Life After Loss

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.

Making Way

Standing at the back door, with a bit of wind blowing on my face, I turned to Dylan to say, “It’s happening!”

Seemingly overnight the trees in our backyard have begun to change colors. The tree with the little leaves always goes gold first, scattering quarter inch crunchies across the deck. The remnants track into the house with the dog, tuck themselves into outdoor couch cushions, and find themselves carried into the living room on stocking feet. The tiny ones are always the first to fall.

I asked Dylan when we went to Europe the other day. Three years ago this weekend we were in Paris, and I remember wishing, just slightly, that I wouldn’t miss our larger tree turning red in the backyard. The views of Parisian rooftops surely surpassed those in my backyard, but the nostalgia for the changing of the seasons lingered within me.

This is the second fall where we haven’t traveled. Our sources of excitement and stimulation have slowed to glacial pace, and I find myself staring out the back door, again waiting for magic to happen. We don’t have red leaves yet, but they are coming.

It’s easy to feel nostalgic as September turns to October. There are quotes and memes about letting the dead things go as our flowers wilt and sources of shade crisp and crunch. I’ve been talking to mentors and friends about the pruning in their own lives. Many feel purpose wilting, unsure of what will happen in the next season of hibernation. We thought we’d be over this by now, right?

I’ve spent the last five years writing about death and grief and loss. In these reflections, lessons of hope and wondering and recovery have unfolded, giving me, and hopefully others, comfort. As the days grow shorter, and I put my face upon cool glass.

Will this be another dark hole of a pandemic winter? Will looking for the light feel as difficult as it did last year?

In the pruning back, the raking up, and the setting to bed of our gardens, we get to choose what we will prepare to grow. Ann Voskamp once shared how she plants bulbs with her family this time of year, intentionally tucking something hopeful into the dirt to arrive in the spring.

I can relate to that wanting. To believe that good things will come, even as the dark days descend.

So for now, yes, enjoy the gold and the red and the mystical light reflecting off of trees and blue skies. Find your sweaters. Make a cup of tea. Rake and sift and shift the soil, knowing the work you are doing is sacred. Tuck a bulb in the dirt and wait. The preparation and making way, perhaps, are beautiful things.

Hollowing

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

Today, she introduced me to a new friend.

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

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

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

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

I nodded deeply to her wisdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Want to Return

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

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

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

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

The delay was an inconvenience, but survivable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe We Need the Moisture

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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.

Mush

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The green orbs sat patiently on my counter over the weekend. As the sun set towards seven, I sank a blade deep into the flesh of the avocado. Pivoting my palm, I split the fruit in two and plunged a spoon next to the pit. With a quick flick, the little nut popped out onto cutting board leaving smooth spittle as it rolled to a stop.

I scooped out the creamy flesh into the bowl, leaving the halves to be mashed and mixed into something delicious.

With the first shot in my arm, I’ve noticed I’m starting to feel like the shell, rather raw and scooped out.

I’m trying to reconnect with those who I haven’t seen in over fourteen months. Funny how we count the passing of time like the aging of a toddler. Only when we pass into the twenty-four month will we round up to years.

I hope we don’t pass that milestone. No one wants the terrible twos of this pandemic.

In cutting my re-entry teeth, I picked up the phone to a friend who I went to kindergarden with. She’s been back for awhile now and when I asked her what was new, she said, ‘Actually, a lot. I’m moving to Seattle next week.”

My stomach dropped and plopped into a bowl, turning to mush. I took a breath and smiled through the phone and said congratulations.

Another long-timer pair is selling their home and moving to California. A best friend is expecting a baby in July. With each update, I try to be thrilled for the change. New places to visit. New adventures to toast with champagne.

But mostly, I just feel scooped out.

The pandemic has carved from me the time and space I had hoped to fill with friendship. In our social distance, we’ve made choices and changed our shapes. My fear of being left behind kicks into overdrive.

Maybe this is where the metaphor fails and sadness takes over. I’m sad what was will no longer be. I recall our core group of family dinner crew and wonder who will fill the seats on our back patio whenever our little bistro backyard re-opens.

They talk about metamorphosis being a magical process. Transformation undergone in cocoons. What really happens in there, though, is an undoing. An unraveling. A mushing effect.

I’ve been cocooned for quite awhile. I’m not sure what will emerge. But in the scooping, I create space for what can be. I’m open to what will fill this next chapter.

And the mush? It waits, knowing life can transform into the delicious with a quick dash of salt. What a beautiful thing.

Spice of Life

They opened up vaccine access to the general public in Colorado on April 2nd. Since then, I’ve been scouring vaccinespotter.org and the County website and I put myself on all the lists. I anxiously waited for the calls to hear, “It’s your turn.” I’ve been nagging my husband to do the same.

I received the email, I made an appointment and on Monday, when it was my turn to go, I started looking at other providers. I spent three hours ruminating in my head about which shot to get and if I could have a quicker recovery time and is a Friday a better day to receive a jab than a workday afternoon?

These questions persist when you live with anxiety. The pandemic pushed my cycling to chronic, and no, my rantings aren’t exactly beautiful. After texting a friend and my mom and cancelling and rescheduling and cancelling again, I decided to push my appointment to a later date. To live in a country where this is possible is privilege.

My momentary freak out was the culmination of thirteen months of fear. The vaccine feels like one more thing I’m clinging to as a possible way for things to go wrong, for the world to fall apart at my feet again. Dramatic, perhaps, but through a different lens, a very real reflection of what living life after loss looks like as I’m told the pandemic is coming to a close.

Still, cases climb. In some ways, I’m doubtful. Loss taught me life is fragile. The pandemic plunged me in to the dark pool again. A year in a home office has added a permanent hunch to my shoulders, forever closer to the computer screens where my interactions seem to live. I’m a part of conversations about re-entry, going back, and creating new ways of working daily. We’re eager for connection, for hugs, for trips to Hawaii. As I clicked “Schedule” to confirm my place in this incredible feat of human history, I felt the panic rising into my tense hips. My breath shortened. Is all of this really going to end?

While I wait for Friday, I look around my home. This space has been the backdrop for the work hours, the projects, the video watching, the dozens of books being read. The walls are a witness to boredom, my office chair a cushion absorbing the constant tension created from fear of losing someone else. White baseboards, now covered with dust, were tacked up with nails and caulk covering seams.

Repetition has seemed to strip the space of beauty. I’m so familiar with the contents of my refrigerator and the covering of dirt on the floor brought in by the dog that my eyes glaze over.

As I open the pantry, I notice I’m down to chili powder and onion powder and sprinkles of oregano ground to dust in the bottom of the jar. Variety, they say, is the spice of life. I feel some mix has been missing for quite some time.

In recent weeks, I started growing plants for the garden. The seedlings are small and sit in toilet paper beds of loose soil under red warming lights. Little green sprouts reach up and leaves are taking shape. In a few months, I’ll have more to work with. More flavor. Greenery. Flowers to place on the table.

For years I’ve wanted a tattoo that says, “This too shall pass.” The irony is clear – permanent ink for the truth that all of this comes to an end eventually. I’ve been craving the day when I can hug my brother or eat in a restaurant and suddenly, the light is streaming in. I’m not ready yet to say we’re past it. I wonder if this will be one of those experiences we carry on forever, marking what’s next a stamp of permanence into whatever waits around the bend.

I’m practicing compassion for the space in between. I honor the suffering for the scared girl inside of me and the hopeful woman dreaming of what could be. I’m turning inside to say to myself, “Yes, this has been scary. Yes, we don’t know. And you’re here. You’re ok. The people you love can be too. And look, the basil is growing.”

What a beautiful thing.

Coupon Triggers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will this weekend be another super-spreader event?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I

Tremors

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

“This is tragic” I blurted to no one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support looks like many beautiful things.

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

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

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