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.

Reunion Tour

We girls got together for a reunion run around the Rose Bowl recently. These girls are the women who ran with me at o-dark-thirty for months after Sam’s death, and boy, was my world dark both night and day back then. These running friends paced me for hundreds of miles over the course of several years, through valleys of sadness, anger and grief, up mountains of fear, across miles of joy, serenity and strength. I would say that these ladies healed me, but one of them told me, “The truth is, Charlotte, you were healing yourself. We were just privileged to watch.” I cannot help but wonder, though, whether I would have kept moving forward if they hadn’t been watching.

We had a schedule. Short runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays, long runs on Saturdays. We signed up for a half-marathon. Some mornings, depending on the work-kid-life dynamic, there would only be two of us, sometimes as many as six or seven, but we kept on track. Literally. When later one of us was training for a full marathon, the rest of us divided the route into shorter distances, so the marathoner almost always had a companion along the way. A real support team. But life got busy, and our regular morning runs fell by the wayside. Over time, most of us suffered injuries and disappointments, all of us have launched children in a variety of forms, many switched job situations or marital status, some willingly and others reluctantly, and several changed homes. Still, we move forward.

Then one of our number reached a point where she needed companions for her journey. It was time to get the band back together. We issued the clarion call.

The reunion tour was a blast. When teenagers at home no longer find us funny, beautiful, intelligent – or even remotely reasonable – then it is a distinct pleasure to spend an hour sweating and swearing with kindred funny, beautiful and intelligent women. When the septic backs up over a holiday weekend, the grouchy cat shreds another sofa, and the dog develops a neurotic reaction to hearing the football game on television, so much so that the whole family gathers surreptitiously around a laptop behind closed doors to catch the highlights instead of turning on the flat screen in the family room, it is a relief to hear others’ tales and travails of homeownership, quirky pets and psychotic sisters. When one of our children receives an award, scores a win or gets that fat envelope from a preferred college, our joy is amplified by sharing the news with these friends, the same friends who were there for the child’s concussion or his car crash or his heartbreak.

The power of community to lift, to love and to laugh is remarkable. We liked it so much we decided to run together again the next week, but I almost didn’t make it. Primarily for reasons associated with the prior evening’s activity, the get-together of another group of hilarious, gorgeous, witty women, at an equally raucous but slightly more sedentary event – our book group. I seriously considered curling back up in my cozy bed instead of braving the cold, but then I thought about the many early mornings that the girls had gotten up early to run with me.

I load up the dog’s crate, and we head out to greet the morning. There is healing power simply in the act of showing up.

We walk, we run, we pause. We listen, we laugh, we cry. We share stories of disgruntled children bemoaning the existence of chores and our inadequate parenting. We encourage each other through family traumas and holiday gatherings, which are occasionally one and the same. We put one foot in front of the other, some days more slowly than others, but still moving forward. It is an honor and a privilege to go alongside, bearing witness to the progress, seeing each other’s beauty and value. And we’ll do it again next week.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And friends along the way!

Deathaversary IX

Another year passes
since the unthinkable.
We still think about it, of course.
And you.

Your picture stays,
a constant on the mantle,
soft brown eyes, no aging wrinkles,
no additional gray.
Same, steady smile.
Nothing to betray the passage of time,
other than a little dust around the edges of the frame.

Your sons’ pictures tell a different story.
Birthday celebrations,
athletics, concerts and travel.
Photographs accumulate, line the walls, accent end tables and bookshelves,
fill boxes and scrapbooks,
and cover the baby grand piano, marking accomplishments and moments.
Formal portraits,
Casual family gatherings,
Graduations,
Football teams,
School events,
Baptisms and confirmations,
Days at the beach,
Ski weeks,
Fishing trips.
Smiles, laughter and silliness.
Brotherhood in many forms.
They move through their young lives,
With growing confidence.

I see glimpses of you
in his brown eyes, of course,
in the angle of his chin,
in his stoic expression, succumbing hesitantly into a quiet grin.
I see hints of your influence
in his gentle interactions with his little cousins,
in the instinctive, confident stance he displays at the podium
and also in his awkward gait.
And yet they become uniquely themselves.

They have lived more years now without you
than they did with you,
even the “little one” is taller than you.
They live their lives,
with love, integrity and joy.
You remain in their hearts, if not at their sides.
The long shadow of your death too ephemeral to dim the light of your life,
a light in their lives.

Falling Apart

I had a dream last night about going home. The house of my childhood was almost unrecognizable, and the landscaping was so overgrown that I had to park on the street. There were stacks of books, newspapers and files on every shelf and surface and clothes hanging to dry from every doorway. People were standing around, chatting idly in every room of the house, many with a drink in hand, seemingly oblivious to the chaos. I felt as if I had stumbled into a party I hadn’t been invited to. I couldn’t move. I stood still, staring blankly, overwhelmed by the noise, the mess, the humanity, and then my cousin came to my side and gently touched my shoulder to get my attention. When I turned to look at him, I realized that the house was quiet, and I asked where everyone went. “Oh sweetheart,” he said, “they’ve been gone for half an hour.”

***

My father died two months ago, and the usual post-death arrangements, notifications and paperwork have pretty much been my focus. I have busied myself with phone calls and appointments, and I have distracted myself with trips to Goodwill and the lawyer’s office. We’ve hosted lunches and met for coffee and celebrated Dad’s birthday without him. I’ve done a reasonably good job of taking care of logistics and being patient and compassionate with other people’s sad feelings. But now, the party is over, the hoopla has died down, and everyone has gone home. Things have gotten quiet, fewer condolence cards arrive, and when the phone rings, it’s an automated telemarketer and not the voice of a long-lost-but-much-loved cousin. Gone is the busy-ness, and the real business of grieving begins. The spinning top has spiraled to rest and toppled over on its side. My heart aches. I’m falling apart.

It’s not a bad thing, this falling apart. I’m just sad. In some ways the maelstrom of paperwork is simpler to handle because there’s no time to think or feel. I can be numb and in denial and interrupted. But this administrative place does not actually tend toward healing. Soon enough, reality presses and grief demands its toll. This is the moment when I realize I’ve been holding my breath. Now that the service, the phone calls, the obituary writing, the stuff is all done, I exhale. I don’t have to hold it together for anyone else any more. Which in itself is a gift. First the falling apart, then the healing. I can fall apart.

I order my son’s AP Physics book, and that’s when I start to cry. Partly, of course, this is exactly what it seems on its face. Son Number Three is a senior in high school, and this year is typically an emotional roller coaster for the parents. I know this path. It is painful, but it’s also everything he has worked for. It is a difficult, but welcome, transition. As I click through the book order, it’s not so much the graduating senior that brings me to tears, it’s the fact that my dad – with his PhD in Nuclear Physics – was supposed to be here to tutor the boy. Our family physicist is gone. So I cry.

I suppose I might be able to help the boy. After all, I took high school physics once. Then again, that was 30 years ago, and my own father taught the class. Sigh.

I didn’t want to take physics. I wanted to take choir. My parents, however, insisted that I sign up for physics. When the registrar later informed me that the class was cancelled due to low enrollment and that I should choose a replacement class, I was delighted. I chose choir. Several of my friends were in choir. I had always wanted to sing, now was my chance, and I happily reported the good news to my parents that night. I remember my father’s crestfallen face at the dinner table. “They cancelled physics?” He couldn’t believe it.

Dad marched down to the high school the very next morning and arranged to teach the class himself, for the hour before the regular school day began in order to avoid other scheduling conflicts. All for the annual salary of one dollar. I couldn’t believe it.

My favorite yearbook photograph from that early morning class features the back of my head resting on the desk. I am sound asleep. My dad is smiling at the front of the classroom, the chalkboard covered in equations and arcs, the professor dusted in chalk. There were only six of us in that class, getting up early our entire senior year, and I must have learned something of physics, because I did well enough on the AP exam, but I’ve forgotten all the details. What I do remember was that Dad loved to share his passion for physics. Personally, I didn’t get quite so excited about the subject, but I learned what it looks like to be so passionate about something that you cannot help but share that enthusiasm in how you conduct your daily life. I hold on to that lesson. But still, I miss my dad.

I take my grief for a run, and as usual it’s hard. I want to stop and walk, but I keep the momentum by choosing incremental goals, just a few steps ahead of where I am, from this little crack in the sidewalk, to that yellow leaf, to the black mailbox, to the oil stain on the asphalt, to that acorn up ahead, and I inch forward until I reach the Spanish house at the top of the hill where somebody who loves me lives, and this process, I think, is much the same as getting through the languid days of grief. One day at a time, sometimes just an hour, from today to tomorrow to Thanksgiving, through an anniversary.

I move through the sludge. Intentionally. Slowly at first, but gaining ground. There will be other “physics” moments along my path, when memory and gravity will work against me, but I know that sadness is not a force that eliminates joy. On the contrary, feeling the sorrow is the healing trajectory that leads to laughter and song. I will get it together. I promise. But right now, I’m falling apart.

***

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

Deathaversary Reprise

In recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week

 

It has been almost nine years since my first husband died by suicide. We acknowledge the day every year, but the word “anniversary” doesn’t convey the right amount of heartbreak when observing the “anniversary of a death.” Instead, we made up our own word to mark this particular occasion: “deathaversary,” a word that balances both the gravity and the accomplishment of the day.

The passing of another year after the death of a loved one is not necessarily cause for celebration, and yet… when we acknowledge how very far we have come in the process, when we think about how proud our loved one would be, when we notice that we can still laugh and love and run and play and find joy, well then, we will celebrate. We are grateful for our loved one’s life in our lives, we miss them dreadfully and we cry, or shout or smash big rocks into little rocks. Our hearts break wide open. A little time passes. The heart still beats. More time. The scar begins to heal. Months go by. Hearts beat. A year passes. And love is still. It’s astonishing.

Our family has, over the years, observed significant deathaversaries in various ways. We have played baseball games and gone away for the weekend. Dinners out work well. Preferably with a glass of something red. Laughter, tears and dark chocolate – all on the approved list. A visit to a gravesite or favorite park. Occasionally, we have ignored a difficult date, but that strategy usually backfires. I prefer the “grab the bull by the horns” approach. Obviously.

It is true that by doing or saying something to mark the passing of the year, we risk opening up sad feelings. On the other hand, not saying anything is almost certain to hurt. Personally, I prefer to have my feelings hurt by somebody who is attempting to say something because the fact of the matter is that my heart is already broken. And maybe, just by saying something – even something stupid – the underlying message is that they care enough to notice my pain and try (even risking failure!) to help.

More often than not, I just have to say stuff out loud – whether I am noting an unfairness, sharing an insight or seeking a clarification. I cannot help myself. My therapist calls me a truth-teller, but there are those who have a less flattering view on this trait of mine. It is both my Achilles heel and my superpower. In the arena of mental health issues and suicide awareness, however, speaking out loud is strength. I believe that these honest, difficult conversations can bring light and healing, maybe even save a life.

We can reduce the incidence of suicides by speaking out loud, by having the hard conversations, especially with young people and teenagers. We can let them know how desperately they are loved, how worthwhile their lives are, how many internal and external resources are available to them. There is hope. Many people have suffered the death of a friend or family member by suicide; not so many talk about it. Thankfully, that silence is changing.

Our town – like all towns – has been home to several suicides over the last few years. Every time, I respond in the way most natural to me. I run. I talk. I write. After a local suicide, I wrote an article for the town newspaper. In support of National Suicide Prevention Week, I’d like to share that letter again. Unfortunately, it is still relevant, and we have much work to do, so here it is… Please share it with someone you love.

The Speech 

I am a lecturer of some renown. If I do say so myself, I am passionate, articulate and persuasive. My audience is often glued to their seats in anticipation of my next dispensation of wisdom. That, plus they have their seatbelts firmly in place (clearly as the result of a previously delivered lecture), and they are my hostages. At least until they are 18 and self-sufficient (another plentiful source of lectures). Yes, I deliver countless lectures for the benefit of my captive audience of sons.

And here’s today’s: Every, every, every problem has a solution. And your father and I will always, always, always love you. Period. End of speech.

But I have so much more to say.

I am keenly aware of the impact suicide has on a family. It struck ours in 2007. My heart breaks for the family of the young man who took his life at his high school last week. For the students, teachers and staff at the high school who were witness to his death. For the friends who have lost a loved one. And for the young man himself. Suicide is a confusing, messy death. At the end of it all, mental pain and anguish is as lethal as a sudden heart attack or an undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside.

My boys can ask me anything. They know they can count on me for an honest answer, but after today’s speech they continued their normally scheduled programming of Facebook, xBox and homework, not necessarily in that priority. I trust that they will revisit the issue when they want to talk. My sons know that they can count on me for the truth insofar as I know it. And I know that the conversation is not likely to end after a 10-minute dialogue.

The tragedy of suicide is how much suffering the victim endures on his own without help. When my cousin was battling cancer – a fight she ultimately lost – she had casseroles delivered, therapy, childcare and pain medication. When my husband was suffering from depression – a fight he likewise lost – he fought it alone. This provides the theme for many of the speeches that I inflict upon my sons. Life is a team sport. Proceed with friends. We are meant to support each other and live in relationship with each other. Especially when life is hard. Tell me three people you can reach out to if you need help – this is one effective way to inoculate yourself from mental pain.

I do not believe that Life only gives us the challenges we can handle. Life routinely hands out way more than we can handle alone. I am, however, a great believer in the power of Love. It was Love whose face I did not always know, but whose presence I recognized, who delivered countless meals for my sons and me. Love showed up on my doorstep like a drill sergeant rounding up socks, shoes, homework, lunches, backpacks and ushering us up the hill to school on time in the morning. Love mended a favorite blanket that had been shredded in a fit of grief. Love rolled up her sleeves and cleaned out my closet, carefully packing all of Sam’s shoes, suits and belongings, labeling everything and storing it carefully where I could deal with it in my own time. Love got up at 5:30 in the morning to run with me – and to watch my children while we did. Love took my hand, and introduced me to the man I married over five years ago.

I pray every day that our sons will find their way through the challenges that life throws their direction. I am devastated that this young man was unable – for whatever reason – to find his way through the pain he was enduring. And I hope that as a community, we will find ways to support each of the broken hearts left in the wake of his death.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your path. And open conversations about mental health.

 

Euphemism

Only rarely does the actual “s” word appear in an obituary. You might see “suddenly,” or “unexpectedly” or “tragically,” all potentially code. You might even read “accidentally” or “after a brief illness” or simply “at home,” which could be accurate, albeit misleading. Death is harsh enough without the added stigma associated with having been self-inflicted. It’s not surprising, then, that many obituaries avoid the term altogether. “Suicide” is an ugly, loaded word, and the obituary bears a peculiar gravity, as if it is, indeed, the last word on a person’s life.

Suicide sticks to its victim in a way that seems to threaten the rest of his existence. There are, of course, other manners of death that invite judgment – lung cancer, cirrhosis, overdose, AIDS, maybe even heart attack, depending. As if life isn’t harsh enough.

The first line of Sam’s obituary read simply that he died suddenly on an October day near Los Angeles, California. That one sentence was followed by six paragraphs worth of biography, achievements and relationships, but the “suddenly” sits over his whole life in print, like a storm cloud, looming over his accomplishments and redeeming qualities.

If I had the chance for a rewrite, would I use the word “suicide” in Sam’s obituary?

It is, of course, an impossible question to answer, but I’d like to think that I would. I have come to believe that speaking of mental illness, depression and suicide will reduce its stigma and bring light and healing to many who suffer.

Privately, we said the “s” word candidly and frequently. One of the best pieces of advice I received immediately following Sam’s suicide was to be honest with the children about how their father died, even though the boys were only six and eight at the time. The policeman advised me that children who knew the facts generally fared better in the healing process. He encouraged me, “You do not want them to find out the truth from somebody else,” and he was right about that. In the nine years since, they have trusted me to provide honest answers to their most difficult questions.

But publicly? I wanted to protect Sam and his reputation, as well as me and mine. I wondered if his suicide would reflect poorly on the quality of his relationships. Did his wife fail him in some way? Were his friends emotionally distant? What kind of parents have a suicidal kid? How could Sam have done this to his children? I didn’t want anyone to think less of Sam, but then why should I care? Who are “they”? And why did I believe that they would think less of him? Is it possible that they could think more of him instead?

The first time I spoke publicly was about a year and a half after Sam’s death. In many ways, I think Sam would have been appalled. After all, he did not speak a word of his struggles out loud – not to a therapist, not to his friends, not to me. There is so much shame. I was just angry enough, in the wake of his death, to expose that vulnerability. On the other hand, I know Sam’s heart. He would have wanted to help somebody else, to inspire and encourage. In fact, I am aware of at least two of Sam’s friends who struggle with mental illness, and he counseled them with compassion and strength. That’s why I share his truth. He would have wanted his life to be a blessing, and in fact, it is, not only to his immediate family but to people he never even knew.

Frederick Buechner, a theologian whose own father committed suicide when he and his brother were young boys, offers a thought-provoking interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matt. 25: 14—30). In the parable, a man is preparing to go on a trip, and before he leaves, he gives a certain number of “talents” (currency with significant value) to three of his servants. To one servant, he gives ten talents, to the next he gives five, and the last servant receives just one talent. The first two worked and invested and doubled their talents, but the third one was so afraid of losing his one talent that he hid it away safely until the man’s later return. The man praises the first two for their industry, and he criticizes the last servant for his caution, even taking that one talent from him. One suggested meaning of parable is that we will be rewarded if we are diligent with whatever “talents” (monetary or otherwise) we have been given. Buechner suggests that we think of the “talents” not as gifts, but as vulnerabilities and weaknesses. By hiding our vulnerability, we create isolation, which is in itself a type of death. When we are open with our weaknesses, we increase connection. In our vulnerability, we find our humanity and create community. We are not alone.

I was terrified that I would be ostracized after Sam’s death. After all, he had abandoned me in a public, humiliating way. Instead, I was surrounded and supported by family and friends. So many rallied to my side that I was overwhelmed by their kindnesses and casseroles.

Acknowledging the dark, scary, painful parts of life allows greater freedom, joy and love. It is a fuller, more expansive life, when it is lived with a whole-hearted acceptance of the range that life brings. It is, in fact, essential to our humanity. To live this life with as much compassion, humility, confidence and grace as possible is a gift to our families, our communities, ourselves. In sharing Sam’s vulnerability, as well as my own, my community increased and the stigma and shame began to dissipate.

Sam’s death was not the end of my story. I have found my way toward wholeness, joy and passion. My family has experienced healing, love and integrity. Perhaps each time I speak honestly on issues of mental illness and suicide, I am rewriting Sam’s obituary, creating for him a legacy of acceptance, education and hope. Because the fact of the matter is that end of his life is not the end of his story either.

Sam committed suicide on a Saturday afternoon in October, 2007, near Los Angeles, California. It was a gorgeous fall day, full of promise, the respect of colleagues, the gratitude of clients, the presence of friends, and the love of his family, his parents, his sister, many aunts, uncles and cousins, his wife and his two little boys. Sam could not feel their love, so clouded was his thinking by clinical depression and chronic back pain. He jumped to his death from the top of a parking structure.

In lieu of flowers, please be kind to one another. Share your struggles and fears and joys, be present and patient in each other’s journeys. And when love seems to fail – because sometimes love is not enough to ward off cancer or heart failure or mental illness – then love more, pray more, talk more, learn more, live more.

Services will be ongoing, in moments of grace, hope, laughter, vulnerability, strength, compassion, acceptance, gratitude, community, forgiveness, joy, healing and inspiration. Notwithstanding his death, let love remain.

Sacred Steps

There are so many things I love about running, not the least of which is that anyone who has known me for longer than a decade will believe that the real Charlotte has been abducted by aliens based on the appearance of the words “love” and “run” together in one sentence. I did not willingly run until I was 40 and then only because I needed to do something with all the mad that was torqueing me after Sam’s suicide. Running turned out to be an effective method to pound away a lot of anger. It was, for me, my own version of the fast and the furious.

Nearly nine years later, I am still running. I’m far from furious (and I never was fast), so there must be another hook. It’s the companionship of my defective hunting dog. It’s the joy of being outside, the connection to nature and fresh air. It’s the simplicity: I don’t need a court reservation, a bicycle pump or a team, just a good pair of shoes. It’s definitely a sense of accomplishment, and it’s an excellent excuse to go shopping for running clothes, which is cheaper and more fun than therapy.

But mostly, I run for the metaphors.

Every step counts.

I’ve put in a lot of distance since I took up this awful sport. I’m physically stronger, more emotionally balanced, and I have a drawer full of running tights and tanks. Running is hard. So is grief. But there’s an alchemy in the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. Running away doesn’t solve problems but running as a means of facing into the pain of loss is empowering. The steps need not be quick; a plodding, methodical gait just as surely brings me closer to healing as a blistering pace. In fact, the slow, deliberate steps are themselves the very evidence healing, because they demonstrate that I am not stuck. Inertia is not holding me back. I shift my energy from hurt and anger toward peace. Movement is success.

And there’s more good news. As my physicist father says, a body in motion tends to stay in motion. So off I go.

It’s not how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up.

Every time I lace up my shoes, leash up the dog and head out the door is a victory. It doesn’t matter whether I go around the block or the Rose Bowl, how fast I run, or how long I spend on the trail. Life has a way of dishing out stops and stalls in myriad forms – injuries, inclement weather, doubt, fear, family issues and stray white dogs. There are a million reasons not to go, but when I do, I feel better for the effort.

Getting back on the trail again is not necessarily easy, but it is an option. Not unlike dragging myself out of bed in those early days of suffocating grief. A running habit is a practice in resilience. I rarely regret making the choice to get out and run, because it means that I have not been defeated, not today.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

I never believed it possible to find enjoyment in the process of running. Honestly, do runners appear to enjoy the process? After many miles under my belt, I can say with a straight face that I have become an enthusiastic, if untalented, runner. Getting out and moving is joy incarnate. It’s a meditative time, a space for reflection and place to stretch. Maybe I’ve just become serotonin and endorphin addict. Maybe I’ll reward myself with a new pair of running shoes. There are worse things.

There are also the vistas and wildlife. I live in the foothills above Los Angeles, and I never tire of the way the morning light falls on the mountain terrain. The sunrise brings possibility. An early run is a great way to connect with the energy of a new day.

For the most part, our local wildlife consists of deer, song birds, harmless lizards and small rodents. I have, however, seen more coyotes than I care to count and had a few unfortunate encounters with leashless dogs. Mercifully, I have only seen our local bobcat safely through the kitchen window or posted on FaceBook. Not counting the suit in the Audi, the least civilized animals I engage on my run are my own native jealousy, resentment and endless chatter, and those beasts get quiet and calm in the course of a long run.

Life is a series of ups and downs.

True enough. There are no flat routes around here, unless you’re inclined to run around the high school track ad nauseum. Which I’m not. I’d rather sport neon orange and head for the hills. Which is to say, I’d rather fall in love and run the risk of loss and heartache.

Life’s road trip brings incredible joy and great sorrow, torrential rain and sunny days. Some miles are faster, some slower. Some hills are steep and slippery, some a long, gradual climb. You can call them opportunities, challenges or butt-kickers. Which makes it all the more satisfying when I stand at the top, inhale and smile. It’s not without its hazards, notably the shiny, black Audi careening past at breakneck speed, but I’m not bitter.

It gets easier.

It doesn’t, actually. The first mile always hurts. Every single run. But the second mile is easier than the first. Usually. Sometimes it’s worse. Runs can go that way.

It will get easier and it will also get harder, but somewhere along the road I get stronger. In any event, my story has not ended yet. My favorite variation of the It will get better/All will be well/Don’t give up encouraging theme is “Hang on little tomato.” The image of a little red tomato holding persistently to a green leafy vine, waiting for the clear blue afternoon amuses me no end. I can almost smell the sunshine on the vine from my childhood vegetable garden. The sunny someday is a hopeful path. True, I enjoy the days when the running is easier, but I keep running even though the course is challenging. I am hanging on.

We are all connected.

Years ago, I started running with a group of intrepid ladies who hit the trails together in the early hours of the day. With kids and work and other of life’s interventions, our schedules rarely align these days, but even when I go by myself, I don’t feel alone. It is nearly impossible to get out into the day without running into somebody I know in my stomping grounds. My community of runners is omnipresent, including friends, strangers and bloggers. We run down dreams and renegade children. We wave at each other and our rescued canines. Even if we don’t know each other’s names, we are companions on the journey.

I often have fortuitous meetings with people I know along my path. An impromptu conversation with a neighbor, a smile and a wave at a generous friend on her way to drop off kids, sometimes my dear husband Tim on his way. He stops to give me a kiss, and I am blessed beyond measure. More often than not, I return home from a run filled with gratitude and surrender. Sometimes even forgiveness.

Keep breathing.

Breathing is key to the whole process. My life mantra applies equally well to a run: “Inhale, exhale. Repeat as necessary.” Running as meditation is my favorite form of the sport. Sometimes I think when I run, which proves to be a great source of inspiration. Sometimes I reach that place where I stop thinking altogether and the mind escapes its hamster wheel. These moments when stillness and movement connect might be the most beautiful experience of all. In this space, I am rhythm and motion and power. I just am.

I wasn’t motivated to hit the pavement in order to gain fitness, achieve a personal goal, raise awareness or find community, although running has provided all of those. I was yearning for peace of mind, which, much to my surprise, I found on a run. The journey continues, and every step toward wholeness is sacred. That is why I still run.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And sacred steps.

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.