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 Fajeon 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, but 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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.’
B. Macnutt, The prayer manual for private devotions or public use on divers
occasions: Compiled from all sources ancient, medieval, and modern (A.R.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 tosurvive 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.
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
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
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.
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.