Grief

Maybe Living Fully

I walked through the front door and looked straight through the house to see Dylan wearing gloves in the backyard. A baby squirrel, so small its eyes were unopened, had fallen out of the nest in the tree shading our deck. He gently scooped up the creature and wrapped it in a towel.

We stared at each other, wondering what we should do as it whimpered quietly.

We called animal control and waited for the inevitable.

The morning came, and with it, a blessing of release for the creature who couldn’t make it through the night. The tiny body seared itself into my memory, for when I was brave enough to see, vulnerability, potential, and hope were revealed. We are all so very fragile.

Yes, it’s the circle of life, and the realities of survival of the fittest, but in a baby squirrel I saw so much more about what alive means. Those explanations never fill the gaps or provide solace for the being experiencing pain.

The weight of our fragility has been bringing me to tears these days. That we live to take a breath, in and out again, is miraculous enough to make me weep.

I’m tired of living afraid.

What now seemed safe perhaps isn’t, and the conflicting messages on masks and numbers has heightened my nervous system once again.

I find myself in a torn place – between wanting to consume everything I can about grief and our realities of sorrow, and also wanting to avoid all pain. I envy those who easily move on towards living.

Perhaps the balance is in the in-between.

I’m moved by ordinary things, both magical and mad.

Perhaps living fully is being scooped up after our falls, waiting to recover in piles of dirt or the garage towels.

Perhaps living fully is dirty work.

I know, with certainty, that living fully means allowing my tenderness to be witnessed.

And maybe, living fully is the opposite of waiting for the inevitable.

Maybe living fully is eating funfetti cake waiting six months for a half-birthday celebration and licking frosting laced with freezer burn from cold fingers.

Maybe living fully is calling a therapist and saying I need some help again.

Maybe living fully is hugs in the kitchen and snot smears on t-shirts.

Maybe living fully is showing up scared.

Maybe living fully is masks in the workplace, and the grocery store, and the crowded hallways.

Maybe living fully is the honoring of the in-between.

What a beautiful thing.

May your days be spent not waiting for the inevitable, but instead focused on tending the fragile and the beautiful and caring for others with gentle hands. And cake. I hope there is lot’s of beautiful cake.

To Toss Into the Flow

I had taken a seat in the plastic-moulded chair, waiting for the meeting to begin. In the center of a room was a circular table covered in grey. In the center of a circle, a candle burned, again surrounded in a small circle of smooth river rocks. Whether they were collected from nearby stream beds, or manufactured and sold on the shelves of craft stores, I was unsure. I simply noticed their existence.

‘Welcome to bereavement for beginners’, the young facilitator said, jumping me out of my wondering.

Curious how the passing of time morphs a memory. I can’t recall the exact name of the support group. I do remember how shocking it felt to belong to a group of people titled ‘bereaved’.

After introductions, and open sharing, we were led through an exercise. I followed directions having been told to choose a small river rock of my own. We were to create a totem of support for when emotions felt too large. I selected my stone and, using a white paint pen, wrote the word hope across its surface. I circled the word and tucked the rock in my pocket. When I left the class, I sat in the parking lot and sobbed.

I left the stone in the center console of my car for years. It’s collected dust and become friends with pens lacking ink and a melted chapstick or two. Its presence serves as a reminder to generate hope as I’ve driven from place to place, moving further away from my early days of grief.

This week, I started a Grief Educator Certificate program with David Kessler. In the first teaching I learned a new label for my bereaved status. He says the term for the grief we experience after the two year mark is ‘mature grief’. I snickered to myself when I heard that name.

Mature? Grief? Wasn’t mature something to aspire to as a young child?

Mature people have it all together. They have arrived. Even the dictionary uses the auspicious claim of being ‘fully developed.’ My grief does not feel complete.

My grief has, however, become a source of motivation to seek wisdom and share what I’ve learned. My longing has brought me to classrooms and support groups I never could have imagined before. Old skins have shed, leaving new layers, still tender to the touch as I figure out what to do with this gift of darkness.

Over the weekend, we drove up the canyon nearby with the goal of simply sitting by the river. I needed to hear the woosh of water colliding with rocks as it carries on to what’s next.

Under hazy skies, I made my way down steep stairs to the riverbed. Stepping over small stones, I placed my toes into the icy water and took a seat.

Fingering the rocks, I made a pile of smooth ones, perfect for skipping.

I placed three in my pocket for keeping. Perhaps I’ll carry this selection forward as I move about, from here to there.

In Colorado, the ripple metaphor is common. Throw a stone, see how far your impact can reach. I hadn’t thought of the stone from my first beginner grief group in quite awhile. The word hope was an anchor that got me from there to here.

And now, as my grief matures, I’ve found a new collection of stones to toss into the flow. I’m learning how to serve others in their pain. I’m applying radical self-compassion to my own wounds and connecting with others who believe the answers to our hurts are found in first saying, “Wow. This is unbearable.”

I’m standing in rivers, with toes icy and lungs full, using what I’ve learned to make new ripples. What a beautiful thing.


PS. There are still spaces open for the July Writing Workshops – As We Carry On: Using Words to Explore Your Grief with a Compassionate Lense. Register here.

Hollowing

My grief gremlin lives in my heart pocket. If you’ve read my words for awhile, you might have heard me mention her. A tiny little creature, she has dark navy feathers and big, pleading eyes. She gnaws on tendrils of memories, connections, and fibers that once connected me to other people, places, and things. She nestles, tucking tiny wings in towards her body and pops up on anniversaries, on birthdays, and trips to the grocery store. She seems to have flourished during the pandemic, reminding me of her presence on ordinary days, and in the boring spans of hours filled with background noise and scrolling thumbs.

Today, she introduced me to a new friend.

One growing alongside her, in the cramped space of a worn pocket lined with soft flecks of lint.

She told me she’s cautious to name this new wonder growing, because it’s miniature size still needs nurturing. She’s dabbling with the name Hope. Or purpose. But naming feels scary because naming is claiming the reality that there’s space for anything else to take up residence in a sacred space that has been filled with prickles and dark for so long.

In a miraculous thread of connections, I found myself on a Zoom call with a woman from New York this morning. We are discussing a new project (stay tuned for more details) and as she shared her experience with me, in her pause, this sentence stuck with me.

It was a dark point in my life. I was hollowing out and letting go to make room for new things to rush in.

I nodded deeply to her wisdom.

How long have I been hollowing? The scooping and digging and scraping and saying good bye seems to be incessant.

What this woman’s story gave me, though, was the reminder of the spacious space inside me that has been emptied. I’ve been clinging desparately, pulling at torn edges, to bring the tapestry back together with the remnants of what was.

What is is no longer. Has the pandemic revealed anything clearer?

In my incessant thinking, and all the time alone in my study, I’ve forgotten how to welcome the rushing. I needed time to finger the losses, to wallow, to wait. I’ve accepted the pain and for fear of more, I’ve forgotten how to welcome.

My gremlin, in her nesting, has done a fabulous job of hollowing. Now she’s ready to welcome more into the space.

What will come rushing remains to be seen. Welcoming. What a beautiful thing.

To Want to Return

We inched slowly towards the ranger stand, waiting for our turn to be let in. After rolling down the window, we were asked if we had a reservation.

“We only want to head home on Trail Ridge Road,” Dylan explained.

The kind woman explained our options, having had missed the memo that we now needed a time slot to get into the national park thirty minutes from home.

We turned around again, driving back into the small mountain town to wait until they opened the road for the general public who forgot to reserve access.

The delay was an inconvenience, but survivable.

We drove to the nearby lodge, and passed the time on a deck overlooking a lake to the right. Behind us, whole valleys were scorched by the fires from last summer. Remnants of magnificent trees stood stabbing their charred limbs into blue skies. Pine trees turned burnt orange from heat clung to crisped aspens, bending from sheer desperation. I could imagine them gasping for air as flames licked up their homes, their friends, their communities.

I was witness to the damage we have done to the earth, even while sitting in my gas guzzling SUV. There’s something unsettling to see climate change in action. To know that the trees of my youth have burned and my someday children will come see scorched matriarchs nurturing tiny seedlings instead is heartbreaking.

Jaw dropping. Gasp worthy. We took in all that has been taken from us, from the earth, from our stories.

I’ve been in the holy space of standing on ash before. When what was crumbles and what will be remains smudged. Familiar paths now blocked, mixed with melted wires and wood wrecked and warbled from heat.

Eventually, the world calls us to stand, wipe the smears on our pants, and move on.

Our world is at an important crossroads right now. We’re getting on planes and hugging our friends and returning to offices. In other countries, the virus continues to ravage and take, burning connections and ripping up roots as it moves from host to host.

There’s a temptation to push what’s happened into the past. We’ve dealt with our smears. We’ve washed our hands of all of this. What grief has taught me, however, is no matter how far you go, your landscapes stay altered.

We can turn our attention to the saplings and new growth, and say, look at the greens poking through the char. But we must tend to the ache and say, ‘but please, please, remember all that has burned’.

I’ll come back to the park to watch it recover. I’ll stand among pines and listen to water gush and gurggle into streams. I’ll watch the elk and the deer find their sustenance in meadows another valley over. And putting a hand to my heart, I’ll remember picnics and meanders on paths, and all the places he had seen, now too, morphed by the natural cycles of loss.

To stand in a place that has been forever changed and want to return is resilience. What a beautiful thing.

A Sore Tenderness

I went to get a massage yesterday to alleviate the developing hunch in my shoulders. When I walked in the door, the first thing the therapist asked after my name was, “Are you fully vaccinated?”

How bold to put the question I’ve been wondering about others out in front – a precursor to connection, a permission to proceed.

She welcomed me in to the space and I was met with the automated sounds of waves crashing on a noise machine. I completed the paperwork and she asked me what brought me in. What I was hoping to achieve?

I responded to all of the normal questions when one goes to see a new provider.

When asked, “Do you have any traumas?” I paused.

“You want me to list them here? I thought to myself. “Um, how far back do you want me to go? Are there folks who can answer no?”

I’ve met this question before and I’ve learned to be wary of how my answers are received. What does one need to know? When are folks simply curious?

To answer, I narrowed my scope. I ticked off the bus accident I was in in high school, a chronic crunch from hot days on tennis courts, an over heavy backpack from years as an academic overachiever. I spoke of my grief experience and that I carry anxiety in my hips.

She nodded, prodding no further with words. Instead, she turned to her hands to dig in to the story only a tense body can tell.

As I lay on a table covered in cool blue sheets, my masked face fought fabric and layers of protection to breathe. Skilled hands addressed deeply what I’ve been carrying from this pandemic and beyond.

I went home feeling relief.

People keep telling me to read the book “The Body Keeps the Score.” I’m afraid to pick up the title. Afraid of what may be revealed on those pages. That trauma and its adverse affects may be living in me.

You, too, have lived through a very traumatic time in our collective history. This pandemic isn’t over yet. The death rates may be slowing, and our bodies will be learning how to carry this experience for a beyond just a bit.

This morning, hoping for magic, I moved through a series of stretches. Where the therapist had focused her healing left a responsive ache in my muscles. I’ve been adjusted. I’m not free from pain.

Standing in my kitchen, waiting for water to boil, I watched a shimmering spider web descend from the trees out my front window. The strand was waving in the wind, arching from a leafy branch to settle on to the patio furniture waiting to be warmed by the sun. Do the spiders sense this global shift? Or are they simply doing what they know how to do? Reaching out. Webbing a place of belonging. Creating connections to ground oneself in the spaces in between.

Healing work takes practice. Kneading of muscles admits the nature of needing others to help us realign. In the reaching lies a sore tenderness and hope that we will once again connect from here to there. What a beautiful thing.

Divine We

After a recent Facebook binge, ie. doomscrolling session, my thumbs came to a rest. Traci Blackmon, a minister at the United Church of Christ, had posted this:

“Friends. As we ponder the validity of the CDC’s most recent announcement while the US remains at a 35% immunization rate and new cases and deaths, although significantly decreased, continue. As we reflect upon the surge of mutations that has now brought India to a full stop. Might I suggest the voice of individualism will tell us to count it a victory if I am ok, while the voice of the Divine would ask: What about others? History has proven we don’t ever go far when we go alone. WE are not yet well. “💞

Deep breath words. Ones that make me nod and want to weep, to swallow down a gulp in just a brief, overpowering moment.

Perhaps what Blackmon so eloquently captures in a paragraph is what I’ve spent fifteen months grappling with. The “me” mentality overpowers the “we” so often in our culture. I swim in ‘yeah buts’ and sentiments laced with, ‘well, that doesn’t affect me.’ The air is so thick, so humid, with these ideas that to those who won’t listen, my choice to stay home is conservative at best and just plain scared at worst.

I have been scared. You haven’t?

As mask mandates end and we go back to offices, I find myself clicking over to dashboards and charts in liberal media just as I have every single day since lock down number one. Yes, numbers are falling. Yes, vaccinations are happening. And yes, still cases climb, and people are dying and sigh, I could go on and on.

“What will it take for you to feel safe, Katie?” they ask me. I don’t have an answer yet.

Maybe the Divine is whispering to me, in my wonderings of what remains to be seen? How come our desire for connection and travel and a full plate of brunch still leaves those preparing your food vulnerable behind stoves full of simmering sauces?

I’m so good at asking, What about them? What do they need? What will I sacrifice in the name of safety or in the pursuit of kindness?

In a quick moment of rest, I heard another whisper.

Don’t forget, Ms. Katie, that ‘we’ includes you.

And I asked myself, What do I need?

I needed my mom to drive me from nursery to nursery in pursuit of plant starts and floral blooms. I needed a tiny cup of foaming milk, swirling espresso, and precisely six grams of vanilla syrup. I needed to sit in the dirt, to plunge shovels into loam, and to mix rich compost in with airy soil to create a place for something to grow. I needed a tiny cupcake to remember him by.

I need you to remember, we may be able to remove our masks now, but thousands are still scared and hurting and unsafe. We’re all going to carry on with remnants of this time like sand we took home from a trip to the ocean. We’ll find the grains in pockets of jeans, and at the bottoms of backpacks and work bags we left in the closet.

Where we walk next will be led by the foot steps we took last year, pacing in circles wearing carpet thin.

I felt a sense of relief with a second jab to the arm and this weekend for three days in a row, I hugged someone not my husband. Arms. Warm bodies. Your heartbeat in a chest next to mine. Beautiful, soul filling things.

Coupon Triggers

After closing the car door this afternoon, I turned over my shoulder to place my bag in the back seat. A crumpled piece of white paper caught my eye. Tucked under the floor mat, a coupon with an April 2020 date waited, forlorn and forgotten in vehicle that spent most of the year in my driveway. In bold, black font, perched next to a spiralized ham, was an expired offer for 10% off a selection of a certain size.

Last year, with an adamance for tradition and a determined clinging to what surely couldn’t be a crisis, I ordered a pre-made Easter dinner. I thought the coupon could be a solution for creating something good out of the crumbling closures and novel uncertainty.

I was terrified I was to leave my house. Curbside pick-up was still new. Sitting in the parking lot, waiting for my meal, I muttered through my mask about the coupon to a sales person on the phone. I had missed something in the fine print. My ham wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t communicate what I needed to the muffled voice on the other end of line. I didn’t receive the discount.

“Good enough and good riddance,” I thought, as they placed the golden wrapped hunks of meat into my trunk.

Later, I wept watching Andrea Bocelli sing on YouTube from Italy, and we dug into a breakfast bread alone in our den. The first holiday alone felt surreal, but manageable. Surely, we wouldn’t be here for long.

This year, I watch the spring-breakers on the news and I think, “We sure didn’t learn much the first time did we?” I don’t have the energy to muster up an Easter. I don’t care about ham and I cringe at all the watercolor graphics on banners outside of the mega-churches we drive by when we venture out.

Will this weekend be another super-spreader event?

Cases are up. Yes, again. Our defenses are worn. We’re tired. And, some of us are already immune.

I’ve always loved the power of Holy Week. Death is overcome. Victory is found. Even in the darkness, crocuses peak through the dirt and Christ is resurrected. But what about the millions of people who won’t be?

This morning the Governor of Colorado announced that all Coloradoans over the age of 16 will be eligible for the vaccine starting on Friday. When I read the headline, my body swelled with a mix of relief and continued anxiety. I’m on the lists. Please give me the shots.

I’ve been asked when I’ll be comfortable to return to the office and to consider when travel feels safe. I don’t have answers to those questions. My panic at re-entry can only be calmed one day at a time.

Focusing on numbers and death and fear of illness has deadened something within me. Planning what’s next feels as foggy as the wisps of grief that linger after loss. I’ve been living in a Good Friday world for so long.

And, as the Christians will tell you this week, Sunday is coming. I put my hope here. What a beautiful thing.

I

Tremors

The tremor started as I walked up to the counter. I looked up, facing the plexi-glass separating me and the barista. Taped to the barrier were two 8.5 x 11 pieces of paper, with a message to the neighborhood. I read that this Starbucks location is closing on April 4th.

“This is tragic” I blurted to no one.

Catching myself in my ridiculous statement, I blushed under my mask.

Trying to recover, I mumbled to the young woman waiting to take my order. “I’ll survive. But, this is a bummer.”

The closing of a corporate coffee shop is not tragic. A sign on glass is small compared to very real, looming challenges unfolding around the world. This loss of place is not life threatening. We know this.

My strong reaction masked memories and feelings of comfort that bubble up when I walk into rooms with slate floors and walls covered in green and white. The smell of beans, the packages of grounds, sparkling mugs with mermaids and white; all reminders of times before.

I noticed a wave of grief move within me. Not immense sadness. Instead, indicators of change taunting me with the truth of how quickly spaces of life transform into vacancies. Empty buildings. Stacked chairs. Locked doors.

I grabbed our drinks and joined Dylan outside. We began the walk home together.

I’d brought coffee to Dad’s office for years. He’d give me a twenty when I worked there in the summer, and I’d come back with iced lattes for me, and always Pikes Place for him. When we closed his office, removing furniture and files and countless awards, we left a tall cup of black liquid in the corner to cool, closing the doors behind us.

These places become a part of us. When they close, they press into motion seismic waves of memories of what was and murmurs of what will no longer be.

I’ve kept quiet this month, waiting for four years to turn to five in the course of a day. Sometimes, the approaching of the anniversary hurts more than the day itself. Beauty is harder to witness as the clouds come in, knowingly bringing weight and mist to the air. Last weekend the mist turned to blizzard, and two feet of snow fell in my front yard. Rain turns leftover piles to slush, and tonight we’ll have ice clinking to recently broken branches.

These cycles of days turning to years, wet turning into snow, piles turning into melt reveal these patterns have purpose.

When I care for myself, I can see the storm coming, and time has taught me to prepare accordingly.

At the start of the month, I chose a word for myself. Support.

Support. Being open to it. Asking for it. Being surprised by it.

Support looks like many beautiful things.

Friends sent me packages and caring texts. Others delivered donuts to my door. A card from a colleague echoed my questions in ways I didn’t know were living within me, until they showed up in my mail box. Her hand written words mirrored my experience in life-giving ways. The anniversary of the day He died came and went and tears fell. Before I went to bed, big sobs eked out as I held my knees, leaning against walls, wedging my body into the corner to feel support on all sides.

I was surprised by the intensity, and the release. The anticipation of pain left my body in waves.

Coffee shops are closing. Snow is falling. Days turned to years. And the quakes, while present, are smaller. What a beautiful thing.

Does Not Have to Be

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Reminders from Facebook and Google Photos distract me from what I ought to be doing.

With each “On this day last year” alert, I’m jolted back in time. Sometimes one year. Other times four.

My phone told me on this day last year, I was sipping strong coffee out of small cups in Cuba. Warming in the sun, our guides told me to put on sunscreen. My see-through skin (their words, not mine) needed protection.

When I returned, one week later, I packed up my desk and transformed a bedroom into an office. I haven’t left this space much since. What unraveled has frayed into the thousands of stories we all now carry from living during a pandemic. Instagram is exploding with memes comparing March 2020 to March 2021. Will they be similar? Will the month hold the same amount of uncertainty, trauma, and loss as last year? Few fail to talk publicly about the trauma we are collective digesting right now.

With each announcement of a friend or colleague getting a vaccine, I can feel adrenaline swish within me. Yes, I want to be safe and I know when the people I love get to the front of the line, I’ll weep with relief. What their proclamations fail to hold, however, is the hurt we’ve been carrying and the continued wait so many of us still face.

I want to say, “Congrats. You’re out in the world. I’m not quite there yet. And can you get my mom to the front of the line?”

Sinking back in the black office chair, I meditate myself back to March 2017. I cautiously move back through time, recalling glimpses of how I felt one year after Dad’s passing.

I was intentional about doing everything different, as if the clothes I wore, or the food I ate could prevent a chain reaction leading to another disaster. I remember I was house sitting. My family had decided to spend the day apart. Our collective pain was too much to bear. I think it was grey. I wasn’t sure how to create something new in his absence. Maybe I went for a walk?

Eventually, I ended up at my mom’s house, perched on the wicker bar stool in the kitchen.

Staring at the sink, I coached myself out of a place of hopeful desperation, “March 18th of this year does not have to be March 18th of last year. Does it?”

Anniversaries are important. Marking what you’ve been through is vital to honoring the growth you’ve endured as time passes. The phrase, “does not have to be” frees our spirits from the tethers connecting us to our past traumas.

This March, I find myself triggered as we all reflect on the anniversary of a pandemic year. Whether you mark the start of the shut downs this week, or next, we all have been absorbing the trauma of 2020 for quite some time. Memes and comedians and politicians poke at my fears. Who would ever want to relive a month like that again?

This March does not have to be like last March.

Feel sad. Feel hopeful. Feel envious of those who are vaccinated.

Do not, however, dwell in the impending doom of waiting for last year’s next shoe to drop.

You’ve grown in this darkness. I promise. Even if events unfold in ways you don’t want this March, you are not the same person as you were in March of 2020. This March will not be last March. What a beautiful thing.