This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.
“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Fajeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.
Here are the lyrics, but my guess is that you are already humming the tune.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven Like the first dew fall on the first grass Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight Mine is the morning Born of the one light Eden saw play Praise with elation, praise every morning God’s recreation of the new day
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.
I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.
Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.
Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.
When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?
Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.
So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”
Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.
The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.
I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.
We now resume our regularly scheduled grief (uh, I mean healing!) programming.
Just in case my Sunday Dinner posts have given you the false impression that I have it all together, here’s a Monday dinner post complete with picture of glorious meal making <insert sarcasm and eye-rolling emoji>. Yep, that’s right, a fried egg, shredded cheese, a days old biscuit….and ice cream. Embarrassing. But I told you. Keeping.it.real.
My grief has a tendency to pile up. It piles up in great banks like snow lining both sides of a winter worn street, like Saharan sand dunes moving across the globe through eons of time and then seemingly, suddenly arriving tall and looming on the landscape. Grief piles up one pebbly grain and flake at a time until it reaches a hinge, a tipping point, and then crashes heavy upon my heart and psyche.
Many of you may be familiar with the Native-American naming tradition. Think *Dances-With-Wolves*. In that tradition, people are given names that are construed from their nature or based on characteristics of their personality. I became aware of this tradition when I was young while reading and listening to Native-American stories where the characters had wonderfully descriptive names that revealed their inner-self and piqued the readers’ interest regarding how they received their name. But these names are not just based on personality, and they are not static. In the Native-American naming tradition, a person’s name can change based on their life experiences. As one learns, grows, and changes, their name can change to reflect their evolving identity. Native-American names are also typically connected to nature, maintaining our connection to the world around us, and connected to their tribe, emphasizing the value of connection with others.
A lesser known and understood aspect of the Native-American naming tradition is that they often have a spiritual or sacred name that is known only to themselves and their tribe’s spiritual leader. These hidden names allow the person to maintain their core identity in the face of life’s inevitable degradations or even trauma. Hmmmm, very interesting.
When the grief piles up, my world view is disrupted. My perception is distorted. It’s like looking at the world reflected in a cracked mirror. Everything seems more intense. It’s the atmosphere, the look of the sky when the light is slanted from a certain direction, the trees, the direction of the wind, and the birds. The birds outside my bathroom window make peculiar early morning chirps and trills that grate and hack away at my nerves. The sound of it makes me physically wince. If I were Native-American, my current name would be Angry-With-Birds.
Starting with February 12, there are a string of dates that are tattooed on my skin in invisible ink, fused to my insides. These dates are stuck in my teeth. I use my tongue to pry and pick, but I can no more unstick these calendar dates from my psyche than I could a handful of the sticky, gummy fruits clinging to the teeth in my mouth. They feel like boulders, rocky outcroppings, cleaving to my emotional landscape. The world is different on these dates. I don’t like the look of the air. I don’t like the feel of the car as I’m going down the road. I continuously have to remind my shoulders to stay down otherwise I find them crowding my neck and reaching for my ears and chin.
This time of year the triggers are everywhere. My senses remember everything. My body recorded everything in my muscles, bones, and tissues. Every moment of the last 35 days of Paul’s life is carved into the very fiber of my body and being; the memory of them communicated from one cell to another like a biological game of telephone until it was transmitted throughout my entire body. The right combination of sensory input and I instantly feel dread and foreboding. The input is too much. I feel crowded all the time. I want to tell everyone to just please hold still, put my finger to my lips and “shhhhhhh”. Just, everyone, please hold still and be quiet.
I actually have a startle response when I’m like this. I am startled by normal things that should not be startling; a phone ringing, a door closing, someone walking by me. I am sound sensitive; hypersensitive to physical stimuli, too much talking, too much movement. I say to myself, “This is crazy!”
Is there such a thing as a grief hangover? Because I think that’s what this is.
And, my dreams! My dreams have been, well, memorable. I have had a series of anxiety dreams.
In one dream I am frantically tearing the house apart looking for my computer but can never seem to find it. I keep looking in the same places over and over again thinking that it absolutely must be there, but it is not.
In a second more telling dream, I am driving around town in my car, however, there is something wrong. It is not driving properly. At first, I can’t figure out what is wrong but then I realize I have a flat tire. So, I’m driving around town on a flat tire, and I keep saying to myself, “Oh, no, I have a flat tire!” But I keeping driving on the flat tire anyway, and I’m asking myself, “Why am I driving on a flat tire?” I know I have a flat tire and yet I just keep on driving around. I just continue on my way saying, “I know I have a flat tire. Why am I driving around on a flat tire? This is weird. I shouldn’t be doing this. Why can’t I stop driving?” I never stopped or pulled over to get it fixed. It didn’t even occur to me call anybody for help. I just kept driving around. Analyze that! Why don’t ya’?! Ha!
And then this one. I dreamt that Paul was back. He was an old man, very sweet looking, gray-haired and a little hunched over and….he was pregnant. Weird. I know. My response to this in the dream was so typical of me, ignoring the absurd and going into full-on problem solving mode, logical, rational, calm, resolved. I was saying to him, “Well, this really shouldn’t be possible. I’m not sure what we’re going to do, but we’ll work it out.” If you’ve got any ideas about that one, let me know! Or, wait, maybe I don’t want to know. Nevermind.
This post has been in the queue for well more than a week. I’ve written it in small chunks as the days have drifted by. I’m not sure why it has been so hard for me to, first of all, write it, and then second to that to “put it out there”. I suppose the strong emotions are interrupting the flow of thoughts like debris clogging a pipe.
I’ve been really busy in the last several weeks, really preoccupied and distracted. I’ve struggled with motivation and felt a little paralyzed at times. This is all normal, of course, and I understand all of it, but it is still a struggle for me to accept and be ok with not being ok. I have to ramp up the positive self-talk and keep coaching the voice in my head to go easy on me.
My mind and my heart have often remembered the Camino during this recent episode. I remember that sometimes the path was smooth. Sometimes it was rocky. Sometimes I could see the horizon, fresh, clear, and hopeful, but sometimes I was hemmed in by trees and villages unable to see what was over the next rise or around the next turn. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had companions. Sometimes the direction was certain, but sometimes I was confused about which way to go. Sometimes the wind was at my back, warm and comforting, and sometimes the wind was in my face, bracing and cold. Sometimes I was energized and eager, and sometimes I was tired, frustrated, and aching. Sometimes I struggled up hills and steep inclines, and sometimes I enjoyed the respite of a gentle downhill slope.
So, now. Now I know why I was led, called, to the Camino. It’s laid out now in my soul, a road map to grief and all its many twists, turns, hills, and straightaways. Thank you, Lord, for showing me The Way.
And, just in case you’re wondering, there are more Sunday dinners to come.
Let’s get cooking! This is the first in series of posts that will feature meals that my late husband made for his family and friends throughout our lives together. He was a great cook and really enjoyed it. I also think it was his way of providing for us. It was part of his love-language, and oh, boy, did we feel loved!
My reasons for this adventure in cooking are threefold.
First, it’s a growth goal for me on two fronts. For one, it’s a sort of last hold-out in terms of what daily life looks like without Paul. I have really resisted cooking for myself and others because it is a daily life-task that wholly belonged to Paul. Stepping into a role that was so completely his domain would be full acknowledgement of his absence and a major milestone in my grieving and healing process. Also, we’re moving into a new season of family life with the birth of my second niece, the marriage of my son, and the anticipation of grandchildren in years to come. Our little family is growing! I want to cook for myself and my growing family. I want to share big family meals together, cherish our memories of Paul, and make some new memories of our own.
Second, it’s a way to memorialize Paul and preserve a beautiful aspect of our family life for future generations. Each meal has memories and love attached them; the food, the smell, the taste, the table-scape, the dishes. Food and love, passed around the table.
Now, I am not pretending for a second that any of these meals are gourmet or as healthy as they could be. They are not going to cure your psoriasis or lower your blood pressure. I am simply serving up memories for myself and my family, home-cooked goodness that satisfies and soothes and honors the person we loved. It’s home-cooked healing, comfort for a grieving heart.
For this particular Sunday Dinner, I prepared red rice with pork chops, green peas, cinna-minny apple sauce, biscuits, and cheesecake with a blueberry sauce for dessert. I prepared the meal just like Paul. I did it the same way I watched him do it hundreds of times over so many years. Going through his motions in making the meal was really comforting to me. I felt like I was close to him, like I was spending time with him again, and like I was preserving a part of who he was and what he meant to us.
First, I browned the pork chops in a bit of oil on medium-high heat. Next, I removed the pork chops and set them aside. Then, I added stewed tomatoes, a small can of tomato sauce, a cup and a half of water, and one cup of rice. Finally, I placed the pork chops back in the pan, covered it, and let it cook on medium-low for about 30 minutes. A frequent variation for us was to use kielbasa style sausage in place of pork chops.
Side dishes included green peas, apple sauce sprinkled with cinnamon, and biscuits.
I baked a cheesecake for dessert. Cheesecake was not in Paul’s repertoire, but I wanted to include it because it’s a recipe that a member of my GriefShare group gave me. Each time I bake it, I remember and honor the members of my GriefShare group, how much we shared and supported each other, and the loving care I experienced with them at a time when I was really vulnerable.
This cheese cake is so easy! Crust is optional. You can grease/butter the pan, and sprinkle it with crushed graham crackers for a light crust.
For the filling, simply mix together two and one-quarter pounds of cream cheese, one and one-third cups of sugar, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and 4 eggs.
Bake at 200 degrees for three and one-half hours. No need for a water bath. Give it the ol’ jiggle test before you remove it from the oven. Let it cool. Then, place in the refrigerator overnight or at least for several hours.
For this cake, I made a blueberry sauce, but it could be topped with any fruit. I have used whole, fresh blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries in the past. The blueberry sauce was quick and easy. I heated two cups of blueberries, half a cup of water, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, and half a cup of sugar over medium heat until bubbly. I whisked together 2 tablespoons of cornstarch with 2 tablespoons of cold water and added it to the blueberries. The cornstarch mixture thickens the sauce. Finish by stirring in one-half teaspoon of vanilla.
Honestly, this first cooking adventure was so much fun! I found both joy and satisfaction in cooking for my family.
In other news, it seems that everyone has a New Year’s post of one kind or another, but this is not my new year. My new year begins the day after the anniversary of Paul’s passing, March 18. However, my thoughts are already wandering in that direction, anticipating the marking of the second year without Paul, and, oh goodness, acknowledging new possibilities. I have no idea what that looks like, but I know I have grown tremendously and more than ever I am looking forward. Just that. Looking forward.
This is, after all, the fifth day of Christmas. Can’t you just hear the familiar, well loved carol echoing in your memory? That favorite refrain that everyone joined in on even if they couldn’t remember the other gifts of Christmas?
Big inhale! FIIIIVVVVVE GOLD(EN) RINGS! BOM, BOm, Bom, bom…..So, today, on this fifth day of Christmas, I give to you full disclosure.
Beware. This post might qualify for Longreads. I’m kidding, but, truly, if you haven’t discovered Longreads yet, give it a whirl. It’s an online magazine, hosted on WordPress, of long-ish essays, investigate reports, interviews and profiles from a wide variety of writers on human interest type topics.
But, seriously, you might have to take a snack break, or two, at some point during this post.
This Christmas has been like a game of Hi-Lo on The Price is Right. Desperate for anything to take the edge off the seeping, creeping grief, the highs have been the low-hanging fruit like trivial distractions and general busy-ness, and the lows, well, there’s a strange sort of safety and comfort there because the lows feel like my baseline.
I think this is what my son meant when, a few months ago, he said he was worried about me getting stuck in grief, stuck like feet that have sunk a little too far into the pluff-mud that pervades our Lowcountry landscape. The effort it takes to retrieve your foot is surprising and always more than your brain anticipates, or estimates, that it will take. So, there’s an initial jerking upward motion which gets you nowhere and then a more sustained slowwww-pull that finally begins to yield some of your leg and foot back from the netherlands. You end up losing your balance because as you pull up on your foot, the mud actually, unbelievably, pulls back with nothing less than a sucking, gulping sound like hisseellluuppp. And it’s gross, soft, wet, sticky, and somehow coarse at the same time. And it stinks, of dead fish, rotting leaves and grass, and sulfurous gasses. Yep, being stuck in grief is just like that, and yet, it is comfortable, soothing even in a primal way. I know. Weird.
I wonder if my posts have seemed as frenetic as I have felt during this holiday season. Actually, the recent unpleasantness started before the holidays began. Looking back, as I am wont to do, I can see that the anxiety was already building ahead of Thanksgiving. Grief was doing its dirty work before I was fully aware of it, but that is nothing new.
So, you may wonder, have I been happy? sad? lonely? Well, the truth is I have been all of that and so much more. I have laughed, smiled, cried, celebrated, and mourned. I have done the flash dance around the flashbacks and felt the burn of anger sweeping through my body. I have been irritable, frustrated and downright apoplectic. I have cried. A lot. More than I have cried in months. Grief has, once again, been a full-on, sensory experience. My body has felt twisted and wrung out like a rag as I have cried until the tears could no longer form even a single drop. I have been elated and joyful and miserable in the same breath. I have experienced waves of grief and anguish so intense that I felt nauseous, sick to my stomach, the way actual waves can make one seasick. At times, I have been withdrawn, not really feeling up to socializing. I’ve had great difficulty committing to events, but I have also enjoyed being active, taking long walks with friends in the neighborhood, playing tennis, attending a couple of drop-ins as well as turning down both casual and formal invitations, electing instead to retreat to the safety and comfort of the house.
Ugh. The house. My job allows me substantial time off during the holidays which is wonderful, but it has also been a challenge. This is the first Christmas that my son has not been staying with us, with me, while on a holiday break from school. He and his fiancé have their own place nearby, and I have spent a lot of time with them, but it’s not the same as having him under the same roof. I mean, this is all good. Every good parent, whatever that means to you, desires for their child to live independently, to forge their own life, but the house has been quiet during the holidays this year, too quiet. It’s been a lonely house. This is actually the first time I’ve ever felt this way about my home, and it’s freaking me out. I’ve noticed a little tendency in myself to try and fill up the emptiness with noise like having the TV or radio going in the background (sometimes both!), playing the piano, running the washer, dryer, and dishwasher, and doing other noisy chores. Therapeutic vacuuming is a thing! However, mopping and dusting make no noise at all so those chores have gone undone.
I struggled, too, to get the Christmas decorating finished. Our ornaments are actually memories that have taken shape and form and hang from the branches of the tree. They could be connected like a dot-to-dot of our lives. The oldest ornament belonged to my mother when she was child. It is nearly 70 years old. There’s also one that Paul made when he was in kindergarten. It is 55 years old. There are several that commemorate the year we married and others that celebrate our son’s first Christmas and so on. Each and every ornament is the embodiment of a memory collected through years of family life, holidays, vacations, places and homes we’ve lived, friends and family members we have loved. I hung about a fourth of the ornaments, if that, and then just quit, just gave up. I couldn’t do it. That’s not like me at all, and I was disappointed in myself.
One day I came home and found my father-in-law and my son working together on overhauling the boat motor in the garage. But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. It was hot, dirty work, and they had been at it for awhile. My son’s shirt was too heavy and was soaked in sweat and covered in grease so he had gone upstairs and grabbed one of his dad’s old t-shirts from the boxes of clothes that I had stored away; a red t-shirt that I must have seen Paul wear 1,000 times. Not quite Golden Boy status but close. (Yes, that’s a Seinfeld reference.) So, when I pulled up in the driveway and caught a glimpse my son bent over, working on the boat in that t-shirt, my heart stopped, my mouth gaped opened because I actually thought I was looking at his dad. Paul was back, working in the garage alongside his father as he had done so many times before. He was there; his shoulders, his arms, his hair. His intent gaze, concentrating on his work, his hands, his fingers. I did a double-take. I had to look twice. I blinked hard and then crumbled in the face of reality. An emotional implosion followed. I felt stunned like a small bird that had just smashed into a clear pane window; stunned out of awareness, knocked out of time, careening into another space and time, an alternate universe where Paul was still alive. That night I dreamed that Paul was indeed alive. He was standing in the yard. I was a distance away and started moving toward him. I was elated but confused. I kept saying, “Wow! This is great. I am so glad you are here, but I don’t understand how this is possible. How can you be here, standing here in the yard, while the 30lbs of ash in a box upstairs is also you?”
Oh, dear goodness, this grief is deep and complicated, and exhausting. I breathe deep and sigh heavily as I continue to try to write it out, to express it, to extricate myself from it, to exorcise it, to be dispossessed of it.
I (almost) hesitated to share all of this because it feels like wallowing. I’ve tried everything in my grief toolbox and nothing is working. I feel ridiculous that I can’t get ahold of this. Snap out of it! But grief is slippery, slick. The harder I try to get-a-grip on it, the tighter I squeeze my hand around it, the faster it slips through my fingers.
On a recent Sunday, I was at church and absolutely fell apart, had to leave early actually. I could not contain myself. That has not happened in a long time, and it completely took me by surprise. It’s almost as if my entire grief experience thus far got compressed into this one holiday season, why?
Now would be a good time to grab a snack.
Here’s why. I *think*. Last Christmas, I was focused on just that Christmas. Just the one. As if I thought there was only going to be one Christmas without Paul, and all I had to do was just get through that one. I am shocked to discover this year that there will actually be many Christmases without him. Well, duh. And I’m not naïve. I realize families and relationships can and will change along the way. Who knows? I may even share a Christmas with someone else one day, but the realization that every Christmas for the rest of my life will not include Paul, physically include him, has completely overwhelmed me.
A friend of mine, a widow for nearly 20 years and happily remarried, shared with me that every Christmas she steals away for a quiet moment to remember and mourn for her first husband. That made my heart stop. I was taken aback by the reality of it all but also comforted, and I am so very thankful when others who have walked this path are willing to share their experiences and their heart with me.
Author and speaker, Jesse Brisendine, says that ‘grief is not a life sentence’. He tries to help people flip the switch on grief from despair to healing and honoring. I agree with so much of what he writes and shares, but I also see the other side. In a way, grief is a life sentence. Grieving is the commitment we make to continue living life without the person we loved. It’s the price, but the price to value ratio is up to us and how we choose to live out that life sentence. It can be done with hope and joy, or it can be done with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s like being in a prison cell with the key to the lock hanging clearly within sight and reach on a nail on the wall. We can let ourselves out. I can let myself out. What holds me back?
Go get another snack.
What holds me back is fear. Another precious friend of mine, who is also a widow and very much on this journey with me, recently remarked that the thought that life might just be going on without those we love here is really scary. Yes, it is. It is absolutely rock hard, stone cold terrifying. It is overwhelming to me and makes me break out in a cold sweat.
Fear is the first emotion that God’s people experienced after the fall. Genesis 3:10 reads, “And he said, I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu in The Book of Joy asserts that God gave us fear to keep us safe. God gave us fear because he knew we needed it. Courage is a matter of the heart. Courage is Gold Ring #1.
I have found great comfort in that short verse from Genesis; a verse I’ve read and heard a thousand times. I guess I was always so taken with the imagery of God walking in His garden that I never noticed those two little nuggets of wisdom that follow after their being afraid. First, they were afraid because they were naked, physically naked, but they were also emotionally exposed, fearful of their flaws being revealed and the possibility that their true selves, their true nature, might be rejected. Second, what does the verse tell me happens if I hide from the Lord as Adam and Eve did? If I hide from the Lord, He will come and find me. He will find me in my lowly state and protect me. He found Adam and Eve, assessed their state, and then banished them from the garden. Why? Not for punishment as it may have seemed to them from their perspective but for their protection. Because they had eaten from the tree of good and evil and now existed in a sinful, fallen state, if they had then eaten from the tree of life, they would have remained in that sinful state for eternity. In fact, the Lord placed cherubim around the tree of life and a flaming sword waving back and forth to keep them from it, to keep them from the danger of remaining in a sinful state, which is death, forever. Thank you, Jesus!
To say our modern life is increasing our fear and anxiety is not quite correct. Surely life was more stressful during, say, the middle ages. The constant threat of crop failure literally meant the death of one’s family by starvation. My stress, even in the difficulties I have faced, pales in comparison. So, if life is just as stressful or less so(!), than it has ever been, if there’s nothing new under the sun, then why is fear and anxiety more prevalent or perhaps not more prevalent but taking a greater toll on the human heart and soul? Because we are unplugged. Yes, un-plugged. We are disconnected from our fellow man, and it is damaging us. Worse than that, we are stiff necked about it. Our eyes are covered with scales and our ears are stopped. It’s a way of hiding. It’s Adam and Eve all over again. The solution is connection. The way around it is to have the courage to share our vulnerability and own it, to open our hearts to others. Connection is Gold Ring #2.
The tearing of robes or clothes is a common gesture throughout the Old Testament that is symbolic of mourning, pain of loss, or great distress. I was curious about the history of this practice, but apparently its origins are unclear as it’s been going on since before written language. Rabbi Aron Moss concludes, “But often, within that very pain, the mourners have an underlying belief that ‘it isn’t true’-that their loved one hasn’t really gone. This is not just denial; in a way they are right. Death is not an absolute reality. Our souls existed before we were born, and they continue to exist after we die. The souls that have passed on are still with us. We can’t see them, but we sense they are there. We can’t hear them, but we know that they hear us. On the surface, we are apart. Beyond the surface, nothing can separate us. So we tear our garments. This has a dual symbolism. We are recognizing the loss, that our hearts are torn. But ultimately, the body is also only a garment that the soul wears. Death is when we strip off one uniform and take on another. The garment may be torn, but the essence of the person within it is still intact. From our worldly perspective death is indeed a tragedy, and the sorrow experienced by the mourners is real. But as they tear their garments, we hope that within their pain they can sense a glimmer of a deeper truth; that souls never die.”
And in a stroke of metaphorical genius, the Old Testament prophet, Joel, encourages, no implores, us to “…rend your heart not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and he relents from sending calamity.”
Rend means to tear or wrench violently. Render is to provide or give, and of course, the more familiar surrender meaning to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent, submit to an authority, give up or hand over, and to abandon oneself entirely. The Lord wants us to turn our hearts over to Him, to tear our hearts open wide so that God’s light can shine into all the dark places. Surrender is Gold Ring #3.
2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
As I’m rounding out the second year without Paul, I can affirm that the second year is harder. I think it might be because the first year I was just trying to survive, but that’s not enough, right? We’re meant to live. We’re called to live and live fully, and that’s the hard part about the second year. Trying to live again. In a recent sermon, my pastor described the seven-fold gift of the spirit including piety, wisdom, understanding, council, might, fear, and knowledge. My pastor asserted that being FULLy alive is God’s standard for human living. Grabbing the brass ring or taking a shot at the brass ring is a phrase that has been used since the late 19th century and refers to striving for the highest prize or living life to the fullest. Striving to live a spirit filled life is Gold Ring #4.
In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s character, Holden, asserts, “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it is bad to say anything to them.” Salinger’s gold ring represents a striving for maturity. I may not be a kid, but I am a child of God. May it please Him that I continue to mature in faith and good works even though I may fall off from time to time. Growth is Gold Ring #5.
Luke 1:46-49 “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”
Really, what more then is there to say? I’m sure I’ll think of something, Malia
…also making stops at Nostalgia Boulevard, Lonely Street, and my personal favorite (hmph!), Anxiety Avenue.
Hold on to your hats. This one is going to be a humdinger. My fellow bloggers, grief-specific and otherwise, are all weighing in on the holidays so I’ll dive in, too. Dive into the holiday deep end that is.
I have a distinct memory of the summer I dove off the diving board at the pool for the first time. I was ten. Now, certainly I had been jumping off the diving board for quite some time, feet first, but diving in head first was a different story. I was terrified of going in head first. I had so, so many failed attempts that it was becoming a spectator sport for my fellow swimmers and sunbathers, children and adults alike. There she goes. Will she do it this time? Oh, I think she will! There I was poised at the end of the board, all ten toes wrapped around the edge, in position, knees bent, arms overhead, hands crossed just so in order to break the surface of the water to protect my head from the force of the impact. This is it! I think she’s really going to do it. Some of them would even call out to me. You can do it! Go ahead. That’s right! You’ve got it this time! I would lean forward, begin to feel the pull of gravity, past the point of no return, and then change my mind at the last second; half stepping off, half jumping, half falling, arms wind-milling, eyes closed, face pinched tight. Then, one day when I was poised once again to take the plunge head first, someone suggested that I didn’t have to use force. I could simply allow myself to fall forward into the water. That suggestion changed everything. I got into position. My friends, neighbors, and swim team comrades must have sensed something was different this time because they began to gather around the edge of the pool at the deep end to cheer me on. And.I.did.it. I allowed myself to simply fall forward, head first, into the water. Also known as a dive. As I was making my way back up to the surface, even from within the cocoon of the water surrounding me, I could hear the muted, muffled sounds of everyone cheering.
So here goes.
Nostalgia (Boulevard) is more than just memories. There is a different quality to it, a sadness that borders on melancholy. It is sweeping and broad, equatorial, and leaves me listless like a sailboat held hostage in the Atlantic doldrums, at their mercy until another fickle wind arrives. Nostalgia leaves me impossibly longing for that which I have had and enjoyed but can never have again. And I am lonely. The phone calls and check-ins have tapered off as everyone said they would, and I understand and it’s okay, but it’s still a hard pill to swallow. Then, there’s the mistress of ceremonies, anxiety. Let’s take a peek into her knack for choreographing my day….
I wake and go about my business getting ready for work, but my mind is already beginning to worry and spin. I’m finishing up in the shower…. Turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water, turn off the water. Nope. Turn it off. Turn it off. Turn it off! I manage eventually to move on, get dressed, and make it to the kitchen, but I’m stuck. Move, move. It’s time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Time to go. Me, still not moving. My feet will not advance. Sharp breath. Time to go! I make it to the back door. Open the door, open the door, turn the knob, Malia, turn the knob!
I share this because I want others to know what anxiety can feel like and what it can do, how it affects a person AND how well some people (yes, I am referring to myself) can hide it. I also share it so that others who have had similar experiences, and I know you are out there, know that you are not alone.
I know and fully understand that most of this is the holiday affect. I am grateful that I don’t live with this all the time. I have the reassurance of experience that tells me it’s temporary, a symptom brought on by grief. As difficult as the holidays are, anniversaries are harder, and folks, I’ve hit the grief jackpot, an anniversary smack dab in the middle of the holidays. Yay. So, yesterday was, or maybe I should say would have been? Ugh, verb tenses, like pronouns, are now a complete mystery to me. Anyway, it was our anniversary, our wedding anniversary. Twenty-eight years ago yesterday, Paul and I married. The memory of it is so quick and sharp that I can recall how the air smelled; woody, damp pine, oak, loamy soil, cedar, and smilax combined with salt-marsh and fallow fields and tea olive. It was a typically warm-ish, Lowcountry December day. The day began with scattered rain showers, but by 2 o’clock, it was sunny and breezy. I remember looking behind me to see my long veil was blowing sideways in the wind as I entered the church.
Yesterday was a weird day for me emotionally. I tend to be a bring-it kind of girl. Last year’s holidays were my first without Paul. Of course, it was going to be difficult. I was expecting it to be difficult. So, I had a plan and hurled myself forward through the holidays like I had the grabbed the ball at the 50 yard line and was making a charge for the end zone. In contrast, this year feels like a football field full of quick sand. I have frequently found myself sucked into the trance of a thousand-yard stare. On this day last year, I was compelled to spend the day at the place where Paul and I first met. This year, I didn’t feel called to do that. It might be a sign of growth and progress, or it might be avoidance. With grief, sometimes these two opposites actually appear the same.
Marcus Amaker is the poet laureate of Charleston. He is brilliant and kind and a true artist. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to meet him and for my students to work with him. I was reading his poetry recently when I came across a poem he wrote on December 14, 2017, mine and Paul’s 26th wedding anniversary, the last one we celebrated together before he passed away. I don’t know how Marcus did it, but he channeled our relationship perfectly.
(…and you will be beautiful)
There will be a day when I won’t need mirrors because looking into your eyes will be the only reflection I’ll need to see myself.
The light of my countenance is a little dimmer these days. I find the weight of my smile has become too heavy. I just can’t hold up the corners of my mouth anymore. They keep falling. When I am alone, I let my entire face fall and the saltwater tears pool up to the brim of my eyes like buckets that are only a single drop from completely spilling over. In my ocean of grief, emotions swell as waves do. They rush toward the shore of my daily life and recede. Also, like the great oceans of the Earth, the surface may appear relatively calm, but there’s so much more happening below; great, swirling gyres of currents strong enough to move water around the entire planet. The emotions below the surface are equally powerful and forceful enough to drive mood and affect.
My mind is jumbled and out of sorts. It feels like this might be a little setback. I am reminded of another poem, the first poem I have a memory of, the first poem that taught me what a poem is, Fog by Carl Sandburg. We learned it in school in perhaps second or third grade. I was taken with it and read it over and over again.
The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.
Sandburg could easily be describing grief. Who knows? Maybe he was…..
The sadness comes/on little cat feet.
The fog of grief comes/on little cat feet.
….and if Sandburg was describing grief then there’s good news in the poem, too, in that grief like the fog, moves on.
When Paul was in the hospital, we had many pet therapy visits. We were grateful for the distraction, grateful for the opportunity to smile. We missed our own dogs who were back at home. Pet therapy visits made the whole room feel warmer, more relaxed. We cherished those visits and were so thankful. Once I was feeling strong enough, I knew it was something I needed to do for others in return.
Each week, I visit patients throughout the same hospital with my dog, Beatrice. She and Paul had a special bond, the way dogs seem to have a way of attaching themselves to a particular human even within a family. She and I worked hard for months to earn her certification. I thought she would make a good therapy dog, but she truly amazes me with her ability to connect with patients and how much she herself enjoys the work. She’s a very social, gregarious, and energetic(!) dog, but when I put the little vest on her she gets all serious and professional. She’s ready to go to work! Her demeanor changes with each room we go into. She reads the patient and responds accordingly. I have watched her lean in to patients, comforting them with her body weight. She gently creeps up closer to them, nuzzling into their arms and shoulders and sometimes even rests her head under their chin. She sees doctors and nurses and staff in the hallways and immediately drops and rolls over signaling an invitation to rub her belly exposing her softness and her trust. We frequently hear comments like That’s the first time I’ve seen that patient smile since she was admitted and Thank you so much. This made my day and This is exactly what I needed and This is as alert as I have seen that patient in days.
The experience never fails to provide me with perspective. It always clears the junk out of my head and heart, bringing laser sharp perspective. There’s nothing quite like it for practicing presence and gratitude. Time and grief are suspended. There is only the moment. Only the now, and it is such a welcome relief to lay down the burden of grief and share a moment of joy with others in the need of the same.
On my rounds, I often visit the children’s hospital including pediatric oncology. I don’t think anyone would ever accuse me of being at a loss for words, especially not in this post, but it is hard for me to describe what it’s like to visit with a child who is fighting cancer. Their ability to take joy in the moment is inspiration to my soul. Beatrice and I walk in and the children’s faces just light up with smiles. I can’t see their smiles because they are hidden behind the masks they wear to protect what precious little is left of their weakened immune systems, but I know they are smiling because I can see the light shining through their eyes and their cheeks raised into little apples and the edges of the masks as Beatrice greets them with her warmth and her happy, wagging tail. Experiences like this bring focus and clarity about life, what’s really important, and the true nature of beauty. In these experiences, there is no past. There is no thought of the future. Only the present. Only that moment. Not five minutes ago. Not five minutes from now. Only that moment. And, in that moment, there is also eternity in the sense that all concept and awareness of the passage of time is lost. Time both stops and stretches on forever in all directions. When I leave the hospital, I find that my own cheeks hurt from smiling so much. It’s not a cure for grief, but it is a band-aid for sadness. Job 5:18 comes to mind, “For he wounds, but he binds up; he shatters, but his hands heal.”
At the end of this long and emotionally exhausting day, when I was questioning all that had transpired and all that lay ahead, I looked into the sky and….saw a shooting star. I was astonished. It was a rare gift in our section of the night sky. I mean we do have meteor activity it’s just that our coastal skies are often cloudy and this particular evening the moon was quite large and bright. I was also near the city so light pollution should have precluded being able to see any such activity, but there it was.
This has been a lengthy post. Apparently, I had stored up a lot of stuff that needed to be expressed. I realize that I should perhaps post more often!
The next post will be lighter. I promise. In fact, the next post will be about cookies 😉
More than a year ago, my son sent me an audio file of a phone conversation he had with his father about a week or so into his dad’s diagnosis. He sent the audio file to my phone, but I never listened to it…..until today. My phone was trying to download an update but couldn’t. The error message said I needed to review some large attachments in order to clear out some space for the new update. I was dutifully reviewing the files and deleting, and there it was. A modern day message in a (digital) bottle washed up on my emotional shore.
My husband and our son talked for
about 12 minutes mainly about his diagnosis and the amount of time he had left.
At the time, I was struggling to make sense of his diagnosis and our treatment
options. I was desperate for anything that would give us some more time. My
husband was concerned that I was not fully in touch with the situation, that I
was in denial about how much time he had left. He was partially correct. I
thought he might have months left to live. In actuality, he only had weeks. He
knew it. I think I knew it, too, but couldn’t fully accept it. Recently, I have
been feeling like I am once again at that same crossroads, the cosmic,
cognitive space where the paths of acceptance and denial intersect. There is something
that’s been tugging at my heart, something that I know, but I can’t seem to see
my way clear to fully accepting where this grief process goes next.
My son and I were talking about
this and he said, “I think we’re just scratching the surface of what you are
capable of, and I don’t want you to get stuck
in grief.” Uh-oh. An arrow straight to my heart. A ripple of panic through
In a recent comment conversation with a fellow blogger, I admitted, “Breaking through is a good way to describe what I feel like needs to happen next, but I really question whether I have the mettle necessary. I am reminded of days on the farm when I was warned by adults not to help the baby chicks as they struggled to emerge from the shell. I felt so sorry for them. I wanted to help so badly. Just a little bit! But, no, I was told that if they were not strong enough to emerge from the shell, they would not be strong enough to survive to adulthood. Yes, indeed.”
Well, folks, leave it to my husband
to tell it like it is. In my digital message in a bottle, Paul said….
“Mom’s been a trooper. She’s just…like I said…I appreciate
you talking to her because she needed to…she needed to hear it, and from you,
and, and realize that, yeah, it’s time, as much as all of us hate to do it,
move on. It’s time to move on. She’s only going to listen to me…and you.”
Holy smokes…..that message was recorded in February 2018, given to me over a year ago, and heard for the first time by me today. Amazing. Now, I have no idea what moving on looks like, but I heard my husband loud and clear. I have done my best to love, honor, and obey him in all things. This next chapter can’t and won’t be any different.
People say that time heals all wounds. No, it doesn’t. God does. Reading His Word has taught me the truth about grief and healing, and I am standing on His promises. Paul was a gift to me, and I am grateful. My cup is full and overflowing with precious memories, and I rejoice in them. I will continue to use my experience with grief to tell others about God’s Grace in my life. I consider it a high honor to reveal His strength in my weakness and pain. God has comforted me and still has more work for me to do. I know this because He is daily equipping me for the task.
In their book Grieving with Hope, Samuel J. Hodges IV and Kathy Leonard warn that choosing to remain stuck in your ways will result in grief becoming your identity. Yikes. No, thank you.
The Bible also provides an appropriate warning in Isaiah 17:5-8, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope and no future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green and they never stop producing fruit.’” Yes, thank you, because being a stunted shrub sounds like no fun at all.
Moving on with hope, joy, and peace in the midst of my grief, Malia
*This is a difficult post that discusses addiction and suicide. Please be
cautious about reading this material if you are sensitive to these topics.
Just one, short day after I wrote the grief-bomb post, a member of our extended family took her own life. Because I was immediately needed to support my loved ones, I found myself, unfortunately, in close proximity to the incident itself. I have registered the accompanying shock-waves like a seismograph as they have rolled through my emotional landscape. Shock, horror, disgust, anger, pity, indignation. Sadness. Sadness. Sadness. In the midst of this thick, hot stew of unreconciled emotions that have been difficult to manage because they don’t seem right to me, I struggled most with my feelings of anger. I felt ashamed and guilty for feeling angry with someone who was clearly hurting and in so much emotional pain that taking her own life seemed like the only solution. I asked myself, Where is my love? Where is my compassion? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I feel anything other than anger in this moment?. I prayed to God to remove what felt like heart of stone inside my chest.
I hesitated to write about this so soon as there are so many people surrounding this situation that are hurting so badly, and I want to be respectful and courteous. I am torn to pieces, but I can’t. I can’t not write about this. I know, grammar. Whatever. The impulse to write about this is overriding whatever polite sensitivities I might have. And you know what? Screw politeness. Being overly polite, keeping secrets, not talking about it is killing people. Literally!
Transparency saves lives.
So, here goes……She was a lovely person, so kind, so giving. She wanted to help everybody. She
was a give-you-the-shirt-off-her-back
kind of person. Her family loved her dearly. Her fiancé loved her
dearly. She was positive and vibrant
with a radiant smile. She had a
generous heart. She grew up in a
sweet, loving family, a family of five. She
has a brother and a sister and many nieces, nephews, and cousins who enjoyed
spending time with her. She was funny and adventurous, a free-spirit.
My own relationship with her was rocky at best, and I never really understood why. We were very, very different people. We were always cordial, but we had to agree to disagree on just about everything. I didn’t feel comfortable around her, but she was never anything but kind and welcoming. There was something about her that I could never quite put my finger on. I didn’t trust her, but I had no logical reason to feel that way and it confused me. I could never make sense of how uneasy I felt around her. Unfortunately, it makes perfect sense now. There was a part of her that was always hidden. She was in pain, but she hid it. She was depressed, but she hid it. She was battling addiction, but she hid it. The truth is I never really knew her at all. I never had the opportunity. Her life and mine didn’t intersect until she was in the final stages of depression and addiction. The addiction kept her true self locked inside a prison of stigma, shame, and fear. The version of her that I knew was altered by addiction and over-compensated for everything, and I think my codependent radar, engineered by my family’s own experience with addiction, was just constantly ringing the emotional alarm every time I was around her. My subconscious perceived her as dangerous and signaled my flight response. That leaves me with feelings of regret and heartache that I didn’t get to know her. I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed, “Please forgive me for missed opportunities to reach out with kindness and compassion. I am so sorry that I couldn’t bridge the gap between us.”
This is perhaps what addiction is
best at, best at making everyone surrounding it think that everything is okay
so that it can continue to do its dirty work in secret. Concerned friends and
family members are the greatest threat to addiction. They are addiction’s first
targets to be eliminated at, unfortunately, any cost.
She was trying. She was trying to break free and had
periods of sobriety. AA chips were here and there throughout the house. Stacked
Bibles with copious amounts of handwritten notes are evidence that she was reading and studying God’s Word.
She was trying. And she had won many a battle, but in a
fraction of a second, the impulse to escape won the war. And that’s what it
was. An impulse. There was no indicator that that day was different from any
other. There were none of the typical behavior patterns leading up to a
suicide. No plan. No note. Just a single impulsive moment that ended
Several days ago, we celebrated her life at a memorial service. The service was very well done. It helped me reconcile those unresolved feelings of anger and guilt, feeling guilty about feeling so angry. Two of her nieces and a cousin spoke beautifully, tenderly, about how much she meant to them. Through them, I was able to get a glimpse of her before addiction and depression overtook her. Through them, God opened the eyes of my heart and restored my sense of compassion, replaced my heart of stone with a heart of love. As they shared precious memories of her in a time before I met her, I could see her happy and free. She was so precious to her family. Her love changed their lives for the better, made them the people they are today, and the loss of her will never be made whole in their lifetimes. And then something amazing and powerful happened.
Her sister spoke. Up until that point, everyone’s comments had been in the polite category, very proper and nicey-nice. Everyone had talked about how wonderful she was, how much they loved her, and how much she loved them. Her family loved her dearly, dearly. Her sister boldly affirmed everything everyone had said about her. She was indeed all of those things, beautiful, wonderful, caring, kind, loving, giving, compassionate, fun and adventurous, but she was also broken and in pain. Her sister openly talked about unhealthy choices. She again affirmed that all of those wonderful things about hersister were true and right and good, but it was also true that her sister suffered and struggled her entire life with depression, substance abuse, and maintaining her mental health.
She was suffering from depression and addiction, and she lost her life because of it. Her sister courageously called every elephant in the room by name, and then extended a life line to us all. “If you are hurting, if you are struggling with addiction or depression, we are here for you. The church is here for you. You are not alone. We are with you. Let us help you.” It was fantastic. It was beautiful. It was amazing. She was amazing. She spoke eloquently about how she could love her sister and her sister could be a loving person while, at the same time, her sister was at the mercy of addiction and mental illness. In a stunning moment of power and truth, her sister proclaimed that there’s no shame to this. There’s no stigma to this. She was a beautiful person who suffered and because she was in so much emotional pain she took steps to rid herself of the pain. She just called it all out but still had all this love and respect and honor for her sister. It.was.powerful. And I am thankful for her brave words spoken in understanding, compassion, and love.
In closing, this requiem, this final act or token of remembrance for her, is truly the least I can do. I only pray it could have been more.
Speak the truth in love, brothers and sisters. Transparency
saves lives, Malia