The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part II, or The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room? Seriously. I’m running an elephant sanctuary over here.

We’ll start with the baby elephant, anxiety.

In the early weeks and months after Paul died, it was difficult for me to leave the safety of the house. I wanted to be where he was. Paul and I did everything together. We enjoyed each other and enjoyed doing even the smallest activities together. I don’t even remember the last time I was in a grocery store by myself or pumped my own gas. Now, just riding in the car by myself feels like a foreign country. I am not sure I fully realized it until Paul was no longer by my side, but he made me feel safe, emotionally safe certainly, and, in some cases, physically safe.

I admit that I have long been a bit of a “nervous Nellie”, a little hypersensitive even from my childhood, but going through my days alone has caused me anxiety like I have never known it before. It is at its worst in the morning. Big surprise <insert sarcasm>. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. It’s a struggle just to get my feet on the floor. Sometimes I get stuck in the kitchen. I’m dressed. I’m ready. I’m standing in the kitchen, and I can’t move from that spot. The other prime locations for getting stuck are in the driveway and at the traffic light as I’m trying to leave neighborhood. When I’m stuck in the driveway, I just sit there and watch the garage door go down trying to decide if I’m actually going to leave the house or not. If there is no one waiting behind me at the traffic light, I will often just keep on sitting through the next cycle or two. If I’m forced out the neighborhood by people waiting behind me, then I make my way to my destination but struggle to get out of the car when I arrive.

I’ve attempted to deal with this anxiety in several ways because what I’ve really learned about anxiety like this is that it’s not going away anytime soon. I have to manage it. There are times when I am able to confront it. I can muster my courage and force myself to take the next step. That works. Sometimes. Other times, I find it best to avoid that which I know causes anxiety. I order my groceries online, and go pick them up instead of doing the shopping in-store. That is a reasonable, acceptable avoidance that does not impact my quality of life. I have used interventions such as medication (short term), controlled breathing, meditation and prayer, exercise, connecting with others, and counseling. I doubt I am going to be anxiety free any time soon, but I have enough strategies at my disposal to manage. For now.

So, that’s anxiety. Next up, anger.

Anger has always felt wrong to me. Wrong on a sinful level. I have always tended to be less expressive, even stoic. It’s hard for me to remember many times in my life when I’ve been out-right angry. It is also useless, honestly. It’s not productive or helpful in any way as far as I can tell, but anger is a very natural, biological emotion, and it’s present very early on in life so it must be important. Even babies get angry. Anger in its basic form is used, I believe, to draw attention, to demand attention. And perhaps that’s what anger in the midst of grief is all about. A demand for a wound to be attended to. Anger can be sneaky. For me, anger over my husband’s death comes out as irritability, being short-tempered with others, having impatient outbursts that take me by surprise, and I think to myself where did that come from? My anger forces me to attend to something within myself that I have pushed aside for too long. The message to me from me is…..Deal with these feelings, or they will deal with you. And, by the way, I’m fed up with all the feelings. It’s exhausting, and I’m sick of it.

The anger usually abates when I acknowledge what I’m angry about. So, what am I angry about? Here goes. I am angry that Paul left me here by myself. No, he didn’t do it on purpose. I am angry about the way Paul died. No, there was nothing that could have been done differently. I am angry that I was completely helpless to do anything for him. Yes, I did everything I could. I am angry that I have to do all this grief sh*t (excuse me). Yes, yes, the grief work has helped me grow. So, do you see? Do you see how senseless anger is? And, yet, it is there.

I think the best way to sum up anger in the midst of grief is with this clip from the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.

These elephants are getting bigger. Ugh. Next, the twins, hurt and guilt.

Marriage, any relationship for that matter, is not all goodness and light, my friends, as I’m sure many of you well know. Conflicts occur. I suppose it is inevitable in any relationship as we are all flawed. Old arguments come to mind. I think of things that I said or did that hurt Paul and things that Paul said and did that hurt me as well. Some of the arguments were the ridiculous kind that all couples seem to have, but some of them were more serious incursions, and the hurt and the guilt are deep and impossible to forget. I have to say here that I think it’s really important to remember the love and the good times, the happy memories, and to remember the difficult, hurtful memories, too. It’s not good to over-romanticize the relationship. While it is painful to remember the hurtful things I did and how I was hurt, it also allows me to continue to learn how to improve my current and future relationships with those I love. Guilt is good. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that hopefully(!) prevents us from erring repeatedly.

And, finally, Jumbo makes his entrance. Regret.

I most regret the missed opportunities, missed opportunities to be more attentive, patient, to be a better listener, more accepting, to know my husband in deeper ways and to be more open so that I could be fully known. I regret the times that I fell short of being the wife he wanted and/or needed. I don’t mean to say that I wish I had necessarily agreed with him more because sometimes that is genuinely not what a person needs although it may be what they want. I just mean that I can think of times when reacting differently to what was happening in our relationship would have been the more loving and honorable way to be my husband’s wife. One of my deepest regrets came in the weeks and days before Paul died. I was in full caregiver mode. Decisions about his care had to be made every day and had to be made quickly. I so wish I could have stepped away from my caregiver role and could just be with him in those last days, but it was impossible. I was being Martha because I had to. I wish I could have been Mary.

So, how does all this junk get resolved? Three words. Mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Mercy is when we don’t get what we have coming to us, when we have behaved wrongly and should rightfully be punished but are spared. With forgiveness, we can surmount the anger and resentment. We can let it go. And then there’s grace. Grace is the clincher. It’s the life changer, the freedom bringer. It is completely unmerited, cannot be earned and is the highest form of love. It takes all three of these to make a relationship work. Marriage is hard, but a promise is only a promise if it is kept. The following passage was read at our wedding as it is at so many, but it remains, for me, a guidebook to being in a right relationship with others.

The Way of Love (1 Cor 13:1-13)

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Our wedding day, Dec 14, 1991

So, go ahead, dear ones. Talk about the elephants in the room. Call them out by name. Mountain climber, adventurer, and completely blind for most of his adulthood, Erik Weihenmayer says, “You lean in to the thing that sort of scares you, that overwhelms you, so that you can kind of get up close to it and you can experience it fully and then it kind of loses its power over you.”

Get up close to your elephants, friends, and the room will be yours!

Blessings, Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part I

“How are you doing?” It should literally be the theme song, the catch phrase, of grief. The real answer to that question is complicated and unpalatable for most people, even those closest to me. There’s always a real response in my head followed by the more polite, socially acceptable response that comes out my mouth.

So, why can’t I tell people the real answer to that question?

Because some days the real answer to that question goes like this. “Well, I’m not thinking about driving my car into a tree anymore” and “I’m finally able to ride over bridges without thinking about jumping” or “I am seething with sinful jealousy because you are sitting next to your husband, and I’m not sitting next to mine”. There’s also, “My heart is breaking right now, because, as I am watching you spend time with your son, I am remembering those same moments between my son and his father. I ache for my own son who will spend so much of his life without his father. I’m in pain because I know the intense daily sadness of living so much of one’s life without a parent.” Like I said….keeping-it-real.

I realize these responses would startle folks. Most people expect the typical response, “Fine! How are you?” or “I’m doing ok”, and when they don’t get the response they are expecting, they are flummoxed and stammer for a way to respond appropriately. I don’t want to put my burden on others especially not in the middle of the day at work or in the store when I run into an acquaintance. I think most people who are grieving do this. They wear this mask because it’s the only way to get through the day. It’s not intended to be deceptive or untruthful. It’s just not practical or possible for me to tell people how I feel because we have to be able to get through the rest of the day, and if I told people how I really feel, none of us could. Believe me.

The bottom line here, the lesson for all of us, is that it’s really impossible for anyone who is grieving to be “ok” regardless of how they look, act, sound, or respond to the “How are you doing?” question.

I’ve run across this sentiment in two other contexts just this week. Here in John Pavlovitz’s blog and here in Michael Gerson’s sermon where he candidly discusses the ravages of depression. Apparently, Facebook knows I am grieving just as well as it knows when I’m shopping for shoes because recently my news feed is rife with articles about and references to the grief process. One of the pastors at my church also referenced the Gerson article. And it’s no wonder why because Gerson nails it when he says, “At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.” Depression, grief, anxiety….willed cheerfulness is the mask we wear to get through the day. Pavlovitz’s article is more of a decidedly welcome, public service announcement regarding the grieving people who we come in contact with every day but don’t realize their pain. He says, “Everyone is grieving and worried and fearful, none of them wear the signs, none of them have the labels, and none of them come with written warnings reading, I’M STRUGGLING. GO EASY.” Speaking of his own grief after the death of his father, Pavlovitz goes on to say that if people did realize what pain is hidden beneath the mask “…it probably would have caused people around me to give me space or speak softer or move more carefully.” Honestly, it makes me long for the days when widows would wear black for up to a year, and people wore a black arm band for up to six months after the death of a parent or spouse. In that way, we could “wear the signs” to alert others to our fragile condition.

Surrounded by friends the day of Paul’s funeral.

It occurs to me that encountering death in everyday life used to be more commonplace. People just flat-out dealt with death more frequently in the past. High child mortality rates before the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, world wars, pandemics like the Spanish flu (50-100 million deaths in 1918). Death was, well, normal. Society had many ways to manage grief through traditions and expected behavioral responses. It wasn’t that long ago that a viewing or visitation was actually held in the home of the deceased not the funeral home as it typically happens today. The modern death experience has been sanitized particularly in the West. In my opinion, that has not served us, the bereaved, well. When did we, as a society, become so uncomfortable with others’ emotions that grieving is now something that is expected to be done in private? The isolation of grief does not aid the process. It, in fact, can delay healing and growth. But I’ve digressed.

So, how do we respond to the “How are you doing?” question in a way that is honest, healthy, and facilitates the grieving process?

Do this: Develop one or two standard answers that are truthful but don’t suck the air out of the room. Keep the response short and generalized, something that is honest but doesn’t require awkward, uncomfortable detail.

Some of my go-to responses are “I’m struggling, but I’m here” and “I’m having a tough time. I miss my husband.” You can always add, “Thank you for asking. I appreciate your concern.”

Come up with responses that work for you. Practice them out loud if you need to until you are confident and won’t be searching for the words when people ask because they will. They always do. Thankfully, they always do.

Take care of yourselves, Malia