The Camino – Day One

In a previous post, I shared that I am going on a pilgrimage. I am going to walk the last 110km of the Camino de Santiago through northwestern Spain to reach the tomb of St. James, the Apostle. My trip starts today, but this journey started, well, years ago. Grieving is a spiritual journey, and God set me on this path from a very young age. My mother was killed in a car accident when I was twelve. That is when my journey with grief began. It’s a tough road to be sure. Grief is wrought with challenges, but I’ve come to understand and even value that grief offers us the opportunity to know ourselves, and God, more fully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much love, Malia

The story of Paul’s last day.

Friends, this post will be difficult for all of us. If you’ve had a very recent loss, it’s probably not the best time to read this one. Save it for later when you’re stronger. I am not even sure I should be sharing this. I don’t know who it will help. Maybe you, but maybe just me. I do know that I feel called to share it, and I am very sure that it is a necessary part of the healing process.

Modern medicine has essentially removed death from our everyday lives. People today don’t experience the number of personal losses to a death that people did even 100 years ago. Death used to be common place in our homes due to wars, illnesses that now have common place treatments and cures, accidents, and the prevalence of livestock in people’s everyday lives. We had so many rituals and social structures around death that supported and ushered people through the process. Mourning jewelry that contained images and remains were prevalent. People do still wear mourning or remembrance type jewelry, but it is typically disguised as regular jewelry so that no one but the wearer knows that it contains ashes or a lock of hair or is actually a finger print or the imprint of the electrical impulse of a heart beat from an electrocardiogram. Death has become something to be handled discreetly, privately. I believe that has made it more difficult for those who are grieving, and we are all grieving. We need to talk about it! Candidly. But we don’t. People don’t talk about it when they have been witness to the final moments of life. It’s painful. It’s intensely personal. It’s packed with conflicting emotions that are difficult to describe in words. Perhaps it’s not considered polite to share the contents of that experience. Honestly, manners—superficial, defined social structures—don’t matter that much to me anymore. People, feelings, experiences, being totally present, deeply listening, understanding, and questioning are the things that I care about and pour myself into these days. Transparency, vulnerability, truth. These are the conduits to healing.

The last two weeks leading up to Paul’s last day had been a constant effort to keep him comfortable. The cancer was pervasive. It was everywhere, lungs, brain, abdomen, colon, liver, intestines, everywhere. Our chief concern was, of course, managing pain. We soon arrived at a crossroads where, in order to manage the pain and keep him comfortable, we would have to relinquish his ability to remain conscious. This was an insanely difficult decision making process for us to navigate. We knew every choice we made about the medications that were being used could mean that we were interacting with the essence of what made Paul Paul for the last time. Some of the drugs being used to manage pain could, in fact, lead to his death. During this time, Paul would have what we described as long pauses. There would be periods of time when he would just stop breathing. We would all huddle close to him thinking that the moment had come. Then, after up to two or three minutes (an eternity!), he would start breathing again. These long pauses happened multiple times a day for days on end. It was traumatizing. Because we would frequently take turns going home to sleep, shower, changes clothes, and walk dogs, there were several times when a period of long pauses occurred when one of us was not at the hospital. When this happened, we would call the one who was not there and stay on the phone while we hurried to get back to the hospital terrified that we might miss Paul’s final moment. Like I said, traumatizing.

He had not been conscious in over a week. The Paul we knew was gone, but his body remained. It was hard to understand what was keeping him tethered. A member of the palliative care team explained that sometimes the dying have a need for privacy in their final moments. So, we left the room for several hours at a stretch, both of us, for the first time since Paul was admitted to the hospital, but it only seemed to agitate Paul. Even unconscious, he rested more comfortably when we were in the room. I asked a member of our palliative care team why Paul was lingering when it was so difficult. I just didn’t understand how his body could possibly be enduring. The palliative care team member was an older doctor, and he gently explained to me, in the most beautiful way, something that had never occurred to me before. He said that, in his career, he had been present at countless deaths and countless births. He said that not all people arrive easily. For some, the birth process is difficult, a struggle, and that the same is true of the death process. For some, it is difficult. It is a struggle. I’m not sure why that had never occurred to me. Again, I think it might be because we as a society do not talk and share enough about the ubiquitous human experience that the dying process is. It makes sense, though, right? Birthing is called labor. There is pain. Then, so, too, dying is also a labor, and some labor more than others just as in the birthing process. Paul was in labor, struggling to be born into the next life, and we were witnesses, but after talking with the doctor, I saw myself as a coach as well and began to think about what Paul needed from me, how I could come alongside him as his partner in the process instead of merely his care-giver and advocate.

On morning of the last day, I arrived at the hospital early. Our son had been with Paul through the night and headed home for a little while. Shortly after our son left, Paul’s breathing became labored and noisy, loud. It was difficult to be in the room. It was brutal.

I sent this message out to family and friends. “We are on our knees this morning. This road is very, very difficult. But we are not alone. We feel the love and prayers of family and friends near and far. Any strength you perceive in us, I have to tell you is not us, but Him. I am running on His Grace alone. There is nothing left but His Grace. Everything else has been stripped away. We are laid bare in the pain and struggle of it. I have honestly never experienced anything worse than this, and yet I rest in the comfort of my Savior’s embrace. We love you all.”

In desperation, I cried out to God to be merciful. This was my prayer that day, “Please, Lord God, have mercy on your servant, Paul. He belongs to You. He has always belonged to you, Lord, and now I am begging you to have mercy. I am thankful for the days you have given us. I am sorry for the many ways I have fallen short. Please, Lord, be merciful.” Then, I had a heart-to-heart talk with Paul, the way a wife talks with a husband. I told him that we were trying everything we knew to keep him comfortable, but we were failing. I told him that we could not heal him, but God could. After 30 years of complete and utter love and devotion, I told Paul for the last time that I loved him, but that God loved him more. Yes, God loved him more. That was an important realization for me. I had always thought that I loved Paul most and best, but that was actually never true. God always loved him more. I also talked to Paul about all the wonderful, fun, sad, difficult, normal, extraordinary things we had done together. We were always together, but this was different. He would have to do this last thing on his own, and I told him I knew he could do it. He had to go on ahead of me, and he had to do it by himself.

Our son arrived back at the hospital about noon, and the labored breathing continued throughout the day. In the evening, he was suddenly quiet. The three of us spent the rest of night together peacefully. I awoke at about 1:30 in the morning. I don’t know why because on the surface nothing had changed. Paul was still quiet and peaceful. So, I just sat there with him holding his hand. The pace of his breath quickened, and I spoke with the nurse about a medication change. She administered the medication, but his breathing continued to be erratic. I woke our son up. He and I surrounded his dad with love and joy and gratitude and saw him traverse the threshold from this world to his eternal home.

When it comes to cancer, everyone prays for a miracle. Well, we did have a miracle. It was not a happy ending in the traditional sense as in a cure, but it was a peaceful, dignified ending. The miracle is that, given what we were facing, Paul died peacefully with dignity surrounded by family, friends, and so much love.

I have used this picture in a previous post, and you may have thought, as I did, Why am I (is she) smiling? When I saw myself in this picture, that was my first thought. Why am I smiling? Initially, I didn’t have an answer for that question. Over time, I realized why. For me, the hardest part was watching Paul in pain, watching Paul die, and that part was thankfully, blessedly over. I could not even cry. I felt so ridiculous, not being able to cry, but I was so happy for Paul, that the pain and suffering was over. My grieving was delayed by relief. I recently saw a picture of another young widow, an acquaintance of mine from high school. Her husband died of cancer, 49 years old. In the picture, the day of her husband’s funeral, she is smiling, just like me. I know why.

Be blessed, Malia

Puppy Love

A neighbor’s dog had a litter of ten puppies, Boston terrier and Lab mixed. There were only three puppies left, a boy and two girls. We knew we wanted a girl so we just needed to pick one of the two that were left. Easy. Right? Not so much. After an hour of holding, petting, playing, and cuddling, I was no closer to deciding which one than when we arrived. Finally, I turned to Paul and said, “I just can’t choose between them.” He didn’t miss a beat, didn’t even hesitate before saying, “Well, then, we’ll take them both.”

That’s how it happened. That’s how we got our girls in January 2012, and they have brought us so much joy. Choosing names in a family full of history buffs is no joke, but we landed on Eleanor (as in Roosevelt) and Beatrice, after General George Patton’s wife. It wasn’t long before the formality faded and Ellie and Bea became the norm.

Our girls, Ellie and Bea

Pets are a lot of responsibility and a lifetime commitment, but we would never trade it for the love, joy, and companionship that they provide in return. Pets have always been part of our lives, and pet therapy has been an incredibly important part of my journey through Paul’s illness, his passing, grieving, healing, and now growth. When Paul was in the hospital, he would sleep restlessly and often call for the girls or snap his fingers for them to come. Because we were not able to be transferred to hospice, we had a very large, private hospital room at the end of a wing. The doctors graciously made it possible for the girls to come and spend an entire day in the room with us. On other days, we had many visits from therapy dogs. The pet therapy visits never failed to brighten our mood and provide a welcome distraction from the stress and anxiety of what we were experiencing. The benefits of pet therapy are numerous. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health, releases calming endorphins, and reduces pain. The act of petting induces an automatic relaxation response that can even reduce the need for medication in some cases. It’s also social. It brings people together. It makes people smile! Read more about the benefits of pet therapy here in the blog, The Psych Talk.

The time we spent in the hospital leading up to Paul’s passing was difficult and sad, but as sad as what we were going through was, it was sadder still to walk down the hallways and see so many patients who were totally alone. No family. No visitors. In contrast, Paul’s room was filled with people, friends and family, and LOVE, day in and day out. Through pet therapy, we can share that love, the love Paul had for his family and our fur babies. I have written previously about how full circle moments have greatly contributed to both gratitude and growth in the grieving process. Pet therapy is a prime example of that. Several months ago, I began the process of getting one of our girls, Bea, certified as a therapy dog through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. She has such a good temperament and is well suited to it. Our other girl, Ellie, is less gregarious and would not likely enjoy it. It’s so important to carefully consider a dog’s personality if pet therapy is something in which you are interested. Very soon, Bea and I will walk the same hallways to visit patients in the same hospital where our family spent all those difficult days and nights during Paul’s illness and passing, but this time it will be for something good. It somehow redeems the awful for the beautiful, something positive that helps others. No, it doesn’t replace the bad memories, but it does supplement them with some better ones. It creates an emotional counter-balance. We are so grateful for the care we received that we are moved to do for others what was done for us.

So, recently, I have found myself asking the question, what is Paul’s legacy? The short answer to that question is we are. The people he loved so well are his legacy. Paul believed in leaving things better than you found them, especially people. The people in your life should be better off because they have known you. It’s a legacy of love and encouragement shared with others. Getting involved in pet therapy is helping me live out that legacy.

Here’s hoping this blog leaves you better than it found you, Malia