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

You did what?!

I jumped out of a plane. That’s right. I jumped out of a plane. I went skydiving!

To say that my friends and family were shocked is an understatement. The most common response was, “Why?!” It was a difficult question to answer. I am adventurous but not a thrill seeker. It was just this urge. That’s the best way I know to describe it. An urge, not an impulse. It was more lasting than that. I was talking to my son on the phone one evening, and I said, “You know what I want to do?” He immediately responded, “Go skydiving.” Dumbfounded, I said, “What! How did you know?!” “Because I want to, too” he admitted. I had no idea that he had also been thinking about it. As it turns out, it’s a bit of a phenomenon among people who have experienced a tremendous loss. When I told my sister-in-law that we were going to go skydiving, she said she had heard a story on NPR about something very similar. You can listen to the story here. It’s about a mother and daughter who go skydiving after the death of their husband and father.

Life is too short. Right? That’s what everyone says. Well, everyone says it because it’s true. Eat the cake. Buy the shoes. Seize the moment! Go skydiving! Heck, there’s even a country song by Tim McGraw that nails it. The refrain says it all.

“I went skydiving, I went rocky mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu, And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter, And I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’, And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’”

With everything I had just been through, I felt like there was nothing that could scare me anymore. I was ready to live like I was dying. My particular thought process was a) I will be closer to Paul and b) if something happens, I get to be with him forever. In my mind, it was a win-win. I want to clarify the first part. I didn’t feel I would be closer to Paul in the sense that I would be up in the sky where heaven is. That is a cultural depiction of heaven not a Biblical one. I felt that I would be closer to Paul because I would be closer to death. There. I said it. For me, jumping out of a plane was as close to death as I could be. I thought that perhaps in those seconds between leaving the plane and arriving back to Earth that I could pierce the veil between here and there and be with Paul just for a second. I thought it was worth the risk. Never before in my life would I have even considered doing such a thing, but in that state of mind, in the aftermath of such a stunning, life changing loss, it was worth the risk. I wasn’t even scared. I did have one fleeting millisecond of heart stopping anxiety when the instructor I was attached to opened the door of the airplane. He grabbed the door handle and pulled hard. In one single, confident motion, he slid the door open. The suction created by opening the door shot a jolt of electric terror through my body, but I still didn’t hesitate. I was ready to go. Ready to go. I stepped out onto the strut, and then we were effortlessly airborne.

Now, I realize that all of this is the madness of grief. I can write about it, explain it, and try to justify it to no end, but it really is the madness of grief. The surprise, the unexpected gift of the experience was that it was a little turning point for me, a moment of empowerment. It was a launch both literally and figuratively. I felt different after that day. I felt stronger. My family was there, and we celebrated with a champagne tailgate in the parking lot. We laughed and smiled and celebrated life and living. I will never forget that day as long as I live. As long as I live.

Soon, I will embark on another launch of sorts. I am going on a pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the Apostle, and I am going by myself. God put this on my heart. I have felt called to do this and to do it alone. As I have planned for this trip and read about the challenges it entails, there have been times when I have thought, “Lord, help me. I don’t even own enough underwear to go on a trip like this!”, but I am determined. I just know it is something I have to do. I am appropriately anxious, but I’m not scared. I am ready. This is an important piece here. Don’t miss this because I believe it has everything to do with grief and healing. A critical aspect of what I have learned through my grief experience is to be bold in the face of adversity. I have learned to lean in and develop a bit of a bring it attitude.

In his book, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, John Brierley reminds us that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, not the other way around. That really resonates with me. It comforts me because even though the human version of ourselves is temporary, our spiritual identities are eternal.

There are many Biblical references to walking. Some pretty amazing and powerful things have happened through the simple act of walking. Jesus’ ministry was a walking ministry. He and the disciples walked from town to town to spread the good news of salvation. The Apostle Paul’s conversion experience began with an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’m not necessarily expecting an encounter with the living God on this trip, but I am expecting to have time to reflect and contemplate, to draw closer to the One who loves me like no other. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 has been close to my heart this past year because I have walked by faith like never before and because it provides comfort as we groan and are burdened in our earthly tent that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit with us, our guarantee, and joyful assurance of our eternal home.

Safe travels to you on this journey through life, Malia

Church is so hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faithfully, Malia