Phase 3: Juxtaposition and Joy

Well.

Well, well.

Well, well, well.

There is a time for everything. And we know not the time.

This is both unnerving and comforting, depending on how you look at it. From where I sit today, it’s both at once–just one of the many paradoxes and funny juxtapositions I’m learning to live with and faintly smile at.

A few months ago, I wrote that I’ve stopped believing in answers, especially simple ones, and have instead hung my hat on certain truths that go beyond mere answers. That’s never been truer than this week, when David and I finally announced that, oh hey, just btw and in case you wanted to know, we’re going to be parents in August. The ironic beauty/day-late timing is not lost on us in the least.

You see, this little life made itself known mere hours before my mom’s memorial service. I never dreamed I’d be telling David, “I’m pregnant,” under such circumstances. But there it was, as mundane and miraculous as a double line on dollar store stick. An immediate pang at what we missed telling her and what she’ll miss, and an immediate purpose for the next eight months… eighteen years… life.

We had so many reasons to bite our tongues for the next two months. There was a necessary season of mourning that everyone around us—and we ourselves—needed to pass through. There were other babies that needed their moment in the sun. The most uncertain weeks of the first trimester to get through. So, I carried this secret, and David kept it with me, wondering when the “right time” to tell the world would be. Good thing the baby bump is pretty easy to hide thus far (did I really just type that?). And we landed on my dad’s birthday as the moment to out ourselves, despite multiple opportunities before then, because it just seemed right to say, “Hey, there are still things to look forward to this year. Maybe there are still good things about getting older.”

And it’s true.

God is still good. Grace is still real. We still have raison d’être.

After holding in our secret for forever, it’s suddenly strange—wonderful, but strange—to bring other people into this personal narrative. Babies mean community, especially when two of your cousins and multiple friends are all due within six weeks or less of your own due date. There are grandmothers that have waited years to hear their grandson say it’s his turn to be a dad. There are parents that have a claim on this kid—a different claim, but a real one. And suddenly this narrative monologue that I’ve been holding with myself for the last few months is part of a bigger narrative that’s still mine, but not just mine. I’m sure there’s some literary theory to expound on, but I neither remember nor care particularly right now. It’s funny to watch how futures collide and expand.

So. Here we are, aren’t we. Smiling to ourselves and waiting for yardsale season to begin so we can snag baby stuff below cutthroat prices. Looking at the still-unfinished bathroom and finding ourselves with, ah, deadlines. Reevaluating priorities left and right. Feeling incredibly thankful that our “five year plan” included the important memories we wanted to make. Renewing our commitment to do the hard things even—especially—with baby in tow (go ahead and laugh, you might be right). Continuing to live everyday life intentionally because life doesn’t pause or suddenly “happen” with one announcement or arrival or departure.

Well.

Well, well, well.

Phase 2: Permanence

Life in transition continues. A coworker recently caught herself saying, “Life is beautiful” to me and thought it might be hurtful, because life isn’t okay. But I had to tell her, honestly, that “okay” and “beautiful” are two different things, and I will forever believe, as my mom did, that every day is a beautiful gift. Cliche? I happily admit that you’re right.

We’ve entered phase two of the new normal, which I will call the, “Oh **** this is permanent and not a novelty anymore” phase. Not all crap, but certain family members don’t laugh as much, certain family members just miss  afternoon debriefs with Mom, and sometimes we’re all prickly. I’m juggling new developments constantly, and trying to learn how to just BE PRESENT with my family. Given how independent my life was before, and how well I sit still (not at all), you could say it’s a growing experience.

A friend who lost his dad last year wrote me an email with advice I needed to hear about not running away (it’s much easier to be at my house than my parents’), and I’m trying to take it to heart. The question is, how do you know you’re “dealing with things” and not brushing issues into a corner? Seems like the only course is to wait for the unwatched issues to spring out from the dark and catch you in their teeth.

Funny enough, I only realized a week ago that I was trying to facilitate a MAJOR CHANGE in my own life, when I’ve read so many times that you just shouldn’t in the first year. Surely it’s obvious that my theology has shifted and morphed in the last six months, but that’s no reason to run. Not yet. I do have a burning desire to READ ALL THE THINGS and find a holistic hermeneutic for understanding my faith. When will I find the time? Whew, who knows. For now, we’re safe–and we can love and serve–the people who loved and served us so well.

I understand now when people say the pain never goes away–but I see glimpses that it becomes more manageable, like the chronic physical pain people learn to deal with and compensate for.

We’ll get there, and all I can say is I can’t WAIT for spring. I know a break from the cold and the ability to get outside and hike and exercise and enjoy fresh air will go a long ways towards healing. I’m hoping for a family hiking/camping trip, since that was one thing Mom never particularly enjoyed but Dad has always loved. I’m hoping new routines and new adventures make reality more manageable.

* * *

[SIDE VENT]

Thank God only a couple people have said “Your mom is in a better place.” I’ve gone cold each time–I may hate this phrase most of all. How it ever became a benign cliche is beyond me, as all I hear when people say that is, “Well, she didn’t really belong here anyway. It’s better this way. She deserved better, and now she’s got it.”

Of COURSE she deserves the best, we loved her. But you just bulldozed all of us left behind. Apparently, we weren’t enough for her, she needed more. Or are you saying that God whisked her away to a “better place” knowing the personal costs to her family and friends?

“Better place” for WHO?!, I want to shout. Fine, if you want to get academic, although I think the presence of God himself is on such a different plane that “better” is weak. But is she in a “better place” when she has kids who are still to graduate high school, go on their first date, have their first kid? When what broke her heart most was acknowledging that she wouldn’t be here for those moments? For us, it seems “better” that she were here. How can you possibly say it was “better” for a life to be cut short? Death may be merciful, and I believe my God has redeemed death to become a gateway. But a gaping hole in reality, and you say it’s so she can be in a “better place”? Death is still the enemy. Death is defeated, but no. There are only two separate places with a great chasm between. It won’t be a “better place” until all things–all things–are made new.

Following the Blog Blow-Out

Wow. I never expected a simple post on a personal blog I don’t promote to generate the traffic I’ve seen over the last week. It was astounding and incredibly humbling, because all my thoughts are just that–my personal experience traveling through this shadowland. Nothing I shared seemed remarkable, and yet the content resonated across multiple social networks and sites. I’m no expert, so… wow. Thank you all for the kind words and support. My heart in writing that list really was to give people practical insight as they try to assist and love during difficult times, and my continuing hope and prayer is for that result.

Of course, the strange thing about articles emanating farther and farther from their source is how people change their filter when commenting. A couple folks thought the whole idea of “7 things not to say” was mean-spirited, as I was calling out people who were “just trying to help.” And that’s a fair point, though (I hope) a misreading.

I want to reiterate once again that every single statement was probably intended to be kind–that’s why I wrote the list in the “well-intentioned” but “better” format. The last few months, even before Mom died, have been an exercise in learning to hear people’s hearts rather than their words sometimes. Because people do care, above and beyond what I could ever have imagined, and I have been blown away by people’s emotional and physical support–and that includes people who have said/done things that collide with my personality/circumstances.

I’ve always tried to write every blog post, random comment, and Facebook status as if everyone on the Internet can and will read it. Moral of the story? Keep doing just that, because you never know how far words will travel!

7 Things Not to Say to a Grieving Person (As Written by One Grieving)

“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.” – A Grief Observed

I’ve been that friend–the one who sees grief and blurts out something before running away. Trying to find the “right words” when nothing can make reality right is bound to result in some flubs, and yet silence is hard to manage.

Now I’m (figuratively) wearing black, and I’m on the other end. People are so well intentioned, and so badly want to help. I appreciate the sentiment so much–simple acknowledgement that life is irreversibly different is more helpful than you can imagine–and yet the expression has sometimes made me shake my head. I have to laugh at the sometimes hilariously wide difference between the good intention and the bizarre outpouring.

I’m sure many people are simply clueless, as I was before this paradigm shift, so I try to focus on people’s hearts. But you know, ignorance can be helped. With that in mind, here’s a short catalog of some common, very well-intentioned comments I’ve received… and why I’ve cocked my head at the people who utter them.

*Addendum: Please, please, please know that my intent isn’t to stop people from saying anything, lest it be the “wrong” thing. Rather, that empathy and understanding may grow so that the next person may be comforted.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “If there’s anything I can do to help” and “Let me know what I can do.”

Why it doesn’t work: A couple reasons, actually. First, I appreciate the assumption that my brain is still functioning on all cylinders, but… it’s not. Right now, I have the mental energy to answer yes/no questions, but open-ended questions that require more processing from me? Not so much. Secondly, I didn’t realize til now how much grief consumes the immediate and hampers your future planning skills. For instance, I probably do need something from the grocery store. But I won’t realize it until the exact instant that I need it (e.g. milk for tomorrow’s breakfast) and the only thing to do is run out at 11p.m. at night.

Better: “Hey, I’m going to the grocery store right now, can I pick up some staples for you? Milk? Eggs? Bread? Do you have a list?” or “Hey, can I come over and clean your bathrooms? Does Tuesday work?”

My brain has much less pressure in this scenario–the onus isn’t on me to call you and hope you’re still willing to do a nebulous “anything,” and I can latch onto something concrete with easy answers. I’m eternally grateful for the people who really did clean my bathrooms and bring my family groceries–that was huge.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “Hey, you look sad.”

Why it doesn’t work: Maybe I do, and I know you’re trying to tell me that you notice my hurt and carry it with me. But… um, trying to live my life here. The place to bring this up is over coffee, not at random (or at work or in the middle of church). I’m pretty sure I’m only at half-mast but bringing it up doesn’t help me focus on what’s at hand.

Better: “Do you need a hand with that project? I’m happy to help.” Or send me a note that I can read in my own time.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “I’m a safe person. You can talk to me anytime if you need to vent or scream or cry.”

Why it doesn’t work: I have to preface this by saying why this sentiment doesn’t work FOR ME, as maybe others do need it. I’m incredibly blessed to have strong friends and a strong community, and I’m also a relatively private person. I know that when people say this, they really just mean they want to help. But if I didn’t have a strong relationship with you before this, why would I pour out my soul to you now? Understand that unless you have been through similar circumstances and have special wisdom to give, a grieving person is not going to take you up on that offer. When someone I barely know says this phrase, it can sound downright opportunist. If you really want to help, offer something concrete, like a meal or a notecard with encouragement/prayer.

Better: “I’ve been thinking about you guys a lot, and I love you.” You’re honoring my boundaries while telling me you care. This means the world.

* * *

Well-intentioned: In this scenario, you’ve just seen the person for the first time since the death/the big news, and you’re both in the middle of a larger event. You go up to your friend and say, “I’m so sorry about [blank]. How are you holding up? How was the funeral?”

Why it doesn’t work: I can’t stress enough how important it is to choose the timing of your condolences. I understand that you want to know, but I’m in the middle of a party, a Christmas celebration, a big get-together after work, and you want me to conjure up my grief in a completely incongruous situation, on the spot, for you? Sometimes, it’s just nice to enjoy a kind of normalcy for a little while. Of course I haven’t forgotten the pain–rather, I’m choosing to focus on something else for a little while, because that’s healing too. Let me.

Better: “I’ve missed you over the last few months. It’s really good to see you again. Hey, would you want to get coffee soon?” This lets the person know that you’ve noticed their absence, and you care. Plus, it offers a gateway to a private conversation, without the stress of answering pointed questions.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “I know how you feel. My mom died when she was 80.”

Why it doesn’t work: No two griefs are the same, and assuming you know how another person is feeling/processing is just that–an assumption. We all know death, but not in the same way. For example, my own mom died at 52, leaving behind four kids still at home and three in highschool. I’m sorry your mom died at age 80, but please understand that I’m grieving decades of lost time and unmade memories, as well as trying to step up to help meet my younger siblings’ practical needs. No, you don’t know how I feel, and I’m trying hard not to feel insulted by your comparison.

Better: “I’m sorry for your loss” and “Hang in there. I promise someday it gets better.” If you’re not so close, the tried-and-true line is a good one. If you’ve been through strong, close grief, then maybe an encouragement that someday the weight lifts a little is appropriate. It doesn’t assume the griefs are the same, but it does offer some hope.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “God is in control.”

Why it doesn’t work: Closely aligned with “God will use this for good somehow,” statements like this fall into the really-bad-timing category. Maybe they are true. But in grief, we want a God who is close and immanent and feels our hurts. A big God in control of the whole universe (yet a loved one died) working out some distant good (my hurt is now) is quite frankly irrelevant at the moment. I need a Jesus that weeps with me, who knows my sorrow because he carried his own.

Better: “God himself mourns with those who mourns. Death is still the enemy, and I’m so sorry you met it now.” Remind me that God’s heart breaks with mine. Remind me that even in God’s grand plan, death is still an inherent wrong that needs to be righted.

* * *

Well-intentioned: “[Blank] lived a full life, and is with Jesus now.”

Why it doesn’t work: This one isn’t so bad, actually, but it’s pretty incomplete. First, you don’t know if a person lived his own definition of a full life. And we miss them here, with us. I fully believe that my mom lived every moment of her almost-53 years to the brim, but the days are empty now. What you’re saying has a cognitive dissonance with my new reality.

Better: “[Blank] was always so full of life. I remember that time…” Share a memory you hold dear with me. I don’t get to make new memories now, so the shared ones are much dearer. I love hearing them.

* * *

There are no perfect responses to loss. But thanks for listening and trying to say the less-bad things, all the same.

(Fragments of) The New Normal

“What do people mean when they say, ‘I am not afraid of God because I know He is good’? Have they never even been to a dentist?” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Maybe it’s too soon to write this post. Maybe there’s never a right time, like there’s never a right time to die. Where, O Death, is your sting? Here. Now. Not eternally, but now.

How do you meet grief? Some people slam the door in its face, and some people smother it in their arms as a type of memory worth holding fast. No one exactly welcomes it. I wrote Mom’s obit and held people close and took two weeks off work–one for funeral events and travel, and one for Christmas that followed it. I have done things that affirm the very clear reality of my mother’s absence from the body, and even so I catch myself waiting for her to come down for dinner.

I haven’t had trouble sleeping, but the dreams did suck for a couple weeks. I know some people welcome their loved ones in dreams as a bit of remembrance or reprieve, but I couldn’t. The woman in my dreams kept denying the reality I and my family live in, and was nothing but an imposter. As Lewis wrote, this phantom was merely a fragment of my own imagination–some fashioning of my mom in my own image, not who she really was. It was an image perverted, and some of the dreams woke me up with their twisted reality.  I’m glad the dreams have ebbed, as I found no comfort in them.

On the other hand, we all find ourselves drawn to her images in the photo albums. She was the family photographer, but thankfully she never shied away from having her picture taken when her hair wasn’t perfect or she looked tired or her body was recovering (hello, seven kids). I’m so glad she didn’t. It’s hard to comprehend how someone so absolutely alive in the photos could be dead now. Still, it’s good to remember her as she was–cautious, but mischievous and full of life in the everyday circumstances. Some days the slideshow is easier to watch than others.

We’ve had genuinely good days, and good moments. Parts of Christmas Day were better than I could have imagined, and seeing the cemetery the day after we buried her was healing and calming and beautiful in its own way (though I hadn’t wanted to go). I hadn’t realized that one can be surprised by the good moments as well as the bad.

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

I understand now why people call death a “loss.” Not just something has been taken away and gone on a trip, but something is actively missing. On the easy days, it’s a bit like tasting tomato soup and finding someone left out the tomato flavor. Or, in keener moments, realizing your leg has been cut off and you’ll never run the same way again (thanks for the image, Jack). When the twins turned 18, just a few days after Christmas/Mom’s birthday, her absence was its own presence. When I found the birthday card I had optimistically bought for her weeks in advance, I found myself contemplating how she wouldn’t ramble a bit after she answered some question over the phone and update me on daily life at their house. I’m thankful her birthday and Christmas are the same day, so we don’t relive some things twice.

I feel a slight hesitation, a nervousness, when I’m away from loved ones. The nervousness grows much larger when someone runs later than they tell me. There’s a small, not at all irrational bit in me that knows they may never come back. Losing someone in three months, almost to the day, is almost instantaneous relative to a normal lifespan, and you realize how quickly it can happen. Perhaps, in this sense, I have truly “grown up,” for I have intimately realized that neither I nor anyone I love is invincible.

Day-to-day is easier at my own house than at my parents’ (it is still their house, because they built it together) since the change isn’t so obvious in that place. My own life was at least a little separated from hers, while my dad and younger siblings have no such refuge. You realize how many little habits and little jokes your parents had once one of them is no longer there to fulfill the routines. I’m thankful Dad is a talker, not a bottle-upper, though it means the moments are always fraught with something. I’ve been encouraged to keep my own life, but it’s clear how much we all need to be together constantly. It’s exhausting, like every other aspect of grief. “No one told me that grief feels so very like” … exhaustion.

2013, you were truly the very best of times and the very worst of times. I look forward to getting outside again, hiking and camping and doing things Mom wasn’t so apt to do. I know the exercise will at least make us sleep well, and I look forward to being surprised by joy via blue skies, though I expect to find the “still point of the turning world” all over the place. Slowly, slowly.

“Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it?”

Advent: Or, Longing in Hope

I intended to write about Advent today. However, some other folks beat me to it with wonderful words and frank exposition. So instead, I’ll link to their pieces, knowing that my heart echoes theirs in this season of twice waiting–once with Israel, once with longing hope that He will finish making all things new. Enjoy.

Advent, a venir at Wine & Marble

When It’s Hard to Believe in Miracles at Christmas at A Holy Experience

In which Advent is for the ones who know longing by Sarah Bessey

Seasons Change

The leaves turned colors and fell outside Mom’s window over the last couple months as we’ve watched with her. Autumn is profoundly mysterious and awkward–the shining forth of color as living things wither and draw inward and pass away. Beauty and imminent death, calmness before months of lack. I’ve put pen to paper many times in this season, and I choose to believe God is drawing out something worthy of wonder even as I stare at the looming hole in reality.

In the past two months, our existence as a family has been nothing short of charmed. This is especially true of the last week and a half, when Mom came back from the brink and we all hung around her and the house while she flurried orders, wisdom, and reminisces from the hospital bed. The ICU stint was the warning bell, and propelled everyone–well, I hopefully think so–to spend the one-on-one time they’d avoided or didn’t realize they needed. Mom has responded with a twinkle in her eye even though we know she’s low on fuel given her appetite. She’s smiled and buoyed us up and cracked jokes when Dad accidentally refers to lowering the hospital bed as “putting her down,” and acts like a 5 on the pain scale is easy peasy lemon squeezy. Even when the pain creeps higher than that, she refrains from the swear streams I know would be leaving my mouth. She says she doesn’t want to taint her witness as her condition gets harder to bear, as if the last couple months have been cake. I know she’s fighting to believe truth, like we all are. But sometimes, we’re surprised. Last week gave me more peace and joy than I ever believed could coexist right now.

That said, I’m awfully tired of the ache in the back of my throat, and of carting around mascara and makeup removing wipes. We vacillate so fast. Last night I was telling a story that made me laugh so hard I could barely finish it, and twenty minutes later the lump was back as the pain jumped to a 9 before Dad got it back down with the serious stuff. Sometimes, a baby comes to visit and Mom coos and laughs and it seems like we might have weeks. Three hours later, there’s a visceral wish to make it stop, and the brink seems close and merciful.

Last week forced me to articulate what I believe about miracles, and that kind of sucked and was kind of a relief at the same time. Mom’s near-miraculous bounce back after the ICU and the couple truly stellar days in the middle of the week tempted me to wonder if God was doing something special. You start hoping despite your best efforts to face reality, because how could she look so good, and why on earth is her handwriting less shaky today? And then the one bad day creeps into the next several, and you have to acknowledge that this shit is real. Again. It’s safer not to believe in miracles than dare to hope and believe while seeing nature take its course and divine intervention stay away. But really? We did get a minor miracle. Maybe not the full, complete miracle, but the chance to say what we meant was a chance we very nearly lost.

Are God’s hands tied? I fully believe He doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer, as I’ve articulated before, but I recognize that my reasoning for why He doesn’t intervene was so, so limited in scope. I took into account the rest of the world; I should’ve taken into account the universe itself, the powers invisible that we so quickly forget because we only have five senses. But Dad has reminded us that we live caught between two warring factions, even though the end result is a sure thing. Are we collateral damage in the fight? Not exactly. But he pointed to 1 Corinthians 15:24-26, and drew out the early verses. Nothing will separate us from the love of God–but damn if those forces won’t try, and death is still their chemical weapon, used with abandon on all that lives. There’s much more than the turn of the earth going on, and perhaps some things simply must be in the grand scheme. The verses say that Christ MUST reign until he has subdued all his enemies, and we know the kings of earth are no match for him. Rather, we are not forgotten though the universe rages on.

Maybe something bigger is at work–I know I’m too close to the center to tell, but I choose to believe when people I barely remember call and say that Mom’s story is being shared in places she’s never been. I see hints of this in the overwhelming number of meals people have brought my family, and the many texts and notes people close to me have sent (you will never know how much those are worth to me!).

I also pray that this outpouring of love and my own sadness wakes me up to love and compassion. It’s kind of strange–when I shared with a few friends that Mom had been diagnosed, they shared their own hurts back with me in ways I hadn’t known before. And I was so humbled, and also a little ashamed at how little I recognized or noticed their wounds before. Sorrow like this imparts a special kind of credibility, both to comfort and to speak truth, and I have listened most closely to people for whom intimate grief is familiar. I wouldn’t wish membership into the sorority of suffering on anyone, but these are the people, the women, who have a credibility to comfort in ways others don’t. And that’s precious and beautiful in its own way.

Sometimes, the truth is as simple as an acknowledgment that damn, this HURTS and this is REAL and this is NOW. I realize now how quickly I’ve passed by others because their grief made me uncomfortable, and I wish I could turn back the clock on those moments. On the other hand, could I have said anything of value back then? Likely not, but I know now that hugs and acknowledgement are always accepted. I want to see people as I have been seen. Not because it makes my experience “worth it,” but so this means of grace may be extended to others as it has been to me.

Speaking of grace, my old co-worker’s explanation of “grace for today” is constantly on my mind. His wife was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer when their youngest was still a toddler, and she continues her struggle today. But in the early stages, he said something that’s really stuck with me, about God’s mercies being new every morning. “That means we only have the grace for today, not for tomorrow–tomorrow’s mercy hasn’t arrived yet. We receive the grace for today only, and wait in faith that tomorrow’s will be new and waiting for us when we need it.” They chose “Grace Sufficient” as a blog title, and I think I glimpse now what they meant.

Grace for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside
Great is Thy Faithfulness