It’s not the end of the world. Except, when it is.

“It’s not the end of the world.” Have you ever used that phrase? Have you said it to someone who was taking something very hard and perhaps needed some perspective on the situation? Has someone said it to you? I have certainly dished it out on occasion and been on the receiving end, too. And, to be frank, there are times when I needed to both hear it and consider its element of truth. Sometimes we do need that shot or jolt of perspective to snap us out of being overly distraught about a disappointment or challenge that, in the grand scheme of things, is a bump in the road, not a mountain but merely a mole hill. That’s another often used phrase, at least in the south anyway, that is usually meant to gently snap someone out of a funk over one of life’s many challenges and obstacles. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.

However, when my husband died, it literally was the end of the world. As I knew it. I remember having that exact feeling and thought when my mother died, too. My life is over. And, when Paul died, I thought, Damn. My life is over. Again.

There’s a knee-jerk reaction from people when thoughts like this are said out loud….“Don’t say that!” and “Oh, now, that’s not true”. These rebuttals are said presumably to be a comfort but are more likely meant to quiet the grieving person because the raw truth out and running loose around the room is just too much for most people to handle. So, just for future reference for those of you in proximity to a griever, the preferred response, in my opinion, is one that is honest, acknowledges the deeper meaning of such statements, and at the same time, offers hope and encouragement. It should go something like this, “You’re right. Life as you knew it, your life together, is over. Now, you will start, little by little, to build a new life for yourself, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

The question then becomes how we are going to build and shape that new life, our new world. This is where grief becomes a vehicle for growth. My first bout with grief when my mother died was such a different experience than this has been. Bout is a wrestling or boxing match term but is often used to refer to an attack of illness or strong emotion of a specified kind. I think grief qualifies. As a child, I made grief my friend, my partner, my security, because it was always there. As an adult, I have co-opted grief and used it as a spring board to the rest of my life. It might just be the difference between experiencing grief as a child versus as an adult, or it could be an indicator of where I am in my spiritual development. Ephesians 4:11-16 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from who the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Yes, indeed.

In Isaiah 6:1-7, Isaiah has an encounter with God. In a vision, he saw God and with that his sin was revealed, exposed. He saw clearly how broken beyond repair he was. He said, “Woe is me! for I am undone”. In another translation he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then, in Isaiah’s vision, a seraphim with a set of tongs holding a burning, hot coal that had been taken from the altar flew to him and touched his lips with the coal. The seraphim announced that Isaiah was cleansed. His sins had been atoned for. He had been restored to a right relationship with God. An encounter with God enables us to see ourselves more clearly. It is difficult. It can be painful, but it is critical to self-awareness and self-knowledge. Plato said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. There is nothing like grief for giving us the opportunity to examine our lives, to take stock, to do a complete personal inventory to see where the shelves are full and where they are lacking.

So, just recently, I’ve started to notice some signs of progress. One in particular got my attention. I have actually been feeling well enough to start making some changes in the house. I updated the family pictures, changed around some furniture, started redecorating the guest bedrooms, and replaced some framed artwork with different artwork. This may seem trivial, but I take it as a significant indicator of my health and well-being, my progress, that I’m able to make changes in the house instead of treating it like a shrine. If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you might think to yourself, “What is she talking about? She has jumped out of plane, taken on a new position at work, successfully developed new routines, and even traveled to another continent, by herself no less! Are those not greater evidence of progress than moving some stuff around in the house?” Not really, and here’s why. All of those accomplishments are entirely novel. They have no connection to my life with Paul. The real challenge and the real progress is in adjusting to doing everyday life without Paul.

Here are some more areas that I count as signs of progress…..

I can sit on the couch alone and watch TV.

I can tolerate something different in my home. I can tolerate household items being in a different location in the house.

I can make food for myself (occasionally) beyond a frozen dinner.

I can project myself into the future. I can imagine what the future looks like with me in it.

I can go to work consistently.

I can sleep <most> nights.

I can go inside the grocery store if I have to instead of using the pick-up service.

I can sit through a church service (still glued to our pew though) without tears or having to excuse myself.

And, finally, drum roll please……the morning, kitchen paralysis has been replaced by the morning, kitchen dance-jam with the dogs and often shared with friends on the Marco Polo app.

Rock on, my friends. Rock on, Malia

Untitled (because I can’t think of a good one right now)

The fog of grief. Widow-brain. Whatever we choose to call it. It’s real, and it comes and goes. It is not limited to the time immediately after a loved one’s passing. It makes it harder to do even the most ordinary things. When the fog rolls in, my mind is constantly wandering off course, like a diversion to a stream. When reading anything, a book, instructions, directions, a magazine, I sometimes I have to read aloud just to maintain my focus, concentration, attention, and I usually have to read something two or three times before it sinks in.

I can’t find anything in the house. I can’t find my keys, my shoes, my bag(s), my hair clips, my water bottle, my phone. I miss appointments. I forget to take my medicine. I forget to eat. I forget what day it is! I have always thought of myself as an organized, got-my-sh*t-together kind of person, but now I know the truth. All along, it was Paul, taking up my slack and letting me think I had everything in order. Apparently, my whole life has been a lie! <insert smirk>

Case in point. At a recent yoga session, my instructor was patrolling the room, quietly making adjustments here and there, squaring hips, turning joints, re-positioning shoulders. She arrived at my mat where I was working on my very best down-dog ever, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, goody! She’s about to give me some one-on-one, personal attention, some corrective feedback, encouragement or praise even (yippee!),’ and then she leaned in and whispered, “Did you know your pants are on inside out?” This, friends. This is my life on grief.

***

Grief Dreams:  Waiting at the Foot of Jacob’s Ladder, or When Paul Comes to Visit

Genesis 28:10-12 “Jacob left Beersheba and went toward Haran. And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!”

Grief dreams are apparently pretty common. I checked on that just to make sure I am not going crazy because I have them nearly every night or at least I do lately anyway. I try not to over-analyze or put too much stock in what dreams mean. I try to take them at face-value. As far as I can tell, they are a normal part of grieving. Just another cog in the wheel of grief and healing.

Sometimes I dream that it is morning. I am awake and busy with little household chores, but Paul is still in the bed snoozing, sleeping late. Other times, I dream that I am lying beside him. In the dream, I am awake, and he is asleep beside me. I can feel the weight of him next to me, the warmth of him. I can hear him breathing softly. I can even feel his sharp elbow or his round hip fitting into my side like a puzzle piece.

Some of the dreams are just random and seemingly meaningless. In one recent dream, we were riding in our truck. The side view mirror was smashed, and there were multiple dings in the windshield. He was upset about it, but I told him we would just call the insurance company and tell them the truck had been vandalized. But some of the dreams, and their meanings, are completely obvious like one dream where I walked in the door from work and Paul was standing in the kitchen. I threw my stuff down and walked into his embrace. I woke up from this dream because I could feel the smile on my face. I could feel his stubbly beard on my chin and cheeks. It was one of those sweet, pressing kisses with a smile underneath followed by a mu-wah! It was a happy, smiling, chuckling kiss. I said, “I’m so happy to see you!” I could feel his hands and his warmth. I’m smiling just writing this. I could breathe again. I had forgotten what that was like, to have air in my body. I breathed a sigh, an ahhhhh. I was whole again. My eyes were shining bright, sparkling with tears just at the edges and corners like liquid glitter.

In another dream, I was calling out the window and door to a neighbor for help. I called her once, twice, three times. Her name was Rose, but we don’t have a neighbor named Rose. My middle name is Rose. Paul was on the couch apparently dead as he was pale and limp. Rose kept calling out to me saying she was coming, but she never did. Then, she was there but her body wasn’t. I went to the couch and Paul had changed color. He was alive but delirious and laughing lightly in a silly kind of way, and then I woke up.

Finally, in a very recent dream, Paul and I were much younger. We were living in a different city. We were in the kitchen, and Paul was leaning against the counter near the sink, one foot propped in front of the other with hands flat on the counter, fingers forward, elbows out at 90 degree angles. He was relaxed. I was making one of my famous speeches. I was tense and was enumerating a list of reasons he should stay, as in stay in our marriage. I don’t know why he was leaving. There had been no apparent argument. We were not angry with each other. He was just leaving, leaving me. I was making a persuasive argument of all the reasons why Paul should stay with me. Some of the reasons I dogmatically listed were things like for the sake of our families, our son. I asked him to be more patient with me, acknowledged that I had made mistakes in the past, but I was improving all the time. I asked him to give me time to learn and grow and that if he looked back across all the time that we had been together he could see the progress that I had made. When it became apparent that none of my persuasive points were going to change his decision, I turned to the practicalities of how and when he would be leaving. The gears ground and the transmission groaned. The dream began to slip, and I found myself in the space between waking and sleeping. In that half-world, I thought to myself, “That was dumb. I should have told him the real reason I didn’t want him to leave. The main reason for him to stay is that I love him and don’t want him to go. It’s the only argument that matters.” Then, I thought, “I’m going to tell him that when we wake up.” In the half-world, I have found that I can choose to re-enter a dream or rise to consciousness. In this case, I rose to consciousness. Reality roiled in my stomach. I sat up on the side of the bed and said a very.bad.word. I had the impulse to scream and throw things but was so spent from the fitful sleep that I didn’t have the energy to do so. This, friends. This is my life on grief.

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon our hearts.” Aeschylus

***

It can’t be.

It can’t be late summer. It can’t be the start of another school year, but it is. I am constantly amazed that the sun rises, amazed by the beginning of each new day. Not because of the miracle that it is, not the gift of it which I am grateful for, not its beauty which is undeniable, not because of any of those true and worthy aspects. I live in a constant state of astonishment that life goes on. None of this is supposed to be happening without Paul. It shouldn’t be possible. It can’t be, but it is and how dare it be so. I’m indignant, resentful even. It’s gone too far. There have been too many days without him. This thought makes me feel panicky, forces me to catch and hold my breath. Did I think he was coming back?

This feels like a change, some weird transition in the grieving process, new territory, an emotional no-man’s land. I’m adrift. Last summer, I was teaching summer school in order to make up for days I had lost during Paul’s illness and after his passing. That was not the case this summer, and I found myself with a lot of unstructured time. It has made me unsettled, restless. Paul and I truly relished our summers together, in the boat, on trips, or doing absolutely nothing at all. I have tried to fill my days with meaningful activities, but the down times have felt lonelier than ever before.

I’ve had a recurrence of flashbacks. They are different from memories. Memories are allowed in, invited. Flashbacks are decidedly uninvited. Memories have associative triggers like a song on the radio, a smell, a place, an article of clothing. Flashbacks may or may not have apparent triggers and often appear to have no trigger whatsoever. They are an emotional transporter. They beam me into a traumatic moment or experience, and I have a full-on sensory experience. These flashbacks to the time during Paul’s illness and death are more a symptom of my state of mind, a red flag that I’m slipping, that the scales are tipping in the other direction. Uh-oh. Here I go again. So, what to do about it? Turn away from the darkness and turn toward the Light, the Light of the world, Jesus, and His word.

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”

Psalm 4:6 “Many are saying, ‘Who will show us any good?’ Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, O Lord!”

Like this late summer beauty, I am flying toward the Light. My path may not be the straightest. I may struggle and flap and fly in circles along the way, but I will still strive because the Light is the only place to be.

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

It’s the little things.

In loss, there is pain. It’s debilitating. The good news is that the worst of it is temporary. It’s what remains after the worst-of-it that takes real work.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 comforts us not to grieve as those who have no hope. We are encouraged to carry on despite the heartache, despite the hurt and despair. We.have.hope. And His name is Jesus. My family is the bedrock of my human existence, my sisters and brothers in Christ love and support me spiritually, my friends and colleagues are my ballasts, but the personal friend I have in Jesus is what carries me through each day. He is hope. He is why I don’t give up.

It’s been a little more than a year since Paul died, and I am only recently starting to watch TV again. I know how strange and silly that must sound, but it was about 10 months before I could even sit on the couch let alone watch a show. Likewise, NPR was a staple in our cars for decades. We enjoyed the news and game shows and especially Prairie Home Companion. I walked out of the hospital the day Paul died, got into my car, and immediately changed the radio to a local rock station because I could not bear to listen to NPR, and I haven’t listened to it since. I do miss it, but I just can’t.

Those are just some of the little things I couldn’t or still can’t do. There are also things I won’t do. The grocery store, as evidenced by the recently posted picture of my very empty and very embarrassing refrigerator, is something I won’t do…along with cooking. Paul loved to cook. It was his domain throughout our marriage. It was a contribution to our family life in which he took great pride.

In some ways, I am still operating under the conditions of my former life. I just leave things around the house to be done. I don’t know who in the world I think is going to do them or if I’m waiting for Paul to come back and pick up where he left off. It’s the madness of grief. I can do laundry, wash dishes, and pay bills like a champ, but that’s because those were the tasks that previously belonged to me anyway. It was these little divisions of labor that evolved within our relationship over time that made our household work. These little things are really the last hold-outs of my former life perhaps because they are the most deeply embedded in my day-to-day living. The grocery store and cooking were exclusively Paul’s tasks. I think to myself, “I shouldn’t have to do this. I won’t do it. That’s Paul’s job.” There is an angry, stubborn, rebelliousness to it. I don’t know how long it will take me to accept this new reality and really take ownership of these tasks, but I am indignant and not in a hurry.

It’s been about a month now since my return from the Camino, and the adjustment issues are lingering. Initially, it had a lot to do with the time change, but it’s been so enduring that it can’t just be that. I think it’s me. I think I’m different. I think I am fundamentally different. The pace and rhythm of my daily walks on the Camino have filtered into the pace of my life.

I am continuously making connections between my daily routine and my Camino experience, faster here, slower there, the need for careful steps, what it’s like when the day is smooth or rough, connecting to others, when to dig deep, to finish strong, to stop and rest, to be quiet, to observe, to look for signs. It’s all here in my daily life. On the Camino, I had to physically adjust to many of these things.  In my daily life, I am making the connection to adjusting mentally and spiritually. It continues to be a journey and a profoundly interesting experience to witness in myself.

We’ve also had some really good things happening lately. My son has graduated from college, gotten engaged, and been accepted to graduate school. He and his fiancé have moved to the same city that I live in, and I am so excited to have them close by. My Camino experience was everything I hoped it would be and more, and I have recently earned a new, exciting and challenging position at work that I am very happy about. We’ve had a lot to smile about and celebrate which is wonderful, welcome, and certainly a change from the year that has preceded it. Some folks even say, “After the year y’all have had, you deserve it”, or “Y’all were due some good news!” or “God owed it to you after what y’all have been through.” When I hear sentiments like this, I smile politely most of the time because I know that people love us and mean well and are genuinely happy for us, and I am so grateful. But here, in this post, I feel like I need to set the record straight. We have done nothing to deserve anything. No one, least of all the Lord God we serve, owes us anything. It is, in fact, we who owe Him everything as much today, or even more so, as on the day we took our first breath and even on the day Paul took his last breath. We don’t deserve it……but by God’s grace, Paul and I had thirty years together. We were able to learn and grow from each other. We were gifted with the stewardship of another one of God’s children, our son. We had the opportunity to seek forgiveness from one another when we fell short of the promises we made each other. There’s no way to earn God’s favor. Faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. You see, both plenty and adversity, are worthy of our gratitude to God. I seek only to Glorify God and use my experience as an opportunity to tell others that any strength and grace of which I am possessed are not mine but His. It is a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God comforts me, and, for me, true healing means that after all the suffering and pain, we will say, “The Lord has been good to me.”

Now, I am not naïve. I know that this stance is counter-cultural. In American society, the denial of self comes with a sad sort of pity for a person who is unwilling or incapable of tooting their own horn. Some may even say it is anti-intellectual whatever that means. I take that back. Let’s be clear about what that means. That sentiment comes from folks who are trying to be socially correct and call other people dumb or backwards in the same breath. Either that or it’s an attempt to pigeonhole other people into a place where they are perceived as valuing the spirit over intellect, but I reject the either-or model and embrace the both-and model. I am both intellectual and spiritual. I value intellectual approaches to problem solving and seek the wisdom of the Spirit, and I think there is plenty of evidence in this blog to support that assertion.

I’m going to leave you with Romans 5:1-5 which really could be a sort of road map to my experience, my theme song if you will. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy spirit who has been given to us.”

But by God’s grace, I am standing! Malia