A Glimpse Into Softer Grief

Just over a year ago my sister hosted my Mom, stepfather, and my stepfather for lunch. It was the first time I was in the room with all of those people at the same time since my Dad had died the previous January. It was a little subdued and awkward, but still nice. And at that lunch, I received a bag that presented me with what we coaches like to call an opportunity.

close-up-eyeglasses-eyewear-261869The bag I got was full of my Dad’s glasses, like 10 pairs of glasses. Dad’s vision was terrible. He was shot in the eye with a BB gun as a kid (so it’s not just “You’ll shoot your eye out,” it’s “Someone will shoot your eye out”). He had detached retinas as a middle-aged man. He also was suffering from some bizarre form of macular degeneration that was causing changes in his vision on a daily basis. It’s really quite a miracle of modern medicine that he could see at all.  He was also an artist, so his changing vision (and the threat of it degenerating even more significantly) was particularly troubling.

In the last few years of his life Dad’s vision varied from day to day so he spent some time in the morning figuring out which pair of glasses were the right ones. All that is to say that when I say I had a bag of glasses, I mean I had a full bag of extremely strong glasses that variedy from one to the next to a great degree. We were told to see if there were readers or frames we could use in the mix (seeing as all four of us wear glasses, it was a sgood bet).

When I first got the bag, I set it aside, unable to look inside after I first opened it and smelled my Dad. A few months later I opened it again and pulled a few pairs out and broke down in my grief. A couple of months later the space where I had stowed the bag became necessary for stowing something else I didn’t want to deal with, so I pulled the bag out again.

It’s a strange thing to try to sort through, a bag of glasses. And as I looked through them (not through them, I should say at them), I could see each pair on my Dad. I could see him in the 80s and 90s. I could see him two years ago. I could see him painting. I could see him reading the newspaper, or sticking out his tongue and trying to fix something with small parts. I remembered him reading, tilting his head back to make his eyes cooperate for just a little while longer before he went to bed. I could see him SEEING. I could see him moving through the world visually. I could see him engaged and alive.

We donated most of those frames to organizations that distribute them through eye doctors that serve folks who could use a hand. Dad would have liked that. We only kept a few pairs, some strong magnifiers which we have used when we are repairing really small bits. And when we need them, I’m awfully glad to have them. And when I’m not paying attention I stick my tongue out just like he did because wiggling it helps to get those tiny screws just where they belong. I wonder if, when I’m wearing them, I see things like he did. A lot of times I think I probably already do that.

berry-cake-chocolate-461333As I move from one stage of grief to the next, I find myself welcoming these moments, these strange moments of communion brought on by things as strange as glasses. Sometimes it’s a song. Other times it’s food or something I read that I know he would just love. There are so many books I wish I could share with him now; as I grow we seem to have more in common than ever before. The shock of his passing has dulled (although I still get caught by surprise every now and then). Picking up his insanely strong glasses feels like sitting down with him for a few minutes, trying him on, being together. It helps me remember and it helps me imagine that he is with me still, that we can chat about books and eat a dessert together (ice cream for him, pie for me), and that feels awfully good.

 

Our National Wound

back-bus-education-159658There has been yet another school shooting here in the United States. As the facts emerged, I moved quickly from a moment of shock and horror to anger. Not anger at the shooter. Not anger at the institutions that are failing to address this scourge. My anger was directed at the news outlet that I rely on the most because it didn’t spend much time on it. The coverage of the situation was wrapped up in the quick hourly update. They didn’t want to interrupt their regular programming, which was focused on the Royal Wedding. I was livid.

And I spouted off – on Facebook, there was no letter-writing involved, but I spouted off nonetheless. And in spouting off I garnered some response from friends that brought me to the heart of my suffering. I ran to anger because it is easier, but I skipped some essential steps.

children-cute-drawing-159823Every time this happens, and yes, there have been enough of these incidents that I can comfortably make generalizations about my own behavior, I have to raise the question of whether or not I should be homeschooling my children. I ask myself if this is the only way to keep them safe. I ask myself what that would look like and whether it might address some other lesser concerns I have about their educational experiences. I ask myself if I could actually take that task on without losing my mind. And THEN I ask myself if it is fair for me to remove my children, if that isn’t a demonstration of the depth of my privilege. It gets messy really fast and it’s all confusion and anger, bile and swirl. They are all real questions; they are all real issues, but it feels like any other spin. And there’s a good reason for that.

It feels like spin because what I’m doing is avoiding how I feel every time this happens. My mind immediately goes to how not to feel that way any more. I don’t want to be afraid – not for my kids, not for anyone else’s kids, or for my country. And I am. I am afraid for all of us. I don’t want to feel the grief course through my body as I hear about the children who have lost their lives to our ineffectiveness. I don’t want to see my former students in those faces or imagine the lives that could have been and imagine the pain their families must be enduring. I don’t want to do any of that.

beach-boys-children-939702And yet when I skip past it, everything else becomes an impasse. All questions lead to “I don’t know” and “I don’t know what to do.” The spreadsheets alone won’t get me anywhere, even if it’s just that I need to realize there is nowhere to go.  The thinking about it won’t inspire good decisions or action or the kind of robust citizenship that is required in times like these. The thinking about it won’t sustain my resolve or make clear which path is the right one. The thinking about it won’t fuel me and propel me to use the gifts that I have to help shift this world. All of that – the resolve, the fuel, and the clarity and action – starts with the kind of honesty that comes with letting the wave of feeling happen.

I have no shame about running to anger first. There is plenty to be angry about, and feeling how I feel won’t stop that. What it will do is to allow my heart what it needs to find that path, take the next step, and to release a small piece of the grief we endure on a weekly basis. And so, I am allowing it. And I thank you for you holding this sacred space with me, as you surely are by having read this far.

I wonder what would happen if we all allowed that feeling. If we all stayed with the moment of the loss for longer than it takes to create a policy statement, if we all decided to allow the sorrow to touch us before we squared off. I wonder if we might find it easier to make progress if we were just honest with ourselves and allowed the national wound that this is to penetrate our individual and collective consciousness.

children-girls-kids-50581In all of it I find it important to remember that I can be in sorrow and still be strong. I can be sad and still be motivated to act. I can grieve for our losses and our larger community and still demand better on every level. I can honor my heart and still work toward the kind of transformation our children deserve, and perhaps this is the only way forward.

So be it.

Surrender in a Phone Booth

Dear Dad,

I thought of you today; well, I think of you most every day, but I thought about you longer today. I was walking the dog, a time I would often reach for the phone to catch up with you because I knew I would be largely uninterrupted for at least half an hour. Instead of calling anyone, I was listening to a podcast of This American Life. The episode was an old one that I’d had on my phone since right before some plane flight.

Slide1The story they were sharing took place in Japan, near where the tsunami and earthquake did so much damage a few years ago. In response to his grief at losing a family member, one man had put a phone booth, an old British style one, in his garden. It wasn’t hooked up to anything, and had an old rotary phone inside. He would use it as a space to reach out to his loved one, a space to share developments big and small, a space to grieve completely, to surrender to the loss. The interesting part of the story is that word got out about the phone booth and soon people started coming to use the phone booth to call their own loved ones, people who’d died in the tragedy or have never been found and are presumed dead at this point. People began making pilgrimages with their entire family so everyone, even those who had never expressed any grief at all, had a chance to use the phone booth, to connect with their loved one, to surrender completely to their grief in a space designated just for that, a safe and small space away from everything else. Continue reading → Surrender in a Phone Booth

Ten Lessons of Loss

slide2As many of you know I lost my father just over a month ago. It has been a difficult time, but it’s also been kind of amazing. There has been so much compassion, so much rest, and so so much to learn. I’m only beginning to be able to give words to the lessons of loss. I share them with you to offer some small consolation if you foresee or have already experienced your own great loss. There are life lessons to learn, as gently and slowly as needed, even in this difficult time.

  1. Grief will not be denied. The wording on this one is from my friend Dixie St. John who just happened to post it on FB about a week after my father’s passing. Resistance to grief is futile friends. There is no shelving grief, setting it aside, saving it for a rainy day, stuffing it. You might manage it, but if you insist on refusing your grief, it will wreak havoc. Grief will not be denied.
  2. Grief is extremely physical. I slept. I ate. I didn’t eat. I wanted a long shower. I wanted to be still. I wanted to run very fast and then do absolutely nothing. The task of grieving uses physical energy. Most people who are grieving need more sleep than they usually do. The immune system doesn’t work as well as usual, so getting that sleep is critical. There are actually studies indicating that there is a greater risk of a variety of health problems when we are grieving. Treat your body with kindness. It’s working hard.
  3. Grief can strip away what’s not important. If you’re like me, grieving will make it abundantly clear what you really care about in the world because everything else will fall away. Really, for me everything fell away for a little while and it seems to be returning in the order in which I cherish it. Pay attention. If you’re at all confused about what your priorities are and what needs your attention, grief will clear that stuff up for you real quick.
  4. Grief can teach you to ask for help if you let it. You will have to let it. It’s your choice.
  5. Saying no is allowed, often necessary, and doesn’t require follow-up or an explanation.
  6. Grief is best shared with others who are grieving. Relaxing while grieving is easiest for me either by myself or with people who are also grieving. There’s so much I don’t have to explain. There’s so much I don’t need to worry about. Mutual comfort, distraction, and the warmth of the bond.
  7. People want to help you but they don’t know what to do. People become tender footed around those who are grieving. They want to be sure that the help they offer is the help you want. So they make general offers. “Let me know how I can help.” They mean it. Believe that they mean it. If you are comfortable, let someone know what would be helpful. It’s okay to let someone make your life easier.
  8. People want to say something loving/kind/meaningful but WILL get it wrong. You can choose what you hear. I began to interpret all the things people said after my father’s death as “I love you. I care that you are hurting.” Everything that was said helped when I listened through those ears, the ears of my heart.
  9. Many decisions can be made solely on the basis of how you feel. After my Dad’s death a pervasive fog set in and yet I made decisions, even if that decision was to say to someone else: “You pick. I can’t care about that right now,” and to genuinely release the topic, because I didn’t really care about it. I followed my feelings on eating, sleeping, resting, skipping group activities, just about everything and it helped to just let myself follow how I felt.
  10. You can and will survive the loss of those you hold most dear; it will be easier if you allow the love and care of those around you to shore you up. It will also be easier, in the long run, if you allow your sadness, your anger, your relief or whatever you are feeling to be exactly what it is whenever it is happening. You have a right to feel your loss and only you get to decide when you are done.

My wish for you is that your own lessons are gently offered and lovingly received. Be gentle with yourselves.

In peace.

julia

The Bare Minimum

In the days following my father’s passing, I was in a complete fog and was fully reliant on people around me to tell me where I needed to be, to feed my children, to make me tea. Now I seem to be in a different phase. I am largely keeping track of my own schedule, although it is somewhat limited right now so I confess it’s not all that difficult. I am feeding my kids, and making all but my first cup of tea for the day. But I feel unease, I would say dis-ease, but it’s not that bad yet. I have this sense that I SHOULD be doing more (there’s that word, the one I was going to UNchoose this year).

If I sit with should, I can give you a fine list of all the things I SHOULD be attending to right now. And I struggle nearly as much with the unease this creates as I do with my own grief. Truth is my body will not have it, will not have me doing more than I can right now. I fall asleep sitting up, typing. I nearly fall asleep at the dinner table. A dear friend reminded me that grief will not be denied; my fatigue tells me this is so. My dear coaching friends remind me that grieving is my job right now. My darling brother asks if people are wearing clothes and if anyone is starving. My sister and I check on each other, giving each other permission to opt out of our shared obligations and joys. Right now it’s all about the bare minimum. Continue reading → The Bare Minimum

When Words Are Not Enough

 

My father has died.

And now I must practice all that I preach.

I must allow the feelings, as awful as they are.

I must seek out stillness.

I must say no, be gentle with myself, listen to the small still voice that is kind and compassionate.

I must remember to breathe, eat, and sleep.

I must allow the kindness of others when I have the strength to receive it and forgive myself when I do not.

Grief will not be denied. It is perhaps the most honest emotion in its insistence on being dealt with. I shall honor mine as I honor my father.

Be kind to yourselves friends. All of it, even the very worst parts, works better when we are kind to ourselves.