Grief

Hands Deep in a Bowl of Dough

In the early years of my grief experience, I recall standing at the granite counter top with my hands deep in a bowl of dough. I was drinking red wine and rain was falling, I had jazz playing on my phone. It had been about six months since my dad passed, and I remember thinking to myself, whispering even, “I think I’m feeling happy again.”

It’s courageous to whisper these words.

Brene Brown reminds us of the risk of foreboding, how we have been trained by movies and culture, and sometimes life itself, to prepare for the next car crash, the next death, the next shoe to drop.

I also recall hearing that we, as humans, are bound to experience a major loss every seven years.

In a recent conversation with my mom, she nodded to that statement, and ticked off major life events that caused disruption in her life, every seven years or so. Was the truth there because she was noticing, or because we are bound to try to repeat our experiences in a flow that’s calculable?

I lost my grandmother six years and nine months after my dad passed. And we had a baby, disrupting my sense of calm and confidence I had worked so hard to cultivate since, just a few months before that. This year has been a blur.

And yet, once again, six months after the disruption, I found myself standing at a counter top in a new kitchen with my hands in a bowl of dough. I was dicing up butter and mixing flour and salt to make a pie crust. As I kneaded the mixture, I had jazz playing on my phone. Rain wasn’t hitting the skylights, but instead, a child cooed with her father on the floor. My child. My husband. The man who helped me to bring life into the world.

I dared again to whisper, “I think I’m feeling happy again.”

There are moments that shake us, shape us, and leave us wondering who we will be next. Like snakes, we step out of shed skin that’s no longer needed and move into bigger versions of ourselves. Do snakes feel pain in the shedding? I believe humans do.

In the transformation, the movement of days into nights, and turning of months into years, we have a brave choice to believe we can be happy again. The process takes a long time, and yet, the formula seems so simple.

Surround myself with people I love, with simple ingredients, with time to stand at the counter. I can focus on the next big disruption, or I can focus on the pie crust and what it will mean for a simple dinner at home.

I’m whispering “I think I’m happy again” and that is a beautiful thing.

And a Squirt of Whipped Cream

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

Losing someone is rarely easy. While their spirits may seem to evaporate into the liminal space, people we love who move on leave a lot behind. I spent much of this weekend amongst my grandmother’s things. Cups and wooden salad bowls, serving platters made of milk glass, worn handmade blankets and quilts, dishes with the farm scenes painted on ceramic.

While they moved her to assisted living weeks ago, they only took the essentials. Her navy blue, floral couch was gone, but the drapes that hung in her house for my whole childhood stayed. The china cabinet may have been picked over, but the sturdy structure still stood, watching us move through half-empty rooms, selecting what we hoped for and reminiscing at the dining room table. We flipped through photo albums and I saw faded pictures of relatives I’d never met nor heard of. Legends of old uncles with problems during prohibition, or ties to old business, were stuck among crinkly cellophane, protecting both stories and their sepia-toned faces.

As I lay on the floor in the basement, I said “You know what I hate about dead people? They never come walking through the door when you want them to.”

I knew my grandmother was going to pass. She lived a long life, close to ninety years. And yet, when I found out her spirit had moved on, it still felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Maybe that’s what they do when they die – take the air with them into wherever comes next. It takes awhile to catch your breath.

This has been a summer of transition and shifting. We moved. We had a baby. We are growing into new roles and letting go of others. If all of your grandparents have passed, are you still a granddaughter? Or does that role now become my new daughter’s?

We’ll say good-bye in formal ways in a few weeks. And in the meantime, I’ll tuck a juice glass of her’s in my cupboard. In the morning, I’ll remember Lender’s bagels with blocks of cream cheese wrapped in foil, served on a small ceramic plate with a farm scene painted on top. I’ll remember Kraft singles, and dessert with Reddi-Wip out of a can. Because, as Grandma would say, life is better with a little squirt of whipped cream.

Being amongst her things, evoking memories, remembering stories, preparing to say good-bye, even when it hurts – all beautiful things.

That’s Life

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

The Queen died. 

I had a heads up as a friend told me about her impending medical watch as we sipped iced coffees in the morning on Thursday. Hours later, Dylan texted me the news that she had passed. While I have no connection to the monarchy besides the odd fascination that Americans seem to have with royals, her passing caused me to inhale. Sadness seeped into my space. 

She was Queen when my parents were born. And now she is no longer. 

In the same day a friend welcomed a new baby girl and texts buzzed in with photos and again, my breath stilled. I flashed back to my own moment when my daughter left my body and entered the world with cries from both of us. 

And still, this morning, upon child care drop off, I learned of the passing of my great-aunt. Yes, she was old. Still, her light extinguished. 

“That’s life, Katie” my mom replied, with tears in her eyes. 

I know people die and are born at astounding rates. If we took pause for everyone, we’d be pausing all of the time. Instead, we focus on email and headlines of war and sickness and economic recession. Some of us choose to devote our energy to where we can make a difference. Why care about the British monarch when distress in America is so high? Why care about one person’s new baby when thousands are born every day?

Because in these moments, in our inhales and our exhales, are where beauty lies. 

I’ve been noodling on a post about the joy baby laundry brings me, but expanding on tiny sleeves and button-backed dresses for five hundred words feels like a bit much. While the Queen was greeting the new British Prime Minister, I was folding tiny onesies and burp clothes. Days later, she passed. This morning, while a relative passed, I was driving too and from, on my way to another day, concerned about to-do lists and arriving on time with a small child. 

In our every days we have choices to see and to notice. We have choices to pause to honor life and those that end. And we have choices to find joy as we rush from one place to the next. Baby clothes, good-byes, and hellos. Beautiful things.  

Filling Tiny Holes

In the small bathroom upstairs, Dylan removed the letters “G” “R” “A” “C” and “E” that had been hanging our towels. Grace – a simple phrase that accompanied our daily routines of cleansing, brushing, and wiping up gobs of toothpaste and lotion left behind in a hurry. Each letter left three holes to be filled.

When the spackle had dried, I stood in the bathroom, celebrating the time to shower with an infant in the house. Turning to look for a towel, the now blank wall pushed me back to a weekend in the early weeks after Dad died when we covered the walls with Monterey White. Holding the brush in my hand in the tiny room, I had wept. “I miss my Dad” I said, unsure of how the missing would grow as days turned into years.

It has been six years since we painted, and now, we are getting ready to move.

I don’t believe we ever fully heal from grief. We carry our people forward in our hearts and in our stories, and in the tears that come with transition. I’ve woken up every day for the last few weeks wishing I could call my dad for a pep talk, or have him come with us to drive by the new house. I’ve needed his advice and his expertise about insurance coverage, and his hands to hold my baby.

I am still missing him.

I make do with pictures, talking to his friends, and asking for hugs, and extra support from people who know the pain of progress without a parent.

The moving truck comes in a few days. For today, Dylan and I sit, with laptops on our thighs and a baby between us on the bedspread. The artwork is down, boxes sit waiting for tape, and I can’t find my power cords. I’m not sure what words will be witness to the next chapter of life we are walking towards.

But, the tiny holes we left in the walls where we lived are now filled. We are embracing transition and honoring our marks of progress. What beautiful things.

Waiting in Doorways

The night before I left for college, I sat in my parent’s basement and cried. I had said my good-byes to high school friends and found myself in the dark weeping. The next morning, while excited, I stuffed my belongings into the trunk and cried half-way across the country as my parents drove us through Idaho and Montana and into a small town in Washington where I thought my dreams would come true. I didn’t stop crying for four months.

Fast-forward to after college graduation. I was packing again to move out of my childhood bedroom and into a two-bedroom appointment with a boy I loved, but wasn’t yet ready to marry. I cried as I packed boxes and my mom sat on the floor with me while an eager young partner waited in the doorway to load my clothes up in his trunk, driving us an hour away.

When Dylan asked me to marry him, after saying yes, I was quiet for an hour. Not quite stunned. Perhaps unsure of what I committed to, ready to take steps forward and I buoyed myself in silence. Introspection suits me.

Tears tend to accompany transition. Grief of what was lingers in the shadows as I’ve walked through doors into each chapter of new unknowns. For years I beat myself up about those tears. I compared myself to the others who bounded into dorm rooms with confidence, or those who said yes to moving across the country without hesitation. I was enamored by young women ready to fully embrace walking down the aisle without a smidge of doubt.

Today, I’m 38 weeks pregnant. I question the women fully ready to embrace motherhood without fear of what they’d be giving up along the way. I’ve kept this change, this growing of life, quiet here. In transition, I tend to go inwards. What compassion training has taught me however, is that any gap between what we wish things to be and what is is a space for loving kindness to ourselves and others.

And I as I look around, at one of the deepest seasons of anticipation in my life so far, I’m realizing it’s ok to expect the tears. I’ll likely sit on floors and weep. I know I have people here to help me stand – trust me, hoisting a pregnant belly off the floor requires lots of grunting these days.

I’m not devastated. I’m overwhelmed in the goodness of all that will come.

I nod to the young woman who packed boxes in silence as people who love her watched and waited, perhaps already having stepped through the doorway a few steps ahead of her. I, however, get to do the work of bringing this baby into the world.

Grief taught me to be wary. At times, standing in doorways, clinging to what was, is a response of fear and self-preservation. I know what this room looks like, with its familiar carpet and the window that squeaks when you open the latch. Now there sits a bassinet, a rocking chair, and blankets, waiting to welcome a little soul with tiny toes and the power to expand our hearts in ways I’m sure I can’t quite yet understand.

Two weeks to go and I’m getting quiet. Our baby classes are done. We’ve made the lists, been gifted the things, created our birth preferences. I’m winding down at work. The to-do’s have been checked. And now, I wait. I’m wondering who I will become in this transition, and when baby will arrive. I’m saying hello to the tears and the fears, knowing they don’t get to drive.

I can’t control much. But, I can look back, embracing the woman who has learned how to sit, allowing emotion and wondering to wash over her. This time, I’m not pushing away the tears. Instead, I’m lingering in doorways, waiting for baby to pull me forward into motherhood. Anticipation can be a beautiful thing.

Mind the Gap

I read these words following a trigger warning last week – “Save to read when you have the emotional space.” I put my phone aside, saving for later the words not meant for working hours.

As the sun dipped at seven pm, evening light lingering longer than winter allows, I opened up the message and read.

“I don’t remember the exact date, but I know he passed in March. And every time my calendar flips to March I remember him and the loss of him.” In this cold month, my dad’s legacy still warms her heart. She lost him too.

She went on to offer to bring me his favorite shortbread cookies this week. With a porch delivery, and a beautiful text thread, my dad’s presence was brought back to life in the spaces in-between. I’ll dunk the cookies in coffee tomorrow, letting the crumbs sink down to a soggy bottom of a mug, swirling in leftover grounds.

There are so many gaps in grief. Gaps in memory. Gaps in conversation. Gaps in relationship. Gaps in wishing things were one way when they most certainly can not be. Gaps in growth. Gaps in healing.

Her words helped me remember there are people and stories and experiences of him that can sew us back together again. Another friend texted, ‘Thinking of you. Can I buy you dinner this week to lighten the load?” Dollars showed up in my Venmo account – the gift of take-out a beautiful thing.

The days leading up to a grief anniversary are often worse than the day of the anniversary itself. On March first, I cried knowing the day would soon approach. At grief group this week, I told my friends, ‘I don’t want to be sad on Friday. I just want to honor him in new ways.’

That was cocky. It’s Thursday. I’m sad. And I’m dreading tomorrow.

But what I’ve learned, as the sixth anniversary approaches, is this death day need not hold so much power. I can be sad and I can fill the gap with happy memories. I can allow the triggering thoughts a brief hello, but they don’t get to stay. I can find my routines and my rituals to honor him, and I can choose to try something new. Or, I can choose to sit on the couch and weep. Only tomorrow will tell.

It’s foolish to think the day will pass without thought of the milestone. I lost my dad, Roy Christman, when I was 27 years old. His absence, this gap, is forever a part of me. I how I choose to tend to the spaces now empty, a life-long beautiful thing. For those still walking with me, minding the gap, thank you.

Old Linoleum

I received a text with the words “Here we go!” yesterday morning. The photo attached caused my heart to dip.

My mom’s having the downstairs bathroom remodeled in the house I grew up in. Gone are the blue vanity and wood-rimmed mirror I stood at each morning, curling my hair to get ready for high school. The traces of eye glitter from middle school swept away into a dumpster I imagined a contractor put in the driveway.

In the dip, I had the irrational thought, “Hey, Dad used that toilet! Now it’s gone!” Grief, ever present, is a constant saying of good-byes. Even to toilets.

While I wallowed the minimal loss linked to a bathroom remodel, threads started binding together from several recent conversations I’ve had with friends. One is contemplating a job change. The other, preparing to say good-bye to a co-worker who taught them valuable lessons about themselves. In both conversations, we came to a point of agreement – knowing familiar chaos is less scary than saying hello to something new and the accompanied uncertainties. We can handle the worn and tolerate the sloping floors. We’ve learned where to step so the boards don’t squeak and how to jiggle the faucet to make sure the drips stop.

As I look at the aged, patterned linoleum in the photo above, I’m reminded how we hang on to the old and grimy, for fear of what saying good-bye could cause us to feel.

When the pandemic started, I tried encouraging people to share their beautiful experiences with me each day. I probably made it 30 days in a row before the search got repetitive. Motivation to participate waned. Now, here we are, approaching year three, and many of us have been forced to say so many good-byes. To routines, to feelings of comfort, to jobs, and to people we love. But what of the good-byes we have a say in?

Where are you holding on to the grime, the grit, and bits of life that are ready for a refresh? What are you holding onto for fear of what unknowns could come next?

I remind myself, again, to let go of the idea that we have to keep everything, simply because someone we love used to use that toilet.

At the end of the day, Mom sent another photo of orange sub-floor going in. Whether the contractor ripped up the linoleum, or instead covered the old floor, the stage is set for shiny new tile to take its place. Memories of linoleum are better than the real thing.

Sometimes, beauty comes in the removal, the tossing into dumpsters, and the saying good-bye to worn familiarity no longer serving us. And sometimes, beauty comes in the hello; the brave choice to keep moving forward, one design choice at a time.

Wake and Witness

I woke up early this morning to do some extra work before logging on to Zoom. Padding downstairs in the dark, I chose to leave the lights off and pull up the blinds, hoping to watch as darkness turned to light. As I sat with a laptop perched on my thighs, I finished my work and turned toward my regular click-through rotation. Email. New York Times. Facebook.

When I got to Facebook’s homepage, I paused, noticing the light against the wall turning pink. Rather than reflexively log in, I shut my computer and looked out the window instead. Streaks of pink and orange brushed against blue. Winter light reflected off snow yet to melt.

In this stage of the Pandemic it’s really easy to feel exhausted. With constant risk assessment, and chronic fear of the air we breathe, I find myself again hunkering down at home. Computer mornings turn into computer days turn into computer evenings. I miss restaurants, coffee dates, and not wondering how much possible exposure I might have at the grocery store versus the post office, or the library.

Here I sit again, laptop perched on my lap, lights waiting to be turned on. I haven’t been writing much, not because there aren’t beautiful things to see, but rather because I fear I’ve said it all before. Two years of appreciating beauty from my house feels a little repetitive.

Regardless, this morning I woke early, padded downstairs, and chose to watch the sunrise instead. I fear this is going to be another long winter with COVID darkness and continued uncertainty. And still, the sun greets us each day with a paintbrush of color. I have to ask myself, “Are you ready to wake and witness?”

Today, I said yes. And that’s a beautiful thing.

White Walls

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

I recently participated in an online collective care workshop run by Becca Bernstein. Over two months, fifteen of us joined as strangers on Zoom to tap into possibilities of what it means to show up as fully human while tending to our needs, wants, and desires. How do we come together to help our healing?

This work, designed to nurture the human heart, lit a fire of hope within me. There are people craving connection, combatting loneliness, and equipping individuals to be an world in a more compassionate way. I get to be one of these beautiful humans, longing for different ways of being in the world.

Last night, in our closing session, one of the fellow participants shared how what she needs now is completely different than what she needed when we started gathering at the beginning of September.

Are needs allowed to fluctuate as such? Are humans allowed to adapt and evolve, constantly reassessing what we need at any given moment?

The myths of linear living I was fed as a student and young professional suggested otherwise. Figure out what you want to DO and all of your needs will be taken care of, right?

Wrong.

Whether we’re slowly chiseling away at the notion of arrival, or our clear roads have crumbled to dust as a result, of well, life, of course, our needs, wants, and desires have permission to change. They ought to.

Who wants to be the same person you were two months ago? Or even five years ago.

In April of 2016, Dylan and I stood in our tiny bathroom upstairs with paint rollers in our hands and a can of Monterey White at our feet. It was a Saturday a few weeks after we lost Dad, and I remember thinking we needed to do something. This was the first room we were going to tackle, covering up old paint in an effort to make our house our own. I stood with baref eet on cold tile, looked at Dylan and said, “I miss my dad.”

“I know” he said.

The missing, of course has grown, and shifted and changed and with the passing of time. So have my wants, and needs, and desires. Of course they have.

This weekend, Dylan again stood in the tiny bathroom, with a roller in hand and a can of White Veil paint at his feet. This time, instead of helping, I’m supervising.

While we’ve painted every room in the house since that year of loss, this return to the upstairs bathroom is different. This painting is a cleansing of sorts, but not of pain. It’s a scrubbing of old stains, and an attempt at refreshing for what’s coming next. Sprucing up in the spirit of improvement and possibility weighs differently than the covering of trauma and triggers.

As Dylan painted, I felt my grief gremlin climb out of my heart pocket to watch our original efforts get rolled over. She nibbled gently on the edges of worn fabric, wondering what was going to happen next.

“I miss my dad” I said to Dylan.

“I know” he said.

The missing hasn’t changed. The paint is one shade brighter. And what will come next remains to be unseen.

But the spirit in which we paint has changed and transformed. What I need is different. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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.