53 Minutes

Tuesdays are my day for me, a dedicated time to tend to my own heart. I started this practice as a newly-widow because I knew intuitively that if I set aside time to be present to myself, I would be able to be present to my sons in their grief. I continue the practice – though not as religiously – because I still find that I meet the demands of my family more effectively if I have nurtured my own heart first. This will undoubtedly prove essential as I gear up to teach yet another teenage boy to drive.

Sometimes, my “day” only lasts a few precious hours, or even just 10 sacred minutes, but in general, I keep my Tuesdays clear of JD’s, CPA’s, BFD’s and related BS. This consecrated time gives me the wherewithal to deal with the shtuff that the other days dish out. My so-called Charlotte Shabbat is not about ignoring the challenging, crappy parts. On the contrary, it is taking time to integrate both the woundedness and vibrance so that I can navigate life’s storms with a modicum of intention, strength and grace. And so, I make my weekly reservation: a table for one.

When I named the blog Sushi Tuesdays, I didn’t notice a certain four-letter word in the middle until it was too late to change. My kids, not surprisingly, embraced this turn of events wholeheartedly. In fact, they have long referred to my blog as “The Su-shit.” Only recently did I realize that when I pull up the Sushi Tuesdays site on my phone, the web address actually shows as: “sushit…s.com.” I guess it’s official then.

Looking at the dark shadows, the hard truths, the painful reality is key to healing and progress. But it’s critical not to get stuck in the noxious stew. There’s a difference between acknowledging the suffering and marinating in it. You could ignore the unpleasant business entirely, but you won’t make any significant progress. You might instead choose to replay that last dreadful birthday dinner for the next 28 years, but then you will remain firmly stuck in the past. In order to heal, you have to keep moving forward, which is painstaking work, usually slow and occasionally disagreeable. Being open to heal also means being willing to change, which can be exquisitely painful when it requires giving up resentment and self-righteousness. There is no magic healing potion, but the resulting sunshine and light are spectacular.

I have a particular fondness for the simple elegance of children’s literature. There’s a short chapter in The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery) featuring a “salesclerk” who sells pills to quench thirst. “They save so much time,” the salesclerk said. “Experts have calculated that you can save fifty-three minutes a week.” Fifty-three minutes no longer wasted drinking water. Fifty-three minutes to invest in some other opportunity for self-fulfillment. Fifty-three minutes, which is about as long as a good therapy session. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

I function best with a balance between motion and stillness. I need time set aside simply to be, to soak up approval, acceptance and love, whether by means of therapy, prayer, meditation or coffee with a friend. And then I need to move – a walk, a run, a stretch, a hike. I start to wonder whether fifty-three minutes well-spent might be the magic pill.

But I’m still practicing. I sit down for a moment of quiet on my meditation pillow, and my prayer bursts out like this: “Okay, Jesus. Here I am. Inspire me. You’ve got 5 minutes. Go.”

To show Him I mean business, I set the timer.

Jesus doesn’t say much, and I enjoy the silence. Surrounded, as I generally am, by kids, electronics, cat, and dog, silence is a scarce commodity. I settle in and find a sense of calm and stability. I sit, I breathe, I soften.

The timer goes off, and I stay sitting, immersed in a sense of belonging and unconditional love. Finally, Jesus seems to have something to say: “Don’t you have someplace to go? And lots of somethings to do?” I don’t flinch. I’m not yet ready to go. I sit another minute.

Then another message: “Okay, Charlotte, that’s all the time you get. Let’s go.” Pause. “I’ll go with you.” Sometimes I invite Jesus into my sacred space, and sometimes He invites Himself. But that’s what I needed to hear, the promise of presence. Now I’m ready to go.

I am not afraid that the bad stuff Life throws around is going to outweigh, outlive, or outmaneuver the good stuff. I am not afraid to call it by name. This must be why I’m so amused by the serendipitous “shit” in the middle of my SushiTuesdays. There are times when acknowledging the hard stuff, calling it out, takes away its momentum, its mystery, its sway. Then it’s easier to move on. I’m not afraid of a few choice words. Sometimes commandeering such a word takes the wind of out its sails. I recall, for example, the evening that my then 7-year old stood at the back door, following a rock-smashing grief session, and demanded, “Mommy, what’s for fucking dinner?”

I briefly considered delivering a lecture on the use of expletives or the appropriate respect one should have for his mother. For a fraction of a second, I thought I might laugh out loud, because he was so stinking adorable. But he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was furious, he was suffering, he was heartbroken. Plus, he was hungry. So in what turned out to be one of my more inspired mothering moments, I told him what was for dinner, “fucking mac and cheese.” Which is to say, “I hear your pain. I’m with you, baby. Let’s eat.”

Life tends to feel a lot better after some snacks and a nap.

And then we’re ready to go.

***

Wishing you light & strength on your healing path. And 53 minutes for yourself.

Infatuation

The last night of Sam’s life was one of the strangest of mine. I knew about his chronic back pain, but I didn’t know about the crippling despair. I knew about the job stress, but not the intensity of his shame. The pieces only made sense in retrospect. And by the time I put them together, of course, it was too late.

The night before Sam died, I found our Wills and Trust sitting out on the counter. It didn’t strike me as odd because I was a practicing trusts and estates attorney, and I had been thinking about revising our estate plan. We had had a second child since we originally executed those documents, and I wanted to update our Wills and Trust to include both boys by name (as opposed to “our son Michael and any other children we might have”). So when I noticed the binder of documents on the counter, I said to my husband “Oh good. I’ve been meaning to get those out so I can revise them.” He said not a word. After the fact, I realized that butthead had been reading our Trust to make sure that the boys and I would be covered even if he left our estate plan alone.

Out of the blue, he said, “Jim Wilson was a smart guy.” I can picture exactly where I was standing in the kitchen at the island when I threw up my hands and replied emphatically, “Jim was an idiot! He left a wife and two kids.” Jim was in our law school class, and he was, in fact, a very smart guy. Before attending law school, he had graduated from medical school, so he consistently ruined the curve. We would have hated him, if he had not also been such a nice guy. But somehow he lost his way. Several years after we all graduated, Jim committed suicide by jumping off the parking structure at his office, leaving his wife and two young children. Only later did I realize that what Sam meant was that Jim knew how to get the job done. More women attempt suicide, but more men die from it. Sam had his heart set on it.

That same night, Sam said, “I’m so sorry I failed you.” Again, I heard his words, but I didn’t understand his intention. I responded unequivocally, “Failed me?! What are you talking about? What part of this was failure? We have each other, we have two gorgeous kids, we even have a ridiculously cute little black dog and a white picket fence!” But Sam didn’t hear me either. As I replayed that conversation in the hours and days immediately following his death, I realized he hadn’t heard my answer because he wasn’t trying to apologize. He was trying to say goodbye.

Our conversation seemed so peculiar. We spoke in that shorthand that couples use when they’ve been married a long time, but we weren’t understanding each other. He was preoccupied and distant. I intuited that something was wrong, but I couldn’t wrap my head around what it might be. I began to fear that maybe he was having an affair. It was the worst thing I could think of. I didn’t know he was flirting with his own mortality. Late that evening, I looked him in the eye and asked the question that terrified me, “Are you sure you’re not having an affair?” It didn’t occur to me that he might be suicidal. “Oh Charlotte,” he said, looking at me with tenderness and shaking his head. “No. I would never.”

He wasn’t so much tugging on a lifeline as he was pulling a ripcord.

Sam never came to bed that night. I have often wondered whether if he had slept – even just a few hours – things would have looked brighter in the morning. The sun rose on a new day, but he had already checked out, seduced by the promise of a better place.

In retrospect, it appears obvious. At the time, I missed the signs completely. We couldn’t connect because we were operating from two different levels.

When the boys and I left the house the next morning to go to the little one’s soccer game, Sam stayed home to take a nap. I learned later that he literally raced out of the driveway and down the street, uncharacteristically erratic behavior for a man who was protective of pedestrians and the local children. He was a man consumed by a passion.

I don’t know if I could have stopped him, or if he even would have slowed down long enough to take a nap or take a breath. The attraction was too strong. He had completely disengaged, inspired by the hope that Death would take him.

I believe that the allure of suicide came upon him suddenly and beguiled him with a promise to end his pain, both physical and emotional. I believe that he acted quickly in order to keep me from stopping him.

I returned home later that day, anxious because I hadn’t been able to reach Sam. I arrived to find a police car in front of my house, lights flashing silently. Two uniformed police and a priest waited for me in my driveway. Sam’s silence and his words clicked into place: I’m so sorry I failed you. Jim was a smart guy. Oh Charlotte, No. Suddenly, the pieces fit together in a way that I didn’t want to believe.

I have certainly berated myself plenty for having missed the clues. And I’ve beaten Sam up, too, for dropping hints and then leaving me, for betraying our trust and abandoning our children. I have – over years filled with therapy, long walks, reflection, Pinot Noir and dark chocolate – come to terms with the limits of my own power to save anyone other than myself. Although sometimes I fail her, too.

I will confess that it was a comfort to know that Sam was enchanted by a mistress whose name was Death, instead of, say, Dahlia. I do not know that I would have handled that well. After all, Death will have the last dance with each of us in this life. I hope She has been kind to Sam.

***

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

Options

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

~ Maya Angelou

 

Some people are offended by joy. This is not my problem.

I believe that healing is always a choice, and that joy is a possibility. It’s not necessarily easy or simple. It does not always arrive quickly. Healing is not a one time, check-the-box and you’re done kind of a thing. It’s a daily choice.

The choices might seem small or significant, whether to go for a walk or crawl back into bed, whether to sell Sam’s car or keep his name. How long to wear black, whether to wear mascara, or whether to wear the necklace Sam gave me on a recent anniversary.

To be honest, I didn’t anticipate finding quite so much joy. I was just hoping to make it through a day without wasting perfectly good mascara. For weeks, maybe months (I can’t remember), I stopped wearing make-up altogether. The day I chose to apply mascara was a public display of hope. My friend Susan (the one who later introduced me to Tim) remembers the day clearly and with fondness. I think that was the day that she breathed a sigh, trusting that I would be okay.

Those little, daily choices start to add up to something meaningful.

It helps to choose role models carefully. I didn’t want to be that bitter crabapple who never recovered after her husband’s suicide. We all know an old grouch – like Oscar, but without the charm, or the trash can. I was running an errand this afternoon and ran into a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in years. We chatted for a minute, and when I told her things were going well, she simply paused and said, “I hate you.” Seriously. Apparently, she liked me a lot better in the days when I had given up on mascara completely. At least Oscar has friends and a sense of humor. And when he loses his sense of humor, his friends put his lid on him.

I can choose to be defined by what has happened, or I can choose to define my life for myself. I do not intend to minimize the tragedy. It is hideous and real. I do not mean to ignore the past or pretend it didn’t happen. On the contrary, I look at what has happened. I stand with my mouth gaping open at the horror of it, because people are suffering. But I choose to believe that the tragedy is not the end of the story.

Genuine healing usually means letting go of the way things used to be and opening the door to something new. I chose to embrace a new life, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. It helps that my preternatural fear of inertia is greater than my fear of change and the unknown.

Sam and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two months before he died, and he surprised me with a pretty diamond heart necklace. He chose the little heart specifically because its asymmetrical design appealed to him. I loved it. But a week or so later, he confided that he was concerned about our budget. It was sweet that he had bought the necklace, wanting something special to commemorate our anniversary, even though finances were tight. In the course of our conversations, we made a couple decisions, including that I would go back to work part-time and he would return the necklace. I thought I was being practical and helpful, but later I wondered whether he felt this resolution as a rejection or his own failure.

I found the heart necklace in a drawer a few weeks after Sam’s death, still in its black velvet box along with the original receipt. I was sick to my stomach. He had never returned it. Seeing the necklace in its jewelry box made me realize how difficult this task must have been for him. I felt confident that we would have many more anniversaries to celebrate, but maybe he suspected we wouldn’t. I didn’t have the heart to return the gift. But I felt too much sorrow and regret to wear it.

I mentioned my dilemma to a friend, and she offered to take the necklace back to the jeweler. The shop owner was very kind, and he remembered Sam. He was surprised and dismayed to learn of Sam’s death. He offered to give a store credit, but not a refund. I put the necklace back in the drawer, where it remained for several more months.

In the meantime, I thought about other decisions, such as what color nail polish I should choose for my pedicure and whether to sell the house.

My friend suggested that if I wasn’t going to wear the heart necklace I should donate it to the school auction. But that option didn’t really feel like a good fit. I wondered – with uncharacteristic superstition – whether the heaviness and shame might follow the necklace. Back into the drawer it went.

I thought about the little diamond heart necklace from time to time. I might look at it occasionally, but it filled me with sadness and remorse. I didn’t know what to do.

I continued to make choices. I went back to work part-time. I started drinking coffee. And Pinot Noir. I decided to join the extended family for Thanksgiving dinner and to avoid any New Year’s celebrations. With the help of a few close friends, I planned my own 40th birthday party. I started running. Not every step represented progress, but there were enough to create some momentum, bringing me toward a new life.

But I never wore the necklace. It wasn’t that I didn’t wear anything that Sam had given me. I continued to wear my wedding ring for a while. Even now, I wear the watch Sam gave me, as well as a favorite pair of earrings. Just not the necklace. Not exactly.

A year and a half after Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends asked me to be her daughter’s godmother. I was honored, of course, but I wasn’t Episcopalian and I was only recently on speaking terms with God again. It didn’t seem to me that I was necessarily the ideal choice for spiritual guidance, but my friend insisted. I suspect she saw something about my relationship with God that I didn’t really notice until she called my attention to it. I had not actually stopped talking to God, but I certainly didn’t have anything nice to say. And I definitely wasn’t listening. But God waited me out, in Her annoyingly patient manner, while I threw my temper tantrum. So that later, I found my friend’s request drawing me closer into a relationship, not only with her daughter, but also with Jesus. I began to think about being baptized.

This time I went to the jeweler myself, wondering if the shop owner would remember Sam. He did. He also remembered the heart necklace. I told him I was thinking about replacing the heart with a cross. Almost immediately, I noticed a small, diamond cross, one that the jeweler had designed himself (as he had also designed the heart). I felt a flutter of joy – in part because it is very pretty, and in part due to the slightly heretical thought that my late Jewish husband had just given me a cross.

I wear it all the time.

Healing is always an option. There is so much good news in this perspective. The door to healing is always unlocked, I just had to decide to open it. I did not, however, have to fling the door open wide. I started by inching it open. Just a sliver. Enough to let a little light through. Little decisions. Small choices, that led up to the more significant ones and into a new life.

As it turns out, Joy is on the other side of that door, looking for me.

***

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

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.

 

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.

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).

Anticipation

Advent is about waiting,
letting the baby come,
because He will.
He is on his way.
The light comes to you.
It is not your place to force or create or accelerate its arrival.
Light is on its way.
Just wait.

Your role is to prepare,
open your heart.
Anxiously
Joyfully
Fretfully
Doubtfully
Patiently
Expectantly
Quietly
Thoughtfully.
However you wait, the light will come.

Pray.
Hope.
Anticipate.
Light is on its way.
Just wait.

The Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Discretion

Here I am, death certificate in hand again.

Every once in a while I still need a certified copy of Sam’s death certificate to clear title, for example, or to get passports for my minor children. The professional me just grabs the appropriate file from its designated safehold and keeps moving. It’s paperwork and protocol, formality and accuracy.

The widow, however, stops in her tracks. It’s not the same as the initial shock, of course. But seeing the word “suicide” in black and white is still unbelievable, heartbreaking, nauseating.

One of the ironies in my widowed life is that in my former professional life, I practiced trusts and estates law. Drafting wills and trusts prior to a death, and handling probates and settling trusts afterwards are sensible practices. I was well-versed in death-related paperwork, technical terms and tax jargon. I didn’t know much about grieving, even though I had done a lot of hand-holding, often for elderly widows, several of whom had never written a check for the electric bill, let alone the property taxes.

For the most part, trusts and estates is a genteel area to practice law, although every now and again fifty-year-olds acting like children grew contentious over Uncle Mike’s toolbox. As a lawyer, it was surprising to me what grown people would pay their counsel thousands of dollars to bicker over. As a widow, I began to appreciate that it’s not so much about screwdrivers and tape measures, as it is about jealousies, insecurities, or guilt, the compensation for which does not correspond to a monetary sum. Or even a power tool. In any event, many of these “children” might be better off paying a family therapist than a good litigator, but that’s just my opinion.

People often ask me if I had any idea that Sam was suicidal, and the short, honest answer is No. But he did act very weird the night before he died. For example, he had our estate planning documents out on the kitchen counter that night. Maybe if I had been a corporate attorney or a public defender I might have reacted differently, but reading these documents was my bread and butter. It’s not morbid, it’s prudent to plan for the inevitable. The words “Last Will and Testament” didn’t make me queasy (not until 24 hours later, that is). In fact, when I noticed the binder out on the counter, I told Sam, “Oh hey — I’m glad you got those out. I’ve been meaning to make some changes to our estate plan.”

Evidently so did he, but not in the way I had envisioned.

He didn’t say a word when I mentioned the revisions I had in mind. In retrospect, I understood that the butt-head had been reading those documents to make sure the boys and I were covered in the event of his death. Believe me, I get a little knot in my stomach when I read that Will now.

One of the more clinical estate planning documents includes the directions on what to do with the dead body. Sam knew my feelings on the subject. When I am well and truly dead, if there are any pieces or parts that can benefit somebody else, they are welcome to them with my blessing.  Whatever is left of me can be either cremated or buried, as my husband chooses. But I knew that Sam had different feelings on the subject. As a Jewish man, he felt strongly that each of us should remain intact and be buried, so I granted Sam the full discretion to do whatever he wanted after I was gone.

I thought that he had granted the same discretion to me.

After Sam’s death, there were many things I didn’t understand. Yes, I knew which boxes to check on the appropriate forms. As a practical matter, I understood how to sift through paperwork and which document to file with the County Recorder’s Office. I just couldn’t comprehend that I was, in fact, a widow. I could not wrap my mind around why.

In the midst of swirling uncertainty and confusion, I began to put one foot in front of the other. I started preparing funeral arrangements. Trusting that I had the full authority to get it done, I began to walk through the practical steps. I did not donate any parts or pieces to science or recipients. I  purchased a small parcel of real estate on a grassy hill in Los Angeles where his parents and children and I could stop by to say Hi. I found a rabbi — a friend of Sam’s from college, in fact — to say some prayers and gather friends and family and colleagues and offer all of us, including Sam, a blessing. I did not once during this entire process consult the actual paperwork outlining Sam’s final wishes, because I knew exactly what he wanted.

At least I thought I did.

The Sam I knew and loved would never have jumped to his death. He would not have left me. He never would have left his sons. He would not have wanted to cause pain or suffering to family, or friends, or kids on his t-ball team, or even the young woman who worked in the shop on the ground floor (she never did return to work after watching him fall to his death). But he did. The death certificate says so, all summed up in one tidy and official, heartbreaking, embossed page. Suicide; jumped from structure; cause of death: multiple blunt force injuries. It’s so ugly.

After the funeral and burial, after sitting shiva for a week, after the out-of-town family flew back to the opposite coast, I reviewed the paperwork regarding funeral arrangements. I was horrified to see that Sam had not granted me full discretion. On the contrary, he had a detailed list of everything he had wanted me to do. Sick to my stomach that his family might now accuse me of subverting his wishes — or worse, I had neglected something he asked of me — I carefully reviewed the list.

No organ donation. Check.
No cremation. Check.
Burial. Check.
Jewish funeral service. Check.
Check.
Check.
Check.

I had done it all. Every last item on Sam’s list.

At a time when I was full of doubt, bursting with questions that couldn’t be answered, afraid that I did not, in fact, know my husband at all, this legal form gave me comfort. It was, oddly, a form of proof to me that I did know Sam. I knew exactly what he wanted, and that’s what I had done. Not because I had consulted his attorney or heeded the advice of well-intended family. I did it simply because I knew my husband.

I would yet grapple with many unanswerable questions, but in my heart I began to trust that somehow the man I knew had been overtaken by an illness that none of us understood. I’ve learned a bit about depression, mental illness and suicide since Sam’s death, and I believe he must have been fighting silent battle with depression. As I was reading the Harry Potter series to our sons, I encountered J.K. Rowling’s description of the vile Dementors. I think she portrays a remarkably accurate picture for those who suffer from depression: “Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) Sometimes a well-written children’s book can shed light on a difficult subject in a way that treatises and reference materials cannot.

As the boys and I began to do our healing work — with therapy, prayer, heart and lots of dark chocolate — we began to see the whole of Sam again. We exercised our discretion not to define his life by the manner of his death, but to open our hearts and memory to the fullness of him, as a devoted father and husband, a loving and loyal friend, a caring and intelligent professional, as well as a man who suffered from depression.

The certified death certificate has accomplished its purpose. I think about removing it from the envelope and looking at it once more before filing it away, but I know what it says. The myopic version of Sam’s life: date of birth, address, profession, marital status, date of death, cause of death. Suicide has its own box. I tuck it safely in place for the next time. It has its usefulness, to be sure, but that embossed blue and pink page doesn’t even come close to describing the entirety of Sam’s life.

***

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

The Eye of the Storm

I do not even know what day it is.

We have a wild whirlwind going on right now – business momentum, home improvement projects, graduations and promotions, including an unexpected trip to urgent care (although with four sons, you’d think that by now I would have learned to keep a couple hours open on my calendar for that particular contingency), the usual stumbles and friction, some laughter and a few tears. We have so much good going on, but does it all have to happen simultaneously? I’m breathless.

Every time I sit down to one project, I think of a dozen others, an email I need to write to the school principal, an item I forgot at the grocery store, a form I meant to submit, a check I need to write and a phone call I should place right now. Before I start any of those, I look to the calendar and see that the day marks my in-law’s 59th wedding anniversary. I make that phone call first. After our conversation, I think about writing a note on my calendar to start planning a party for next year’s 60th anniversary, but decide I am frenzied enough with the tasks at hand. At the moment I am coordinating the logistics for our son’s college graduation. To get our family of six to and from the ceremony in Milwaukee this weekend will require two different airlines and transfers through Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Houston. Plus the trip to urgent care.

I’m dashing around between home and office and doctor, and I have this mental image of all the “hats” I’m wearing – mom, wife, writer, project manager, businesswoman, friend, PTA president, nurse and travel agent –strewn across the backseat, along with an insulated grocery bag, several empty water bottles and a 30-pound bag of dog food. I don’t know why I think I have 20 minutes to stop at church, but something tells me I don’t have time not to.

There are just a few other people here, and the chapel is quiet, except for the creaking of the pew as I sit down. I think, “All right, Jesus, I am here, but I am in a serious time crunch. Inspiration, please, and make it quick!”

My next thought: “Um… Charlotte, this might not be the preferred approach,” although I do believe that God is always pleased by any little movement in His direction. Instead of giving Jesus my litany of assignments, anxieties and hopes, I inhale and try to find silence in all of the noise. I sit still. I close my eyes and exhale. I throw out a mental Do-Not-Disturb sign to the many items on my list clamoring for my attention. Inhale, and exhale again.

Sitting in the hushed, reverent space, I find the still, silent space within. I hear this message: “Keep your eyes on Me.” I feel calmer already, and joyful, even though my to-do list hasn’t decreased and deadlines still loom. I whisper my thanks and return to my tasks, with a renewed confidence that the myriad details will fall into place.

Through the swirl of activity and celebration over the next week, I cling to this simple message and its reminder to keep my focus on the divine. There are travel glitches and delays, and we are exhausted and pressed for time. Yet, we are together and happy and grateful. We have all come a long way to enjoy this moment, and we do. A friend takes a family photograph – my personal favorite from the weekend – including cap and gown and diploma, six smiles and blue sky. In true Midwestern style, seven minutes later, the heavens open and rain pours down, but we are safely dry and warm. It is typical of how the weekend has been, eyes sparkling with joy, unaffected by the rainstorm.

***

I love flying into LAX at night, suspended in the silence, the city lights stretching unimaginably, bounded in the distance by the mountains and the ocean. As our flight descends into Los Angeles, our youngest son sleeps with his head resting on my shoulder. I kiss the top of his teenage head, and he doesn’t wince or make a face or even say anything rude. I kiss him again and breathe in this moment, because I’m going to blink and when I open my eyes, I will be flying home from his college graduation.

We hit the ground running today, our Monday travel-day puts our week off to a late start. As the pace quickens and the volume increases, I cling to that moment in the sky, all those lights shimmering in the darkness.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And quiet in the storm.