I need to build a bomb shelter.

Sometimes grief is like waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re never quite sure what grief-bomb may be falling next. Lately, it’s been like a bombardment. Air raid sirens are wailing, and I can hear the sharp, clear, high-pitched, hissing whistle of the bombs as they fall and hit their target leaving craters on my heart, pock marked like the moon.

At my new job, there are many people who are new to me, but some who already know me and some others still who knew both me and Paul. On a recent morning in the cafeteria, I was talking with just such a person, a friend of my husband’s from childhood. In fact, they lived across the street from each other. She told me how she moved from Indiana into the neighborhood and met Paul one day when they were both standing at the end of their driveways. As she was telling me this, she made a motion with her hand as if waving. Suddenly, I had a bird’s eye view of the two of them, standing in their driveways on opposite sides of the street, waving, smiling, saying hello. I could see Paul grinning, his dimples, his chuckle, the sparkle in his eye. I could see his personality, how welcoming and inclusive he was of everyone he met. Well. Let’s just say I had a moment. A grief-bomb. I felt panicky. I knew I needed a safe place to compose myself but didn’t know where to go. I needed to be alone for a just minute or two. My office was too far away. I ended up (where else?) in a bathroom. Some bomb shelter, huh? Thankfully, it didn’t take me long to reel it back in. I am particularly moved and wistful when I talk with someone who knew Paul before we were us. They are a treasure trove. The same is true of people who knew me before my mother died. They not only contain memories of those I lost. They also contain memories of me, who I was in my previous life when those I loved were still with me. Through these treasure-trove people I can access that part of myself that was also lost. John Pavlovitz beautifully writes about this loss of self in losing others in his post here.

I was just about to begin the first set at a recent tennis match when my opponent said, “Is he here for you?” I looked around to see a man leaning on the fence. He was watching, looking out across several matches that were in play. “No, not for me,” I said with a sigh. “Definitely not for me.” FfwwwhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeueeeeeuuuuuuuueBOOM! Grief-bomb. I didn’t win that match by the way. Paul used to come watch all my tennis matches. He was there, supporting me, cheering me on, listening when I was frustrated over a silly loss, and celebrating a win or hard fought loss. He was always there. I was so proud of that, that I had a partner who took pride in me.

A new friend, someone who never met my husband, saw a picture of my son and said, “He looks so much like you!” The day our son was born I labored for 14 hours. Even only seconds old, it was clear to everyone in the room that I had just labored for 14 hours to produce a clone of his father. It didn’t bother me a bit, but I think the nurses felt sorry for me to have labored so long with absolutely no evidence that I was his mother at all! One of them leaned in close to me, I promise I’m not making this up, and said, “Oh, honey, he has your eyelashes.” That’s it. Our son has my eyelashes. Anyone who knew or saw my husband would never say that he looks like me. I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard someone say that our son looks like me. The only reason someone would ever say such a thing is if his father wasn’t present. And he’s not. Paul’s not here. As if I needed another grief-bomb as a reminder.

I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror today and something caught my eye. The weather has changed here so as I was rushing out the house this morning I grabbed a sweater and pulled it on against the brisk morning air. Turns out it’s the little, black cardigan I was wearing the day of Paul’s visitation. I was frozen in place looking at myself in the mirror, remembering the way I looked and feeling the way I felt that day at the funeral home. Will the bombing never stop?

***

In Grief’s Waiting Room.

I’m not well. I want to get better. I need help to do that. I make an appointment. I arrive at the office. I wait, and I wait, and I wait. Where am I? In grief’s waiting room, and praying to hear someone call next!

There is a poem by John Milton that I never tire of reading. It is lovely, full, and rich. Milton wrote it when he was going blind. It is a great comfort to me because Milton proposes that even waiting is useful to God when it is done with patience and faith.

When I consider how my light is spent/Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,/And that one talent which is death to hide/Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent/To serve therewith my Maker, and present/My true account, lest he returning chide;/”Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”/I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent/That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need/Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best/Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state/Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed/And post o’er land and ocean without rest:/They also serve who only stand and wait.

Grief is at once both an extraordinary and fundamental life experience. I wish I didn’t understand it the way I do. I wish it didn’t feel like an old bathrobe, but it does. It’s worn and faded with holes in it, and well, it’s starting to stink. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful. It’s too big. It’s too small. It fits. It’s comfortable, but it’s time to let it go. No, maybe I’ll just keep it. Or maybe I will burn it.

Knowing this second year might be more difficult, I began the year by choosing some words that captured my intention, words to guide me and help me stay focused during times like this when I am feeling out-of-sorts. A fellow grieving blogger calls this feeling unsettling. The words I chose, remember, release, emerge, have also become a way to gauge my progress. The remembering is going well. I can enjoy my memories and share them. I have also been able to release my grip on some of the security blankets I’ve held so tightly. However, this emerging business is tougher. I’d say right now my little grief engines have stalled. I’m tired. I need to rest.

There was a time when I could not project myself into the future; my being into the future. Think about that. I didn’t know what I looked like in the future. I could not produce an image of that in my mind. I couldn’t see myself waking up in the morning. I didn’t know what that looked like. I couldn’t create an image of myself at a point, at any point, in the future. We don’t even realize it, but we see ourselves in the future in our mind, at an appointment, an event, at work, even doing everyday tasks as in ‘I need to wash clothes when I get home this afternoon.’ There’s an image or a feeling attached to that. Our brains do this for us without us even being aware. It’s our continuous, ongoing, narrative stream of life and living. In the weeks and months after Paul died, I was no longer cognitively capable of this. Nowadays, the multi-verse lives inside me, a network of alternate timelines lay stretched out across my mind. My imagination can choose any one of them, and in a blink, I’m living out another of my life’s possible scenarios. In one of the alternates, weeks or months after Paul died, I drove out to the beach, walked into the ocean, and never came out. In another of the alternates, we found the cancer sooner. We had longer to say to goodbye. In yet another, there was no cancer at all. We lived out the fullness of our lives together. But perhaps we did that anyway.

***

This is my favorite time of year in the south. That probably sounds strange since it’s not filled with the picturesque beauty of spring flowers in bloom or the long, gorgeous sunshine-filled days of summer, but it’s lovely in its own quiet, subtle ways. The softer temperatures and cooler breezes, hushed colors, and fuzzy, autumn light signals to me that it’s time to rest, to think deeper, to ponder, to move a little slower but not before we are gifted with the last fruit of summer, the persimmon.

Photo credit: Christine Allston Seabrook

Persimmons are beautiful, glowing yellow-orange orbs that hang like miniature lanterns from their branches. The harvest may be late, but it is, oh, so, sweet. They are worth the wait. They can be eaten as-is or used in all the ways that fruit can be used. My favorite is permission cake. Here’s a recipe:

Persimmon & Caramel Upside-Down Cake

Topping

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 medium-sized persimmons, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges

Cake

  • 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup milk
  1. Heat over to 325 degrees/F. Spray bottom and sides of 8- or 9- inch square pan with cooking spray.
  2. In 1-quart saucepan, melt 1/4 cup butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Stir in brown sugar. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Pour into pan; spread evenly. Arrange persimmon wedges over brown sugar mixture, overlapping tightly and making 2 layers if necessary.
  3. In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In large bowl, beat 1 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup butter with electric mixer on medium speed, scraping bowl occasionally, until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one a time until smooth. Add vanilla. Gradually beat in flour mixture alternately with milk, beating after each addition until smooth. Spread batter over persimmon wedges in brown sugar mixture.
  4. Bake 55 to 65 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on cooling rack 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat whipping cream on high speed until it begins to thicken. Gradually add 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, beating until soft peaks form.
  5. Run knife around sides of pan to loosen the cake. Place heatproof serving plate upside down over pan; turn plate and pan over. Remove pan. Serve warm cake with whipped cream. Store cake loosely covered.

***

This is also the time of year that people of the Jewish faith celebrate Sukkot, or the Feast of Booths, some times called the Feast of Tabernacles. It’s a harvest celebration, a time to thank God for his gracious provision. It is also a time to remember the Hebrew peoples’ journey from Egypt to Canaan when they lived in small booths. During the feast days, the faithful are encouraged to construct small, temporary shelters that are decorated with plants, palm fronds, and different kinds of fruits. As a young child, Jesus would have celebrated this holiday with his family and community members.

As always, God is right on time with His presence in His Word, in my mind, and in my heart. God has surely provided for me, and I am thankful. He is my shelter from grief-bombs and from all of the assaults that are the result of living in a broken world. I, too, am on a journey that is difficult and God in His mercy and grace provides me with rest, comfort, and provision just as he did for the Israelites on their long, desert journey.

***

I’ll leave you with Romans 8:25 from the New Living Translation because I love how God’s word speaks truth to me in my moment of need. “But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.” So, what about me? Am I willing to wait on the promises of the Lord? Do I say ‘I don’t deserve this’? Do I say ‘This isn’t how it’s supposed to be’? No, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. All is exactly as God intended, and I am content with his Grace. Content with his Grace in my brokenness, in my pain and suffering, in my grief, and I am thankful. There’s also this from Psalm 61:4, “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” The Lord’s Word and loving kindness are my shelter and my stronghold. The bombs may fall, but I will shelter in the safety of His love.

Confidently patient, Malia

Spring is here. Paul is not.

That gasping, gulping sound is me. Being pulled under. Again.

It’s been quite the week. In nearly 27 years of marriage, I had never been away from Paul for even three or four days, let alone months, or a year! It was also his birthday this week. He would have been 60 years old. His birthday is now a grief anniversary. John Pavlovitz talks about grief anniversaries in his latest blog here. My feelings about the passage of this first year without Paul are mixed. In a way, it seems like it went by so fast that it’s a blur but also like the longest year of my life. There were times that I didn’t think I would survive the first year, and now I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that the second year may be even harder than the first, and I just want to scream.

Initially, the grief did come in waves. More lately, I have found myself being ambushed by grief. I feel as if I am being stalked by grief. It’s waiting for me around every corner, creeping up on me. The tears come hot and fast, and full of anger. The works. Grief is not linear. It’s not a start-to-finish, straight course race. It’s a steeplechase with hurdles, jumps, thick hedges, and water obstacles. So I’ve had setback. It’s not the first one. That “I don’t want to do any of this” feeling is creeping in again. Thoughts press in uninvited. And the sadness is so heavy. It weighs me down. It’s like a train that just has to roll on through. I’m stuck at the crossing watching it rhythmically advance steadily by, and I’m not going anywhere. I find myself retreating more and more to the safety of the house, hibernating, being in the position of having to force myself, make myself get out and do things when all I really want to do is disappear. This is dangerous territory, and I know it.

I am fully aware that my perception is distorted. I know that, and yet that realization does not diminish the experience. I actually wish sometimes that I didn’t have this insight or awareness. The insight leads to frustration for me. It is maddening. Sometimes grief feels like madness.

I am not eating. I am not sleeping. I am not getting to work on time. My boss looks at me sideways but says nothing. I don’t like being late (we’re talking 5-10 minutes here folks), but I just can’t manage in the mornings most days. The struggle is REAL. I don’t know what to DO about it except throw my hands up and accept that I am a work in progress, and at the moment, this is the best I can do. I don’t know what to SAY except that my husband died a year ago, and this is what my life is like now. In the weeks immediately after Paul died, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to go back to work at all. I wasn’t sure I could do my job anymore.

Us.

Paul took care of me. We took care of each other. Some days, sometimes for stretches of weeks at a time, I’m not being very successful at taking care of myself. There’s good deal of research that looks at a lot of different causes, but reports seem to agree that there is about an 18% increase of mortality in widowhood. Yes, you read that right. We are a vulnerable population.

So, I have to go back. Go back to my Griefwork Toolbox and get down to business. When I get like this, my counselor always reminds me that I can recover. We’ve been here before. It can get better. We know it can get better. We know I’m capable because I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.

Malia

The Keeping-it-Real Post: Part I

“How are you doing?” It should literally be the theme song, the catch phrase, of grief. The real answer to that question is complicated and unpalatable for most people, even those closest to me. There’s always a real response in my head followed by the more polite, socially acceptable response that comes out my mouth.

So, why can’t I tell people the real answer to that question?

Because some days the real answer to that question goes like this. “Well, I’m not thinking about driving my car into a tree anymore” and “I’m finally able to ride over bridges without thinking about jumping” or “I am seething with sinful jealousy because you are sitting next to your husband, and I’m not sitting next to mine”. There’s also, “My heart is breaking right now, because, as I am watching you spend time with your son, I am remembering those same moments between my son and his father. I ache for my own son who will spend so much of his life without his father. I’m in pain because I know the intense daily sadness of living so much of one’s life without a parent.” Like I said….keeping-it-real.

I realize these responses would startle folks. Most people expect the typical response, “Fine! How are you?” or “I’m doing ok”, and when they don’t get the response they are expecting, they are flummoxed and stammer for a way to respond appropriately. I don’t want to put my burden on others especially not in the middle of the day at work or in the store when I run into an acquaintance. I think most people who are grieving do this. They wear this mask because it’s the only way to get through the day. It’s not intended to be deceptive or untruthful. It’s just not practical or possible for me to tell people how I feel because we have to be able to get through the rest of the day, and if I told people how I really feel, none of us could. Believe me.

The bottom line here, the lesson for all of us, is that it’s really impossible for anyone who is grieving to be “ok” regardless of how they look, act, sound, or respond to the “How are you doing?” question.

I’ve run across this sentiment in two other contexts just this week. Here in John Pavlovitz’s blog and here in Michael Gerson’s sermon where he candidly discusses the ravages of depression. Apparently, Facebook knows I am grieving just as well as it knows when I’m shopping for shoes because recently my news feed is rife with articles about and references to the grief process. One of the pastors at my church also referenced the Gerson article. And it’s no wonder why because Gerson nails it when he says, “At some point, willed cheerfulness fails. Or we skim along the surface of our lives, afraid of what lies in the depths below. It is a way to cope, but no way to live.” Depression, grief, anxiety….willed cheerfulness is the mask we wear to get through the day. Pavlovitz’s article is more of a decidedly welcome, public service announcement regarding the grieving people who we come in contact with every day but don’t realize their pain. He says, “Everyone is grieving and worried and fearful, none of them wear the signs, none of them have the labels, and none of them come with written warnings reading, I’M STRUGGLING. GO EASY.” Speaking of his own grief after the death of his father, Pavlovitz goes on to say that if people did realize what pain is hidden beneath the mask “…it probably would have caused people around me to give me space or speak softer or move more carefully.” Honestly, it makes me long for the days when widows would wear black for up to a year, and people wore a black arm band for up to six months after the death of a parent or spouse. In that way, we could “wear the signs” to alert others to our fragile condition.

Surrounded by friends the day of Paul’s funeral.

It occurs to me that encountering death in everyday life used to be more commonplace. People just flat-out dealt with death more frequently in the past. High child mortality rates before the advent of vaccines and antibiotics, world wars, pandemics like the Spanish flu (50-100 million deaths in 1918). Death was, well, normal. Society had many ways to manage grief through traditions and expected behavioral responses. It wasn’t that long ago that a viewing or visitation was actually held in the home of the deceased not the funeral home as it typically happens today. The modern death experience has been sanitized particularly in the West. In my opinion, that has not served us, the bereaved, well. When did we, as a society, become so uncomfortable with others’ emotions that grieving is now something that is expected to be done in private? The isolation of grief does not aid the process. It, in fact, can delay healing and growth. But I’ve digressed.

So, how do we respond to the “How are you doing?” question in a way that is honest, healthy, and facilitates the grieving process?

Do this: Develop one or two standard answers that are truthful but don’t suck the air out of the room. Keep the response short and generalized, something that is honest but doesn’t require awkward, uncomfortable detail.

Some of my go-to responses are “I’m struggling, but I’m here” and “I’m having a tough time. I miss my husband.” You can always add, “Thank you for asking. I appreciate your concern.”

Come up with responses that work for you. Practice them out loud if you need to until you are confident and won’t be searching for the words when people ask because they will. They always do. Thankfully, they always do.

Take care of yourselves, Malia