Don’t stay busy. It’s a trap.

First, a story.

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 breeze.

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 potential disaster.

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.

Trusting, Malia

Sweet Somethings in My Ear

Paul was famous for leaving us notes; peeking out at me from the bottom of my sock drawer, a note by my phone to remind me of an early morning meeting. I would often get to work and find that Paul had tucked a note in my bag. When I travelled, there was always a note hidden in my suitcase.

Paul was always in my corner. He knew just what to say and just when to say it. This week, I was cleaning out my work-space in preparation for moving to my new position, and I found these, amazing and poignantly relevant to my current situation:

It wasn’t just notes. About a year before Paul died, I awoke one night because I heard something, someone talking. It was Paul. He was close to me, right up next to me, his head on my pillow, his chin nuzzled into my neck, and he was saying something. Once I realized that he was the one who was talking, still half asleep and with my eyes still closed, I mumbled, “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” He replied that he was talking to me. A little more awake, blinking my eyes trying to focus, I turned to see Paul propped up on his arm looking at me and smiling. Brow furrowed, I argued, “But I was asleep. Why are you talking to me while I’m sleeping?” His response was this, “I am filling your mind and heart with all the things you need to hear. I am telling you all the good things you need to know about yourself.” Many nights after that I would wake to the sound of Paul’s voice in my ear. “You are so beautiful. You are strong. You are smart. You are kind. You take care of your family. You love us so well.” And the list goes on and on. Paul was my very own, live action affirmations-while-you-sleep tape.

The summer before Paul died we did very little. We hardly even left the house. He had no energy at all. He just wasn’t feeling well the majority of the time. He had very little appetite and wasn’t sleeping well. He stopped doing things he liked to do like cooking and fishing. We were seeing his doctors regularly, almost weekly(!), and there had definitely been some changes in blood work. For one thing, he was diagnosed with diabetes and started some medication to help with that, but there was nothing whatsoever that indicated he had cancer. I also distinctly remember a talk he had in the yard one day with his dad. I wasn’t privy to the entire conversation, but I remember his dad walking away shaking his head and saying, “Nah, you’ll be fine. It’ll just take some time to get your new medications right and start eating a little differently.” “What was all that about?” I asked. “Awww, nothing,” Paul said, “It’s just hard for my dad to accept that I’m not feeling well, and with my health problems, well, I may not always be around like he assumes.” I told Paul that I realized that he had been feeling poorly lately, especially with the diabetes diagnosis and trying to get medications adjusted, but that he wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.

I was scheduled to go to California on a work trip for about three days in that following December, just months before Paul died, and he literally refused to allow me to go. I was shocked. Never in all our time together had he ever put his foot down and told me he wouldn’t allow me to do something. I pushed the issue, complained that I couldn’t understand why he felt so strongly about me not going. It was an awkward situation because I had already committed myself to the trip, but in the end, I had to let my supervisors know that I couldn’t go after all. His behavior was so out of character for him that I was more perplexed than angry. There was just no way he would deny me unless it was extraordinarily important to him so I acquiesced and let the matter go.

A month after he died I came across a forgotten letter saved on the computer. I hadn’t read it before. The letter had never been sent and was addressed to an old friend of the family who we had not seen in a couple of years, but the content was broad. It could have been written to anyone, all of us.

“I truly believe God’s grace, prayer, and a positive attitude have been the deciding factors…I just wish he would have given us more time together but it isn’t for me to question to God’s motives, only to be thankful for them and I am THANKFUL.” (his emphasis)

It’s interesting to note that while Paul was a prolific note writer, I had never known him to write letters like this one. It was lengthy, two typed pages. He began the letter by explaining that he chose to write instead of call because he thought it would be easier than talking on the phone. Our friend had significant hearing problems and great difficulty understanding what people were saying especially on the phone. Think about that. If not for that, we might not have this precious letter.

Looking back on it now, in total, it seems like he was preparing us for life without him, right? And it begs the question…did he know? Paul was perceptive, intuitive, in all the ways I am not. In a lot of ways, his perception was extra sensory. Yes, I know what I am suggesting here, but he knew things before, saw ahead, realized. That first week in the hospital he would say he had days to live or weeks to live to the indignant disbelief and hearty protest of me and our son and contrary to what his doctors were indicating as well, but he already knew.

One day we were sitting with Paul in the hospital room. He had been alert and lucid that day. He had lots of visitors and family in and out all day long. I was talking to someone else, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, I can’t remember, but suddenly Paul had my attention. He was waving at something out the window. We were on the 8th floor. I caught our son’s eye who was now also looking at this dad. “Who are you waving at, Daddy?” Paul had the biggest smile on his face. He pointed and continued waving, “Doris and Marshall! They’re right there. See them!” Doris and Marshall were his beloved aunt and uncle and people of deep faith. They passed away a year apart from each other over 10 years ago.

Again from Paul….

February 18th 2018 “Woke this morning to the question, ‘How are you feeling?’ being asked by a nurse. I gave her a typical answer given by a typically healthy person…I’m alive and it beats the alternative or I’m on the right side of dirt. I’ll never say that again. Tears. Vicki & Tom came to visit. Argued w/M about when I was going to die, I’ve always got to have my side! I’d argue about dying sooner just to win!”

As the days went on, he was short tempered with those closest to him, putting distance between us. Apparently, that makes the final parting easier. At the time, I was confused and perplexed by it, but now I understand. He was testing us to see if we were ready to let him go. He was restless most of the time, often delirious, and when he did rest, it was fitful. He would move, mutter, and talk in his sleep. He would sometimes even smile and laugh and carry on conversations. Occasionally, we would recognize what he was saying or what he was laughing about as a memory of an event from long ago. His life was flashing before his eyes. He was reliving moments from our life together. There were also astonishing bursts of energy and seemingly super human strength. I understand that now, too. They are all hallmarks of the dying process, by-products of what was happening to his body, his mind, and his spirit.

At this point, you may be thinking how terrible for her or I feel so bad for her having to go through all of that or something similar. You might even be thinking what some people actually say out loud. That it’s better for someone to die suddenly. That it’s somehow easier on all involved. I have experienced loss both ways. I was present during the dying and death of my husband. My mother, on the other hand, died suddenly in a car accident. There’s nothing good, easier, or advantageous about any of it. And, yes, you can argue it both ways. You can say that in one circumstance a loved one didn’t have to suffer or in another circumstance that the dying and the loved ones had a chance to say goodbye. The truth is that death and dying are a natural part of the life process and either way the resulting grief is difficult, life changing, and an opportunity to learn and grow and should be seized as such in whatever form that looks like for you.

Father’s Day is upon us, again, our second without Paul. He was a good daddy. He loved our son and understood him in ways I never will because they shared the bond of maleness. My mind and heart are full of distinct moments when I’ve thought and felt that our son needed his dad and that I was a poor substitute. Our son has his own precious collection of notes from Dad. They are equally poignant and relevant, and I’m thankful that Paul is able to continue to offer guidance to his son in that way. I am thankful for the sweet somethings that Paul left behind.

Our Heavenly Father, too, left notes for us in the form of His word, the Bible. Much of the Bible is a collection of letters left behind by Holy Spirit-filled men who were inspired by God. It’s God’s love letter to His children. The Bible is our notes from Dad. It’s every bit as poignant and relevant to us in the world today and provides guidance to His loved ones. If you are missing the father in your life this holiday, as we are, remember that we always have a father in God.

A child of God, the father to us all, Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part II, or The Elephant in the Room

The Elephant in the Room? Seriously. I’m running an elephant sanctuary over here.

We’ll start with the baby elephant, anxiety.

In the early weeks and months after Paul died, it was difficult for me to leave the safety of the house. I wanted to be where he was. Paul and I did everything together. We enjoyed each other and enjoyed doing even the smallest activities together. I don’t even remember the last time I was in a grocery store by myself or pumped my own gas. Now, just riding in the car by myself feels like a foreign country. I am not sure I fully realized it until Paul was no longer by my side, but he made me feel safe, emotionally safe certainly, and, in some cases, physically safe.

I admit that I have long been a bit of a “nervous Nellie”, a little hypersensitive even from my childhood, but going through my days alone has caused me anxiety like I have never known it before. It is at its worst in the morning. Big surprise <insert sarcasm>. Sometimes I can’t get out of bed. It’s a struggle just to get my feet on the floor. Sometimes I get stuck in the kitchen. I’m dressed. I’m ready. I’m standing in the kitchen, and I can’t move from that spot. The other prime locations for getting stuck are in the driveway and at the traffic light as I’m trying to leave neighborhood. When I’m stuck in the driveway, I just sit there and watch the garage door go down trying to decide if I’m actually going to leave the house or not. If there is no one waiting behind me at the traffic light, I will often just keep on sitting through the next cycle or two. If I’m forced out the neighborhood by people waiting behind me, then I make my way to my destination but struggle to get out of the car when I arrive.

I’ve attempted to deal with this anxiety in several ways because what I’ve really learned about anxiety like this is that it’s not going away anytime soon. I have to manage it. There are times when I am able to confront it. I can muster my courage and force myself to take the next step. That works. Sometimes. Other times, I find it best to avoid that which I know causes anxiety. I order my groceries online, and go pick them up instead of doing the shopping in-store. That is a reasonable, acceptable avoidance that does not impact my quality of life. I have used interventions such as medication (short term), controlled breathing, meditation and prayer, exercise, connecting with others, and counseling. I doubt I am going to be anxiety free any time soon, but I have enough strategies at my disposal to manage. For now.

So, that’s anxiety. Next up, anger.

Anger has always felt wrong to me. Wrong on a sinful level. I have always tended to be less expressive, even stoic. It’s hard for me to remember many times in my life when I’ve been out-right angry. It is also useless, honestly. It’s not productive or helpful in any way as far as I can tell, but anger is a very natural, biological emotion, and it’s present very early on in life so it must be important. Even babies get angry. Anger in its basic form is used, I believe, to draw attention, to demand attention. And perhaps that’s what anger in the midst of grief is all about. A demand for a wound to be attended to. Anger can be sneaky. For me, anger over my husband’s death comes out as irritability, being short-tempered with others, having impatient outbursts that take me by surprise, and I think to myself where did that come from? My anger forces me to attend to something within myself that I have pushed aside for too long. The message to me from me is…..Deal with these feelings, or they will deal with you. And, by the way, I’m fed up with all the feelings. It’s exhausting, and I’m sick of it.

The anger usually abates when I acknowledge what I’m angry about. So, what am I angry about? Here goes. I am angry that Paul left me here by myself. No, he didn’t do it on purpose. I am angry about the way Paul died. No, there was nothing that could have been done differently. I am angry that I was completely helpless to do anything for him. Yes, I did everything I could. I am angry that I have to do all this grief sh*t (excuse me). Yes, yes, the grief work has helped me grow. So, do you see? Do you see how senseless anger is? And, yet, it is there.

I think the best way to sum up anger in the midst of grief is with this clip from the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn close.

These elephants are getting bigger. Ugh. Next, the twins, hurt and guilt.

Marriage, any relationship for that matter, is not all goodness and light, my friends, as I’m sure many of you well know. Conflicts occur. I suppose it is inevitable in any relationship as we are all flawed. Old arguments come to mind. I think of things that I said or did that hurt Paul and things that Paul said and did that hurt me as well. Some of the arguments were the ridiculous kind that all couples seem to have, but some of them were more serious incursions, and the hurt and the guilt are deep and impossible to forget. I have to say here that I think it’s really important to remember the love and the good times, the happy memories, and to remember the difficult, hurtful memories, too. It’s not good to over-romanticize the relationship. While it is painful to remember the hurtful things I did and how I was hurt, it also allows me to continue to learn how to improve my current and future relationships with those I love. Guilt is good. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that hopefully(!) prevents us from erring repeatedly.

And, finally, Jumbo makes his entrance. Regret.

I most regret the missed opportunities, missed opportunities to be more attentive, patient, to be a better listener, more accepting, to know my husband in deeper ways and to be more open so that I could be fully known. I regret the times that I fell short of being the wife he wanted and/or needed. I don’t mean to say that I wish I had necessarily agreed with him more because sometimes that is genuinely not what a person needs although it may be what they want. I just mean that I can think of times when reacting differently to what was happening in our relationship would have been the more loving and honorable way to be my husband’s wife. One of my deepest regrets came in the weeks and days before Paul died. I was in full caregiver mode. Decisions about his care had to be made every day and had to be made quickly. I so wish I could have stepped away from my caregiver role and could just be with him in those last days, but it was impossible. I was being Martha because I had to. I wish I could have been Mary.

So, how does all this junk get resolved? Three words. Mercy, forgiveness, and grace. Mercy is when we don’t get what we have coming to us, when we have behaved wrongly and should rightfully be punished but are spared. With forgiveness, we can surmount the anger and resentment. We can let it go. And then there’s grace. Grace is the clincher. It’s the life changer, the freedom bringer. It is completely unmerited, cannot be earned and is the highest form of love. It takes all three of these to make a relationship work. Marriage is hard, but a promise is only a promise if it is kept. The following passage was read at our wedding as it is at so many, but it remains, for me, a guidebook to being in a right relationship with others.

The Way of Love (1 Cor 13:1-13)

13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Our wedding day, Dec 14, 1991

So, go ahead, dear ones. Talk about the elephants in the room. Call them out by name. Mountain climber, adventurer, and completely blind for most of his adulthood, Erik Weihenmayer says, “You lean in to the thing that sort of scares you, that overwhelms you, so that you can kind of get up close to it and you can experience it fully and then it kind of loses its power over you.”

Get up close to your elephants, friends, and the room will be yours!

Blessings, Malia

When Grieving, Dive Deep

In a previous post, I wrote about psychic injury and how to care for yourself as you heal. This post moves on to discussing the healing process. After the death of a loved one or a significant loss, people may refer to you as grief-stricken. Grief-stricken. It’s an interesting description, as if one is stricken with an illness, but I agree with it. It does make sense to refer to grief as an illness because illnesses need treatments and so do psychic injuries. I also agree because people recover from illness, and people recover from grief, too!

Grief is a noun, but grieving is a verb. It is active. Make no mistake. Grieving is difficult work and takes a sustained effort, a multi-faceted approach. For me, I felt like I had to get it right. I have a lot of life left to live. I also want the rest of my life to honor my husband and his love for me. He took such good care of me, always wanted the best for me. He wanted me to spend the rest of my life happy and healthy and emotionally free even if it was without him. The only way to ensure that is to do this grieving thing to the hilt.

So, I have pursued grief, sought it out, searched for it in the darkest corners, fought with it, chased it, dug it up, and wrapped myself in it. Grieving is indeed a profound experience, but it is not who I am, the little girl who lost her mother, the grieving widow. God alone, not my circumstances, determines my identity.

I.Own.Grief. It doesn’t own me.

My treatment plan evolved over time. I began with one strategy and gradually added more until I had a full array of tools with which to do my work.

Welcome to my Griefwork Toolbox!

Individual and/or Family Counseling

I began by seeing a counselor. Best decision I ever made. She saved my life (I’ll save the rest of that story for another post). I began with weekly visits and gradually increased the time between visits depending on how I was feeling. Sometimes I had setbacks and needed to return more frequently. Sometimes I felt stronger and could go a little longer without an appointment. I recommend choosing a counselor who specializes in grief and someone who will support any particular religious beliefs or traditions you may have. I also recommend that you think ahead about whether or not you want a male or female counselor. Be sure to consider any other characteristics unique to your situation and history. The more specific you are the better your counseling experience will be. 

Reading

Reading books about grief can be very helpful. Small, short books with vignettes are best. Long narratives are challenging for an overloaded brain. A brain overloaded with emotion struggles to concentrate and pay attention. A quick search on Amazon will yield many good options. Read just a little each day. Make it a habit. Five to ten minutes a day is all you need.

Choose and pursue an expressive outlet

There are feelings and emotions in the human soul for which there are no words and for which an ocean of salty tears would not be enough to express. For that reason, an expressive outlet can do a world of good. It could be anything – dance, theater, poetry, music, art, sculpting, crafting, scrapbooking, painting, textile arts, drawing. For me, it was music. My husband was a teenager during the seventies. His vinyl record collection is epic. I spent hours listening to those records. They made me feel close to Paul when I was struggling to adapt to his physical absence. I was able to picture him listening to and enjoying those same records, and it made me feel like we were together. They were a great comfort to me, calmed me as David used music to calm the madness of the king. Then, my father-in-law gave me a piano. I had played as a child so, even though many years had passed, it was still familiar to me. I ordered some books and began practicing each day. I was astonished at the way it literally switched off the rest of my brain as I focused on playing the notes and tune. When I am playing the piano, I lose track of time. I lose track of time. A miracle.

Try a Grief Group

I say try because you may find that it is not for you. It also has a lot to do with timing. If you try a grief group and it’s not working for you, by all means, discontinue, but don’t throw out the idea completely. I did not join a grief group until 6 months after Paul’s death. The group I joined was organized around a video series with an accompanying workbook. That aspect was extremely helpful to me. The discussions we had were short, limited to about 15 minutes, and I didn’t speak too often. Only one other person in the group had experienced the death of a spouse. The rest of the members had experienced the death of adult children, parents, or siblings. My point is that the most important benefit I received from being in a grief group was acquired by listening. There is so much value in listening to and understanding the perspectives of others.

Full Circle Moments

Look for and take advantage of full circle moments. I call them goodbye moments. These usually happen at places that were special to us, a restaurant, the beach, gardens, cities we liked to visit, vacation spots. One of these goodbye moments occurred recently at a local plantation. The last time we had been there was Mother’s Day 2016. Our son wasn’t able to be with us that day. I was feeling a little blue about that so Paul planned for us to enjoy a day out. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We strolled the gardens through walkways of flowers. We talked and smiled and laughed and held hands. We thoroughly enjoyed just being with each other. On this recent visit to the same plantation, I was with my brother and his family. As we walked in through the main gates, I recalled the memory. Shared it with my family. Smiled at the thought of it. Celebrated Paul’s life. Embraced it, and let it go. Full circle.

Mother’s Day 2016, Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, SC

Exercise                                                                                                              

Any form of exercise will do, but I encourage you to choose an exercise that has the potential to be social, a two-for-one as it were. The physical and mental benefits of exercise are, of course, numerous. By adding a social component, you also get the benefit of connecting with others. In addition, I encourage exercises and/or activities that have a meditation or mindfulness component as well as a focus on breathing, something like yoga or the martial arts. All of this together will help ease anxiety and the processing of intense emotions.

Church

If church was part of your life before the death of your loved one, try to continue to go. I know it is difficult, but it can be an important and stabilizing force in your healing process. I think the way to get through it is to not have any expectations. Just be there in His presence and trust. The rawness of grief in the midst of worship can be very challenging. Go anyway. Do it anyway, but make sure you have escape routes, places you can go, people you can go to if you get overly emotional or completely overwhelmed.

Journaling

My counselor encouraged journaling early on, but I was not able to do it. I couldn’t gather my thoughts together well enough to get them on to paper. I couldn’t concentrate. My emotions just didn’t translate. It was months before I was able to write short responses to questions in my grief workbook and several months more before my ideas began to freely flow. If you are not able to journal initially, try again after some time has passed. It can be a powerful means for reorganizing thoughts and memories, integrating new experiences, and assimilating new routines and life patterns.

Pet Therapy

Spending time with pets can have a profoundly beneficial impact on anxiety, depression, and mood. Try spending more time with your own pets if you have them. Walking them and playing with them even for a few minutes can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and improve your outlook. If you don’t have pets of your own, spend time with a friend or family member’s pet. Many organizations have access to pet therapy. Handlers volunteer their time and their pet to visit with people undergoing medical treatments or in need of emotional support. I will write more about our own amazing experience with pet therapy in a future post.

Connect

Connect with others in a meaningful way. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Griefwork truly is a labor. By connecting, we can help each other through it. Work on strengthening your current connections and reaching out to others to form new ones. Everyone is experiencing some type of grief. No one gets through this life unscathed. The more we reach out and connect with each other the better off we will all be.

Serve

Find opportunities to serve others in need. Yes, even though you are in a position of need yourself. Serving others grows gratitude for your own circumstances. It also takes your mind off of whatever your mind is on. On our first Christmas Day without Paul, my son and I volunteered to serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House, a place for families experiencing medical hardships. It was the best place for us to be that day. We were busy serving others. It took our minds off the absence of our beloved husband and father if even for a little while. I was recently reading Luke’s account of Tabitha. Tabitha was a disciple of Christ and worked to help the widowed and poor by making clothing for them. Tabitha fell ill and passed away. Her community was so distraught that two believers went to get Peter who was visiting in a nearby town. Peter arrived and prayed to God on behalf of Tabitha, and God restored her to life. She got her life back. Every time I do something for someone else, when I serve, I feel like I get a little bit more of my life back.

Go. Serve. It’s good for others. It’s good for you.

Embrace

Only what is embraced can be transformed. Only by embracing the grief can it be transformed into peace. Embrace it all, the emotions, the memories, the hurt. Breathe it all in so that you can breathe it all out. Don’t run away. Run towards it! Memories are so interesting. When my mother died, I purposely did not remember and forgot so much, whole swaths of time from my childhood. The pain was too overwhelming, and I had no support. Now, I use my memories as a way to visit with Paul, and it brings me joy!

Cry. Wash. Repeat.

Cry. A lot. Then, wash your face. I received this advice from a widower, and he was right. There is great power in the physical act of washing your face. The water is refreshing. It takes the tears with it down the drain. It’s energizing, too. It gives you a moment to catch your breath, gather your courage, and face the day once more. Repeat as often as necessary. It’s an emotional cleanse that’s good for your psyche.

If ANY of this is helpful to you, dear reader, then I have been of service and have gotten a little bit more of my life back.

Be blessed, Malia

Church is so hard.

I’m a Christian. Beyond that, my spiritual life and personal relationship with Jesus Christ is far more important than any religious affiliation I have. So, why go to church? I believe, and the Bible, God’s Word, tells us that we are called into fellowship with other Christians. We are, in fact, adopted members of the family of faith. We are members of one body, and we can no more remove ourselves from the body of Christ than remove one of our own arms or legs. We go to church for support, accountability, instruction, and challenge, and quite frankly sometimes out of sheer obedience, obedience to a loving Father who knows what is best for us when we don’t know it for ourselves.

Sundays at church were such a wonderful time for me and my husband. It was our special time together. There was nothing more peaceful to me than sitting beside him in the pew, both of us so grateful for everything God had given us. We attended the same church where we were baptized, confirmed, married, and where we Christened our son, the same church where we held my husband’s funeral, and I said goodbye to Paul for the last time among our friends and family. In a way, that was a proud day for me. Twenty-seven years earlier, we had taken our marriage vows in front of some of those same family and friends. It was not always easy or pretty, but our marriage had endured “…until death do us part”. It was also my great privilege and joy to watch my husband grow and mature spiritually. God loved him, and he loved the Lord. It was amazing to watch the Lord work in Paul’s life and heart.

Easter 1990, at the church where Paul would be baptized and confirmed, and where we would be married and Christen our son.

Going to church without my husband is still pretty hard on me. No, that’s putting it too mildly. The truth is that I suffer. I weep. I cry. I have to excuse myself to a quiet, prayer room off the vestibule so that I can regain my composure. We always sat toward the back. It might be easier on me if I moved to another pew, but I am glued to that spot. I cannot leave the pew where we sat. I just can’t, even though it makes me sad. Kneeling at the communion rail makes me sad. I know that I am sharing in the Great Communion of all believers, and in that way, I am as close to Paul as I will get until that day. I know it should bring me joy, and it does, but at the same time, I also experience the deeply painful loss of his physical reality and it hurts! It physically hurts me. The songs, too, make me sad, the hymns we sung together for so many Sundays. I sit in my pew, an open wound. I kneel at the rail, an open wound. I worship as I suffer. I suffer as I worship.

So, why? Why subject myself to such pain and misery? Because I count my sadness and brokenness before God as a pure act of worship. Because, to me, worshiping fully means worship, thanksgiving, and trust in the midst of intense grief and suffering. Because I have learned that suffering is good. Useful. Important. It’s ok for me to suffer. It is an important element in the Christian walk of faith as demonstrated time and time again throughout the Bible not to mention that it’s an inescapable aspect of the human experience. Living out the Christian life is fine and good, but living out the Christian death is an act of worship and eternal hope.

I was reading Tramp for the Lord by Corrie Ten Boom recently when she reminded me of James 1: 2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into difficult times. Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” I count my sadness and brokenness before God as joy. I am determined to worship in the midst of the suffering because I am grateful. God measured the length of Paul’s days before he was born, and I was blessed to have the time God provided for us to have.

“Then, he turned my sorrow into joy! He took away my clothes of mourning…” Psalm 30:11

Faithfully, Malia

Good Grief! The Truth about Psychic Injury

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malia

Goat yoga!

Introduction

“Paul 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.

Yours truly, Malia