feeling so angry. Two of her nieces and a cousin spoke beautifully, tenderly, about how much she meant to them. Through them, I was able to get a glimpse of her before addiction and depression overtook her. Through them, God opened the eyes of my heart and restored my sense of compassion, replaced my heart of stone with a heart of love. As they shared precious memories of her in a time before I met her, I could see her happy and free. She was so precious to her family. Her love changed their lives for the better, made them the people they are today, and the loss of her will never be made whole in their lifetimes. And then something amazing and powerful happened.

Her sister spoke. Up until that point, everyone’s comments had been in the polite category, very proper and nicey-nice. Everyone had talked about how wonderful she was, how much they loved her, and how much she loved them. Her family loved her dearly, dearly. Her sister boldly affirmed everything everyone had said about her. She was indeed all of those things, beautiful, wonderful, caring, kind, loving, giving, compassionate, fun and adventurous, but she was also broken and in pain. Her sister openly talked about unhealthy choices. She again affirmed that all of those wonderful things about her sister were true and right and good, but it was also true that her sister suffered and struggled her entire life with depression, substance abuse, and maintaining her mental health.

She was suffering from depression and addiction, and she lost her life because of it. Her sister courageously called every elephant in the room by name, and then extended a life line to us all. “If you are hurting, if you are struggling with addiction or depression, we are here for you. The church is here for you. You are not alone. We are with you. Let us help you.” It was fantastic. It was beautiful. It was amazing. She was amazing. She spoke eloquently about how she could love her sister and her sister could be a loving person while, at the same time, her sister was at the mercy of addiction and mental illness. In a stunning moment of power and truth, her sister proclaimed that there’s no shame to this. There’s no stigma to this. She was a beautiful person who suffered and because she was in so much emotional pain she took steps to rid herself of the pain. She just called it all out but still had all this love and respect and honor for her sister. It.was.powerful. And I am thankful for her brave words spoken in understanding, compassion, and love.

In closing, this requiem, this final act or token of remembrance for her, is truly the least I can do. I only pray it could have been more.

Speak the truth in love, brothers and sisters. Transparency saves lives, Malia

Sweet Somethings in My Ear

Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.

Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:

It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.

The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.

A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of us.

“I truly believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)

It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.

Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.

One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.

Again from Paul….

February 18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit. Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue about dying sooner just to win!”

As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.

At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.

Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.

Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.

A child of God, the father to us all, 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 death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have readily available 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, a lock of hair, or is actually a finger print or the impression 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 our son and I 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, our son and I 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 him. Even unconscious, Paul 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. I think what I was really asking was why Paul had to suffer. I know now that to be human is to suffer. We are human. Suffering is the human condition. For the rest of my life, no matter what happens to me, no matter who I love or who loves me, in my last breaths, I will be in that hospital room with Paul in his last moments. I will see what I saw. I will hear what I heard. I will feel what I felt, and as brutal as that was, it was a privilege.

The palliative care team member I was speaking to 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 is the dying process. 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.

On 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 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 and 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 is she (am I) 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 grief 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

About Paul – About Us

On February 12, 2018, I took my husband, Paul, to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Three days later he was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma. Cancer. Rare and aggressive, and on March 18, he passed away. He was brave and strong and faithful to the end.

When I met Paul, I had just turned 18. He had just turned 30. Now, I know what you are thinking because it’s what everyone thought. But thirty years later, our relationship had endured and born fruit, real fruit in our precious son and spiritual fruit in our own lives, and, hopefully, also in the lives of others. So, in that way, one of the first things he taught me, or tried to teach me, was not to be sooooo concerned with what everyone else thought and to chart my own course, our own course. That lesson has served me well. When I met Paul, I had never been west of Atlanta. That was the second lesson. Get out there! Learn new things, have new experiences, enjoy the world! He certainly did. Whether it was gardening in his own back yard or exploring new places, we always enjoyed it more when we were together. He was interested in and fascinated by the world…nature, science, history, people, how things worked. One of our first great adventures together was white water rafting. It was a beautiful summer day in Tennessee. I was excited but also nervous, and by the time we were in the raft and heading for the rapids, I was more than nervous. I was scared. He looked over at me, and it must have been written all over my face because he nudged me and said “Hey, you’re ok. It’s fun!”, and it wasn’t long before I was having the time of my life.

When I was with Paul, I was always having the time of my life. That’s how he was. He made everything more fun. He lit up the room. He had the easiest smile, and holy smokes, those dimples! One day during our hospital stay, a nurse asked how we met. We were telling her how our story began, and she turned to me and said, “You must have been helpless!” and the truth is, I was helplessly in love with him. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. His family took me in, and loved me as their own. His friends took me in, and loved me as their own.

Paul had a generosity of spirit that belied the personal struggles he had endured. He was always so quick to offer encouragement to others. He encouraged me in everything. He gave himself to others so completely. He loved working with kids. He was patient and understanding and lifted others up. He even offered encouragement to his doctors particularly students and young residents. He was intuitive and perceptive, and he had a powerful gift for changing others’ perception of themselves. He had that ability, that amazing ability to make people feel better about themselves. WOW!

He had a quick wit. Cancer took everything from him, his very life, but it could not take his sense of humor. He retained that until the end. He often had his doctors and nurses smiling and laughing. He drew people to him. Doctors, nurses, and technicians came to his room “just to visit”. He was always so easy to be around. Near the end, he woke only briefly from time to time. It was on one of these occasions that he asked for our son, but he had gone home for just a little while to shower and change clothes. I told Paul that he wasn’t there, but he would be back soon and that he was “stuck with me” in the meantime. Paul said, “It could be worse.” I replied, “Yes, I suppose it could be worse.” Not missing a beat, he responded, “There could be two of you”, and smirked. That was Paul, flattering but always reeling you back in.

Paul was not afraid of dying. He was tired of the struggle, and he was ready. He was sad about leaving us. He was worried about how we would manage without him. His last piece of advice to me, the last thing he had to teach me was this… “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

Fred Rogers said, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.” And Paul certainly did that. Scott Hamilton, four time cancer survivor, said “We are designed for struggle. We’re better off. We are more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle much more than we are in our good fortune.” I have discovered that true healing has occurred when you can be thankful for the suffering, and I am thankful!