The Camino – Day One

In a previous post, I shared that 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. My trip starts today, but this journey started, well, years ago. Grieving is a spiritual journey, and God set me on this path from a very young age. My mother was killed in a car accident when I was twelve. That is when my journey with grief began. It’s a tough road to be sure. Grief is wrought with challenges, but I’ve come to understand and even value that grief offers us the opportunity to know ourselves, and God, more fully.

God put this trip on my heart months ago. I am really interested in this idea of travel as an element in the healing process. What is it about travel that has the capacity to soothe the soul, offers clarity, and lays the ground work for moving forward? Does travel provide some sort of filter or framework for understanding and processing? It certainly does provide a time out from our everyday lives to focus on healing and recovery.

It wasn’t long after my husband died last year that I began feeling like I needed to get away (read run away!). I felt like I needed a retreat, to be quiet for long stretches of time, to reflect and contemplate, and to explore the inner world in order to take a complete emotional inventory. A pilgrimage is the perfect way to do just that. The idea of a pilgrimage is nothing new. People have known throughout history the value of walking for the maintenance and growth of our spiritual selves and our personal relationship with the Lord. They have walked across Europe and around the globe to visit sacred sites. I will be following in their footsteps.

It is said that the true purpose of a pilgrimage is to find who we are in the eyes of God. It’s also true that I have wrestled with my identity throughout the grief process. I am eager to use this trip as opportunity to see myself, my new identity through God’s eyes, who he wants me to be moving forward. The fact that this trip involves a lot of walking is appropriate. I had always related walking to exercise but have learned that walking is a powerful activity for the mind and spirit as well. It has been an important part of my healing process. In an early post, I mentioned a daily, mindfulness walk. The mindfulness walk gives me time to focus my thoughts on gratitude, areas where I am falling short, and prayer for areas of need. It also gives me time to enjoy memories and rejoice. I find strength with each step and finish feeling refreshed and empowered.

The Bible has a lot to say about walking. Genesis describes Adam and Eve hearing the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. Can you imagine that? The Lord God himself walking in the garden, walking in our midst. In Deuteronomy, we are encouraged to walk in His ways. Isaiah says to walk in His paths. In Jeremiah, the same encouragement comes with an added condition and promise that if we walk in all the ways in which He commands us, it will be well with us. Micah reminds us to walk humbly with God. Ephesians and Colossians implores us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called and to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. In the Psalms we are told to walk in His truth and walk in the light of His countenance. Finally, in perhaps the most well-known Biblical reference, also found in Psalms, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” This rod and staff business has always interested me. When I read rod, I think of the old saying spare the rod, spoil the child. So, if the rod is the rod of discipline, then how does it comfort me in this context of death, mourning, and grief? Very interesting. When I read staff, I think of a walking stick, or Moses’ staff, the staff that sheep herders use to support themselves as they walk but also to guide and protect their flock. Very, very interesting. So, God is going to comfort me through the grief process with discipline, support, protection, and guidance. I like it.

Psalm 126: 5-6 “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seeds to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”

Friends, I have sowed in tears. I have gone out weeping. I am carrying seeds to sow, and I am leaning on God’s promise that I will return with songs of joy bearing the fruit of a closer walk with Him.

Much love, 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