Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Fresh Grief

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can't replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

There is a scene in the movie “You’ve Got Mail.” Kathleen Kelley, the protagonist, is sitting at her computer like I am now. She has just suffered personal loss and is writing to what she calls “the deep void.”

“People are always telling you that change is a good thing. But all they are really saying is that something you didn’t want to happen at all...has happened.”

It did happen.

Six weeks ago it happened to me.

My mother passed away.
She left a life well-lived.

She also left Christmas decorations, sweaters, jewelry, journals, a cat and a big hole in my heart.

Ahhh yes. My heart. That pesky thing that at times is so heavy that it doesn’t feel like it resides in my chest cavity but instead I have to drag it around on a large chain, Jacob Marley style.

Her leaving wasn’t a surprise, we knew it was coming. But like so many things in life you don’t really know something until you do.


This was a post I never wanted to write.

This was the post I dreaded during the year and a half after we heard the words cancer.

This is the nightmare that came true.

The thing that I didn’t want to happen, happened.

It’s been six weeks now. Which means that the cards have stopped. The flowers. The check ins. The looks. The How are yous.

Life continues to keep going and you can’t help but feel like you are expected to do the same. Most people are still kind and empathetic. They recognize that you are still grieving but there is also an expectation that you should be functioning at a mostly normal capacity by now.

Once you realize this is the expectation you start putting on the mask. The “This is hard but I am doing okay” mask.

Masks can be extraordinarily helpful. They protect you from bulls in china shops, people with the best of intentions and your own emotions when you know you don’t have proper control of them.

But the problem is this: you can get so used to wearing one that you start to believe that it is actually your face.

Your face, your true face is a revenant, a ghost. It isn’t pretty or put together. It is shell-shocked and tear stained.

It is both pleading for someone, anyone, to understand it and terrified that someone actually will.

It is comfortable in the dark, so much so that when exposed to light it can easily become overwhelmed.  

It, your true face, is a skeleton, just ripped apart from whatever it was that happened that you didn’t want to happen.

It will never look the same again.

Hence the mask. And the false sense of security it brings.

Your true face, safe behind the mask, starts to think, maybe the world is right, maybe I am okay.

Except that is not true.

The truth is, I am heartbroken.

And that is why I needed to write this.

Because someone else might need to hear this too.

That is it okay that you are still not okay.

That it is okay to be your disheveled, unpredictable, half- here, half who knows where,  real face in the midst of fresh grief.
And fresh can mean any length of time. Grieving is time sensitive to the griever.

I am going to take off my mask now.

I am taking it  off so I can share some of my experience about what freshy grief has looked and felt like so far, with the sole purpose of helping someone feel a little less alone in their own grief.  (Or you could just feel relief when you realize you are not as crazy as I am.)

Freshy grief is:

  • Any little thing occasionally can and will be a trigger.
  • The bookends of the day, right before and after bed, are the hardest parts.
  • Dreading milestones like a birthday.
  • Little things make you irrationally angry.  Like grocery store lines. Infuriating.
  • Going from really good to terrible in 5 seconds and then be fine a few seconds after that.
  • Being surprised when you laugh or feel normal.
  • Feeling guilty for feeling normal when you truly are doing fine.
  • Starting to pick up on physical cues from your body about when it is time to take a few moments and be sad. Mine starts with a pit in my stomach or an over active hyper mind.
  • Totally mundane things still pop in your head. When I reflect back about final moments with mom, I sometimes fixate on the pajamas I was wearing.
  • Your tolerance level for B.S of any kind is zero.
  • Your tolerance for small talk is about 5%
  • You find yourself repeating phrases like “I am taking it one day at a time” “Thank you very much for your kind words” so often that when you don’t understand or didn’t hear someone correctly you just continue the conversation with one of these phrases without knowing if they make sense. Example: “Did you get the trees trimmed in the backyard?” But to you, it sounded like “Mer per meh tees imm le back ar?” So you respond with “Thank you for the kind words,” and you get a sympathy look
  • That’s another thing. Sympathy looks. Sympathy looks everywhere.
  • Feeling irritated about sympathy looks.
  • Feeling irritated when people don’t give you sympathy looks.
  • Just feeling irritated in general.
  • Internal screaming. Lots of internal screaming. And swearing.
  • Wanting to crawl into a hole and not come out for a very very long time.
  • Feeling both awkward and grateful when people offer you help.
  • Being upset at people for leaving you alone.
  • Being upset at people for not leaving you alone.
  • Feeling alone quite often. Even when surrounded by people.
  • Being hypersensitive to any kind of exclusion, whether intentional or not.
  • Walking around in a haze-like state and wondering if it is permanent. Life feels like the aftershock of an earthquake, or a permanent high pitched ringing after the bomb explodes.
  • Having a multitude of surreal moments. Like talking about cremation and the Cubs in the same conversation.
  • Trying to not go dark, trying to mourn and grieve without losing sight of hope.
  • Finding yourself wanting to tell her things or show her things and then feeling the familiar pang when you realize not only that you can’t, but you won’t be able to ever again in this lifetime.
  • Distractions in the form of netflix marathons or good books.  
  • Being impatient with yourself and your loved ones.
  • Finding moments of deep, incredible beauty.
  • Holding on to whatever memories you can.
  • Crying. Lots and lots of crying.

Freshy grief feels like you are walking along the bottom of the ocean. Dark. Murky. You can’t speak clearly. You can’t hear. Life seems muffled. You can’t swim.

Freshy grief feels like you are in alternate universe. Where Donald Trump is going to president, the Cubs are world series champions and mom is not here.

Freshy grief feels like you are sitting on the bank of a river. And everyone else is floating by in their inner tubes. Some laughing. Some crying. Some worried. Some waiting.

You’re watching.

The world doesn’t stop for a broken heart.

And it is infuriating because you want the world to stop.

Hey you, how can you complain about the weather right now? Can’t you see my tears?

Who gives a crap if I want paper or plastic? I am never going to kiss my mom on the cheek again.

No, I don’t want a quote on auto insurance, I want to call my mom and have her tell me that everything is okay.

I want to see her again. I want to touch her again. I want to hear her voice and have her tell me about the time when I was little and held her hand and we paced up and down the hallway for hours because my 18 month old self insisted that I practice walking.

I want to see her “you’ve got to be kidding me” face.

I want to hear her giggle and laugh.

But I can’t.

Doesn’t anyone understand that?

A wise friend said to me.  “Grief is love with no place to go.”

That is true.

Others go places with their love. Others have things to do, trips to take, stories to tell, work to do, lives to lead.

Grievers find ourselves stuck with love and no place to go. Crying behind closed doors so not to feel exposed or mess up the world around them.

Practicing smiling.  

Trying to walk through and not run through or sit down in this valley of the shadow of death.  

Writing blog posts at 2am that you never wanted to write.


An epilogue:

To all of you who are not in the midst of grief.

We, the grievers, still need you.

And it isn’t fair to you because we are not going to tell you that. We may even insist we are fine.

You may need to barge through our walls and tick us off.

It isn’t fair to you because we are going to be irritable and overly sensitive.

It isn’t fair because nothing that you do or say will probably be right.

But the good news is, is that we don’t need you to say anything.

We just need you, your presence.

We just need you to be there, with your own unmasked face.

It gives us security and space and courage to take our masks off.

You don’t have to say anything. Just take in our hollow eyes. Our vacant expression. Our disheveled hair. The bags and wrinkles. The bones that used to contain life.

And when it is time, touch our ghostly skeleton cheeks.

And point out what we have missed.

New flesh.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dusty feathers: The First Part of Healing

If I am blessed to live a long life, I can easily see myself taking up a hobby. And if I had my way right now, it would be bird watching.

Oh yeah baby, socks pulled up to the knee, floppy hat, old school pencil and notebook in hand, binoculars... The whole shebang.

I would totally rock it. Or, at least I think I would.

Okay that verdict is still out, but, I totally get why people are so into it.

It is so darn peaceful. So lovely.

A gentle little adventure of discovery.

Let’s go somewhere we have never been and look around!

Look, it's a bird! Or is it a plane… definitely not superman but it does have a blue stripe on its back. Maybe it is an Eurasian Jay.  (Confession, I googled that.)

Why do I love birds so much? I know it has a little to do with the fact that I am jealous that nearly all of them can fly. (Sorry Penguins)

I also think that they are embedded in our culture. Our lore. Our psyche. Our songs.

“Take these broken wings And learn to fly again, learn to live so free.”

“Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

Beautiful imagery.
My favorite bird though, is not even a real one. So I doubt I will ever check it off my list.

It is a Phoenix. Made popular by the Harry Potter series.

Phoenix, according to the wizard Dumbledore, are special creatures. They have a life cycle where once they die, they burst into flame and then are reborn from their ashes. They also have tremendous healing powers.

Pretty amazing if you ask me.

And pretty applicable to most of us.

How many of us have gone through tremendously difficult times to then make it through to the other side stronger and better than we were before?

How many of us have then turned around and were a source of healing for someone who was going through a similar thing?

Or course we don’t wish ill will on anyone, including ourselves, and of course we would prefer to have never gone through it in the first place.

But that is not life.

It just isn’t.

We get bruised and beaten and drugged around and set on fire.

And as Brene Brown implies, once the gladiator gets beat down, they have a choice. Stay down, or get up.

Die or Rise.

Stay the same or be transformed.

It sounds incredibly simple. But we all know it isn’t.

Healing is hard work.

It doesn’t always look the way we think it does.

Healing, in its idyllic form, looks like a gentle breeze on a warm summer’s day with flowers blooming and quiet sighs.

Doves cooing.

I think we get there eventually, I think we have those lying down in green pasture moments. We do.

There are Houses of Healing. Places like J.R.R Tolkien described. Where someone is playing the lute and we lie on silk sheets and drink strange potions concocted from ancient wisdom.

But initially? Right after the battle?

No way.

Transformation is rough.

One of my favorite versions of Cinderella is Ever After. Drew Barrymore is Cinderella. She is smart, different, lovely, kind and strong.

At the end of the movie, before her prince comes to her rescue, she is sold into slavery and wields a sword to get herself free.

She leaves her prison in dusty work clothes with a tired smile on her face, not exactly the picture of a princess.

Then her prince shows up. (Great timing man.)

But I think that is exactly what the beginnings of transformation and healing look like.

I think initially, we are still a little tender, a little sore, a little beat up.

Fresh from the battle.

Bruised. Wincing.

Maybe smiling. Maybe not.

Not yet anyway.

It will come.

Again, I am not a bird, but if I were, I would imagine the first time I would try to fly on a recently broken and healed wing I would not go very far or fast and I would probably be a little bit timid.  Glancing nervously at my scars.

Scars are there for a reason. They are nature’s tattoos. Reminding us that we fell, yes, but we got up.

They tell us our story changed. And us with it.

We survived.

But what a fight it was.

For some of us the memory of the struggle may be too fresh. The wounds still bleeding a little.

And if that is you. If you are post battle but feeling a little wobbly in your legs. Or out of breath. Or dusty. Or covered in soot.

Be encouraged. It is completely normal.

It is just a part of the healing and transformation we don’t think about.

It is also necessary. Necessary for what you are called to be next.

Or, to put it in other ways.

For the parent: A baby cries when it takes its first breaths.

For the nerd: Gandalf the Grey becomes Gandalf the White only after a battle with a demon.

For the romantic: Flowers are covered in dirt the first time they see the sun.

For the sports lover: The Gladiator gets up slowly after defeating the beast.

For me: It’s alright if your wings are a bit dark. They just passed through fire.

Stop. Take a moment. Breath deep. Listen. Rest.

Let the wind blow and clean you off.

It will you know.

It always does.

Look up at the sky and watch for birds.

Sigh deeply.

Stretch out long and wide.

And know this in your resurrected heart.

Eventually, the Phoenix rises.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Stars and Sunsets

I tried, I really did.

I tried to enjoy it. I even picked the best spot.

It was the first night of the New Year. I was on a personal retreat in Joshua Tree National Park.

I went out there to look at the stars.

And to have my moment.

I imagined myself getting there and being blown away. I anticipated a deep epiphany. I would recount the tale to other people about how I turned a corner and everything fit and my whole year made sense.

I was ready.

Not a cloud was in the sky.

A perfect night in the perfect spot in the perfect place for star-gazing.

It was everything that I wanted.

There was just one problem.

I don’t like the desert.

And for those of you that don’t know Joshua Tree National Park is smack dab in the middle of the desert.

Don’t get me wrong, Joshua Tree is beautiful. I picked this place for many reasons. 

1. If I ever have a son, I hope to name him Joshua.

2. U2 is my favorite band of all time. They have an album called “The Joshua Tree” which I listened to while I was there. 

3. The desert holds a lot of spiritual significance for me.

4. It was cheap.

Back to my moment.

I had driven around the park and went to a look out point for some sunset action. There were no parking spots open so I kept driving and made my way down into a valley that a nice yet slightly awkward park rancher said was the best spot to star gaze.

I missed the spot the first time and had to turn around and go back.

I parked the car and waited.

I waited for a sign, for a shooting star, for something.

But like I said, it was the desert and it was well…desolate.

And cold. 30 something degrees cold. I didn’t bring the proper clothes. I didn’t want to keep the car on to waste gas so I sat in the dark.

Cars kept streaming past. There was only one other car in the parking lot and two people were standing outside of it talking loudly.

The language was colorful.

I found myself thinking about what I would do if they started walking my way… then I started to think about serial killers… then I started to think about how my decaying body would eventually be found somewhere off the road by a cactus.

I stayed in the car.

Which made star gazing difficult.

I rolled down my window, cranked my neck.

The sky was beautiful. It really was. The stars were numerous. I thought saw the Milky Way. 

I sighed.

This wasn’t exactly going like I planned but I was ready for my moment.

Nothing happened.

Then the people started talking again. More cars drove by, my neck started to hurt because of the awkward crank and I was freezing. On top of everything else nature was calling.

I drove away and back into town after about 10 minutes.

10 stinking minutes.

That was my moment? What happened? I thought it was what I wanted, and it was…

Wasn’t it?

I was pondering this over in my mind as I drove near city lights. 

Nature was still calling so I stopped at a McDonalds. I needed to get some thoughts out of me.

(Now I am the type of person who feels guilty using a public bathroom at a McDonalds unless I buy something. So there I was writing this down with a small $1.17 Diet Dr. Pepper nearby.)

Maybe if I had camped out there I would have enjoyed it more, even if it was the desert.

But I am not a huge fan of camping. I love indoor plumbing. It is the only thing holding me back from devoting all of my free time to inventing a time machine so I can visit cool places like Jane Austin’s England, Cesar’s Rome and Abraham Lincoln’s Washington.

Outhouses make me nervous.

I sipped my Diet Dr. Pepper.

What if I just didn’t like the starry night sky as much as I thought I did?

What if what I thought I wanted wasn’t really what I wanted?

This can’t be it. This can’t be the lesson. When at first you don’t succeed…

I decided to try again. I had come all this way. Why not?

So after sleeping in a ridiculous amount again, (Both mornings the front desk called to make sure I didn’t want maid service and confirm I had indeed put the do not disturb sign on the door. I think they were just checking to make sure I was still alive.) I set off again.

It was my last night and before I went to my starry spot I half heartily decided to go to the look out point again to catch a sunset. I remembered the very limited parking the night before and had already conceded that the same fate awaited me again.

But, as fate would have it, I did get a parking spot.
Right near the top of the look out point.

I got out of the car, walked up to the top and my mouth dropped.


There I was on top of a mountain that over looked the entire valley.

The air was clear and bright.

Tourists from all over the world where mingling around.

And then the sky happened.

The sun began to sink down into the mountain ridge.

The clouds picked up the different colors.

Blues, Pinks, Oranges, Red.

It was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

I stayed for two hours.

It was simply breathtaking.

I was freezing. I didn’t care.

There wasn’t a place to sit. I didn’t care.

This wasn’t the plan.

I didn’t care.

The stars could wait.

I was having a moment. 

A wordless, worriless, somehow everything is going to be okay moment.

A much needed moment. 

Everywhere you turned the view was stunning.

The shadows stretched across the landscape.

The lights started twinkling below from the city.

The fellow watchers quieted.

I finally left after the very last drop of light fell out of the sky.

My red tipped nose and the rest of me walked back to the car.

My soul a little full. My heart wide awake. 

I drove around and looked at stars too.

It was nice. I stayed for a few minutes and left.

Later on I went through both experiences in my mind.

A starry sky, a dazzling sunset.

I thought I wanted one.

I needed the other. 

What is the difference between want and need anyway?

Well, Google says this:

Want: have a desire to posses or do

Need: require something because it is essential or very important.

You are right Google, that is a big difference.

It doesn’t take much to say what you want.

If you don’t get want you want, you will live. It stinks, sure, but you will be okay.

If you don’t get what you need…different story. 

It takes a whole lot of courage and vulnerability to say what you need.

And for those of us who find vulnerability hard to practice, admitting that you need something can be terrifying.

So we avoid it. And go after the easier things.

Even if they let us down. 

Even if they aren’t right.

I think a lot of us have this idea in our heads of what we think we want. We go after these things for so long that we don’t want to come to terms with the fact that we may not want them anymore. 

So we stick with it.

And end up in a McDonalds sipping a Diet. Dr. Pepper.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are times when needs/wants line up perfectly well.

For those really self-aware people, good for you.

Some of us tend to lean toward the trial and error method.

Sometimes it takes experiencing what we think we want so we can figure out what we actually need.

Here is the truth: I would have never seen that sunset if I hadn’t wanted to go star gazing.

Other times, it is a lesson of letting go of what you want in order to get what you need.

Or, it may take being in the desert to get yourself to admit you need water. 

What are you thirsty for?

What if you don’t know? What if you were like me and had no idea what you needed?


Simple yes, but ask.

Ask God. Ask others. Ask yourself.

Open yourself up to the answers that follow. 

I think part of the time we don’t know what we need because we don’t know what is possible or we just don’t ask the question.

So why not ask the one who can do infinitely more than we can ask for or imagine?

The one that made the starry night, yes, but really wants to show you this sunset.

The sunset that is just over that ridge, ready to blow you away.

This year I am going to start asking what I need. And taking it a step further, (gulp) letting others know what I need.

Sounds terrifying.

Most things worth doing are.

First things first.

My name is Carrie, I am not always great with vulnerability and I really need indoor plumbing.

And Sunsets.