It’s been hard to write. My thoughts are so scattered, and most of my energy has been poured into coping strategies for managing this upended world in which we find ourselves. Like so many of you, I am sheltering-in-place at home, working remotely, going out only to shop for groceries once a week or so.
I am an introvert so being alone is normally my comfort zone, but this. This is more than a respite for introverts. This is isolation, and it’s hard. Yes, as an introvert, I have always needed downtime, alone-time, to recharge my batteries, but this prolonged isolation is unbalanced, unhealthy. So, while we have been physically distanced, I have strived to remain socially connected with texts, phone calls, video chats, and 6-foot conversations in the neighborhood or on the local walking trail. Still, it’s not enough.
If routine was important to me before, and it was, routine has now been elevated to ritual. I am growing concerned about how structure can too easily become stricture, but for now, I need it. I need it to stay sane.
Regression. There’s been some of that, too. This is an emotional landscape that I am familiar with but had moved on from; the anxiety of leaving the house, the panicky feeling pulling out the neighborhood, the flight response at the store.
I’ve had some more grief dreams. They seem to crop up more when I’m not intentional about processing feelings on the regular.
In one dream, Paul and I were in our “home town” where we lived for twelve years, but we were leaving. We said we would visit on weekends and during the summer. When I woke, I was disoriented. Then, I thought, “Oh, that’s right. I’m by myself now. We’ll never go back there together.”
One day, I fell asleep on the couch. As I was waking, I heard Paul on the stairs. I called out to him, “Honey, will you get my eye drops, please?” Yeah. I actually said it out loud before I caught myself.
I’ve had anxiety dreams, too, where the roof is leaking or I’m chasing fire. Yes, chasing flames and trying to catch them in my hands, but they keep slipping through my fingers. I keep trying to grab them, but I can’t.
I’m also having recurring dreams about the television show Lost, particularly the portion of the show where we are introduced to the character, Desmond, who lives alone in the underground bunker, the guy who has to push a button every so many hours or something terrible happens.
BUT! There has also been progress. Check this out!
Yep! I’ve been able to focus on healthy food habits; shopping, eating…and cooking! As in cooking just for me. This.is.huge. For the first time since Paul died, I can honestly say that I am doing a good job of taking care of myself. This feels like a major shift for me. It feels like I’ve moved past something, not like anything is behind me, but more like I’ve cleared an important hurdle.
So, now what? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably because the isolation of being home alone and physically distanced from others has been extreme. I can clearly see now that I am so very capable of managing on my own and could do so for as long as I want…but is that what I want? Ohhh, now there’s a question! It’s the first time it’s even occurred to me to ask myself if that’s what I want, and if that’s not what I want, if I don’t want to be on my own, what then?
As usual, I have no idea what comes next, but I am so grateful for how far I’ve come in this grief and healing process. Making gratitude a continuous practice and staying focused on connecting, learning, and growing have made all the difference. Despite all the uncertainty in the world right now, for the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m going to be ok. Come what may. I’m going to be ok.
Here’s our quarantine, porch picture for posterity; surrounded by my fur-children, my constant companions, badly in need of a day at the salon, no make up. Just me. Smiling and grateful for the Lord’s provision, for the struggles that have made me stronger, and looking forward to what’s next.
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 did want 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, 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.’
B. Macnutt, The prayer manual for private devotions or public use on divers
occasions: Compiled from all sources ancient, medieval, and modern (A.R.
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 heart, 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 I command you today, by loving 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 heart 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
Begin by asking friends and family for recommendations. I realize this might be tough to do. Despite how far society has come, in some communities and social circles there is still a stigma attached to counseling and mental health issues in general. So, ask for recommendations from friends and family that are emotionally safe. The last thing a grieving person needs is judgment being cast on them or being handed a suck-it-up-buttercup attitude. 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.
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
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.
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.
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 tosurvive 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.
The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope
There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.
She was busy all day going here and there around the town,
and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied
that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of
supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important
documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled
with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the
king would be pleased.
It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the
distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back
to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as
she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were
only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those
days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of
all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to
heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky.
They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth,
dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the
branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest
The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant
neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She
was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential
sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in
place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there
appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream
of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without
thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever
in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a
Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.
“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the
leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his
other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going
to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger
because of her.
Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.
In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew
the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted
them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she
thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She
decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in
all things. The End
Proverbs 137:1-2 By
the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On
the willows there we hung up our lyres.
More about the Busy Trap
I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.
The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.
So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.
Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?
God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
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.
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.”
I jumped out of a plane. That’s right. I jumped out of a plane. I went skydiving!
To say that my friends and family were shocked is an
understatement. The most common response was, “Why?!” It was a difficult
question to answer. I am adventurous but not a thrill seeker. It was just this
urge. That’s the best way I know to describe it. An urge, not an impulse. It
was more lasting than that. I was talking to my son on the phone one evening,
and I said, “You know what I want to do?” He immediately responded, “Go
skydiving.” Dumbfounded, I said, “What! How did you know?!” “Because I want to,
too” he admitted. I had no idea that he had also been thinking about it. As it
turns out, it’s a bit of a phenomenon among people who have experienced a tremendous
loss. When I told my sister-in-law that we were going to go skydiving, she said
she had heard a story on NPR about something very similar. You can listen to
the story here.
It’s about a mother and daughter who go skydiving after the death of their
husband and father.
Life is too short. Right? That’s what everyone says. Well,
everyone says it because it’s true. Eat the cake. Buy the shoes. Seize the
moment! Go skydiving! Heck, there’s even a country song by Tim McGraw that
nails it. The refrain says it all.
“I went skydiving, I went rocky mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu, And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter, And I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’, And he said someday I hope you get the chance, To live like you were dyin’”
With everything I had just been through, I felt like there was nothing that could scare me anymore. I was ready to live like I was dying. My particular thought process was a) I will be closer to Paul and b) if something happens, I get to be with him forever. In my mind, it was a win-win. I want to clarify the first part. I didn’t feel I would be closer to Paul in the sense that I would be up in the sky where heaven is. That is a cultural depiction of heaven not a Biblical one. I felt that I would be closer to Paul because I would be closer to death. There. I said it. For me, jumping out of a plane was as close to death as I could be. I thought that perhaps in those seconds between leaving the plane and arriving back to Earth that I could pierce the veil between here and there and be with Paul just for a second. I thought it was worth the risk. Never before in my life would I have even considered doing such a thing, but in that state of mind, in the aftermath of such a stunning, life changing loss, it was worth the risk. I wasn’t even scared. I did have one fleeting millisecond of heart stopping anxiety when the instructor I was attached to opened the door of the airplane. He grabbed the door handle and pulled hard. In one single, confident motion, he slid the door open. The suction created by opening the door shot a jolt of electric terror through my body, but I still didn’t hesitate. I was ready to go. Ready to go. I stepped out onto the strut, and then we were effortlessly airborne.
Now, I realize that all of this is the madness of grief. I
can write about it, explain it, and try to justify it to no end, but it really
is the madness of grief. The surprise, the unexpected gift of the experience was
that it was a little turning point for me, a moment of empowerment. It was a launch
both literally and figuratively. I felt different after that day. I
felt stronger. My family was there, and we celebrated with a champagne tailgate
in the parking lot. We laughed and smiled and celebrated life and living. I
will never forget that day as long as I live. As long as I live.
Soon, I will embark on another launch of sorts. I am going
on a pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de
Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the Apostle,
and I am going by myself. God put this on my heart. I have felt called to do
this and to do it alone. As I have planned for this trip and read about the
challenges it entails, there have been times when I have thought, “Lord, help
me. I don’t even own enough underwear to go on a trip like this!”, but I am
determined. I just know it is something I have to do. I am appropriately
anxious, but I’m not scared. I am ready. This is an important piece here. Don’t
miss this because I believe it has everything to do with grief and healing. A
critical aspect of what I have learned through my grief experience is to be bold
in the face of adversity. I have learned to lean in and develop a bit
of a bring
In his book, A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, John Brierley reminds us that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, not the other way around. That really resonates with me. It comforts me because even though the human version of ourselves is temporary, our spiritual identities are eternal.
There are many Biblical references to walking. Some pretty amazing and powerful things have happened through the simple act of walking. Jesus’ ministry was a walking ministry. He and the disciples walked from town to town to spread the good news of salvation. The Apostle Paul’s conversion experience began with an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’m not necessarily expecting an encounter with the living God on this trip, but I am expecting to have time to reflect and contemplate, to draw closer to the One who loves me like no other. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 has been close to my heart this past year because I have walked by faith like never before and because it provides comfort as we groan and are burdened in our earthly tent that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit with us, our guarantee, and joyful assurance of our eternal home.
Safe travels to you on
this journey through life, Malia
My calendar is different now. Yesterday marked one full year
since my husband, Paul, passed away. So, that makes today the first day of a
In the spirit of the new year, I am reflecting, looking to
the future, and making resolutions. First of all, I have three words to live by
during this new year, three words by which to set goals, guide my choices, and grow. My words are…..
Remember, Release, Emerge
I want to remember
fully and robustly. I want to speak Paul’s name into conversations, share
memories with others, and tell stories about Paul and our family. I want it to
feel easy and natural. I want to savor the memories. I want to be able to remember
the difficult times, too, because they are equally important and valuable. I
want a depth of learning from those difficult memories that transforms the way
I do things and the choices I make in the future. What I don’t want to do is
forget. That is wrong. I want to laugh and cry in the face of all of it and be
stronger because of it.
I want to release anything I’m holding onto that is no longer serving me as I venture forth. This might mean moving out of some of my comfort zones, gradually releasing some of the security blankets I’ve developed for myself, and cutting the cord on some of the grief and sadness that weighs me down from time to time. Not so long ago, I drew the scribble below in one of my grief workbooks. It occurred to me recently that I should draw in a pair of scissors, right?! When I drew it, it didn’t occur to me that the cord attaching me to that black cloud is not permanent. Each day, I am feeling a little bit stronger, and on this first day of this new year, I am looking ahead to the day when I can take out my scissors, cut that cord, and let it go.
I want to emerge like the trees that rise from the emergent layer of the rain forest’s canopy. The emergent layer is the name given to the mature tree crowns that tower over the rain forest canopy. It’s sunny up there above the canopy and only the strongest and tallest plants reach that level. Trees in the emergent layer are evergreen. Evergreen. As I head into the new year, I am growing ever upward to the emergent layer where I can soak up the sun, grow stronger leaves and branches, and be ever green.
I realize that these are great expectations, but I believe it is important to set the intention. I know I won’t get there all at once, but I will get there!
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.