…to quote the lyrics of the 2009 song of the same name by the La’s.
Today, I am flying to the Dominican Republic to visit my Camino brother and sisters. It feels like going home. Isn’t that an interesting little paradox? The Camino is now home, and everyday life is the journey.
The Camino has become a touchstone in my life, an experience that I can return to time and time again when I am struggling or weary of it all or pushed to my limit, when I think of giving up, when I think to myself, “I can’t do it. It’s too hard.” Then. It’s then that I remember, my body remembers, my heart remembers. I remember walking the Camino through Spain. I remember the calm and peace of the air and the countryside. I remember the pain. I remember the joy. I remember the smiles and the tears, the sun and the rain. I remember the peace and quiet outside in the fresh air and open fields, and I remember the noise that was inside, inside my head. And I remember how every day that noise grew quieter and quieter until it was just a whisper, barely there.
So, welcome aboard! Let’s again travel together this particular journey and share what we learn along the way!
536 days, a figurative storm of grief has raged inside of me. Today, a literal
storm is raging outside as Hurricane Dorian takes its best shot at the east
My son and my in-laws are with me, safety in numbers. My father-in-law is sitting at our piano playing tenderly; old gospel favorites like Amazing Grace, How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and so many more. He’s never had a lesson, not a single one. He plays by ear in a very old fashioned way, constantly improvising as he goes with lots of trills and warbles and using the sustaining, or damper, pedal all the while. Each hand toggles rapidly holding notes in a rich, sweet melodramatic vibrato. I’ve heard him play these same songs maybe hundreds of times over the years but never the same way twice. It’s always new. Always new. Now, isn’t that rare and beautiful!
wind is really howling now, gusting up to 80 miles per hour. The house creaks
and groans but remains steadfast. Trees and limbs are down and smaller debris
is everywhere. Even the tallest, strongest trees are being tossed about like
waves on a turbulent ocean. They billow, flap, and snap like sheets hung on a
line near some windswept prairie. Fascinating, really. Frighteningly beautiful
and captivating to watch. Warning: This
post may be a bit of a rambler as my thoughts and emotions today are equally
tossed by the wind. It’s also a little lengthier, too. Apparently, we’re having
a deluge of water and words!
There are two groups of people in my world now. People who know Paul died, and people who don’t. However, there is a challenge that’s the same within both of these groups. In the first group, there are many people who know how grateful I am for the time Paul and I had, for the support that I have received and for the way I have grown through my experiences, but there are some who just feel sorry for me and not in a good way. I am uncomfortable with the way some people pity me. With the latter group, it’s a look of pity on their face the first time they learn about my husband’s passing. It’s a look I know all too well, and it nearly always transports me to that other period of grieving in my life when my mother died.
The day my mother died was a normal day. It was a Wednesday. It was March; St. Patrick’s Day, in fact. My father was away, out of town on his annual fishing trip. My mother woke me up to get ready for school. There’s nothing really significant or extraordinary to remember about that morning because it was just like any other morning in our household. That part actually amazes me. It amazes me that the day your life will change forever can just start like that, like it’s just an ordinary day.
I am aware that a child’s memories are often perforated with gaps and oddly pieced together like a misshapen quilt, but I do remember that I was wearing a green, button-down shirt of my mother’s. The style of it was very on trend for the time, 1983. It was a Ralph Lauren mens’ style, button-down dress shirt; light seagrass-green cotton, crisply ironed with starch. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, a fresh pair of Sperry Topsiders, and an Aigner purse completed the look. I remember feeling very grown that I could share clothes with my mom. I was twelve.
I left the house and
walked toward the bus stop that was located on the street behind our house. I
went out the front door and circled back cutting through a neighbor’s yard. My
mother was always waiting at a back window for one final wave goodbye. For the
life of me, I can’t actually remember the moment that she waved to me that day.
I can only assume she did because it was our ritual.
My mother worked as the bookkeeper at my grandmother’s shop. Every day, she left for work after I left for school. It was an exciting day at school that day because we were having a science fair. The projects were lined up on tables in the gym at a neighboring school. One of my friends had her project set up on the next row over from mine. She and I along with other students, teachers, and a handful of parents were milling around, chatting and looking at the displays, anxiously waiting to see the ribbons that would be pinned to the winning projects. My friend and I knew each other from dance, tennis, and girl scouts as well as school. We went on beach vacations together, camping trips, and were regulars on the weekend sleep-over circuit. Our parents were friends, too. We are, in fact, still friends today, and I am so grateful for that sustaining friendship.
Suddenly, my friend’s mother, who was also my mother’s friend, arrived. She was stopping in to see how we were doing. I remember her looking a little wind-blown, wearing a rain coat and carrying an umbrella. The weather that day was early-spring squally, stormy with heavy rain (cats and dogs as we say in the south), lightning and thunder. Unknown to any of us at the time, my mother, driving to work in the storm, had hydro-planed on standing water in the road. She lost control of the car, crashed, and died. She was not wearing her seat belt. My father told me that she was killed instantly, that she did not suffer. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t believe him, but I needed proof. So, one day when I was home alone after school, I snuck into a box of legal documents and found her death certificate. It verified what my father had told me.
I remained at school all day. Remember, my father was out of town. My extended family needed time to notify him and time for him to travel home. I rode the bus home as always. I got off the bus and was making my way to the cut-through by the neighbor’s house. I heard a sound, in the background, but kept walking only mildly aware of the noise. Then, I heard it again, more insistent this time, a car horn. It got my attention. I turned to see my father’s car. I ran to it and hopped in. I don’t envy what my father had to do that day, to tell his only daughter that her beloved mother was dead. In fact, what I saw and experienced in that moment has won him an extraordinary amount of grace in the years hence, but that, my friends, is for another post. There was someone else there; someone who opened the car door and tried to help comfort me, contain me really, but that would be like trying to contain an atom bomb. I was an emotional mushroom cloud. I can still hear myself screaming. I can still see my contorted face. I can still feel the strength of my father’s arms, elbows and shoulders, holding me not to comfort but to keep me from exploding through the roof of the car.
We made our way home and arrived to a house full of people, relatives and neighbors, where every adult was wearing the same look on their faces when they saw me. In my whole life, no one had ever looked at me that way because they never had cause or reason to. By all accounts, I had lived a charmed childhood with very little disruption or strife, a much doted on only child. The look on their faces is seared in my memory. The glassy, knowing eyes, up-turned cheeks, the down-turned corners of their mouths, lips pressed together, full of sadness and love. Poor little girl. I had the distinct impression that my sadness was making their sadness worse. For many of them, it seemed the mere sight of me, the thought of what I had lost was more than they could bear so they just looked away, looked down, averted their gaze, or looked right through me. My perception was that they thought of me as weak, helpless, to be pitied. The poor-little-girl look on their faces incensed me, made me want to punch them in the nose. Later on, I was whisked away from the television as the local, evening news told the tragic story of my mother’s death, her devastated family, and the twelve year old daughter she left behind.
Tragic. Tragedy. Over the next few
weeks and months, I heard those words over and over, usually whispered between
adults who thought I was out of ear shot. My mother was the oldest child with
three siblings. She was well-loved by our family, friends, and neighbors, and
her family was well-known in the area. And, truly, I am only now beginning to
understand the full impact on those adults as I am now an adult struggling with
loss myself. They lost a wife, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a neighbor, a
friend. They were all grieving in different ways, and I was internalizing all
of it. I didn’t feel like a participant in the grief. I was an observer, a
witness. Looking back on it now though, I have such compassion for all of them.
The spitting anger and indignation has been replaced with empathy. It was awful
for all of them, and many of them are still dealing with the emotional
aftermath to this day. I am so very sorry
for their loss. I truly am.
As I grew older, I met new people who didn’t
know my mother died. In order to avoid the
look, I simply would not offer that information about myself to anyone
because my perception was that it completely changed the way they thought of
me. So, sometimes I am also uncomfortable with those that don’t know that Paul
died. Truthfully, my discomfort is with myself because even though I am spared the look, it is bothersome to me that
they don’t know something so fundamental about me and my life to the point that
it feels dishonest for me to keep that part of myself hidden. It feels
disingenuous, unauthentic, not my true self. I don’t like the mask anymore, and
yet, I still have a tendency to want to guard that part of myself in an effort
to control people’s perception of me. It’s quite the internal wrestling match
these days as I have moved to a new job, and there are a lot of new people in
my life that I am just getting to know. I have to do better. I want to do better by sharing myself
Ok, so here it is. Here’s the big moment that all this rambling is leading up to. The nitty-gritty as it were. Sharing my weakness, making myself vulnerable to people’s perception and even their unwanted pity is an opportunity to share the power of God’s love and the saving Grace that is the personhood of Jesus. His perfect love and strength are revealed fully in my weakness. Earlier in my life, I might have missed, no, I know I missed opportunities to share my faith because I was selfish and wanted to control how others saw me. No more. People, God has worked a miracle in my life! He has used my pain and suffering, my tragedy, to speak to me, and, hopefully, to speak to you. He has transmuted my sadness into gratitude, growth, healing, and joy. He can do that for you, too!
Check this out from Psalm 84:6, “Who passing through the vale of tears, makes it a well.” A vale is a valley; a valley of tears. I have cried that many tears and more for my mother and for Paul, and it makes me think back to the Camino when I was walking in the rain for hours. That’s what a valley of tears must be like. Tears falling like a never-ending, drenching rain; a soaked-to-the-bone, clothes-sticking-to-you, pouring-water-out-your-shoes, shriveled-skin-on-hands-and-feet rain of tears! At the time, I didn’t understand. I just did it. I just kept walking. But now, I know what that valley of tears feels like in my heart and on my skin. Because of that experience, I can really connect with what God is saying to me. And, get this, I misread the next part! At first, I read “…makes it well” as in makes it all better. Gee, thanks God! That’s what we want him to do, right? Make it all better! But that’s not how God works (at least not in my life!) and thank goodness for that. Upon rereading, I realized that this is what the verse actually says, “….makes it a well.” A well as in a source of water, life-giving water, a fountain of joy! The New Living Translation states it like this, “When they walk through the Valley of Weeping, it will become a place of refreshing springs. The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.” And commentators agree that it speaks to our loving God’s power to turn adversity itself into a blessing. Showers in the desert can turn a barren landscape into a garden. So, too, resolve and faith together commute disadvantage, disaster even, to benefit.
full verse contains even more riches, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O
Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart
and flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and
the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O
Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise! Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose
heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca they make
it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from
strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. O Lord God of hosts,
hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look on the
face of your anointed! For a day in your courts is better than a thousand
elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in
the tents of wickedness. For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows
favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”
Now, doesn’t that just blow you away?! I don’t know about you, but today I know for certain that the mighty rushing wind of God’s Word blowing through my soul is stronger than any hurricane raging outside my window.
“It’s not the end of the world.” Have you ever used that phrase? Have you said it to someone who was taking something very hard and perhaps needed some perspective on the situation? Has someone said it to you? I have certainly dished it out on occasion and been on the receiving end, too. And, to be frank, there are times when I needed to both hear it and consider its element of truth. Sometimes we do need that shot or jolt of perspective to snap us out of being overly distraught about a disappointment or challenge that, in the grand scheme of things, is a bump in the road, not a mountain but merely a mole hill. That’s another often used phrase, at least in the south anyway, that is usually meant to gently snap someone out of a funk over one of life’s many challenges and obstacles. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.
However, when my husband died, it literally was the end of the world. As I knew it. I remember having that exact feeling and thought when my mother died, too. My life is over. And, when Paul died, I thought, Damn. My life is over. Again.
There’s a knee-jerk reaction from people when thoughts like this are said out loud….“Don’t say that!” and “Oh, now, that’s not true”. These rebuttals are said presumably to be a comfort but are more likely meant to quiet the grieving person because the raw truth out and running loose around the room is just too much for most people to handle. So, just for future reference for those of you in proximity to a griever, the preferred response, in my opinion, is one that is honest, acknowledges the deeper meaning of such statements, and at the same time, offers hope and encouragement. It should go something like this, “You’re right. Life as you knew it, your life together, is over. Now, you will start, little by little, to build a new life for yourself, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”
The question then becomes how we are going to build and shape that new life, our new world. This is where grief becomes a vehicle for growth. My first bout with grief when my mother died was such a different experience than this has been. Bout is a wrestling or boxing match term but is often used to refer to an attack of illness or strong emotion of a specified kind. I think grief qualifies. As a child, I made grief my friend, my partner, my security, because it was always there. As an adult, I have co-opted grief and used it as a spring board to the rest of my life. It might just be the difference between experiencing grief as a child versus as an adult, or it could be an indicator of where I am in my spiritual development. Ephesians 4:11-16 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from who the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Yes, indeed.
In Isaiah 6:1-7, Isaiah has an encounter with God. In a vision, he
saw God and with that his sin was revealed, exposed. He saw clearly how broken
beyond repair he was. He said, “Woe is me! for I am undone”. In another
translation he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,
and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the
King, the Lord of hosts!” Then, in Isaiah’s vision, a seraphim with a set of
tongs holding a burning, hot coal that had been taken from the altar flew to
him and touched his lips with the coal. The seraphim announced that Isaiah was
cleansed. His sins had been atoned for. He had been restored to a right
relationship with God. An encounter with God enables us to see ourselves more
clearly. It is difficult. It can be painful, but it is critical to
self-awareness and self-knowledge. Plato said that the unexamined life isn’t
worth living. There is nothing like grief for giving us the opportunity to
examine our lives, to take stock, to do a complete personal inventory to see
where the shelves are full and where they are lacking.
So, just recently, I’ve started to notice some signs of progress. One in particular got my attention. I have actually been feeling well enough to start making some changes in the house. I updated the family pictures, changed around some furniture, started redecorating the guest bedrooms, and replaced some framed artwork with different artwork. This may seem trivial, but I take it as a significant indicator of my health and well-being, my progress, that I’m able to make changes in the house instead of treating it like a shrine. If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you might think to yourself, “What is she talking about? She has jumped out of plane, taken on a new position at work, successfully developed new routines, and even traveled to another continent, by herself no less! Are those not greater evidence of progress than moving some stuff around in the house?” Not really, and here’s why. All of those accomplishments are entirely novel. They have no connection to my life with Paul. The real challenge and the real progress is in adjusting to doing everyday life without Paul.
Here are some more areas that I count as signs of progress…..
can sit on the couch alone and watch TV.
can tolerate something different in my home. I can tolerate household items
being in a different location in the house.
can make food for myself (occasionally) beyond a frozen dinner.
can project myself into the future. I can imagine what the future looks like
with me in it.
can go to work consistently.
I can sleep <most> nights.
can go inside the grocery store if I have to instead of using the pick-up
can sit through a church service (still glued to our pew though) without tears
or having to excuse myself.
And, finally, drum roll please……the morning, kitchen paralysis has been replaced by the morning, kitchen dance-jam with the dogs and often shared with friends on the Marco Polo app.
The fog of grief. Widow-brain. Whatever we choose to call it. It’s real, and it comes and goes. It is not limited to the time immediately after a loved one’s passing. It makes it harder to do even the most ordinary things. When the fog rolls in, my mind is constantly wandering off course, like a diversion to a stream. When reading anything, a book, instructions, directions, a magazine, I sometimes I have to read aloud just to maintain my focus, concentration, attention, and I usually have to read something two or three times before it sinks in.
I can’t find anything in the house. I can’t find my keys, my shoes, my bag(s), my hair clips, my water bottle, my phone. I miss appointments. I forget to take my medicine. I forget to eat. I forget what day it is! I have always thought of myself as an organized, got-my-sh*t-together kind of person, but now I know the truth. All along, it was Paul, taking up my slack and letting me think I had everything in order. Apparently, my whole life has been a lie! <insert smirk>
Case in point. At a recent yoga session, my instructor was patrolling the room, quietly making adjustments here and there, squaring hips, turning joints, re-positioning shoulders. She arrived at my mat where I was working on my very best down-dog ever, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, goody! She’s about to give me some one-on-one, personal attention, some corrective feedback, encouragement or praise even (yippee!),’ and then she leaned in and whispered, “Did you know your pants are on inside out?” This, friends. This is my life on grief.
Grief Dreams: Waiting at the Foot of Jacob’s Ladder, or When Paul Comes to Visit
Genesis 28:10-12 “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”
Grief dreams are apparently pretty common. I checked on that just to make sure I am not going crazy because I have them nearly every night or at least I do lately anyway. I try not to over-analyze or put too much stock in what dreams mean. I try to take them at face-value. As far as I can tell, they are a normal part of grieving. Just another cog in the wheel of grief and healing.
Sometimes I dream that it is morning. I am awake and busy with little household chores, but Paul is still in the bed snoozing, sleeping late. Other times, I dream that I am lying beside him. In the dream, I am awake, and he is asleep beside me. I can feel the weight of him next to me, the warmth of him. I can hear him breathing softly. I can even feel his sharp elbow or his round hip fitting into my side like a puzzle piece.
Some of the dreams are just random and seemingly meaningless. In one recent dream, we were riding in our truck. The side view mirror was smashed, and there were multiple dings in the windshield. He was upset about it, but I told him we would just call the insurance company and tell them the truck had been vandalized. But some of the dreams, and their meanings, are completely obvious like one dream where I walked in the door from work and Paul was standing in the kitchen. I threw my stuff down and walked into his embrace. I woke up from this dream because I could feel the smile on my face. I could feel his stubbly beard on my chin and cheeks. It was one of those sweet, pressing kisses with a smile underneath followed by a mu-wah! It was a happy, smiling, chuckling kiss. I said, “I’m so happy to see you!” I could feel his hands and his warmth. I’m smiling just writing this. I could breathe again. I had forgotten what that was like, to have air in my body. I breathed a sigh, an ahhhhh. I was whole again. My eyes were shining bright, sparkling with tears just at the edges and corners like liquid glitter.
In another dream, I was calling out the window and door to a neighbor for help. I called her once, twice, three times. Her name was Rose, but we don’t have a neighbor named Rose. My middle name is Rose. Paul was on the couch apparently dead as he was pale and limp. Rose kept calling out to me saying she was coming, but she never did. Then, she was there but her body wasn’t. I went to the couch and Paul had changed color. He was alive but delirious and laughing lightly in a silly kind of way, and then I woke up.
Finally, in a very recent dream, Paul and I were much younger. We were living in a different city. We were in the kitchen, and Paul was leaning against the counter near the sink, one foot propped in front of the other with hands flat on the counter, fingers forward, elbows out at 90 degree angles. He was relaxed. I was making one of my famous speeches. I was tense and was enumerating a list of reasons he should stay, as in stay in our marriage. I don’t know why he was leaving. There had been no apparent argument. We were not angry with each other. He was just leaving, leaving me. I was making a persuasive argument of all the reasons why Paul should stay with me. Some of the reasons I dogmatically listed were things like for the sake of our families, our son. I asked him to be more patient with me, acknowledged that I had made mistakes in the past, but I was improving all the time. I asked him to give me time to learn and grow and that if he looked back across all the time that we had been together he could see the progress that I had made. When it became apparent that none of my persuasive points were going to change his decision, I turned to the practicalities of how and when he would be leaving. The gears ground and the transmission groaned. The dream began to slip, and I found myself in the space between waking and sleeping. In that half-world, I thought to myself, “That was dumb. I should have told him the real reason I didn’t want him to leave. The main reason for him to stay is that I love him and don’t want him to go. It’s the only argument that matters.” Then, I thought, “I’m going to tell him that when we wake up.” In the half-world, I have found that I can choose to re-enter a dream or rise to consciousness. In this case, I rose to consciousness. Reality roiled in my stomach. I sat up on the side of the bed and said a very.bad.word. I had the impulse to scream and throw things but was so spent from the fitful sleep that I didn’t have the energy to do so. This, friends. This is my life on grief.
“He who learns must suffer. And
even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our hearts.”
It can’t be.
It can’t be late summer. It can’t be the start of another school year, but it is. I am constantly amazed that the sun rises, amazed by the beginning of each new day. Not because of the miracle that it is, not the gift of it which I am grateful for, not its beauty which is undeniable, not because of any of those true and worthy aspects. I live in a constant state of astonishment that life goes on. None of this is supposed to be happening without Paul. It shouldn’t be possible. It can’t be, but it is and how dare it be so. I’m indignant, resentful even. It’s gone too far. There have been too many days without him. This thought makes me feel panicky, forces me to catch and hold my breath. Did I think he was coming back?
This feels like a change, some weird transition in the grieving process, new territory, an emotional no-man’s land. I’m adrift. Last summer, I was teaching summer school in order to make up for days I had lost during Paul’s illness and after his passing. That was not the case this summer, and I found myself with a lot of unstructured time. It has made me unsettled, restless. Paul and I truly relished our summers together, in the boat, on trips, or doing absolutely nothing at all. I have tried to fill my days with meaningful activities, but the down times have felt lonelier than ever before.
I’ve had a recurrence of flashbacks. They are different from memories. Memories are allowed in, invited. Flashbacks are decidedly uninvited. Memories have associative triggers like a song on the radio, a smell, a place, an article of clothing. Flashbacks may or may not have apparent triggers and often appear to have no trigger whatsoever. They are an emotional transporter. They beam me into a traumatic moment or experience, and I have a full-on sensory experience. These flashbacks to the time during Paul’s illness and death are more a symptom of my state of mind, a red flag that I’m slipping, that the scales are tipping in the other direction. Uh-oh. Here I go again. So, what to do about it? Turn away from the darkness and turn toward the Light, the Light of the world, Jesus, and His word.
Psalm 119:105 “Your
word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
Psalm 4:6 “Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!”
Like this late summer beauty, I am flying toward the Light. My path may not be the straightest. I may struggle and flap and fly in circles along the way, but I will still strive because the Light is the only place to be.
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.
Paul was not worried about dying, but he was worried about those he was leaving behind including his parents who are now in their 80s. I reassured him, “You made me a Dunn, and nothing is going to change that. I’m going to take care of these people,” and that’s exactly what I am doing not because I have to, not out of some sense of obligation or because it’s what Paul would have wanted but because I love them with the same deep, abiding love with which I loved Paul. They are my family and always will be. They have loved me as their own daughter. I may not be blood of their blood, but I am heart of their heart.
My husband came from a family of three boys. One night, we were all sitting around the dinner table as we frequently did, and Paul’s mom and dad were regaling us with stories of the challenges of raising three boys close in age to each other and how the risk of adding yet another boy to the raucous mix made trying for a girl a deal breaker. Then, one of them commented, “But then came Malia…” and my husband finished the thought with, “….and Mama got the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl she’d always wanted.” We all grinned at each other because we all knew it was true. I was so young when I married Paul and joined their family, and yet his parents were still young themselves. I could easily have been their natural child. No matter. They have surely and truly loved me as their natural child.
What’s more is that they possess memories of Paul that no one else has. He is alive in their memory. They tell stories about his childhood, adolescence, and the years before I met him. They keep me connected to Paul in ways that no one else can. I look at their faces, and I see Paul. His nose, his mouth and full lips, his narrow chin, and his deep brown eyes looking back at me. He’s there, in the slightest expressions in their faces, in their gestures, the way they walk and talk, the way they smile. I remember the same was true of my grandmother. Her daughter, my mother, died when I was twelve. My grandmother held my mother in her memory, in her face, her hands, her voice and her laugh, and as long as my grandmother was alive, I enjoyed that connection. She told me stories of my mother’s childhood and added dimension to my own memories by filling in details from her own perspective of the events.
When my grandmother died, a cord was cut. She took all of her memories with her, but sometimes shared memories can have a Droste effect becoming like a picture inside a picture inside a picture so that those we loved, but who are no longer with us, continue to live in our memories generation after generation. The memory becomes recursive. Now, I am remembering my grandmother remembering my mother, and one day, I will be remembering my husband’s parents remembering Paul, and I will be the one passing those memories on and keeping the connection alive.
In the Biblical book of Ruth, we learn about Elimelek and his wife Naomi who migrated to Moab because of famine in their homeland, Judah. Elimelek died, but their two sons both married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. (Sidebar: Orpah is actually Oprah Winfrey’s real name.) The Book of Ruth goes on to say that after about ten years both of Naomi’s sons also died so she decided to return to her own family in Bethlehem in Judah because she heard that the Lord had come to the aid of His people and provided food in that region. Naomi encouraged both of her daughters-in-law to also return to their own families. Initially, both Orpah and Ruth pleaded to be allowed to remain with Naomi, but at Naomi’s urging, Orpah turned back and returned to her own family. Only Ruth remained. She begged her mother-in-law to allow her to remain with her. Ruth pledged, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” and so she did. Now, Ruth has her own book in the Bible. There’s only one other woman with her own book and that’s Esther. Esther was a typical Jewish girl who through God’s providence became Queen of Persia and is credited with saving her entire race. She clearly earned her Biblical standing. So, what did Ruth do to earn hers? Ruth was loyal and obedient as she navigated the series of changes life handed her. She, a foreigner, returned with Naomi to Judah, remarried a man named Boaz and produced a son named Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse who was the father of David. Yes, that David, King David, whose offspring led to Jesus.
I can really relate to Ruth and her desire to remain with the family that God blessed her with, but it’s more than that. It’s about how faith and obedience go hand-in-hand. Ruth was obedient at every turn in her very difficult life. Obedience is not a word often used in our culture today. It has taken on some sort of uncomfortable connotation, but I think that both the word and concept have gotten a bad rap. Obedience is about turning control over to someone else, submitting the outcome to someone else and acknowledging that someone else knows better even if the outcome doesn’t seem better to us. I know. Really difficult stuff here but so important to a right relationship with God that bears fruit. It took me years to learn this. No, it took me years to even get a glimpse of what obedience looks like, sounds like, acts like. It took me years more to fully realize its potential, and yet I still lose my grip on this fundamental understanding. It’s like trying to grab a fish. You struggle to catch hold of its slimy, wriggling, flapping body. You finally manage to lasso it with your hands, and then it just slides right out of your grip.
Here’s how I discovered what Godly obedience is all about, but let me start with what it’s not. It’s not about following the rules. Yeah, I was shocked about that, too. I am a natural born rule-follower, and I think that’s what made my road to obedience longer and harder. I was outwardly clean but inwardly rotten, rebellious. I wasn’t following the rules because I wanted to or more importantly because God wanted me to. I was following the rules because that’s what good people do, and I was, of course <insert eye-rolling>, a good person. For me, that kind of thinking was literally the road to hell, to separation from God. So, one day, I just started playing a little what-if game. What if I do a thing not because I want to? What if I am obedient not because it’s a rule or a law or an expectation based on my race, gender, social station, or family dynamic? What if I do a thing because it’s what God wants me do, and it pleases Him? It’s life changing, friends. It’s trans-formative, and it’s hard.
I’ve also learned that, for me, when it comes to obedience, the train never pulls into the station. There is no arrival at success. There are many failures. It is an ongoing process. Case in point. Six years ago when life changed as it so often does, and I arrived at a new workplace, I was unhappy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why God stuck me there. I protested. I pouted. I dug in my emotional heels. I was not obedient. I didn’t embrace God’s will for my life. In a lot of ways, I was lost. Now, as I’m about to embark on a new journey in a new workplace, I left my work family with this:
A love letter…..
I have a confession to make. My first year at OMS was really hard for me. The transition was difficult. OMS was so VERY different from my previous school district, my previous position. You see, I had been really comfortable where I was. Maybe even too comfortable. As a 20 year veteran, I suddenly found myself with a lot to learn, and that was a little hard to take. My confidence was shaken. I have another confession. In my heart of hearts, I didn’t want to like OMS. In my mind, instead of getting on with it, I wanted to keep comparing it to what I missed so dearly in my former school and district. I was being stubborn and willful. I prayed to God and asked Him what in the world was He thinking? What purpose could He possibly have placing me here? I am embarrassed to say I wasted precious prayer time asking why, why, why. I’m also embarrassed to say it took me awhile to see that God was showing me why, every single day, in every single one of you. You won me over. You stole my heart. You made me love you, and I do love y’all.
I have learned so much from each of you. Y’all have inspired me to strive in my teaching, empowered me to press on, and comforted me through some of the darkest days of my life. You’ve picked up my slack when I just couldn’t rise to the occasion and celebrated with me when things went well. You’ve laughed with me when I allowed my silliness out to play, and cried with me when there were no words left to speak. You are among the finest teachers and human beings I have known. I will remember everything you have taught me. I will miss you dearly, and I thank God for the time I’ve spent with you all. Gosh, darn it, OMS! You made me love you!
I’m there in the picture with my work family, yet another family God blessed me with. These days, through all the changes and challenges that life has to offer, I want nothing more than to be an instrument of God’s will and trust all the consequences to Him. I’m doing my best to be obedient, to be like Ruth.