Other People’s Loss

It’s hard to know what someone needs when they’re grieving. Mostly because as  a general rule, we humans are pretty bad at mind reading.

The earliest memory I have of being with someone I loved, who was losing someone they loved, was when one of my best friend’s dad was dying. We were college students and I was driving her to the VA hospital to visit her dad. On our first visit he was alert and cracking jokes. On our second visit just a few days later, he had slipped into a coma and was non-responsive.

After one hospital visit we were driving home and just as a side note, I am horrible with directions. This is substantiated by the fact that I still manage to get lost in the town we live in and I’ve lived here for six years. Add in if I’m having a conversation with someone while driving, either in person or on the phone– and I’m toast.

Sure enough, we missed our exit out of the cities. My friend spotted some lights in the distance and I suggested we drive towards them and maybe we’d find our way home. Did you know that Mystic Lake Casino shines spotlights into the sky at night? Neither did we.

We found ourselves at the casino, both under lifestyle agreements we had signed at different local christian colleges that forbid gambling. But when your friend’s dad is dying and you find yourself led to a casino from lights in the sky, is there any other option? We hit the nickel slots. Hey, we were cheap college students. And when we hadn’t played long enough to lose it all, we walked away with plastic cups full of nickels.

My friend’s dad died a few days later, in between Christmas and New Years.

It’s been years and I don’t remember much about my friend’s grief. I just have a few memories poking through about that time.

The rest of our friends drove up to Winnipeg to celebrate New Years Eve and we stayed home together. I remember we watched an entire season of Real World on tv that night. We each had our own couch. We barely moved. We entertained ourselves with our own commentary on the train wreck we were witnessing. Tivo and dvr hadn’t been invented yet which means we also watched hours of commercials. We wondered aloud if it was possible to get bed sores from our high level of inactivity.

I have a few memories about the funeral. My friend’s dad served in Vietnam and it was the first military service I remember attending. I remember they fired the shots and played taps. I really appreciate this tradition and think it is one of the most beautiful and honoring things to witness. 

I also remember my friend and I, along with my brother, making jokes one night about her dad’s ashes being sealed in tupperware. Before this sounds callous let’s remember a couple things. First, we all had a sense of humor. Next, we didn’t know how to be sensitive about grief. So, being the age we were, we did our best Robin Williams impressions of the Genie from Aladdin saying, “Blurp, still good!” over and over again until my friend laughed so hard she nearly peed her pants.

When I was thinking back about this time in my friend’s life I wondered if I was supportive enough, or there for her enough. I hope so. It’s strange- because it would be ten more years before that co-worker would have to tell me it’s important to go to a funeral. But in my early twenties, I didn’t question it at all.

When my brother’s close friend died at 17, we all showed up. When my friend’s dad died, all of us were there. We went because these deaths affected the people we loved. It made me wonder what happened in the next ten years that I started to feel like attending a funeral was out of place, or in the way of family who was mourning. What changed?

Probably me.

Maybe there weren’t a lot of deaths around me during that time. Maybe the ones that did happen I was numb to. Or worse, maybe I didn’t notice them because I hadn’t lost someone that close to me yet. That last thought sickens me a bit, but it could very well be true. Maybe it’s like that thing where you get a car and suddenly you see your same car on the road everywhere. Your awareness for it has been heightened. It’s not that everyone suddenly went out and bought the same car as you, those cars were always there, you just couldn’t see them before.

Since my brother died, I swear I see others loss in extreme 3D. I cry when my friends lose someone they love. It’s entirely possible that I feel too much. Maybe that’s part of what got broken when my brother died.

I’ve heard that when someone you love has died, your heart gets ripped open and it’s raw and bleeding. And slowly it gets stitched back together, a little different than before. And that sounds about right to me. Maybe I have a little piece flapping around that isn’t stitched back yet, and it leaves me a bit more sensitive.

I don’t know what’s best for people when they’re grieving because every person grieves differently. But I still think it’s important to see them and show up.

Even if it’s just to lay around on the couch together and watch mtv.

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I asked God for a baby

I tried to calm my nerves as I sat in the hard plastic chair at the OB/GYN office. The doctor returned with my chart and started talking. From the moment she said the word infertility, I wanted her to take it back. It was the word I was dreading to hear and she had just said it, all matter of fact. The doctor kept talking, but I couldn’t hear her anymore. My brain had tuned her out. I was crushed. I felt alone. I was in a new club that I never wanted to join.

I found myself crying in all sorts of places in the days that followed. It’s weird how a small shift in awareness can cause us to see everything just a little bit differently. I cried as I walked past the infant clothes in Target, while watching a commercial with a mom bathing her newborn, and when my period arrived abruptly to mark another month that we were not pregnant.

I asked God for a baby. Others asked God to give us a baby too.

But no baby came.

My husband and I had been trying to get pregnant for 18 months when we received the infertility diagnosis. We had been attending a new church for about the same length of time. We were leading a small group for young married couples without kids, just like us. That community became our safe space. We learned how to be real and vulnerable with these friends. It was the first place we would share our story of infertility.  

I looked at this time of waiting as a season that would eventually end, so I thought I would find something to do in the meantime. One night at a party, a friend asked me to volunteer with the teens at our church. I told him I already helped with the babies in the nursery. My friend joked, “Sometimes the teens act like babies.” We laughed and I shrugged it off. Teenagers intimidated me in high school, and my irrational fear hadn’t gone away in my twenties.

A couple months later, another friend asked me to seriously consider joining the youth team. I told her I didn’t know why she was asking me. She said there were kids that were shy and quiet like me and she terrified them because she’s loud and outgoing. She told me I had the unique opportunity to connect with those kids. That stuck. I considered it and soon I was a youth leader, and my husband joined the team, too.

We worked with the teens together, but separately. He did the loud, wild and crazy Wednesday nights leading small groups with the guys. I helped lead the slower Sunday mornings where we asked real questions and allowed each other to struggle for answers. We were making connections with the same students in different ways, and I loved it.

Somewhere along the line, one of the guys made a joke about my husband being old (to a teen anything near 30 is ancient) and the student began to jokingly call him “Dad.” My husband didn’t miss a beat and he called the teen “Son.” Somehow it stuck and this went on for more than two years.

I’ve been on mission trips and weekend retreats with these students. I’ve watched them grow in height, confidence, and maturity. We’ve had girls nights where we’ve baked, played spoons for hours, and laughed until our cheeks hurt. I’ve been able to cheer on teens at their band concerts, musicals, one-act plays, dance performances, and cheer-leading competitions. We’ve paddled around in canoes talking about life, sang Disney songs at the top of our lungs, and hugged and cried in public restrooms when necessary.

My life didn’t turn out the way I imagined. We still don’t have kids of our own running around. But there are over 100 teens that I was given the privilege to get to know, and they all have a special place in my heart. They wiggled their way right in. I think I was ready. I was open. And I had some extra love to give.  

One Mother’s Day I woke up to a text from the teen who called my husband “Dad.” It simply said, “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.” And my heart burst wide open.

No one had ever called me that before.

I asked God for a baby, and He gave me teenagers.

 

**This post was originally written for and entered in a writer’s contest here. Voting is over now, but your votes bumped me up to the number 18 spot out of 115 submissions- thank you!

Recent Reads- From Vacation

This past winter Andy and I went on our first warm weather trip when it was cold at home. My Dad and his wife had been inviting us to Mexico with them for years and this was the year we finally went with them. From the moment we arrived to sunshine and warm air, we wondered why we had waited so long.

We swam in the ocean, ate great food, took in as much vitamin d from the sun as we could handle. We shared stories over meals together, laughed and sang along with the mariachi band. It was a restful and peaceful time. And I read during our downtime, which was most of the time.

“Jesus Feminist” was the first book I read on this trip, and I really enjoyed it. It was refreshing to read something that was so different from what I had learned in church when I was younger. I even hesitate to use the word “learned” because I don’t know that I was explicitly taught that women should be quiet and submissive and that husbands should be the spiritual head of the household. But somehow that’s what I grew up understanding.

Sarah Bessey explains a bit more about the culture going on when Paul was writing about women being quiet in church. Women hadn’t been allowed in church before so they were excited and asking questions which was interrupting the teaching. But Paul never said that women shouldn’t be in leadership, though many churches still practice that if not explicitly say it outright. In fact, he suggested the opposite, speaking highly of women that were leaders in the church.

And best of all? Jesus was a feminist (for the sake of argument I’m breaking down feminist to its most basic definition that women and men should have equal rights). He said in Christ there was no longer male or female, slave or free, jew or greek. I really enjoyed reading this- it rang so true and sounded so much better than things I had believed for so long. Sarah talked about her own marriage and how she and her husband take turns leading or calling out the next steps for their family- but only after pressing in and taking a next step based on following Jesus. I shared this with Andy and we both resonated with this. We were able to look back and point out different times where we’ve taken turns leading in our marriage.

Okay that was a long recap, another book I read on this trip  was, “When Breath Turns to Air” by Paul Kalanithi. I’ve been on a bit of a death/grieving kick this past year (go figure) but each book I’ve read has been so interesting. This is written by a neurosurgeon who discovers he has brain cancer and he starts writing this book just before he dies. It is well written and captivating.

“Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert was up next, for something a little lighter. I liked how she talked about having a commitment to her art (for her, writing) from when she was young. She made a promise to write every day and to not put the pressure on her art to be her source of income. And she kept that promise for a long time, until her fourth book became super popular and it didn’t make sense for her to keep her day job anymore.

The last book I started on this trip was “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. Finally, a little fiction. This was my second fiction book this year- I know- I’m weird. What can I say? I love a true story! This book is about a cute old curmudgeon and the people in his life. The relationships were well developed, a good read.

Has anyone read any of these, or have anything else you’d recommend?

Being Mortal and Living Soft

WILLOW TREE BENCH

I’m reading the book Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and it’s fascinating. It’s about growing older, allowing people to maintain independence and dignity as they age, while giving opportunities to continue to live.

He’s done a crap ton of research and the stories he shares are captivating. My favorite so far is from a woman who had a near death experience at age 21. Before the car accident she had spent her time thinking about finding the right person to spend her life with and what she was going to do next in life. After the accident, her perspective changed to not caring about those things at all, she just wanted to spend more time with loved ones because she was so grateful to be alive.

She wondered if how we choose to spend our time depends on how much time we think we have left in life. So she did studies.

Her theory was that “When horizons are measured in decades, which might as well be infinity to human beings, you most desire all that stuff at the top of Maslow’s pyramid- achievement, creativity…. But as your horizons contract- when you see the future ahead of you as finite and uncertain- your focus shifts to the here and now, to everyday pleasures and the people closest to you.”

I watched this happen to my brother. My dad described him as “soft” the closer he came to the end of his life. And I think that is the best word for it. Little things that used to get him riled up, he barely flinched at, in fact, he took a couple opportunities to chastise my mom when we would get worked up over things. He waved his hand and told us, “It doesn’t matter” and “you need to let that go.”

On the anniversary of his death this year, I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling and talking out loud. It was part prayer, part thoughts. I was trying to determine what Justin had taught me that was the most valuable. And I realized it was this- this softness that my dad talked about. How could I learn to live like that?

I saw the shift in my uncle TJ too, as he realized the days he had were a gift, not a guarantee. Almost nothing ruffled him. It was the littlest things that made him the happiest. Spending time with people he loved was his favorite, and my brother’s too.

I feel like I get the spending time with people I love part, but I am terrible at the not letting little things (that truly don’t matter) irritate me part.

In the studies this woman did, she saw this shift in perspective based on people’s age. The younger ones valued time with people they thought could teach them something new and they valued building new relationships. The older ones valued time with people they were emotionally close to. And when they studied people who were sick with a terminal disease, whether they were young or old, they all responded the way of the older people. And to further verify her findings, when the older people in the study were told that a new development would allow them to live 20 extra years, they all shifted their responses to value the things of the younger people.

Then, they studied people in different cultures just after a big event occurred where lots of people died. For the US, it was following 9/11. “In each case the results were consistent. When, as researchers put it, “life’s fragility is primed,” people’s goals and motives in their everyday lives shift completely. It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.”

Death can have that effect on us as humans. For me, my brother’s death was a total wake up call and a shift in perspective. I realized that if he could die, anyone could. And yes, I realize how stupid this sounds because in reality- we will all die at some point. Side note: My uncle used to tell the story of the doctor telling him he was dying. He quickly quipped, “So are you!”

One thing my brother’s death did was normalize conversations about death. Andy asked me just a few weeks after my brother died, what I would do if he died. I told him I’d sell the house, I’d take a break from work to grieve and I’d probably travel. When I asked him the same question he had the same answers, plus he specified he’d visit my friends and ask them to tell him stories about me. I told him his idea was sweeter than mine and now I’d want to do that too, for him.

Once we acknowledged how easily one of us could die, it caused us to narrow in on some of our dreams and figure out what do we want to do before we die. But even more so, how do we want to live?

If I want to be a softer person who lets things go, doesn’t read into stuff, and learns not to fill in the blanks for things that may or may not be true– how do I practically start to do that now?

It’s a great question- and one I’ve been asking myself. I’ve been applying a “practice things until they become a habit” idea to a couple different areas of my life and I’m giving it a whirl in this one too. I remind myself it’s okay to be a work in progress. When I start to feel stress, anger, or frustration, there are things I can practice to help things bug me less, or (ideally) not at all!

Taking a minute to take a few deep breaths to focus on that instead of the issue is a good place to start. Resisting the urge to jump to conclusions (I can’t say this without thinking of Office Space) and read other people’s minds is a good place to start. Repeating “not my monkeys, not my circus” to remind myself that other people’s stuff is not my stuff- is a good place to start. Going on a walk outside in the fresh air to process while moving is a good place to start.

I don’t want to wait until I’m staring death in the face to be a softer person. It’s just going to take some practice.

Just making sure of you

“Pooh?” whispered Piglet. “Yes, Piglet” said Pooh. “Oh, nothing” said Piglet. “I was just making sure of you.”

The morning after my brother died, a friend gave me a card with this conversation on it. She also brought over a homemade meal, made our bed and stayed to fold the laundry. The words are such a sweet sentiment. My friend was making sure I was still there, that I would be alright. She was gently checking in.

This past week of the first year anniversary of my brother’s death several people have checked in. Many via text, phone calls or facebook and I appreciate each one. One friend asked if she could bring a meal over. So last week we ate broccoli cheddar soup, muffins and salad on a rainy night.

Another friend sent me a picture of a box addressed to me and said, “I know this must be a a bit of a tough week for you, so I wanted to attempt to “brighten” it up for you. I managed to put a care package together and tried to mail it to you so you would receive “a box of sunshine” on Friday. However, the USPS denied it (cause who knew you couldn’t send baby bottles of alcohol in the mail? Not me.).

I laughed and then promptly cried at her thoughtfulness. It is a really good feeling to be thought of, to be remembered. It’s pretty hard to feel alone when others are remembering with you.

Community is one of God’s best ideas.

Thanks friends, I feel loved.

The year of firsts

A year ago yesterday my brother went to heaven. Somehow we made it through what so many refer to “the year of firsts.” Each first without him was hard, Thanksgiving and Christmas especially. But so was 4th of July, Easter, his birthday, my birthday, mother’s day, father’s day. I had been with him for almost all of those the year before. And we celebrated most of those days together for over 30 years in a row.

So the holidays and special days were hard without him, but so were random Tuesdays, Saturdays, and any old day that I thought of him and wished he was still here, which was most days in the past year. I remember the first day I didn’t think of my brother until it was almost the end of the day and I was like, “Oh my gosh, it happened, a day came where I didn’t think of him” and I burst into tears. But then I realized, oh, I guess today is not that day because I am thinking of how I didn’t think of him. Grief is weird.

I was trying to wrap my head around the fact that he has been gone for a whole year. I told my mom that it seems like yesterday that he was still here. Mom gently pointed out that we had 33 years with him, and only one without, so it seems natural to remember all the time with him instead.

And honestly? I prefer it that way. I like that I can look back on memories and remember him full of life, funny, telling stories, making people laugh. Or on holidays I can remember different things we did together. Mother’s day was a tough one this year because it was the last holiday before he died.

My mom decided to call this mother’s day simply, “Sunday” and that made it a lot easier to handle. We got together to tell stories, laugh and cry a little bit.

My favorite Mother’s day memory was when Justin and I were teenagers. My mom is and was a very good mom to us. And she almost never swore in front of us, so when she did, it was memorable. Our parents divorce was fresh and emotions were high. The custody rules were for us to visit my dad every other weekend. It so happened that one fell on Mother’s day weekend. My mom was expressing her frustration saying, “He got you on Christmas Eve, (and some other holiday I’ve since forgotten)… and now he gets you on Mother’s F@%#ING Day?!” My brother and I stood there in stunned silence. It was clearly a rhetorical question.

And that Mother’s Day, my brother decided to make a joke out of the awkward moment. We made mom cards that year saying, “Happy Mother’s F@%#ing Day” that morphed into “Mother’s King Day” over the years, complete with us drawing tiny crowns in the cards.

This story still makes me smile years later and I know my brother’s creativity made mom grin too. I’ll have to remember this on next year’s mother’s day.

I’m so thankful to have had him as my brother. He was a very good one that could always make me laugh, even on command. Last night I told Andy a dumb joke that Justin used to tell that still makes me smile- probably because I can hear his voice doing a goofy accent with it in my head.

What’s brown, and sounds like a bell?

 

DUUUUNNNNNNG!

Love you, Gus.

I’ll take all the therapy for $600, Alex

I took some time to write on real paper instead of a keyboard this week. I don’t know why it makes such a difference to get thoughts out of my head this way. Maybe the physical act of putting pen to paper frees up mental energy or space or something. As a side bonus, it’s cheap therapy! Though I just emailed my counselor to go back for another session after a two month hiatus, so who am I kidding- I’ll take allll the therapy!

My first time in a counselor’s office was when my parents were divorcing. I don’t remember much except that my counselor asked a lot of questions and I didn’t feel comfortable to answer/share with her. I also remember feeling extremely jealous when I asked my brother what he and his counselor talked about and he said, “We play checkers.” What!? I wanted to play checkers and not have to talk! I felt like I was getting the raw end of the deal.

My next time with a counselor would be another fifteenish years later. It would be the first time I was diagnosed with depression. I liked this woman instantly. She took time to clarify the different types of depression. One kind is where the depression is brought on by a situation and with a good support system (fam/friends) and some counseling, you can get out of this little pit. Another kind of depression is a little deeper in the pit and someone could need some medicine for a while. And the third kind needs medicine on a long-term basis for a chemical imbalance. As she described these, I could think of family and friends who have been in each spot. At the time, it hadn’t occurred to me that I was depressed.

As we talked a little more, she put me squarely in the first one. Situational Depression. This type is usually brought on by some sort of life change that is typically unwanted and sometimes traumatic. Anything from a job loss, to death of a family member or close friend, to divorce, retirement, etc. Something that jolts you from your regular routine/daily life. In looking at that list, mine was far less traumatic. But there I was, in a funk.

The counselor had me write out all the losses I had experienced in my life. After I gave her the list she looked at me over the top of her glasses and said, “And this is the first time you’ve ever been depressed?” I told her I guessed so. She said that was amazing. (My husband says I have too much self-esteem, but when these are your true stories, can you even help it? ;))

Our conversation reminded me of the stress tests we had to take as teens in school. You would get points based on the life changes, points for changing houses, schools, for parents separating, divorcing, pet dying, etc. The year that all of those things happened at once? Justin and I scored off the charts and we still weren’t depressed. In our family we used denial and humor as coping mechanisms, and for the most part, it worked.

My counselor and I worked through stuff over the next few months and then she told me I had graduated and didn’t need to see her anymore. I was kind of sad, it was fun to work through things and test out what I was learning. I didn’t see another counselor again for years.

One morning I sent an email to a new counselor asking if she had any openings because I thought I might need to talk to someone soon. Later that night, my brother died.

Having been diagnosed with depression once, I can say I was probably depressed for some period of time after Justin died. Or maybe I still am? It’s hard to tell when there is a string of days that are really good and then a couple emotional ones and then good ones again that can last for weeks. Or maybe this is just grief? But this wondering is all hindsight in looking back nearly a year later. I didn’t notice depression symptoms this time around right away. For a long time I was in the shock and numb stage. Probably longer than I realized.

I saw this new counselor each week for a while, then every two weeks, then every three and in February I just didn’t make another appointment. But yesterday I did. With my brother’s deathiversary right around the corner, I figured it probably doesn’t hurt to have an extra set of ears and insight. Also, I’ve had a few extra emotions lately.

I’m sure most of it has to do with coming up on one year without my brother. I was trying to explain it to my mom the other day. I said, “I remember everything so clearly like it was yesterday.” She asked if I meant the day he died. I said, well, I’ll probably always remember that- but I meant him being alive, being here on this planet with us. My mom so simply pointed out that we had a lot more time with him than without him, so it is natural that we remember more the time he was with us. And honestly, I prefer it that way.

I’m grateful for the 33 years I got to have him as a brother. Now I get to grin and laugh as I read old messages from him. And I still talk to him on occasion, even if it’s as brief to say aloud, “Hi, Gus” when I think of him. Recently my dad asked me to imagine my brother’s reaction to something. When I did, I saw a clear picture of him laughing with his head in his hands, shaking his head back and forth and telling me, “I can’t believe you did that!” and maybe he called me stupid too. We laughed together and my dad said that sounded about right.

I think the next couple weeks will be tough, but if our family motto is anything- it can get us through this. “Always leave them laughing.” Always leave your audience wanting more.

 

(If my brother was here right now he’d wink and say, “See what I did there?”)