In December, a postcard arrived in the mail. It was an everyday postcard. Nothing marked it as special or holiday like. Except the message.“Happy Advent,” it read.
I smiled remembering a moment with a friend. The Sunday school classroom we shared emptied of active and noisy four-year-olds. In the new quiet I spoke of my love for the season of Advent. The getting ready for hope found in a mere babe born to the have-nots of their time. Finding comfort in the liturgical color blue, so like the winter Midwestern sky at dawn and dusk. Enjoying the daily lighting of a growing line of flickering candles helping me mark the busy days turned to weeks leading up to Christmas. Singing hymns full of ancient tones which never fail to resonate with my own earthly and human longings.
This Advent however, I was not hopeful. Our children were unhappy at school, Tony’s work and commute were stressful, and many family members needed our help. I was worn out, feeling stuck, and just waiting for the frantic holiday season to end. Hope was not on my holiday menu.
The postcard’s arrival however gently nudged me into this quiet season so often lost in the chaos of December. It’s simple message stirred in me something I was having trouble grasping in my overwhelmed state of heart and mind. With the help of my dear friend now living far away, I remembered the calm, reflective, emotional state I longed for. Hope in the unexpected form of a postcard fed me. And I was transformed into a lowly shepherd keeping watch over my family flock with the words of the angels rising in my ears, “Do not be afraid.”
As we moved through December into January, the winter snow continued reflecting an Advent blue at dawn and dusk in January’s sky. The light reminded me of the slow and steady movement it takes to make good and lasting change in our lives. Advent hope came with me in a way it had not in previous years. Hope did not follow the traditional liturgical calendar. But it came in a predictable sequence of waiting, wondering, and realizing nonetheless. Living in our own Advent, Tony and I reexamined our life together finally accepting the necessary uprooting needed to be closer to Tony’s work and for new schools for our children.
January gave way to February. The blue evening sky appeared out my window later and later each evening. The darkness yielded to the increasing light of an awakening world. I was calm once again. My heart embracing our own small portion of this universe. My face turning toward the future full of unknowns yet also brimming with hope. My voice humming as I packed for our journey. My song gathering strength note by note before spreading out into embodied praise: “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”
A version of this piece was originally published by The Lutheran Digest in December of 2012. Photos are courtesy of Pixabay.
The mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
And all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
-Isaiah 55: 12 (NIV)
Isaiah 55 contains an invitation home. The prophet speaks for God to a dispersed people in exile longing for their homeland, way of life, loved ones, peace, and God. God’s invitation for a redemptive journey from forced exile includes a celebration so great that all of nature waits to erupt in praise and thanksgiving.
My sons and I live in an exile of sorts. It’s called trauma. Its name is grief. Sudden loss catapulted us into a heart-ripping wilderness, a vast and unfamiliar terrain. We found ourselves transported into this emotional and physiological desert, far from our previous internal identities and the externally tangible home we once knew.
Day by day I accept God’s invitation out of this exile for myself and for my sons. We travel home together along a path toward healing, joy, and peace. Our map however, like any human trauma course, shows a lengthy journey with many forced stops along the way. Yet countless people pray for us, feed us, teach us how to survive panic attacks, and heal our minds’ need to flash back to the first moments of our banishment. These many loving acts are like shouts along the race route of our marathon. Cheers for each milestone we conquer. Songs of support when we want to give up. Sounds which lead us, through others’ innate human joy and accumulated peace, back to our own. All raised up for us by a multitude of modern prophets repeating God’s invitation whether they themselves believe in God or not.
This Thanksgiving I give quiet thanks for all our figurative mountains, hills, and trees. They have surrounded us in our unasked for expedition these last fifteen months. We call our varied and beautiful landscape not mountain, hill, or tree but family, friend, pastor, therapist, teacher, classmate, school, doctor, stranger, faith community, colleague, and neighbor. Their collective energy to me now is as glorious a view as the sight of any majestic mountain bursting into song.
Isn’t it funny how certain emotions are viewed as weaknesses? Funny maybe isn’t the word. Perhaps odd fits this scene better. Or even tragic. And before you resist my thoughts here, think about it a minute.
Another person’s pain mirrors our own. Not as an exact replica, per se. But as an unspoken acknowledgement only with one person feeling profoundly more than the other. The one feeling less standing in a form of emotional recognition called compassion or in its lesser cousin called empathy. Or posing in opposition to compassion as avoidance or dissociation. If called compassion or empathy, the one feeling less takes on the responsibility of pain’s witness. Holding the world accountable for another’s suffering. But if avoiding or dissociating, the witness asks the sufferer to take on the witness’s discomfort, adding weight to an already heavy heart.
We all know pain. We all know some form of broken-heartedness. We all know the ravages of grief, distress, and suffering upon our souls, in our hearts, and running rapid throughout our minds in the silence of night. We know because we are human. And even if our pain and grief remain small in comparison to another’s, we recognize how deep this pain called grief can go. Our imaginations take us there in quiet moments when no one is looking. When the future may seem full of unexpected traps. Life presenting once more as out of our control.
And we don’t always want to go there, to these dark places within us. To past traumas, both resolved and unresolved, or the possibility of future ones. The mirror of another’s grief unmasking the vulnerability we carefully protect with layers of busyness both actual and manufactured and other forms of protectant donned as costume, masquerade, or illusion.
I remember a man in Bermuda shorts standing next to me on the beach at Peck’s Landing as we waited for the dive team to find Tony. An older man, heavy set with a voice betraying his allergies. His voice an impetus to my aversion during my months of shock of certain voices in a certain timbre. “There’s really no hope, you know,” he said.
I turned quickly away from him searching out my point person on the first responder team. Someone who’s name I no longer remember. My mounting emotions mingling with anger. “Who is that man?”
“He used to have my job. He just retired.”
“Get rid of him or I will implode.”
My vulnerability became my voice on the day I met grief. And while it has taken months for me to say vulnerability no longer poses certain risk factors to my well-being and that of my sons, I still claim it as the beginnings of a new kind of inner courage. One born out of the moment when all the unnecessary layers of life vanished. Washed away beneath a dangerously unmarked treacherous river as I shook from within. Falling into a fragility which kept me company for months.
I say, there is an incredible strength in grief and beauty worn in mourning. The kind of strength called courage. Mourning which can only be called love. To apply weakness to this time and to these feelings is to shame the throbbing tenderness of life itself.
Another first responder, someone who tried so very hard to bring life back into Tony’s beautiful body, said goodbye to me with tears in his eyes on that day which changed everything. And then he hugged me with a fierceness I will never forget. Showing me the other side of courage. Giving me his vulnerability in his eyes and in his arms. Sharing a moment of unmasked emotion as I recognized in him what would become my truth.
Some scribbled thoughts from our first year of grief. Drafted May 10, 2017 between what would have been Tony’s fifty-fourth birthday and the nine-month anniversary of his death.
We live simply now in this time of grief. Simple food. Simple schedule. Simple wants. The heaviness slowly lifts. The agitation calms bit by bit. It is almost nine months.
In July of 2016 I wrote a blog piece on church spires. Steeples directing my way home point by point as I wound my way through small Iowa towns in waning summer light. I never posted those words. They lie in wait. Neglected. Unrevised. Upended by all that was to come in August.
Now I think people do. Point us home that is. To however we now define home. A place of refuge and therefore a source of strength. A place of solace and of love. “Where we do the hard, emotional work of relationships,” as Tony used to say although maybe in more casual language.
Yesterday Paul had another endoscopy, this time with a pill camera. I had a long hour wait, alone in the starkness of a recovery room, its sterility surrounding my vulnerability. One of the many, many, many times I miss Tony just being a few miles away at work. Available if necessary. Waiting as a form of prayer for a call of “all went well.”
My anxiety swirled, lodging in my pained arms and in my inability to breath. I texted two friends. But loving words encapsulated in bubbles were not enough. I wanted a human voice. I called another friend. She talked me through my fears even as her aging father held a tantrum in the background. Her father and I bookending her giving soul in the heavy emotions of my grief and his growing dementia.
The grabbing of hands, giving and receiving hugs, making eye contact, hearing voices over the phone, sharing thoughts transformed into words, brief smiles exchanged, sometimes even a laugh or two, these are the points which lead me in healing day by day. Often moment by moment. Holding me together when I don’t know where my life’s destination truly is.
Today I rise early mixing waffle batter for Paul’s breakfast. I would rather hide in bed with my words and green tea and dark chocolate nursing my spring cold. But I force myself to parent. Because I wasn’t very good at it in the beginning of our trauma. My mind and body raging with shock. Lost between points in an abruptly chaotic universe.
I hope the boys forgive me when they are older or perhaps now. For the food that wasn’t cooked or even in the house. For the many hours I took refuge in my bedroom. For the words I did not have to share. For not understanding what they needed in their own pain. For putting my oxygen mask on first and theirs second. For so many things I know about or don’t. The decisions and gestures I left undone.
My point people remind me to forgive myself too. For everything. For last words never said. For not understanding what was happening that day on the beach. For only being able to gasp for breath the year before Tony died, the one filled with all that surrounded Ricky’s then mysterious illness. I lift these along with all my inadequacies up and out of myself each evening before bed. Giving them over to the universe and to the mystery of God. Unable to carry any extra luggage now in this journey called life.
It’s eleven in the morning. I’m sitting opposite a Volkswagen service department man at our local dealership. I’m not supposed to be here right now. My day’s script with accompanying task list reads differently. But apparently my writers spent the night in revisions forgetting to send me this new draft at dawn. A draft placing me just about now in this chair off of Highway 1 in Iowa City, Iowa.
We’ve been living off-script since Tony died. Still I create lists, plans, and expectations for each day. Being organized makes me feel all is well. Yet organizing grief is a misnomer. More often than not this multi-layered emotional experience infused with its copious practical matters thwarts my plans. Every seemingly small event includes more paperwork, takes more time now, and lumps up my throat. I’m beginning to believe the trauma expert’s two-year healing prediction offered to me early on in grief when I batted it away, unable to accept the road ahead.
Today’s change, the part of the script in which I was to be zipping down Interstate 80 toward lunch with a dear friend, was replaced with a scene involving the mystery surrounding my defunct email address. I had some head’s up on this one. Knew already the computer people, far more skilled than I, were working on it. So the phone call asking me to come downtown to their shop wasn’t too out of line with my day. A small change to be accommodated. What surprised me on my drive downtown, sent my heart racing really, was the check engine light glaring at me from my dashboard.
The computer people found all sorts of information about my email domain. Information formed early in the history of The Men’s Center. Information I did not know or really even cared about until now. Standing in the waiting area of their shop I learned how to reinstate my email with the help of a number of people working in far away countries across wireless air waves. The check engine light however forced me to reschedule lunch.
A ten minute drive later I find myself at the service check-in desk staring at the man behind the computer. It’s been all business up to this point. Masking perhaps what he thinks of me. I’ve been clear, maybe a bit demanding, in what I need which is a loaner vehicle. Tony’s classic Mercedes not currently well either. It’s engine light coming on too and the air conditioning ka-poot. Not having an appointment for this interchange may be part of the problem as well. Coupled with what could be construed as my sense of entitlement. Masked desperation (mine) the truth.
The car is under Tony’s name in the service man’s computer. Of course it is. I never did anything with the cars but drive them and take care of some routine stuff like getting gas. I tell this stranger to remove Tony’s name and why. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he says.
Good. He got that one right, I think. The many faceless computer people I spoke to on the phone today forgot this small moment of acknowledgement, a courtesy. Then looking deep into his screen he says, “I sold you that car,”
“The one I’m driving? In Cedar Rapids?”
“Tony was a counselor,” he states looking up at me.
“Yes. It was unexpected.”
Days later I remember. I wondered aloud, maybe even complained about having to look at a car on the north side of Cedar Rapids, ninety miles from where we were living at the time. But Tony felt he was getting a better deal out of the area and really liked the salesman. I acquiesced. We desperately needed a new car. Bugs having taken up residence in the back seat of our station wagon. Feeding off the crumbs deeply embedded in the universe existing underneath where the cushions meet forming a crevice. Multitudes of food particles leftover from the early childhood years of our children.
Now our former salesman turned service department guy clicks away at his keyboard. His eyes reading the screen. Yet a shift in his face muscles and posture, almost imperceptible, shares something with me as the room’s air parts for just a second. I take an instinctive, singular, sharp breath in. Through my mouth. Sucked in with a bit of noise from the wind of it. Realization flooding me just prior to my intake of oxygen or perhaps a recognition of something deeper than words.
He assures me my car is safe to drive until the scheduled check next week. Maybe he is less business like now. Maybe softening. Hoping if necessary there could be service people of all kinds willing to work with and for his loved ones in his stead. Or maybe I just imagine all this. Once again wondering if molecules of emotion are to be trusted or not. But then knowing they are. Floating human truths to be paid attention to.
Nothing else runs on schedule for the rest of my day. I throw it all to the wind. Go car shopping all by myself for the first time ever. Find finally what I want which is really not to see another check engine light until I’m way out of seminary. Along with heated seats and a white exterior because Tony was so very safety conscious. And I can’t bear to hear his admonishing voice in my head if I pull out of the car lot with any other color. Then I shop at a different grocery store, the one Ricky works at on the weekends. Get lunch giving into my hunger for once, and buy hot, homemade Mennonite pretzels for Paul. Once home crawl back into bed writing on my day-off from words and during the afternoon hours instead of my usual early morning reverie.
But what stays in my heart this particular day, one of so many in our ongoing complicated grief, is this: Someone Tony knew for just a brief blip on life’s timeline saddened knowing he no longer is here on this plane of existence. And I take great solace in this small knowing and others like it. Glimpses of others’ sense of loss and possibly their own approaching mortality. Their emotional release, although often cloaked, creating a molecular communion of sadness of sorts swirling in the air.
We were naive or maybe it was just me. Living as we did in Chicago among many. In a neighborhood full of old Swedes, lesbians, and Lebanese merchants. Working in a neighborhood populated by Palestinians, Latin Americans, and Lithuanians. African-American, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and Polish co-workers. Our inter-cultural, inter-ethnic, inter-racial relationship was not a big concern heading into marriage. Student loans and a honeymoon destination were.
The next state we lived in was a different story, far different. All of a sudden we had to demand tables away from the kitchen door. People made comments on how dark baby Ricky was compared to my fairness. Along with dead deer hanging from trucks in the fall was a growing number of confederate flags.
I began to understand a few things. Things not comfortable. Things we needed to be careful of. Things I wanted to run away from. Most of all my own naiveté.
My true education into our country’s reality began with my marriage to a man not white. An immigrant. A Pacific Islander with a Spanish last name. Sure my many experiences working with people from all over the world both in New York City and Chicago helped. But working with those who are different than ourselves is far, far, far different than living on the other side of truth. Alone in public I was still white with all that comes with being so in this country. With Tony I darkened.
I hyphenated my last name because I understood this reality. I told people it was because I was thirty and career-wise already known by my maiden name. And there was verity in my words. But the other truth, the ugly one, was I knew now. I understood. Even if my understanding could not compare to Tony’s or his family’s. I understood more than my white family and friends. And this information about how things are in our country shaped my decision.
In between my name change and Tony’s death, many other large and small incidences occurred to Tony and to us. Happenings I began not sharing because explaining these realities to white friends and family became work, their disbeliefs needing comforting I was and am still unwilling to provide.
But I will share one recent occurrence here. A couple of weeks ago the boys and I reentered our country, the United States of America, after sojourning in Europe. We went to new countries, visited family, and escaped a bit of our grief. Now we waited in the customs line first for the check-in kiosk and then for an officer.
The customs officer was dark, maybe Latino, not-white. He looked at us in the eyes. He said pointing to the large black X on our customs tickets, Xs’ I had not noticed in the rush and fatigue of traveling, Xs’ never before appearing on our customs tickets when reentering our country.
“From now on you will get this mark. We have to check everyone with the last name Rodriguez.”
We remain a family of color. Meaning we also continue to be seen as suspicious by others. Worth extra attention because of our country’s shared historical story heightened now by a spinning, ill-informed ideology that continues to dictate who is possibly dangerous and who is not.
And we as a family continue to be suspicious of others when we are treated differently or with mistrust. Because suspicion works both ways. Because I’ve learned having watched loved ones suffer in ways I do not. Because I have to go there, to that dark truth that is all of ours to own.
The cruel discriminatory legacy of color, of differences, of bias, of religion, and of fear continues in this country. In big demonstrations, tragic political stances, and heightened paranoia. But also our collective story of discrimination continues through the many seemingly small actions and occurrences encompassing a day. Small actions many of us who are white do not see or do not comprehend or do not speak up against. Our ignorance bliss in its unearned freedoms. Until for some reason we too are marked in someway, maybe with a large black X. And then our true education as to what it means to be an American begins or my case continues.
My doctor hurries. I persist. Grief emboldens me. I cling to my agenda. Pointing to my forehead I ask,”What is this?”
A scabby, bumpy thing popped out of my forehead sometime during the months before Tony died. The months in which I kept wondering if after the death of our dog, the death of Ricky’s dear friend, and the ongoing downward spiral of Ricky’s health what could be next. No time or energy during those trembling months for attending to myself.
The growth lives right in my very Swedish receding triangular hairline. The same hairline some of my first and second cousins have both male and female. Some families get identical tattoos. We just use our hairline to mark us as clan.
I pick at it in the beginning of this pain, in my ongoing angst. Sometimes ripping it off in anger only for it to grow back. Mocking me with its presence. Now at ten months into keeping grief my thinking clears enough helping me plan ahead once again and think about my own health.
“Looks like a basal cell,” she replies.
“What’s a basal cell?”
“Skin cancer,” she says as if this is a non-issue, “We’ll get you a referral.”
Shit. The last thing I need is skin cancer. But I look like the token poster child for the disease not interested in excessive use of sun block and hats until about two years ago. Skin cancer and osteoporosis popular among we fair-eyed, northern European types. So I suppose it is to be expected. Then given the stress inherent in grief, my cells are doing who knows what. Still skin cancer belongs on the list of things I do not want and cannot imagine adding to my long roll of issues to cope with.
Once home I call every dermatologist in town. Pleading. Begging. Pushing. I’m waitlisted everywhere. Still I persist, grief making me more adamant especially when my health may be compromised. Magically while trying to find an appointment at the University’s clinic, a space opens on the scheduler’s screen. “Oh!” she says, “I have an appointment now available tomorrow at 9:00 with Dr. So and So.”
“I’ll take it!” I scream. Relief floods my cells. Maybe even the ones in question.
The next morning I take off warning my younger son he may be late for school but then again what else is new? University rush hour swirls around my journey. An accident slows traffic even more. I’m running late. Parking in the wrong parking garage, I face what seems like a mile walk to the dermatology clinic through a labyrinth of walkways. The clinic moved since last time I was here with Ricky’s awful eczema which was in truth Lyme’s Disease but that’s really a whole other story and his to tell about.
I finally check in finding a chair to slump in only to realize I left my cell phone in the car many walkways and floors away. Neither son can get a hold of me. And I don’t believe I’ve been away from my cell (just in case!) for more than a few minutes since Tony died. Except for the time in the first fall of our grief when I lost my already battered phone, freaked out, and then found it beneath our mailbox.
My heart begins pounding with worry. For what brought me to this appointment in the first place. For what could happen if I am not just a phone call away. For what happened to us in August of 2016 creating my hyped vigilance in caring, in making sure all is well, in overseeing our grief.
Later after staring at the white walls of the exam room, waiting for eons, fighting mounting anxiety with deep measured breaths and therapeutic self-talk, the doctor arrives. He looks at my growth with a large magnifying glass breathing and making non-verbal communicative sounds under his breath. Finally he says, “I don’t think it’s cancer. I think it’s…(something I now don’t remember and probably could not pronounce.) I can freeze it off or I can cut it off and biopsy it.”
‘Biopsy it! I’m it,” I reply, “I am truly a single parent. Take it off. Biopsy it.”
I also tell him he mustn’t scar me which in the middle of all this angst reveals I am still concerned about topical issues. After I week or so I find he hasn’t to my relief. My skin smooth and clear. New bits of hair filling in my receding triangle leaving me to wonder if I lost more hair during the shock of Tony’s death than I first imagined.
After a few more days the doctor calls with my results. His typical doctor call etiquette remains non-committal. I hold my breath at the stop light along the river’s construction zone. Finally he says, “It’s a wart.”
“A wart,” my voice pitch mounts as visions of those Scandinavian warty trolls roll across my mind’s eye. “You mean I could have just used Compound W?”
“Well if it grows back you can try an over-the-counter medicine,” he replies.
Another week passes. I laugh at the entire situation until the bill arrives. My procedure not fully covered because of our medical insurance deductible. My wart removal’s initial cost is one thousand dollars! Obviously I am not emotionally healed yet. The old me would have researched the growth. Maybe even experimented with wart removal first before seeing a doctor. But I am still highly reactive. Measured thought remains a dream away.
More time goes by. The wart does not return. Another bill arrives. The cost of wart removal sinks by two hundred dollars or so. A small gift I think.
However in the same swirl of taking care of myself leading to the wart’s removal, I schedule a bone density test for August. In this week between what would have been our twenty-second wedding anniversary and the first anniversary of Tony’s death, I am upgraded from osteopenia to osteoporosis in my wrist and hip. My doctor puts me on medication to strengthen my bones. The ravages of my grief finally rearing an ugly head now at twelve months. Grief taking hold somewhere in my body playing on an already weakened area. Physical and emotional health responding to one another. Playing off each other. One a pinch. The other an ouch. Not so separate as we all tend to think.
Still I’m thankful for good care in all realms of our life this past year. Good care leading to emotional healing, trauma relief, medical diagnosis, and solid treatment plans. All helping us repair, rebuild and live despite it all.
And for me, well with good care there is this added benefit, a “bonus feature” as Tony used to say. One I hadn’t thought of until recently when I almost stumbled into the face of it while rediscovering with my sons the living world outside our grief. One brought home to me by warts and weak bones. A possibility which because I receive good care remains in the realm of my anxious imagination. A thought which when entertained out loud would have made my late and dear husband laugh.
The avoidance of becoming an ancient, warty, humped over troll.
Saint Anthony of Padua is for Roman Catholic Christians the patron saint of lost or stolen things. I wonder today while walking, spying the blooming orange day lilies in the ravine’s ditch, touching the bulbous flowers of the milk weed plant, if this Saint can help me find myself again now amidst the many layers of my muck. Or if my own saint Anthony can from where ever he now resides.
Tony heard for years about the Lutheran Christian belief of saints and sinners. That we are both held in opposition, a paradox catapulting between one to the other minute by minute in our daily lives. One loving act quickly followed by shaming words. One promise kept while another not. Our humanness embraced and forgiven by an understanding, compassionate, and loving God without one request from us. Grace we call this incomprehensible mysteriousness.
But at almost eleven months I still feel lost. Not like at first when I could barely move or think. But lost yet. Steeling myself each day for come what may. Still making phone call after phone call tying up Tony’s affairs. Still supporting both boys through tragic grief compounded by medical issues compounded by feelings of unsuccessfulness as school for both of them this past year tenuous, arduous, hazy. Still weeping at odd moments.
I think somewhere in Tony’s things lies a St. Anthony medal. I wonder if I should pull it out. Even though I don’t believe in Saintly elevation. Rather preferring taking my worries and dreams right to the Trinity. But over the years understanding why many want and cling to faith mediators. Thinking maybe at the end of the day it does not really matter where we fall in embracing Saints or saints.Wondering too if Tony’s medal has the symbolic capability of showing me I will find myself again.
A friend reminds me of Erik Erikson’s famous and lovely and ringing true Eight Stages. Death flings me back into the adolescent stage of identity versus role confusion. I struggle again and with great emotion figuring out who I am alone. No longer attached on every living level possible to another person except in memory and in two tall, young almost men sleeping soundly right now. Moving differently in grief, my body betraying my state. One not associated with a partner. Alone. Misplaced. Confused.
Stay focused I tell myself since grief makes me more aware of others’ attention issues and my own ability to get side tracked. Remember your strength my braceleted wrist reminds me. Remain curious Tony in my memory reiterates. All that glitters is not gold I say to the boys. And in a remembered haze from the early days of this hell I think a pastor friend told me to keep my eyes on the cross and not in a sin salvation kind of a way. But in a there is life after death both for the living and the deceased kind of a way. Or the salvation of the cross frees me from my living bondages, grief able to overtake me. Own me without something bigger to focus on, believe in. Or maybe that’s just what I want to think he meant.
Slowly and on better days than this one, I find I still love a good dress, sharing a finely prepared meal, the obtuse humor of friends and family, chocolate colored dogs, my extended family strewn across the world, dark chocolate for breakfast, my boys even when they are goofing off or leaving trails of stinky socks around the house, the fragrance of laundry hung on the line, pulling onions out of my garden with a pop(!), the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the seasons in our little corner of Iowa, Minnesotan Scandinavian idiosyncrasies, Spirit-filled worship services, the close knit chords of hymnody, meeting a friend for lunch, and a whole host of other joys embraced before and now after.
Somewhere in this mix of loves and grief is me. Not so lost as I sometimes think. A saint in my own right, Lutheran Christian style. Forgiving my own sins of omission and otherwise during this time of keeping grief. Focusing on healing trauma, walking with and through sudden loss, noticing my emotions whether they be feelings of abandonment, guilt, loss, or being untethered. At the same time entering fully into an unfolding future looking hope straight in the face. Living on with joy flowing from sorrow in another of life’s many paradoxes.
Every week a widowed or divorced, middle-aged man with a car, boat, or home who is always caucasian asks to befriend me on social media. These men have names like David Smith, Mark David, and David Mark. Each request comes with an oddly empty profile page. These people have no family or friends. If they perchance have one or two friends the friends tend to be (for the lack of a better term) booby younger women in scant clothing. The men also have no work history, no history at all really. And their written English syntax reads like a foreign tongue.
My sons call these requests trolls referring to a common media term but also to our collective aversion to the small Norwegian warty, hairy, figurines populating the homes of our extended family. Grimy also falls from my sons’ lips often in general feeling like an apt term in this case. As the recipient of these requests I feel repulsion as if over the cyber airwaves someone wants to do me harm.
I block these requests. Laugh about them. Make fun of them. Rail at this annexed injustice added to my many layers of pain. And now openly write about them for any one willing to read my blog. Poking at a world that sees widows as easy prey in our emotional pain. Limping along like an easy shot. The shooter tasting dinner on the trigger.
But I am not a target. So whoever you are get a proper job and an actual life. Volunteer your time to a real and worthy cause. You who haunt me obviously have time on your hands. And while you’re at it find a good therapist. Delve into your early childhood attachment issues. Have the courage to work on yourself instead of hurting others. Understand where you start and stop and others start and stop as well. Discover the space between your emotional boundaries and the emotional boundaries of others is where all healthy relationships in any form really live. Dream about goodness, the goodness you want to receive and return. Then create goodness in all its forms in the space between you and other people.
But if you continue haunting me I will keep calling you out in public. Giving you databases of trauma therapists around the world for you to contact. Urging you to make that first appointment. Wondering aloud about your substance and process use or abuse or addiction and how it’s impacting your life.
Because what you fail to understand in haunting me is that my late husband knew you better than you know yourself. And he and people like him are the key to your healing and happiness. Although now the world has one less of these healers and that is why you found me in the first place scouring your search engines for women using the title widow. Perpetuating the cycle of your pain. The pain you bat away. Hiding instead behind what your fingers can find on your computer. Your screen shielding you from healing.
If you get us all in a room, those of us who earned the unasked for title of widow, you might hear uncomplimentary commentary about non-widows or even of other more seasoned widows. Commentary born out of the ravages of early widowhood experienced when we were most vulnerable and most likely according to research to even die ourselves. Yet forced in our angst to ward off words, some more hurtful than healing hurled our way filling the bereft air with sound. Sound we could barely listen to but somehow made the speakers feel better.
Not for the attempts or the actual help usually wrapped in foil and smelling divine when hunger was non-existent. Even in the depths of our despair we recognized these gestures as acts of love. No, push back would be for the words uttered as we in recent widowhood stood shocked into fake smiles receiving stuff we would rather deflect or run away from while enduring phrases which really has no bearing on what happened to make us widows or what truly constituted support in our present moment of realness.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
God has a plan
Let’s start with this gem. Really? Did God sit upstairs in the control room of the world planning for an August river to act like an early June river? Did God plan for the state of Wisconsin, the county of Sauk to simply be unable to post a red and white danger sign like every other beach in the United States can? Did God plan for a beach full of people to be incapable of rescuing my husband Tony before he went under? Did God plan for the boys and I to witness the day of Tony’s death? I don’t think so, not the loving God walking with me then and now embracing and giving grace in the face of pain.
This too shall pass
Look, let’s just get something completely straight here. I didn’t lose my job or have a fight with my best friend. Okay I get grief changes over time and with tons of therapy. But it doesn’t pass away or die like my husband did. Loss stays more and more in the background as the months pass. But it’s still there. Visits me in the middle of the night or when I’m tired. Brings me to tears in public again and again especially in the aisles of big box stores. Reminds me daily that life is not nor will ever be the same. Grief like life marches on but healing doesn’t happen without work–real emotional, gut wrenching work which takes courage every day to face everything anew while attempting some understanding of the confusion and feelings of being overwhelmed.
My aunt, an unexpected widow herself said to me a few months into this muck, “You will get stronger.” With these wordsshe supported my bereavement as hard work. Not just a putting my time in watching the clock. Preparing to punch out of this horrid job called gut wrenching grief.
God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.
This statement belongs with the God as ultimate planner quip. It too connotes God hanging out in the control center of the universe deciding who can handle what. I doubt any child caught in a war zone reflects, if they survive, that they handled war well. Or a victim of sexual violence, male or female, thinks gratefully God thought they were strong enough to endure such suffering. This statement infers what happens in life is something to be managed or a challenge to be won. As if grief is something to be manipulated and not lived in and through as a possible part of human existence. God didn’t think “Jen can handle a complex and violent by nature death of her husband, Tony. She’s a tough cookie, she is,” as if God imparted a gift on my poor human soul. If grieving this death is a gift, I’m returning it for a full refund. No re-gifting from me either.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Okay. I’ve got to say most days I’m not concerned in the least about my braun. And the word “kill”? Well it is a grating, disgusting word to hear at any time but especially when grief is raw. And even now nine months into this unwanted journey, I still utter internal commentary something akin to tired of being strong all the time. Once again this kind of grief does not stem from getting into a fender bender or being diagnosed with diabetes. It requires deep empathy and compassion on the part of the speaker. Not sympathy offered at arm’s length coded in a worn out utterance.
Still More Words…
There are more words uttered during this time which I can do without. Usually when asked a question I want to scream get back to me in a year! Like when people ask me how this grief experience will impact how I pastor. As if I can fully reflect on something so devastating while I’m still in it. Grievers and therapists know we grievers can’t…yet. And the reality of grief, sudden grief especially, is that the brain slows down. For me my spoken words come with a great deal of arduousness as if my brain is experiencing a blockage of some sort like coming across a highway made impassable by a rock slide. My reflective abilities marred in the mess. All I can think when I’m able to climb out of the rock slide for a moment or two long enough for a few gulps of oxygen is as a pastor I won’t use any of the word combinations I’m trashing here.
The other statement I hear ad nauseam attributed to Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber is “share your scars not your wounds.” I told a friend the other day I will vomit the next time someone shares this phrase with me. I think when I’m feeling somewhat centered in my journey I would like to read her books or even meet her. I imagine we might laugh at the overuse of her phrase taken each time I’ve heard it out of context applying it to any of life’s traumas as if all trauma is the same when in fact the experts know each trauma like everything else in life is nuanced by the specific traumatic events, the past of the people involved, and the help received from the git go.
Grief takes time. Lots of time and lots of tears and prayers and even some therapy, maybe even lots of therapy. But through everything and everyone who brings true solace, we who grieve understand gradually our own abilities and capabilities now. And in time and with work we are awed by what we have accomplished in our day to day lives while existing within the worst emotional circumstances. And the person we lost in this life, the one we grieve, that person is so very, very proud of us. And if we can hear our loved one or think we can in the quiet of night or early morning or even in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, we won’t hear any of the comments I’ve batted away here. I won’t. Not from Tony.
Instead I hear the words imprinted on a silver bracelet Tony once gave me. During a time when I doubted myself and this thing we mainline Christians refer to as call. Most days this bracelet lives on my left wrist right above my wedding ring. Nudging me forward. Speaking words I can hang my weary heart on.