Day of days

1,001

Today is the one thousand-first day since Paul died, and it’s also our wedding anniversary. This day of days, of all the days, is the hardest for me. It’s harder than his birthday. It’s harder than Father’s Day. It’s harder than the day he died. It’s harder than all the missed family birthdays, celebrations, and holidays combined. Why? Because it was our day; a unique day in the story of us, the day that marked the beginning of our life together, a day when there were still so many days ahead of us.

The story of our lives together had just begun and now that book’s final chapter has been written, and it sits on a shelf in the library of memories, a treasured story to be sure, but bookended in time nonetheless.

Paul and I always considered our anniversary to be the kick-off to the Christmas season. We would choose a nice restaurant, dress up, and linger long, over a multi-course dinner. On the last anniversary that we celebrated together, we chose a fancy restaurant we had never been to before. The restaurant is a converted carriage house behind an historic mansion that is now a high-end, boutique hotel.

The restaurant, house, and connecting garden were all decked out for Christmas; a sea of reds, greens, and gold. Some of the festive colors had been smartly placed by the staff in the form of swags and garlands, ornaments, and bows, and some had been provided by nature in the form of nandina bushes, holly berries, and camellias as well as the thick, dark greens of magnolia, smilax, and ivy with pops of gold thrown in by maples, oaks, poplars, and sweetgums. By the way, the yellow-gold leaves of the sweetgum are the only redeeming grace of that awful tree with its hard sticker-balls that drop to ground and lie in wait like tiny grenades to the undersides of my bare, southern feet. Anyone who lives in the south knows that they are a menace.

We arrived a little early to our reservation so that we could walk the nearby streets and gardens and take a short tour of the lobby and sitting areas inside the mansion that were so beautifully decorated for the season. We explained to a greeter as we entered the mansion that we were celebrating our anniversary. Upon hearing this, the greeter invited us to ascend the stairs to the cupola and enjoy a view of the city.

A cupola is a small, domed room at the top of a home or building. Some cupolas are very small and intended only to allow in additional light and air. Others are large and used as a lookout either for pleasure or safety. The cupola at the top of this colonial mansion is exceedingly large with floor-to-ceiling windows and was probably intended for both sightseeing and safety as it is just blocks from the harbor and still to this day is one of the tallest buildings in the city even though it is only four stories tall.

We made our way up the spiral staircase and into the barrel-shaped cupola. It was a clear, cold night and the view was long, expansive and breathtaking. The moon was so bright it had chased the stars away. They left their home in the sky and instead took roost in the city, lighting like birds on lampposts and rooftops, and taking up residence in people’s homes and dwellings, sparkling through window panes and doorways.

One of the floor-to-ceiling windows was actually a door indicated only by the presence of a handle. I turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped out onto a widow’s walk that surrounded the cupola. Yes, really. A widow’s walk.

A widow’s walk is a railed walkway around the outside of a cupola; very common among 19th century, Atlantic coast homes and so named for the women who would frequently use the walkways to search for the ships of their sea-faring beloved.

Doesn’t that give you chills? It gives me chills. It makes me feel like this blog was being written out in real life with me as one of the characters in some unknown author’s story. Because I didn’t know then, standing next to my husband, that it would be our last anniversary together and that I would be sitting here writing about it nearly three years later. It puts me in a bit of an existential quandary. Am I the dreamer? Or am I the dream?

***

This is the first year that I have not taken this day entirely to myself. In years past, I anticipated the day and intentionally planned activities that celebrated, even memorialized, our lives together and contributed both to my comfort and to the grieving and healing process.

On the first anniversary without Paul, I took the day off from work to visit the place where we met, and I took this picture; one that you may recognize if you have followed my story.

That was the day that the idea and impetus for this blog began and then became reality about a month later. The second anniversary without Paul was a Saturday. I spent the day volunteering with our dog, Beatrice, at the hospital where Paul passed away.

This year, I allowed it to just happen like any other day. It started out pretty rough. Normally, on a day like today, I would struggle to leave the safety and comfort of the house, but lately, the house no longer seems to hold the sense of safety and comfort it once did. It just feels….empty. The routines that once made me feel so secure now feel boring and numbing.

My mood was disgruntled and cross as I made the short drive to work and would you believe it? I pulled into the parking lot and as I got out of my car, I was greeted with the sound of a Mourning Dove literally mocking me with its low, somber “coooo, coo-hoo, coo, coo, cooooo”. I mean the nerve of some birds. Ugh. I was already struggling and then this bird just had to rub it in. Seriously. I had a few choice words for that bird.

I have been, no, I am, doing really well. I know that this is just a bump in the road, but today it feels like a mountain. However, it’s not sadness or grief that I am feeling. It’s deeper in a way. It has settled somewhere lower in my soul and my psyche. There’s a resignation to it that is almost equivalent with defeat except that it is a defeat that has been reconciled.

It’s nostalgia.

Nostalgia is a wistful sort of acceptance that time is linear, that there’s no going back. It is more closely related to homesickness. That seems about right.

And what does one crave most when homesick? You know it. A good home cooked meal. Am I right? So that’s just what I did. I went home from work after a quick stop at the market and made the first meal Paul and I ever made together, shrimp tetrazzini. It was 1991, about six months before we got married. We were enjoying a weekend at the beach and got in the kitchen together for the first time to make a meal. We listened to Van Morrison as we cooked and drank a dry white wine that just happened to double as one of the recipe’s ingredients.

Once home, I got in the kitchen and got busy with dinner accompanied by Van Morrison and Amazon-Alexa who not only rocked out the Van Morrison playlist but helped me keep up with the five minutes for the shrimp and mushrooms, the seven minutes for the pasta and the 30 minutes in the oven. I made the biggest mess you’ve ever seen. And, no, it didn’t taste the same. Yes, it needed salt. And, this time, the pasta was gluten free because my digestive system is nearly 30 years older and pickier. But none of that matters. It was exactly what I needed.

Here are some directions and action shots in case you want to give it a whirl. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can make it with shrimp, chicken or turkey, and even though linguine is the typical cut of pasta used for this dish, it works with whatever you choose including gluten free (brown rice and quinoa) spiral cut pasta which is what I used.

Begin with a medium-sized sweet onion, minced. Sauté the onion in two tablespoons of butter. Add about a half-pound of shrimp and a half-pound of fresh mushrooms. I added another tablespoon of butter at some point because I had a little more than a half-pound of shrimp and the mushroom slices were large. When the shrimp are pink and the mushrooms are beginning to wilt or sweat, remove to a large bowl and set aside.

The roux could not be more southern; two cups of milk (I used cream because that’s what Paul would have done), one-quarter cup flour, and one-quarter cup mayonnaise (Duke’s, of course). As the roux thickens, add one cup of sherry or a dry white wine. I had a Riesling from a local vineyard so that’s what I used. Also, I may have used more than a cup.

Return the shrimp, onions, and mushrooms to the pan, add cooked pasta (about 8oz dry), and toss gently until well combined. Place in a casserole dish, top with freshly grated Parmesan and bake at 350 degrees (F) for about 30 minutes.

Since it was just me this time, I didn’t go all out, but typically I would add salad and a roll to complete this meal.

***

So something has happened several times lately. A new feeling. It’s happened too often to be a fluke; it’s real, it’s persistent, and I don’t like it. It’s not a feeling to which I am accustomed either to the extent that when I first felt it I wasn’t sure what it was. “This is new. What is this feeling?” I thought. “It’s not grief. It’s something else.” It took me a few times of being confronted with it before I had a name for it. Loneliness.

Oh, dear.

Now. Now. Don’t get worried about me. I am fine. I am busy in the best, most healthy ways. I am surrounded by friends and family who love me and look after me. I am not alone by any means.

And I fully realize that this is a normal part of the grief and grieving process for both myself and the people who surround a loss. At some point, the attention fades, and the phone calls, the invitations, and the texts gradually slow to a trickle as everyone including me moves forward, and the strength of the connections that have been developed during this process are tested in a way. It’s intriguing to me to see what sticks and what doesn’t as I move forward into my life that is no longer our life. From the observer perspective, it’s an interesting turn of events, the next developmental phase. I find myself saying, “Oh, this is an interesting development. What’s she going to do now?” but with the exception that the she is me.

True confessions: I love plants and nature, gardens and parks, but I don’t like to garden. I love to be outside, and I enjoy learning the names and identifying all different kinds of plants, shrubs, trees, flowers, and vegetables. But I don’t like to work in the yard; to plant, trim, prune shrubs, flowers, trees, or bushes, or to mow or rake. However, Paul and I used to spend hours upon hours in our yard and garden, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Huh. Interesting.

What I have realized is that I liked to garden…. with Paul. I enjoyed it because we were doing it together. This. This is what I miss. This is what I desire. I want to love to do something because someone I love loves and enjoys doing it. Ooooo, boy. Relationship goals. This is what it means to share your life with someone. To like what they like because they like it, to take joy in the joy of another.

I didn’t notice how much I missed all of this before I started dating again, and now that I have, well, I’ve realized how much I missed that level of relationship. I miss the small, knowing glances, the tell-all facial expressions, the secret language that we spoke.

It’s funny because before I would have said that there was absolutely nothing missing from my life, and now I feel like there is. Oh, for God’s sake, grrrrrrrr, and double-grrrrrr. Like really? I was so hoping and praying that the Lord would call me to single-ness for the rest.of.my.life. Ha! You got to love the Lord’s sense of humor, and He does have one!

***

This blog is (clearly!) my expressive outlet, my art if you will. I am equally enthralled, but not skilled, with other expressive arts. Music, theater, visual arts are just not my gift, but I love to patronize and support those who do have that gift. My smart, beautiful, talented friend and colleague, Amy Tepper, is one of those people. I purchased this lovely piece of wearable art from her several months ago. I love it because reminds me of the peace of the Holy Spirit descending from above.

Then, recently, knowing my story, she created this beautiful artwork on commission. It’s amazing in these photographs, but it is stunning in person. It tells my story on so many levels; my human story and my spiritual story. It has layers of color and dimension, and it has movement. It’s like what I see when my life flashes before my eyes. Amy captured that, and I will be forever grateful. If you would like to connect with Amy to discuss the visual expression of your own story, you can find her here.

In church last week, during the closing hymn, something happened. We were just starting into the last verse of Great is Thy Faithfulness and suddenly I heard Paul singing beside me. I heard his voice in my ear. I turned to look at him. I stopped singing and listened to him finish the verse.

Be well my friends, and stay tuned. The adventure has just begun, Malia

When Grieving, Dive Deep

In a previous post, I wrote about psychic injury and how to care for yourself as you heal. This post moves on to discussing the healing process. After the death of a loved one or a significant loss, people may refer to you as grief-stricken. Grief-stricken. It’s an interesting description, as if one is stricken with an illness, but I agree with it. It does make sense to refer to grief as an illness because illnesses need treatments and so do psychic injuries. I also agree because people recover from illness, and people recover from grief, too!

Grief is a noun, but grieving is a verb. It is active. Make no mistake. Grieving is difficult work and takes a sustained effort, a multi-faceted approach. For me, I felt like I had to get it right. I have a lot of life left to live. I also want the rest of my life to honor my husband and his love for me. He took such good care of me, always wanted the best for me. He wanted me to spend the rest of my life happy and healthy and emotionally free even if it was without him. The only way to ensure that is to do this grieving thing to the hilt.

So, I have pursued grief, sought it out, searched for it in the darkest corners, fought with it, chased it, dug it up, and wrapped myself in it. Grieving is indeed a profound experience, but it is not who I am, the little girl who lost her mother, the grieving widow. God alone, not my circumstances, determines my identity.

I.Own.Grief. It doesn’t own me.

My treatment plan evolved over time. I began with one strategy and gradually added more until I had a full array of tools with which to do my work.

Welcome to my Griefwork Toolbox!

Individual and/or Family Counseling

I began by seeing a counselor. Best decision I ever made. She saved my life (I’ll save the rest of that story for another post). I began with weekly visits and gradually increased the time between visits depending on how I was feeling. Sometimes I had setbacks and needed to return more frequently. Sometimes I felt stronger and could go a little longer without an appointment. I recommend choosing a counselor who specializes in grief and someone who will support any particular religious beliefs or traditions you may have. I also recommend that you think ahead about whether or not you want a male or female counselor. Be sure to consider any other characteristics unique to your situation and history. The more specific you are the better your counseling experience will be. 

Reading

Reading books about grief can be very helpful. Small, short books with vignettes are best. Long narratives are challenging for an overloaded brain. A brain overloaded with emotion struggles to concentrate and pay attention. A quick search on Amazon will yield many good options. Read just a little each day. Make it a habit. Five to ten minutes a day is all you need.

Choose and pursue an expressive outlet

There are feelings and emotions in the human soul for which there are no words and for which an ocean of salty tears would not be enough to express. For that reason, an expressive outlet can do a world of good. It could be anything – dance, theater, poetry, music, art, sculpting, crafting, scrapbooking, painting, textile arts, drawing. For me, it was music. My husband was a teenager during the seventies. His vinyl record collection is epic. I spent hours listening to those records. They made me feel close to Paul when I was struggling to adapt to his physical absence. I was able to picture him listening to and enjoying those same records, and it made me feel like we were together. They were a great comfort to me, calmed me as David used music to calm the madness of the king. Then, my father-in-law gave me a piano. I had played as a child so, even though many years had passed, it was still familiar to me. I ordered some books and began practicing each day. I was astonished at the way it literally switched off the rest of my brain as I focused on playing the notes and tune. When I am playing the piano, I lose track of time. I lose track of time. A miracle.

Try a Grief Group

I say try because you may find that it is not for you. It also has a lot to do with timing. If you try a grief group and it’s not working for you, by all means, discontinue, but don’t throw out the idea completely. I did not join a grief group until 6 months after Paul’s death. The group I joined was organized around a video series with an accompanying workbook. That aspect was extremely helpful to me. The discussions we had were short, limited to about 15 minutes, and I didn’t speak too often. Only one other person in the group had experienced the death of a spouse. The rest of the members had experienced the death of adult children, parents, or siblings. My point is that the most important benefit I received from being in a grief group was acquired by listening. There is so much value in listening to and understanding the perspectives of others.

Full Circle Moments

Look for and take advantage of full circle moments. I call them goodbye moments. These usually happen at places that were special to us, a restaurant, the beach, gardens, cities we liked to visit, vacation spots. One of these goodbye moments occurred recently at a local plantation. The last time we had been there was Mother’s Day 2016. Our son wasn’t able to be with us that day. I was feeling a little blue about that so Paul planned for us to enjoy a day out. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We strolled the gardens through walkways of flowers. We talked and smiled and laughed and held hands. We thoroughly enjoyed just being with each other. On this recent visit to the same plantation, I was with my brother and his family. As we walked in through the main gates, I recalled the memory. Shared it with my family. Smiled at the thought of it. Celebrated Paul’s life. Embraced it, and let it go. Full circle.

Mother’s Day 2016, Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, SC

Exercise                                                                                                              

Any form of exercise will do, but I encourage you to choose an exercise that has the potential to be social, a two-for-one as it were. The physical and mental benefits of exercise are, of course, numerous. By adding a social component, you also get the benefit of connecting with others. In addition, I encourage exercises and/or activities that have a meditation or mindfulness component as well as a focus on breathing, something like yoga or the martial arts. All of this together will help ease anxiety and the processing of intense emotions.

Church

If church was part of your life before the death of your loved one, try to continue to go. I know it is difficult, but it can be an important and stabilizing force in your healing process. I think the way to get through it is to not have any expectations. Just be there in His presence and trust. The rawness of grief in the midst of worship can be very challenging. Go anyway. Do it anyway, but make sure you have escape routes, places you can go, people you can go to if you get overly emotional or completely overwhelmed.

Journaling

My counselor encouraged journaling early on, but I was not able to do it. I couldn’t gather my thoughts together well enough to get them on to paper. I couldn’t concentrate. My emotions just didn’t translate. It was months before I was able to write short responses to questions in my grief workbook and several months more before my ideas began to freely flow. If you are not able to journal initially, try again after some time has passed. It can be a powerful means for reorganizing thoughts and memories, integrating new experiences, and assimilating new routines and life patterns.

Pet Therapy

Spending time with pets can have a profoundly beneficial impact on anxiety, depression, and mood. Try spending more time with your own pets if you have them. Walking them and playing with them even for a few minutes can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and improve your outlook. If you don’t have pets of your own, spend time with a friend or family member’s pet. Many organizations have access to pet therapy. Handlers volunteer their time and their pet to visit with people undergoing medical treatments or in need of emotional support. I will write more about our own amazing experience with pet therapy in a future post.

Connect

Connect with others in a meaningful way. Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return on their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” Griefwork truly is a labor. By connecting, we can help each other through it. Work on strengthening your current connections and reaching out to others to form new ones. Everyone is experiencing some type of grief. No one gets through this life unscathed. The more we reach out and connect with each other the better off we will all be.

Serve

Find opportunities to serve others in need. Yes, even though you are in a position of need yourself. Serving others grows gratitude for your own circumstances. It also takes your mind off of whatever your mind is on. On our first Christmas Day without Paul, my son and I volunteered to serve Christmas dinner at our local Ronald McDonald House, a place for families experiencing medical hardships. It was the best place for us to be that day. We were busy serving others. It took our minds off the absence of our beloved husband and father if even for a little while. I was recently reading Luke’s account of Tabitha. Tabitha was a disciple of Christ and worked to help the widowed and poor by making clothing for them. Tabitha fell ill and passed away. Her community was so distraught that two believers went to get Peter who was visiting in a nearby town. Peter arrived and prayed to God on behalf of Tabitha, and God restored her to life. She got her life back. Every time I do something for someone else, when I serve, I feel like I get a little bit more of my life back.

Go. Serve. It’s good for others. It’s good for you.

Embrace

Only what is embraced can be transformed. Only by embracing the grief can it be transformed into peace. Embrace it all, the emotions, the memories, the hurt. Breathe it all in so that you can breathe it all out. Don’t run away. Run towards it! Memories are so interesting. When my mother died, I purposely did not remember and forgot so much, whole swaths of time from my childhood. The pain was too overwhelming, and I had no support. Now, I use my memories as a way to visit with Paul, and it brings me joy!

Cry. Wash. Repeat.

Cry. A lot. Then, wash your face. I received this advice from a widower, and he was right. There is great power in the physical act of washing your face. The water is refreshing. It takes the tears with it down the drain. It’s energizing, too. It gives you a moment to catch your breath, gather your courage, and face the day once more. Repeat as often as necessary. It’s an emotional cleanse that’s good for your psyche.

If ANY of this is helpful to you, dear reader, then I have been of service and have gotten a little bit more of my life back.

Be blessed, Malia

Church is so hard.

I’m a Christian. Beyond that, my spiritual life and personal relationship with Jesus Christ is far more important than any religious affiliation I have. So, why go to church? I believe, and the Bible, God’s Word, tells us that we are called into fellowship with other Christians. We are, in fact, adopted members of the family of faith. We are members of one body, and we can no more remove ourselves from the body of Christ than remove one of our own arms or legs. We go to church for support, accountability, instruction, and challenge, and quite frankly sometimes out of sheer obedience, obedience to a loving Father who knows what is best for us when we don’t know it for ourselves.

Sundays at church were such a wonderful time for me and my husband. It was our special time together. There was nothing more peaceful to me than sitting beside him in the pew, both of us so grateful for everything God had given us. We attended the same church where we were baptized, confirmed, married, and where we Christened our son, the same church where we held my husband’s funeral, and I said goodbye to Paul for the last time among our friends and family. In a way, that was a proud day for me. Twenty-seven years earlier, we had taken our marriage vows in front of some of those same family and friends. It was not always easy or pretty, but our marriage had endured “…until death do us part”. It was also my great privilege and joy to watch my husband grow and mature spiritually. God loved him, and he loved the Lord. It was amazing to watch the Lord work in Paul’s life and heart.

Easter 1990, at the church where Paul would be baptized and confirmed, and where we would be married and Christen our son.

Going to church without my husband is still pretty hard on me. No, that’s putting it too mildly. The truth is that I suffer. I weep. I cry. I have to excuse myself to a quiet, prayer room off the vestibule so that I can regain my composure. We always sat toward the back. It might be easier on me if I moved to another pew, but I am glued to that spot. I cannot leave the pew where we sat. I just can’t, even though it makes me sad. Kneeling at the communion rail makes me sad. I know that I am sharing in the Great Communion of all believers, and in that way, I am as close to Paul as I will get until that day. I know it should bring me joy, and it does, but at the same time, I also experience the deeply painful loss of his physical reality and it hurts! It physically hurts me. The songs, too, make me sad, the hymns we sung together for so many Sundays. I sit in my pew, an open wound. I kneel at the rail, an open wound. I worship as I suffer. I suffer as I worship.

So, why? Why subject myself to such pain and misery? Because I count my sadness and brokenness before God as a pure act of worship. Because, to me, worshiping fully means worship, thanksgiving, and trust in the midst of intense grief and suffering. Because I have learned that suffering is good. Useful. Important. It’s ok for me to suffer. It is an important element in the Christian walk of faith as demonstrated time and time again throughout the Bible not to mention that it’s an inescapable aspect of the human experience. Living out the Christian life is fine and good, but living out the Christian death is an act of worship and eternal hope.

I was reading Tramp for the Lord by Corrie Ten Boom recently when she reminded me of James 1: 2-3, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into difficult times. Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.” I count my sadness and brokenness before God as joy. I am determined to worship in the midst of the suffering because I am grateful. God measured the length of Paul’s days before he was born, and I was blessed to have the time God provided for us to have.

“Then, he turned my sorrow into joy! He took away my clothes of mourning…” Psalm 30:11

Faithfully, Malia