Variations on a Theme

I have been triggered. You have been warned.

I am generally open to offering perspective or insight. I have not exactly been shy about this path I’m on, as a woman who lost her first husband to suicide, and as a mother to four children who lost a parent at entirely too young an age. I willingly share resources that I have found particularly helpful, books, therapists or organizations, my go-to radical self-care avenues, I share stories of success and failure from my own life. If you think that I personally might be able to help your “friend” (or to help you help your friend) who is struggling because whatever whatever whatever, then I’m in.

If, however, you are calling me to gossip about somebody who “lost her husband in the worst, most tragic way,” then call somebody else. I’m not interested. Do not call me to compare death by heart attack to death by some other attack. Not because I think that my path to widow was worse than anyone else’s. On the contrary, all the ways to widow suck. Period. There is no better or worse in this space. It’s all bad. It sucks in different ways, but every way stinks. I am not going to play this game with you. This is not a competition anybody wins. We are all losers in this race. It sucks whether you’ve been married 5 months, 5 years or 5 decades. It sucks if you’re engaged and don’t even get the “widow” title. It sucks if you’ve been left with young children. Or without them. The sudden heart attack, the drunk driving incident, the terrible accident, the lingering illness. All bad.

If you are calling because you want something you can do so that you will feel better, some task you can accomplish so that you can check the newly-widowed friend off your to-do list, forget that ugly little death business and move on with your day, then I am not your girl. Google the answer yourself. I appreciate that it is incredibly painful to sit with someone you love while she herself is writhing with suffering. I completely understand that this will be inconvenient and time-consuming. If you want to make yourself feel better, pour yourself a glass of wine. Or send the flowers and a note and keep moving. It’s okay. I get that you don’t get it. No hard feelings. Just don’t try to justify to me that you’ve done your part, and now she has to get over herself and figure it out. Her grief is not about you.

If, on the other hand, you genuinely want to help your friend feel better, pull up a chair next to her and buckle up. It’s a long haul, the territory is uncharted, and you’re both in for a bumpy ride. You are welcome to call me along the way. Grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience, but I will share with you what I have learned.

There will be some dark days ahead. Your friend might lose her appetite and an alarming amount of weight in a short time. She might eat only ice cream for hours on end, and she will let the dog eat Moose Tracks out of the container, even though it sticks to his ears. She will seem barely to function; that’s a good day. She will show up late or on the wrong day altogether. She will hardly ever know what day it is, actually. She will stare into space a lot, especially when you start talking, or even when she is talking. She cannot keep track of her train of thought or the incoming mail. Just when you are starting to doubt whether your friend will ever find light again, she will look up and notice that her designer dog is humping your leg, and she will grab him by his little collar and say, “All right. That’s enough. If I’m not having sex, then nobody else in this house gets to have any sex either!” Then the two of you will laugh until your sides hurt and you are crying again, and in this moment you will trust that your friend is – even now – finding her way.

It is interesting to me that most of the widows I know would not trade their particular journey for somebody else’s. Every path is hellish in unique ways. It’s a lot of suffering no matter how you get there. This is not an exercise in comparing and contrasting. The point is to move forward. The path traveled turns the experience from the unknown into the known, and there is comfort to be found in the familiar. When we transcend the language of better and worse, the seeds of gratitude begin to take root.

These movements forward cannot be rushed or forced, although the loving presence of a friend nurtures them along. Show up. Listen. Cry together. Laugh together. Be together. Even on our darkest days, there are reasons to be grateful and reasons to laugh. Healing starts to happen. She manages to drive herself to the grocery store and come back home with the ingredients for a complete meal, including ice cream, which she puts in the freezer before it pools on the counter. She remembers a cousin’s birthday. She shows up early to help set up for the Back to School picnic. She drives carpool. She will, predictably, dissolve into tears at times you cannot predict, but slowly, tentatively, she begins to rebuild her life. She starts to find joy again. She completes a novel. She plans a vacation. She orchestrates an anniversary celebration. She becomes herself again.

She is not fixed; she is transformed.

If that’s what you want to talk about, count me in.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And transformation.

World Travelers

It took me a while to choose the artwork for my office. For several months, I stared at the blank, white wall, wondering what might belong in that place. There’s something appealing to me about the freshly painted walls, free from scuff marks, dings and imperfections. The open space invokes excitement and mystery. The wall calls out to be adorned. It is full of potential, but the process is also intimidating. And expensive. Art is risky. The piece should have an appropriate message and be the right colors. I’m going to spend a lot of hours sitting across the desk from this art. What if I don’t like it as much as I thought I would? I can’t just try it on for size, and I will not be allowed to return it. I cannot afford to change it out like fashion, assuming the latest trend in hemlines with each season. It’s a commitment. I dared not rush into this decision impulsively. I spent hours clicking on various paintings and photographs, some original art, some prints, trying to picture the small image on the screen taking up residence over several square feet of wall space. After some time, I found the perfect piece, but then it almost didn’t arrive.

My best friend from college lives in New York City. Louise grew up in Wichita, we met in Houston, and now we live on opposite coasts of the country. Occasionally, I feel the physical distance between the two of us like a vast Midwestern cornfield, but more often than not, I feel close and connected. I know what would make her laugh and what (or who) would irritate her. We occasionally speak live on the phone, but we exchange text messages almost daily. For the entire first year after Sam’s death, she sent me an encouraging email message every morning and every evening. Every single day. For an entire year. She never missed. She was going through a protracted, contentious and expensive divorce at the time, but she remained present with her support and her humor. When she met my Tim for the first time, she took me aside and warned me, That man’s in love with you.

A client mentioned a website that features artists from all over the world and suggested that I might find a suitable piece there. I did. I felt drawn to it almost immediately, an oil painting entitled “Riverside” by an artist from Ghana. It conveys a moment of peace in the midst of what surely must be a difficult journey. I shared the picture with Louise for her blessing, and she loved it, too, as I knew she would. Somewhere between West Africa and the west coast of California, the painting went missing. UPS lost track of it. It vanished. The representative from the art website offered to give me a significant discount on another piece. I clicked and clicked to find a suitable replacement, but nothing fit. The wall stayed blank, no longer inviting but rather disappointed, resigned to waiting for the second-best option.

I ran my first (and so far only) half-marathon with Louise at my side. We trained on opposite coasts, comparing progress and injuries along the way. We shared a training schedule and smoothie recipes, and we encouraged each other when illness, weather and teenaged-boy-related incidentals interrupted our flow. After a few months, race day arrived, Louise flew to the west coast, and I drove up the coast to meet her. Together, we ran the 13.1 miles from the foothills to the beach, all the while motivating each other with anecdotes, insights and ‘atta girls. Every step after the 10-mile marker was a personal best for me. I had never run farther.

“Riverside” is mostly green and yellow, a tangle of trees so thick that the path the two women travel is obscured from the viewer. The river flows in the foreground, including reflections of the women in the moving water. They have come to fetch water, a task that probably takes up the majority of their day. In the painting, they have turned from the river’s banks, and they are heading back home to their village, each balancing a large water container on her head. The women appear tall and strong, almost regal, one with a blue headscarf and the other with red.

I also ran that one-and-only half-marathon with my husband Tim at my side. Flanked by my best friend and the love of my life, I have never been stronger or happier.

“Riverside” arrived at my doorstep unexpectedly. The cylindrical package appeared travel-worn at the edges but otherwise intact. There were no unusual markings or labels to indicate where it might have been diverted or delayed along its path between Africa and North America. As I carefully unrolled the painted canvas, a small leaflet fell to the floor with a brief description of the piece, the name of the artist, and the tagline, “Every treasure has a story…”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And safe travels.

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Breathe

I wear a silver bracelet every day. It started off perfectly round, smooth and shiny. After nearly nine years, it remains mostly round, bent and tarnished, but still intact. I take it off my wrist and set it on the desk in order to describe it, and it no longer lies flush against the surface, misshapen by years of daily use, but you might not notice that when it’s on my wrist. It’s a simple design, about 3/8” wide and 1/16” thick, stamped with seven letters in a plain font, all capitals, to form the word: BREATHE.

My friend Jen gave me the bracelet on Christmas Eve the year that my husband committed suicide. His death so stunned me – all of us, really – that it was all I could do to breathe in those early days of grief. Often I held my breath, not realizing that I was doing so. I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in three months. I couldn’t sleep, lying awake, flanked by my young children in the queen-sized bed, comforted by the sound of their rhythmic breathing in the dark. I lived by the mantra, “Inhale. Exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Even now, in times of stress, I will touch the bracelet and take a long inhale.

I took my first meditation class when the boys were little, before their father died. It strikes me as odd to take a class to learn a basic bodily function. Silence and stillness do not come naturally to me, and I had never really given much thought to breathing. I didn’t suffer from asthma or chronic bronchitis as a child, even though I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when we children were routinely instructed to spend our recess time indoors and not to run around. I was perfectly content to curl up with a book in my free time, but my lungs still ached at the end of each day with a deep inhale, so thick was the air with pollution. We didn’t give it much thought, though, that’s just how it was.

I think that children often think that whatever they experience is normal. It’s probably more accurate to say that they don’t think about it, and as a result they might not question it. At least that’s how it was for me. I thought it was normal for breathing to hurt by the end of the day, and it never occurred to me that other students could see the chalkboard at the front of the classroom. I was a shy, quiet, well-behaved elementary school girl with freckles and pony tails. My third grade teacher placed me at the back of the classroom, because she needed the seats in front for several rowdy students, up close where she could keep an eye on them.

One evening the teacher called my mother to inform her that “Charlotte was cheating. She was looking at her neighbor’s paper.” My mother, in her usual kind and unflustered manner, thanked the teacher very much for calling, hung up the phone and looked at my father. “Charlotte is not cheating. She’s too smart. She knows it’s wrong. It must be something else.”

Within the week, she had me at the optometrist’s office. As it turns out, I couldn’t see much past the length of my own arm, the perfect distance to read a book. Or my friend’s paper. I wasn’t intending to cheat. In fact, I didn’t even realize I was cheating. It never occurred to me that anybody else could see as far as the chalk board on the other side of the classroom. I just didn’t know.

I will never forget the car ride home wearing my new glasses. I could read street signs and billboards and see stoplights. I had no idea. Before that night, my world was a haze of indiscriminate colors. With clear vision, the streaks came into focus. The blurs suddenly had meaning. I was seeing this world for the first time.

Both contact lenses and meditation are staples in my life now. I’ve also added reading glasses to the mix, an occupational hazard, according to my optometrist, of approaching the age of 50. It’s a price I’m willing to pay, because I appreciate long distance vision for driving and watching my sons play sports or music or whatever they like to do, and books remain a passion.

This morning, I listened to a guided meditation, the theme of which was creativity. “The world, your world,” the gentle voice reminds me, “is constantly changing. There is newness and creativity in every breath.” When I open my eyes, I am struck by the realization that the world is a different one than the one I closed my eyes to just minutes earlier. Inspiration is simply a breath away. Breathe.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And inspiration.

The Club

I remember a brave, young widow coming to school for the first time after her husband’s sudden death, with their very young children in tow. The little ones were in kindergarten and second grade, the exact same ages and classes as my own sons, and as she approached, she said, “Well, today is the first day of the rest of our lives.” I was struck by her beauty and strength, and impressed by the fact that she hadn’t stayed in bed in her pajamas, which seemed only logical under the circumstances. I myself would have dissolved into tears right there in front of a dozen second-graders were it not for the widow’s own fortitude. It had been a rough go for our little microcosm of parents with two kids, ages 5 and 7, at the local elementary school. We had now lost two dads within two months, both with two children these same ages. Little did I know that within the year, I, too, would join this circle of newly-widowed moms.

These lovely souls who were widowed by cancer and an unexpected heart-attack welcomed me, widowed by suicide, with open arms, broken hearts and stiff martinis. Each of us entered the group kicking and screaming, without any actual kicking or screaming, but a fair amount of tears and pain nonetheless. “It’s the club you don’t want to be in,” they said, but thank God for them, these girlfriends who get it.

I never really found my place in a formal grief group. I went to a suicide survivors group meeting exactly once. I was the only widow present. Everyone else had lost a parent or a child. I managed to stay for the hour or so, and then I pretty much ran screaming from the room, but without the actual running or screaming. My friend, who had also lost an immediate family member to suicide years prior, had driven me to the meeting and attended with me. We got in her car, avoided eye contact and conversation for a while, and eventually looked at each other. I was relieved to see that she, too, was appalled and horrified by the wreckage we witnessed that night. I never returned.

Part of the challenge with that particular group on that specific night and, admittedly, through the lens of my own raw distress, was that there was no evidence of genuine healing, or progress of any kind for that matter. Instead, there was a fair amount of wallowing, some competitive grieving and an apparent lack of hope. They talked about hope, but they didn’t emanate hope. Time had passed – and for one in attendance, quite a lot of time, a decade or more – but little healing had occurred. Granted, some of the situations were horrific, which, in combination with my new and tender grief, undoubtedly colored my own impression. To be fair, most in the room had lost a child, an additional potential loss that was beyond overwhelming for me to contemplate. I had already seen the terrifying statistics on children who lose a parent (for any reason, not just suicide) and was determined to do what I could not to let my children become one.

I had no intention of joining what appeared to be a suicide-sanctioned pity party. I didn’t get a clear sense that they had lives beyond their loss. I never gave that group another chance. I needed a balance, but there was none to be found in the suicide survivors group that first night. It pointed a direction that I did not want to go.

On the other hand, I had grown up in a culture of denominationally-issued rose-colored glasses, and ignoring the loss was most certainly not going work for me. I was unsatisfied with the platitudes, that everything happens for a reason, that it’s all part of a grand plan. I do not feel drawn toward a God who plans tragedy in an effort to further my personal growth. It’s no coincidence that I would eventually join a church that reveres faith, resurrection, and hope but does not shy away from the broken body on the cross.

It is hard to find a balance, between the experience of loss and suffering on one side, and compassion and hope on the other. Healing is remembering, but not dwelling. Healing means incorporating the loss, without being consumed by the loss. Healing means kindling momentum, without running away. Healing means letting the loss color the view of the world without distorting the picture, a lens through which to consider the experience. Wallowing in misery is different than being present with the misery long enough to let it go. Pretending all is well when all is not is a lonely place, not a healing one. Healing means an ability to honor the uniqueness of each loss, to find a connection in loss without a need to compare losses.

I don’t mean to disparage groups. People are searching for different things when they join a group, and we each have a variety and range of needs (which change over time, just to render grief and healing all the more complicated). I know lots of people for whom groups have literally been life-saving, a refuge of compassion, mutual respect and shared sardonic humor. I totally get that. I didn’t find what I needed, but I learned that I didn’t want to go to a church or a hospital to find my healing place. I was too angry with God, and too wounded to be able to handle with any equanimity the various traumas present at a hospital. In that regard, at least, the group pointed me toward a healing direction.

I attended a different grief group a few times, this one designed for parents who had suffered the loss of a spouse. I found it somewhat helpful knowing I wasn’t alone in this messy business of grief, loss and single-parenting. Also helpful was that the organization simultaneously conducted a group session for the children, but neither of my boys felt especially comfortable in the kids’ setting. We attended a few times, but each week there seemed to be a widower in the parent group whose primary purpose in attending was to promote his search for a replacement wife, as though the grief group was a narrow category within a dating network where he could find someone to swoop in Mary-Poppins-style and fix everything. I started to think I needed a females-only group.

I have always had men in my life whose friendship I cherish, but after an unfortunate incident involving a single dad at the kids’ elementary school, I began to avoid single men intentionally. I’m not quite sure how he interpreted “No, thank you,” as “Not coffee, but how about Las Vegas for the weekend?” I was not prepared for male attention, with its threatening sexual vibe. I felt like Meg Ryan in that beginning scene from the movie When Harry Met Sally when she says she has male friends, and Billy Crystal says, “No you don’t. You think you do, but you don’t…. Men and women cannot be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” I suspected Billy Crystal might have been right. I began to avoid men altogether.

The feminist in me began to resent the men who thought I required their caretaking, either to fix me or the dripping faucet. The mother in me resented the men who thought my sons needed a step-father to groom them into manly men. And if I’m honest about it, the widow in me simply wanted to protect her broken heart: if I never allowed myself to fall in love again, then my heart would be safe.

I needed women to cocoon me during the storm, strong but gentle, broken-hearted-but-not-broken women. Women who had suffered loss, but who weren’t embittered by it. Women who didn’t wear their loss like a badge of honor, or an entitlement, or an excuse, but whose loss enabled them to find a deeper healing, a more expansive compassion, a larger purpose. Women who had faith – in life, in healing, in themselves, in me.

The formal grief group wasn’t the place for me, but I found my healing places in a book group (two book groups, truth be told, even though an alarming number of our book selections feature suicide), a yoga class, a meditation course, a running group and a small prayer group. I found healing on the trails, at kitchen tables and on the yoga mat. In an exclusive group consisting of my therapist and me. And on a team of one: just me with my meditation pillow, my breath and a parade of feelings.

The women in these groups were survivors of all manner of loss – death, illness, divorce, infertility. We drank together, sometimes side by side, sometimes virtually, through photos sent via text message, and we laughed at wickedly morbid repartee.

I found that several of my most reliable supporters were also single mothers, many by virtue of divorce. I do not pretend to know the divorce path and pain; I just know that there were enough parallels that these sister-friends and I clung to each other, symbiotically bailing our leaky boats, crying our synchronous tears, holding each other close and mutually celebrating our professional, maternal and emotional achievements. For whatever reason, the single-parent track was a more meaningful connection for me than the suicide specific loss. It was all a part of finding my way.

After many months, lots of coffee dates and countless loops around the Rose Bowl, I came to the realization that there is really only one club, and we are all in it. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.” Or, as the girlfriends and I say, We are all in the same leaky boat.

There is no one path to healing, but a healing path is to be found. For me, my healing places feature tears, laughter, dark chocolate and noir pinot noir. My healing groups include runners, readers, prayers, singers and an unlikely band of moms who met sporadically for tea and snacks. Women who, through their presence, encourage and inspire. Women of grace who can simply be with me. Which is the greatest, healing gift. And which, it seems to me, reflects the promise of Immanuel, or God with us. The God who comes to us in his vulnerability and innocence, kicking and screaming, and to whom we open our arms and hearts and say, “Welcome to the club, baby.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Bail, baby, bail.

Bits & Pieces

I believe in the healing power of broken hearts. And that through an influence not my own, the most beautiful wounded souls enter into my path exactly when I need them. They show up having suffered every type of loss, death, suicide, divorce, disappointments, regrets, childhood abuse, trauma, and gently retrieve a shard of my own shattered, porcelain heart. Each friend brings that piece lovingly to me, offering hope. As I find my way back to wholeness, my own heartbeats echo the love of broken-hearted friends who brought the pieces back to me.

A few days after Sam’s death, one of the boys – in a fit of rage and confusion – shredded his favorite blanket, the one he had commandeered from his brother, the lovey that appears in countless photographs of the young child. We had once driven back home two hours to retrieve the baby blanket in order to salvage our weekend away. My son reduced his blanket to ribbons of yellow within minutes, while I stood watching, tears streaming down my face, helpless in the face of my son’s angry sadness. His constant, reliable source of comfort turned to tattered rags. Standing defiantly amidst the remains of his former blanket, the boy wept. Inconsolable.

There are so many times I longed to fix things for my sons, wished I could have fixed things for Sam, and so many friends who wanted to fix things for me. Grief doesn’t lend itself to fixing. You can’t put things back the way they were.

We clung to each other, overwhelmed by the enormity of putting a life together again.

Sometimes, in the midst of just such chaos, a lovely human being shows up with her signature talent. One of my friends is a gifted seamstress; she has also suffered and transcended a childhood loss of her own. I didn’t know these things about her. I would not have thought to ask for her help to repair the blanket. It was her idea. She carefully took the torn remains of my boy’s blanket (with his permission) and began the painstaking work of putting the pieces back together again. Of course, they would not come back exactly as they were, but she sewed with great care, keeping the pattern mostly intact, and then she attached a new backing to the whole thing. There were a few random scraps that didn’t quite fit, but she sewed those pieces into a pocket on the blanket. She’s the kind of friend who knows the value of holding each yellow fragment.

When she returned with the blanket, it wasn’t the same, it wasn’t fixed, but it was soft and whole and lovable. The restored version reminds us of the stabilizing presence of friendship in times of pain and sorrow. It continues to remind us of inner strength, survival and love.

As an aside, I had actually found a blanket exactly like the original, but that new blanket never found a home on my son’s bed or in his heart. And I couldn’t tell you where it is now. It wasn’t authentic. The “real” one had been loved on and spilled on and dragged around and tattered by grief and sewn together by a mother’s tender hands. In the words of Lewis Carroll, “It’s no use to go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

My son preferred the well-loved blanket, the one that stayed and frayed with him through his grief, loss and loneliness, the tangible reminder of healing, hope and friendship.

When a senseless tragedy befalls someone I love, and I just cannot get my head around it, all I can do is hold her in my heart. I know there is power in hearts that have been broken open, because I have been embraced and lifted by just such hearts beating in symphony.

In times of heartache, I have been known to borrow my son’s precious pieced-together yellow blanket. I know exactly where it is. I hold it close and breathe in its healing presence. There is a sacred beauty in the wholeness that remains broad enough to include the scars, the frayed pieces and the empty spaces.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wholeness.