This annual New Year’s Day post needs a musical overture. So, I’m going to set it to another selection from the soundtrack to my grief, “Morning Has Broken”, except in my mind, I have lately come to think of it as ‘Mourning’ Has Broken.
“Morning Has Broken” is a song made popular by Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf Islam) version of it that was released in 1971. What I didn’t know until recently is that it was actually written by Eleanor Fajeon as a poem. The poem was then set to an old, Scottish tune and published as a hymn for the first time around 1931. When it appeared as a poem, its title was listed as “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”. Paul’s birthday frequently falls on the first day of Spring. The hymn was included in our church’s hymnal, and Paul and I sang it together on more Sunday mornings than I can count. The song is sweet and nostalgic, reminiscent of the simple but magnificent gift of each new day. It’s a call to gratitude.
Here are the lyrics, but my guess is that you are already humming the tune.
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven Like the first dew fall on the first grass Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden Sprung in completeness where his feet pass
Mine is the sunlight Mine is the morning Born of the one light Eden saw play Praise with elation, praise every morning God’s recreation of the new day
Morning has broken like the first morning Blackbird has spoken like the first bird Praise for the singing Praise for the morning Praise for them springing fresh from the world
Just in case you haven’t caught on yet…I love words. I always have. Before I could actually write, I would pretend to write by making excessive scribbles across pages and pages of newsprint paper that was sold in bulky pads at the grocery store. Then, I would spread them out before me or paste them to the walls in my room. Thinking back now, this must have seemed very strange to my parents, but they also must have understood my internal drive because when I was five, I was gifted with a pint-sized but fully functioning typewriter. To this day, it is one of the best gifts I have ever received. It was magical because while I was well on my way to using letters to put words together to express my thoughts, the typewriter was very nearly able keep up with my mind where my hand was not.
I believe words have power. I have always been cautious and deliberate with the way I choose my words when writing, of course, but also in talking with others. The old adage “Mean what you say and say what you mean” could be my life’s motto.
Google provides a fascinating look at the way we use words through their Google Books Ngram Viewer. An N-gram is a word particle, word, or group of words that we can track through text or speech. Your phone’s predictive text feature uses information about N-grams to offer you choices about what you want to type next.
Google Books Ngram Viewer gives us a visual that shows us a word’s use over time. I’ve been toying lately with the words mourning and grieving to help me delineate where I am in this process. I hear and read the word grieving a lot, but I noticed that the word mourning is not as widely used and I was curious about that. Check out the Ngram Viewers for these two words.
When I look at this graph, my eyes go to the lumps and bumps, peaks and dips. Notice that the peak for the occurrence of the word mourning occurs around 1860. I immediately thought of the American civil war. Then, there’s the upward trend that appears to have begun sometime between 1980 and 1990. The war on drugs? The gulf wars? The rise of opioid deaths? Or all of the above?
Take a look at the Ngram Viewer for the word grieving.
So, like me, you might thinking, “Whoa, Nellie! What happened between 1960 and 1980?”
Well, I’ll tell you. In 1969, physician Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published her landmark book about grief, On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, & Their Own Families. Through this book, she introduced her theory of the five stages of grief now known as the Kubler-Ross model and with that we, as a society and culture, had a new framework for understanding and discussing grief.
The word mourning seems more intense to me than the word grieving. Mourning is a noun while grieving is a verb, an action. A-ha! Mourning is a place and space. Grieving is something I do. Mourning seems to take place for a specific, but not given, period of time and according to the definition is marked by deep sorrow.
I am ready now to leave that period of deep sorrow behind. So, I quit. I officially quit mourning.
For my next adventure in cooking, I prepared Filipino chicken, rice, steamed asparagus, pear salad, biscuit, and honey-bun cake.
This Filipino chicken recipe is iconic in our family. Paul’s mother picked it up while they were living in Japan in the late 1960s, and it has been a family favorite for over 50 years. Think about that. Three generations of this family have sat around the dinner table and enjoyed this meal together. They have smiled, laughed, and argued, listened, celebrated, mourned, have been sad, worried, excited, angry. This meal is what connects us today to the memory of all of those moments in time.
The dish itself is easy and delicious, warm and steamy goodness; rich, salty and sweet. And it’s classically Filipino with an adobo sauce as the base. The recipe calls for two packs of chicken; drumsticks, thighs, and breast. However, Paul and his mother always used a large-ish pack of thighs, bone-in and skin on. Really, you can use whatever you want, but you do need the skin as it provides the fat that keeps the chicken tender. My only added advice here is to adjust the amounts of liquids to make sure that you have enough to cover, or nearly cover, the chicken. In this particular instance, I chose a pack of 10 thighs and found that I needed to double the recipe in order to have enough liquid in the pot.
In a large pot, I added 2 cups of water, one-half cup of soy sauce, one cup of vinegar, two or three whole bay leaves, black pepper, and half a bulb of garlic, sliced. Then, I added the chicken and covered the pot. After about an hour and quick phone call to Paul’s mom for moral support(!), I needed to reduce the amount of liquid. So, I uncovered the pot and let it cook for another hour until the liquid was reduced by about three-fourths. Just use low to medium heat settings and adjust as needed based on the amount of time you have.
Ok, let’s take a little time-out to have a serious talk about rice. That’s right. Rice. For my readers in the American south, I know I am opening a can of worms here. (What other readers are there you ask? Well, at last count, the little blog that could is being read in 47 countries around the world. Eeek!)
Rice culture in the American south, specifically in the Carolinas, has a long, long history, and southern households and their cooks have developed very specific habits and methods, to a nearly religious level, around cooking, serving, and eating rice. In fact, many southern brides receive the traditional gift of a rice spoon as a wedding gift.
The rice historically grown in the Carolinas was a long-grain, non-aromatic, white rice. Over the years, my family has grown more fond of the aromatic rices like jasmine and basmati.
Now, there are many questions that can immediately tell us a lot about a person based on their response, questions that place people in categories or camps. Which direction the toilet paper roll faces, for example, is one of those questions. I am not even going to weigh in on that one for fear of losing readers!
But the rice question is this, “How do you cook rice?” The two camps are as follows: steamed or boiled. Each camp is full of devotees. I have never in my life heard someone say, “Either way. It doesn’t matter” because, well, it most certainly does matter. These two versions of rice are hardly even comparable!
The only way to cook rice is in pot. Judge me as you wish.
Two cups of water to one cup of rice, a thick pad of butter, and 10 minutes covered on low to medium-low heat makes the perfect pot of rice. Every time. Finesse points include bringing it to a hard boil just before turning down the heat and covering, and do not, for the love of all that is good and right in the world, do not lift the lid. Once it is covered, you must not uncover until it is finished. In our household, getting a little too close to the pot would result in a sharp rebuke, “Don’t open the lid!” You might even get a light slap on the hand if it looked like you might be considering lifting the lid. I’m not kidding. When finished, the rice should be forked before serving.
Asparagus is a perennial that grows really well in the south. A well-tended bed will produce for many years. It grows like a weed as we say. I have even seen it growing wild in roadside ditches down country lanes bordering long forgotten homesteads and farms. We like it lightly steamed so that it retains its crunch and nutty, earthy flavor. A vegetable basket in a large pot over medium-high heat works well. Add water until it is even with the bottom of the basket. Cover the pot and start a five minute timer once you see the first curls of steam rising. Then, remove from heat and serve immediately.
Pear salad. Another icon at our family’s dinner table. Begin with a couple of outer leaves from a head of iceberg lettuce as the base. Add a half of a pear, a dollop of mayonnaise, a maraschino cherry, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese. I don’t know the origins of this little dish nor have I ever had the inclination to ask. I almost prefer to think of it as uniquely ours. It is just so dear and precious to me. It really is delightful. Trust me.
However, if you choose to use anything other than Duke’s mayonnaise, I am not responsible for the outcome.
And finally for dessert…We were celebrating a birthday so I made a cake, honey-bun cake. We make this cake in a casserole dish, and it is hilariously and lovingly known in our family as buh-donka-donk cake (because if you are not careful, it will give you a buh-donka-donk butt!).
First, mix one box of yellow cake mix, 8 ounces of sour cream, three-fourths cup of oil, four eggs, and one-half cup of sugar until all ingredients are moist, about two minutes at a medium speed. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 pan. Combine one cup of light brown sugar, one-half cup of raisins, and two teaspoons of cinnamon and lightly swirl mixture into the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. While the cake is still warm, pour a mixture of one cup of powdered sugar, two tablespoons of milk, and one teaspoon of vanilla over the cake.
Paul made this cake for us many times. He got the recipe years ago from one of our finest friends who got the recipe from his good friend and neighbor. Connection. Making and sharing these recipes and food keeps us connected, physically and in spirit.
As we enjoyed the meal, we talked about all the people we loved who were connected with the recipes and the food. We smiled and laughed remembering them, the time we shared with them, who they were, and the impact they had on our lives and us on theirs. I am so grateful for everything Paul and I shared and particularly grateful that Paul left me such a beautiful (culinary) legacy of love!
This. This is what I love about food, recipes, and sharing meals with others. It’s a way to remember and honor the lives of those we love. It’s an active, living memorial.
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.
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
1/4 cup butter
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2 medium-sized persimmons, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup milk
Heat over to 325 degrees/F. Spray bottom and sides of 8- or 9- inch square pan with cooking spray.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ok, so, truth be told, I’ve been back for several days, but, you know, life!
From The Hymnal 1982, #398 I sing the almighty power of God, v 3, “….while all the borrows life from thee is ever in thy care, and everywhere that I could be, thou, God, art present there.”
My trip to the Dominican Republic was amazing! There were less hiccups on this trip than on my Camino adventure, and I was a much more confident traveler than I was the last time although I will confess to a little travel anxiety at the start. For me, that presents itself in the form of irrational worries like a sudden sense of panic that I selected the wrong airport when making my reservations online. Did I get the airport code right? Am I accidentally flying to the wrong country? I better double check. Did allow enough time for my connection? I better call the help line and ask. Where’s my passport? Did I remember to pack this, that, and the other?? Did I put my medicine in my carry on? Where’s my phone? Did I lock the car?
I left my home at 3:30am and boarded a flight to Miami at about 5:30am. I easily made my connection in Miami (traveling win!) and flew into Santo Domingo, the capital city, at about 11:00am and was greeted with……ugh, a looonnggg line to get through immigration. I was frustrated. I was anxiously texting my friend, Ada, keeping her updated on the progress of what would become my hour-and-a-half long wait to get my passport stamped. Being who she is, she texted, “Ok relax”. This is one of the many reasons I love her. Despite the short time we have known each other, she totally gets me and knows what I need to hear. Those two little words delivered with love and compassion made all the difference. I suddenly felt like I could wait in that line forever, and it would somehow be ok. Thank you, Jesus, for the blessing of these friends in my life!
By the way, flying into Miami is always a treat as that area of the country never seems to disappoint in the cloud department. The early morning departure provided me with a literal bird’s eye view of the sunrise, and, wow, was it spectacular. I was like a giddy kid with my nose pressed against the window. It’s like a cotton candy jungle up there with beautiful, spun filaments and fluffy mounds of pink and blue everywhere. When the sun begins to work its magic, those clouds glow like live embers in a smoldering campfire followed by whole fields of clouds rolling and advancing like thick floes of lava. It is quite the show!
After finally getting through immigration, Ada picked me up and whisked me off to a beautiful lunch overlooking the ocean at Boca Marina Restaurant. The sound of the water, the warm ocean breeze, and the expansive view were just what I needed after the cramped airplane and pressing crowd of the immigration line.
In the evening, we met our other friends at Parque Colon (Columbus Park), home of the Basilica Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, in the Colonial Zone. The Colonial Zone is the historic, colonial district of the city. It is filled with shops, restaurants, historic buildings, and plazas where people meet to walk and talk, drink and dine, smile and laugh, and spend time together. The Dominican people are truly beautiful. A cross-cultural recipe of Spanish, African, and indigenous peoples shines in their faces. The street life is vibrant; rich with color and the smell of delicious foods, local produce, and the sound of merenque on every corner accompanied by crowds of people listening and spontaneously dancing in the plazas and along the sidewalks. It is glorious!
The next morning we set off for the mountains and countryside. Along the way, we stopped at a fantastic café, Miguelina’s Panaderia y Reposteria. They make fresh the most delicious breads and sweets, coffee, and fruit smoothies. From there, we made our way to Alta Vista Restaurant. We traveled by car to get there, but there is the option to arrive by helicopter from nearby locales. The view and the food were amazing as was the company. Next, we drove to a high mountain reservoir, Tavera Dam, where we boarded a boat for a day on the water with thanks to Ada’s brother, Ramon. In the late afternoon, we pulled up to a lakeside restaurant, La Presa de Taveras, serving the local catch. It was a truly beautiful day!
A long walk around the city the next morning before boarding the plane made my experience complete. It was a quick trip, but my Camino family and I made the most of it by seeing the sites and staying focused on the most important thing which was having time to enjoy each other’s company and give thanks that God brought us all together is this way.
Where’s the beef, ahem, I meant, grief?!
….to quote a fast food restaurant’s famous ad campaign from the 1980s. It went on to become a catchphrase implying where the substance or meaning is in a particular event or idea.
Well, the grief, my friends, is where it’s always at, crouching on coiled limbs in my heart, in my soul. The sadness still creeps in or pounces when I least expect it. I am still caught off guard by thoughts of sharing experiences with Paul. I am still uneasy without him by my side in so many situations, but right alongside that grief is gratitude and growth. I am so thankful for all that I have and all that I am and all that I am becoming.
I find myself becoming less and less interested in happiness. It never lasts. It’s bought, sold, and traded like a commodity. I am interested only in joy. Joy is eternal, and, along with gratitude, is the only counterbalance to grief and suffering. Joy happens in the small, quiet moments among friends and family and strangers when people connect. Joy happens when you’re dancing on a street corner or when your nose is pressed to a window watching the sunrise or when taking a long, deep breath of the ocean breeze. Joy is born out of contentment with all that life encompasses….birth, death, sadness, happiness, failure, success, fear, anger, acceptance, rejection. I am learning that joy can be present in the midst of it all if I approach life with gratitude and a desire to grow.
I am so completely thankful for Ada. God truly placed her in my life to encourage me to continue to learn and grow. She inspires me in all the best ways. For Ada, love is an action word. She shows me through her generous spirit how to cultivate and maintain connections. Ada inspires me to be more connected, more generous, to be more.
There was a time, though, when that wasn’t true. I didn’t
even realize it myself until one night last year about 4 or 5 months after Paul
passed away. I was at a family member’s house until late into the evening.
Around midnight, I headed home, about 14 miles away. It was a Saturday. The
city was quiet. The roads were all but vacant. I hardly passed any other cars
the entire way. I confess that I was lost in thought, not distracted really,
but my brain was certainly on auto pilot. I was stopped at a red light less
than a mile from the house. The light turned green. I entered the intersection
making a left hand turn. Then, in the middle of the intersection, I was side
swiped by a drunk driver who then sped off, swerving down the road. I never saw
or heard him coming. There was no reaction at all on my part. It was over before
I even knew it happened.
I was fine, and there wasn’t so much damage to the car that I couldn’t drive it home so I did. I wasn’t upset, not even a little rattled. I was cool as a cucumber. Does that seem like a normal reaction to just being hit by a drunk driver? Is it normal for someone to just shrug their shoulders and say “M-eh” and just continue on their merry way? I think not. I am embarrassed to admit that I didn’t even call the police. I just drove home and went to bed. Yes, really. Can you believe that? What was I thinking? I wasn’t, just more proof positive of the cognitive impairment imposed by grief. Was it a case of shock? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Was I stunned, or did I really just not care? Looking back, I have to be honest and say I’m not sure. But slowly, what had transpired began to sink in, the full weight of the catastrophe avoided began to fall heavier and heavier on me until my conscience had to wake up and push back before it crushed me.
The next morning, the air began to clear like the water in a
just shaken snow globe as the white, sparkly flakes make their way to the
bottom. I could see the whole scene. The scales had fallen from my eyes. I got
up, dressed, and went to church where I shared the experience with some church
members and the responses were exactly what you would expect, “Well, thank God
you’re okay” and “It could’ve been a lot worse”. Then, this happened. On
hearing about it, one of my dear friends rushed over to me, grabbed me by the
shoulders and with a big grin and excited giggle bordering on an outburst of
laughter, jubilation really, said, “Oh! I just heard what happened! I’m so glad
you’re here!” I caught her meaning
instantly. She wasn’t just glad I was at church. She was glad I was still here in this world. She took my face in
her hands and pulled me into her shoulder throwing her arms around me, wrapping
me in love. I fell heavy into her embrace and said, “So am I”, and for the
first time since Paul died, I realized I actually meant it. I was glad to be alive. The smile on my
face said it all. I was beaming and was surprised to hear myself say, “I’m so glad to be here, too. I really am.”
Prior to this incident, I was not glad to be alive at all. In fact, to be blunt, I was pretty pissed about it. I considered myself left behind, stuck here without Paul. I didn’t have survivor’s guilt. I had survivor’s remorse. Grief sometimes feels like you are caught between worlds, a quasi-purgatory if you will, alive but not living. Please don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t suicidal. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I did want to die. I prayed God would send a Holy-Uber to pick me up and take me to heaven. What. He did it for Elijah. Why not me, right?
In The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty, biographer Susan Page recounts the young Barbara Bush’s struggle to cope with loss and depression. Page says of Mrs. Bush that she would frequently have the urge to plow her car into a tree or pull into the path of an oncoming car. She would actually have to pull over and wait for the urge to pass. Mrs. Bush dealt with this by volunteering at a local hospice center. She said the lesson was that if you hit a rough patch, find someone who’s hit a rougher patch and help them. It will help you. I whole-heartedly agree. I have lived those exact moments, felt those same urges, and have been helped by helping others.
Moving forward from that day, I dedicated myself to living fully, seeking the Lord’s will for the time He has given me, practicing gratitude, and doing whatever I could to help others along the way by using the gifts God has provided me. This, shared by my pastor, is now in my daily prayer arsenal. It was written by Thomas Ken over 300 years ago and yet is perfectly relevant today.
A Prayer to Begin the Day
‘Blessed be Thy Name, O Lord God, Who hast set before me life and death, and hast bid me choose life. Behold, Lord, I do with all my heart choose life; I choose Thee, O my God, for Thou art my life. Save, Lord, and hear me, O King of heaven, and accept my sacrifice, even the sacrifice of my whole heart, which I now give Thee. O my God, I offer Thee my senses and passions, and all my faculties; I offer Thee all my desires, all my designs, all my studies, all my endeavours, all the remainder of my life; all that I have, or am, I offer up all entirely to Thy service. Lord, sanctify me wholly, that my whole spirit, soul, and body may become Thy temple. O do Thou dwell in me, and be Thou my God, and I will be Thy servant.’
B. Macnutt, The prayer manual for private devotions or public use on divers
occasions: Compiled from all sources ancient, medieval, and modern (A.R.
And, this, from Deuteronomy 30:11-20 The Offer of Life or Death, also equally relevant today, “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (all emphasis mine)
In a previous post, I mentioned that my counselor saved my life, and that we would get into it later. Well, later is now. My counselor saved my life by keeping me safe when my life was in danger. During that time immediately after Paul’s death when I was extremely vulnerable, unstable even, her care and guidance kept me from letting go, kept me from giving up, kept my feet firmly planted on the precipice that is grief. And it is just that, a precipice. In the early days following a loss, the grieving person’s safety must be the top priority.
So, I have a checklist for how to choose a counselor. I hope
this is helpful because I know that finding the
right counselor can be a real challenge at a time when we are not fully
equipped to think clearly through such a decision making process. I also know that
people’s encounters with counseling are a mixed bag, hit or miss, very positive
or a complete disaster. That, unfortunately, can have the effect of convincing
people that counseling is not effective. I have had people say, “You are so
lucky. I just couldn’t find a good
counselor.” I don’t think it’s correct to think of the process as finding a good counselor. The challenge is in
finding a counselor that is a good fit for you and your particular
situation. You may have gone to a counselor and had a bad experience. That
doesn’t mean they were a bad counselor. It just means that maybe it was a bad
Begin by asking friends and family for recommendations. I realize this might be tough to do. Despite how far society has come, in some communities and social circles there is still a stigma attached to counseling and mental health issues in general. So, ask for recommendations from friends and family that are emotionally safe. The last thing a grieving person needs is judgment being cast on them or being handed a suck-it-up-buttercup attitude. Also, use a search engine to research counselors in your area. Prepare a list of three to five counseling practices to call for further information. Go through the checklist before you make a first appointment. Write down the answers so that you can review them later.
Do you want a male or female counselor or does
that even matter to you?
I recommend you choose a counselor who will
support you in your faith if that is an important part of your life. They don’t
necessarily have to believe what you believe, but they do have to be able to
support you in that way, recognize and integrate it as a key element in your
grief and healing process.
Choose a counselor who specializes in grief
work, not just depression, but the grieving process specifically.
Don’t forget about logistics. Does the counselor
or their practice accept your insurance? If so, will they file it for you? If
you don’t have insurance, ask about their pricing structure up front.
Can your counselor write prescriptions, if
needed, or do they have access to medical providers than can do so? Or will
they coordinate with your primary care provider to write prescriptions that you
may need? Does the counselor have access or connections to a hospital if you
need a different level of care?
July 21st marked 6 months for me as a blogger. That
sounds weird. A blogger. I am writing a blog so, yes, I guess that makes me a
blogger, but it still sounds weird to me and not something I ever envisioned
myself doing but here I am. At the time, it felt like stepping from a platform
into a roller coaster ride. You know that feeling you get right before you step
through the turnstile? That tightness in your stomach as the coaster whooshes
in, that rush of air that blows your hair back. The faces of the riders wearing
every emotion contained in the human heart, all on full display sitting in
their seats, fear, joy, surprise, relief, grief, dread, panic, ecstasy. It’s
all there. And then you, a recipe that contains unequal parts excitement and
reluctance, nervously but obediently and shaking just a bit, step on to the
ride as the others step out. Sometimes, weirdly, kind of awkward, you’re
sitting by a complete stranger, sometimes a friend of family member, but you
are all getting ready to have a shared experience. THAT is what starting this
blog was like for me. And I’ve noticed something. Some people look at me
differently now, or maybe I’m different now? But I have noticed that some
people look at me like they are seeing me for the first time even people who
have known me for a long time or even my entire life. There is surprise in
their face and in their voice when we talk about the blog. Perhaps my
transparency is allowing them to see something in me they didn’t see before. That’s
a good thing. It means I’m growing.
The little blog that could…..To date, this blog has had 5,600+ hits, is weighing in at almost 40,000 words, has 65 subscribed followers, and is read in, wait for it, 31 countries around the world. What?! I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t know how it would impact others. I just stepped out on faith. I felt called to it and hoped and prayed that it would help others.
A man gave me a compliment……and I fell apart. It wasn’t untoward. It was actually a very nice
compliment, but it wasn’t just that. I want to make sure I describe this
compliment accurately because it has everything to do with my reaction to it.
It wasn’t “Nice dress” or “Your hair looks great today” or the casual “Hey,
beautiful” or even the dreaded cat call. It was a compliment with an encouragement. I had just been
to a workout, and in passing, the man said I “looked great” and whatever I was
doing I should “keep doing it”. See? Nothing to it. Right? I thanked the man,
wished him a nice day, got into my car, and dissolved into a salty sea of my own
tears. They came hot, heavy, and plentiful, and I felt ridiculous.
My body has only ever belonged to my husband. I don’t mean belong as in a possession or property. I mean belong in the sense that I was suited or matched to Paul. That with him I was in my rightful place. He was my home. I was part of him. I was his missing rib. In Mark 10:8, this relationship is described this way, “And the two shall become one flesh; so that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” One flesh. Exactly. Marriage is the emotional reintegration of the flesh to the original configuration of man created by God. I am finding it hard to think of myself as a single being.
I’m a teacher. I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that in my previous posts. I teach middle school, and middle schoolers are not known for their tact. Anyway, one of my eighth graders recently asked, “Hey, Ms. Dunn, you gonna get back in that dating game?” The world ground to a halt, screeching and crunching on its axis. I expelled an audible breath of air like I had just been punched in the chest. I literally had no response for that. I was lost for words, and that is rare.
Recently, I was shopping with an elderly family member, a man. Another man in the store approached us and briefly spoke with me. Moments later my family member said, “Malia, that man was flirting with you!” The tone in his observation implied two things: a) that I was somehow unaware of the flirtation, and b) incredulity that I did not respond in kind. My response to my family member’s comment was a hearty “Hmph” and “Phssh”. To that he added, “Come on, you’re still a good looking woman.” Suddenly, I felt like I had an expiration date stamped on my forehead. The implication of the entire exchange was that I should consider another relationship quickly while I am still viable. Do you feel like punching someone in the nose right about now because I do! I mean what the hell?! What fresh, new kind of hell is this where I better get on with it before I am no longer marketable?
All of these are pretty overt examples. I could provide countless more examples of the subtle pressure that exists in conversations with friends and family about the brother whose wife died last year, the friend who never married, and the single, church member whose name comes up over and over and over again. Enough already. When I ignore or politely decline these suggestions, these advances really, I inevitably get this response, “But you’re so young. You’ll find someone else.” For the life of me, I am not even sure what that means. I am not even in contact with a universe where that makes sense to me. I mean I understand people who remarry. What I don’t understand is how it’s somehow a foregone conclusion related to my age, or how a relationship with someone else will provide some kind of relief to those who love and care about me. I know people mean well and want me to be happy, but again this means that people think I can’t be happy or fulfilled unless I’m in a relationship or married?? This leaves me feeling confused and hurt as if I am not sufficient on my own. Is this the way it is for all single people or just widows of a certain age? Is there a constant, subtle pressure on singles to find someone? Uugggghhhhhh.
Just a few weeks before Paul died we were out together, and we saw a friend of ours whose wife died of cancer two or three years ago. He was with a lady. They were holding hands and smiling warmly at one another. I was surprised. It looked awkward to me. No, it didn’t look awkward. It felt awkward, out of place, out of time. It stirred feelings in me that made me uncomfortable. Our friend and his wife had been young sweethearts, married for more than 30 years, and were utterly devoted to each other. You never saw one without the other. Later, on the car ride home, it was still bothering me so I talked to Paul about it. I said it was so strange to see our friend with someone else. I was having trouble reconciling it. I told him it seemed disloyal. Paul disagreed. He said he was happy for our friend, and that it was right for him to share his life with someone else if it made him happy. I grabbed his hand and held it tight. I told him I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do the same if and when I was ever in that position. Paul said, “Well, that’ll be something you have to decide for yourself, but I think it’s fine.” The rest of the car ride home was very quiet, uncomfortably so. Did I ask Paul about it because on some deep level I wanted his blessing? Did his response represent how he really felt, or was he already taking care of me and my future?
I have no idea what the future holds. I do know that I place no expectations on myself one way or the other in terms of dating or marrying again, and I need others to do the same, to have no expectations or to assume what I will do. I am enough, and God’s grace alone is sufficient. What I have, what I don’t have, what I am and what I’m not, where I am in this place and time, it’s all God’s grace, and it is sufficient for me.
2 Corinthians 12: 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.”
The Willow’s True Nature: A Tale of Caution and Hope
There is a wise king with a large kingdom and many servants. One day, one of his servants left the castle early in the morning to do the daily business of the kingdom. She had a very long to-do list! There were provisions to buy, documents to deliver and collect, and people to talk to. The king’s castle was perched high above the kingdom, and on the walk down the road from the castle, the servant was able to look out across the countryside and towns below. It was truly a lovely day. She walked past the reservoir, through the willow woods, and into town where there were shops and houses both great and small. There were people of all kinds, too; young and old, rich and poor, skilled and professional, at work and at play, happy and sad.
She was busy all day going here and there around the town,
and the servant managed to accomplish all of her errands. She was satisfied
that she had checked everything off of her to-do list. Her basket was full of
supplies of every sort; bread, fruits and veggies, meats and cheeses, important
documents, books, articles of clothing, medicines, and dry goods. She was filled
with a sense of pride as she began the walk back to the castle and felt the
king would be pleased.
It had been a comfortably warm, sunny day, but now in the
distance, rain clouds were gathering. The servant decided she should hurry back
to the safety of the castle before the rain arrived. She picked up the pace as
she passed through the willow woods. No one knew how old the willow woods were
only that the king himself had planted the trees many, many years ago. In those
days, willow trees were different than they are today. They were the tallest of
all the trees, very plain, and straight as an arrow reaching straight up to
heaven. The light, silvery leaves were sparse and upturned, pointing to the sky.
They offered very little shade or shelter for people or animals. The bark was smooth,
dull, and unremarkable. Furthermore, they were of no particular use as the
branches were stiff and straight, brittle, and easily snapped by the slightest
The clouds were growing thicker and darker as the servant
neared the reservoir. She hurried on. There was a terrible clap of thunder. She
was afraid and started to run as the rain began to pour, great torrential
sheets of rain. Now, crossing the dam that held the reservoir of water in
place, she could see that the water was rising. What was worse was that there
appeared to be a leak in the earthen dam. She could see a small but insistent stream
of water spurting forth from the dirt works. Panic stricken and without
thinking she impulsively plugged the leak with her finger. She felt very clever
in that moment because her quick thinking had stopped the leak and avoided a
Almost as quickly as she celebrated her heroic intervention, she began to see its folly. “What do I do now?” she thought. The situation was not sustainable. She couldn’t stand there forever stopping up the leak, but any attempt to get help would mean removing her finger which would surely result in the water gushing forth with even greater force than before. She was, in fact, trapped. Like the lightning flashing in the sky around her, in one terrible, heart stopping flash of understanding, she realized that she was actually the cause of her entrapment, trapped by her own decision made in haste and an overgrown, out-of-control sense of self-reliance. To make matters worse, the dirt around her finger was becoming soggy and water began to flow once again. Now, she was stuck trying to do anything and everything to plug the ever widening hole. She tried desperately to use what she had in her basket to fill the now gaping breach with food, jars of medicine, clothing, documents, books. She tried it all, but it was no use. The hole would not be filled and everything she had accomplished, everything from her to-do list, was ruined. The water in the reservoir was rising ever higher. The pressure behind the dam was building.
“If only I had run on to the castle when I first saw the
leak,” she thought to herself. “I could have called out to the king and his
other servants for help.” There was nothing she could do to stop what was going
to happen next. She had failed, and everyone in the town below was in danger
because of her.
Then, what she feared would happen, happened. The dam burst forth and a great deluge of water like a stampede of horses raced toward the town below. She turned away to avoid the sight of it. She felt the full weight of her guilt and began to cry huge, sorrowful tears that fell into the flowing water. Suddenly, she heard a sound, a great gasping, gulping sound coming from the direction of the willow woods. She looked, and she could see the trees’ roots stretched taut against the surface of the ground, and they were growing! The roots were growing bigger and rounder as they filled with the rushing water spilling from the reservoir. The trees themselves were changing, too. They became heavy with water, their trunks split and scarred. Their branches began to elongate and droop. Their lofty tops bowed low. The leaves turned from silvery white to a brilliant, sea green, and all the while the torrent of running water was slowing from a deluge to barely a brook. The town was saved! From that day forward, those trees have been known as weeping willows for their true nature, their true purpose, had been revealed as well as their true beauty. They now bend gracefully with strength and do not easily break. They have flexibility that not even a howling wind can degrade. They create a protective shelter beneath their branches as they arc and sigh downward. When it rains, they soak up excess water in the ground, and raindrops trace their way down the drooping branches and fall like the weeping servant’s tears on the ground below.
In her heart, she wondered if the king in his wisdom knew
the role that the willow trees would play in saving the town when he planted
them all those many, many years ago. She decided she would ask him. Then, she
thought, “If the king knew the willow’s true purpose, maybe he knows mine.” She
decided she would talk to him about that, too, and seek his counsel first in
all things. The End
Proverbs 137:1-2 By
the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On
the willows there we hung up our lyres.
More about the Busy Trap
I can’t even count how many people offered the sage advice to stay busy as a way to manage grief. We have to be really careful about this though. Staying busy can quickly move from a seemingly sound strategy to a crutch then to a trap and perhaps even to a prison. And it’s such an easy trap to fall into because its delicious bait is pride and disproportionate self-reliance. Staying busy is like putting a Band-Aid on a gushing wound. It’s just not going to work. It doesn’t stop the grieving process. It only delays it and ultimately makes the healing process more difficult and complex.
The problem is that grief builds up behind the emotional dam that is created by staying busy. A mind packed full with grief doesn’t always make good decisions. Analytical thinking and problem solving skills are diminished. Over-scheduling can lead to or increase anxiety. All the while, the pressure on the dam is growing, and it soon springs a leak prompting more and more busy-ness to shore up the dam. Staying busy is not sustainable. It becomes a vicious cycle. When the dam finally breaks, and it will, the leak becomes a flood and does more damage than the leak ever could have. The ensuing deluge of grief can threaten us and those we love.
So, what do we do? I try to strive for a balanced day. Just like eating a balanced diet promotes good physical health, we should strive to choose a menu of daily activities that promote good mental and spiritual health. I try to choose meaningful, purposeful activities that help me process my grief, not busy-ness for the sake of busy-ness. Examples of meaningful, purposeful activities include exercise, time with supportive friends and family, volunteering or work that helps others, quiet time for mindfulness activities, and time for doing absolutely nothing. I say I try because I am not always successful. I recently had a dream where I was frantically driving all over town from place to place except every time I arrived at a destination I found out that I was not where I was supposed to be and had to race off to another location. I was panting with exhaustion and frustration, anxiety and fear. Smack! Hello, Holy 2 x 4! If the merry-go-round has become the misery-go-round, then get off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with shutting it all down and giving yourself time to feel and be. In fact, it is essential! Furthermore, I have found that I don’t like to hurry or be in a rush. This could be a function of my age, but I think it’s more related to time and the way I experience it now. I’ve written about the time change in previous posts. It’s something I noticed almost immediately after Paul died. I strive to be very present. I want to cherish and savor each moment even the moments that are mundane.
Some questions for reflection… How full is your reservoir of grief? Is it leaking? Are you trapped by your own choices and efforts to manage it? Is the pressure building? Who will be harmed when the dam breaks?
God has a plan for our lives. He knows more than our imaginations are capable of conceiving. We may not always know what to do with all of our grief and sadness, but God does. He has a plan for that, too. We need only to trust it to him.
Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.