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.

The Short History of Tim & Charlotte

We tell the story often.

It’s a beautiful story, if a little awkward.

On the surface, we look like a pretty traditional family: mom, dad, four sons, a dog and a cat. We go to church most Sundays, and we make the boys mow the lawn and take out the trash. We genuinely like each other, and we laugh a lot.

It comes up when people ask where we met or how long we’ve been married. It comes up when a guest at a party notices that my wedding ring looks more like an old-fashioned cocktail ring, instead of the traditional diamond solitaire. It comes up in the pediatrician’s office when there is a question about family history of illness or allergies. It comes up when we attempt to explain our complicated Mothers’ Day plans or why the tall blonde Christian girl is welcomed so warmly at the Cuban Jewish funeral. Or why the boys attended different elementary schools. It comes up in the context of grandparents and how a girl could possibly have so many mothers-in-law.

It comes up most frequently because two of our sons share the same name. The boys’ favorite explanation is to whisper: “maternal brain damage.” And then look at me sympathetically.

Sometimes, the kids don’t even bother explaining. They are amused by the quizzical looks that ensure when they introduce each other with, “These are my brothers, Michael and Michael.” Or, “Hi, I’m Michael, and this is my brother Michael.”

I don’t always offer an explanation either. Just this afternoon, for example, I received a phone call from a freshman at the university where my son attends. She and I talk about whether my son is happy at the university, what his major is and whether he participates in Greek life. She asks whether anyone else in the family participated in a fraternity or sorority, and I pause. The truth is that his mother was in a sorority (but I can’t remember which one) and I was not (my college didn’t have any), but the young woman on the phone thinks that I am his mother. In the interest of simplicity, I say No, which is true enough for purposes of that particular conversation. These seemingly straightforward questions often raise the issue.

So here is the short history of Tim and Charlotte: We were both widowed in 2007 (cancer and suicide), each with two young sons (ages 6, 8, 11 and 15). We met each other in 2008, fell in love and were married in 2010.

Most of the time, people don’t know whether to say I’m sorry, or Congratulations.

No, we did not wait until all four boys were in favor of our marriage, and yes, now they get along like brothers. Everybody’s picture is on the walls and the piano, and yes, that includes Debbie and Sam. Yes, there was a time when we had his, his, his, his, his, hers and ours therapists. No, we did not meet at grief counseling, and yes, we really did have our wedding reception at a local park with the In ‘n Out truck.

We feel blessed and lucky. Neither one of us expected to find love again, and here we are. I can’t explain it, but I am grateful. One of my own (and by “my own” I actually mean Sam’s) cousins says she thinks Tim and I were made for each other. Unbelievable. The road here was steep and rocky, to be sure, but absolutely worthwhile. There is certainly truth to the idea that once you have experienced sorrow, you appreciate joy. But if I told you I sometimes race the dog to the front door to greet Tim when he comes home at the end of the day, that would just sound stupid. We laugh at the terribly irreverent, and we joke that the widow and the widower never miss a funeral (even though that’s mostly true). I could never have imagined being so happy, but there you have it. We are together, and that is evidence of grace.

In the last several months, Tim and I have attended four funerals (see what I mean?) and a wedding. He was the best man, and here’s a picture:

cdt256

So yes, it sounds silly. But more often than not, I win the race to the front door.

***

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

Intersection

“I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.”

~ Abraham Lincoln

 

We calculate the age of our grief – like the life of an infant – first in hours, and then days. The days add up to a week, then two. Eventually a month. Slowly, unbelievably, the days and weeks continue. We number the months, but the “and a half” still seems relevant. Baby steps. The first year passes. It seems to take much longer than one year.

For a long time, the dark moments monopolize our attention. Our world has been upended, and we are angry, sad and confused. We move slowly through the sludge, day after day. Sleeplessness and exhaustion provide the soundtrack. Grief is a heavy traveling companion.

Almost imperceptibly, moments of grace accumulate: a peaceful night’s rest, an unguarded laugh, a full breath. Spontaneous gratitude. Peace. We notice a brilliant pink sunrise. Healing starts to happen. Not because the time passes. Time by itself doesn’t heal, but healing takes time. And healing time is sacred.

Several years pass, and in that time we begin to rebuild our life. We find joy and love, and the dark, heavy, pain-filled moments are fewer. We do not forget, we incorporate both death and life. Balance. We remember without the painful longing. We loosen our grasp on what we lost and open our hearts to the love that is now. We create new relationships and family traditions, and we find joy.

And then one day, when he is in high school, the boy who would not say the “D” words – “dead” and “dad” – for two years following his father’s suicide is given a project in his theology class. The assignment is to make a cross, relevant to a personal, historical or current event. He chooses to make a personal cross, honoring both his father and the first wife of his step-father. He has an idea.

The vertical line of the cross will feature a photograph of the structure where his father committed suicide. He drives together with his mother to the intersection to take the photos himself. He hasn’t been to this location in four or five years. They pause on the sidewalk and look up to the top of the building. It is a long way to fall. The boy seems to shrink. The mother feels nauseous. But they have arrived with a purpose, so with their task in mind, they take pictures of “dad’s jumping place” from each of the four corners. Click. They look at the intersection with their artists’ eyes, and no longer from the tear-filled eyes of the newly grieving. Click. Click. Click. They pause again. There are times – even years afterward – that dad’s suicide seems impossible to believe, and yet here they stand. It is no small measure of grace.

The horizontal line of the cross will include two photos — one family of four on the left side, and another family of four on the right. A wide, blue ribbon encircles the picture on the right, because blue ribbon is the symbol for colon cancer. The boy assembles the cross with help from his step-father and affixes the ribbon with help from his mother. 

In his written description of the cross, the boy cites a quote from the Gospel: “I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age.” The boy goes on to say that he believes that not only God’s love, but the love of everyone we have ever lost stays with us for our lives. Always with us in our hearts and memories. He explains that these two deaths brought the six of us together — a complete family, loving and joyful. Even with Trojans and Bruins living under the same roof.

Death and resurrection in a school project.

IMG_3913

There is no specific timeline. The first year is hard, and the second seems worse. But the thing is progress. Little steps in a positive direction, toward wholeness. Grief loosens its grip. Progress can be almost impossible to discern in the moment, but when we look back at the preceding years, we see in those moments the evidence of healing. Of grace. Of gratitude. Of light and love and laughter and life. All with one of those UCLA/USC “House Divided” garden flags on our front porch.

***

Along my route when I take the dog for a run, there’s a certain section where I hear the echo of my own steps. I’ve traveled this part of road many times over the last few years, and even though I know it’s the sound of my own footsteps, I cannot resist looking behind me to check if somebody is following in tandem. Nobody ever is. It’s the acoustics on this little stretch of road. But every time I glance over my shoulder I imagine Sam smiling. I can almost hear him say, “I knew you could do this.”

The boy is right. Even after our loved ones are gone, their love remains.

***

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

 

iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.

Dear Sam

Dear Sam ~

Just a little note to let you know we’re thinking of you extra today. You are often in our thoughts and conversations, of course, and tonight we will go to one of your favorite restaurants and raise a glass in your honor, as we do every year on your birthday.

You would be proud of your sons. They are smart, funny and hard-working. They are kind and compassionate. They are grateful and faithful. And really tall. Both are taller than I am, and the so-called little one will likely catch you by about Wednesday of next week at the rate he is eating.

Don’t worry – they’re also normal teenage boys. They leave their crap all over the house, their table manners could benefit from an immersion cotillion weekend, and they think I don’t know when they’re only pretending to do homework. Whenever I hear comments featuring the words “talks too much” during parent-teacher conferences, I blame you entirely.

The kids and I were recently having a “discussion” about doing their own laundry, and they enjoyed hearing that early in our marriage, you turned my favorite cream-colored blouse a pretty light blue. I’m still not quite sure how you managed that, but then I never let you do laundry again. For years, I thought you were the stupid one. But after we had been married 10 years, I realized that you hadn’t done a stitch of laundry in, well, 10 years. More often than not, you were the Ricky to my Lucy. I should have known that pale blue blouse was a clever trick.

In the last few months, both of them have mentioned that they wished you had spoken Spanish with them. I smiled, and told them that you and I had a difference of opinion on this particular issue. And so I say to you now – as any well-adjusted and mature adult would do – “Neener, neener, neener. I was right!” I will also tell you that they can both roll their R’s, even though you never could, and I gleefully take all the credit. But since the gringa is helping them with their Spanish homework, perhaps you are having the last laugh. Maybe you could just whisper a few vocab words in their ears, because the so-called little one has a quiz today.

If this doesn’t seem too weird to say out loud, you would be so happy that Tim has come into our lives. He is good to me, and he loves those boys as his own. You would be pleased at how all of our collective sons have opened their hearts to each other. They are a puppy pack, those four. They wrestle and flop and growl and wag. We are blessed beyond measure.

I guess I really just want to let you know that we are doing well. We have joy and laughter and faith. We are grateful for this day you were born, grateful for the time we had you in our lives. We miss you, but we still feel your love. And we love you.

Happy 50th, Sam.

Casseroles and Carpools

What Can I Do?

People often ask me what they can do to help someone who has just suffered an enormous loss. I don’t have a clue. All I can tell you is what helped me. Everyone is different. Each situation is unique. Every person has his or her own process.

With that disclaimer in place, I know that friends and family want to help. So here’s a list of 20 off the top of my head, not in any particular order:

  1. Pray for me. Start there. Prayers, well-wishes, positive vibes are all gratefully accepted. Put that healing energy out there and move it in my direction. Within a few hours of Sam’s death, I talked to a priest, a rabbi and a Christian Science practitioner. Not a joke, just a solid vote for monotheism. If prayer is not your shtick, just inhale and exhale until you are calm and centered. You can help me more from this place of spirit.
  1. Ask me how I am. I will tell you I’m ok, and this is total horseshit. Ask me anyway, and just know that I care enough to lie to your face. I’m not fine, I’m not ok, I’m pretty sure I will never be ok again, but if you don’t ask me, I will think you’ve forgotten that my life as I knew it is gone. I’ve had a headache constantly for weeks, and trust me, you do not want to know about the GI distress. But when you ask me how I am, your question acknowledges that my everything has changed.
  1. Bring me flowers. Don’t bring a plant. I can only be responsible for keeping myself and my sons alive. Maybe the cat. Flowers are good, because when the flowers wilt and stink, I will throw the whole thing out, along with the leftover tuna casserole that I loved as a kid but my children won’t eat. If you want your crystal vase back, you will have to dig through the cat litter to find it. Best to send the flowers in a plastic Dixie cup.
  1. Show up. Don’t even call, just land on my doorstep. Everyone says to call if I need anything, but I cannot think of what I need, what your name is and where I left my cell phone. I feel alone in the world. I need everything, and what I need right now is you. We will figure out the details when you get here.
  1. Call first. I have never been so tired but unable to sleep and distracted but single-minded in my entire life. I know you want to see me and give me a hug in person, but my house is covered in people I barely recognize, and I just want to take a nap. I cannot follow a conversation, or string two coherent sentences together. I want everybody to go away and leave me alone.
  1. Pick up the newspaper from the driveway. And now go ahead and just put it in the recycling bin. I’m not going to read it. I have no attention span, and I just cannot take any more bad news, whether it’s across an ocean or across town. If I cannot muster the energy to walk the 10 feet to where the paper landed, I will certainly not maintain the focus to read it. I won’t even look at the pictures.
  1. Feed me. Or at least feed my kids. I have lost my appetite and my love of cooking, and I keep forgetting to eat. But the kids are hungry. Even if I don’t eat, the smell of dinner in my kitchen makes me feel loved and fed. I consciously think that some day I might have the wherewithal to provide dinner for somebody else, but that possibility seems very far away. Go easy on the sweets, because the kids will never touch another cucumber again, so long as cookies and lemon bars keep showing up on their doorstep. Gift certificates work. Feed the dog, too, because I keep forgetting, and the lemon bars stick to his fur.
  1. Drive carpool. I cannot remember, well, pretty much anything, but especially not the kids’ scout, baseball and playdate schedules. I have no idea what day it is. I’m pretty sure I got them to school, and I’m confident they were late. And I probably should not be trusted behind the wheel with a van full of children, even if they are mine. I cannot remember where I’m going, how to get there, and what time the what’s-it-called starts.
  1. Do the grocery shopping. My girlfriend calls and says, “I’m going to the grocery store. Make me a list of what you need, and I’ll do your shopping, too.” Seven minutes later she’s in my kitchen, looking at my list and frowning. The scrap of paper has three words: milk, eggs, bread. “That is not everything you need.” She opens the fridge and then the pantry and starts taking notes. She asks about allergies, favorite fruits and pasta. She says, “I’ll be back. Go take a nap.” I go to my room. An hour later, I hear her car in the driveway and the creak of my front door. She calls out, “Don’t get up! It’s just me.” I’m too tired to move. I hear her humming and putting groceries away, and then she calls from the front door, “I’m leaving now. I’ll check on you later.” I fall peacefully asleep for the first time in a week. When I wake up, I drag myself to the kitchen, where all the groceries have been put away and the shopping bags folded on the counter, along with the receipt so I can reimburse her. One of the kindest, most practical gestures I have ever received.
  1. Don’t cry. I’m constantly on the verge of tears, and I just want to hold it together.
  1. Cry with me. Broken hearts sitting together means everything. I just got back from the cemetery, and I chose a single plot. It’s got a lovely view, and I hope never to see that &%$#@ garden again. Until Friday, anyway, when we hold the funeral, and I will need you to cry with me then, too.
  1. Laugh with me. Because I love to laugh at the irreverent and inappropriate.
  1. Send cards. I love the handwritten note.
  1. Write the Obituary. I cannot remember my husband’s obituary, but I remember which friend wrote it. The fact that he was the subject of an obituary takes my breath away, and I already told you I cannot focus for more than a few words. As soon as I see the dates with the dash in the middle, I’m done. Life is all about the dash, but the only thing I can see right now is that date at the end. I could find a copy around here somewhere, but the most significant part of that obituary, as far as I am concerned, is that my faithful, intelligent, thoughtful friend wrote it for me. For him, I mean. A photo slideshow would be nice, too.
  1. Walk with me. Remind me to inhale and exhale, because I keep holding my breath. One of my most healing places is in the class with the yoga teacher who speaks of our power and beauty. Also with the meditation instructor who encourages exhaling out bitterness, anger and any other toxic trash you don’t need in your body and inhaling whatever you need to bring balance – peace, love, prosperity, joy.
  1. Organize my mail. Especially the bills. Don’t pay my bills for me, but if you could collect them together, and remind me when they are due, that would really help. I have the money, but I don’t have the time to think about writing a check or clicking the bill pay. And it’s dark enough around here without the electric company cutting off the lights.
  1. Offer to do laundry or dishes. But know that I might not want you to. This has nothing to do with your housekeeping prowess. Know that while I love the scent of fresh, clean sheets, the ones on the bed still smell like my husband. So don’t wash them quite yet. Maybe start with the kids’ laundry because I don’t know how that pile got so big and stinky so fast. I don’t know how the children themselves got so big and stinky so fast either, but that’s another issue.
  1. Bring Xanax. If you happen to be both my friend and my doctor and you know that I can hardly breathe and I cannot sleep, then you might be the only person who can provide this particular gift without my having to make an appointment and drive to the medical center. Not long term, just enough to get me through these first few weeks.
  1. Bring Pinot Noir and dark chocolate. As if you need me to say that out loud.
  1. Bring gifts. Little things – candles, bath salts, pajamas. Tangible reminders of warmth and light.
  1. Protect me. But don’t seclude me. I don’t need to know about some of the harrowing things going on in the world, but I do want to offer my heart (what’s left of it) to a friend who also received terrible news. I’d rather hear it from you than through the rumor mill.
  1. Don’t tell me you know exactly how I feel. You don’t. Really. It’s ok – I don’t know how you feel either. So we have that in common. Be gentle. We are all trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense, like putting a puzzle together with pieces missing and no edges. I don’t want to hear that he’s in a better place, I do not want to hear that whole hoo ha about Life not dishing out any more than you can handle, and I couldn’t care less about God’s plan. I hate the plan and the God who planned it.

Actually, I don’t believe that God plans these tragedies, but His response is always the same – He gives us each other. Getting through these storms alone is about as futile as my dog stopping to shake off the water while we are walking in the pouring rain. It’s not going to do any good until we step out of the deluge and into the shelter. Shelter which often takes the form of familiar shoulders, a loving presence to hold the weight of the loss together.

Community doesn’t have to be a chapel overflowing, standing room only, although there are times when that helps, too. He sends friends and family who bring casseroles and drive carpool and serve communion. Friends who send text messages and make phone calls. He brings together family who email photographs and tell stories and cook and make more phone calls. Community and communion. At the end of the day, that’s all we have. And that’s everything.

***

I’m walking the defective hunting dog in the rain, because we are both better companions for the journey after we have gone a few miles. Along our route, a car passes me, and I recognize my friend. Based on the day and the time I‘m pretty sure I know where she’s going, and I hold her in my heart. I also know that she knows what is weighing heavy on my heart, the obituary I’m getting ready to write. She slows, puts her arm out into the rain and waves. I blow her a kiss. These small gestures are enough to lift me through the distance in the storm. I pay attention, I see grace, and I find community.

***

Wishing you light and strength along your healing path. And community.

What (Not) to Say

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

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

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

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

And then he died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

Pets & Peeves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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