What I’ve Gained

28 07 2017

I’ve lost my husband. Each day that reality hits me equally hard. Sometimes there is a deep sadness that refuses to give way regardless of what I do. Sometimes the smothering heaviness of loneliness wraps itself around me, barely allowing me to breathe. But other times a larger picture pushes the sadness and loneliness aside and tells me this:

I have gained so much.

I’ve gained strength to face each day. I’ve gained the ability to see the tiniest of details all around me, those pinpoints of incredible beauty waiting for me to notice, like the hummingbird resting on the petal of an Asian lily, or the perfectly shaped leaf being shifted by the breeze. The huge waves coming in to shore not by their own will but by the will of the wind. The cloud formation that is a bird, then a kite, then a sailboat.

I’ve gained independence. Though I have no sense of direction, I’ve found my way around my state, amazed myself by navigating other places like Chicago and Milwaukee. Faced with the decision of either figuring it out or staying home, I’ve chosen to figure it out. I’ve learned to eat out alone, go to movies alone, or on a drive to enjoy nature, alone.

I’ve gained a lifetime of memories, those snapshots of family times, travels overseas, and simple Saturday mornings over coffee. Drawing on those, squeezing as much joy as possible from each precious moment, I’ve realized that I can still make memories in the future. They won’t look the same. They won’t be the memories I was hoping for five years ago. But they are there, waiting for me to recognize and take advantage of them.

I’ve gained a different kind of joy. It’s so much deeper and more permanent than the joy I had before, maybe because the heaviness of melancholy has filtered in, giving it a richness it lacked before. If nothing else, death is an unrelenting educator.  

I’ve gained the certainty that my friends are always going to surround me. What a gift! Their loyalty, camaraderie, love and thoughtfulness have daily blessed me. I am humbled by their devotion. They accept me as I am, regardless of circumstances.

I’ve gained the knowledge that petty differences are just that—petty. They are not important, and not worth wasting time and energy debating.  As individuals we have our own ideas and views of life, but at the base of it all is our love for each other. Every single person on this earth is going to say and do things that will hurt others, but those things do not define them or how they feel about the significant people in their lives.

I’ve gained a different kind of faith, one that encourages me to lean more heavily on God and accept more fully the future He has planned for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still rally against the way things are. As I sit alone in the evenings I desperately miss the companionship of my husband. I don’t relish my singleness. But acceptance is part of life. Misery is not an option. There are legions of us out there, each dealing with loss in our own unique way, taking the journey one step at a time with the faith that it will be okay. Because that’s the best decision we can make.





Walking the Path of Grief

25 04 2016

This past Sunday my church did a service on lament at which I was asked to speak on the topic of loneliness. One of the characteristics of lament is the necessity for honesty; telling it like it is. I did that.  I’ve had some requests to print the text of my talk on this blog, so here it is.

I often think of my father, a widower for twenty years. He bore the burden of his loss  quietly, rarely talking about it, and when he did, he simply said: “It’s lonely without Mom.” I thought I knew what that meant. But the depth of meaning in those few words didn’t fully impact me until loss happened to me.

When Mel died, everything about my life changed. I wasn’t prepared for his death, nor did I have any idea how impossibly challenging it would be to walk the path of grief.

Weariness became my new normal over the weeks and months as I discovered the true meaning of loneliness. My house was so very silent all the time–meals eaten alone, evenings spent alone, weekends without the companionship of my husband. I felt his absence everywhere.

And that loneliness brought me to an unexpected emotion—anger. I was surprised by the depth and force of it. Mel was a good man with much still to contribute to the world. He had great plans for volunteering in our retirement. But he never got that chance, and I was angry. I railed at God, I stormed through the house yelling, crying, shaking my fist at Him. Really, God? Why him? If You truly love me, why did You allow this? I demanded answers.

What I got was silence. God had gone, deserted me, left me to deal with all the baggage that accompanies grief. The sadness, despair, loneliness, helplessness, bitterness, anger.

And the doubt. I couldn’t feel God anywhere.

This thing called faith can be elusive. It’s hard to find in the deepest, most painful days of our lives. How can it even exist in a world where death takes children, spouses, friends and parents way before their time?

For a long while after Mel’s death I had doubts about my faith. I needed that wonderful man as my life partner—didn’t God know that?

As Christians, we believe God knows best….until things don’t go as we’ve planned. Then we have the audacity to think we can control our lives, that God needs us to direct Him. Maybe I felt that way. As if I know better than God. As if I have any say in what happens next. The hardest thing I’ve had to do is let go of all that—all the control—and trust God knows best.

That’s really tough when all you feel is gut-wrenching pain. So yes, I questioned my faith. But gradually through the days and weeks, I realized it was still there.

Because what do we have if we don’t have our faith? I admit mine was tested, but in the process it deepened as I felt the comforting arms of God around me in the middle of many sleepless nights, or in the solitude of a winter snowstorm.

And in those lonely days, God hadn’t gone away, hadn’t deserted me. Instead, He’d given me space in which to work my way through the messiness, all the while quietly walking alongside me. He allowed the process of grief to take its course, gradually lifting the initial blessing of shock so that I could do the important work of grieving.

I still have those moments when I feel as if I’m going through the grief process all over again. Some of my joy is gone, some of life’s wonders are diminished, and there is heaviness in my heart. I miss Mel. I mourn the days ahead without him, the 50th anniversary he won’t be here to celebrate with me this August. As my dad said, at the end of the day it’s lonely.

Chris Tomlin’s song God of Angel Armies says I know who goes before me; I know who stands behind. The God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever, He is a friend of mine. The God of angel armies is always by my side.

I awoke with that song going through my head on March 17th, 2013, and I continued to hear it as the day wore on. That afternoon, God took Mel home. In His divine providence, He gave me the words of that song to carry me–then and in the weeks to follow. To remind me I’m not alone. And that has truly been evidence of His amazing grace.This





Saint Paddy From My Perspective

16 03 2015

IMG_1132

In past years I used to envy the Irish just a little bit–the Dutch people don’t have a day equivalent to Saint Patrick’s day to honor our heritage. And since I’m not Irish, March 17th had no major significance for me,  that is not until two years ago when my husband Mel died of a massive heart attack on that day. It’s the kind of anniversary no one wants to celebrate.

My first experience with anything Irish was  when I was 8 years old and someone gave me a music box with a small ballerina that twirled round and round to “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Later, as an adult, it was fun to adopt an Irish heritage just for that one day (though O’DeVries sounds, well, weird. But still. . . ).  It was fun to see the river turn green, beverages and food items dyed green, and shamrocks pretty much everywhere. Today I see the day through a different lens.

The week after St. Patrick’s Day two years ago, my friend Diet Eman (author of Things We Couldn’t Say) gave me a shamrock plant as a thank you for taking her to a Passover service at my church. Though she didn’t know that Mel had died on that holiday a week earlier, and I wasn’t sure how to handle the constant reminder, her sweet gift has become precious to me.  This morning as I watered the shamrock I wondered about the significance behind it.

I didn’t know much about either the holiday or the plant. As I began to research the beginnings of St. Patrick’s Day, I found some interesting, little-known details. Although Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, he was born into a wealthy Romano-British family in Roman Britain in the 4th century. His father was a deacon in the Christian church, his grandfather a priest.

At age 16 Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd for six years. During that time he was said to have ‘found God,’ and was told by God to flee to the coast where a ship was waiting to take him home. In Roman Britain he became a priest, returning later to Ireland to convert the pagans to Christianity. He worked mainly in the northern regions of Ireland (Wikipedia, et al), using the shamrock as a way to explain the Christian trinity.

It wasn’t until the 1600’s that a coin was minted showing St. Patrick holding a shamrock. From that point on the Irish

St. Patrick and shamrock

began to wear the shamrock on their lapel as a symbol of their patron saint. I found it interesting that the initial color associated with Patrick was blue, but was replaced by green in the late 1700’s mainly due to the shamrock. During the Irish rebellion the shamrock changed from a symbol of St. Patrick to one of Irish patriotism. The Irish government adopted it as the country’s official trademark in 2003. St. Patrick died on March 17, 461 A.D. He was buried at Downpatrick in Ireland, and has been considered the patron saint of Ireland since 1903.

Our Christian culture considers the evergreen a symbol of eternal life. I think initially the Irish had it right–the three sections of the shamrock leaf remind us of the Holy Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit–and the green reminds us of the promise of eternal life. Fr. Vincent Twomey was quoted as saying, it is time “…to reclaim St. Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” Who knew that’s what it once was, since we’ve known it only as a secular holiday.

That brings me to my personal feeling about March 17. I have spent two years without Mel. My life changed forever because of the events of that day. The loss is still  fresh, the pain very real, but somehow it seems fitting that God chose this day to take him home. Knowing the true meaning behind the story of Saint Patrick makes me realize there is a much larger plan at work here, that maybe I need the reminder of an eternal goal. My little shamrock plant leans toward the sun each day just as I ought to be reaching for the Son. Everlasting sounds pretty good in the light of the promise of eternity we as Christians have. Mel just got to experience it a little sooner than the rest of us. Maybe he’ll be wearing a shamrock in heaven.





CONFESSIONS OF AN INTROVERT

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.”





This is the Day

17 03 2014

Mel at work 2
I knew this day would come—it was inevitable. And our tears are there to bear witness.

One year ago today was a beautiful Sunday. Spring was bursting out all over the yard, coaxed by warm temperatures and bright sunshine. Mel and I attended our church that morning, thinking ahead to Easter Sunday coming in two weeks. We were sure a season of promise and new beginnings was finally upon us.

It didn’t turn out that way. Who would ever have thought that the unthinkable would happen on such a perfect day.

Everything’s different this year. This day, this wintery day after the longest, harshest winter in many years, is the total opposite. Snow has coated the earth for months, unrelenting cold causing furnaces to run constantly, and we are all weary of shoveling snow day after day after day. But that’s not the biggest difference.

This is the day my family and I and our close friends will never be able to erase from our memories. One year ago today, at about 3:20 in the afternoon, my husband was ushered through the gates of heaven by God’s angels. By the time we knew this, he had already spent over an hour in his eternal home, rejoicing and worshiping with all those who had gone before him.

The pain of that loss, so fresh and unfathomable then, is still fresh, still incomprehensible. We don’t understand, nor do we want it to be true. We don’t want to celebrate this day, the anniversary of his home-going, because it means we no longer have him here. The joy of knowing he is with his Father, his Lord, can’t begin to erase the hurt in our hearts, nor can it fill the hole in our lives. Our reality is that he is gone, never coming back, never here again to celebrate all the wonderful occasions through years to come. And it’s just not fair.

Sure, we have our faith. I doubt I could have made it through this year without it. But here’s the reality—he’s still gone. The comfort of knowing where he is can’t negate the fact that we no longer have him here. So what do we do with that? How do we face another year knowing Mel won’t be part of any of it?

This past weekend we spent time together, my three kids and I, talking about Mel, going through things that are precious to us all, missing him, crying over the emptiness we all feel. We held his things, looked at all the tools he used to create gifts for all of us, and realized once again that he will never touch those things again, never carve another piece of Christmas décor, never build that table out of the weathered wood, never repair that old chair he found at an antique store. Never is such a cruel word.

It hurts. Faith doesn’t lessen that. But it does help us cope. We are left behind, left to deal with the finality of his death. We are the ones who have to figure out how to do this in a new reality. How well we do it speaks to how much we trust. So we let ourselves fall into God’s arms–knowing that He is there to catch us, enfold us, comfort us, and give us the peace we so desperately need. He knows all the reasons, and in the end isn’t that really all we need to know?

You see the truth is, we will see him again. On that someday in the future, we will be reunited, not just with Mel, but with so many other dear ones we have lost, and those we will lose in years to come. That’s the thing; it’s all going to be good in the end, because as long as we believe and place our trust in God, we will see them again.

What a blessing. What peace that gives us. And maybe, just maybe, it will help us heal on this day. This, the hardest day.





Thar She Blows!

17 02 2014
Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens

Beauty from Ashes

My parents lived about one hundred miles east of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. As they were coming out of a worship service one Sunday morning in 1980, the sky was turning a strange, deep shade of gray. There was little wind, which would have signaled a sandstorm, and as the sky gradually darkened and the wall of gray advanced, the parishioners were frightened and began to speculate in hushed tones. What could it mean? Was it the end of the world?

Mom told me about the eerie silence that hung in the air as sunlight disappeared and it became dark as night. Panic stricken and not knowing what they should do, people huddled together. Mom described it as a very bizarre experience.

Later, my parents learned that Mount St. Helens, a dormant volcano, had erupted that morning. A strong earthquake registering 5.1 on the Richter Scale caused pressure to build inside the mountain. That in turn released a plume of steam, and within seconds the cloud turned black as ash shot into the sky. Rock and ice trapped in the mountain exploded, and soon hot gas, ash, chunks of ice and huge pieces of rock were catapulted upward. It was determined that the blast was 500 times greater than the 20 kiloton bomb that fell on Hiroshima.

The darkness the parishioners experienced was caused by a fine, thick blanket of ash that crawled across the state like a curtain, slowly shutting out the light. Even though the volcano was a hundred miles away, the volcanic residue changed day into night. Amazing.

A few years later, my husband and I and our three children took a road trip on one of our visits to my parents’ home. We saw the devastation the volcano had caused—millions of fir trees, many 200 year old, mowed down like so many bowling pins, and the lake below filled with pines sheared and shoved down the mountainside into the water by the force of the blast. And gray. Everything was gray. Once, this had been a lush, green range of pine trees teeming with wildlife. Trees of every size had populated the slope, making it look like a green carpet rising up to meet the sky. Beds of wildflowers, spread like quilts in the sunny patches between copses of trees, had splashed color randomly across the forest. Now, there was no life of any kind. Only ash. Gray, lifeless ash.

volcanic-ash

Fast forward a decade. My next visit to the area revealed something amazing. Yes, there was still gray. But now there were small pine trees pushing through the ash, some vegetation and flowers beginning to grow. The mountainside was regenerating, starting anew, covering itself with a fresh, young shade of green that indicated new life. Beauty out of ashes.

This week I ran across an old newspaper I had saved from May 19, 1980, the day after the volcano erupted. As I remembered that week, the phone conversations with my parents, and the impact the ash had on the farm area where they lived, I realized that my current situation is similar. My life has undergone an enormous change these past months since my husband’s death. The ash of sorrow has darkened my days and covered me with a deep sense of hopelessness. It seems as though it will never go away, never be bright and good again.

Still, every now and then there comes a spark of hope, a hint of joy, a ray of light. It’s a new life for me as I face the future, but who’s to say it won’t be good? The cover of ash is being replaced by a fresh crop of optimism. No, it will never be the same. My children and I are facing a future without our anchor, but we are gradually emerging from the cloud of ash and are beginning to see potential ahead. God is revealing to us a new future with new hopes and dreams. It’s been there all along, really. He knew that, knows it now, but is giving us evidence of it one day at a time, as we are able to understand, accept. All we have to do is believe and trust.

Beauty out of ashes. New life in spite of death.

It’s nothing short of a miracle.





The Silence Project

23 10 2013

“I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind.
The God of angel armies is always by my side.”
Chris Tomlin

A squirrel sits on the deck railing inches from my chair, its tail fluffed by the early morning breezes rustling the maple leaves overhead. A hummingbird darts from flower to flower in the garden nearby. It’s the beginning of another of a long string of summer days, each melting into the other so seamlessly that I can’t distinguish their beginnings and ends, were it not for the sunsets.
Above all the everyday noises, it’s the silence that I hear. For some time I’ve noticed it, so loud it’s impossible to ignore.

I heard it in the evening in late August as I sat on the beach and watched the sun work its magic on the western sky. Ribbons of oranges, reds and pinks were interlaced across the horizon as the sun descended beyond the edge of Lake Michigan. That day the wind was pushing the water onto the shore with relentless force. But even through the crashing waves I heard it—that silence.
Several feet inland from the lake, a little boy had dug a hole in the sand and was sitting inside, pure delight on his face as he splashed the water that seeped up from below the ground. Seagulls flew low along the shoreline, squawking as if supervising the child’s work. But all the sounds of a lake at eventide were powerless to drown out the silence.
It was our anniversary, and I had no idea how to celebrate it alone. So I went to the beach to watch the sunset on our special day and sat, cocooned in the silence, that very loud silence which had surrounded me for the past six months.
As I watched the sun glide beyond the water’s edge, I repeated to myself the words I had said to my children on the day of my husband’s funeral.
I don’t know how to do this.
The same way my days had lost much of their brightness, those last rays of sun receded and surrendered to the darkening of night, and it was time for me to go. I made my way back to the car, back to the abnormal silence of my home.
I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. Walking into an empty house after dark, especially on a day meant to be celebrated by two, being alone seemed so. . .wrong.

I pick up my cold cup of coffee and go inside. The radio plays in the kitchen, masking the silence of my empty house as I dump the liquid and rinse the cup.
And then I hear it.
The song.
And I’m brought back to March 17, a beautiful, sunny Saint Patrick’s Day, the day everything changed.

Chris Tomlin’s ‘Whom Shall I Fear’ had begun to play in my mind that day, even before I suspected the truth. Even before I heard the words no one wants to hear, it was there. I believe God placed that song in my head to help me through the following pain-filled days and weeks ahead.
My husband had gone running and was found collapsed and unresponsive. On the way to the hospital that afternoon, I heard the words over and over. All that night as my son and I sat in my family room waiting for my other two children’s arrival from Chicago and Milwaukee, the lyrics continued.

And nothing formed against me shall stand
You hold the whole world in your hands
I’m holding onto Your promises
You are faithful, You are faithful.

I am carried back to that life-shattering day once again, but this time I sense something I was unaware of then. It’s like a warm, comforting blanket around me, and now I know what it is.
Chris Tomlin said it so well; The God of angel armies is always by my side. I know it’s true.
My God of angel armies has wrapped me in his arms, fulfilling his promises to me; ‘And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.’ Matt. 28:20b NIV