healing

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.

Like Ingrid Sings

There’s been a Christmas song rolling around in my head this week. In the song “Looks Like a Cold, Cold Winter” Ingrid Michaelson sings,

“Looks like a cold, cold winter
Plenty of ice and snow
But we’ll keep the love light in our hearts aglow
Looks like a long, long winter,
Baby what do we care
As long as we have this love of ours to share.”

I want to tap Ingrid on the shoulder and say, “You have no idea.” It has been a long, long winter.

I know everyone is exhausted by the threat of Covid. Masks are coming off and numbers are dropping, and still, situations in my life give me pause. The constant negotiating of assessment and risk wipes me out weekly. Rather than comfort me with numbers and statistics in an attempt to emerge, I wish people would call me and say, “This isolation must be hard. You aren’t alone. You are making good choices for your family.”

I wish I could adopt more of a ‘Baby what do we care’ attitude?’

I still care.

Ingrid goes on to sing,

“It’s gonna be cold outside
It’s gonna be warm inside
So we’ll cuddle up by a cozy fire side by side
Looks like a cold, cold winter
Summer is far away
But until then I’ll love you more and more each day.”

A friend reminded me that we have seventeen days until the start of spring. Between now and then, I’ll celebrate family birthdays and shuffle towards another grief anniversary. Spring feels far away.

Heat, we’ve learned, comes from friction, an ignition, a burning of a source of something. What fuel has sustained these days with cold temperatures, dark nights, and lack of connection?

The old standbys still hold true. A batch of cookies in the oven, a pair of warm socks, a book to read at the end of the day, someone to kiss good-night. While most of the world seems to want to move on, and the next crisis is replacing Covid numbers in the headlines, I’m still here, growing and easing tentatively in to a new season of life. Hope whispers. Fear screams. I’ve always been soft spoken.

For now, nurturing means choosing solitude and all of the friction that comes with it. The hope that this warmth leads to comfort, rather than pain, is a beautiful thing. Say hello to the outside world for me. And until then, I’ll work on loving more and more each day.

When Weeping on Zoom …

I spent the weekend on Zoom for graduation from the Applied Compassion Training that I’ve been a part of since January. In closing ceremonies, we said good byes and cheered in recognition for work we have accomplished. For me, this involved the delivery of a Capstone Project designed to bring compassion to those with grief stories. I’ve found a way to formalize writing workshops to serve those who are hurting and I love the spaces I’ve been able to create for those to be seen.

Each of us graduates were given two minutes to share a few words about our experiences. I said this, “Graduation is always a good time to reflect on what brought us to this place. I want to go way back to the times my dad taught me to see other people. He modeled many ways we can choose to carry our pain. And he taught me that sensitivity and feeling in a callous world are strengths. Turning towards our pain is necessary to live a brave life. This program reminded me that turning towards suffering is always a courageous act. I’m thankful for the people who bravely say yes, rather than turn away. I move forward today, unsure of what’s next, but certain I will continue to say yes. Thank you for reminding me that the world IS good, even today.”

As I sat in my study this afternoon, surrounded by over 120 people dedicated to the pursuit of compassion across industries and around the world, I found myself swallowed by a grief wave. My people showed up on Zoom for the celebration, and as I clicked through the gallery of faces, I couldn’t help but notice who wasn’t there. You’d think I’d be used to his absence by now. But sometimes, the profound punches to the gut come from empty seats and vacant spaces on screen.

Tears filled my eyes and I turned off my camera and wept.

If he were still here, I wouldn’t have done any of this. And yet, I’ve filled the void with my words, with my aches, and I’ve extended the creation of space to explore our experiences using words.

The world is a mess when we focus on the crises. They exist every minute of every day. The fixing demands attention, hope, and possibility. And at the same time, brave, kind, caring humans are choosing to show up and say yes to doing something about our collective suffering.

What is good in your world right now? On my list are a surgeon’s steady hands, deliveries of flowers and meals for those in recovery, those who choose to wear masks to protect others, a refrigerator full of food, and the overflowing ways that my dad continues to influence my choice to look for good. Sensitivity is strength. Searching for good makes life more bearable. Compassion – the choice to act in the face of suffering – for ourselves and others, is 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.

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.

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.

Maybe We Need the Moisture

Photo Courtesy of Unsplash

I’ve never been so excited to click “schedule.”

After fifteen months with only one professional haircut, my locks are unruly. I’ve taken craft scissors to my bangs. After a few uneven attempts, I have succumbed to the pestering process of letting my fringe blend past my face.

Inches of hair fall past my nose. It gets clipped back, and braided into up-dos trying to be fancy. Clips, bows, and barrettes attach, mediocre in their restraint. It’s time for the professionals to take over.

In just a few weeks I’ll be fully vaccinated. The opening world beckons.

I stand in the back doorway looking out on the lawn, noticing how the spring rains turned everything green. This transformation is quick in Colorado. Rarely does the wetness last. Ask anyone in the Front Range about the last few gloomy days and they will tell you, “Well, we need the moisture.”

I’m accustomed to two days of drizzle, with a quick afternoon storm blowing through at two pm. Not weeks and months of dark clouds, soaking our systems with fear and droplets of uncertainty hanging thick in the air.

I recently read an op-ed written in March of 2020 predicting a long, looming winter season. Reading guesses of how the virus would change the world after the fact confirmed what we hoped wouldn’t be true actually was. They said we were not bracing for a blizzard. This storm was not going to blow over. We were going to be in this space for a long, cold, dark winter.

We hunkered down and learned to work on Zoom. I stayed home in the darkness. I felt the mist on my face in my own tears. The lingering remnants of all that we lost collectively smeared into puddles at our feet. There were no splashing boots. Worms piled, freezing as the seasons changed.

It’s trite to say, ‘but look what we’ve grown over the last fifteen months!’ My hair, certainly. A love of sourdough, yes. Purpose in all of this? Not so much. What comes is still unclear.

Maybe this season of fog and mist will seep into our bones and shoot up and out in new ways. The predictions did not explore the renaissance that would come as we go out into the world again.

As I wipe away the droplets, and sweep up piles of murky muck left behind from flowing downspouts, I wonder how have I grown.

How have you?

I spent Saturday weeding until my thumbs blistered, and the blades of grass cut small hatches into my knees from crouching on their itchy carpet. The marks on my legs have yet to heal. But, the mulched beds in the background are brimming with tulips. I’m excited to trim the flowers that have been waiting in last season’s darkness to bloom. I’ll bring them inside and place the gifts in goblets of water.

Maybe we need the moisture. Maybe we can use it to nurture. To sip. To feed. To grow. What a beautiful thing.

Does Not Have to Be

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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.