Spring is here. Paul is not.

That gasping, gulping sound is me. Being pulled under. Again.

It’s been quite the week. In nearly 27 years of marriage, I had never been away from Paul for even three or four days, let alone months, or a year! It was also his birthday this week. He would have been 60 years old. His birthday is now a grief anniversary. John Pavlovitz talks about grief anniversaries in his latest blog here. My feelings about the passage of this first year without Paul are mixed. In a way, it seems like it went by so fast that it’s a blur but also like the longest year of my life. There were times that I didn’t think I would survive the first year, and now I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that the second year may be even harder than the first, and I just want to scream.

Initially, the grief did come in waves. More lately, I have found myself being ambushed by grief. I feel as if I am being stalked by grief. It’s waiting for me around every corner, creeping up on me. The tears come hot and fast, and full of anger. The works. Grief is not linear. It’s not a start-to-finish, straight course race. It’s a steeplechase with hurdles, jumps, thick hedges, and water obstacles. So I’ve had setback. It’s not the first one. That “I don’t want to do any of this” feeling is creeping in again. Thoughts press in uninvited. And the sadness is so heavy. It weighs me down. It’s like a train that just has to roll on through. I’m stuck at the crossing watching it rhythmically advance steadily by, and I’m not going anywhere. I find myself retreating more and more to the safety of the house, hibernating, being in the position of having to force myself, make myself get out and do things when all I really want to do is disappear. This is dangerous territory, and I know it.

I am fully aware that my perception is distorted. I know that, and yet that realization does not diminish the experience. I actually wish sometimes that I didn’t have this insight or awareness. The insight leads to frustration for me. It is maddening. Sometimes grief feels like madness.

I am not eating. I am not sleeping. I am not getting to work on time. My boss looks at me sideways but says nothing. I don’t like being late (we’re talking 5-10 minutes here folks), but I just can’t manage in the mornings most days. The struggle is REAL. I don’t know what to DO about it except throw my hands up and accept that I am a work in progress, and at the moment, this is the best I can do. I don’t know what to SAY except that my husband died a year ago, and this is what my life is like now. In the weeks immediately after Paul died, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to go back to work at all. I wasn’t sure I could do my job anymore.

Us.

Paul took care of me. We took care of each other. Some days, sometimes for stretches of weeks at a time, I’m not being very successful at taking care of myself. There’s good deal of research that looks at a lot of different causes, but reports seem to agree that there is about an 18% increase of mortality in widowhood. Yes, you read that right. We are a vulnerable population.

So, I have to go back. Go back to my Griefwork Toolbox and get down to business. When I get like this, my counselor always reminds me that I can recover. We’ve been here before. It can get better. We know it can get better. We know I’m capable because I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.

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

Good Grief! The Truth about Psychic Injury

People say there is not a right way to grieve and I agree, but I also believe there is a wrong way because I did it the wrong way once and can clearly see the impact of that on my life. I have had two significant episodes with grief during my life. I am not talking about losing a grandparent or dear friend who has reached the end of their natural life span and dies an expected death. I am talking about the kind of life altering grief that comes with an unexpected, tragic death. My mother died in a car accident when I was twelve. I struggled with grief for years. Actually, I take that back. I made grief my friend. I used it to drive me in fact. I was comfortable with it because it meant I didn’t have to let go of my mother and move on. The problem was there’s really no way to suppress one emotion and not the others. So, while I had a lid on the grief, there was also a lid on my ability to experience joy. Eventually, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. With the help of my husband and a good counselor, I was finally able to come to terms with my grief and find joy in my life and relationships again. However, when it came to my relationships, my people, I still operated under the false belief that if I took care of them well enough, loved them enough, made all the right decisions, that I would not lose the ones I loved again. Yeah, I know, irrational, but grief has an element of irrationality to it and without some objective checks and balances the grieving mind can convince itself of anything in order to feel safe and attempt to avoid being hurt by loss again.

This time was different. I knew I had made mistakes in how I previously dealt with grief, and I was determined to get it right. I began seeing a grief counselor the week after Paul died and continue to do so. I joined a grief group at church called GriefShare. I read books about grief. I confronted the painful stuff head on, early and often. I took a deep dive. Some people call this leaning in. I’ve worked hard at it, and the experience has been powerfully different.

Let’s talk about psychic injury. Grief is an injury to the brain, the psyche. You have been injured and steps must be taken in order to heal properly. When you break your leg, you get treatment, a cast, medication, physical therapy, and see a doctor regularly to monitor the healing process. Your brain, your psyche, needs the same attention. Grief can be defined as a transient state of mental disorder. In my opinion, that is fair. The word disorganization could be substituted for disorder. There is a fog that comes with grief. It is difficult to concentrate or think straight. In the early days after Paul’s death, several people told me grief comes in waves. I had no idea what they meant. Now, I do. In fact, sometimes, in my mind, I am standing on shore, and I can see the wave coming in the distance. There’s nothing I can do. It’s coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that wave of grief and overwhelming sadness any more than I could stop a real life wave coming toward shore on a day at the beach. It’s coming. The only real question is How long will I be under? How long will it toss and tumble me beneath the surface before I am able to come up for air. When the wave arrives, crashing through my mind and my life, some of the things I hear myself say frequently are “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do any of this!” and “My thoughts are not my own. Thoughts, images press in without being invited, and I can’t push them away.” My husband’s illness and death was traumatic, and I experience flashbacks. I have moments when I am back in his hospital room, and it is real. All of my senses are involved, and I can feel every moment of it again. I have learned that this is normal, and as time has gone on, the flashbacks are fewer and farther between. Grief can also be complex. It can be complicated by identity and attachment issues. I met my husband when I was very young having just turned eighteen years old. We spent 30 years together. A lot of my personal identity was wrapped up in our relationship. Complex grief apparently occurs when the departed and the bereaved were unusually close to one another. Hmmmm, I would say we definitely resemble that remark.

Here’s what you can do to take care of yourself while your psyche heals.

  • Rest as much as possible. Grief is exhausting! If you need medication to help you sleep, that’s ok, but do so with the intention of it being temporary. Put an expiration date on any medicinal intervention. Take time off from work as needed, if possible. If it’s not possible to take time off because, well, life happens, then make time during the day to have a mindfulness walk or a mindfulness moment. My mindfulness walks include three phases: gratitude, reflection on places where I have fallen short, and petitions.
  • Exercise is crucial. It doesn’t matter what it is, but consider something that is social because building new relationships and making new connections is also crucial. I enjoyed playing tennis before Paul passed away, and I made sure to continue, but I also started walking or running daily. I took it a step further and joined a local running club. I enjoyed yoga before Paul died, too, and continued that as well. ANY exercise you do will help in all kinds of ways. I even tried “goat yoga” and a kickboxing class! Talk about working out your emotions! My main tip here is to just not take it too seriously. You might have to make yourself do it, but you won’t regret it. You will feel better!
  • Eat healthy foods, or at least don’t eat too much junk food. Remember, your mind is in the midst of a healing process and needs good fuel.
  • Learn as much as you can about grief. Reading about the grieving process and listening to the perspectives of others can be very reassuring that your experiences, while unique, are a normal and natural part of being human. It is also reassuring to know that people do recover and you can, too!

If you are reading this blog and grieving the loss of a loved one, please know you are not alone. I am thinking of you, and praying for you!

Malia

Goat yoga!