And Then I Blinked

13 02 2018

I’m not the same person I was five years ago. There are the obvious reasons, such as the fact that I am five years older, and my energy level has changed. But those things are not the real reasons. Five years ago I was one-half of a couple. Five years ago all the major decisions were made by two people. Five years ago we were both working; my husband full time and me part time. Five years ago we went on vacations and planned new ones to places we wanted to see. Five years ago I was grudgingly picking up socks and underwear and towels and papers and dishes…

And then.

It was a phone call. And a whole string of what-ifs. Followed by a thousand why, why, why, whys. It was a thundering of blood pumping in my ears, my heart beating so fast I thought I might pass out. It was my body shaking so hard I couldn’t imagine driving myself anywhere. And it was the end of normal as I knew it.

March 17, 2013. St. Patrick’s Day. Beautiful, sunny, deceptively peaceful and perfect. You can’t imagine such a thing happening to you on a day like this. But it did. Life as I had lived it for almost forty-seven years came to a halt.

It was entirely the fault of the widow-maker, that type of heart attack that kills quickly and surely. My husband was healthy, in great shape, training for his third marathon, eating well and doing everything right. Then I blinked, and he was gone.

Reality is like a sharp knife. It cuts your past from your future with an accuracy that stuns. Like magic, what was is gone and what is to be is hidden behind a curtain of grief, the sorrow weighing you down so that you find it impossible to stand. And then in that weak moment come the henchmen; anger, denial, depression.

Wow. So where was my faith in all of this, you ask? Great question. And I’m not sure I have a clear-cut answer. Looking back over these five years since I became a widow (a word I hate with all my heart), I’ve searched for the threads that lead back to that day. Five years ago I was indescribably angry. I spent day after day ranting at the God who took away my husband. Betrayed, let down, disappointed, heartbroken, so alone, discouraged, weary, and feeling deserted, I was certain God had left me. I couldn’t find Him or feel Him anywhere. What kind of God leaves you like that? Consequently, I lost the faith I’d had in Him my whole life, or so I thought.

But here’s the thing. Anger is black, opaque, un-see-through-able. And necessary. God stood beside me, watching, loving, and protecting all the while I was ranting at Him. As the anger diminished, His presence gradually became obvious. He’d never left my side as I thought He had. In fact, He had spent much of that time carrying me as He allowed the anger. And although my faith took a real beating in those weeks, it was always there. The result of my loss was to learn that no matter what happens in your life, no matter how bad it gets, if you believe in the same God I do, He will stay with you always. ALWAYS. Especially in the hard times. Even when you can’t understand the why of it all.

The best way to explain it is to refer to an old story describing our lives as a tapestry we see only from the back side. There is a dark and ugly mass of strings in varied colors, some cut and woven back in and others continuing on. It’s messy, with knots and jumbled threads. None of it makes sense. It isn’t until we see the finished workmanship on the right side of the tapestry that we realize what a magnificent masterpiece it is.

This is what I take from that; I’m still seeing the underside of the tapestry, and for the past five years I’ve been trying to follow the threads that run consistently through the it. The thread of faith can be hard to find because it’s hidden for a time under other threads, but it always reappears at some point. It always reappears. Imagine someday seeing the right side and saying, Oh, look what the Master Weaver did with my life!

I am not the person I was five years ago. I’m older, yes. But that’s not the point. I have learned so much about trust in God, a God who loves me more than I can fathom; I have learned about my own faith, a faith which has grown and blossomed and become the center of my life. I have learned about dependence, a complete surrender to the God who planned out every second of my life before I was even born, and who knows exactly what will happen every second of the life I have left. I have learned how strong I am. I have learned how hardships and difficult circumstances molded me. I have learned how much I still have to learn.

That thread of faith that seemed to disappear right after my husband’s death? It was there all along, and now I’m learning to embrace it, holding it close and letting go of all the doubts and fears, and yes, the anger, that I used to allow free reign.

Because I don’t have the ability to see what’s ahead for me. But I know Who does.



25 02 2015

Image result for Snoopy cartoons

Soon it will be two years since Mel died. Conventional wisdom says that by now I have settled into my life as a widow and should be doing well. Outwardly I suppose I am, but the truth is I’m really good at not saying what I feel. I specialize in maintaining the illusion that I have survived my tragedy and now all is great. Yeah, right.

The truth? I used to think there was a timeline. I used to believe you eventually get over a loss. I used to think life would return to normal after a respectable time of mourning. Today I’m on the other side, and I’m here to tell you that none of those things is true.

Here’s the honest truth. Grief never ends. It changes, it’s a passage. It’s not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. Grief is the price of LOVE. Grief is as unique as a fingerprint, but for those who share this state of being there is a common thread. I’m there too. My grief  is different than yours, but I share the common bond of pain with you. I understand the long-term effects. I know you don’t get over it.

Being an introvert can be extremely difficult in the lens of loss. Some of the widows I’ve been privileged to meet are quite vocal about their grief, and I envy their natural ability to express themselves. I wonder if that freedom relieves their sorrow in some small way. Much as I wish I could speak so freely, that is not who I am. So I nod and smile and say what I’m expected to say: I’m fine. Doing well. Thanks for asking.

Patrick O’Malley, a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, wrote the following article titled Getting Grief Right for a series in the New York Times Couch series (January 10, 2015):

“Mary was a successful accountant, a driven person who was unaccustomed to being weighed down by sorrow.     She was also well versed in the so-called stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. To her and so many others in our culture, that meant grief would be temporary and somewhat predictable, even with the enormity of her loss. She expected to be able to put it behind her and get on with her life. . .
THAT model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity. (Italics mine.)
To look at her, she already had done so. The mask she wore for the world was carefully constructed and effective. She seemed to epitomize what many people would call “doing really well,” meaning someone who had experienced a loss but looked as if she was finished grieving.”

That last sentence hit the mark for me. Looked as if says it all. Outward appearance can be such a liar, something most people will take at face value, want to take at face value. After all, if you dig into it and ask more pointed questions, things could get really messy. Most people don’t want to get their hands dirty or become invested because they fear the dreaded I never know what to say.

I speak for many others in my position when I say we often feel isolated, standing on the sidelines while the rest of the world moves on with their normal lives. It has become my world, not ours. It is now my weekend, not ours. I talk about my house, not ours. We has changed to I, ours to my. The list goes on, every item I tick off with a singular pronoun instead of a plural.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying you shouldn’t talk about your lives and the things you are doing. You definitely should. I want to hear about them and share in your good times. It helps make life balanced for me to be told of your vacation, or some silly (or annoying) thing your spouse did last week. I need to know that how we communicate hasn’t changed. The sense of normalcy we all crave is especially prevalent in those of us who have lost a precious member of our family, so hearing about your life and your family keeps me grounded. Please don’t tiptoe around me. Pretty complicated, right?

So here’s the thing. In this broken, hurting world we live in, God’s intent is not for us to suffer alone. Regardless of our psychological makeup, it’s important to let each other in. We were not created to handle life by ourselves, but rather to bear each other’s burdens, to help lighten the load we see a friend carry. Sharing is hard, especially for those of us who hold our feelings close. It requires a certain amount of risk in the form of being judged, abandoned, mocked, or maligned. I’ve had lots of experience in those areas, and it makes me cautious. I am so thankful for the friends God has given me with whom I feel safe, feel able to share those deepest feelings. What blessings they are.

For those around whom I wear the mask of ‘I’m just fine’, I would ask that you remember this: Sometimes when I say I’m okay, I need someone to look me in the eyes, see the pain there, hug me tight, and say, “I know you are not.”

The Absence of Words

11 04 2012

I’m not sure when I became aware of the concept, but over the years I have learned that there are times when not speaking is a great gift to someone who is suffering. Often our physical presence is all the assurance a person requires.

Have you ever witnessed a well-meaning person with run-at-the-mouth (RATM) disease? That’s the individual who feels compelled to offer words of wisdom or criticism at times when it’s more appropriate to just show up.

Here’s an example: a spouse dies after an especially painful illness. Ms. RATM begins to gush on about the deceased being out of his/her misery, it’s best this way, he/she is in a better place, grief doesn’t last forever, life will be easier now, etc., etc. ad nauseam.
Is this really what the widow/widower needs to hear?

I would like to offer a few thoughtful comments which are more time-appropriate and helpful to those in grief: I’m so sorry. You and your family are in our prayers. I have wonderful memories of him/her. Or just a heartfelt hug. Sometimes no words are necessary.

Another example: someone has endured abuse, either physical or verbal (or both).
Mr. RATM has a lot to say: You’re better off without him/her. You need to get on with your life. Why didn’t you leave sooner? Are you having him/her arrested? He/she really had you fooled, but we could all see it coming. What did you do to make him/her hit you? I told you so.
Helpful comments? I think they do mostly harm.

What you should say instead: I’m so sorry. I will be here for you. I love you. And, sometimes, nothing. Just be there. Offer to help with the children–better yet, call to say you’ll take them for a day. Bring a meal or two. send cards with expressions of support. Don’t judge. Never assume fault on either side–you weren’t there, you don’t know. Your job isn’t to judge, but rather to support.

Another scenario: Someone who is clinically depressed. Never, ever say the following: You need to volunteer. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Just get over it. Get a job. What’s wrong with you anyway? I’ve never had that problem because I simply refuse to let myself go there. You’re not being strong enough. Where’s your faith?
Don’t ask what you can do–you won’t get a response. But don’t disappear.

So what should you do? First of all, do not ignore this person. He/she needs to know that people care. That means sending cards that convey they are being thought of. It means showing up and just being there. Allow them to speak if they wish, but don’t offer solutions. That’s not what they need, they need an impartial listener. Bring meals. Take the kids for a day. Do the grocery shopping, washing, cleaning, if appropriate. Bring flowers from your garden.

Divorce–he says/she says situations: Don’t say good riddance, what did you do to make him/her leave, you didn’t try hard enough, what are you doing to the kids, whose fault was it, tell me what happened, divorce is wrong, (you fill in the blanks).

What to do: never take sides. Support the person by being a friend. Listen unconditionally. Don’t try to solve the problem, only the person going through the situation can do that. Often that person gets a clearer picture of their situation just by hearing him/herself saying his/her thoughts being verbalized. And remember, sometimes the couple gets back together. If you’ve said derogatory things about the spouse, you may no longer be welcome.

Final scenario (though there are countless more): A child has run away, gotten in trouble with the law, done something terrible, etc. Your children may have turned out wonderfully well. Be thankful. Never judge those parents, or tell them (or someone else) what terrible parents they are, how you would have done the raising so much better, it’s all their fault for doing things the way they did, how they were too strict, or they were too lenient, or they should have known, or walked away in this difficult time.

What you should do: Don’t judge. You’ve not walked in their shoes, nor are you privy to their home situation. If your children have been perfect, give thanks, and remember that can change on a dime. Don’t ignore the parents or their situation. But at the same time, don’t offer solutions unless they specifically ask. Listen, listen, listen. Support them. Call them. Send a thinking-of-you card. Assure them you are their friend. No one is exempt from potential problems with their children; even Billy Graham had problems with his son.

Bottom line: Sometimes words do harm. Compassion is best served when unspoken. Always, always, always, think of the effect of your words before you speak. Remember the adage by the wise little Thumper: If you can’t say something nice (or kind, or helpful) don’t say anything at all.