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.

***

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.

***

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.

***

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

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 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