The Widow’s Might

We’ll start with a little Widow 101. Did you know that the proper way to address a widow is with the salutation, Mrs.? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. At work, it’s not a problem because I’m addressed with an academic title, but in everyday life, I noticed right away that people struggled with what to call me or how to address mail to me. I will admit that Ms. can be like a dagger in my heart. Maybe that’s why we still use Mrs. It softens the blow and offers protection perhaps in that among strangers I can pass as married if I so choose.

Then, there’s the struggle with how to refer to my husband. This is one that you know. He’s my late husband, but that has always seemed weird to me because I have no idea what he’s late to. I’m sure it’s some leftover, centuries old phrasing about the dead, but I stumble over my words, and my heart, every time I hear myself say it. That’s if I can even manage to say it.

Next, there’s my in-laws to consider. I mean they are not my former in-laws, or are they? All I know is that they belong to me now. I adore them, and they are such an important part of my life. I love them. They are my forever family.

And now a final did-you-know. According to the U.S. government, as of January 1, 2020, I was no longer a widow. My official status is single. It feels like I was demoted. It’s just so strange to see that on paper. Single. Uggghhhhh.

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The Bible has a lot to say about widows. In fact, the word, widow, is used over 100 times! The context is mostly warnings about being mean to widows, mistreating them, or taking advantage of them financially or otherwise. Psalm 68 identifies God as the protector of widows. I love that. It makes me think of God as my bodyguard, my heavy. I’ve got some powerful back-up so don’t mess with me! Ha!

Here are just a few of my favorite widow stories from the Bible.

I love the story of Tabitha in the book of Acts. Tabitha was a widow who devoted her life to good works and charity. She was beloved in her community. So, when she got sick and died, people were really upset. They had already washed her body and placed her in an upper room when they heard that Peter was in a nearby city. They also heard Peter was healing the sick and performing miracles. So, they sent two men to urge Peter to come help them with Tabitha. Well, he did. In a big way. Alone in the upper room with Tabitha’s body, Peter knelt, prayed, and told her to arise. She did! She opened her eyes, sat up, took Peter’s hand, and then she rose and was presented, reintroduced as it were, to her friends and community. This story speaks to me on so many levels, but mainly it reminds me that God can and does restore that which has died. He’s working that out in my life daily, restoring me to life, a new life.

And then there’s this story from Luke that is instructive and comes with a promise, and God’s promises are gold! This story is about a widow and a judge. The judge was not such a nice guy. He was not God-fearing and had no respect for his fellow man. But there was a widow who continually came to the judge demanding justice against her adversary. You might even say she hounded him about it. The story says she was persistent and bothered the judge. This story could have been lifted from today’s headlines and become a meme on social media. Familiar with the phrase “and, yet, she persisted”? It gets even better. For all of her persistence, she was rewarded. The judge essentially gave up and gave in, granting her request so that she would stop pestering him. This story encourages me to persist, to take my petitions to God, to even bother him with my needs and concerns. The promise is that He will provide what is just in my requests.

Finally, there’s perhaps the best known story about widows, The Widow’s Offering, or in more historical language, The Widow’s Mite. A mite is a small, copper coin, and as the story goes, Jesus saw a poor widow place two mites in an offering box alongside the rich and wealthy who were also placing their offering in the box. Jesus’ commentary was not about the rich and wealthy and their generosity. His comments were about the widow. She had contributed out of her poverty while the others gave out of their abundance. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not comparing myself to the widow necessarily. I am not impoverished in any way. I am very thankful that I have everything I need and more; a warm, safe house to live in, food to eat, a good job, transportation, good medical care, a loving family, supportive friends. What strikes me about this story is the challenge that it issues to me. It challenges me to consider what I have to offer from within the poverty of the loss I have experienced. It challenges me to ask the questions…what is my (figurative) mite? What is my contribution, my offering, within the work God has given me to do? I think this blog is part of the answer to that question. The writing is, perhaps despite appearances, really difficult. Exposing my internal life is rough on me, and it takes all that I have, emotionally, down to my last mite might.

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I am certainly not the first person to blog about my grief experience and/or widowhood. The topic of grief and grieving is a niche in the blogging community.

Almost every grief blogger that I follow has a post that addresses the things people say. Most of the time such posts include a laundry list of some of the most absurd.

When people say weird things, I wish I could respond with some pithy, couched remark; something that conveys how I really feel though disguised as polite and appropriate, but I am way too direct for that so I typically say nothing at all and instead start to chew on it like a dog with a bone.

So, here it is. My official, grief blogger’s laundry list of the weird things that people say.

[Disclaimer:  If you have said any of these things to a grieving person as I have, it is likely that no one, especially me, holds any bad feelings about it. I have heard myself say many of these things in an attempt to console a grieving person, to comfort both them and me. It’s simply that now I see it from a different perspective, from the other side. You may have been the recipient of these words as well, and maybe it didn’t sit well with you but you weren’t sure quite why. We often dismiss rote or pat social conventions and polite conversation out of hand, but there is meaning there whether we process it consciously or not. These are just some observations and perhaps some suggestions for alternative responses as we move forward in a more aware state of being.]

  • “I am sorry that you lost your husband.” Paul is not lost. I know exactly where he is. Instead of “I’m so sorry for your loss”, try “I’m so sorry you’re going through this”.
  • Any comment that starts with “at least” as in “At least you got to say goodbye” or “At least you had 30 years together”. I’ve gotten to the point that when people say “at least”, I don’t even hear what comes next. I can’t hear what they are saying over the reverberating echo of “AT LEAST, AT LEASt, AT LEAst, AT LEast, AT Least, AT least, At least, at least, attttt leeeasssstttt….”. Let’s talk about the most instead! The most fun, even the most annoying, the most wonderful, the most frustrating, too, the most memorable, the most disappointing and the most joyful. Our life together was full of all of those things. Let’s remember the most.
  • “It could’ve been a lot worse.” I have yet to figure this one out.
  • I really love to talk about my husband. I love to share memories, and I am able, through lots of hard work and growth, to do it joyfully! However, some people are upset by it, emotional even. They start in with the “I’m so sorry”-ies, and then I end up comforting them. Really!? Come on.
  • Then, there are folks who beat me to the punch on social media on the anniversary of Paul’s death, or his birthday. I know. I know. I know! He belonged to them, too. I know. It’s just hard to be taken off guard, confronted with it before I’m ready. And, yes, I know there are others, many others, who loved and miss him, too. It’s not all about me. I’m just sharing how it makes me feel. That’s all.
  • “This is just not what you signed up for” and the even stranger, companion comment, “You don’t deserve this”. Ummm, is there someone who does? And, by the way, I’m pretty sure that “until death do us part” is exactly what I signed up for. Like I actually signed papers to that affect. Here’s the proof.

When you try to comfort someone who is grieving, when you try to console them, I know it comes from a good place, a place where you want to take away their pain and make it all better, to fix it, to make them and you (or maybe just you?) more comfortable. I understand all of that. I also understand that when we sometimes struggle with what to say, we actually say something that is exactly the opposite of what we intended. It’s ok. Really.

My recommendation is to share a good memory, or any memory really, of the person or a positive impact they had on your life. Because in that moment, in that sharing, the person is alive again for both of you. It’s ok if it makes one or both of you wistful or tearful. There’s healing in the hurt.

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Consolation is a funny word to describe the uncomfortable, or even awkward, position where we find ourselves obligated to receive with politeness and graciousness something that we don’t really even want. We all know what consolation means; the comfort someone receives after a loss or someone or something that provides comfort to someone who has suffered. But I am also thinking of it as a sports reference. I play a lot competitive tennis and have found myself in a consolation round way too often. A consolation round, or consolation prize, is all well and good, but the bottom line is that the whole reason for it is because you lost. My response in these cases is generally, “Gee, thanks.” And might even be accompanied by a private, eye-rolling episode with an ugh thrown in for good measure. I mean I appreciate it, but there is always, always, a sting or bite to it. No one, I mean no one, wants to be in the position of needing consolation. I don’t want to be consoled. No thanks.

I wish, for all of us, that we were never in a position to need consolation, but it is the very heart and nature of this world, of this life, that we are born needing consolation, and we have it. In the presence of the Holy Spirit; the ultimate consolation gift. In fact, in the Biblical translations, the same root word for consolation is used in both Corinthians and the book of John to describe the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, teaches and guides us, provides peace, and equips us to do God’s work here on Earth. That’s good news because, in all truth, I rarely feel up to the task.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 speaks to me, to us, right now, today. We are suffering today to cope with loss, with hurt, with COVID, with hate, with anger, and so much more, but God is the God of all comfort. And there’s more! He comforts us SO THAT we may patiently endure and be able to comfort others. Boom-yow! There’s purpose!

I love, too, the Comfortable Words from Matthew in the Book of Common Prayer. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Be well, be comforted, be refreshed, Malia

Is my grief normal? A play in three acts.

Act I

(MALIA enters an administrator’s office from stage left. The director of personnel is seated at a conference table, waiting.)

I just landed my dream job, and I’m devastated. Emotionally that is. My rational mind is so excited at the challenge of this new position and the opportunity to harness the full scope of my education and robust experiences. I am eager to stretch and grow and have a broader impact, but it also means leaving my current workplace, leaving my people. I cried for a week before the interview at the mere possibility that I might get this job and all that it would mean. I am worried about maintaining my connections, and then I came across this from one of my son’s former schoolmates and heart transplant recipient, Will Hunt, “When something big happens to you and you have to leave comfort and you have to change, it can be very scary.” I feel like I am having a figurative heart transplant. My emotional heart is leaving the comfort I have developed with my colleagues, and I am terrified. It strikes me as an odd reaction to good news. In fact, I almost never seem to be feeling like I think I ought to feel, and I often find myself having the opposite of the socially expected reaction to many situations. It’s emotional chaos in here, friends, and it makes me wonder how grief may have rewired my brain and altered my emotional processing system. Every experience, every interaction is filtered through the sieve of grief. Is that normal? Is it temporary? Or is this my new existence, my new state of being?

Act II

(MALIA is in the kitchen of an Airbnb shared with her ladies tennis league teammates. A celebration is underway. The ladies are exhausted but exuberant and celebrating their state championship win. Everyone begins to trickle away from the kitchen to get cleaned up for dinner, and MALIA is alone.)

428 days. It’s been 428 days since Paul died, and on this day, after a big win and wonderful day on the tennis courts with friends, feeling spent but happy, I thought to myself, “I should call Paul.” Really!? After 428 days, I actually thought about picking up the phone and calling him. Four hundred, twenty-eight days, and, for a split second, I thought of him as still alive. I think something is wrong with me! How can I still be so disoriented? Even for a few seconds? Crouching tiger, hidden grief. It makes me long for the days last year when I could see the wave of grief coming in the distance. I had time then to run for cover, batten down the hatches, steel myself against the coming storm. I remember people saying that, in some ways, the second year is harder. I also remember indignantly thinking, “Ha! Well! There’s no way that can be true!” Ugh. This new normal doesn’t feel normal at all. Nowadays, it’s all about the sneak attack. I feel like grief lulls me into a seemingly false sense of wellness and then pounces. Maybe this is because the stretches of wellness are getting longer, and the periods of sadness are getting shorter. That’s a good thing. I’ll take whatever I can get and be grateful.

Act III

(MALIA is in a hospital room in the emergency department. Her son is dressed in a hospital gown and laying on a gurney, intravenous fluids are running wide open, monitors are beeping. He is febrile, tachycardic, and his blood pressure is dangerously low. He’s sweaty, white as a sheet, and his breathing is labored. MALIA is seated by Aaron’s side. Around her neck and clutched in her hand is a heart shaped, miniature urn containing Paul’s ashes. The room number is B17. Seemingly impossible but true, it is the exact same room she sat in with Paul on February 12, 2018, the day he was admitted to the hospital, three days before the diagnosis, and 34 days before he died.)

First of all, Aaron is fine, but it was scary. He had a very dramatic, allergic reaction to a routine immunization he was required to have for school. Aaron’s condition was initially mysterious. We couldn’t quite nail down what was going on. There was, of course, a full battery of tests, but the results made the situation less clear not more so. With medical support and monitoring overnight, he was released early the next day. To say that I was utterly stunned to find myself back in that room would be a gross understatement.

When the emergency staff ushered us into the room, I blurted out, “Oh, my God.”

As if saying so would defy reality, Aaron shot back, “It’s not.”

“It is,” I said with a heavy sigh.

“Did you ask to be moved to a different room?” my sister-in-law wanted to know in a later phone conversation.

“No,” I replied, “I just talked with Paul and told him that we had been there with him, and now we needed him to be there with us.”

And I did feel like he was right there with us. There was a bizarre, incomprehensible kind of comfort in being in that room where I knew Paul had also been, and despite the situation, I was not panicked. Instead, I was calm, steely, resolute. Why wasn’t I panicked? Why wasn’t I freaking out? I think I must be some kind of emotional weirdo!

Epilogue

(MALIA, party of one, center stage. Behind her is her kitchen table in spot light, laptop open and at the ready, a vase of cone flowers, picked and given by her niece)

In John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that if they loved him, they would rejoice because He was going to the Father. Talk about mixed up emotions. Down is up. Up is down. Here are the disciples having been completely wrecked by the crucifixion, elated at the resurrection and Jesus’ return, and now utterly decimated at hearing that Jesus is leaving them, and Jesus tells them that they should be rejoicing. What!?! The poor disciples must have felt like a June bug on a string. So, why rejoice? Two reasons. Jesus tells them he’s going to the Father, and let’s face it, there’s no better place to be, AND he’s leaving them with a helper, the Holy Spirit, our teacher and our memory of the personhood of Jesus. Let not our hearts (our emotional seat) be troubled or afraid. Indeed! Is rejoicing the socially correct response when someone you love is going away forever? No, and yet that is the response that the disciples are told is the appropriate response. Is this what it means to be in the world but not of the world? I am beginning to see that my grief and my faith together are reshaping the way I respond to the world, and it’s not necessarily normal. But, really, what’s so great about normal?

Isaiah 43:18-19 says, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” And Revelation 21:5 says, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

Notice, friends, that it does not say, “Behold, I am making all things normal.”

So, no, maybe my grief is not normal, and I am learning that perhaps it is better that it is not. Paul always encouraged me to chart my own course. I don’t see why this grief experience should be approached any differently.

Decidedly, blessedly abnormal, Malia