Don’t stay busy. It’s a trap.

First, a story.

The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope

There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.

She was busy all day going here and there around the town, and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the king would be pleased.

It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky. They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth, dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest breeze.

The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a potential disaster.

Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.

“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger because of her.

Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.

In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in all things. The End

Proverbs 137:1-2 By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

More about the Busy Trap

I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.

The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.

So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.

Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?

God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.

Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Trusting, Malia

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

Spring is here. Paul is not.

That gasping, gulping sound is me. Being pulled under. Again.

It’s been quite the week. In nearly 27 years of marriage, I had never been away from Paul for even three or four days, let alone months, or a year! It was also his birthday this week. He would have been 60 years old. His birthday is now a grief anniversary. John Pavlovitz talks about grief anniversaries in his latest blog here. My feelings about the passage of this first year without Paul are mixed. In a way, it seems like it went by so fast that it’s a blur but also like the longest year of my life. There were times that I didn’t think I would survive the first year, and now I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that the second year may be even harder than the first, and I just want to scream.

Initially, the grief did come in waves. More lately, I have found myself being ambushed by grief. I feel as if I am being stalked by grief. It’s waiting for me around every corner, creeping up on me. The tears come hot and fast, and full of anger. The works. Grief is not linear. It’s not a start-to-finish, straight course race. It’s a steeplechase with hurdles, jumps, thick hedges, and water obstacles. So I’ve had setback. It’s not the first one. That “I don’t want to do any of this” feeling is creeping in again. Thoughts press in uninvited. And the sadness is so heavy. It weighs me down. It’s like a train that just has to roll on through. I’m stuck at the crossing watching it rhythmically advance steadily by, and I’m not going anywhere. I find myself retreating more and more to the safety of the house, hibernating, being in the position of having to force myself, make myself get out and do things when all I really want to do is disappear. This is dangerous territory, and I know it.

I am fully aware that my perception is distorted. I know that, and yet that realization does not diminish the experience. I actually wish sometimes that I didn’t have this insight or awareness. The insight leads to frustration for me. It is maddening. Sometimes grief feels like madness.

I am not eating. I am not sleeping. I am not getting to work on time. My boss looks at me sideways but says nothing. I don’t like being late (we’re talking 5-10 minutes here folks), but I just can’t manage in the mornings most days. The struggle is REAL. I don’t know what to DO about it except throw my hands up and accept that I am a work in progress, and at the moment, this is the best I can do. I don’t know what to SAY except that my husband died a year ago, and this is what my life is like now. In the weeks immediately after Paul died, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to go back to work at all. I wasn’t sure I could do my job anymore.

Us.

Paul took care of me. We took care of each other. Some days, sometimes for stretches of weeks at a time, I’m not being very successful at taking care of myself. There’s good deal of research that looks at a lot of different causes, but reports seem to agree that there is about an 18% increase of mortality in widowhood. Yes, you read that right. We are a vulnerable population.

So, I have to go back. Go back to my Griefwork Toolbox and get down to business. When I get like this, my counselor always reminds me that I can recover. We’ve been here before. It can get better. We know it can get better. We know I’m capable because I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.

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