It’s been hard to write. My thoughts are so scattered, and most of my energy has been poured into coping strategies for managing this upended world in which we find ourselves. Like so many of you, I am sheltering-in-place at home, working remotely, going out only to shop for groceries once a week or so.
I am an introvert so being alone is normally my comfort zone, but this. This is more than a respite for introverts. This is isolation, and it’s hard. Yes, as an introvert, I have always needed downtime, alone-time, to recharge my batteries, but this prolonged isolation is unbalanced, unhealthy. So, while we have been physically distanced, I have strived to remain socially connected with texts, phone calls, video chats, and 6-foot conversations in the neighborhood or on the local walking trail. Still, it’s not enough.
If routine was important to me before, and it was, routine has now been elevated to ritual. I am growing concerned about how structure can too easily become stricture, but for now, I need it. I need it to stay sane.
Regression. There’s been some of that, too. This is an emotional landscape that I am familiar with but had moved on from; the anxiety of leaving the house, the panicky feeling pulling out the neighborhood, the flight response at the store.
I’ve had some more grief dreams. They seem to crop up more when I’m not intentional about processing feelings on the regular.
In one dream, Paul and I were in our “home town” where we lived for twelve years, but we were leaving. We said we would visit on weekends and during the summer. When I woke, I was disoriented. Then, I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I’m by myself now. We’ll never go back there together.”
One day, I fell asleep on the couch. As I was waking, I heard Paul on the stairs. I called out to him, “Honey, will you get my eye drops, please?” Yeah. I actually said it out loud before I caught myself.
I’ve had anxiety dreams, too, where the roof is leaking or I’m chasing fire. Yes, chasing flames and trying to catch them in my hands, but they keep slipping through my fingers. I keep trying to grab them, but I can’t.
I’m also having recurring dreams about the television show Lost, particularly the portion of the show where we are introduced to the character, Desmond, who lives alone in the underground bunker, the guy who has to push a button every so many hours or something terrible happens.
BUT! There has also been progress. Check this out!
Yep! I’ve been able to focus on healthy food habits; shopping, eating…and cooking! As in cooking just for me. This.is.huge. For the first time since Paul died, I can honestly say that I am doing a good job of taking care of myself. This feels like a major shift for me. It feels like I’ve moved past something, not like anything is behind me, but more like I’ve cleared an important hurdle.
So, now what? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably because the isolation of being home alone and physically distanced from others has been extreme. I can clearly see now that I am so very capable of managing on my own and could do so for as long as I want…but is that what I want? Ohhh, now there’s a question! It’s the first time it’s even occurred to me to ask myself if that’s what I want, and if that’s not what I want, if I don’t want to be on my own, what then?
As usual, I have no idea what comes next, but I am so grateful for how far I’ve come in this grief and healing process. Making gratitude a continuous practice and staying focused on connecting, learning, and growing have made all the difference. Despite all the uncertainty in the world right now, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m going to be ok. Come what may. I’m going to be ok.
Here’s our quarantine, porch picture for posterity; surrounded by my fur-children, my constant companions, badly in need of a day at the salon, no make up. Just me. Smiling and grateful for the Lord’s provision, for the struggles that have made me stronger, and looking forward to what’s next.
…also making stops at Nostalgia Boulevard, Lonely Street, and my personal favorite (hmph!), Anxiety Avenue.
Hold on to your hats. This one is going to be a humdinger. My fellow bloggers, grief-specific and otherwise, are all weighing in on the holidays so I’ll dive in, too. Dive into the holiday deep end that is.
I have a distinct memory of the summer I dove off the diving board at the pool for the first time. I was ten. Now, certainly I had been jumping off the diving board for quite some time, feet first, but diving in head first was a different story. I was terrified of going in head first. I had so, so many failed attempts that it was becoming a spectator sport for my fellow swimmers and sunbathers, children and adults alike. There she goes. Will she do it this time? Oh, I think she will! There I was poised at the end of the board, all ten toes wrapped around the edge, in position, knees bent, arms overhead, hands crossed just so in order to break the surface of the water to protect my head from the force of the impact. This is it! I think she’s really going to do it. Some of them would even call out to me. You can do it! Go ahead. That’s right! You’ve got it this time! I would lean forward, begin to feel the pull of gravity, past the point of no return, and then change my mind at the last second; half stepping off, half jumping, half falling, arms wind-milling, eyes closed, face pinched tight. Then, one day when I was poised once again to take the plunge head first, someone suggested that I didn’t have to use force. I could simply allow myself to fall forward into the water. That suggestion changed everything. I got into position. My friends, neighbors, and swim team comrades must have sensed something was different this time because they began to gather around the edge of the pool at the deep end to cheer me on. And.I.did.it. I allowed myself to simply fall forward, head first, into the water. Also known as a dive. As I was making my way back up to the surface, even from within the cocoon of the water surrounding me, I could hear the muted, muffled sounds of everyone cheering.
So here goes.
Nostalgia (Boulevard) is more than just memories. There is a different quality to it, a sadness that borders on melancholy. It is sweeping and broad, equatorial, and leaves me listless like a sailboat held hostage in the Atlantic doldrums, at their mercy until another fickle wind arrives. Nostalgia leaves me impossibly longing for that which I have had and enjoyed but can never have again. And I am lonely. The phone calls and check-ins have tapered off as everyone said they would, and I understand and it’s okay, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. Then, there’s the mistress of ceremonies, anxiety. Let’s take a peek into her knack for choreographing my day….
I wake and go about my business getting ready for work, but my mind is already beginning to worry and spin. I’m finishing up in the shower…. Turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water. Nope. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off! I manage eventually to move on, get dressed, and make it to the kitchen, but I’m stuck. Move, move. It’s time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Me, still not moving. My feet will not advance. Sharp breath. Time to go! I make it to the back door. Open the door, open the door, turn the knob, Malia, turn the knob!
I share this because I want others to know what anxiety can feel like and what it can do, how it affects a person AND how well some people (yes, I am referring to myself) can hide it. I also share it so that others who have had similar experiences, and I know you are out there, know that you are not alone.
I know and fully understand that most of this is the holiday affect. I am grateful that I don’t live with this all the time. I have the reassurance of experience that tells me it’s temporary, a symptom brought on by grief. As difficult as the holidays are, anniversaries are harder, and folks, I’ve hit the grief jackpot, an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Yay. So, yesterday was, or maybe I should say would have been? Ugh, verb tenses, like pronouns, are now a complete mystery to me. Anyway, it was our anniversary, our wedding anniversary. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, Paul and I married. The memory of it is so quick and sharp that I can recall how the air smelled; woody, damp pine, oak, loamy soil, cedar, and smilax combined with salt-marsh and fallow fields and tea olive. It was a typically warm-ish, Lowcountry December day. The day began with scattered rain showers, but by 2 o’clock, it was sunny and breezy. I remember looking behind me to see my long veil was blowing sideways in the wind as I entered the church.
Yesterday was a weird day for me emotionally. I tend to be a bring-it kind of girl. Last year’s holidays were my first without Paul. Of course, it was going to be difficult. I was expecting it to be difficult. So, I had a plan and hurled myself forward through the holidays like I had the grabbed the ball at the 50 yard line and was making a charge for the end zone. In contrast, this year feels like a football field full of quick sand. I have frequently found myself sucked into the trance of a thousand-yard stare. On this day last year, I was compelled to spend the day at the place where Paul and I first met. This year, I didn’t feel called to do that. It might be a sign of growth and progress, or it might be avoidance. With grief, sometimes these two opposites actually appear the same.
Marcus Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston. He is brilliant and kind and a true artist. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to meet him and for my students to work with him. I was reading his poetry recently when I came across a poem he wrote on December 14, 2017, mine and Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary, the last one we celebrated together before he passed away. I don’t know how Marcus did it, but he channeled our relationship perfectly.
(…and you will be beautiful)
There will be a day when I won’t need mirrors because looking into your eyes will be the only reflection I’ll need to see myself.
The light of my countenance is a little dimmer these days. I find the weight of my smile has become too heavy. I just can’t hold up the corners of my mouth anymore. They keep falling. When I am alone, I let my entire face fall and the saltwater tears pool up to the brim of my eyes like buckets that are only a single drop from completely spilling over. In my ocean of grief, emotions swell as waves do. They rush toward the shore of my daily life and recede. Also, like the great oceans of the Earth, the surface may appear relatively calm, but there’s so much more happening below; great, swirling gyres of currents strong enough to move water around the entire planet. The emotions below the surface are equally powerful and forceful enough to drive mood and affect.
My mind is jumbled and out of sorts. It feels like this might be a little setback. I am reminded of another poem, the first poem I have a memory of, the first poem that taught me what a poem is, Fog by Carl Sandburg. We learned it in school in perhaps second or third grade. I was taken with it and read it over and over again.
The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.
Sandburg could easily be describing grief. Who knows? Maybe he was…..
The sadness comes/on little cat feet.
The fog of grief comes/on little cat feet.
….and if Sandburg was describing grief then there’s good news in the poem, too, in that grief like the fog, moves on.
When Paul was in the hospital, we had many pet therapy visits. We were grateful for the distraction, grateful for the opportunity to smile. We missed our own dogs who were back at home. Pet therapy visits made the whole room feel warmer, more relaxed. We cherished those visits and were so thankful. Once I was feeling strong enough, I knew it was something I needed to do for others in return.
Each week, I visit patients throughout the same hospital with my dog, Beatrice. She and Paul had a special bond, the way dogs seem to have a way of attaching themselves to a particular human even within a family. She and I worked hard for months to earn her certification. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, but she truly amazes me with her ability to connect with patients and how much she herself enjoys the work. She’s a very social, gregarious, and energetic(!) dog, but when I put the little vest on her she gets all serious and professional. She’s ready to go to work! Her demeanor changes with each room we go into. She reads the patient and responds accordingly. I have watched her lean in to patients, comforting them with her body weight. She gently creeps up closer to them, nuzzling into their arms and shoulders and sometimes even rests her head under their chin. She sees doctors and nurses and staff in the hallways and immediately drops and rolls over signaling an invitation to rub her belly exposing her softness and her trust. We frequently hear comments like That’s the first time I’ve seen that patient smile since she was admitted and Thank you so much. This made my day and This is exactly what I needed and This is as alert as I have seen that patient in days.
The experience never fails to provide me with perspective. It always clears the junk out of my head and heart, bringing laser sharp perspective. There’s nothing quite like it for practicing presence and gratitude. Time and grief are suspended. There is only the moment. Only the now, and it is such a welcome relief to lay down the burden of grief and share a moment of joy with others in the need of the same.
On my rounds, I often visit the children’s hospital including pediatric oncology. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words, especially not in this post, but it is hard for me to describe what it’s like to visit with a child who is fighting cancer. Their ability to take joy in the moment is inspiration to my soul. Beatrice and I walk in and the children’s faces just light up with smiles. I can’t see their smiles because they are hidden behind the masks they wear to protect what precious little is left of their weakened immune systems, but I know they are smiling because I can see the light shining through their eyes and their cheeks raised into little apples and the edges of the masks as Beatrice greets them with her warmth and her happy, wagging tail. Experiences like this bring focus and clarity about life, what’s really important, and the true nature of beauty. In these experiences, there is no past. There is no thought of the future. Only the present. Only that moment. Not five minutes ago. Not five minutes from now. Only that moment. And, in that moment, there is also eternity in the sense that all concept and awareness of the passage of time is lost. Time both stops and stretches on forever in all directions. When I leave the hospital, I find that my own cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It’s not a cure for grief, but it is a band-aid for sadness. Job 5:18 comes to mind, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”
At the end of this long and emotionally exhausting day, when I was questioning all that had transpired and all that lay ahead, I looked into the sky and….saw a shooting star. I was astonished. It was a rare gift in our section of the night sky. I mean we do have meteor activity it’s just that our coastal skies are often cloudy and this particular evening the moon was quite large and bright. I was also near the city so light pollution should have precluded being able to see any such activity, but there it was.
This has been a lengthy post. Apparently, I had stored up a lot of stuff that needed to be expressed. I realize that I should perhaps post more often!
The next post will be lighter. I promise. In fact, the next post will be about cookies 😉
Ok, so, truth be told, I’ve been back for several days, but, you know, life!
From The Hymnal 1982, #398 I sing the almighty power of God, v 3, “….while all the borrows life from thee is ever in thy care, and everywhere that I could be, thou, God, art present there.”
My trip to the Dominican Republic was amazing! There were less hiccups on this trip than on my Camino adventure, and I was a much more confident traveler than I was the last time although I will confess to a little travel anxiety at the start. For me, that presents itself in the form of irrational worries like a sudden sense of panic that I selected the wrong airport when making my reservations online. Did I get the airport code right? Am I accidentally flying to the wrong country? I better double check. Did allow enough time for my connection? I better call the help line and ask. Where’s my passport? Did I remember to pack this, that, and the other?? Did I put my medicine in my carry on? Where’s my phone? Did I lock the car?
I left my home at 3:30am and boarded a flight to Miami at about 5:30am. I easily made my connection in Miami (traveling win!) and flew into Santo Domingo, the capital city, at about 11:00am and was greeted with……ugh, a looonnggg line to get through immigration. I was frustrated. I was anxiously texting my friend, Ada, keeping her updated on the progress of what would become my hour-and-a-half long wait to get my passport stamped. Being who she is, she texted, “Ok relax”. This is one of the many reasons I love her. Despite the short time we have known each other, she totally gets me and knows what I need to hear. Those two little words delivered with love and compassion made all the difference. I suddenly felt like I could wait in that line forever, and it would somehow be ok. Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of these friends in my life!
By the way, flying into Miami is always a treat as that area of the country never seems to disappoint in the cloud department. The early morning departure provided me with a literal bird’s eye view of the sunrise, and, wow, was it spectacular. I was like a giddy kid with my nose pressed against the window. It’s like a cotton candy jungle up there with beautiful, spun filaments and fluffy mounds of pink and blue everywhere. When the sun begins to work its magic, those clouds glow like live embers in a smoldering campfire followed by whole fields of clouds rolling and advancing like thick floes of lava. It is quite the show!
After finally getting through immigration, Ada picked me up and whisked me off to a beautiful lunch overlooking the ocean at Boca Marina Restaurant. The sound of the water, the warm ocean breeze, and the expansive view were just what I needed after the cramped airplane and pressing crowd of the immigration line.
In the evening, we met our other friends at Parque Colon (Columbus Park), home of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, in the Colonial Zone. The Colonial Zone is the historic, colonial district of the city. It is filled with shops, restaurants, historic buildings, and plazas where people meet to walk and talk, drink and dine, smile and laugh, and spend time together. The Dominican people are truly beautiful. A cross-cultural recipe of Spanish, African, and indigenous peoples shines in their faces. The street life is vibrant; rich with color and the smell of delicious foods, local produce, and the sound of merenque on every corner accompanied by crowds of people listening and spontaneously dancing in the plazas and along the sidewalks. It is glorious!
The next morning we set off for the mountains and countryside. Along the way, we stopped at a fantastic café, Miguelina’s Panaderia y Reposteria. They make fresh the most delicious breads and sweets, coffee, and fruit smoothies. From there, we made our way to Alta Vista Restaurant. We traveled by car to get there, but there is the option to arrive by helicopter from nearby locales. The view and the food were amazing as was the company. Next, we drove to a high mountain reservoir, Tavera Dam, where we boarded a boat for a day on the water with thanks to Ada’s brother, Ramon. In the late afternoon, we pulled up to a lakeside restaurant, La Presa de Taveras, serving the local catch. It was a truly beautiful day!
A long walk around the city the next morning before boarding the plane made my experience complete. It was a quick trip, but my Camino family and I made the most of it by seeing the sites and staying focused on the most important thing which was having time to enjoy each other’s company and give thanks that God brought us all together is this way.
Where’s the beef, ahem, I meant, grief?!
….to quote a fast food restaurant’s famous ad campaign from the 1980s. It went on to become a catchphrase implying where the substance or meaning is in a particular event or idea.
Well, the grief, my friends, is where it’s always at, crouching on coiled limbs in my heart, in my soul. The sadness still creeps in or pounces when I least expect it. I am still caught off guard by thoughts of sharing experiences with Paul. I am still uneasy without him by my side in so many situations, but right alongside that grief is gratitude and growth. I am so thankful for all that I have and all that I am and all that I am becoming.
I find myself becoming less and less interested in happiness. It never lasts. It’s bought, sold, and traded like a commodity. I am interested only in joy. Joy is eternal, and, along with gratitude, is the only counterbalance to grief and suffering. Joy happens in the small, quiet moments among friends and family and strangers when people connect. Joy happens when you’re dancing on a street corner or when your nose is pressed to a window watching the sunrise or when taking a long, deep breath of the ocean breeze. Joy is born out of contentment with all that life encompasses….birth, death, sadness, happiness, failure, success, fear, anger, acceptance, rejection. I am learning that joy can be present in the midst of it all if I approach life with gratitude and a desire to grow.
I am so completely thankful for Ada. God truly placed her in my life to encourage me to continue to learn and grow. She inspires me in all the best ways. For Ada, love is an action word. She shows me through her generous spirit how to cultivate and maintain connections. Ada inspires me to be more connected, more generous, to be more.
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 interventionssuch 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.
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. 2 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. 3 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.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast;
it is not arrogant 5 or rude.
It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b]6 it does
not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for
tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 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.
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
Get up close to your elephants, friends, and the room will be yours!
“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
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
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.
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,
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.