Happy Holidays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Frederick William Faber, 1862)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malia

Is my grief normal? A play in three acts.

Act I

(MALIA enters an administrator’s office from stage left. The director of personnel is seated at a conference table, waiting.)

I just landed my dream job, and I’m devastated. Emotionally that is. My rational mind is so excited at the challenge of this new position and the opportunity to harness the full scope of my education and robust experiences. I am eager to stretch and grow and have a broader impact, but it also means leaving my current workplace, leaving my people. I cried for a week before the interview at the mere possibility that I might get this job and all that it would mean. I am worried about maintaining my connections, and then I came across this from one of my son’s former schoolmates and heart transplant recipient, Will Hunt, “When something big happens to you and you have to leave comfort and you have to change, it can be very scary.” I feel like I am having a figurative heart transplant. My emotional heart is leaving the comfort I have developed with my colleagues, and I am terrified. It strikes me as an odd reaction to good news. In fact, I almost never seem to be feeling like I think I ought to feel, and I often find myself having the opposite of the socially expected reaction to many situations. It’s emotional chaos in here, friends, and it makes me wonder how grief may have rewired my brain and altered my emotional processing system. Every experience, every interaction is filtered through the sieve of grief. Is that normal? Is it temporary? Or is this my new existence, my new state of being?

Act II

(MALIA is in the kitchen of an Airbnb shared with her ladies tennis league teammates. A celebration is underway. The ladies are exhausted but exuberant and celebrating their state championship win. Everyone begins to trickle away from the kitchen to get cleaned up for dinner, and MALIA is alone.)

428 days. It’s been 428 days since Paul died, and on this day, after a big win and wonderful day on the tennis courts with friends, feeling spent but happy, I thought to myself, “I should call Paul.” Really!? After 428 days, I actually thought about picking up the phone and calling him. Four hundred, twenty-eight days, and, for a split second, I thought of him as still alive. I think something is wrong with me! How can I still be so disoriented? Even for a few seconds? Crouching tiger, hidden grief. It makes me long for the days last year when I could see the wave of grief coming in the distance. I had time then to run for cover, batten down the hatches, steel myself against the coming storm. I remember people saying that, in some ways, the second year is harder. I also remember indignantly thinking, “Ha! Well! There’s no way that can be true!” Ugh. This new normal doesn’t feel normal at all. Nowadays, it’s all about the sneak attack. I feel like grief lulls me into a seemingly false sense of wellness and then pounces. Maybe this is because the stretches of wellness are getting longer, and the periods of sadness are getting shorter. That’s a good thing. I’ll take whatever I can get and be grateful.

Act III

(MALIA is in a hospital room in the emergency department. Her son is dressed in a hospital gown and laying on a gurney, intravenous fluids are running wide open, monitors are beeping. He is febrile, tachycardic, and his blood pressure is dangerously low. He’s sweaty, white as a sheet, and his breathing is labored. MALIA is seated by Aaron’s side. Around her neck and clutched in her hand is a heart shaped, miniature urn containing Paul’s ashes. The room number is B17. Seemingly impossible but true, it is the exact same room she sat in with Paul on February 12, 2018, the day he was admitted to the hospital, three days before the diagnosis, and 34 days before he died.)

First of all, Aaron is fine, but it was scary. He had a very dramatic, allergic reaction to a routine immunization he was required to have for school. Aaron’s condition was initially mysterious. We couldn’t quite nail down what was going on. There was, of course, a full battery of tests, but the results made the situation less clear not more so. With medical support and monitoring overnight, he was released early the next day. To say that I was utterly stunned to find myself back in that room would be a gross understatement.

When the emergency staff ushered us into the room, I blurted out, “Oh, my God.”

As if saying so would defy reality, Aaron shot back, “It’s not.”

“It is,” I said with a heavy sigh.

“Did you ask to be moved to a different room?” my sister-in-law wanted to know in a later phone conversation.

“No,” I replied, “I just talked with Paul and told him that we had been there with him, and now we needed him to be there with us.”

And I did feel like he was right there with us. There was a bizarre, incomprehensible kind of comfort in being in that room where I knew Paul had also been, and despite the situation, I was not panicked. Instead, I was calm, steely, resolute. Why wasn’t I panicked? Why wasn’t I freaking out? I think I must be some kind of emotional weirdo!

Epilogue

(MALIA, party of one, center stage. Behind her is her kitchen table in spot light, laptop open and at the ready, a vase of cone flowers, picked and given by her niece)

In John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that if they loved him, they would rejoice because He was going to the Father. Talk about mixed up emotions. Down is up. Up is down. Here are the disciples having been completely wrecked by the crucifixion, elated at the resurrection and Jesus’ return, and now utterly decimated at hearing that Jesus is leaving them, and Jesus tells them that they should be rejoicing. What!?! The poor disciples must have felt like a June bug on a string. So, why rejoice? Two reasons. Jesus tells them he’s going to the Father, and let’s face it, there’s no better place to be, AND he’s leaving them with a helper, the Holy Spirit, our teacher and our memory of the personhood of Jesus. Let not our hearts (our emotional seat) be troubled or afraid. Indeed! Is rejoicing the socially correct response when someone you love is going away forever? No, and yet that is the response that the disciples are told is the appropriate response. Is this what it means to be in the world but not of the world? I am beginning to see that my grief and my faith together are reshaping the way I respond to the world, and it’s not necessarily normal. But, really, what’s so great about normal?

Isaiah 43:18-19 says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” And Revelation 21:5 says, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

Notice, friends, that it does not say, “Behold, I am making all things normal.”

So, no, maybe my grief is not normal, and I am learning that perhaps it is better that it is not. Paul always encouraged me to chart my own course. I don’t see why this grief experience should be approached any differently.

Decidedly, blessedly abnormal, Malia