It’s not the end of the world. Except, when it is.

“It’s not the end of the world.” Have you ever used that phrase? Have you said it to someone who was taking something very hard and perhaps needed some perspective on the situation? Has someone said it to you? I have certainly dished it out on occasion and been on the receiving end, too. And, to be frank, there are times when I needed to both hear it and consider its element of truth. Sometimes we do need that shot or jolt of perspective to snap us out of being overly distraught about a disappointment or challenge that, in the grand scheme of things, is a bump in the road, not a mountain but merely a mole hill. That’s another often used phrase, at least in the south anyway, that is usually meant to gently snap someone out of a funk over one of life’s many challenges and obstacles. Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.

However, when my husband died, it literally was the end of the world. As I knew it. I remember having that exact feeling and thought when my mother died, too. My life is over. And, when Paul died, I thought, Damn. My life is over. Again.

There’s a knee-jerk reaction from people when thoughts like this are said out loud….“Don’t say that!” and “Oh, now, that’s not true”. These rebuttals are said presumably to be a comfort but are more likely meant to quiet the grieving person because the raw truth out and running loose around the room is just too much for most people to handle. So, just for future reference for those of you in proximity to a griever, the preferred response, in my opinion, is one that is honest, acknowledges the deeper meaning of such statements, and at the same time, offers hope and encouragement. It should go something like this, “You’re right. Life as you knew it, your life together, is over. Now, you will start, little by little, to build a new life for yourself, and we’ll be with you every step of the way.”

The question then becomes how we are going to build and shape that new life, our new world. This is where grief becomes a vehicle for growth. My first bout with grief when my mother died was such a different experience than this has been. Bout is a wrestling or boxing match term but is often used to refer to an attack of illness or strong emotion of a specified kind. I think grief qualifies. As a child, I made grief my friend, my partner, my security, because it was always there. As an adult, I have co-opted grief and used it as a spring board to the rest of my life. It might just be the difference between experiencing grief as a child versus as an adult, or it could be an indicator of where I am in my spiritual development. Ephesians 4:11-16 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from who the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Yes, indeed.

In Isaiah 6:1-7, Isaiah has an encounter with God. In a vision, he saw God and with that his sin was revealed, exposed. He saw clearly how broken beyond repair he was. He said, “Woe is me! for I am undone”. In another translation he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then, in Isaiah’s vision, a seraphim with a set of tongs holding a burning, hot coal that had been taken from the altar flew to him and touched his lips with the coal. The seraphim announced that Isaiah was cleansed. His sins had been atoned for. He had been restored to a right relationship with God. An encounter with God enables us to see ourselves more clearly. It is difficult. It can be painful, but it is critical to self-awareness and self-knowledge. Plato said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. There is nothing like grief for giving us the opportunity to examine our lives, to take stock, to do a complete personal inventory to see where the shelves are full and where they are lacking.

So, just recently, I’ve started to notice some signs of progress. One in particular got my attention. I have actually been feeling well enough to start making some changes in the house. I updated the family pictures, changed around some furniture, started redecorating the guest bedrooms, and replaced some framed artwork with different artwork. This may seem trivial, but I take it as a significant indicator of my health and well-being, my progress, that I’m able to make changes in the house instead of treating it like a shrine. If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you might think to yourself, “What is she talking about? She has jumped out of plane, taken on a new position at work, successfully developed new routines, and even traveled to another continent, by herself no less! Are those not greater evidence of progress than moving some stuff around in the house?” Not really, and here’s why. All of those accomplishments are entirely novel. They have no connection to my life with Paul. The real challenge and the real progress is in adjusting to doing everyday life without Paul.

Here are some more areas that I count as signs of progress…..

I can sit on the couch alone and watch TV.

I can tolerate something different in my home. I can tolerate household items being in a different location in the house.

I can make food for myself (occasionally) beyond a frozen dinner.

I can project myself into the future. I can imagine what the future looks like with me in it.

I can go to work consistently.

I can sleep <most> nights.

I can go inside the grocery store if I have to instead of using the pick-up service.

I can sit through a church service (still glued to our pew though) without tears or having to excuse myself.

And, finally, drum roll please……the morning, kitchen paralysis has been replaced by the morning, kitchen dance-jam with the dogs and often shared with friends on the Marco Polo app.

Rock on, my friends. Rock on, 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