Monday, March 29, 2010

Are We There Yet?

Good Monday Mourning!

When my husband died some three and a half years ago I really thought that grief would be a short-lived, temporary malady. Like any other difficulty or injury you hurt - for a while - and then you're better and the crisis is over. I saw this whole process of grief like a long layover on my way to where ever you go on the other side of grief. And so I settled into the back seat with my tissues in hand and still in the "fog" that comes with grief for what I thought would be a painful but short trip. Apparently I was wrong and I'm stunned at my reaction to the whole situation as the trip has dragged on for two, three and soon approaching four years. I have asked that question that my kids asked on nearly every family vacation. If you're a parent you know it well. Stephen, our youngest was particularly fond of this question; so much so that we would not tell him in advance that a trip was coming. On several road trips from Michigan to Florida we would ply him with every distraction known to man; puzzles, books, music, food, These seemed to work for awhile but were never totally effective in eliminating the problem. I call it the "are we there yet? syndrome". Every 30 minutes or 30 miles (50 miles if I was driving. I'm from Michigan and we're born knowing what to do with a gas pedal!) we would here Stephen's chirping whine from somewhere in the nether regions of the minivan, "ARE WE THERE YET?" In one chorus David and I, along with siblings, Lisa and Jonathan would shout, "NO!" Sometime the shout was filled with laughter and a quick redirection of his attention. Around mile marker 600 it would take on a more impatient tone. For Stephen, the trip was unbearable. The joys and delights of the destination made the long ride a bit torturous.
I now understand where the kid was coming from. Grief is like that. At least it is for me. Maybe you are able to endure the journey with patience and acceptance. I am not wired for either and this journey we call grief is not a "joy ride". I find myself every month or so asking God, "Are we there yet?". I just want this to be over and get out of the car and get on with the fun adventure of life. I do not find this trip to be enjoyable and I want out. Some days I want out so bad that I'm willing to jump out on some unknown street corner. Just let me out! I don't care where the journey is taking me or how wonderful it may be when we get there. I just want the grief to stop. I've been on this trip so long that some days I'm feeling a little car-sick. Just let me out!
All this inner impatience with the process we call grief has caused me to ask a different question. (I don't seem to be getting any answer with the "are we there yet? query) As I approach the fourth year of life without David I am beginning to think that perhaps grief is not simply a short, bad trip that will end in a happier, pleasant destination. Perhaps grief is more like a uninvited traveling companion. Someone who comes along for the ride regardless of the destination or length of the trip. I am beginning to think that perhaps grief is not something you put behind you like the mile markers. Perhaps grief is something you learn to live with along the way.
It's all a work in progress and some days I'm not sure of any of this. I just know that I've stopped asking God when it's going to end and starting asking Him to help me deal with this unwanted traveling companion. And as I have changed my approach to grief I find it has become less of the frustrating, upsetting invader of my life. Don't get me wrong, I am not happy about the grief that's crawled into the back seat with me. If I could shove him out the door as we take a sharp turn, I would. But he seems to be quite stubborn and content to tag along with me where ever I go. I am learning how to manage him- to redirect his attention and keep him otherwise occupied. It is getting easier with each day but I no longer wake up each morning expecting this to be the day that I have finally arrived on the other side of grief. If anyone out there has found "the other side", let me know. I would like to get there someday.
So as I head down the road of life approaching the fourth-year mile marker I have stopped asking the question, "Are we there yet?" I already know the answer - NO!
Today I ask, "Lord, help me find joy and purpose in today regardless of where the road takes me." It's probably a better question anyways. At least there seems to be less whine in it than the other one. So today, I'm going with it. Tomorrow is another day and you just never know. Grief may get the best of me tomorrow. Today we seem to be good. Thank you Lord.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Kill the Cat

I once had a cat named Tiger. He was a part of our household for 10 years. You notice I didn't say he was a part of our family. Not because we didn't care for him and make every attempt to make friends. Tiger just wasn't interested in making friends. He was an antisocial cat. Not evil or scary- he just had no real use for people in general and was prone to being "up close and personal" only when he wanted something from us. Come to think of it I know a few people like that - but I digress.

Well Tiger was a cat we rescued from the pound but the fact that we saved his life and gave him every luxery a cat could hope for was totally unimpressive to him. He came into our home with a sense of superior entitlement and never wavered from that general attitude. Come to think of it my kids resembled that same attitude from time to time. I digress again. Sorry.

Well, one fateful night about a year ago Tiger - who loved the great outdoors begged to be let out. He was a mouser! He would proudly catch mice and spit them out on the sidewalk for David (my husband) to find when he came home from work. David would always praise him and scoop up the dead rodent so I would not get all hysterical about it. A curious sidebar: When David died Tiger went through a year of mourning. For one solid year he caught not a single mouse. On the anniversary of David's death I came home to find a mouse on the sidewalk and Tiger close by waiting to see if I would reward him. I didn't. You get more of what you celebrate and I did not want to add scooping up dead mice to my daily routine. I did not however, scold him because he clearly had respected a widow's grief and his "master's" death- for one solid year! Pretty good for an antisocial cat! So Tiger went outside and somewhere in the woods he met his match. Some critter bigger and meaner than him got ahold of his tail and the wounds were pretty extensive. We rushed him to the vet and after examining him informed me that they could not put Tiger back together again. I gave them permission to end his suffering which seemed to be pretty intense. Now here's the thing I find quite strange.-
I did not like Tiger. He was generally more trouble than he was worth. He was a wining, annoying, antisocial cat. But when he died...I cried. Hard. Long. Loud. I asked my psychologist friend what that was all about. (sidebar: If you don't have a psychologist friend you should get one - they are useful!)She told me that it was not uncommon that a small loss- even years later- can trigger the same response as the larger loss. Feelings of loss trigger a floodgate of emotion that seem disproportionate to the situation. Displaced grief. My tears for Tiger were actually tears for David and memories of how he cared for Tiger - and for me. David loved Tiger. So I did my best to tend to the cat and scoop up his "trophies" and give him a humane death. It cost me $300.00 to "kill" the cat! Even in death Tiger was annoying!
Displaced grief overtakes me from time to time. I never know when it's going to strike or with what force. At least now I know whenever my emotions seem to be more intense than the situation calls for that it is normal. I'm not crazy or emotionally unstable - just grieving. And it does seem to get better with time. Then again, I still have Fred - our oldest and dearest cat who laid in David's lap during those last days of David's life. When Fred dies... it could get messy.
If you're dealing with some displaced grief - it's OK. It's annoying and confusing but you are not crazy and you will be OK... in time. Go ahead and cry or shout or whatever seems to help and then get on with life. I'm moving forward and I do manage a smile everyday as I walk up the sidewalk and don't have to stop for the rodent removal ceremony.

Hang in there.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Keeping Busy

Welcome Monday Mourners,

I am writing my Monday morning blog for those who grieve on.... Sunday night. It seems a bit off; a bit awkward; a bit...wrong! It might be that I am missing my favorite booth at the diner and my cup of coffee. Yeah! Coffee is definitely helpful but if I have a cup of coffee right now at 10:00pm on Sunday I will be staring at the ceiling most of the night. So I am trying to do what I do sans coffee. It's definitely not the optimum approach to reflection or writing - at least not for me. But nevertheless I am writing on Sunday night.
Tomorrow I have one of those non-stop days. It will begin with an hour and a half commute to a conference that begins at 8:00am. The day will end for me around 9:00pm after a small group meeting. Busy. Busy. Busy! Some days are just like that and I realized as I am printing out my mapquest directions and figuring out what to wear that I am not dreading Monday's mad schedule. I seem to be OK with the day. (except for the coffee at my diner part. I'm missing that already!) The fact that I'm OK with tomorrows schedule makes me smile.
You see, it wasn't that long ago in my journey with grief that a busy schedule like the one I have tomorrow would have overwhelmed me. Grief is exhausting. It takes so much energy out of you that you realize you just don't have the reserve needed for a busy day. Being overwhelmed usually causes me to cry or scream. Neither is all that productive and sometimes damaging. So I am smiling at my willingness to face a grueling day ahead with optimism instead of dread. That is a sign of healing and progress. Grief is slowly (very, very slowly!) losing its grip on me. YEAH!
I will take small victories wherever I can find them. Tomorrow is filled with busyness... and hope and promise. And just to make sure the day goes well, I will be grabbing a cup of coffee on my way out of town. Somethings just need to happen no matter how busy the day is.
If you're feeling a little overwhelmed with the day. It's OK. Been there, done that! And I may find myself circling back to that. Grief has been known to sneak up on me and blindside me a time or two. On the overwhelmed days I cry (or scream) and pray. Tomorrow is another day! With God's help, a better day! See you next Monday.


Monday, March 8, 2010

The Widow Card

So I'm sitting in the admissions office of our local university with my youngest son. It's late July and we're trying to maneuver our way through the financial aid office and it's maze of paperwork. I've done this every year for the past 7 years with two older children so I'm pretty confident I can get us through this. What I didn't plan for; what I didn't expect was the response of an overworked and indifferent staff at this university. The response was "a failure to fill out these papers back in March is your problem and we're not putting a rush on your paperwork just because you show up at the last minute. Sure, it's our job but you're the one who showed up late". I thought about digging in my heals and refusing to leave the office until someone with some authority showed up to deal with us. I thought about rallying the dozen other students and parents in the waiting room and staging a sit-in. But both would have required a significant amount of resolve and fight from me and this was only one month after David's death. I didn't have any fight in me. So, I did something I never thought I would do and really didn't want to.Before I knew what was happening I --- I played the "widow card".
I sat down in one of those cubical offices with a financial aid counselor and before he could give me the "we will process your request when we get good and ready and not a moment before so get ready to pay up" speech, I jumped in with a preemptive strike. I began to explain, "We know all about filling out the forms in March, but at that time my husband, Stephen's dad was in the last stages of cancer. He died in June- a week after Stephen's graduation party and so please forgive us for our tardiness. Some things are more important than filling out the paperwork in a "timely" fashion." It was the first time I had ever played the "widow card" and so I really had no idea what to expect. I braced myself for another indifferent response. What I got was nothing short of a miracle. That man sitting across the table from us looked up from his computer and said, "wait here" and rushed out of the room. He returned fifteen minutes later with the necessary paperwork in hand and after a few signatures from us we were on our way home with our college admission accepted and financial aid in hand. Who knew they could do that? Apparently when they have a will to, there is a way to get it done in one day. All it took was...."a widow card".
If you have one of those cards in your pocket I am so sorry. No one should have to carry that thing around with them. It's limited benefits do not outweigh the loss and sadness that go with it. The next thing I would say is, "use it when you need to." I have found that this cold, indifferent world is actually filled with caring and compassionate people who, if given a chance and a reason, will move mountains to help a widow or a fatherless boy. My journey through grief has often been paved with kindness from strangers. And the amazing thing is that the ones extending the kindness seem to receive as much a blessing as the recipient. There is a blessing in blessing others. Simple kindness is it's own reward.
So.... extend kindness today to someone. And, when you find yourself in a quandary- whether it's the mechanic or the taxman or the college counselor - ask for a cup of kindness instead of indifference. You just might be surprised at what you receive and you will be giving someone an opportunity to be kind. OH - don't forget to ask with kindness. They aren't used to being treated by the public with anything but rudeness and demands. Kindness is a surprise for them too. Life is hard. Let's make a resolve today to handle it with as much kindness as we can.

See you next Monday


Monday, March 1, 2010

Only The Lonely

Good Monday Mourning!

Loneliness is a strange sort of critter. Not easily described or explained but like one of our supreme court justices once said (referring to porn) "You know it when you see it". I think we have all known times of loneliness in our lives. We are not invited to the PJ party in 4Th grade; our best friend moves away; our kids leave the "nest". These events and many others can bring that vague, unsettling feeling we call "loneliness". Usually it is temporary and given a little time and the natural changes of life we adjust and find new interests to fill the void.

Not so with grief. The loneliness experienced at the death of a loved one is a whole new "animal". I wouldn't believe it to be true if I wasn't smack-dab in the middle of it. It is ... strange.

For instance - just this week I heard myself saying to someone who asked me how I was doing with this "widow thing", "I really hate living alone". Now that's just... strange! Strange because that response is not grounded in reality and as soon as I said it I realized how off base the statement was. The reality is I have never lived alone. Not a single day of my entire life! I went from living at home with my parent to marriage and then after 27 years my husband died. I had 2 children living with me at the time and one of them still lives with me three years later. Add to the mix the reality that my sister moved in with me along with her little dog, Mickey and you see how ridiculous that statement was. I'm not only NOT living alone - I'm surrounded by people and dogs and cats pretty much 24/7. I am not living alone. And yet... it sure feels like it. And there in lies the rub - the strangeness of this thing we call "loneliness". It defies explanation. We've probably all experienced that feeling of being alone in a crowded room. Apparently loneliness has more to do with relationships than it does the number of people in the room.

Grief often brings with it such strong emotions that in their sheer strength can overwhelm our senses and alter our perceptions of truth and reality. The truth is I have never known a single day of aloneness. Grief tells me I am alone and will always be alone and that this loneliness will never, ever go away. Grief lies. My relationship with David has changed forever and that has left me feeling alone and lonely even though I am not alone. I just miss David which is a reasonable reaction but I need to remind myself in the midst of my loneliness that I am not alone. Surrounded by friends and family, carried by God, I am never alone.

Just knowing that grief is prone to emotionally-based feelings not grounded in truth can help us handle the feelings. I corrected myself almost immediately after saying, "I hate living alone". I added, "well, actually, I don't live alone at all. God has surrounded me with family that live with me and care for me every day. I just miss David." Focusing on what we have instead of what we've lost is always a good exercise producing a sense of gratitude and security. It doesn't change the fact that I am lonely and miss my husband. It does keep loneliness from controlling my life. I blame it on the grief. Actually, I blame a lot of things on the grief. I figure I ought to be able to get something beneficial out of this mess.

Next week I'll tell how I've learned to make grief "useful". If you're going to have it hanging around the house you might as well learn how to use it. That's my motto.

See you next week and... don't let the loneliness lie to you.