Frog Days

Somewhere there is a picture of my boy’s small, soft hands holding the tiny frog he caught at the edge of a pond. “Take a picture, Mommy,” the enraptured boy said, “so we can show Daddy.” I dutifully snapped the photo on my phone, since I didn’t have my camera with us. The boys and I had gone on an afternoon hike in the local mountains with the dog. Daddy had stayed home to take a nap. At least, that’s what he said he would do.

We navigated the path to a small waterfall, home to a number of very little frogs and a convenient destination for our afternoon journey. The boys and the dog had short legs and a limited endurance for hiking back then. I wish I could find the photograph, but I didn’t print it out. I’m not sure that I ever even transferred it to a computer or a flash drive. That day was so long ago, the picture might now only exist in my memory.

Daddy never did see the frog. By the time we returned from the hike, his car was missing, and a police car sat parked in front of our home instead, lights flashing silently, waiting for our arrival in order to deliver the news of his suicide. During the time we were hiking, Daddy had been rushed to the local trauma center and pronounced dead. When I picture my boy’s young, tender hands reaching toward me, gently holding the brown spotted frog, I imagine also an ambulance driver’s hands on the wheel, rushing to the emergency room with my husband on board, the nurses’ urgent hands moving efficiently through their life-saving efforts, and later, the doctor’s hands with nothing left for her to do but sign the paperwork, then the technician’s strong hands carefully transferring the broken body to the hospital morgue. None of this appears in the frog photograph, of course, but the two scenes are inextricably mixed in my mind so that I cannot think about one without the other.

I used to be more organized about taking photographs and putting together scrapbooks, but after Sam’s death it just seemed a futile attempt to hold on to a life that would ultimately slip through my hands. For a while it took a concentrated effort even to take a picture. Gradually, I began to snap a few. At first, I relied mostly on the official school photographers and the generosity of other parents who forwarded pictures of my children. Over the years, I have gotten better at capturing these moments on camera myself, but I have also developed more capacity to appreciate the precious moment in time, without the need to document each and every event. I know my memory will fade and forget; even so, I just let the present overtake me.

My son once drew a picture of the day his father died. On one side of the landscape page was a gorgeous fall day, blue sky, green grass, bright sun, cheerful flowers and a frog. He drew a line down the center of the page and scribbled black over the other half the page. What strikes me about that drawing is that the one side does not negate the other; he did not scribble black over top of the landscape. Both the beauty and the darkness exist side by side.

I can’t find that picture either, no doubt a casualty of both the chaotic state of my garage and the whirlwind pace of a life full of kids and cat and dog. I do hope I find it. But for now, I keep it in a special place in my heart, a reminder that our bleakest days do not eliminate the light in our lives. We hold the full range, including unimaginably dark and painful days alongside gorgeous fall afternoons, full of song and puppies and other miracles. Breathtaking moments like a brown, spotted frog in the chubby hands of a little boy. Moments that carry us through the dark days, with the promise and warmth of sunshine.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And the promise of sunshine.

Thoughts for My Grieving Son On Father’s Day

You were little.
A boy is not supposed to lose
his daddy so young.

I wish I could have protected you both.
Instead, I was left
holding the fragments of your broken heart
waiting
for you
to piece them back together.

And you have,
With love
Patience and diligence
Kindness and joy and faith
Intelligence and goodness and humility and character and humor and hope.

Shards remain.
Value them.
Notice
when anger inspires you to face injustice.
Let incredulity guide
initiative
and increase understanding.
Let hatred provoke
your actions toward peace.
Respect the resentment
that fuels your desire to change.
Just enough.
No more.

Listen to the voices in your heart
to sustain you,
heal you,
form you
hold you together.
You will recognize your father’s love
incorporated in you.
His presence
in your life,
strength,
stillness,
a gentle confidence,
resembling his hand on your shoulder.

Your tears stop,
not because you no longer care;
You simply no longer cry.
Your wholeness
intact
safe.

The tears return,
and when they do, do not be discouraged.
It does not mean that you have not healed,
they point
simply
to the depth of the loss
and the remarkable capacity of your broken heart.

Mind, Body, Heart

I had always approached pretty much most of life’s challenges from an intellectual perspective. If there was a book (or several books!) or a TED talk, seminar or course that I could read, watch or attend, I was reasonably confident that I would be equipped for the task at hand.

But then there was grief.

Grief does not lend itself to a tidy outline or a lecture. Grief is a physiological journey, as much as an emotional and spiritual one. Grief is a corporeal takeover – the insomnia, the bone-crushing exhaustion, the tears and mood swings, the cravings and the loss of appetite, the panic attacks, the gastrointestinal distress, the inability to focus, the difficulty breathing. It throws every function out of whack. Grief, like pregnancy, is a total body experience, but without the party games, the cute baby clothes or a due date.

The jagged edges of my broken heart pierced all the other biological systems. I should not have been so surprised; everything is connected. For weeks, my therapist focused on whether I was eating, sleeping and breathing. No healing was going to happen until those body basics were covered. She knows that I’m more at home in my rational mind than my emotional one, but grief was a problem I could not think my way through. I would have to let my feelings guide me through this scary, uncomfortable territory, feelings that have a home in the body.

We begin with the simple human needs: eat, sleep, breathe. A child who is well-rested, nourished and cared for will naturally progress through the stages of sitting, crawling, and walking. So too, the grieving heart finds comfort and hope within an anatomy embraced with tender care.

Eat. It’s hard enough to eat healthy, and there are more than enough nutritional theories to go around, which I will not debate here. Bottom line: Even with a refrigerator full of comfort food, I lost my appetite and 25 pounds in the first three months after Sam’s death, and nobody would argue that this approach was particularly beneficial. I had to find my way back toward nurturing the body that takes me around in this life. Mercifully, the body is a marvelous teacher, if I am willing to be attentive. I find my balance with food. Sometimes that looks like kale salad or beet juice. Often that means dark chocolate and Pinot noir. Always gratitude.

Sleep. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that a good night’s sleep is key to mental and physical health. I didn’t need to read any of it to know that after a few sleepless nights, my capacity deteriorated on every front. I had never before experienced that combination of exhaustion and insomnia. It seemed like anyone I knew who was even remotely qualified to do so offered to write me a prescription for something to induce sleep. I initially resisted, but soon I began to appreciate that a full night’s shut-eye would go a long way toward recovery. Sometimes, I just had to tuck myself into bed and let that little girl fall asleep.

Breathe. My mantra, then and now, remains: “Inhale, exhale, repeat as necessary.” Breathing might mean a long walk, a short run, a steep hike or a pedicure. This breathing might present in the form of a long sit, a guided meditation or a silent prayer. It almost always looks like yoga, whether cat, cow, tree, warrior or child’s pose. Even corpse pose is a great place to breathe; flat on the ground, held and supported by the earth, I remember that I am not a corpse yet. I have the gift of this moment, this life, this miraculous body, both broken and blessed.

When life goes sideways and my heart needs tending, I turn toward this holy trinity of healing: eat, sleep, breathe. The body holds incredible wisdom and remarkable healing powers. When I can incorporate my losses with tangible gentleness, I bring peace to my suffering heart and engage the human capacity for hope and light.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. Along with snacks, a walk and a nap.

Aren’t You Done Yet?

Nope.
Not “done.”
Not “over it.”
Past the designated year.
Long passed.
I’m learning to live with “it.”
Yes, still.

If by healed you mean finished and forgotten,
I’m not that.
Not healed, but healing.

I’m learning
to live with joy, passion and light.
To love
Despite the obvious risk.
To laugh out loud
Even if that offends as well.
To cry
To dream
To celebrate
To be faithful notwithstanding
All of it.

It’s not a bad thing, you know.
To love someone so completely
That he becomes a part of me
like a dialect.
That I laugh at what he would have found amusing,
That I hear his voice, even now heeding his advice,
That I see his children through his eyes,
That I call his family mine.
That I wear him like a favorite sweater.
That I remain crippled by his wounds.

This love – and this loss – shape me
Into who I am,
Inseparable from who he was. And is.
It’s not a bad thing,
To let my heart open and stretch,
Because love is not static.
Love changes.
Love grows.
Love heals.
Love doesn’t end.
Love remains.

He is the part of me that I gave over to love,
And his love granted me
my whole self.
I will not delete our story
to suit your (in)sensitivity.
Love brought me here.
My story.

I do not flinch
As I speak his name
Sam.
Still healing.

I’m living
With confidence
With clarity
With pain and beauty and tears and truth and laughter and hope
And gratitude,
All together.
With love.
Still.

***

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

States and Stages

I would have hoped that something called the “Five Stages of Grief” could be a relatively orderly practice. I imagined the five stages as a sort of Life syllabus for the grieving process. A bit like the developmental stages of infant-toddler-young child, with a clear trajectory, even if there are some points of overlap. First, he turns from back to tummy, then he sits, then crawls, walks, and runs. The actual grief experience, however, is much less defined and quite a bit louder.

The chaplain hands me a simple pamphlet, describing the five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. The whole process seems tidy and manageable, all summed up in an 8 page glossy format. I read the whole thing in less than seven minutes. It seems reasonable enough. Almost refined.

And then the work of grieving begins.

Let me just say that my grief has not been especially cooperative with the outline. I’m a pretty diligent student. If grief and healing had been a class, I would have completed much of the assigned reading and turned most of the assignments in on time, all within the course of the semester. But loss is a test you can’t really prepare for.

Each grief is different, just as every child is different. The best I can do is to become an expert in my own grief. The good news in all this is that there are many ways to do grief right, and only a few wrong ways.

I swing from Denial to Acceptance in a single loop around the Rose Bowl. I hold on to a few steadfast girlfriends who are relentless with their love and attention. I have two good reasons to get up in the morning, but Depression crawls back under the covers after she walks those reasons to school.

Not every experience fits neatly into a five-pronged paradigm. The uncontrollable tears – are those Depression? Or Anger? Or Acceptance? Isn’t there a plain vanilla Sad? What about Panic, Sleeplessness, Loss of Appetite and Inability to Focus? The sense of being so completely Alone. Resentment. Remorse. Apathy.

The stages blow in together like a winter storm, with lightening flashes of Desperation, clouds of Fear, winds of Self-Pity, hailstones of Loneliness. The calm and beauty of a summer day seem very far away.

There’s no real time constraint. Just when I think I’m done with a stage, Anger for example, one of the boys comes home from school devastated because somebody else’s dad brought a prototype Mars rover to show the class, or gave a cool art presentation on Picasso, or just came home from work like he does on any given day, and then I’m angry all over again. Angry at Sam, at myself, at Life, at Picasso. Just plain angry.

And so it goes. I cannot check the stages off, like my daily task list. Done. The stages come back in their random order and time. Acceptance seems to linger for days or weeks at a time, but Depression might return when certain anniversaries come around. I revisit Bargaining when the children suffer.

All of which is complicated by the fact that the children’s grieving process is as noncompliant as my own.

Some days the six of us are each in a different stage, and it’s like playing a game of musical chairs, with each of the five chairs representing a stage of grief. When the music stops, the last man standing looks around, bewildered, not wanting to play the game at all. By evening, of course, everybody has exchanged seats, some of us multiple times (except the one who refuses to leave his chair), and we face an entirely new conglomeration of simultaneous stages. We cannot agree on which music to play. It’s not organized or pretty.

We live our way through.

Because the fact of the matter is that grief – whatever its states and stages – is the price we pay for living wholeheartedly.

A few months after Sam’s suicide, I took a meditation class. I didn’t realize what a healing course this practice would be at the time. I continue to engage in a meditation practice, as those five stages – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – appear with alarming relevance in the course of parenting teenagers. The key is simply to become aware of the range of experience, without judgment. Just notice what is happening, and let the feeling flow without getting stuck. Awareness leads to healing. It’s not ignoring the sadness, but there is kindness toward the process.

One of my favorite places to sit and meditate is on a balcony above the boardwalk at the beach. The sun warms my face. I hear the wind in the palm fronds. And I’m vaguely aware of the stages of grief, traveling along the path before me. Anger scoots by on his skateboard, kathunk-kathunk, kathunk-kathunk. Depression plods by with sticky footsteps. Denial and Bargaining walk together, yammering animatedly. Acceptance runs by, light on her feet, steady and joyful with movement. And still the warmth and the wind. Gentleness.

An amazing thing starts to happen in this place. Even though there is constant change and flux, my essential wholeness remains intact. The true self. The soul. Spirit’s song. Inner light. Identity. Whatever you call it, I am. Right here. In the midst of all that has been broken and shattered, I am whole and safe. The universe holds all the pieces.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a quiet place to inhale.

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).

Laughter in the Wrong Places

This grief business sometimes surprises me in its absurdity. Today I inhaled a gnat on my jaunt with the dog, and this moment transported me back to the day of Sam’s funeral.

Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed out loud, but honestly, what exactly is the appropriate response when you’re walking from the chapel to the burial site, accompanying your dead husband’s coffin surrounded by several hundred family, friends, clients, clergy and colleagues and you involuntarily sniff up a fly in the midst of a sob? It’s surreal and ludicrous and hot, and if – God forbid – I had to do it over, I would probably laugh again, even though my attendant and one of the pallbearers simultaneously whipped their heads around to glower at me, as though I were a small child (but not too small) laughing in church.

Houses of worship should be a sanctuary for both laughter and tears, but this behavior generally gets the shush in holy places. Personally, I enjoy my children’s laughter in church, but I can’t tell them so; instead, I give them the “mom look,” that is, if I’m not snickering myself. Seriously, if God doesn’t want us to laugh, then that’s not a God I need to spend a lot of time with.

But that fly at the funeral. I covered my mouth to hide the flagrantly inappropriate giggle and to keep myself from gagging up the little insect. Everything was all just so wrong. In the shock and gravity of Sam’s suicide, the overwhelmingness of it, somehow that ordinary fly suffering death by sniffle still strikes me as funny. I have rarely thought about that day at the cemetery since without also thinking about the gnat-snorting incident, a suppressed snicker and the ensuing glares. That little bug gave his life to save my sense of humor, although I was the only one who appreciated it at the time. And even though that moment reinforced how very alone and misunderstood I would feel in my mourning, even though it reminded me that this was a path I would have to walk by myself, the fact that laughter might yet be possible was no small consolation.

On the day of Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends – the first to arrive at my home, in fact – told me, “This is going to sound terribly unfair, but you are going to have to comfort a lot of people.” She was right. It did sound terribly unfair. And it was true, I did have to comfort a lot of people. I held hands and looked into eyes. I assured them that I was ok, that the children were ok, and that they would be ok, too. I reminded them that Sam’s demons weren’t their fault or contagious. Together, we remembered a good and loving man.

But my friend was also wrong. Grief makes people uncomfortable. So one of the ways to comfort other people, naturally, would be to temper my own grief. Which I didn’t always do.

People have a lot of opinions on what grief should look like. Grief should be solemn and wear black. Grief should last one year, or the rest of your life. Grief should say its prayers. Grief should speak when invited to, and then not too loudly, spilling all over and making a scary, uncomfortable mess. Grief should stay home from parties. Grief should not drink too much, or spend too much time alone, or be too angry.

I did all those things. Plus some.

My grief lost her appetite and her train of thought. My grief forgot to pay her bills on time. She said, “At least my husband’s not a deadbeat, he’s just dead.” Sometimes my grief crawled back into bed. She couldn’t focus. Or sleep. She stopped cooking and reading and scrapbooking. My grief got distracted and walked out the room while people were still talking. My grief could not bear the thought of sending Christmas cards. My grief did not always behave herself with grace or decorum. She berated my faith regularly. My grief was foul-mouthed and ill-humored, and worse, she allowed her children to be foul-mouthed and ill-humored. She was chronically late. She gave up on God and mascara. She did a lot of things she had sworn never to do, like running, and Xanax. She laughed on her way to bury her husband.

It was not the first (or last) time judgment and its side-kick, disapproval, would play a part in the process, but that was the risk I would take in choosing to own my experience. That little laugh reminded me that my inner snarky self was still lively under the weight of all that sadness. Slowly, tenaciously, I traversed the strange and perilous road to healing which is grief.

I consider it a profound honor when someone trusts me enough genuinely to grieve a loss in my presence. To laugh and cry and shake and say terribly irreverent things or nothing at all. These are sacred moments, but they are not easy ones. It is agonizing to see someone you love suffer, to stay with them during those painful, difficult times. There is no fix, but the sturdy, loving presence of a friend makes things so much better. In these moments to ask the griever to be the comforter does seem terribly unfair.

But in another sense, my friend’s prediction pointed to a higher truth, one that I did not appreciate until much later: her hallmark faith that I would find and share healing after tragedy. Which is no small comfort.

There’s no blueprint for healing, no one-size-fits-all. There are certainly no right answers, although there are definitely some wrong ones, but the best I could hope for was to find my way with integrity. The most authentic comfort I can provide is not in words or ritual but in experience, having found my own way to a resurrected life, full of love and forgiveness and hope and an increased capacity for both heartbreak and joy, all while honoring my spicy, spirited self.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wildly inappropriate laughter.

Competitive Suffering

I love to cozy up in my favorite chair with a good book more than almost anything else in the world. This morning there are several books within arm’s reach, one on parenting teenagers, Anne Lamott’s latest and my kindle. I could cocoon here happily for several hours. That’s not going to happen, but the idea that I wish it could makes me smile. It took me several years to get back to my bookwormish self, but I did.

After Sam’s death, I lost my interest in reading. I barely had the attention span for the caption under a photograph in the morning paper, let alone an entire magazine article. A novel was out of the question. Apparently this inability to focus is common among those who have recently suffered a significant loss. One dear and well-intentioned friend brought me a legal treatise on retirement plans and spousal rollovers. Seriously. Even without the grief-induced brain trauma, my eyes roll up in the face of phrases like “defined contribution plan” and “minimum required distributions.” I would need a more compelling reason to curl up with the Internal Revenue Code. Needless to say, I never finished reading the Great American IRA Debate. I barely even got past the title. Nonetheless, I was grateful (astonished, really) that my friend had faith in my capacity to focus and read, and I left it at that.

Several friends (knowing that I am an avid reader) recommended the book A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which chronicles the year following her husband’s fatal heart attack. She was sitting down to dinner with her husband one evening and the next moment he was dead. As I recall (and I could be wrong about this — in addition to inattention, I suffered from grief-induced amnesia), it was the only book I actually finished in that first year following Sam’s suicide.

You might think her story would resonate with me, that I would appreciate the perspective of a fellow traveler grappling with the fact that her entire world turned upside down overnight. But I didn’t. I thoroughly resented it. Throughout the entire book, I kept thinking The man had a pacemaker,  for crying out loud. How surprised could you have been? My husband wasn’t diagnosed, medicated or even in therapy. Your daughter had graduated from college when her father died. My youngest son just finished kindergarten!

I couldn’t take her whining. I had way too much whining of my own to do.

Around that same time, the boys had some friends over to play. One of the kids was pretending to host a game show he called “What’s Your Tragedy?” He was standing on the stage (the bed), talking into the microphone (his curled fist): “Helllloooo Cincinnati, you’re on live with widows and orphans. Tell us (as he extends the microphone to the contestant), What’s your tragedy?”

Whatever you say in response to his outstretched fist will be pathetic. To play the game is to lose.

I wish I could say I didn’t get sucked into playing my own version of What’s Your Tragedy. I did. At least for a while. Honestly, marinating in the misery of a painful loss can be a vital part of the healing process. It can be helpful to visit that place, but I didn’t want to take up permanent residence there. It’s the competitive practice of suffering that is counterproductive. I didn’t like the way I felt when I was trying to convince myself (or worse, somebody else) how much worse my own life was. Or my sons’ lives. Because they were young, or because I was. Or wasn’t. Or whatever.

I did not want to become one of those people who engage in competitive suffering. There is no room for gratitude in that space. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mess of Sam’s death, even though suicide is messy. I didn’t want to identify myself primarily or exclusively as a widow, even though I have been widowed.

Ultimately, it’s neither accurate nor productive to compare death by cancer, suicide, heart failure, accident or homicide, to pit divorce against death in a misguided abandonment contest. This path does not lead to the Sweet Sixteen, only madness. I know more than one friend for whom the loss of a faithful pet would create more significant grieving than the death of an absentee or alcoholic or abusive parent. I cannot even contemplate how painful the death of a child must be. There is no path toward meaning in the What’s Your Tragedy paradigm. No two people suffer the same. It all just hurts.

At the end of the day I became an expert on my own grief. Like the well-drawn antagonist in a novel, my grief has forced my own character growth. I don’t know that this was strictly necessary —  I was already a character. Some days my grief took my legs out from under me, grabbing an ankle like an imp, laughing when I fell to the ground flat on my face. That little beast needs attention. Some days my grief spewed its toxic, fiery dragon breath in my face, and I learned to stand patiently, calmly, while the brute exhausted its venom, eventually curling up like a sleepy kitten. Some days it sat like a weight on my shoulders or in the pit of my stomach. Gradually, I grew less afraid of its heft and more tolerant of its presence. Some days grief whispered its discouraging messages. Sit here. You can’t do this. Just stop. Eventually, I recognized its voice. I have come to know the facets of my own grief, not exactly as a friend, but almost like a trusted mentor. And my heart softened toward the phases of my grief, creating an inner strength and the capacity to extend compassion toward another’s suffering.

The crux of healing is to find a way to incorporate the fact of the loss — not to ignore it or to become overwhelmed by the loss — and still to keep moving. I learned to reach a caring arm, first to myself, and then toward others suffering their own unique losses, without the need to compare and contrast my own travails. Their grief is not about mine.

I had found my way out the What’s Your Tragedy gameshow and back toward living a life. With love, with joy, with compassion. And even with a renewed attention span for reading.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the inspiration to get out of the game.

Sticks and Stones

An Ode to Angry

A couple of weeks ago, I had noted in my blog that I was struggling with a certain, shall we say, unpleasant situation. Within a few days, I received an anonymous Dammit Doll in the mail. If you are not familiar, as I wasn’t, the Dammit Doll (looking vaguely voodoo-ish), bears this little poem: Whenever things don’t go so well, and you want to hit the wall and yell, here’s a little Dammit Doll, that you can’t do without. Just grasp it firmly by the legs and find a place to slam it. And as you whack the stuffing out, yell “Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!” Yes, I laughed, I so need this. But who sent it?

The return address was amazon.com, and initially I didn’t find even a packing slip. Here are my top five guesses as to which of my girlfriends was most likely to have sent me the Dammit Doll:

  1. The minister.
  2. The atheist.
  3. The seminary student.
  4. The PTA president.
  5. The preacher’s wife.

It tickles me that my most spiritually attuned friends are also the most likely to appreciate my need to slam the stuffing out of an unsuspecting doll. And yes, I include the atheist in the spiritual category, because she is one whose heart has been so wounded by life that she finds it impossible to believe in a loving and all-powerful One. And the PTA president, because she is engaged with both teenagers and administrators, and if that combination doesn’t bring you to your knees in prayer, I don’t know what will.

One of my best friends used to struggle with anger, the kind that wells up and wrenches the insides, fueled by powerlessness in the face of heartbreak and unfairness, threatening to spill out in ugly and hurtful ways. He had learned, over the years, that a “mad stick” proved an enormously helpful conduit to funnel the angry out. Picture a walking stick found along the side of a hiking path – that’s the ideal branch for use as a mad stick. He would whack the mad stick against a tree or fence or cement wall that could withstand the force of his outrage. He had found a relatively safe way to let the mad go. The stick itself did not usually survive the experience intact, but my friend did.

My emotional equivalent of the mad stick is pounding the pavement. I return from a mad run physically exhausted, both fueled by anger and wrought out by the emotion. It’s a cathartic experience.

Frankly, I don’t understand people who don’t have anger issues. If you are engaged with life, if you have friends and family and dogs you love, if you think the world could be improved in both small and significant ways, then you also know that life is desperately unfair. That people disappoint (even the ones you call “dad” or “baby”). That there is evil in the world and in boardrooms and locker rooms and sacred spaces. And if you are connected with life at any level and participate with both your heart and mind, then unfairness, evil, and poverty are sufficient to make you angry enough to beat the stuffing out of a dozen Dammit Dolls. And that’s before a single interaction with the DMV.

In the Jewish tradition, mourners will often place a stone on the gravesite as a sign of respect. The rock itself represents enduring love. The boys would sometimes write notes or draw pictures on their rocks before going to their father’s gravesite. Sometimes these were love notes; other times they were more like hate mail. One day, one of my sons had carefully chosen rocks to bring with him, including one that was broken in half. He chose it specifically because it looked like a broken heart. On the center broken part, he had written “I love you.” He placed his broken-heart rock gently on his father’s tablet. And then he carefully searched for more rocks. After he had collected a few, he paused, took a step back… and, winding up like a pitcher, hurled them at the tablet. The stones crashed and collided with the grave marker. He stomped and he cried.

As painful as it was for me to see my little boy in so much agony, I stayed with him, allowing him to experience the intensity of his young wrath. I was not afraid that his launching of those rocks would somehow nullify the affection he had for his father. It was the perfect expression of little boy grief – “I love you. I miss you. I don’t understand why you would rather die than go to my soccer game.” Eventually, worn out by his emotion, he ran out of rocks. Finally, he knelt close to the marker, touched his father’s name gently with his hand, placed a kiss on the tablet, and whispered, “I miss you, Daddy. I really miss you.”

Even now, when we drive by the cemetery, sometimes the boys are silent, sometimes they say “Hi Dad,” sometimes they wave or blow a kiss, and sometimes they give Dad the one-finger salute. Depends on the day and the kid.

I honor my sons’ needs to stomp their feet and throw rocks. I had done the same myself the first time I visited the gravesite after Sam’s suicide. It’s not a bad place to start the mourning process. The important lesson is to start. Healing can happen from that first movement forward, even if that step is to stomp on the gravesite of the man you love most in the world.

I have learned to honor my own mad. Maybe the mad is enough to get me off the sofa. Or into therapy. Or to speak to a group of social workers about what it’s like to parent children in the throes of grief. Mad does its best work when I know its place. My mad is generally more productive on a long run, or on a written page, where the aggravated steam rises and ultimately dissipates, yielding to softer language, gentler steps, before meeting other eyes or ears. Angry does not make quality decisions, but it can spark an initiative for change. Indignation can provide a boost in momentum to get through difficult, unfair, challenging spaces. Angry does not stand by idly – or worse, silently – while injustice or cruelty wield their terrible blows.

Yes, mad most definitely has a place, but mad does not get the last word. When angry gets stuck it settles into bitterness or resentment and loses its purpose. But when angry has an outlet, that space surrenders to a different emotion and renewed power. That open place invigorates and builds. It strengthens resolve. It emboldens change. It inspires hope. It transforms.

Mad, at its finest, can be an invitation toward growth. Which is exactly what the preacher’s wife was counting on when she sent me the Dammit Doll.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just enough anger to propel you toward hope.