Grief

Good enough for this year.

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Photo by Miroslava on Unsplash

I walked in the door to grief group tonight with my arms full of bags – the worn canvas stretched as I turned to open my arms and hug the once-strangers who I now consider my friends. I bent at the waist and removed my clogs and turned and slid my mismatched socks towards the table.

Twelve courageous women laid out crackers and creamy cheese and plates of cookies to frost with store-bought frosting. We swiped crumbs off of islands and sprinkled flour on the clean counter. Relying on our resourcefulness we used a pepper grinder to roll out the dough. We cut shapes and dunked morsels in chocolate and shook green, red, and white sprinkles over pre-made cut-outs. We sat around a table and said their names and shared the multitude of complex things we feel during the holiday season.

And I stopped and thought, “Yes, this is good.”

Good enough for this year.

And earlier this week, while taking my turn at a four-way stop I apparently cut off a car coming round the blind corner. The horn shook me out of a something-thought and I proceeded to find a parking spot. I walked gingerly to the favorite kitchen store in town and met Mom to wander through familiar aisles.

Looking up from the shortbread display I grabbed my mom and I hissed, “Pause here.”

Around another blind corner, old acquaintances stood eyeing their own gifts and goodies. We pivoted, avoiding the unnecessary moment of awkward eye contact. Running into “before people” in stores on holidays earns you a pity tilt of the head and a sympathy sigh. If they are really unsure, you may get a pat on the hand as well. We turned towards the tea pots and moved through aisles to make our purchases on the other side of the store.

We had planned to spend hours together shopping, just like we used to, and instead we spent three hours talking at a new taco shop in town. At a small table in the back, next to the kitchen, we wept and we wondered how we can let go of the old and create something new.

New traditions. New expectations. New hopes and new chances to shape togetherness because the old holiday traditions will never be the same.

And as we paid the bill and walked into the winter sun, I stopped and thought, “Yes. This is good.”

Good enough for this year.

As I held my mom’s hand and looked her in the eye she said to me, “You know, we never started baking gingerbread snowflakes with the intent of that being tradition. We tried them. They were good, so we did it again.”

I’m borrowing loosely from holiday expectations this year. Different formats for making cookies. Different time spent shopping on Amazon rather than in stores. Different routines and expressions of grief and making space for the sadness our culture demands we package away in pretty red bows.  Maybe we’ll do them again. Maybe we won’t.

I spent year one through three trying, pushing, forcing the holly and the jolly and it was horrible.

This year I’m stopping and thinking, “Yes, this is good.”

Good enough for this year.

What a beautiful thing.

 

Chim Chim Cher-ee

“Winds in the east, theres a mist comin’ in
Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.
Can’t put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”
– Bert – Mary Poppins

It was 60 today. They are saying snow on Tuesday.

It was August just yesterday.  Thanksgiving is on Thursday.

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Here I am, tonight, writing in the now, while and temperatures drop and Christmas lights go up, and lists get written down to prepare for the holiday season. Movement.

I’ve moved out of our safe-zone and into the holidays and I’m thinking of Bert and his cautionary storytelling.

Awhile back, I shared how my grief safe-zone was from the day AFTER Father’s Day to the week before Thanksgiving. As Thanksgiving is a week late this year, I promptly walked out of the safe-zone and into the field of grief triggers last Thursday. Was it 8 am or 3 pm?I couldn’t tell you. But I noticed.

The wind’s blowin’ in.

Mom’s making turkey hats, I’m writing Christmas lists, and I ordered my holiday cards. I bought a wreath hook and gingerbread cookie mix (blasphemy … sorry Mom) and started the joy-filled planning tasks while honoring the Dad-size bubbles of mash sitting on the back burner for the last few months.

The grief, still warm, starts steaming and stewing and mingling with pine and plans and memories of tree trunks and his strong love of going around the table and sharing our thanks for the miracles God provides.

Later this week I’ll share my 52 Thankfuls for this year with you.

Tonight, I’m getting out my wind-breaker to brace for the back and forth blowing all of us humans feel while crafting Hallmark holidays in a broken world.

As my grief moves, I drove through the Target parking lot and stared at the pretty trees glowing yellow with magical space in between bare branches. I stole a taster from the cookie store. I ate brunch with my family and drank a latte with another who gets the scratchy feeling our frayed heart holes have when rubbing up against the Christmas sweaters of others. Beautiful, beautiful things.

Celebrate, yes, and witness the beautiful things around you. Tend your hearts with toasty socks and mugs of something warm, and twinkly lights on boughs of delicious smelling trees.

And bring a friend some tissues, or invite your co-worker to lunch, or take an extra long bath because, while wondrous, magical, and sparkly, this time of year tends to rub on our healing wounds like the scratchy wool socks waiting for your cold toes in the back of your drawer.

Year four. Worn. Familiar. Something that’s happened before. “Can’t put me finger on what lies in store.”

Six, Quarter-inch, Dark Blue Lines

Turning my head tenderly to the left, I glanced at them in the mirror through the steam.

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Six, quarter-inch, dark blue stitches are pulling my skin together.

The nylon threads forcefully merge two sides left from the removal of a minor something. A something, they said, that could be a bigger something if neglected.

I’m now missing a crescent of seemingly dangerous freckles transferred to my back with a kiss from the sun while coaching tennis in the summer months.

Skin pulled taught, knotted tendrils, and a wound remain.

The incision looks badass, sure, and more importantly has the power to make me woozy with the application of band-aids, vaseline, and tape. What we survive is nauseatingly awe-inspiring – how we breath through required work of tending our healing is beyond me.

I spent this weekend moving slowly, rising from chair, lowering to couch, and still lower to my bed. Each move felt tender and heavy, the pressure from pulling skin reminding me of the work it takes to bring things forever changed back together again.

In the days and months after losing my dad I wrote a lot about unraveling. I wrote about how a significant chord had been cut when he left this world.

Someone was perched at the edge, throwing my big ball of yarn I’d worked so hard to gather down the stairs without asking for my permission.

Bounce – there went our jobs.
Bounce – there went big relationships.
Bounce – there went holidays, and traditions, and the layer of security when both parents are accessible by phone.
So, I wrote about tapestries and embroidery and threads to help me finger the loss and the holes and the missing pieces. I snarled at the snaggles, and left the yarn running through my house without energy, limp, and ready to be played with by whomever treaded by. Who cares? It was all unraveled anyway.

I never gave much thought to the attempts at assembly we’ve been doing until I sat in a sterile room wearing a patterned robe with my back exposed and numb. In a quick out-patient procedure someone had poked me with a thread and a needle and literally sewed me back together again.

They finished the procedure, and I sat up. I asked for a glass of water and the nurse, noting my color, gave me a small can of orange juice instead.  I sipped and I listened and noted the irony found in the hopes of sugar used to calm my shaking hands.

“The best thing you can do is lay right on your back on the floor,” instructed the RN who was younger than me. “Perhaps lay on a bag of frozen peas.”

“Right on my back?” I asked with big eyes. “Isn’t that going to hurt?”

“At first,” she responded, “but the pressure will help you heal.”

In year one – I was entirely focused on the dark, oozing hole left from the quick snip of his exit.

In year two – there was immense pressure. I laid on my back for hours, staring at ceilings, at walls, at the spaces in between. The pain of grief is unbearable and confusing. You need Tylenol Extra Strength and tissues and healing ointment in various forms.

In year three – I’m learning something greater than me has started stitching again on my body, my heart, my life. With my participation, we’re bringing things together again to fuse what is left over the hole.

I’m approaching year four and I’m noticing … my scar is fucking huge.
But I am healing. What a beautiful thing.

Changed A Life This Year

I’m inviting you to stop and think about just one thing that changed your life for the better this year. When I sit and ponder here’s one that comes to mind for me.

In September, I boarded a plane after a nine hour delay to join 100 young grieving adults. I had the opportunity to lead a writing workshop with The Dinner Party, a national organization who builds community for 20 and 30 somethings and mostly, I was terrified.

If grief makes you uncomfortable feel free to skip ahead. (I’m going to ask for your help)

If not, keep going …

I was absolutely floored by the beautiful, brave people who showed up despite terrible things happening in their young adult lives. People read obituaries, shared funny stories, and built altars in honor of loved ones.  We drank wine and toasted and sang songs and I found myself, for the first time, in a group of twenty five others who lost their dads.
When I shared my experiences, I was met with affirming mhmms and head nods rather than blank stares. While I have been attending a grief support table for two years now, this was the first experience I had where I felt completely welcome in my grief. I’ve known in my head I wasn’t alone. These people helped me feel less alone in my heart. You can read more about my experience here.

If you jumped ahead, pick up here:
Welcome back. This year I’m increasing my fundraising goal for The Dinner Party and am hoping to help raise $1,000 as TDP continues to grow. From April to September the organization placed over 2,500 people at tables all across the country and they need your help.

With an ambitious goal of being as well known as AA for alcoholics, we hope to grow this phenomenon as a fabulous grief support option for young people all across the country and need your help.

Please consider giving what you can here: 

https://thedinnerparty.funraise.org/fundraiser/katie-huey

Give because you loved Roy
Give because there are thousands of young people are grappling with life after loss
Give because you love me
Give because you are craving a space to tell your story
Give because there is power in community
Give because connection makes a difference

I hope you’ll join me this year – thanks for reading – and if you know of other wonderful people who would be willing to donate, please pass along my note.
With so much love,

Katie

Two Limes on a Rim

The elevator doors opened and I walked out into the tiny corner. I turned left and followed the arrows down the dimly lit hall as my wet boots squeaked with each step.

Removing the tiny key from my purse, I swiped my way in to the first hotel room I’d ever had all to myself.

Zipped off a text to my mother who used to do this all of the time – travel for work.

She shared her routine reminders with me. First you unpack your belongings, then put out the toiletries near the sink, and then call my dad.

I remember the calls as a child – her connecting with us across time zones and space from the uncomfortable chairs in casino hotel rooms. She didn’t gamble – she was an expert in trade shows – the two spaces and industries were inextricably linked. Pre Facetime, before What’s Ap and smart phones – what a treat it was to leave a voicemail on her hotel room phone.

Mostly I remember she’d leave prizes for us – one a night to discover. Sometimes my dad would forget to hide them and we’d wonder if perhaps this trip, we’d grown too old for her treats.

“Thanks for the memories,” she buzzed back, as I put on a sweater to head up to the roof top bar.

He’s with us in spirit, she’s at home, and I’m traveling now. How things have changed.

I took a deep breath, made a mental list of my networking questions, and pressed the up button, pausing to wait for the elevator.

Ding.

The doors opened and I walked into the dark bar decorated for Halloween. Creepy decorations hung in the large windows. The fog outside hovered next to the floating skeletons with gauzy dresses back lit by orange, suspended from string ten floors up.

I met new people, asked questions, and sipped my gin and tonic. Nervously, I squeezed the extra lime on the rim of the heavy tumbler between my thumb and forefinger.

The woman I was speaking with looked up and wiped her forehead.

Is it raining? she asked.

“I’m afraid I just squirted you with my drink” I blushed. She laughed, wiping again at the pulp in her bangs.

A granular burst of fruit brought us closer than I anticipated.

Time passed. We mingled and wrapped up the night. I pushed the down button, rode a few floors, followed the arrows to my room, turned down the covers and slept in the big, white bed.

When I woke to the sun fighting the fog, I saw twinkly lights fighting the approach of a new day.  I stared from behind the dark curtains and pondered the path I’ve been walking. I’ve floated between loss and joy over the last three years. Each room I enter has the haunting remnants of loss near by, like the decorations looming in the enormous window panes. Feelings of fear and ache linger close and heavy fog easily wraps its tentacles around me.

And then in ordinary conversations, the limes of life offer flavor and tartness and sweet bursts. I only need to release the potential between my finger tips.  Joy brings me closer to others and saying yes to the unexpected opportunities helps me grow.

Yes, this week I stayed in a hotel room, got on a plane, forced myself to be brave and network. I walked Lake Shore Drive and took photos of sparkling city lights – all beautiful things.

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Two little slices of lime jolted me to realize I influence others by just showing up. I can turn my attention from the haunting spirits and surroundings to the joy with a simple pinch of my thumb and forefinger.  Let’s choose the bursts rather than the ominous lingerings, shall we? There’s magic in the pulp.

Of Cautionary Tales

She shares the tale frequently. 

The one of a rebellious toddler with a shaggy hair cut – his red locks grazing the back of his neck as he turned his chin up to look at her with defiance in his big brown eyes.

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“Don’t touch that,” she said softly, “it’s hot and you

will get hurt.”

Always curious, you could watch him processing her words behind his crinkled forehead.

With defiance, he made his own decision, and leading with his balmy palm, stuck all five fingers straight to the coils and promptly started to scream.

I’ve been thinking of that little toddler and all the tales of caution we get served up.

Don’t put your hands on the burners, take your vitamins, avoid cigarettes, build up your 401k. For if we do all the right things, we’ll get out unscathed.

This week started with me calling 9-1-1 for a stranger in Macy’s. A pregnant woman had fainted. We were shopping for jeans. Dylan helped her partner lay her down on the worn green carpet in the department store. Undertrained staff frantically fumbled and we, just bystanders, made the decision to call for help.  While Dylan moved the tables stacked with denim, I leaned over and counted the woman’s breaths saying “Now. Now. Now” to the dispatch woman on the other end of the phone.  Another kind stranger fanned the woman with a crumpled flyer full of coupons waiting to be clipped.

I did something kind. We responded to a situation and when the emergency team walked in, I said good luck and we went on our way. I didn’t have it in me to stick around and see what happened next. Was it any of my business anyway?

The week ended with someone I love in the hospital and while she is ok, the tethers of vulnerability connecting us still brought me to tears. A friend was evacuated from her house due to forest fires.

All of these people take their vitamins, eat vegetables, and save money where they can. They tsk at diet soda and hug their loved ones and take deep breaths.

They’ve heard the tales, took caution, and still seem unable to escape the pain.

How do we witness and engage in others pain? How do I experience the heat of their experiences surging into the hot plates sitting in front of me?

Whether we know a diagnosis is coming, or show up and ride an elevator up to a sterile room full of beeping equipment, or call the adoption agency, or click send on the email with the hard to say feelings from years of resentment. We have choices with how much we want to touch the burning red. We can see it coming. The response is ours.

Is it really protecting ourselves to avoid the glow all together? Where can we lean in and feel the heat and not get scorched?

Or perhaps, we need to grab and hold and promptly let ourselves scream.

The choice is ours. What a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

“It is always and only mine”

The outdoor light on the shed in the back kept turning on. With each gust of wind, branches would blow casting shadows across the small sensor inviting light to stream through the open window, fighting the dark with lightsaber-like beams.

An intended safety feature was overreacting, having negative affects on my sleep.

Much like my over-active brain which was playing loops on repeat.

After a few hours of restlessness and an unsuccessful attempt at taking an Advil to relax my clenching muscles, I grabbed my pillow and stepped quietly downstairs to lay on our big, blue couch.

“Well this seems fitting,” I thought to myself as I rested on my back, staring at the ceiling. “This is where it all started.”

Those cushions couched my grief from day one. During the first week, I burrowed in the corner, surrounding myself with blankets and boxes of tissues as I made phone calls to tell folks we lost him. I choked back sobs at two in the morning while my husband was upstairs sleeping. The foam absorbed my tears and the worn upholstery still remembers the shock waves reverberating through my body.

Three and a half years later, there I was again, laying on my back, staring at the ceiling, thinking about my grief. No intense tears, no shaking sobs, just clenching fists and racing thought patterns as I prepared to fly across the country to lead others in a writing workshop on how to bring words to their grief stories.

I was trying to be brave. Mostly, I was terrified.

I tossed and turned and when 4:30 am rolled around signaling it was time to wake for the airport, I rolled off the couch and into my outfit I previously set out for my adventure. Dylan drove me through the dark and I breathed deeply, as my therapist instructed, as I prepared my mind.

“Life,” they say, “begins on the other side of our comfort zones.”

I checked my monster of a bag at the curb, made it through security, found coffee and sat down at the gate. Not a minute later an email buzzed through on my phone.

My eyes began to blur as I read the words, “Your flight has been cancelled.”

“Shit!” I mumbled under my breath and stood, making my way to the long line appearing at the front of the gate.

I once read the universe likes to test our commitment to our own goals. Challenges arise when we are about to embark on something we hunger to accomplish. Situations outside of our control flirt with our efforts, daring us to take one more step we didn’t think we could.

When I pitched a proposal to lead a workshop at a bereavement camp for 20 and 30-somethings back in April, I thought I’d just throw my name in the hat and see what would happen. I put together speaker proposals at least once a week. I thought applying would be the risky part.

Then I got accepted and said yes, I’ll go to grief camp with a bunch of bereaved strangers – still feeling silly and insecure and fearful of other peoples’ pain. Then I bought a plane ticket. Then I had to actually get on the plane which was proving more difficult than I thought it would be.

I called Dylan to inform him of the change and swallowed down tears as I explained my choices to him. He encouraged me to figure out how to get where I needed to go. I ran between concourses, taking trains and talking to airline employees about options for my bag and my transportation. The man at the United counter was not helpful. A kind woman at Southwest helped me figure out another route.

After nine hours at DIA, a two-hour flight and a one-hour carpool with strangers who kindly picked me up in a rental car, I arrived at grief camp. There were over 100 other people my age who lost someone significant in their lives. What a beautiful thing.

I got checked in and as I hugged the coordinators I noticed an open bottle of wine with a welcome message sitting waiting for us late arrivals. A fellow traveler who also spent hours trying to arrive from Philadelphia pulled out the cork and took a giant swig of red. No time for glasses. Balancing nerves, delayed travel plans, and latent grief calls for soft tannins and flavors of grapes.

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Eventually, I found my way to my bunk, unfurled my sleeping back tucked in the bottom of my giant duffle, and tried to fall asleep as kind strangers snored below me. Another night on my back staring at the ceiling flooded with thoughts and fears. I learned 30 is maybe too old for communal sleeping arrangements with strangers.

Over the next 48 hours I led my session and participated in workshops where we explored our grieving and resilience through words, photos, sounds, and memory. I joined support sessions and sat in a room with at least 40 individuals who also lost their dads. We had a talent show. People freely read eulogies, poems for the departed, and  danced their emotions out to their brother’s favorite songs. There was a group altar full of pictures and favorite things – hats, and cookies, and cards, and cups of coffee for the departed. I finally had a place to lay his favorite things and kiss his picture and whisper how much I missed him.

With every session and every conversation I could feel in my very bones the truth: I am a part of something dark and beautiful, heavy and freeing. Other’s pain I was so afraid of brought me more comfort than I anticipated. Connecting stories from bios to real faces and human hearts helped me to realize all of us carrying loss stories are not to be feared.

Yes, I’m in the very worst club with the most beautifully brave people who are living with heavy piles of shit.

Please do not fear me because of my loss.

It’s in the places where we sit and listen, where we touch hands and honor wounds where we get to extend our wavering whispers of hope and connect with one another. I kept gasping in small breaths when others would say things I’ve been thinking for years. I lacked the sacred places to share my unmentionable thoughts.

No one was afraid of making others uncomfortable – we’re much too weary of surprising others with our unsettling thoughts. Here I am. Take me or leave me.

How could so many strangers take me when others whom I loved chose the later?

We sat in our pain, absorbing the horrible truth – we must move into a forever forward timeline without our people. The bereaved still welcomed and embraced the mysterious joy flowing from the life force of love left behind in the people we love.

I’ll be processing for awhile.

During the weekend’s closing session, the organizers asked for feedback.

I raised my hand and said,  “For a long time, I’ve known I’m not alone in this thing called loss in my head. This is the first time I’ve felt I’m not alone in my heart.”

What a beautiful thing.

I also met an Artist, Meredith Adelaide, who wrote this poem originally published in her book The Great Blue World an exploration of grief and loss through imagery and word. She helped me remember this precious grief of mine is precisely that – mine to own, mine to hold, mine to share, mine to love and honor. And while this grief is all my own, I am not alone.

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