“I like the concept of Sisu: perseverance, guts, determination. But I also think that’s what gets me in trouble.” With family hailing from Finland, Sisu is a common household word, encouraging bravery and resilience. But for my new friend, Heather, it’s extra pressure that makes her feel like she should be able to “do it all on my own.” When she lost her first baby at 20 weeks, after years of dealing with the agony of infertility, confidence was at an all-time low.
Heather and her husband started trying to have kids in 2009, and ended up spending multiple years with specialists, waiting for treatments. Fortunately, intrauterine insemination (IUI) proved successful on their second attempt and they started tracking the baby from the time he was the size of a poppy seed. In fact, the baby would be referred to as “Seed” throughout the pregnancy and for many months after. It wasn’t until after the baby’s official due date that Heather’s husband decided to formally name him: James.
Heather was over the moon to be pregnant, but also, understandably, very anxious. As an engineer, she is a numbers person. When you’re pregnant, statistics can be both comforting and alarming; while one in four women will bear a miscarriage, more than eighty percent occur within the first trimester. Consequently, when Heather went to the doctor at eighteen weeks pregnant with a Listeria scare, she was relieved but not totally surprised that her baby was fine.
But just ten days later, her scheduled twenty-week ultrasound found a problem. “I knew something was wrong when the lab tech said ‘I’m going to go get your doctor.’” With no heartbeat confirmed, Heather felt the heavy weight of guilt pull her underwater. As she thought back to the possibility of eating or touching something infected with Listeria, what-if questions piloted her thoughts. Despite genetic testing and counseling to investigate any chromosomal issues, there was never any answer/reason that her first baby died. This made it even more logical to blame herself. “I don’t think I’ve accepted there was no reason. It’s just too hard to live with the mystery.”
Two days after the ultrasound, on October 18, 2013, Heather and her husband presented back to the hospital and prepared for surgery. Given the option to be induced and deliver him or undergo the dilation and curettage procedure (D&C), Heather chose the latter. She never held or saw her baby, as the vacuum procedure doesn’t separate tissue from the baby. Like many parents who undergo this kind of miscarriage, Heather and her husband used a funeral home and were able to cremate all of the remains. Their baby, James, now rests on top of their dresser in a pressed sand urn with footprints covering its surface.
“Everyone was so kind and compassionate at the D&C. The loss nurses helped us so much. But the person I remember most clearly was actually the anesthesiologist.” When he arrived to prepare Heather for the surgery, his simple “Well, this sucks,” were the most reassuring words she’d heard.
I can relate to that. So many well-intentioned but hurtful words come out of people’s mouths after a sudden loss. As many young widows like me were told that “You’re young, you’ll find someone else,” many parents who endure miscarriages are told, “You’re young, you can try again.” And here’s the thing — it’s not that these statements are untrue. Said out loud, they devalue the life of your loved one by implying that this loss shouldn’t be life-changing.
Pregnancy loss and infant death aren’t discussed out loud like other losses are. They are complicated and often invisible. Heather found minimal relief herself talking at an infant/miscarriage/stillborn loss group that the hospital facilitated; hearing everyone else’s story elevated her fears about trying again, and how much worse her own situation could have been.
The peace that Heather eventually found was centered in the earth, specifically a community memorial for children, hand-crafted jewelry, her own garden, and meditation. The memorial, named Angel of Hope Arboretum, is a collection of pavers/bricks that families purchase after a child dies. The bricks form a beautiful pathway around an angel statue, which is one of more than 50 “Christmas Box Angel of Hope” statues in the world, all for persons grieving the loss of children, with a design based on a best-selling book by Richard Paul Evans. Each year, the community gathers for a secular Candlelight Memorial, a Walk to Remember, and the National Day of Remembrance and Loss; approximately 300 people attend the events.
When Heather goes to the arboretum now, she wears special jewelry that was custom-made after James died. Specifically, a necklace that honors both his name and the truth that “I will carry you in my heart forever” with engravings and dark green Tourmaline — October’s birthstone. Truth be told, Heather’s not much of a jewelry person; she doesn’t even wear her wedding ring consistently. However, on special occasions or times with her friends and their children, it’s something tangible she can hold.
Throughout the seasons, she also honors James’ memory by maintaining a garden surrounding an apple tree her family planted in their backyard for him. The garden’s first flowers were blue irises, as they are noted for remembrance, as well as poppy flowers, since Heather and her husband first called James their “poppy seed.” Focusing on those specific varieties were helpful for that first year, but now, it’s become more important to see bright, lively colors. “I like going out now. Kait can play a little bit independently. And just being out there and seeing it bloom, I can kind of be with both of them.”
On January 14, 2015, Heather successfully gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kaitlin. Therapy, massage, acupuncture, meditation, cleaning the house, and eating only cooked vegetables helped her deal with the anxiety of this pregnancy. She swears by them all, especially meditation, which she began after losing James. At a yoga center in Minneapolis, Heather practiced guided meditation. Concentrating on candle flames and other natural elements, the shaman paired classic imagery with gentle yoga techniques and heart drums. “It helped me get my body to relax. I would be super tense and have trouble with clenching my jaw after the miscarriage. With meditation, I breathe deeper and calmer.”
(On a humorous side note, one of Heather’s therapists advised her to “just blow some bubbles.” This therapist was not seen again. And it’s important to share, because finding a good therapist takes trial-and-error. Many times!)
Kait’s road has not been easy — being born with reactive airway disease, low muscle tone requiring physical therapy, and then suffering pneumonia twice and bronchiolitis at least three times in her first fifteen months — but Heather’s experience with James unpacked a new perspective. “It’s made me super appreciative. If you would have told me when I was 30, that I’d be a stay-at-home mom, I would have laughed. Even the idea of having kids was crazy enough. But now, I’m completely focused on my family. When we got pregnant again, I didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl.” The phrase — “as long as they’re healthy” became her mantra.
This year, 2016, was the first year that Heather didn’t cry at the Angel of Hope statue. “It was different: the walk was close to Kait’s bedtime and we were on a schedule. Sometimes I still struggle with the fact that if James was here, I wouldn’t have Kait. I feel guilty for thinking this way, but then, it does help. She’s an absolutely amazing little kid.” While Heather thinks about him less now, she also knows her grieving, and complicated feelings, for him will never end.
Again, I find myself able to completely relate. My child, born just one month after Kait, has been a huge source of unexpected healing. Years ago, I used to say things like “I’ll never be this happy again,” but the truth is, my daughter makes me happier than I’ve ever been. It’s just different. Kids have a way of forcing you to live and think in the present; they demand your complete attention. Like the little boy at our restaurant, whose head popped up over our booth every thirty seconds as we finished our conversation. With his infectious smile, enthusiastic “Hello!” thirty-six times, rumpled hair, and inability to sit down, baby James felt a bit closer.
And as she reflected on her progress, Heather’s Sisu felt closer too.
Originally published on November 8, 2016 by OpenToHope.com
A friend of mine, who lives about three hours north of me, took this picture today. It brought me back -- to the days when the only beauty left in the world was nature. It wasn't "enough" for my heart to stop breaking or my loneliness to end, but it kept me open to seeing another day. Sometimes, that's all it takes.#natureheals
I battled the fear of driving or asking someone to drive to me for many years, worrying there would be another fatal crash. And while it could happen, living in that fear is paralyzing. I believe we must live with the hope that all will be okay AND the reality that today is all we have.
1. He doesn't want me at the grave.
My senses arrest
whenever I go.
I don't understand.
Only the tangible part of him is there -
But sometimes it's easier to think of him at a certain place.
2. I worked so hard to
process my loss;
find my core again;
live with intention and appreciation.
Grief can still be a formidable river.
3. I'm glad I made the choice to move forward.
A mind shift is how I explain it -
acceptance of life as joy and sorrow,
acceptance of the rewards and disappointments within all relationships,
acceptance of answers I won't find in this life,
acceptance of loving again and needing occasional help.
4. I may not have thought about him today.
We were so busy. And happy.
playing at the park,
listening to live music,
Being a mom is the best thing to ever happen to me.
5. Fear's nightly storm crushes me rarely now.
Did I ever think the rain would let up?
I drive again, almost any distance.
I don't envision loved ones dying - unless there is a powerful trigger.
I can speak about acceptance and truly mean it five minutes, five hours, five days later.
6. Kaleidoscope living:
We are broken pieces and whole pieces
creating new patterns
as we shift and look up into the Light.
7. My heart will always ache when to my mind he comes
and that's okay.
My heart swells for our beautiful life,
as it does for the beauty surrounding me now.
This article was published by OpenToHope.com on August 17, 2016. More articles in this new series will soon be following!
“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she began as she unrolled her white, pressed napkin. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
On July 6, 2016, I was honored to have lunch and conversation about loss, the lasting impact of fatal crashes, mindsets, and motherhood with a woman who exudes optimism and honesty. Sometimes, it seems those two traits don’t often go together, as harsh realities make it difficult to live with a glass-half-full mentality. Now in her late-thirties with four children (one adopted), my new friend, Nicole Roufs, finds healing and life through owning her reactions.
“My life mantra used to be ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” Believing this was the only way through the loss of her parents and difficult life with an austere aunt. “Now, I still think some things happen for a reason, but there is also much control we have: how we respond, the impression on our soul, and what we do with what happens to us.”
When Nicole was nine years old, she fell asleep in the car, on her mother’s lap, and woke up in the hospital where she would stay for two full months to recover from injuries sustained in a crash. A crash caused by a teenager playing a dangerous road game where he accelerated down the wrong side of the street until the last possible second before impact. Nicole’s mother and her boyfriend, the driver, were killed instantly; Nicole’s entire left side of her body was crushed.
When she was finally discharged from the hospital, her new legal guardian was her mother’s half-sister. “She did the best she could, but it just wasn’t what I needed.” As Nicole’s new home lacked space to grieve, access to a decent counselor, and most importantly, regular visits with her brother…Nicole became isolated. Nicole and her brother – only 15 months younger – shared a room before the crash; after, they went to separate houses as his father was available and hers was never known. However, Nicole did not know they had different fathers – and that her mom refused to tell anyone about Nicole’s real father – until her aunt casually mentioned it after the crash.
Another. Huge. Loss. (And after three paternity tests, Nicole’s still looking.)
The two kids took very different life paths, though both continued to suffer great adversity. Nicole was kicked out of her aunt’s house at age 15, a consequence for refusing to do the dishes. Drugs were in her brother’s new home – and he has been an addict, in and out of treatment centers, since his teenage years. Her brother now has seven children, and Nicole adopted one just last year after he was removed several times from an unsafe home with his mother. “Dana has quite a path in front of him, but he is such a thoughtful, hard-working guy,” she says with tears in her eyes. Nicole strives to give him the adopted home and love that she needed at his age; they can surely relate to loss on many similar levels.
“I try to tell my brother that he can change, that he has some control,” Nicole relays. “But his mindset is so different than mine. He is stuck in this ‘Poor me’/’They owe me’ attitude.’” Dissimilarly, Nicole and Dana have always focused on answering the questions: “What am I going to do?” and “How the hell am I going to get out of this?”
As our cream of broccoli soup arrived, Nicole and I wondered if people are born with certain mindsets, and/or how easily those mindsets can be changed as adults.
“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she said again. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
Changing one’s story doesn’t mean that you just appear resilient (but really have not processed your grief). True resilience is about “looking internally and moving forward because you carry your pain with you in a new way.” I asked her at what age she was able to look internally. “Not at 9 years old. At that age, it was like I was drowning in water, but I didn’t actually drown. When I was teenager and started to think more, I fought back. But it’s really been as a mother that I’ve peeled away the layers of my grief.” And during that peeling, she has found herself journaling: to her kids, about her kids, for her kids.
“There’s definitely a push to do something now. I live way more consciously.” What does living consciously look like? “It’s about being intentional, realizing every day is such a gift. My morning routine is centered on appreciation, as my eyes are open to how things could be.”
As our time together drew to a close, she told me about a book that was inspirational to her: Theresa Caputo’s There’s More to Life Than This. One of the “nuggets” from the book focused on the journey our soul chooses. In Nicole’s words, “I may have picked this life to grow up without my mom, to deal with her death.” This sentiment is part of her changed philosophy – that some things happen for a reason. “I don’t think there were specifics about when and how she would die. But I do believe that this is part of my journey.”
As I walked back to my car that day, her words about choosing her journey stuck with me more than anything else. It brought up many memories from the first years after my husband died, as my initial reaction was usually: “God doesn’t plan for bad things to happen. Life is not scripted for us, and people’s actions have consequences!” (My husband was also killed in a car crash by a negligent driver.)
But after everything I’ve been through these past eight years as a widow – from spiritual connections I don’t understand, mentoring kids dealing with loss, the feeling that I’m called to write about the grief process – I just can’t be black-and-white anymore with my view of the world. There is so much unexplainable mystery and opportunity that arises out of the ashes.
I know one thing for sure: The positivity that people like Nicole use as a result of their growth through loss is influential, inspiring, and important to share.
I found this poem while digging through some old files today. I keep returning to read it again, so I feel called to share it here.
"I believe there is no denying it: It hurts to lose.
It hurts to lose a cherished relationship with another,
or a significant part of one's own self.
It can hurt to lose that which has united one with the past,
or that which has beckoned one into the future.
It is painful to feel diminished or abandoned,
to be left behind or left alone.
Yet I believe there is more to losing than just the hurt and the pain.
For there are other experiences that loss can call forth.
I believe courage often appears,
However quietly it is expressed
However easily it goes unnoticed by others;
The courage to be strong enough to surrender,
The fortitude to be firm enough to be flexible.
I believe a time of loss can be a time of learning unlike any other,
And that it can teach some of life's most valuable lessons.
In act of losing there is something to be found.
In the act of letting go, there is something to be grasped.
In the act of saying "goodbye" there is a "hello" to be heard.
For I believe living with loss is about beginnings as well as endings.
And grieving is a matter of life more than death.
And growing is a matter of mind and heart and soul more than of body.
And loving is a matter of eternity more than of time.
Finally, I believe in the promising paradoxes of loss.
In the midst of darkness, there can come great Light.
At the bottom of despair, there can appear a great Hope.
And deep within lonliness, there can dwell a great Love.
I believe these things because others have shown the way-
Others who have lost and have then grown through their losing.
Others who have suffered and then found new meaning.
So I know I am not alone; I am accompanied, day after night, night after day."
Titled: "An Affirmation for Those Who Have Lost" by James E. Miller
"What an idiotic thing - to deface your own body," an uncle said after I got my first tattoo. He wasn't interested in the story behind it. Like many people, he's one that goes through life without checking his assumptions and, as a result, often misses the opportunity to see beauty in unexpected places.
Contrary to popular opinion, most tattoos are not butterflies in the small of a woman's back or skulls and crossbones on men's shoulders. Recent reports describe the most common tattoo now as tribal, connecting to natural scenes and animals that depict inner strength, spirituality, or protection. Personally, I've yet to meet anyone who didn't have a thoughtful and compelling story behind the permanent mark their body unveils. In fact, I get pretty excited when I see the opportunity to ask.
Once there was tears. I was sitting with a group of young widows who were sharing thoughts and activities that honored their husbands. Some talked about living for their children, others about relationships with in-laws, others about the trial of getting out of bed and not giving up. The last woman who shared that day raised her hand and pointed to the inside of her wrist: "This is stage one of my memorial tattoo. Around his name will be a hummingbird, reminding me of the calmest, happiest moments in our marriage. I need that to remember him in the way I want to."
She then went on to talk about the flack received from her family, which I assume many of us have heard: It's not very professional; people won't take you seriously. Are you sure you'll want his name on you forever? What if you meet someone else?Is it really worth hundreds of dollars?
My widow friend didn't have the answers at that point; she just knew in her heart that the symbol chosen and its location were important and "right."
Many years have passed since that night, yet I still think about her story and those questions from time to time. Five years after receiving my second memorial tattoo, I'd like to share some possible answers to those pressing inquiries from family and friends.
First, people who seek memorial tattoos commonly make them small. They do not want to be stereotyped and are not looking for a reaction from outsiders because the symbol is personal and emotional. Most think extensively about visibility for not only a professional environment, but also a warm climate. Example: I am one of many who possess a leg tattoo just high enough to be covered by summer shorts. This gives me the freedom to dress as I choose in any season AND reveal my tattoo only if I wish to share the story.
That said, even if someone chooses a place that cannot be covered, the cultural expectation that corporate environments will be dismissive is quickly fading. According to a 2013 Forbes article entitled "Tattoos No Longer A Kiss of Death in the Workplace,"
establishing a diverse, skilled, creative group of thinkers is most people's top priority. Bank of America's Spokeswoman Ferris Morrison states: “We have no formal policy about tattoos because we value our differences and recognize that diversity and inclusion are good for our business and make our company stronger." Second, since people who said vows always intended to be together forever, they are not worried about changing their minds and needing laser removal of their spouse's name. This situation is a far cry from the 18-year-old girl getting her boyfriend's name in the hope that their love will last. Further, I believe I can speak for most widow(er)s when I assert that they would rather be alone than stay with a new partner who does not understand (1) the importance of grieving and honoring their partner, (2) how affected one is and always will be - to an extent - after their spouse dies, and (3) the thoughtful stories they need to share.
I know that my new husband is not bothered by my tattoo for James. Not only does he says it's beautiful, he reminds me whenever I'm feeling broken that he loves the woman I am today. That my past and my decisions made me who I am, and that I'm far stronger than I know.
My tattoo for James is actually about my decision to have hope. On his three-year "angelversary," I marked the occasion with a message - one I learned during the grief process. Surrounding his initials lay two pink roses: the type we displayed and wore at our wedding. The top rose is large and in full bloom, signifying the full, beautiful life that I was privileged to lead with James. Representation through a flower felt so appropriate, as nature reminds me that nothing lasts forever. (Or maybe it just doesn't hold the same form forever. Minnesotans see this every year in winter and spring, as our gardens wither and freeze in November, then shoot up with new life in April.) The second rose in my tattoo is smaller and still blossoming, representing hope for another life of happiness. Happiness did not mean another married life, but a life I was proud to lead: One filled with purpose instead of fear, gratitude instead of envy, life instead of death.
Finally, in relation to the dollars a tattoo requires, many can be completed for the same price as one month's phone bill. My first tattoo, a memorial for a special aunt, was $50.00. It is a small black symbol that represents her parting wisdom to me about finding balance and not working my life away. That reminder has been an invaluable guide over the years. We all have freedom to choose how we live and pay our bills, and there are far worse things that people, who are often struggling to find a reason to keep going after their person dies, can spend their money on.
I cherish my tattoos, as they are signs of love and healing that will always be with me. They can't be broken, lost or changed; they are just a simple reminder of the beautiful people who've left a deep mark in and on me.
For me, it’s a Bryan Adams or Collective Soul song. The roar of a super-charged Mustang. A plate full of cheesy potatoes. Fall leaves. A blue suit. His name.
I grin, thinking about him smiling or wrapping his long arms around me and whispering in my ear. Then I remember: my husband’s gory autopsy report, pictures from the state troopers, pacing in my house wondering what the hell I am going to do now.
And then I hurt. Memories weigh like bricks on my chest, tears surface like the tide. For some reason, swallowing often helps me control the flood that is waiting behind my eyes.
What I do next really depends on the time of day. If in the evening, I just say goodbye to the day, knowing that sleep will help me start anew tomorrow. And, eight years out, I know tomorrow will be a sunny day. If the trigger comes in the morning or afternoon, it’s more complicated. Especially if the trigger is a difficult one by itself - without my emotions permeating its structure. I’m talking now about dealing with negligent drivers, insensitive people, medical diagnoses, ambulances. The ones that make me re-play the horrible crash that caused his death, over and over and over, and the complicated feelings of emptiness, rage, and loss.
My gut may be to curl into a ball and sit in my closet, or consume too many bars of chocolate, but I have learned that one or several of the following will help me regain a small sense control faster:Verbalize.
If the trigger comes and you’re with someone, one of the most helpful things is to say out loud what’s going on. Naming diffuses the trigger’s power by removing you from the prison of your own repetitive thoughts, as well as open the therapeutic process of storytelling. In the grief group that I facilitate monthly, I’m amazed with the transformation that comes when someone recounts all the details of their person’s death, the people who were there/not there, the sheer agony of those first days. The truth is that it’s good for us to expel the emotions, but it’s also good for others to listen and understand.Meditate.
If you’re alone or you deeply prefer being alone with your grief, try a relaxing breath-centered meditation. My first Zen teacher taught his students that the best way to ground oneself and stay in the present is to focus on breathing. When you start to notice the rhythm, your chest, or even the sound, all other thoughts start to drift away.
That said, there have been times - when I’m replaying my husband’s death - that I need more than the breath. In those instances, I often find solace with imagery: imagining walking with a friend on a beach, listening to their words or needs, stumbling upon a pattern in the sand, etc. Recently in my grief process, recalling people and events for which I’m grateful (“gratitude meditation”) has been centering. However, I know this would have made me resentful in the beginning; forcing gratitude to overcome anger doesn’t work well.Rock with a Weighted Blanket.
One of my grief counselors advised investing in a rocking chair. At one time, my “homework” was to rock, three times per day, for ten minutes each time. The movement is simple and calming. Paired with a weighted blanket, which serves as a physical containment of chaotic emotions (really), it helped me de-stress enough to fall asleep.EMDR.
This is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a common therapeutic tool to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It works with either a moving (just back and forth) object that your eyes focus on OR two small handheld receivers that take turns vibrating. Both types work with the assumption that you and a trained counselor can re-train your brain’s neural pathways by disrupting them. The disruption is either the eye movement or the vibration as you re-live the trigger and talk about it in new ways. It helps me now to remember the conversations from my EMDR experience: For instance, are there positive events that happen because of ambulances? Can I think about them helping people the next time I hear or see one?Walk.
Similar to rocking, walking is simple and automatic. Plus it’s exercise, which re-balances the chemicals in our brain. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a renowned professor created The Center for Healthy Minds as a way to investigate depression and healing. Next to meditation, exercise was the most important tool for a healthy brain.
Usually when I walk to dispel a trigger, I also Call one of my close friends.
I know that they are trustworthy with my grief, and will understand that my brain is reacting automatically. In other words, they don’t use logic to counsel me, but rather stuff like this:
- “I’m so sorry this keeps happening. Thank you for calling me.”
- “Are you in a place where you can just sit outside or make a cup of tea?”
- “Tell me more.”
I mean this as a noun and a verb. It’s important to allow yourself to “take a break” and physically leave a situation that causes or exacerbates a trigger. Staying in one because we feel it would be awkward to leave or any other excuse that supports a “should,” is only going to make recovery time longer. Three years ago, I forced myself to endure a PTSD attack at a Christmas celebration, and I suffered physically for three days after.
The verb “to break” is completely different; in grief healing, it’s about smashing old plates, tiles or mirrors to discharge anger. Some people let go less violently, but some of us need a physical release. Picking up the pieces when finished can lead to a productive art project, too: mosaics.Read.
I keep Derek Walcott’s poem, “Earth,” in my purse, car, and bedroom dresser. It’s about our belonging to and being of this planet.
"Let the day grow on you upward
through your feet,
the vegetal knuckles,
to your knees of stone,
until by evening you are a black tree;
feel, with evening,
the swifts thicken your hair,
the new moon rising out of your forehead,
and the moonlit veins of silver
running from your armpits
like rivulets under white leaves.
Sleep, as ants
cross over your eyelids.
You have never possessed anything
as deeply as this.
This is all you have owned
from the first outcry
you can never be dispossessed."
With its tangible imagery, I find Walcott’s words grounding. What words do you re-read in times of great turmoil? Some people find comfort in reflections on pain, assertions of hope, or even funny fictional conversations/distractions. It doesn’t matter what works in the moment, mainly because we need a plethora of coping mechanisms to deal with grief. Each one in this list has accompanied my journey the past eight years.
Unfortunately, difficult triggers will accompany us for decades - perhaps our entire lifetime; fortunately, their intensity is not always paralyzing. They do lessen with time and a diverse toolkit.
HOPE = Hold on, pain ends.Originally published on TheGriefToolbox.com May 25, 2016.
Originally published by TheGriefToolbox on April 11, 2016
It was a normal moment. The last meeting before Easter was coming to a close, the cookie container was emptying, people were discussing next steps. Sitting in my church’s conference room at a large rectangular table, I heard one of my colleagues say, “Let’s close in prayer.”
As the ISIS attack on Brussels occurred just one day before, the first prayer request was for the safety of a friend we all knew traveling in Europe. “I’d also like to pray for my children, who are traveling for Spring Break. Please bring them home safely,” another chimed.
I don’t think I heard anything after that. Instead, I felt my temperature rise, saw my husband’s body dragged on the road by a reckless SUV, and revisited many thoughts I’ve had hundreds of times before:
(I should really write a piece about the trauma of triggers.)
Didn’t I pray for James’ safety? Would more prayer really make God intervene? How pointless is it to pray for safety in a world where God gives us free will? Free will means people have the power to make horrible choices, and choices have consequences. God is not a puppeteer orchestrating our lives … Oh I hope we’re not heading into a story that ends with, “God was watching out for him/her that day! S/he shouldn’t have walked away from that crash!” as I can’t believe we have a God who is picking which individuals he should save and which ones should die outrageously.
Here’s the thing: I understand why people want to pray for safety, as I want my loved ones to be safe, too. But instead, my rational and traumatized brain just becomes a resentful-angry-sullen-heated-exasperated mess.
Fortunately, I pulled my mess together and walked out of the meeting like an ordinary individual in good spirits. Time has allowed me to do that (it’s been almost eight years). When I came home, I opened my laptop and started working on revisions that the group assigned, despite the clock reading 10:00pm. It wasn’t long before I found my way to gmail and started drafting an email to my pastor.
I'm feeling like a bad Christian.
At tonight’s committee meeting, we ended with a prayer that was all about safe travels for people we care about. Pretty normal.
But inside, my heart’s stitches were torn open yet again. While one side of me wants to pray for protection, too, the other side says things like, “Yeah, ‘cause that worked for James, and the other 38,000 Americans killed annually on the roads.”
As I read the words I just typed, they sound rather tame compared to the turbulent waves in my head. Help.
She must have been up late too, as 28 minutes later, I received this response:
I hear what you are saying. Sometimes words and prayers can seem narrow and limiting. It is difficult, we want safe travel and protection always yet we do not live in a safe world. Accidents will happen, weather will be bad, kids will get hurt, marriages will end, people will die. What is prayer in such a broken world?
I think about prayer in terms of relationship-God promises to listen to what we say, scream, mutter, cry and sigh and somehow takes this all in and creates from it. And then it is an ongoing conversation and I think ongoing noticing. A prayer for safety does not mean we will always be safe. Maybe our words can only convey our desires and our deep need for God to listen to them.
I am swept up in Holy Week. It is so absurd to have a God who is forsaken by all and does not do a thing to stop his own suffering and death. He chooses to be known there and from there creates resurrection. Death remains but is transformed. Whatever we pray, God can create from it.
You are attentive and have a good nose for bad theology. Consider it a gift. You think deeper and wonder more vastly. Let the prayer tonight go and know that your continued questions and thoughts are heard as well. All part of a great mystery. Keep asking and perusing the questions-God is indeed stirring in you.
What I love about this letter is not only the validation, but the re-framing of prayer as conversation and mystery. I do believe that God works through people and that there is unexplainable energy. My favorite line of hers is “Maybe our words can only convey our desires and our deep need for God to listen to them.” This is something I can remember when I’m praying with a group of people. Moreover, it helps me know that when I yearn to pray for someone I love, the point of that prayer is not about everything turning out okay. It’s about reconnection, therapeutic expression, and hope.
In my last published article for OpenToHope, I shared the letter I wish I could’ve received after my husband was killed. It focused on validation and simplifying expectations for the truly important things to do in those initial months. It also held hope: for various coping mechanisms, helping others through grief, and in someday being a mother.
Today I want to share another letter with you, one that helped save a relationship when I was intensely grieving and beyond angry with the world. Written seven years earlier, it concentrates on what is helpful and unhelpful while processing loss. For me, the value of this letter was realizing that teaching others about grief creates a safety net among my core group of people. As I have tweaked it for many others, I believe it will work for you, too. Furthermore, I believe that engaging in difficult letters or conversations has the power to also address our culture – the one that is so uncomfortable and untrustworthy with pain. If we want it to change, we have to be willing to speak up and spread the knowledge.Date: Tuesday, August 18, 2009Subject: Some ThoughtsMom and Dad,I returned from the Boundary Waters safely on Saturday afternoon; I needed some time alone in nature. Today I finally went through all of my mail, voicemail and email from the past week — and I had some pretty strong reactions to some of the messages. Over these past several months I’ve come to realize (and agree with you) that most people are very well-intentioned when talking with me. They genuinely want to comfort or help, but often their comments leave me really upset or hurt. It’s not their fault; they don’t know, but that doesn’t make it easier.I don’t know if I have a lot of energy to “teach” people what I need to hear or not hear. I know that I need to learn how to deal with these comments when people say them – that they are unavoidable. But it would be so nice to have a “safety net” of sorts – a few people around whom I wouldn’t have to have my guard up.These are the comments I really wish I’d stop hearing:
- “We are deeply grieving, too/I know what you’re going through.” I know you two, James’ family, and others are grieving, but this comment feels like “I am hurting as much as you are.” I just can’t imagine that is possible. Perhaps this is a selfish way of thinking about it, but it helps when people acknowledge that my pain is different. He was my everything: my best friend, my future, the father of my unborn children, my travel companion, my financial ally, my daily walking partner, etc.
- “James would want _____ for you.” Happiness, another family, etc. When people say this, it makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong and not honoring him. I am looking for pieces of life still, just at my own pace. That’s why I’ve become a Big Sister and found a home in a beautiful neighborhood. Sometimes it feels like people are trying to get me to their version of what happiness looks like; I need to not feel pressure from other people that I’m not correctly grieving or living.
- “Someday you’ll feel different.” Again, it’s really hard for me when people presume that they know how I feel now or how I’ll feel/what I’ll want later, especially because I am young. To assume that I’ll find someone else, have a new family, and be fine invalidates the significance of my marriage: I wanted to be with him the rest of my life. I hate thinking about the future — it feels scary, and anything new feels like a step away from James.
- “May it comfort you that so many people care.” Perhaps it shouldn’t make me angry when people say this, but right now, the only thing I think about when people say that is: It doesn’t comfort me! They go back to their lives after thinking about me for a few minutes. And why would it help? It’s not like someone’s thoughts make me feel less alone or overwhelmed. Furthermore, I don’t feel like a lot of people care. My address book has been rewritten because of all the relationships that have turned away.
I know in reading through this list, you’ll recognize some of these statements as ones you’ve made in the past. I’m not angry with you, and I’m not trying to tell you everything that you’re doing is wrong. That really isn’t the point. The point is that I think if I were a parent and my child was going through this, I would want them to be able to share with me things they were thinking, things that were helpful, things that weren’t helpful. If they could identify those things, I would want to know them. I guess that’s why I’ve decided to send this, because I want to strengthen our relationship.Times when I don’t have to think about these trigger phrases gives me permission to just “be” and that helps me figure out what I need and how to deal with all of this instead of spending so much energy being angry and thinking of how to respond.I want you to know that there are things you have done that do help: cooking together, helping with remodeling, baking/decorating cakes, playing games, laughing about fun memories with James and integrating him into conversations. I think sometimes people are reluctant to do this because they don’t want to make me feel sad/think about/miss him if we’re doing something and it appears I’m enjoying myself. I like talking about James, and I’m always thinking about him anyway.Sorting through all of this is difficult and exhausting for me. I can’t always be rational about it, either. Maybe at some point we can talk about it, but for right now I just want to share all these thoughts with you and have that be it. I understand if this letter and my request that you don’t respond feels unfair or like I’m telling you what you can or can’t say. But…I’m trying. I’m doing the best I can.Love, Michelle
- ”God has a plan.” God is really tough for me to talk about. I don’t feel like He’s here, and every time I think to pray, all I want is protection of the family members I have left. That seems pointless, considering I prayed for James’ protection, so it just makes me angry. As does every religious platitude I hear.
My parents were respectful and did not directly respond after this letter. In fact, it was a turning point in our relationship because they started filtering themselves and censoring their words. I know this was challenging at times, as they wanted to pass along some insights of their friends or intelligent authors they were reading; some of that stuff was helpful — later in my journey. Accordingly, there were times that I needed to refer back to this letter, and I did that by using the statement, “I really need you to be my safety net and not say things like that.”
What activities and statements are helpful and unhelpful to you? What do you wish your core group of people would know? Or behave like? It may sound arduous to put this list together and explain it all in your own words, but I think it’s worth the time if you want to have more than a grief group be a safe zone.
Significant losses will always majorly contribute to who we are and how we handle situations. That doesn’t have to mean we live in sadness; I think it’s strength to say that I live with fragments and dichotomies (like fear and joy), and out of that uncertainty and brokenness, I see kaleidoscopes. That’s my euphemism for saying I see new patterns in my shifting pieces.
Everything doesn’t happen for a reason, but we can choose how to use our grief. I found out when I became a teacher (three years after James died), that kids needed to see adults be real, as opposed to stoic figures who have it all figured out. When my students heard my path to becoming an educator, they not only opened up about their wounds, but they brought friends to have lunch with me and talk about how we cope and survive. These were life-changing conversations, and ultimately, the key to help me start writing about my loss.
What could openness do in your life?Originally published March 21, 2016 at OpenToHope.com