Grief

What My Grief Gremlin Taught Me About Pandemics

 

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Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

March may be the worst. Historically, the turning pages of the longest month ever continue to bring bad news to my doorstep. Four years ago, we lost my dad unexpectedly smack dab in the middle of the month. On that day, a grief gremlin took up permanent residence in my front pocket. She waves her ugly wings and tattered feathers on anniversaries, the start of football season, or when I see a man over 60 in Starbucks. She also flaps and flitters in the middle of a pandemic.

Bad news comes in threes, they say, and in 2016, our three rounded out with two more job losses before April.

All of our supposed-to-be doings came to a screeching halt. To cope, we gathered around the worn kitchen table in the home I grew up in and stared. Our eyes glazed over at blank walls then would drift to the floor. I’d make note of the raspberry color of my shoes and watch the puddles of tears dribbling onto the mesh just below my ankles. I’d lift my head and smear the remainder of tears on my t-shirt sleeves.

Grief is a powerful force – she takes what you once knew and shreds what was to bits.

Two weeks ago, life all around the United States came to the same screeching halt. We packed up our desks and set up spaces at home. We went to work remotely and just when the desk was looking beautiful, we found out the dream job we just landed crumbled into dust.

People are dying and communities are slowing. All of our supposed-to-be doings have come to a halt. It’s March and people are hurting again.

In our homes and at hospitals, we sit staring at walls. At screens. At puddles of tears dribbling down our faces and onto tile floors. Tears smear on sleeves. We can’t gather around the kitchen table because we aren’t allowed to be together. We can’t hug or touch or greet.

The pain is broadcast on the news, captured in memes, and thrown angrily at others in tweets and mad dashes to grab the last package of toilet paper off the shelves.

I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned from the loss of a parent and how, if I let them, the lessons grief continues to massage into my heart can serve me during a global pandemic.

Writing to you from the same basement where I heard the news my dad had left us, I hug myself and realize grief can be a teacher in times of duress. My gremlin has taught me how to cope with the squeezing, the panic, the uncertainty, and the pain.

Here are her three lessons that prepared me for a pandemic:

1. I was never in control – I’m not now. I can choose my responses. 

Elizabeth Gilbert recently posted on her Instagram this quote, “You are afraid of surrender because you don’t want to lose control. You never had control, all you had was anxiety.”

After experiencing unexpected loss, my anxiety came into sharp focus. It hasn’t eased in four years. I’ve accepted the anxious little bug living – roommates with gremlin – in my front pocket as she accompanies me everywhere I go. I worry about getting texts, not getting texts, and the ten pm phone calls. I worry about hospitals, and diagnoses, and imagined accidents.

I worry about who will go next, and where I will be, and if I said I love you enough because you just never know.

This week, we’ve all been reminded we just never know. With all that never knowing comes immense anxiety. Bank accounts are examined. Rice is rationed. YouTube distracts.

As humans, we think we have a say in how things are going to work. I realized in my mid-twenties, this is a lie. We have influence. We have preference. We have choice. We don’t have much control.

This truth has allowed me to live more deeply and experience the ordinary in a richer way. Seizing the day doesn’t take away the anxiety. Believing I have a choice in how to respond to the things outside of my control changes my perspective. I don’t have control of global markets, government relief, or the small company I wanted my husband to work at indefinitely. I do get to choose to stay home, to connect with loved ones, and to weep in the basement.

2. Find Comfort

The best advice I got when I lost my dad was, “Find comfort.” Surround yourself with things that bring delight, warmth, light, and tenderness into your space. Make a list of at least five things you can draw upon when the unknown feels too much. My pile has ground coffee beans, a white blanket, my mom’s number on speed dial, knowing where my dog is, and sweatshirt of my husband’s.

What’s in your pile?

Be careful of what you consume. You know yourself. Moderate unhealthy substances and be wary of who and what messaging you are letting into your space. Now is the time to be diligent about boundaries, turning off the news, and asking for help.

Self-medication isn’t always negative. What positive things can you allow to bring you comfort right now?

3. It’s going to be ok. 

I share those five words with immense empathy. It never feels ok when we lose something or someone we love. My life will never be capital O-K, because my dad will not be a part of it in the way I had hoped. But my family is doing ok in the way we’ve adapted. We hurt, relationships are still strained, things are far from perfect. And yet, we’re still here.

When we come out of this pandemic, which I believe will happen, things will not be capital O-K. Lives are being drastically altered. Grief is seeping in and taking up residence in thousands of heart pockets. Our hopes have changed permanent shape. We will have to adapt. Our resilient spirits will get to choose to lift their chins and answer the question, “How can I make what I have lowercase o-k enough?” You need not push the gremlin away.

Weep, release the tension in your hands, stare at walls. Yes.

And wait and see what is yet to unfold.

What we make with the things that remain can be beautiful.

Caught an Edge

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Photo by Emma Paillex on Unsplash

“It’s happening!” I heard my brain say to my left leg as it lifted from the slush and jolted painfully, pulling me up and then down.

There was a loud crack and a solid thwack as my back met the iced-over ski slope. I don’t know if my turquoise helmet hit first, or my shoulder, but I was dazed.

I’d caught an edge and ate it. Hard.

I stared up at the blue sky for a moment or two.

Or seven.

I knew I had to sit up. Wincing, I raised my upper body to vertical.

“Skis still on?” I asked myself. Yes, the bindings did their job.

Poles were close by.

I tried to breath deeply and a kind woman stopped and asked if I wanted help standing.

“Yes please,” I said as I tried to make eye contact. “It’s been years since I’ve fallen on skis.”

I haven’t fallen because I haven’t been on skis in years. I haven’t fallen because I’m cautious. I take calculated risks. May I be one with the slope, not one laying on the slope.

As the stranger reached for my arm, she reminded me to turn my skis parallel from where I sat, rather than pointing my tips straight down the hill. If I could lean my body weight into the mountain, I could stand again.

I had to push into the very thing that hurt me.

I stood and eventually swooshed the two hundred yards to where Dylan was waiting for me.

“I hit my head.” I said, “Hard.”

My ski afternoon came to an end after a medical check from Ski Patrol and a gondola ride back down to base.

As the incident replays in my brain this week, I’ve been wondering what it means to be brave. We tell ourselves to muster up the courage and to push ourselves out of our comfort zones. Being brave can be an active choice, yes, but what about when we are attempting to enjoy life and plans go otherwise? When our instincts kick in and the hard things require actions we feel we must do – not the ones we are brave enough to do?

This weekend, I didn’t cry when I fell. I said yes to help from a stranger, asked Dylan for water, and thought it would be smart to get more medical help. I chose the safe route down the hill rather than pushing myself to move on two sticks of waxed wood. I wobbled in ski boots and found my mom who was waiting and sat quietly in the car, imagining all the things that could have gone wrong. I didn’t feel brave.

Grief looks very much the same.

I didn’t feel brave when I wrote my dad’s obituary or called the organization in charge of his pension. I wasn’t brave when we spread his ashes or gave away his golf clubs, or each week when I choose to share my experience here. I wasn’t being brave.

I was surviving.

Are they the same, beautiful thing?

Life gives us edges to catch, limbs to flail, and places to fall. We’re lucky if we remember to wear our helmets and rely upon the little, beautiful buffers to help us feel a smidge safer in a scary world. We spread out, stunned, staring at the sky, trying to catch our breath as people swish by. And we remind ourselves to sit up again.

In order to do so, you must lean into the mountain. The majestic destination, the reason we are there out under big blue skies seeking solace and cold crisp air.

Lean into mysterious source of the beauty, of pines, jagged rocks, crisp, hard, sometimes powdery snow, and possible pain.

What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Smeared

The smears are a pretty common occurrence.

Slivers of chocolate fall from a crinkled piece of plastic holding my breakfast onto my pants. Oats and nuts crumble and the binding cocoa leaves little trails on my hands and my jeans as I drive in to work. If I move fast enough, I can lick up the evidence.

If not, like most mornings, I walk into the office with a little chocolate stain on my jacket or dark denim pants. Does breakfast count if it’s covered in chocolate? I like to think so. KIND bars probably does too.

I’ve been thinking about those smears and the lingering they represent. How a messy  bite of joy on a busy morning lingers, integrating itself into the fabric of my clothes, the upholstery in my car, and at times my husbands jacket as I reach to correct his uneven coat collar from the passenger seat.

Sure, we could look and just see a stain. A nuisance, a frustrating something I’ll have to clean again. Yet, the frequency of the marks have turned into something for me to ponder. I don’t want to live without the marks of joy for we move along to the next thing fast enough.

I woke this morning feeling sad. My gremlin arrived yesterday, hopping from granite counter top to the new ceramic backsplash my father-in-law so lovingly installed in our kitchen. With each application of gray, wet grout, the little grief monster bounced and caused me to remember, “Yes, here we go again. Making progress without him.”

Just before, we had removed the spacers placed to hold it all together. I took a metal trowel in my hand, dipping over and over again into the sludge of prepared cement and smeared the wet to fill in the intentionally designed gaps.

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Every time the trowel met the wall, my little grief monster bounced, calling me to remember, “Yes, here we go again. Making progress without him.”

When my in-laws left, I sat at the kitchen table looking at our project. Taking a deep breath I mumbled to my husband across the room, “These projects sure make me miss him.”

A few tears fell, smearing day-old mascara around my tired eyes.

The pigment left dribbles on my cheeks as they fell, once again, onto my jeans. Another perceived stain on skin and fabric meant to be cleaned up. I stood and stepped up soft stairs and went about writing an ordinary grocery list.

There are smears – of joy, of sadness, of instant gratitude in the crinkling requirements of life. I’ve used my fingers to caress away, wipe, and lick at the morsels that fall. There will always be something to clean.

What if we let the smear stay a little longer and ask ourselves to move a little slower? What could happen then?

I’m thankful for the beauty of chunks of dark chocolate mixing with fruit and nuts. Beauty in tired mascara as it meets salty tears. Beauty in remembering and the smear of anticipatory emotion. Beauty in the ache of wishing he, too, could use his artisan hands to create in my house. We took cement and smeared it over the kitchen sink where he broke a wine glass the last time we had dinner together.

The smears set. They are radiating beauty. Come on over to my kitchen. I’ll show you what I’m talking about.

Don’t Go. Don’t Go.

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I summed up the pages of books read in 2019. A rather disappointing 10,689 pages. I wasn’t surprised. I hadn’t prioritized reading last year. While I still racked in 30 titles, I chose scrolling over page turning. There are seasons for reading and retreat and seasons for trying to re-enter the world.

I chose the later.

The first weekend of the new year, I picked titles to download on my Kindle – light books to lift the spirit.

This week, I consumed Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love and Food by Ann Hood. Her series of essays based on food and the comfort in brings in all seasons of life was a page turner and delightful, and to my surprise, was laced with grief. She lost a daughter at the age of five, went through a divorce, had to recreate and remember someone dear who never grew into size six shoes.

“Dang it,” I thought, “wasn’t this supposed to be a light read?”

On the pages were permission to use food as comfort, to create something out of nothing, and sit and chew and swallow in sad remembrance.

Turn the page and still another essay was about the simplicity of tomatoes and the multitude of ways we can use the fruit to celebrate – soak them in vodka, mash into sauce, cover meat and simmer into something else all together.

Hood integrates her sadness into her studies with food and then uses words and morsels to comfort herself. Her exercises also brought comfort to me.

And later, on a bright Saturday afternoon, I accepted an invitation to see Little Women and walked out of the sun into a dark theater. The seat squeaked as I sat down, my feet crunching on kernels left by the guest before me.

An intended afternoon escape, the movie mixed dark and light, and creativity and giving and loss so beautifully, I started to vibrate.

As the movie danced back and forth from past to present, I knew what was coming. (Spoiler Alert) How could I have forgotten that Beth is going to die?

Jo lays on the twin mattress next to her fading sister and pleads, “Fight for us Bethie. Stay here and fight.” I heard stories of something similar although the words for us were different.

“Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.”

In the dark theater, it seemed once again that I can’t escape it. The truth of mortality, the thread of loss weaving us all together in some cluster of something. I see my stitches – what’s still unclear is the mess they are creating when I pull my own threads in line with those of others.

In stories, in movie theaters, in recipes calling us to mix salt and soda and sugar and sweet. It’s here. This grief. I can’t escape it.

I work on writing to you, dear readers, stories and experience of the beauty our world has to offer and each week I will my fingers and my spirits to speak of lighter things. I’m trying to focus my view on only the good and in doing so the dark seeps, waiting to be tickled and seen.

For awhile, I felt sorry.

For now, I feel it’s the only way I know how.

To nod to it’s being here and still search for the good God promises will follow, or perhaps has been here all along.

In the ink of Hood’s writing were woven stories of love and compassion and longing and recovery. The magic of melting cheese and butter in an omelet made by someone you love. Grandmother’s recipes and the gift of giving tiny tastes to tiny mouths.

And in Gerwig’s Little Women, I was awed by the costumes, the light, the magic of sisterly bonds and the beautiful choice of choosing ambition and creativity over love and recognizing the ache for the people we want to be with us forever.

The beauty is so mixed, I can no longer separate the good and the hurt. It’s all there. Wherever I go.

Please stay with me. Please continue to read. For this is my world, your world, ours. And in it are beautiful things to be seen.

The feel of a warm decaf latte in cold hands at tea time, the crunch of pop corn kernels drizzled in butter, the creative things people choose to put out into the world. Our connectedness. Our hurting. The mixture of love and light and darkness and our aching.

Don’t go. Don’t go. Stay here with me. What beautiful things we can find.

 

No More Braces

A few weeks ago I found my notebook from January 2016.

In black ink, I had listed the things I was hoping for in the empty pages of a new year.

I had just started a dream job. There were 363 days to fill with goals and books and friends and growth opportunities.

In March of that year, my optimistic self was whacked to the knees with loss.

My world contracted and my goals mixed with tears in a confusing, sloshing slurry.

I threw out my resolutions and sat and stared at walls. 

Recently, I sat in my dark basement reading my old words, my heart ached for my younger self. Ambitious. Hopeful. Unscathed by the flickering cold flames of loss.

I felt ashamed and embarrassed of my previous positive outlook. Foolish for hoping in a hurting world.

‘Silly girl, you didn’t know what was coming,’ the bad voices said. I knew it was bad out there – it just wasn’t bad for me. Not yet.

I can now see I did, in fact, fill 2016 with books and I learned about my friendships and I grew tremendously – just not in the ways I expected. Grief tore things, and stretched, and re-arranged my definitions of success.

As the sun set and rose on repeat, I’ve welcomed four more January 1sts. At the start of each year, I’ve made lists to direct my efforts, and set goals to move myself into new places. I carried forth optimism and an appreciation for aesthetics. Yet, even with my devotion to hope, I moved with clenched fists and braced myself for more.

For resolutions were my buffers and achievements were my shields. Chinks in armor. If I do enough, then this won’t happen again.


When I was a toddler, I had to wear braces so I could learn to walk. I don’t remember much of the plastic structures that covered my ankles and went up my tiny calves into Keds sized large to accommodate the extra support. I have one blurry memory of blue gymnastic mats and afternoon light as I put heel to toe, heel to toe, heel to toe across the room towards the voice of a physical therapist.

The braces gave me support, structure, and a permanent bend in my big toes.

They also, eventually, got to come off.

In my grieving, my braces – preservation and structure – have looked and sounded like many things.

… isolation

… no-thank you’s to invitations

… doubts and fears and the I couldn’ts, I shouldn’ts because walking without leaves one wobbling

… I’m not ready, yets

Some were healthy. Others I’ve outgrown. As a result of the spiritual supports, I’ve got a permanent bend in me now – a wound – a wonder – a missing.

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. – SemiSonic

I sat under bad lighting at an oak kitchen table in a cabin in the woods as December turned to January in one minutes time. A decade slipped from one to the other in a split second.  There was no Ryan Seacrest and my young cousins had never heard of Dick Clark. No confetti. Just falling snow and the flick of a switch and we arrived.

Scrolling with my thumbs, I missed the moment the ball dropped. Two minutes into the new year I turned to kiss my husband on his forehead.

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Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

This year, I’m removing my braces of fear and of worry. I’m kicking aside the lie that accomplishment protects me from all that could be coming round the corner.

There’s a voice calling me to keep at it.

I’ll be seeking the magic and believing in the good.

I won’t be ashamed to hope. I’ve just learned to carry my humanity differently.

I’m moving heel to toe, heel to toe, tentatively in the new year, with my braces kicked to the side of the room. What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

Reach(ed)

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Photo by Slawek K on Unsplash

My word for 2019 was reach.

As the old dictionary says, there are many definitions and just as many applications of those five letters.

  • to make a stretch, as with the hand or arm.
  • to become outstretched, as the hand or arm.
  • to make a movement or effort as if to touch or seize something:to reach for a weapon.
  • to extend in operation or effect:power that reaches throughout the land.
  • to stretch in space; extend in direction, length, distance, etc.

This time last year I was hoping to put myself “out there” again. To stop retreating and re-enter the world in ways that would stretch me and help me touch new things, arrive in new places, and make bigger impacts.

With my word in mind, I started to live differently.

I walked into new networking meetings and said hellos.

I boarded planes to the mid-west and slept on plastic mattresses or in single hotel rooms as a solo traveler.

I led grieving individuals in workshops with words.

I asked for a desk chair.

I learned to put my own words to my needs with trembling hands.

I said yes more and swatted at my fears.

I stretched my stamina and extended my efforts and tried new things.

I had a good year.

What if, however, my reaching was instead grasping and my attempts to stretch were pushes (to press or urge to some action or course)? I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, pushing myself to take up space, pushing myself to live again when parts of me still feel the pins and needles of coming awake after loss makes your limbs turn to dead weight.

My kind yoga instructor often walks around her studio and places her warm palms on my shoulders, reminding me to relax the shell of protection I’ve created as my muscles inch closer to my ears. As we move our limbs into the next posture, she returns, same palms on the small of my back inching me closer to the floor in a forward fold.

Pushing would suggest success. A clear tick mark in the empty box.

You can’t push past pain to get release. You have to ease into it.

In recovery programs, people repeat “progress, not perfection.”

This year, I made space, I stretched, and I extended.

I made progress. I did not arrive.

I reached.

Our society waits at the end of that sentence and in the pause asks, “For what?”

At the end of this year, I’m still not sure.

Awakening wasn’t found in my accomplishments. Emptiness still lingers in my limbs and my ever-tight hips suggest I still have work to do. Healing isn’t found in over-extension. I’m still easing into my pain.

Deep breaths expand my life force lungs. I learned in my reaching, I’m still here.

Push, grasp, reach.

Move, hope, release.

The journey continues. What a beautiful thing.

Mary Wasn’t Ready Either

“Nine days til’ Christmas!” the radio announcer proclaimed in a voice much like a Who in the 2000 version of The Grinch.

I imagined his tiny teeth and coiffed hair proclaiming the minutes ticking by to the Big Holiday as I turned the corner on to the major highway on my way to work.

We’ve been hustling and bustling with packages and bows. Dodging Suburbans in parking lots and honking at stop lights. Just like the travels on their way to Jerusalem for the Census. Right?

Christmas is coming and I’m not ready.

I’m not ready for the waves. Waves of excitement. Waves of grief. Waves of anxiety that come with the planning for pulling people who love each other together in a room for a purpose we easily forget in a gift giving world.

As I drove and listened to celebrities sing about holy nights, I paused and thought of Mary. She wasn’t ready. She didn’t ask for this baby at all.

I didn’t ask for grief. For missing. For aching. For the need for reinvention and the embracing discomfort to push through to potential. I didn’t ask for the mystery of the “What the heck – this wasn’t quite how it was supposed to be” moments.

Mary didn’t either.

And yet, Jesus came.

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Hope in the form of an infant, on a cold dark night and with him came the angels and the promise of healing and restoration and wholeness. Can you imagine witnessing all that potential just laying in scratchy straw?

A woman surrounded by men in awe. Probably telling her what to do – how to swaddle, where to sit, what to consider next.

And in the confusion, I’d like to hope peace came to her that night. In some form or another as she sat and wondered, “How will God use me in this?”

I’m not ready for the mysterious of mix of hurt and hope and sparkle. I’m not ready for the shadows looming, his empty chair, the small talk at holiday parties.

I’m not ready.

And yet here we are. “How will God use me in this?”

So, I start to pray.

I’m praying for the miraculous possibly found at a home-made table surrounded by beautiful, broken, seeking, healing people. I’m praying for peace as we sit among the fallen nettles of a tree-farmed pine tree under twinkling lights.

I’m praying for toasts and witnesses and a squeeze of my hands or shoulders or a kiss on the cheek. I’m praying for the Holy to come and be with us and those who can’t or won’t be in my living room.

Nine days ’til Christmas!

Turning left, I pulled into an icy parking spot at the local King Soopers.  I rushed in to buy green pears and soft cheese. Simple offerings for the Holiday lunch at the office. After paying and slipping on wet linoleum, I started to fumble for my keys in my pit of a purse. Looking up, I caught sight of something special.

Both wearing printed pajamas and snow boots, two small children walked hand in hand with their tired- looking mother. They stomped and they hopped and they wrestled for a cart. Children in pajamas at the grocery store. Beautiful.
Whispered prayers and wondering hearts. Beautiful.

Incomplete to-do lists, anxieties, hopes and healing. Beautiful.

I’m not ready for Christmas – I’m guessing Mary wasn’t either.

What a beautiful thing.