How’s your vision? Mine’s 2020.

Life as we knew it…is.over. I know. It’s devastating, but maybe, just maybe, there is something new and different and wonderful ahead for us.

I mean who wants to return to normal? Not me. Not if normal means rampant consumerism, hateful speech and actions, and addictive, unhealthy behaviors involving social media. Let me be clear. There are more problems with the way people use social media than with social media itself. This is true of most all devices conceived by the heart and mind of man. No manmade object, contraption or contrivance is inherently harmful or dangerous. How we use them, what we do with them, makes them so.

Folks, it’s time for us to leave normal behind. I am done with normal. I am sick of it. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s time for us to grow and mature as a people and as a country, to eat the solid food of patience and wisdom, to remove our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts that love fully and robustly. It’s time for us to move beyond our infancy as a nation, as a society, as a race; the human race.

If you’ve ever wondered where I land politically, economically, philosophically, or otherwise, that’s as much as you are going to get in the context of this blog.

The truth is that until we all collectively accept the death of Normal and grieve the death of Normal, we are not going to get to the good stuff. And, yes, I realize that I am communicating my truth so, as always, you have the option to continue reading…or not.

Now, what is the good stuff you say? The good stuff is what comes after; after the struggle, after the hurt, after the pain.

Don’t believe me? The reality of this is etched in the layers of the earth itself. Proof of it is written into all of creation and played out over and over again throughout history from the small, personal moments between humans to the huge swaths of sweeping movements across recorded time.

It’s in the sunshine after the storm. It’s in the small patches of flowers boldly growing in a field of long-cooled lava. It’s in the desert blooms after the rain. It’s in the tender, green shoot emerging from a tree stump. It’s the baby boom after World War II.

It’s the widow making her way in the world, no, even thriving, after the death of her beloved husband.

It’s the rise. After the fall.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something my husband said to me in the days just after his diagnosis when we were all struggling to fathom the reality of our lives without us being us. We were like sonographers sounding the ocean depths trying to measure the seemingly unmeasurable, waiting for the return echo that would signal that we were not dangling over a bottomless pit.

What my husband said came in the context of a collection of other things Paul felt like he needed to tell me regarding what to do and how to be after he was gone. The conversation was like a bundle of kindling to spark and light the way to my future. One particular remark, that has perplexed me so, came on the heels of his now famous advice for me to make some friends.

Paul said, “You can be free.”

I have really struggled with that. It has confused me and worried me. I didn’t know what he meant then, and I’m still not entirely sure I now know what he meant. At the time, I said, “Stop it”, protesting the insinuation that I was somehow the opposite of free or burdened in some way. I was also frankly a little hurt that he might think of me that way, that he might think I felt that way, or perhaps I was convicted of any inadvertent behavior that may have caused him to even think that I felt that way. It pricked my heart like being handed an exquisite rose with an equally exquisite thorn.

I have tried for quite some time to wrestle the meaning out of those words, you can be free. Maybe he just knew that I might never become fully myself unless in his absence. And, in truth, I have indeed discovered things about my self that I would not have known within the context of our relationship just as I had discovered things about myself during our relationship that I would never have learned otherwise.

My family has been my life’s work. Paul knew there were many things I had not allowed for myself because they would take away from my mission to give every last nth of myself to the people that I loved and loved me. That is, after all, agape love; sacrificial love. And I don’t regret it for a second.

But there’s more to it than that.

Caregiver is coded in my DNA, and I love that. It gives me purpose. I show love through service. But it is also a disorder that developed as the result of the death of my mother. I developed a knee-jerk, emotional coping mechanism, a child’s false logic that goes something like this, if I’m good enough, I can prevent this from happening again. If take care of the ones I love well enough, nothing will ever happen to them.

It led to a pattern of me taking too much responsibility for everyone and everything.

I vividly recall a late night, phone conversation with our son. This was many years ago now. He was in college and struggling a bit with the adjustments of living on his own. Paul and I listened as our son shared what was going on and after a quiet pause, I said almost hesitantly, “What if. What if you took care of yourself as well as Daddy and I have taken care of you?” Stunned silence from the other end. I may have heard a gulp. I don’t recall the exact response, but our son basically said he could not even wrap his head around that, couldn’t imagine what that would be like. But over time, he has learned to do just that.

So there I was back in the spring on COVID lockdown and struggling to adjust to life on my own, and I turned the question on myself. What if. What if I took care of myself as well as I have taken care of others my entire life? What if I turned all that effort and energy to me? Holy moly.

So now. Now I am loving my own self with the same kind of purpose and service. This. This is what Paul meant, what he wanted for me, to be free to grow myself in the ways I have poured effort and energy into others that I have loved and cared about for my entire life. After very nearly now 50 years, I am turning all of that effort and energy on to me.

Taking care of myself to the level that I have always taken care of others has been transformative. I have nurtured my self and grown my self, mind, body, and spirit, through exercise, reading, writing, counseling, nutrition, swimming, yoga, running, playing, plenty of sunshine, walking, rest, time for thought and prayer, time with friends and family, laughter and tears, challenge and ease, all of the good things a person needs to grow healthy and strong….and free.

I am free of (most!) of my own self-imposed limitations. Free from the constraints and expectations I’ve placed on myself. Free from a false logic, a false narrative of responsibility that held me captive. Free from the cage that is the either-or mindset, and free to embrace both-and instead because my heart is no longer the shallow well of self-reliance, where there is never enough to go around, where effort and energy must be conserved and rationed, where either-or decisions rule the day. My heart is instead the constantly renewed and refreshed deep well of faith so that I can be the fullest expression of myself and have more than enough left over to fully love others. Can you feel the ground shaking? Because I do.

I haven’t shared this next part with any of my friends or family. They may wonder why. All I know is that some things are easier to write than say. Or maybe. Maybe God has asked me to hang on to this for 37 years, 8 months, and 7 days until today because you, dearest, are the one who needs to know it.

When I laid down to go to bed on the night of the day my mother died, I went toe-to-toe with God for the first time. My relationship with God had gotten personal. He had reached his hand into my life and taken something precious from me. I felt I had at least earned the right to ask for something in return. I recognize the spiritual immaturity in this now, of course, but as a young girl, trying to make sense of the senseless, well, I was doing the best I could with my limited understanding, and God, God was as He always is, full of grace.

In the quiet of my room, in the stillness of the night, I met God as Jacob did at the ford of the Jabbok River. There were windows above my bed. It was a cold, clear night. I gripped the top of the headboard and pulled myself up to the sill to peer through the window and saw a sky full of stars. The room was flooded with moonlight, and I was flooded with a river of tears. I cried, begged, and pleaded with God as I prayed, “Lord, please take me, too. I don’t want to wake up in the morning. Just please, please let me die during the night. Please.”

I had my answer when, well, I woke up the next morning. I wasn’t exactly angry as one might imagine. I was disappointed; defeated, hurt and wounded that God had taken so much from me and would not allow me this one request as consolation. I didn’t understand yet that God had indeed allowed my request. It took years for me to realize that God had given me exactly what I asked for. I had, in fact, died and awoken to an entirely new existence. In the same way that I have had to mourn the girl I was, I have also had to mourn the loss of the woman I became in the presence of my husband, in the context of that relationship, because she also died….and awoke to an entirely new existence.

In this life, we die many deaths. Grieving is not something we do only at the end of a life. Grieving is a cyclical part of our emotional climate, our human and spiritual nature, because loss is a fundamental life experience for us all.

Nowadays, it’s like waking up every morning and strapping on a pair of wings. My flight is erratic. I sputter. I flap ridiculously. I wobble. I soar too high and crash. I crash. And when I crash, I laugh. I laugh, and I think, “Good. This is good for me”, and I am thankful for the experience; the hurt, the disappointment, the embarrassment, the knowledge, and the wisdom.

Some days all I do is flap all day long not even getting so much as my big toe off the ground, ending my day completely spent with nothing to show for it. Well, almost nothing. You see on days like that it’s not about flight at all. It’s about strength and getting stronger. All that flapping builds strength. Soaring and gliding does not build strength, flapping does. Hooray.for.flapping. And for looking ridiculous doing it. I’m ok with all of it.

I had a dream recently. I was outside. It was early morning. The sun was up, steadily climbing and warming, but it was still low in the sky, just beginning the long arc of the day. I had the sense that I had been there in that spot for a while, legs crossed, calm and peaceful, light breeze, head tilted toward the horizon, watching the sunrise, but I was oddly expecting something more. I was waiting. And then. Then, a second sun arrived on the horizon and, via time lapse as if racing to catch up with the first sun, took its place in the sky; the same size and shape, but the glow was different. This second sun was golden and fuzzy around the edges like a peach where the first sun had become white hot and the edges were quick. I could no longer look directly at it. It had risen above those protective layers of the atmosphere through which one can safely view our star without wincing.

This dream. I knew I was dreaming but actively chose to stay in the dream to see what happened next. It actually didn’t feel like a dream at all. It felt like a vision, like someone had something to show me. I wasn’t even surprised to see that second sun rising in the sky. It felt like a long awaited something had finally arrived. I smiled, closed my eyes, breathed in the glorious warmth, and felt my skin like a sponge soaking in the life bringing light. And my whole body reverberated, “Ahhhhhhhhhhh.”

I am choosing not to pull at the threads of this dream. I wouldn’t dare. Instead I will treat it with the reverence it’s due. I don’t want to know its roots, its origin, its pieces and parts. I don’t want to see the trees this time, only the forest. I just want to sit with it, enjoy it, accept it with gratitude as if a gift had just been handed to me.

Time to rise, my friends, Malia

Anndddd….she’s back!

It’s been six months to the day since my last post. And now. Now my fingers are on fire! So, get ready because I’m back, baby!

And, yes, the sassometer (Hint! Rhymes with thermometer) is at full tilt these days. You know, sassometers. They measure one’s level of good ol’, Southern gumption. If you are one of my far flung readers, you might not be familiar with that word, gumption. It means shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness, and it describes my current mood, oh, so, precisely. When I mentioned to my son that this post was about to go live and that it was ‘full of sass’, he responded, “Aren’t they all?” Indeed!

And, because once an educator, always an educator, this blog post is officially sponsored by the letter G.

G is for grateful.

I am practicing gratitude like it’s going out of style, and as far as I can tell from the world today, it seems like it actually is going out of style.

Gratitude is the cure for what ails. That may sound naïve or even a little tone deaf given some of the circumstances that people are living through right now, but….have you tried it? By all means, don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. There are a million ways to practice gratitude. Pick one, and try it. Honestly, if I didn’t start each and every day telling God what I’m thankful for, I don’t know what would become of me. Some days are harder to be grateful for than others. Some days I am really reaching, grasping, because the world is weighing so heavily upon me, but there is always something to be thankful for. Sometimes I even thank God for the pain I’m feeling. Yep.

In giving thanks, my mind and heart almost always return to Psalm 95, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and show ourselves glad in him with psalms” and Psalm 100:4, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

G is for grieving.

Transporters (science fiction style) are real. I can be anywhere doing anything and with no obvious trigger and very little warning be beamed into another space and time.

On one of these trauma trips, I suddenly found myself in Paul’s hospital room. I openly, loudly, without regard, hesitation, or regret begged God for death to come and come quickly. Paul’s body was beyond help, beyond hope, but his spirit was not. (Nor is ours!) And then, he was gone. Less than a minute. Less than 5 minutes. 10 minutes. 20. He was still soft, warm. I smoothed his hair. Kissed his cheek. Cupped the corners of his jaw in my hands, placed my thumbs in the places where his dimples had carved out the most beautiful divots in his face. I.am.there. I can feel the warmth of his body beneath my open palms. The scruff of his beard against my lips and cheek. I breathe in trying to capture, retain the essence of him. I breathe out.

Sometimes that moment feels like so long ago. Other times it feels like I’ve just stepped out of his hospital room for the last time.

So, yes, I am still grieving.

Y’all have to understand. I am still shocked that I wake up every morning. I’m surprised every day to find that I am still here, that the sun still rises, that the world still turns. I mean, how in the hell is that even possible? It is the grief mindset. And I often wonder if it’s permanent, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it give me perspective, some level of awareness that others do not possess? Some level of awe and appreciation for each and every day? Or will I wake up one day and go, “Ohhhh, now I get it. Life goes on.”

I hope not. I love that I live in a state of awe and wonder at the miracle, the gift, that is life. I just don’t like what I had to go through in order to achieve that state of being.

G is for growing.

I am so different now. I have changed. I am physiologically not the person I was before Paul died. I am different. I think different. Every day I catch myself thinking very differently about things than I would have in the past.

I had a conversation with someone recently, a colleague, about perspective and what it takes to achieve it. What does it take to achieve next-level social and emotional self-awareness? What does it take to wake up? Does it take a tragedy? A significant loss of some kind? I don’t know. I really hope not, but I do think that it points to the purpose of struggle in our lives and, folks, we all struggle.

As the Oak, So I

A large oak stands sentry in my front yard. As the seasons have changed, I’ve noticed that the oak sheds its leaves a little differently than other trees. While other trees drop all of their leaves at once and are rendered completely bare, left to stand naked against the fall and winter sky, the oak retains its old leaves, crisp and brown, until they are literally pushed off the branches by new leaves, new growth. So, too, my new growth is taking the place of what was once useful and productive but no longer serves me and now falls away to be replaced by something new, something fresh.

I’m loving what I’m learning about life and others as I move forward. I recently cleared a pretty big hurdle as I moved from a state of equilibrium in my life to disequilibrium.  I’m getting it right sometimes, but I’m making lots of mistakes, too, as I’m forming and navigating new relationships, negotiating and balancing my needs with the needs of others, honoring where they are in their own processes. Having been in a stable relationship for so long has made some of those skills a little rusty for me so I’m working at it every day.

G is for grace.

That smile on my face? It’s all about His grace.

I often get asked “how I do it”. Where does the strength come from, the resiliency to endure, heck, even thrive in the face of such difficult losses. Sometimes I even sense a little bewilderment if not outright irritation from others. The vibe is ‘What’s she so happy about? What’s she got to smile about? Doesn’t she know we’re in the middle of pandemic?’

Then, there’s the opposite of that reaction in which people assume that because they see me smiling, it means everything is going along perfectly. Not! These are trying times. There are challenges around every corner, let downs and disappointments, miscommunications, misunderstandings, and down-right attacks filled with the arrows and spearheads of hurtful words and actions.

Then, there’s this. I spent all of July down and out with COVID. Yep.

And my work has been disrupted just like so many others. I work in education so I’m pretty sure that I can just leave that right here and let your own imagination, dear reader, do the rest about what that experience has been like. It’s no secret that schools have had a hard time meeting the needs of students, parents, and teachers. I am proud of my colleagues, my school, and my district. We are working harder than ever before and providing students and their families with the best that we have to offer, but it is terrifying and insanely difficult every day.

Half the time I only get half a night’s sleep. I’m up pacing the house while my dogs peacefully snooze the night away only occasionally lifting one eye to make sure I’m not actually going anywhere. Sometimes I cry myself back to sleep, or sometimes I stand at an open window and breathe in the stillness of the night contemplating the nature of the universe. Quiet street. Bright moon. Light breeze and leaves in flight as they are finally released from the trees’ branchy grip, punctuated by the soft *tink* of acorns hitting the roof, front walk, driveway, or street below. Insects sing their buzzy lullaby and owls shoo-shoo me back to bed, back to sleep.

I’m not the only one though who manages to face the storms of life with a tenacity of spirit. Some of our nearest and dearest have suffered stunning losses. I see their strength, their resilience, and I know where it comes from. I want you to know it, too. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord. My faith is my source of strength, my source of peace.

G is for glowing.

I’ve had lots of ups and downs these last six months. But this picture pretty much says it all about where I am right now. (Funny how no one takes and posts a picture of themselves when they are ugly-crying, ha!)

G is for the big Guy upstairs.

The OG. The original, Father God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” I have been working really hard lately on achieving stillness; stillness in body, mind, and spirit. It’s not easy. My heart is often troubled, my mind is often addled, and my spirit has always had a tendency to be restless. But I am trying.

I recently came across the full, original version of the Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr. You probably know the first part by heart as so many people do, but maybe like me you were unaware of the rest of it. It’s so appropriate for the times we are living in today.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

So here I am. Living life in the moment. Yesterday is done. Tomorrow is not promised. I’m making the best use of the dance floor that is my kitchen for morning and sometimes late night dance jams. I am not perfect. I am, in fact, very far from it, but I do serve a perfect God.

From Jeremiah 6:16, “This is what the Lord says:  Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

I’m standing at the crossroads. Won’t you, please, join me? Malia

Yes, I’m still here, and thankful to be so.

It’s been hard to write. My thoughts are so scattered, and most of my energy has been poured into coping strategies for managing this upended world in which we find ourselves. Like so many of you, I am sheltering-in-place at home, working remotely, going out only to shop for groceries once a week or so.

I am an introvert so being alone is normally my comfort zone, but this. This is more than a respite for introverts. This is isolation, and it’s hard. Yes, as an introvert, I have always needed downtime, alone-time, to recharge my batteries, but this prolonged isolation is unbalanced, unhealthy. So, while we have been physically distanced, I have strived to remain socially connected with texts, phone calls, video chats, and 6-foot conversations in the neighborhood or on the local walking trail. Still, it’s not enough.

If routine was important to me before, and it was, routine has now been elevated to ritual. I am growing concerned about how structure can too easily become stricture, but for now, I need it. I need it to stay sane.

Regression. There’s been some of that, too. This is an emotional landscape that I am familiar with but had moved on from; the anxiety of leaving the house, the panicky feeling pulling out the neighborhood, the flight response at the store.

I’ve had some more grief dreams. They seem to crop up more when I’m not intentional about processing feelings on the regular.

In one dream, Paul and I were in our “home town” where we lived for twelve years, but we were leaving. We said we would visit on weekends and during the summer. When I woke, I was disoriented. Then, I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I’m by myself now. We’ll never go back there together.”

One day, I fell asleep on the couch. As I was waking, I heard Paul on the stairs. I called out to him, “Honey, will you get my eye drops, please?” Yeah. I actually said it out loud before I caught myself.

I’ve had anxiety dreams, too, where the roof is leaking or I’m chasing fire. Yes, chasing flames and trying to catch them in my hands, but they keep slipping through my fingers. I keep trying to grab them, but I can’t.

I’m also having recurring dreams about the television show Lost, particularly the portion of the show where we are introduced to the character, Desmond, who lives alone in the underground bunker, the guy who has to push a button every so many hours or something terrible happens.

BUT! There has also been progress. Check this out!

Yep! I’ve been able to focus on healthy food habits; shopping, eating…and cooking! As in cooking just for me. This.is.huge. For the first time since Paul died, I can honestly say that I am doing a good job of taking care of myself. This feels like a major shift for me. It feels like I’ve moved past something, not like anything is behind me, but more like I’ve cleared an important hurdle.

So, now what? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably because the isolation of being home alone and physically distanced from others has been extreme. I can clearly see now that I am so very capable of managing on my own and could do so for as long as I want…but is that what I want? Ohhh, now there’s a question! It’s the first time it’s even occurred to me to ask myself if that’s what I want, and if that’s not what I want, if I don’t want to be on my own, what then?

As usual, I have no idea what comes next, but I am so grateful for how far I’ve come in this grief and healing process. Making gratitude a continuous practice and staying focused on connecting, learning, and growing have made all the difference. Despite all the uncertainty in the world right now, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m going to be ok. Come what may. I’m going to be ok.

Here’s our quarantine, porch picture for posterity; surrounded by my fur-children, my constant companions, badly in need of a day at the salon, no make up. Just me. Smiling and grateful for the Lord’s provision, for the struggles that have made me stronger, and looking forward to what’s next.

Be safe and stay well, my friends, Malia

It’s New Year’s Day, and I’m calling it quits.

This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.

“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Farjeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.

Here are the lyrics. My guess is that you are already humming the tune.

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven
Like the first dew fall on the first grass
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God’s recreation of the new day

Morning has broken like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird
Praise for the singing
Praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the world

***

Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.

I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.

Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.

Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.

When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?

Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.

So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”

Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying:  What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.

The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.

I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.

Mourning has broken. Mine is the morning! Malia

The good, the bad, and the ugly. This post has it all!

Well, the seasons have changed again, and Paul is still not here. I’m beginning to think he might not be coming back.

I know how this sounds, but every day when I wake up, I am a little stunned that he’s still not here. You know when you’re waiting on someone, and they are obviously running late, but they haven’t called or texted? You’re watching the time, and it’s getting later and later and later. The tension and irritation grows as the minutes pass. There might even be a sound that goes with it like Ugh, Grrrrrrrr, or a T-sk sound created by the slightest suction of the tongue pulling against the back of the front teeth. Mm-mm. You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I get irritable like this without even realizing it. It sneaks up on me. I think to myself, “Why am I feeling so grouchy today?” Oh, yeah, it’s because my husband died <insert eye-rolling emoji AND sarcasm>.

It’s really the residue of what was once outright anger. It’s a side-effect of grieving, and it usually means I need to stop, breathe, and practice some mindfulness and gratitude.

Here are some other side-effects I’ve noticed. Honestly, these should be printed somewhere in a similar fashion to the little insert of indications and warnings that goes along with a new prescription. Maybe they could give them out at funeral homes? Anyhoo, here is your official side-effects pamphlet for living with grief.

  1. Nothing seems scary anymore…and that’s, well, a little scary. Seriously, I’m scared that nothing scares me. I’m desensitized. As in, “Oh, a hurricane might blow the house down? Well, ok. Hot lava flowing down the hillside? Eh, I’ll be fine. I have basal cell carcinoma? No problem. Let’s get on with it. Intensive reconstructive surgery on my face? I got this. Nah, no problem. I’ll drive my own self home.” Yeah, my react-o-meter ain’t workin’. Sometimes I am just expressionless, and that’s saying a lot because I’ve never been a particularly expressive person to start with. The Stoics would be proud of me as I am currently the poster child for their movement.
  2. A weird sense of death-humor. It’s hard for me to describe this, but some things about death and dying and life in the aftermath are just so absurd that they are, well, funny. If I wasn’t laughing, I’d be crying? The day of Paul’s visitation at the funeral home was his birthday. Yes, he died just days before his 59th birthday. So, what are you gonna do, right? Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I served cake. At his visitation. At the funeral home. Balloons, too. See what I mean? Death-humor. In this case, I think the humor is a way to reclaim some of death’s power to rule our emotions. Renowned science-fiction author, Robert A. Heinlein, wrote this, “Death isn’t funny. ‘Then why are there so many jokes about death?’ Jill, with us – us humans – death is so sad that we must laugh at it.”
  3. The misguided conception that I am now somehow entitled to a free pass from any more trauma or loss. I’m just going to leave this here because we all know this isn’t true, but after a tremendous loss, I have found it all too easy to fall into the “I don’t deserve this” trap which is born out of that false sense of entitlement. For help with this, I look to Job, perhaps the most famous suffer-er of all. How did he handle it? Let’s see….
    • Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and there came a messenger to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The fire of God fell from the heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “The Chaldeans formed three groups and made a raid on the camels and took them and struck down the servants with the edge of the sword, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” While he was yet speaking, there came another and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then, Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
  4. The instinct to shoot back when people are being (in my judgment) petty. I want to spit out, “Sit with me and our only son at the bedside and watch the love, the only love of your life brutally gasp for air, and then come talk to me.” I know this comes from a place of unresolved trauma, sadness, and anger, and it is my issue not theirs. We can never, should never, judge or invalidate what others are going through based on a comparison to our own journey, and I have to remind myself of that (too) frequently. It signals the need for a gut check, a heart check, a spirit check. I always feel guilty after these little impulses, and I take it as a red flag that the counselor and I have some more work to do.
  5. A persistent problem with pronouns. We, our, us, ours. I use all of those to refer to myself. Other people evidently have this same pronoun problem as I am often referred to as “y’all”. I still say “my husband” instead of “my late husband”. I still say “my in-laws” instead of saying “my former in-laws”. I still refer to my son as “our son”. He is OUR son, but it’s awkward when I say “our son” and I’m the only parent present in the conversation. I mean, it’s a little thing, right? This pronoun problem. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things? No, certainly not. But it is bothersome. It’s another reminder of a life I no longer live. Sometimes it’s a jolt in an otherwise smooth day. It also makes me question my progress. I grow impatient with myself when I make these little, lingual slips of the tongue. Have I really come as far as I think I have? Shouldn’t I be past this? Sometimes I correct myself mid-conversation, but that can be embarrassing. Sometimes, I don’t have the emotional strength to correct myself so I just go with it.

So, I guess about now in your post-reading progress you are thinking this girl better get to the good in this good, bad, and ugly combo. Sheesh!

Someone I love recently commented on how I’ve “come out of my shell” since Paul passed away, how I’ve “blossomed”. These comments really got me thinking. What is this “shell” that I was tucked inside, carrying around? What do shells do? They protect. What is a flower before it becomes a blossom? A bud. Buds, too, are covered, tightly wrapped, in a protective shell, or sepals, while they receive all the nutrients they will need to finally bloom, the flower ultimately becoming so full that it breaks the protective shell because it’s impossible to contain the flower. It must bloom. Some flowers go from bud to bloom in mere days, others take years. Someone else I also love but don’t get to spend enough time with commented on my “depth”. I mean I certainly realize that I have grown, changed, but I think the heart of these comments about just how much I’ve grown and changed are very close to a truth about the relationship I had with Paul and even more so about a fundamental characteristic of myself that may need some examination as I move forward. I am, by nature, a nurturer, a caregiver. My devotion to my husband and my family was complete and utter. I believe it’s also why I excel in my profession as a teacher. I have a tendency to fully invest myself in the betterment of others, commit completely to their growth and improvement, sometimes to my own detriment. Paul was an empath. It left him vulnerable to the tumultuous emotional lives of others. The hurts hurt him more. The aggression and violence present in the world often overwhelmed him. He needed, no, he took, a great deal of care. These days, I am fully invested in myself. Allowing for myself what I have always poured into others. I am discovering that no one is neglected or diminished in this process. In fact, I *think* my growth has inspired, encouraged, and empowered others, and that’s a win-win!

The View from Here

Back in the summer, my pastor relayed a fantastic story about perspective. It echoes in my ears and heart every time I’m having a perspective moment, a moment in life that forces me to see things in a different light and consider my place in the larger picture. I must have reflected on the story 100 times between then and now. It revolves around Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Jerome painted by Filippino Lippi in the 15th century. The painting was long valued for its content by some, the artist’s use of color and brushstroke by others, but throughout history, critics have agreed that the perspective was poorly executed. The background looks as if the hills, rocks, and trees might topple out of the painting. The saints’ stature looks awkward and lurching. Then, 600 years later, along comes art historian Robert Cumming. He was studying the painting and thought that perhaps it was not the painter’s perspective was wrong. Perhaps it was our perspective that needed correction. Lippi had created the painting as an aid to prayer. It was never meant to be viewed from a standing position. It was meant to be viewed from a position of prayer, by one who is kneeling.

***

I recently watched an interview that sparked a moment to once again stop and consider perspective. Anderson Cooper was interviewing Stephen Colbert. Neither man is a stranger to grief and grieving but what struck me was Stephen’s realization that he was “grateful for that which I wish had not happened” and his rhetorical question, “What punishments of God are not gifts?” Now, that’s perspective, and reminiscent of another griever I know who said…“Though he slay me, I will hope in him…” Job 13:15

Growing and blooming, Malia

Message in a Bottle

More than a year ago, my son sent me an audio file of a phone conversation he had with his father about a week or so into his dad’s diagnosis. He sent the audio file to my phone, but I never listened to it…..until today. My phone was trying to download an update but couldn’t. The error message said I needed to review some large attachments in order to clear out some space for the new update. I was dutifully reviewing the files and deleting, and there it was. A modern day message in a (digital) bottle washed up on my emotional shore.

My husband and our son talked for about 12 minutes mainly about his diagnosis and the amount of time he had left. At the time, I was struggling to make sense of his diagnosis and our treatment options. I was desperate for anything that would give us some more time. My husband was concerned that I was not fully in touch with the situation, that I was in denial about how much time he had left. He was partially correct. I thought he might have months left to live. In actuality, he only had weeks. He knew it. I think I knew it, too, but couldn’t fully accept it. Recently, I have been feeling like I am once again at that same crossroads, the cosmic, cognitive space where the paths of acceptance and denial intersect. There is something that’s been tugging at my heart, something that I know, but I can’t seem to see my way clear to fully accepting where this grief process goes next.

My son and I were talking about this and he said, “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what you are capable of, and I don’t want you to get stuck in grief.” Uh-oh. An arrow straight to my heart. A ripple of panic through my body.

In a recent comment conversation with a fellow blogger, I admitted, “Breaking through is a good way to describe what I feel like needs to happen next, but I really question whether I have the mettle necessary. I am reminded of days on the farm when I was warned by adults not to help the baby chicks as they struggled to emerge from the shell. I felt so sorry for them. I wanted to help so badly. Just a little bit! But, no, I was told that if they were not strong enough to emerge from the shell, they would not be strong enough to survive to adulthood. Yes, indeed.”

Well, folks, leave it to my husband to tell it like it is. In my digital message in a bottle, Paul said….

“Mom’s been a trooper. She’s just…like I said…I appreciate you talking to her because she needed to…she needed to hear it, and from you, and, and realize that, yeah, it’s time, as much as all of us hate to do it, move on. It’s time to move on. She’s only going to listen to me…and you.”

Holy smokes…..that message was recorded in February 2018, given to me over a year ago, and heard for the first time by me today. Amazing. Now, I have no idea what moving on looks like, but I heard my husband loud and clear. I have done my best to love, honor, and obey him in all things. This next chapter can’t and won’t be any different.

People say that time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t. God does. Reading His Word has taught me the truth about grief and healing, and I am standing on His promises. Paul was a gift to me, and I am grateful. My cup is full and overflowing with precious memories, and I rejoice in them. I will continue to use my experience with grief to tell others about God’s Grace in my life. I consider it a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God has comforted me and still has more work for me to do. I know this because He is daily equipping me for the task.

In their book Grieving with Hope, Samuel J. Hodges IV and Kathy Leonard warn that choosing to remain stuck in your ways will result in grief becoming your identity. Yikes. No, thank you.

The Bible also provides an appropriate warning in Isaiah 17:5-8, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord.  They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope and no future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green and they never stop producing fruit.’” Yes, thank you, because being a stunted shrub sounds like no fun at all.

Moving on with hope, joy, and peace in the midst of my grief, Malia

Hi, I’m Malia, and I am happy to be here. Really. I am!

There was a time, though, when that wasn’t true. I didn’t even realize it myself until one night last year about 4 or 5 months after Paul passed away. I was at a family member’s house until late into the evening. Around midnight, I headed home, about 14 miles away. It was a Saturday. The city was quiet. The roads were all but vacant. I hardly passed any other cars the entire way. I confess that I was lost in thought, not distracted really, but my brain was certainly on auto pilot. I was stopped at a red light less than a mile from the house. The light turned green. I entered the intersection making a left hand turn. Then, in the middle of the intersection, I was side swiped by a drunk driver who then sped off, swerving down the road. I never saw or heard him coming. There was no reaction at all on my part. It was over before I even knew it happened.

I was fine, and there wasn’t so much damage to the car that I couldn’t drive it home so I did. I wasn’t upset, not even a little rattled. I was cool as a cucumber. Does that seem like a normal reaction to just being hit by a drunk driver? Is it normal for someone to just shrug their shoulders and say “M-eh” and just continue on their merry way? I think not. I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even call the police. I just drove home and went to bed. Yes, really. Can you believe that? What was I thinking? I wasn’t, just more proof positive of the cognitive impairment imposed by grief. Was it a case of shock? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Was I stunned, or did I really just not care? Looking back, I have to be honest and say I’m not sure. But slowly, what had transpired began to sink in, the full weight of the catastrophe avoided began to fall heavier and heavier on me until my conscience had to wake up and push back before it crushed me.

The next morning, the air began to clear like the water in a just shaken snow globe as the white, sparkly flakes make their way to the bottom. I could see the whole scene. The scales had fallen from my eyes. I got up, dressed, and went to church where I shared the experience with some church members and the responses were exactly what you would expect, “Well, thank God you’re okay” and “It could’ve been a lot worse”. Then, this happened. On hearing about it, one of my dear friends rushed over to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and with a big grin and excited giggle bordering on an outburst of laughter, jubilation really, said, “Oh! I just heard what happened! I’m so glad you’re here!” I caught her meaning instantly. She wasn’t just glad I was at church. She was glad I was still here in this world. She took my face in her hands and pulled me into her shoulder throwing her arms around me, wrapping me in love. I fell heavy into her embrace and said, “So am I”, and for the first time since Paul died, I realized I actually meant it. I was glad to be alive. The smile on my face said it all. I was beaming and was surprised to hear myself say, “I’m so glad to be here, too. I really am.

Prior to this incident, I was not glad to be alive at all. In fact, to be blunt, I was pretty pissed about it. I considered myself left behind, stuck here without Paul. I didn’t have survivor’s guilt. I had survivor’s remorse. Grief sometimes feels like you are caught between worlds, a quasi-purgatory if you will, alive but not living. Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I did want to die. I prayed God would send a Holy-Uber to pick me up and take me to heaven. What. He did it for Elijah. Why not me, right?

In The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, biographer Susan Page recounts the young Barbara Bush’s struggle to cope with loss and depression. Page says of Mrs. Bush that she would frequently have the urge to plow her car into a tree or pull into the path of an oncoming car. She would actually have to pull over and wait for the urge to pass. Mrs. Bush dealt with this by volunteering at a local hospice center. She said the lesson was that if you hit a rough patch, find someone who’s hit a rougher patch and help them. It will help you. I whole-heartedly agree. I have lived those exact moments, felt those same urges, and have been helped by helping others.

Moving forward from that day, I dedicated myself to living fully, seeking the Lord’s will for the time He has given me, practicing gratitude, and doing whatever I could to help others along the way by using the gifts God has provided me. This, shared by my pastor, is now in my daily prayer arsenal. It was written by Thomas Ken over 300 years ago and yet is perfectly relevant today.

A Prayer to Begin the Day

‘Blessed be Thy Name, O Lord God, Who hast set before me life and death, and hast bid me choose life. Behold, Lord, I do with all my heart choose life; I choose Thee, O my God, for Thou art my life. Save, Lord, and hear me, O King of heaven, and accept my sacrifice, even the sacrifice of my whole heart, which I now give Thee. O my God, I offer Thee my senses and passions, and all my faculties; I offer Thee all my desires, all my designs, all my studies, all my endeavours, all the remainder of my life; all that I have, or am, I offer up all entirely to Thy service. Lord, sanctify me wholly, that my whole spirit, soul, and body may become Thy temple. O do Thou dwell in me, and be Thou my God, and I will be Thy servant.’

–Frederick B. Macnutt, The prayer manual for private devotions or public use on divers occasions: Compiled from all sources ancient, medieval, and modern (A.R. Mowbray, 1951)

And, this, from Deuteronomy 30:11-20 The Offer of Life or Death, also equally relevant today, “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (all emphasis mine)

***

In a previous post, I mentioned that my counselor saved my life, and that we would get into it later. Well, later is now. My counselor saved my life by keeping me safe when my life was in danger. During that time immediately after Paul’s death when I was extremely vulnerable, unstable even, her care and guidance kept me from letting go, kept me from giving up, kept my feet firmly planted on the precipice that is grief. And it is just that, a precipice. In the early days following a loss, the grieving person’s safety must be the top priority.

So, I have a checklist for how to choose a counselor. I hope this is helpful because I know that finding the right counselor can be a real challenge at a time when we are not fully equipped to think clearly through such a decision making process. I also know that people’s encounters with counseling are a mixed bag, hit or miss, very positive or a complete disaster. That, unfortunately, can have the effect of convincing people that counseling is not effective. I have had people say, “You are so lucky. I just couldn’t find a good counselor.” I don’t think it’s correct to think of the process as finding a good counselor. The challenge is in finding a counselor that is a good fit for you and your particular situation. You may have gone to a counselor and had a bad experience. That doesn’t mean they were a bad counselor. It just means that maybe it was a bad fit.

Begin by asking friends and family for recommendations. I realize this might be tough to do. Despite how far society has come, in some communities and social circles there is still a stigma attached to counseling and mental health issues in general. So, ask for recommendations from friends and family that are emotionally safe. The last thing a grieving person needs is judgment being cast on them or being handed a suck-it-up-buttercup attitude. Also, use a search engine to research counselors in your area. Prepare a list of three to five counseling practices to call for further information. Go through the checklist before you make a first appointment. Write down the answers so that you can review them later.

  • Do you want a male or female counselor or does that even matter to you?
  • I recommend you choose a counselor who will support you in your faith if that is an important part of your life. They don’t necessarily have to believe what you believe, but they do have to be able to support you in that way, recognize and integrate it as a key element in your grief and healing process.
  • Choose a counselor who specializes in grief work, not just depression, but the grieving process specifically.
  • Don’t forget about logistics. Does the counselor or their practice accept your insurance? If so, will they file it for you? If you don’t have insurance, ask about their pricing structure up front.
  • Can your counselor write prescriptions, if needed, or do they have access to medical providers than can do so? Or will they coordinate with your primary care provider to write prescriptions that you may need? Does the counselor have access or connections to a hospital if you need a different level of care?

***

July 21st marked 6 months for me as a blogger. That sounds weird. A blogger. I am writing a blog so, yes, I guess that makes me a blogger, but it still sounds weird to me and not something I ever envisioned myself doing but here I am. At the time, it felt like stepping from a platform into a roller coaster ride. You know that feeling you get right before you step through the turnstile? That tightness in your stomach as the coaster whooshes in, that rush of air that blows your hair back. The faces of the riders wearing every emotion contained in the human heart, all on full display sitting in their seats, fear, joy, surprise, relief, grief, dread, panic, ecstasy. It’s all there. And then you, a recipe that contains unequal parts excitement and reluctance, nervously but obediently and shaking just a bit, step on to the ride as the others step out. Sometimes, weirdly, kind of awkward, you’re sitting by a complete stranger, sometimes a friend of family member, but you are all getting ready to have a shared experience. THAT is what starting this blog was like for me. And I’ve noticed something. Some people look at me differently now, or maybe I’m different now? But I have noticed that some people look at me like they are seeing me for the first time even people who have known me for a long time or even my entire life. There is surprise in their face and in their voice when we talk about the blog. Perhaps my transparency is allowing them to see something in me they didn’t see before. That’s a good thing. It means I’m growing.

The little blog that could…..To date, this blog has had 5,600+ hits, is weighing in at almost 40,000 words, has 65 subscribed followers, and is read in, wait for it, 31 countries around the world. What?! I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t know how it would impact others. I just stepped out on faith. I felt called to it and hoped and prayed that it would help others.

It is still my constant hope and prayer, Malia

Happy Holidays!

Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s not a holiday. That’s why I’m writing about it now. The holidays have been so fraught with emotion for me that I’m not capable of effectively writing about them in the moment.

I grew up near the ocean. It was always there in the background, either lapping or roaring. That’s how grief is, too. Always there. In the background. An ocean of grief, either lapping or roaring. If grief comes in waves, then the holidays are most certainly rip currents. I remember being taught from a very early age what to do if I was ever caught in a rip current. A rip current is a swift, narrow flow of water moving perpendicular to and away from the beach. It can literally take you out to sea, away from the stability of the shore. You may suddenly find yourself slapped about by a tumult of waves, bobbing up and down, coming up for a gasp of air but just as quickly pulled back down. With eyes squenched shut and cheeks taut with breath held, you’re catching only glimpses of the shoreline with each bob and weave. Everyone’s first instinct is to try to swim back to land. Everyone’s first instinct is wrong. In so many cases, that decision is fatal. If you struggle, fight against it, you might die of exhaustion. The key is not to struggle. You can do one of two things. You can change direction and swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the current, or you can just let it carry you until it has lost its power so that you can calmly make your way back to the beach. I think it’s good practice for grieving through the holidays, too. Change direction, or ride it out. I also think there should be grief signal flags like maritime signal flags. The holidays: storm warnings ahead, dangerous conditions. My holiday ship would be flying the delta flag, a field of blue with a yellow belt above and below it, signaling, “Keep clear of me; I am maneuvering with difficulty.”

The first holiday that came up on the calendar after Paul died was Easter. As a Christian, there is no other holiday with greater meaning or comfort, and no greater reason for hope than this one, but at the time, I was numb to all of that. In fact, that first Easter Sunday after Paul died, I didn’t even go to church. I had been at the hospital all night with Paul’s family. His mother had a very mild, cardiac event and was hospitalized overnight. Likewise, I did not go to church on Easter Sunday this year either. Instead, I was just stepping off a plane from my Camino experience in Spain. So, Easter Sunday at church without Paul sitting beside me is still an unknown experience. Yay, there’s that to look forward to.

The next major holiday on the calendar was Thanksgiving. That one was blessedly normal. Honestly, I didn’t even give it a second thought. Why? I was anxiously anticipating our wedding anniversary and Christmas which nearly coincide with each other. I was already so focused on how I was going to manage those holidays that Thanksgiving was little more than a speed bump in the road. So, you might be thinking that I did well to get through Thanksgiving relatively unscathed, and it’s true. I did. But Thanksgiving, filled with family, quieter and less commercialized than Christmas, has always been my favorite holiday. So, while I did indeed get through it, I didn’t enjoy it, and that was hard, not enjoying my favorite holiday.

Paul and I were married 11 days before Christmas. It was a simple, lovely wedding. It was an unseasonably warm, 72 degrees, that day. The morning was overcast with a sprinkling of rain, but by the time I was walking down the aisle at two o’clock in the afternoon, the sun was out and it was a spectacular, late fall, Lowcountry day. I loved our Christmas time wedding. It’s such a festive time of year anyway. There is so much to celebrate. It’s when the church celebrates the birth of Christ, and the church’s celebratory mood is on full display, hung with greenery and garlands punctuated by the brilliant red of holly berries and poinsettias. We, in turn, were celebrating the birth of our marriage and were looking forward to building a life together with the same jubilance and excitement of children in anticipation of Christmas morning.

I knew our first anniversary without him was going to be difficult, and I really tried to get out of the rip current of emotion rushing toward me, threatening to sweep me away, by swimming in a different direction. I, in fact, went backward in order to go forward. I knew I had to go back to where we started. I knew I needed to move forward from a place of strength. In a way, I was revisiting our life, going on a tour of a place and time that created what we knew as us. Reflecting on it now, it turned out to be a critical, turning point in my healing process.

Paul and I met at a local, historic plantation. It’s where we got to know each other. We spent a lot of time there in the beginning of our relationship, walked the garden paths, talked about the flowers, trees, and history, smiled and laughed and shared ourselves, our stories.

So, I planned to take the day off from work and spend our anniversary there. Just me and Paul and our memories. However, it was not the spectacular late fall, Lowcountry day that our wedding day was. It was reasonably warm, but it was raining, a constant slow dripping all day long. I went anyway, umbrella in hand and rain boots on my feet. Amazingly, the plantation and gardens had been transformed by the rain. It made the whole experience other-worldly as if I had stepped through a portal in time and space.

In the rain soaked garden, the light looked different, the greens of the leaves and trees were clearer and sharper in contrast to the mossy grays and muted, tawny, December browns of the rushes and marsh grasses. There was no breeze. It was so quiet. The only movement was that of birds taking full advantage of the opportunity to bathe and preen, and dine on a smorgasbord of stranded insects.

Only the puddles registered my steps as I strode through pathways crowded with the heavy water logged limbs of blooming camellias. The light coating of water like slip glaze on pottery had given the flowers a pearl-ized, translucent quality casting them in a sheen, a glow.

I didn’t see a single other visitor to the gardens that entire day. You might think that felt lonely, but it didn’t. I felt very close to Paul, and enveloped in His creation as I was, I felt very close to God, too. As I stepped out from a pathway to a point where I could see across the rice fields and river beyond, I was greeted with the hymn “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”. I had not heard or thought about this hymn in years, but it was with me all day. God, in His mercy, was singing over me.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in his justice
which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such gracious judgement given.

There is plentiful redemption
through the blood that Christ has shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word;
and our lives would be illumined,
by the glory of the Lord.

(Frederick William Faber, 1862)

I had some of Paul’s ashes with me. I had no plans for when or where I might let them go. I just walked and remembered and waited for the moment because I knew it would come. And it did. I rounded a hedge row on to a rise that overlooked the river. The rain had slowed to a mist, and as I swept my arm and hand across my body to launch Paul’s ashes heavenward, a breeze caught him and carried him out over the marshes and river to be forever part of the landscape that he cherished and that shaped the early foundation of our relationship.

The next 11 days leading up to Christmas produced a lot of anxiety. For one thing, I had to do the Christmas shopping by myself. Paul and I always did this together. I spent a Saturday going from store to store with crying fits in the car in between. It was miserable. In contrast to my experience revisiting the place where we met, I didn’t feel close to Paul at all. In fact, I felt as far away from him as I could possibly be, but I was riding it out. For Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I opted, again, to swim in a different direction. Good move.

I hosted family dinner at my house on Christmas Eve. This included Paul’s family and my family. It also, blessedly, turned out to include a friend from my work family. She was alone for the holidays. Her husband needed to be with his ailing parents, her grown children were splitting the holidays between their families and the families of their respective significant others and so she was by herself on Christmas Eve. I saw a little of myself in that situation and reached out to her to come join our family for Christmas Eve dinner and was so glad I did. It was wonderful to have her there. We got in the kitchen and cooked together and talked and laughed and smiled. She fit right in with our crazy, blended family, and it was good.

On Christmas Day, my son and I got up and opened presents. We visited with Paul’s parents. The morning was quiet and peaceful. The sadness was there, but I just looked it right in the face and accepted it. Then, we joined some other family members and friends to cook and serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House. Ronald McDonald House Charities provide lodging, resources, and support to families of sick children who are receiving treatment far from their homes. It’s a beautiful thing, and it provided me with both distraction from my own feelings and a necessary perspective on my grief and the grief of others.

This past Father’s Day was our second without Paul. It was tough. I don’t really remember the first one being that hard, and I thought that was strange. It seems like all of the firsts would be more difficult, but here’s why I think that’s not actually the reality of it. During that first year, a holiday was no different from any other day because they all sucked. Every day was a difficult day, holiday or not. But then, somewhere along the way, everything gradually starts getting better, and the bad days start to stand out from the other days more so than they did before. Suddenly, holidays become like land mines, like islands of grief in an otherwise relatively calm, navigable sea.

There is a lot of really good advice out there about how to survive the holidays when you are grieving. And you can certainly do just that. You can survive the holidays. But you can also use the holidays as an opportunity to grieve, grow, and heal. I think I did a little of both.

Malia

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

The Locust Years

It was 1989. I had just turned 18, and he was 30. He called me his date with fate. How very true. Family and friends thought the age difference was too much, but it wasn’t. Someone we met maybe two years or so before Paul died recently described us as glowing when we were together. It’s true. We glowed. We also laughed. A lot. Our home was filled with laughter. Paul had a tremendous sense of humor. He was known for his humor and his dimples. He had the most amazing dimples. He was handsome and charming.

I could go on and on. Really. I could. So, am I glorifying Paul through my writing? I’m not even really sure what that means, but another grieving blogger addressed the dissonance between the living person and the memorialized persona in a post about her daughter, and it got me to thinking. Am I remembering only the best aspects of our relationship, only the good times, not being realistic about the challenges and difficulties we faced? Who does that serve? Am I painting him only in the best light? Is it a case of rose-colored glasses? Yes, it is, if rose is the color of love. I loved Paul. There’s really no other explanation. I have to go to another language (eros, pragma, agape) in order to amplify the word we use in the English language because l-o-v-e is not enough.

Paul was interested in many things; music, art, nature, science, engineering, how things worked. He was curious about the world, an intellectual, but he never managed to truly find his place in the world. He did, however, find his place with me, within our relationship and marriage. We both did. We were each other’s shelter from the storm. I fully realize that other people didn’t experience Paul the way I did though. He was sometimes lost in translation. He wasn’t always easy to love. He could, quite frankly, be a pain in the ass at times. Even within our own families, with his parents, with our son, and among our friends, Paul’s remarks and reactions to situations were sometimes misunderstood or misinterpreted by others. At times, I found myself translating Paul to other people because I understood him in ways that other people did not. He didn’t always communicate well, himself or his feelings, to others. He didn’t typically allow others to deeply know him. He was often emotionally defensive.

It is not a case of me remembering only the good times, the best parts of our life together, because I do remember everything, the good and the bad, the ease and the challenge, the joy and the suffering. I do possess a full-view perspective. Moving forward, I am reflecting on the experience of my marriage to Paul in its entirety and using it to inform current and future relationships with those I love. I am talking to God about what He wanted to teach me through my relationship with my husband, and I am grateful for ALL of it. Even the bad memories are good, valuable, useful, and cherished. So, you see, it’s not a case of rose-colored glasses. What it is a case of, is love.

Not too long after Paul died, I ran into a friend I had not seen in a very long time. She said she was sorry about Paul passing away, about everything I had been through, and then said this, “It’s just not what you signed up for, is it?” I felt like I had been struck by lightning. A burning hot rumble of thunder reverberated in my ears. I paused and then flatly said, “Actually, it’s exactly what I signed up for. When we took our vows, I said I would be there in sickness and in health and until death do us part. It wasn’t always easy, but we kept our promise. I’m proud of us.” To be totally honest, for all my bravado in that moment, I never really felt like I had a choice when it came to loving Paul. We loved each other and that was that, through thick and thin, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was never perfect, but most of the time, it was really, really, good. Except when it wasn’t. That’s marriage.

We are all broken and flawed, and Paul was no exception. He struggled with addiction. Let me be plain here. Paul suffered from alcoholism. I don’t like to say that Paul was an alcoholic. You may think that is just semantics, but it’s not. One is a disease from which one suffers and for which they can attain treatment. The other is a statement of identity. Alcoholism is not who Paul was. There was a time when I was confused about that. My confusion actually made it more difficult for me to help him fight the addiction because when I was confused about who he was, I mistakenly thought that meant that I was fighting Paul, and in some cases, I was, which was not healthy or therapeutic for either of us. When I learned how to separate him from the disease, I was finally able to hate it and still love him. It was a breakthrough for us that ultimately led to his long period of sobriety and our recovery.

Joel 2:25-32 “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you. You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame.”

Yes, we had significant challenges and times during our marriage that were very difficult. We had locust years, but they were redeemed by God as promised. I recently had a conversation with a long-time, family friend whose son has grappled with addiction for the better part of 20 years. She told me that sharing our family’s story about our struggle with addiction was part of the beginning of her own family’s road to recovery. She told me it was because we had been so open in sharing our struggle that they were able to make some progress. When I heard that, my heart sang. Paul would have been so pleased to know that. It’s a good example of what I mean when I write about the correlation between being thankful for suffering and achieving true healing, redemption, and restoration. My friend had begun the conversation by saying, “I don’t know if I ever told you…” and admitted that she didn’t talk about it much. You know, almost everyone I talk with who has dealt with addiction says something very similar. You see, addiction, and, yes, I am intentionally referring to it in the third person, wants to be a secret. It wants to be a private matter because that is where it can do the most damage, where it can use shame like a vice-grip to continue holding its prisoner captive. The worst thing that can happen to addiction is to blow it up, as they say. In that way, it loses so much of its power. Every person you tell breaks another link in the chains. We didn’t truly begin to recover, to live transformed lives, until we blew up the circle of accountability, started being open and sharing our struggle, owning our addiction story, and treating the whole family through counseling and fellowship with other families who were also battling addiction. For us, addiction was not just the third person grammatically speaking. It was also the third person in our marriage. I am so thankful I learned how to love my husband but hate and wage war against addiction. I learned to stop patterns of behavior that supported the addiction not him. Addiction was not Paul’s identity. Addiction, in the third person, can be hated, fought, and defeated, day in and day out, and each day of sobriety can be counted as a fresh victory.

Years ago, when we were in the thick of the battle, this passage from Ephesians 6:13-18 gave me strength for each day. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”

This post is for all the men and women, children, and families who have been touched by addiction, for those in recovery and for those who are still battling, and there are so many. Addiction doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what family you come from, how smart you are, how much money you have, or where you work. In fact, it will use all of that to take the advantage if it can. If you are battling addiction in any form, take courage, friends, and fight. You are worth it. Your loved one is worth it. Start by firmly grabbing hold of that addiction and dragging it out into the light where everyone can see it and call by name. I know that is terrifying, but addiction is using that fear to terrorize you. Stop giving it the ammunition it needs to continue its horrific work.

Finally, I will leave you all with this. This hasn’t been an easy post in so many ways. The current revision count is 25. The highest ever for me. I have wrestled with it the way Jacob wrestled with God on the banks of the Jabbok. As I was sitting at the kitchen table struggling with it, out-of-the-blue I received a text of pure encouragement, love, and positive energy from someone I hadn’t seen or heard from in over a year, someone so special to both Paul and myself and who truly knew Paul as I did. Word-for-word she said, “…you rise to meet tasks with grace. Even when you feel like you can’t, you do.” Stunned, I replied that I was working on a post that I knew was important, but it was taking all the strength and courage I could muster, and that I was pretty sure she had just channeled Paul so that he could tell me I was doing the right thing. Her reply was that people needed to know that it’s hard, but it can change with God’s help. She said the cycle of destruction can end, and even in the darkest days, God sends light. And, she gave me a new name.

All my love, Melly