What (Not) to Say

I choose to believe that most of the time, people are well-intended when they say things out loud. They don’t necessarily mean to say something stupid and hurtful. People (myself included) just don’t know what to say in the wake of death, sorrow and loss. Naturally, people feel this urge to say something over saying nothing. So they open wide, and in what is an attempt to inspire me to feel better after my husband’s death, out comes something like this: “You can never replace a parent or a child, but people routinely replace a spouse.”

As if I should just run to Costco, pick out another ready made husband right off the shelf, and wash my hands of this ugly grieving business.

While legalistically true, the statement remains oversimplified and emotionally wrong. Maybe it was intended as a variation on the “there’s always somebody who has bigger problems that you do” theme. Perhaps it was meant to encourage me to smooth over my loss of a husband with the latest and greatest model, like the pretty new sweater I purchased after I accidentally shrunk my favorite wool one in the wash. The fact of the matter is that nobody can be replaced. It’s not so simple as checking a box, submitting the fee and moving on. This real life is messy and complicated and somehow beautiful in a way that’s nearly impossible to explain, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.

I hadn’t intended to replace my spouse. I kind of liked Sam and wanted him to stick around. We were family by choice, not by accident of birth, but does that make our relationship less valuable, less worthy of grieving? Spouses are supposed to stay together for life (life, meaning well into old age, and old age looking like that sweet couple shuffling slowly down the sidewalk holding hands). We were partners, lovers, confidantes, everything. We promised.

And then he died.

Everything we had built together now rested on my narrow shoulders. I was left holding the babies, who were by far the two best reasons for me to get up in the morning. So I did.

As a mother to grieving children, I cannot completely separate their suffering from my own. It’s true that I don’t know personally a loss of a parent, but my sons’ loss of a parent grieves me with each stage and graduation their deceased father misses. My heart aches for my step-sons as they grow and progress without their mom, even as my same heart swells with gratitude for these young men and pride in their accomplishments. If I do my job right, and the children do theirs, my boys will leave me and create lives of their own, maybe even with a partner he chooses (and who chooses him), if they are so blessed.

As a daughter-in-law, my in-laws’ loss of a child is never far from my heart, especially when we plan holiday celebrations. Again, it is not my loss, but there’s a tenderness and awareness for that particular ache. I hold an insider’s seat watching my father-in-law go from desperately losing his own will to live to embracing the life and family and love that is present for him. He teases my husband Tim (his son-in-law-in-law?) if we do not have his favorite beer at family gatherings, and my Tim drives across town to pick up my in-laws to bring them to brunch. No, it doesn’t replace the father-son relationship, but it is something special. There’s love enough for both.

My son once explained to me that the adage “blood is thicker than water” actually derives from the military context, in which the soldiers (blood brothers) who fight together form a closer bond even than twins who share the same womb (water brothers). I am grateful that he appreciates the varied forms that love presents to us. Because in the end, does it really matter? Whether the family we choose or our family of origin, we are bonded together with love.

The comparative loss paradigm is a subtle snare that diverts us from a healing path. Nobody wins the competitive suffering competition. It doesn’t make sense to me that the loss of a 5 year marriage is by definition less meaningful than the loss of a 50 year marriage, any more than it makes sense to tell a mother that the death of her 5 year-old child should be less excruciating than the death of her 50 year-old child. We could let the individual nature of our losses divide us, or we could instead let love unite us. In the words of Francis Weller, “We can be generous to every sorrow we see. It is sacred work.”

And so, we hold other’s hands, we meet for coffee or a walk, we laugh and cry.

I appreciate that people want to say something, something that will be helpful and kind, something inspirational, something that might reduce the pain. I get that the silence is heavy and scary and painful. I understand that our culture is incredibly uncomfortable with grieving and sadness. And that the future is frustratingly opaque. I wish – way back then – that I had known to say something like this, Here’s the deal. You try this: You do not have to say anything; it’s okay to sit with me silently. Please don’t try to talk me out of how agonizing grief is; let my pain be; just sit with it, with me. And I’ll try this: I will forgive you if you say something hurtful in an attempt to be helpful; I will listen to your heart when you cannot tolerate my tears or silence any longer, and I will ignore your words in an effort to hear what your heart is saying: I love you, I’m here, and I don’t know what to say.

***

In a way, my friend was right, in the sense that she hoped I would find love and joy again. Eight years later, in fact, I am happily married.

It might seem incongruous that I am still talking about grief and loss and healing and hope and light. I guess that’s just how big love is. It’s not defined by time or space, or what it looks like on the surface, and the whole crazy mess is an integral part of who I am and how I got here. It’s not as though you can simply delete the past, even if you want to. Just yesterday, I received a letter for Sam from the County Assessor’s Office. Evidently, they are lagging behind in their record-keeping. Nearly every day, I drive home from the office via the intersection where Sam jumped to his death. And yes, I think of him. Every time. Sometimes, it is with joy and gratitude, occasionally with anger or sadness, often with a smile and prayers for peace – for Sam, for our family, for those in the human family struggling with depression and despair. It’s just part of my route, my routine.

None of this negates how crazy head-over-heels in love I am with my Tim.

I did not replace Sam with Tim, and he did not replace Debbie with me. We have our own relationship, and we do not love each other less for the journey. The resurrected life expands to hold the whole of love and loss and pain and joy. On the one hand, I will always love Sam and never quite get over the heartbreak of his suicide, and on the other hand, my Tim is a gift and a light in my life that I adore. As Kate Braestrup says, “I can’t make those two realities – what I’ve lost and what I’ve found – fit together in some tidy pattern of divine causality. I just have to hold them on the one hand and on the other, just like that.” Which is exactly what it’s like.

The other day, Tim and I were sitting at lunch, and something about us caught the attention of the woman at an adjacent table. She kept looking over at us. Eventually, she leans toward me and says, “You look like somebody.” Julie Christie? I offer. (When I was waiting tables in college, one of the regulars called me Julie because he thought the resemblance was so strong.) “No.” Pause. Then she says, “You look so happy together. There’s a light about a woman whose husband truly loves her. How long have you been married?” Five years, I say.

I often feel compelled to explain that the two of us were widowed, because “five years” doesn’t come close to containing our relationship. Maybe because we look our age, complete with wrinkles and more than a few gray hairs. Maybe because our children are much older than the years of our marriage. So I told her the short story of Charlotte and Tim: we were both widowed, with two sons each, and then we met, fell in love, married and blended our family. Margaret smiles. “Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve made my day. You are a beautiful love story.”

Which might also be why I keep talking about love and loss and life and hope. Because love is a beautiful story.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And silence. And love stories.

***

Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief (2015).

Kate Braestrup, Here if You Need Me (2007).

Pets & Peeves

I can’t stand it when people say “He’s in a better place.”

When I hear the “better place” platitude, I hear echoes of my then young son trying to make sense of his father’s recent suicide, “If daddy is in a better place now, then shouldn’t we go there, too?” It’s preeminently logical: If dead daddy is in a better place, then his suicide is not only positive, but commendable; it follows that we should go and do likewise, so we will be in that better dead place, too. Hopefully, with him.

It’s a nightmare construct for the newly single mom trying to make sense of the unthinkable. Suicide makes for a tidy Shakespearean ending, but no part of it is romantic for the real life widow trying to move forward with her young children. That phrase makes me tense and crazy.

Maybe it’s supposed to make us feel better about him and where he is, but he’s dead. We, on the other hand, are not. We’re here and need to find a way to feel better about being here, living without him. Our journey continues here; his journey begins elsewhere. Selfishly, we don’t want him in that place, we want him here in this place. With us. Now. Always. We don’t want to reach across the distance with our hearts, we want to reach him with our arms. Healing bridges that gap between what we wish and what is, and that becomes a place of joy. But it doesn’t start with joy, it starts with sadness, pain and fear. It starts with goodbye.

Goodbye gives us access to express our sorrow and experience the absence, but it’s painful. Death rips the fabric of our connection, a gash that we cannot mend by pretending it did not tear. The Japanese art of Kintsugi highlights with gold the repaired places of broken pottery. The brokenness is not ignored or forgotten, and the pottery with the golden seams becomes a piece of great beauty and strength. As our hearts break open, we say goodbye, which is itself an invitation for healing.

But it’s hard to say goodbye, even when it’s a small, see-you-soon, aloha goodbye.

Years ago, when our oldest son was heading back to college after the holidays, our youngest burst into tears before the car had even left the driveway en route to the airport. I tried to comfort him by letting him know his brother would be home soon – if not for spring break, then definitely for summer. The little one looked up at me, trying to conceal the tears, “I am not crying because he’s leaving, Mommy. I’m just jealous that he gets to get away from you two!”

Totally understandable. And remarkably effective at diverting attention from how miserable the goodbye is to how subpar my parenting is.

In any event, I remind him to do his homework, because not only is it a valuable constructive avoidance technique, but it will be his ticket to getting into college and away from us. Otherwise, you’d better believe that I’m going to cling to the ankles of our youngest like nobody’s business. Because these goodbyes are not getting any easier with each successive child.

A few days ago, once again after the family car heads to LAX with one of our loved sons on board, this same boy – now taller than I am – walks into the kitchen. He looks at the chef’s knife in my hand and the pile of veggies I’ve accumulated on the cutting board in front of me, and he asks if I’m okay. “I’m fine,” I say. “I’m just crying because of the onions.”

He looks again. “Mom,” the boy says gently, putting his arm around me, “those are carrots.”

No, it’s not easy to say the little goodbyes, let alone the big goodbye.

It’s even hard to say goodbye to cats, and I don’t like cats. I rarely read the email messages my own mother sends with “cat-lovers” in the subject line. Ages ago, I had an orange and white tabby I adored, mostly because he was so much like a dog. Yet somehow I have become that crazy cat lady.

We have two handsome indoor cats. Brothers, because that’s how our family rolls. In my defense, I will explain that I “inherited” these cats. They came with my husband. Who, by the way, is allergic to the cats. As are three of our children. And yet, the cats stay.

They remain indoors because there is too much cat-loving wildlife endemic to the area to let them outside safely. The cats have all their claws, as evidenced by the shreds and snags on their sofa. One of the cats suffers from kidney stones. He eats a prescription diet, but sometimes he pees on the sofa to get our attention. Occasionally, he pees on the children, and that really gets our attention. The cats have commandeered the family room by marking the sectional sofa for themselves, rendering the space uninhabitable for the rest of us. Notwithstanding any of the marketing slogans, nothing miraculously removes the cat urine. Trust me. We’ve tried everything. At some point the smell overwhelms all sensibility, and the only reasonable solution is to replace the furniture. Those cats are on their fourth sofa. The kids remain protective of the little beasts, especially when they hear some of the local cat-lovers howling in the canyon. I am tempted to leave the back door open and call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty,” but those sweet boys won’t let me.

All of which is to say that it’s a dog’s life for the rotten cats. They have a new sofa, specialty cat food and a variety of warm laps on which to curl up and sleep (or pee) – laps playing xBox, watching Netflix or NBA games, sometimes reading a book. Life here is a pretty darn good place for those cats. I cannot imagine a so-called “better place” for them. They already get the VIP treatment.

I don’t like those cats. I swear I don’t. But my sons do. And the kids, I like.

Which makes it that much harder to tell the boys when it’s time to say goodbye to their cat. His kidneys are failing him, and he hasn’t touched his food in days. He lets me hold him for his final hours, and then we decide that the kindest approach will be to take him to the vet, where we say our final goodbye.

Reluctantly, we adjust to our here without him. The rotten cat remains in our hearts and our conversation and I’m starting to think that’s about as tangible evidence of his presence as anything else, along with the snags and stains on his sofa. We tell stories, we cry, and I make an appointment with the upholstery cleaners. We laugh, we love, and we celebrate life together. It’s not the same without him, but still, this place is pretty darn good.

To love and then to let go is one of Life’s hardest challenges. Maybe death’s power lies only in its ability to separate us temporarily. We don’t really know the answer to what’s next. Not yet, anyway. Maybe he is in a better place, but for us, for now, in this place, we live with the mystery.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And gentle good-byes.

Recalcitrance

A new day, a new beginning, a new year …

I’d like to say that I’m looking forward to all that 2016 will bring, but to be completely honest, what I’m feeling is more like trepidation and less like excitement. I would say that I’m looking forward to the blessings that 2016 will bring, but only if I could stipulate that those blessings should be ones I recognize as such, like happy and healthy children, peace and prosperity. No blessings in disguise, if You don’t mind. I would like to open my arms and heart wide to welcome the New Year, but I’m reluctant, more like a bouncer, arms crossed and scowling at the riffraff. Except that I’m too slight to intimidate any riffraff.

It could be that I’m still up to my eyeballs in Christmas crap. Decorating for the holidays can feel so festive, but dismantling all those Santas and snowflakes is a chore, even if also a relief. Maybe I’m just recovering from all the recent quality time with family. Or suffering from the self-imposed post-holiday Betty Ford rinse cycle.

I’m acutely aware of the range that a year can bring – incredible joy and unspeakable pain – and I’m bracing myself. I don’t get to choose my favorites, like I do with the assorted box of See’s candies, carefully selecting the marzipan or dark almonds and avoiding toffee, Bordeaux or anything covered in milk chocolate. I’d like to open the door to the New Year just a sliver, enough to make sure I like what I see in my future with time to slam the door closed if I don’t.

Too bad life doesn’t work that way.

Then again, I’m on a path I most definitely would not have chosen, and here I am, living a life full of joy, faith and passion. Along with a few oddball pets and a mountain of stinky athletic socks.

It’s a little nutty, this life.

I try my standard places for inspiration: I read, I run, I bake, I text my girlfriends. I treat myself to sushi for lunch. Nope. Still not feeling ready to face the day, let alone the year.

I go to church, hand in hand with the love of my life. We sit. We pray. We listen. The priest is talking about the Holy Family and making the point that what makes the family holy is not its perfection, because even the Holy Family isn’t perfect. Which is a huge relief, in light of the fact that this particular imperfect mother has left her imperfect children home to sleep while she and her imperfect husband sneak off to an imperfect church for a few moments of relative peace (without the relatives). Even the Holy Family suffered their share of disappointments, disapproval and one especially cold but memorable night in a barn.

No, the priest continues, what makes a family holy is the willingness to respond to God’s call. To say yes when He asks. Which seems easy enough in theory, but He rarely seems to ask for anything simple. He usually dishes out something new, or complicated, or non-traditional. It’s hardly ever popular. He has this way of setting us on a path that we didn’t expect and maybe don’t want. Even if Joseph didn’t audibly express any doubt about where this unexpected pregnancy would lead, I imagine he must have at least raised an eyebrow when the angel wasn’t looking. I’m just saying. That kind of yes is a big ask.

Sometimes we don’t get much of a choice.

Tim and I were both widowed in 2007 (Debbie from cancer / Sam by suicide), and each of us vowed never to live through that again. I did not want to open my heart – or my children’s hearts – to that vulnerable place, love. Tim and I met the following year, introduced by a mutual friend. Naturally, we fell in love. Humble pie is one of God’s favorite entrees.

We married and blended our family of four sons, two rotten cats and a little black dog. Then we added an “ours” puppy. We have all eight of our parents and in-laws. In our years together, we’ve celebrated two 50th wedding anniversaries for our collective parents (with plans for one more in June and a 60th wedding anniversary in the spring), three 8th grade promotions, two high school graduations and one college degree. We’ve held each other’s hands at several family funerals, suffered through the range of illnesses from garden variety flus to pneumonia to a significant concussion, and only one broken bone (but multiple x-rays and considerable experience with the local urgent care facilities). We are down to two teenagers, a defective hunting dog and one cat with a sock fetish at home. It’s not perfect or without struggles, but we are weathering life’s sunshine and storms together. We chose to respond to God’s invitation to love, and that yes makes our own little family holy.

In this season of resolutions, renewal and motivation, I am mindful that God will not love me more if I keep my weight down or get my salary up or pursue another degree. Or even if I say yes when He calls, but you have to know that I will be thinking about Jonah and that whale. In the interest of expedience, I will try to take a deep breath, bite the no that sits so naturally on the tip of my tongue, and say yes.

God doesn’t ask for perfection. He extends due dates and allows for do-overs. He appreciates laughter. He takes a little willingness and runs with it.

Sometimes the challenge is recognizing the ask when it happens. I’d like to think I’d say yes more readily to a winged messenger, bathed in light and accompanied by an angelic chorus. So far that hasn’t happened. The best I get is an atta girl after I’ve taken a few tentative steps in the right direction.

I spoke at a gathering of bereaved families over the holidays. This is the kind of activity that causes my husband and children to snicker and call me names like Grief Girl. I might not recommend that you depend on your immediate family for the confirmation that you’ve found your calling in life. As the event grew closer, I found myself becoming less enthusiastic about my participation. I was starting to regret my yes, but I really like the woman in charge of the program. So I took a deep breath, forced pen to paper, postponed a few holiday preparations, steadied myself with a prayer and a cup of coffee, wrapped myself in a favorite sweater and set off to the auditorium.

The program consists of music, candles, two speakers (including yours truly), a “Sharing of Names” and a video. And snacks, of course. I only know a handful of people in the room. Those in attendance range from young to old, inexperienced to credentialed, and none of that matters, because we are all heart-broken. It’s that simple. The Sharing of Names is a ritual where each person in attendance speaks the name of a loved one whose death they are grieving. Some speak through tears, some in shock from a recent death, some still reeling from a death decades ago. Cancer, murder, accident, suicide, old age, youth. These deaths are not anonymous, our loved ones have names and stories. We are a community of hearts who know love and its twin sister, loss. Grief is a powerful bond in its universality, and we find comfort in this safe space. I feel honored to be a part of this beautiful ceremony. But that’s not why I’m here.

As the participants continue sharing the names, I hear a name that I recognize, a unique name, a name I remember from a baby announcement about the same time I was sending out baby announcements myself. I do not want it to be true, but I cannot dare to believe that I misheard. It is, as I said, a distinctive name, belonging to the child of a dear friend whom I had lost connection with. That’s why I’m here. Thank goodness I said yes. My little yes covered a lot of territory in that hour.

Sometimes my inclination to say no is reinforced by my propensity to seek approval, because yes, the validation matters to me even though I know it shouldn’t.

The first time I met Debbie’s extended family was at a party celebrating an aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was no small affair; the uncle is one of thirteen children. Two of Debbie’s favorite uncles greeted me eagerly. One retired military and the other a former union leader, they were both big, intimidating men. They loved their niece, and even though they were broken-hearted over her death, they welcomed me with open hearts. They didn’t blame me or punish me. I didn’t ask to be widowed, and neither did Tim. The uncles were well aware of life’s mercurial nature. They had experienced enough of life’s unpredictability to know that fairness or fault did not necessarily factor into the system. They knew that family can be the most ardent proponent and the harshest critic. They knew that the best you can do is to live with integrity and love, because you won’t please everybody. They pushed Tim to the side, flanked me, and prepared to introduce me to the many siblings and cousins. One of the uncles leans down to me and growls into my ear, “Darlin’, some of the family won’t like it, but that’s tough shit.” And so we proceeded into the ballroom.

I think about those protective men, and I cannot help but grin. I start to believe that I could greet the New Year with a tiny, little, apprehensive yes, fortified by my guardian uncles and their tough shit attitude.

I leash up my trusty walking companion, and we open the door. I cannot accomplish the whole year at once, but I can get there one breath at a time, with Faith at one shoulder and Love at the other, and Joy waiting expectantly at my feet.

All right, 2016. I’m ready now. Let’s go.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your New Year’s path. And today’s Yes.