Category Archives: grief

Little Embers

embersIn a recent issue of The Atlantic Weekly, author Derek Thompson, in a piece entitled The Secret Life of Grief, tells us about how he dealt with the death of his mother. She lived as fully as she could for sixteen months after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She died on July 18, 2013. Thompson observes: “Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.”

Thompson also observes something else, which I very much appreciate. “For some, grief is a dull and unrelenting ache that fades – or doesn’t. But for many of us, grief is something else. Grief is resilience.” Profound and mark on!

Thompson met with George Bonanno, a grief researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Bonanno, in his studies, has seemingly changed the science of grief research. He takes great issue with noted grief psychiatrists such as Erich Lindemann and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Bonanno maintains that both did faulty research and, unfortunately, explained grief for generations in completely the wrong way. Thompson writes that Bonanno believes that “Lindemann was wrong about repression, and Kübler-Ross was wrong about everything.”

Rather, Bonanno has found that grief is powerful, but it is often short-lived, and most of us are able to compartmentalize losses even if we are ashamed to feel all right “in the face of expectations that we should feel terrible.” We are, Bonanno maintains, born to grieve. Bonanno has written that grief need not be overwhelming or unending. Fact is, most of us are resilient. We are able to somehow regain our equilibrium even after a shock or being wounded by loss. We seem to be wired to accommodate losses relatively quickly in order to be able to further live productive lives.

Bonanno finds that 10% of people experience “chronic” pain – the kind that needs counseling. Another 30% of us plunge into deep sadness but gradually begin to recover. But between 50 and 60 percent of us quickly appear to be fine, despite some day-to-day fluctuations. These people seem to be able to push their emotions deep into their minds. Used to be, scientists and psychologists believed this to be a bad thing – these people might explode at any given moment in a burst of violent emotion.

Bonanno says, however, that this need not necessarily be the case. He claims that if a person says they are feeling fine, then the person is likely fine.

Bonanno, writing in one of his books, tells about Karen who lost her daughter Claire on one of the upper floors of the South Tower on September 11. Bonanno quotes Karen as saying, “There is always a little flicker there. It is a bit like the small glowing embers you see after a fire dies down. I carry that around with me, a little ember, and if I need to, if I want to have a Claire next to me, I blow on it, ever so gently, and it glows bright again.”

Perhaps grief is a normal part of life. Possibly we need to talk more about grief. But in the end, it is about how we deal with our loss, isn’t it? Does it consume us or do we, with a will to live, desire to continue on with embers in our hearts? We are able to function but whenever we need to pause and remember, we can blow on an ember and bring back our loss for a few moments.

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Quiet Here

griffe
Man By Himself

Because my grief is quiet and apart,
Think not for such a reason it is less.
True sorrow makes a silence in the heart;
Joy has its friends, but grief its loneliness.
The wound that tears too readily confess,
Can mended be by fortune or by art,
But there are woes no medicine can dress,
As there are wounds that from the spirit start.
So do not wonder that I do not weep,
Or say my anguish is too little shown;
There is a quiet here, there is a sleep,
There is a peace that I have made my own.
Man by himself goes down into the deep,
Certain and unbefriended and alone.

My mother sent me a copy of this poem a few days ago. It was written by the prolific American author and poet, Robert Nathan. Among other places, this piece was published in the Oct 1924 issue of The Century Magazine. Nathan could easily write about grief, loss, and pain. It seemed to be something he was familiar with.

I like the words in his poem for several reasons. First, he admits that there are some hurts that never go away. Instead, they become a quiet place in a person’s soul. Yes. True. Second, there is a process of making peace with grief. There are deep and unfriendly places, but there is peace, too. And third, just because I don’t show grief, don’t think for a minute that I’m not experiencing grief. It’s always there – just under the surface.

Thanks, Mom. These are some good words.

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Stop Saying

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A Moment

medium_6127282193It was across the room. Tears and hurt. For a few moments, a brave look with head up. But for other moments, a head bowed with tears and trembling. An otherwise pretty and always positive person was hurting. Bad. It really didn’t matter why. I think I knew but, again, it really didn’t matter. Brave despair is one of the hardest things to experience. All I wanted to do was hug her and tell her that I hurt with her.

Fortunately, in not too many minutes, I was afforded the opportunity. Like laughter, sadness spreads. Some will run and avoid (I saw this happening even as I was talking with D) while others, thankfully, will slow down and give a moment. A hug and a few words. There’s nothing that can be done to fix what is broken, but there is much that can be done to sustain those who remain behind. Doing isn’t about lofty sayings, bogus platitudes, or assurances of a brighter day. Grief necessarily must be experienced fully and honestly in order to let it do its cleansing miracle. God made happiness. He also made grief. It is all healthy and necessary.

My prayer is for D and for those she grieves with. I’m with you.

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Memories Downsizing

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Not Reduced

maya-angelou“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” ― Maya Angelou

Our writing professor sent this quote out yesterday. Angelou, of course, is a wonderful and amazing woman who is also an incredibly prolific and profound speaker and writer. She has an uncanny ability to touch the senses and emotions all at one time with a blast of her unique and penetrating honesty. So much so, it often hurts.

Anyway, I’m impressed this comes up in our writing class. I’m also impressed it comes along just when I am needing someone to say this very thing to me. Coincidence? I think not.

In only a few words, Angelou has expressed what I have been trying to put my finger on for many months. Yes, there is change that is unavoidable and seemingly inevitable. But then what, I’ve wondered? It all starts over? There’s nothing that can fix the brokenness? I’ve lost all my options? What is my bar? Where do I go from here? Angelou puts an answer for me in a wonderfully simple and understandable way. (I’m not sure why it communicates so clearly with me. I really don’t. But it does.)

The words “I refuse to be reduced by it” ring like a crystal-clear bell in my mind and soul. It’s practical defiance in the face of inevitability. It speaks of hope in darkness. There will not be slavery. Even in grief, there is potential.

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A Photo

It was a very comfortable and happy evening. Clayton and Jamie are always people that I like to be with. Thanks, Clayton and Jamie, for inviting us out on Zak’s last evening in town. In among all of the sushi, talking, eating, giggling, I realized that I needed to take a picture to show Regina later. It wasn’t until a few moments after I snapped the photo that I remembered…

2014-01-06 19.06.00

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Illegal Hit

dirkyNot a day goes by that I don’t feel moments of inadequacy. Maybe I sense it for only a few seconds, but it always happens. It might be because of a decision that needs to be made, a relationship that needs to be worked, a task that needs to be done, or a startling surprise.

You might think me silly but I find that with far more time to brew and ponder now than ever before, there are good things about having the freedom to mostly free-wheel think but there are also dark things in the crevices of my mind, heart, and soul. Not dark like pits and caves and bats and such but dark like a rainy day or the feel one has when someone doesn’t say hello with a hug that had been expected.

Yesterday, I thought I might venture into some more drawers to explore and sort. Within seconds, I began to relive all of the sadness and loss. It’s amazing. It comes like an armed thief – quiet, stealthy, and hurtful. Just when I think I can do something, he strikes with a vengeance. I had found some more notes and a postcard.

In my effort to get through the holidays, I had decided to take a tack that mostly was about trying to think about good things, happy things, future things. I wanted to try to be with people a bit more. I was beginning to feel stronger. Then, all I got for it was a sucker punch.

There are still many dark places yet to be visited. I do not look forward to it.

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18 Months

00327_s_12ajm9leez0327Today is Fri. It’s the first day of Christmas vacation for kids and teachers in Stafford County. It would, otherwise, be a happy day around our house. I used to always liked this day because, in the evening, Regina would bring home loads of cute gifts from kids but, more importantly, all kinds of cookies, fudges, popcorn balls, and bags of nibbles that the kids would gift Regina with. We would always end up with plenty of junk healthy, holiday food to make it through the winter school break. Yay for the kids and their gifts! Well, it’s not that way anymore.

It’s been a year and a half. 18 months. 547 days. Since Wed at 1:51pm on Jun 20, 2012, I have lived and breathed every second. Without Regina.

1. I’m stronger and wiser, but I’m not happy. I still can’t have a good, sustained laugh and a series of good days.

2. There are lots of new opportunities. I’m strengthened – odd, you might say? – by my work with Hospice. Maybe it’s because I bring real-life experience to the work. And, I enjoy my college classes. While they keep me on my toes, I have a new found desire to learn.

3. Being alone, I feel terribly selfish. What I want to eat, when I want to get up or sleep, where I want to go, how I feel, what can or can’t be done, what is spent, and on and on. It might sound good to some of you, but it’s just downright difficult sometimes.

4. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded again of what Regina did as a wife, mother, grandmother, friend, teacher, and peer. We clicked together. She did so much for me. Even a few days ago and after I had received the graded results of a paper I had previously written, I got up from the desk and headed off to tell her the good news. I knew she would be glad and want to hear. It lasted a few seconds. It’s hard sometimes. No one to tell. I’ve probably never had it so good and, yet, I can’t share any of it with her.

5. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I am mostly a failure at taking care of the family. I never knew how much Regina was able to do with the kids and grand-kids in order to keep them connected and pumped. She was never sadder than when she was not able to help, assist, or be involved. So now and without her, I feel like I’m mostly a nuisance and someone who has to be included. Thankfully, the kids are pretty much self-sustaining but we all benefited from Regina’s ability to keep us glued together.

00634_s_12ajm9leez0634_edited-1rev6. There are still some things I can’t get rid of and can’t do. I can’t lead in public assembly worship. I lock in fear and am overcome by sadness. There are a few items in the back of the house I simply can’t figure out what to do with. I understand there isn’t a timeline for grieving. Maybe you can understand, a little bit, the trauma that I have experienced and that it can deeply and inexplicably change a person. Loss is an incredibly powerful change agent. It actually is quite amazing.

7. I still have little regrets. Not about trying everything we could to keep Regina viable, but other things. I wish I had been kinder, more patient, listened more, helped more, held her more, hurt with her more.

8. Unlike, perhaps, what I would have thought of myself, the most helpful recovery aid I have received was from support groups – primarily, three of them. Being with people in the same boat sure levels the playing field when it comes to sorting through things. I’m eternally grateful for the people at GriefShare, Haven, and Hospice. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them.

9. I still dream about her and us. Fortunately, they are good dreams. They are usually made-up situations or circumstances that probably only last a few seconds in my sleeping mind. I think about the dreams the next day when I am awake.

10. Recorded message calls still come in from Stafford County Public Schools when there is a weather event or a major happening at Rockhill. It used to kind of bother me but, now, I guess it is something that I can grab hold of for a few minutes. Beth told me to think of it as a reminder of the times when Regina and other teachers would get excited that they had been gifted with a snow day. Yippee! Yes, that’s a good idea, Beth. I imagine the calls will stop someday. I won’t notice until after having gone for a few months without a call. It will be another sad transition. Yet another passing.

11. As silly as this sounds, Time didn’t miss a beat through all of this. It doesn’t wait. Time is a cruel master. With every passing day, it is one day further away. Many months ago, my memories of Regina started getting ever so slightly foggy, hazy, and tattered around the edges – and it made me sad. Even now, memories are becoming hazier than before. Instead of something real, my time with Regina is becoming more of a narrative, fable, or story. Time is relentless. I want to hang on but, of course, that isn’t how things work. Those in my shoes – we’ve talked about this before – know that others are aware of our losses but, after months and years, they don’t think too much about it or want to talk about it. After all, it’s been a long time, right? But we want to talk about it! We don’t want anyone to forget! We don’t want to let our memories slip away! Truly, Time is harsh with people who we have loved and lost.

12. Crying comes at the simplest things. I can’t bear to see or hear about hurt. For whatever reason, I’m grateful to be far more sensitive to the plight of others who hurt.

13. I’ve become fanatical about what to say and not say to someone who is hurting and grieving. I wrote about this one time. Words can become powerful tools of destruction when used carelessly, haphazardly, and unsafely. How insensitive we are when we blindly blunder into a conversation with an attitude of irresponsibility. Other than touch, words are that which can show the most care or do the most harm. Use words as if they are surgical tools. Use them to heal – not hurt.

Photo Jun 08, 14 05 2714. I slowly but surely am resurrecting a few of Regina’s old recipes. The boys and I used to groan, moan, and quake when it was time for Regina’s Baked Ziti. I don’t know about the boys, but I actually kind of liked Regina’s Baked Ziti. Regardless, we were obligated to go through motions of suffering and pestilence when it was time to dine on Regina’s Ziti – much to Regina’s delight, of course. Anyway, I have the recipe. And, yes, I can make it, too. It’s kind of different eating it now, though. There isn’t anyone with whom I can bemoan the unfortunate circumstance of having to force down Regina’s Baked Ziti.

15. My friends do the best they can but they are consumed by their lives. It’s alright and I love them all. I’m alone now and that is how it is and I appreciate all of the many people who have absolutely gone out of their way to be with me. But I understand. You need to get along.

16. It is a day at a time. There isn’t a magical, spiritual, or prescribed remedy. It’s very hard. I’ve heard – and agree – that loss can be compared to several things. First, it might be like a child who is locked out of the house and is on a darkened porch late on a cold night. He can neither get in the house nor does he dare venture out into the darkest dark. Second, loss might be like losing a limb to your body – it changes everything. Third, loss is like being flattened – face down – in the mud and dirt, barely able to breathe, being walked on by others who don’t know you are there, and feeling aches and pain in every bone. And fourth, some compare loss to being stranded on a motor-less and rudderless boat in the middle of a raging storm. But the problem is, the boat never capsizes. It keeps getting washed over by the dark, cold swells, it continues to roll and surge up and down the walls of the cavernous waves, and the darkness is as dark as it can be. Regardless of the metaphor you use to make the link, loss and grief is hard.

17. I still keep all of the internal doors open in the house at night. I’ve always wanted to make sure that Regina could get through the house if she ever needed to visit for one reason or another. I don’t want a door to get in her way. I have night lights in all of the rooms, too. Those are maybe more for me but I haven’t liked dark since I lost Regina.

18. For those of you waiting for me to say this, here it is. Yes, my faith has been very important during this whole, sad affair. I pray and I find support and comfort in the words of Scripture and in the company of my church family. But let me be very honest – even Scripture talks of death as a curse. There is nothing happy, satisfying, worthy, or consoling about physical death. And while a Scriptural view of life and death and existence can certainly help a person – it did, me – get through hard times, the separation brought on by the death of a loved one is excruciatingly and traumatically difficult. Perhaps it’s my take on things, but there is absolutely nothing good about death in this physical world. Again, a Scriptural perspective can shift our focus but, within the context of earthly relationships and comforts, there is nothing that is more wrong, horrible, dehumanizing, and demoralizing than death. I have been and am traumatized. Now, having said all of that, I will survive and life will get back to some form of normalcy at some point in the future. Of course it will. But physical death is despicable. It’s humiliating in spite of how hard we work sometimes to make it honorable. It’s not something to be toyed with, made fun of in jest, tested, or willed. There can be nothing sadder than human separation as a result of death. I’ll not get into my opinions on death-mongering war and death as a penalty, but suffice it to say, death is the only thing that is completely final in this world. There is nothing as soul-sucking as an empty chair. It’s horrible.

box119. God and I get along, I suppose. I feel like – I’ve told this to some of you – he probably considers me another Jacob, Peter, David, or Elijah. We are mostly pretty good but, deep down, I’m still wrestling, twitching, questioning, and arguing with God about everything that has happened. Trying to see through all of this from God’s perspective (I have read and re-read Ecclesiastes quite a few times) greatly helps me but an eternal perspective strikes me, as a mere broken human, as being huge, cold, and too expansive. I simply don’t understand eternity. The whole thing makes me choke in smallness.

20. I wrote Gone on my iPhone while standing alone by an outside window at WHC on the ground floor in front of the gift shop near the main entrance. The OR and CVRR were downstairs. Gone was written about 30 min after I lost Regina. The post is dated Jun 20, 2012 at 2:19pm. I had called my parents and Regina’s brother first and then sent out my short notice via this blog for all of Regina’s friends and acquaintances who were waiting to find out how her, as it turned out, final surgery had gone. I was a machine. Simply cold and going through motions. I remember that I had brought a Diet Coke up with me but, after my message went out, I left it on the window sill when I went back downstairs. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t happening.

Many of you have been with me, and us, for many years. I am so thankful for your support, kindness, and understanding before, during, and after. You are what has gotten me this far. And I know you will be there for many months and years to come. Thanks. You will never know.

Several things and then I’m done. First, love your mate and family. Get over the hostility, anger, and meanness. Being a person who is known for being sad, mean-spirited, jealous, and generally unpleasant is simply unacceptable. Instead, demonstrate unending patience, complete humility, total service, and until-we-part loyalty. Please love each other in your families.

And second, you will experience loss. I’m not sure why God put me at the head of the class in my age group, but he did. As tough as this is to recognize, you will experience loss. Understand that if and when it happens, I will be waiting for you if, in your deepest, darkest times, you will see me. Yes, I will be there for you if I can bring you any comfort. I won’t have much to say, but I will be honored to sit with you, hold your hand, and listen. Please let me.

I hope everyone (if you are still with me!) has a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year. God points us in only one direction – forward! Let’s keep moving, ok? We can do it together.

I’m willing.

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