Hi, I’m Malia, and I am happy to be here. Really. I am!

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 wanted 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 though, 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.’

–Frederick B. Macnutt, The prayer manual for private devotions or public use on divers occasions: Compiled from all sources ancient, medieval, and modern (A.R. Mowbray, 1951)

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 hear, 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 command you today, by love 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 hear 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 fit.

Begin by asking friends and family for recommendations. 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.

It is still my constant hope and prayer, Malia

Sweet Somethings in My Ear

Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.

Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:

It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.

The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.

A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of us.

“I truly believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)

It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.

Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.

One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.

Again from Paul….

February 18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit. Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue about dying sooner just to win!”

As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.

At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.

Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.

Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.

A child of God, the father to us all, Malia

The story of Paul’s last day.

Friends, this post will be difficult for all of us. If you’ve had a very recent loss, it’s probably not the best time to read this one. Save it for later when you’re stronger. I am not even sure I should be sharing this. I don’t know who it will help. Maybe you, but maybe just me. I do know that I feel called to share it, and I am very sure that it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Modern medicine has essentially removed death from our everyday lives. People today don’t experience the number of personal losses to death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have readily available treatments and cures, accidents, and the prevalence of livestock in people’s everyday lives. We had so many rituals and social structures around death that supported and ushered people through the process. Mourning jewelry that contained images and remains were prevalent. People do still wear mourning or remembrance type jewelry, but it is typically disguised as regular jewelry so that no one but the wearer knows that it contains ashes, a lock of hair, or is actually a finger print or the impression of the electrical impulse of a heart beat from an electrocardiogram. Death has become something to be handled discreetly, privately. I believe that has made it more difficult for those who are grieving, and we are all grieving. We need to talk about it! Candidly. But we don’t. People don’t talk about it when they have been witness to the final moments of life. It’s painful. It’s intensely personal. It’s packed with conflicting emotions that are difficult to describe in words. Perhaps it’s not considered polite to share the contents of that experience. Honestly, manners—superficial, defined social structures—don’t matter that much to me anymore. People, feelings, experiences, being totally present, deeply listening, understanding, and questioning are the things that I care about and pour myself into these days. Transparency, vulnerability, truth. These are the conduits to healing.

The last two weeks leading up to Paul’s last day had been a constant effort to keep him comfortable. The cancer was pervasive. It was everywhere, lungs, brain, abdomen, colon, liver, intestines, everywhere. Our chief concern was, of course, managing pain. We soon arrived at a crossroads where, in order to manage the pain and keep him comfortable, we would have to relinquish his ability to remain conscious. This was an insanely difficult decision-making process for us to navigate. We knew every choice we made about the medications that were being used could mean that we were interacting with the essence of what made Paul Paul for the last time. Some of the drugs being used to manage pain could, in fact, lead to his death. During this time, Paul would have what we described as long pauses. There would be periods of time when he would just stop breathing. We would all huddle close to him thinking that the moment had come. Then, after up to two or three minutes (an eternity!), he would start breathing again. These long pauses happened multiple times a day for days on end. It was traumatizing. Because our son and I would frequently take turns going home to sleep, shower, changes clothes, and walk dogs, there were several times when a period of long pauses occurred when one of us was not at the hospital. When this happened, we would call the one who was not there and stay on the phone while we hurried to get back to the hospital terrified that we might miss Paul’s final moment. Like I said, traumatizing.

He had not been conscious in over a week. The Paul we knew was gone, but his body remained. It was hard to understand what was keeping him tethered. A member of the palliative care team explained that sometimes the dying have a need for privacy in their final moments. So, our son and I left the room for several hours at a stretch, both of us, for the first time since Paul was admitted to the hospital, but it only seemed to agitate him. Even unconscious, Paul rested more comfortably when we were in the room. I asked a member of our palliative care team why Paul was lingering when it was so difficult. I just didn’t understand how his body could possibly be enduring. The palliative care team member I was speaking to was an older doctor, and he gently explained to me, in the most beautiful way, something that had never occurred to me before. He said that, in his career, he had been present at countless deaths and countless births. He said that not all people arrive easily. For some, the birth process is difficult, a struggle, and that the same is true of the death process. For some, it is difficult. It is a struggle. I’m not sure why that had never occurred to me. Again, I think it might be because we as a society do not talk and share enough about the ubiquitous human experience that is the dying process. It makes sense, though, right? Birthing is called labor. There is pain. Then, so, too, dying is also a labor, and some labor more than others just as in the birthing process. Paul was in labor, struggling to be born into the next life, and we were witnesses, but after talking with the doctor, I saw myself as a coach as well and began to think about what Paul needed from me, how I could come alongside him as his partner in the process instead of merely his care-giver and advocate.

On morning of the last day, I arrived at the hospital early. Our son had been with Paul through the night and headed home for a little while. Shortly after our son left, Paul’s breathing became labored and noisy, loud. It was difficult to be in the room. It was brutal.

I sent this message out to family and friends. “We are on our knees this morning. This road is very, very difficult. But we are not alone. We feel the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. Any strength you perceive in us, I have to tell you is not us, but Him. I am running on His Grace alone. There is nothing left but His Grace. Everything else has been stripped away. We are laid bare in the pain and struggle of it. I have honestly never experienced anything worse than this, and yet I rest in the comfort of my Savior’s embrace. We love you all.”

In desperation, I cried out to God to be merciful. This was my prayer that day, “Please, Lord God, have mercy on your servant, Paul. He belongs to You. He has always belonged to you, Lord, and now I am begging you to have mercy. I am thankful for the days you have given us. I am sorry for the many ways I have fallen short. Please, Lord, be merciful.” Then, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Paul, the way a wife talks with a husband. I told him that we were trying everything we knew to keep him comfortable, but we were failing. I told him that we could not heal him, but God could. After 30 years of complete and utter love and devotion, I told Paul for the last time that I loved him, but that God loved him more. Yes, God loved him more. That was an important realization for me. I had always thought that I loved Paul most and best, but that was actually never true. God always loved him more. I also talked to Paul about all the wonderful, fun, sad, difficult, normal, extraordinary things we had done together. We were always together, but this was different. He would have to do this last thing on his own, and I told him I knew he could do it. He had to go on ahead of me, and he had to do it by himself.

Our son arrived back at the hospital about noon, and the labored breathing continued throughout the day. In the evening, he was suddenly quiet. The three of us spent the rest of night together peacefully. I awoke at about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why because on the surface nothing had changed. Paul was still quiet and peaceful. So, I just sat there with him holding his hand. The pace of his breath quickened, and I spoke with the nurse about a medication change. She administered the medication, but his breathing continued to be erratic. I woke our son up. He and I surrounded his dad with love and joy and gratitude and saw him traverse the threshold from this world to his eternal home.

When it comes to cancer, everyone prays for a miracle. Well, we did have a miracle. It was not a happy ending in the traditional sense as in a cure, but it was a peaceful, dignified ending. The miracle is that, given what we were facing, Paul died peacefully and with dignity surrounded by family, friends, and so much love.

I have used this picture in a previous post, and you may have thought, as I did, Why am is she (am I) smiling? When I saw myself in this picture, that was my first thought. Why am I smiling? Initially, I didn’t have an answer for that question. Over time, I realized why. For me, the hardest part was watching Paul in pain, watching Paul die, and that part was thankfully, blessedly over. I could not even cry. I felt so ridiculous, not being able to cry, but I was so happy for Paul, that the pain and suffering was over. My grieving was delayed by relief. I recently saw a picture of another young widow, an acquaintance of mine from high school. Her husband died of cancer, 49 years old. In the picture, the day of her husband’s funeral, she is smiling, just like me. I know why.

Be blessed, 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

About Paul – About Us

On February 12, 2018, I took my husband, Paul, to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Three days later he was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma. Cancer. Rare and aggressive, and on March 18, he passed away. He was brave and strong and faithful to the end.

When I met Paul, I had just turned 18. He had just turned 30. Now, I know what you are thinking because it’s what everyone thought. But thirty years later, our relationship had endured and born fruit, real fruit in our precious son and spiritual fruit in our own lives, and, hopefully, also in the lives of others. So, in that way, one of the first things he taught me, or tried to teach me, was not to be sooooo concerned with what everyone else thought and to chart my own course, our own course. That lesson has served me well. When I met Paul, I had never been west of Atlanta. That was the second lesson. Get out there! Learn new things, have new experiences, enjoy the world! He certainly did. Whether it was gardening in his own back yard or exploring new places, we always enjoyed it more when we were together. He was interested in and fascinated by the world…nature, science, history, people, how things worked. One of our first great adventures together was white water rafting. It was a beautiful summer day in Tennessee. I was excited but also nervous, and by the time we were in the raft and heading for the rapids, I was more than nervous. I was scared. He looked over at me, and it must have been written all over my face because he nudged me and said “Hey, you’re ok. It’s fun!”, and it wasn’t long before I was having the time of my life.

When I was with Paul, I was always having the time of my life. That’s how he was. He made everything more fun. He lit up the room. He had the easiest smile, and holy smokes, those dimples! One day during our hospital stay, a nurse asked how we met. We were telling her how our story began, and she turned to me and said, “You must have been helpless!” and the truth is, I was helplessly in love with him. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. His family took me in, and loved me as their own. His friends took me in, and loved me as their own.

Paul had a generosity of spirit that belied the personal struggles he had endured. He was always so quick to offer encouragement to others. He encouraged me in everything. He gave himself to others so completely. He loved working with kids. He was patient and understanding and lifted others up. He even offered encouragement to his doctors particularly students and young residents. He was intuitive and perceptive, and he had a powerful gift for changing others’ perception of themselves. He had that ability, that amazing ability to make people feel better about themselves. WOW!

He had a quick wit. Cancer took everything from him, his very life, but it could not take his sense of humor. He retained that until the end. He often had his doctors and nurses smiling and laughing. He drew people to him. Doctors, nurses, and technicians came to his room “just to visit”. He was always so easy to be around. Near the end, he woke only briefly from time to time. It was on one of these occasions that he asked for our son, but he had gone home for just a little while to shower and change clothes. I told Paul that he wasn’t there, but he would be back soon and that he was “stuck with me” in the meantime. Paul said, “It could be worse.” I replied, “Yes, I suppose it could be worse.” Not missing a beat, he responded, “There could be two of you”, and smirked. That was Paul, flattering but always reeling you back in.

Paul was not afraid of dying. He was tired of the struggle, and he was ready. He was sad about leaving us. He was worried about how we would manage without him. His last piece of advice to me, the last thing he had to teach me was this… “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

Fred Rogers said, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.” And Paul certainly did that. Scott Hamilton, four time cancer survivor, said “We are designed for struggle. We’re better off. We are more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle much more than we are in our good fortune.” I have discovered that true healing has occurred when you can be thankful for the suffering, and I am thankful!

Introduction

“Paul had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”

That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.

This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.

Yours truly, Malia