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Posts from the ‘Beyond Grief’ Category

The Lighthouse, and Beyond — Doing the Work and Looking Back: Part 3 of the Holiday Journey

Looking at the lighthouse on Bracelet Bay, I opened my heart to the path ahead. I can now look at my life heading into a new path. To move forward, it is also necessary to look back, and understand why you stand at the present waypoint.

It was after the ashes had been freed that I began to take note of a nagging feeling that I’d mentioned in the first post. Something wasn’t feeling right, and I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t ignore it, and I didn’t explore it either. I let it sit in my head, and let it work on me until I returned home.

Grief is a challenging process. We face it in death, divorce, a breakup, or a loss of a friend because one of you has taken a different life path and the friendship or partnership no longer meets someone’s needs. People’s values change. Our life focus changes. There are so many other things that happen to us in life that can bring grief into our midst. Pets must be set free from suffering, and we’re faced with the goodbye. What happens in the grief process is hopefully healing. First, it gets ugly: it must get ugly.

To get to the healing, we need to allow life to do its thing. I had made the decision within days of Jon’s death that I would avoid making any major life decisions that did not have to be made during the first year of the grief process. This turned out to be the best thing I could have done for myself.

For the first year I did nothing. I let the trauma of it all surface. The crying was awful, and as the tears came, the pain of it all surfaced. At the end of that first year (2017), I took a trip to visit family and friends. I returned home and faced years two and three.

In September of 2018, I made a major life change that involved a decade-long faith journey I had been on: I joined a new faith tradition and church. At the end of year three (2019), in the fall, I applied to the spiritual direction program at San Francisco Theological Seminary/Redlands University, was accepted, and I began to plan a new phase of my life. I noticed that things were changing for me. Four years later in 2020, it felt safe enough to return to the work I loved. I was stable and things felt right. I’d done enough healing. What is that healing like? 

The Beginning Stage of Healing

In the beginning it might be a numbing to the world, to ourselves, to others, and we might seem detached. We sleep at weird times, eat nothing or too much, and we might not engage in normal, routine things. We can be caught gazing into nothingness. We can curl up into balls and sob. We rage at the unjust death of a loved one. We rejoice that someone is free from their body that has only been a source of pain. We mourn what wasn’t, rage at what might or should have been, and throughout all of it we want you to speak their name. Please, speak their name, don’t forget them. I won’t, and at times it seems as if their presence will always be around. Surely, they will walk through the door with a cheerful greeting, lighting up the space, being who they uniquely are. They are gone and it is a crushing pain. How can I possibly move on from this? Slowly, sometimes gently, and at other times violently, we begin to move forward.

Present Time

As I moved forward from the spreading of the ashes, I came to realize that after six years of making peace in my heart, I made peace on the beaches. I had moved beyond grief. I came to realize that the work of the past was done, released to the sea, and that the work of a new life stood ready to embrace. I let the rest of the holiday run and allowed this realization to greet me as I opened my front door. 

One of the most common questions that newbies to grief get asked is when will the crazy erratic tears will end. Will they ever end? The answer we give to others is yes, and they change in texture and quality. With time, the tears slowly diminish to a softer cry. Slowly, and with time, it changes. We can’t say when the tears will change for you, but they will change. I never asked the “when” question. I let it happen. I listened to the community and those who had more “time in the process.”

Middle Stage Grief Resolution

For me, it took a full three years to cross from the full-body crying to a gentler form, and in year four there was nothing. This was a middle place. It can be a time of deep exploration. Doing good work means that you take your time and allow others to take their time as well. Good work is about looking in the mirror and not tolerating dishonesty from yourself about the “what” of the relationship, the “who” you were in the relationship, and the “why” the relationship was as it was. Honesty takes guts, and grief isn’t for wimps. Asking yourself the hard questions and being able to sit with the discomfort for however long it takes characterizes that middle stage of work that we do after the loss of a relationship. Whether it is death, a breakup, divorce, or another type of loss, in order to heal and resolve our portion of the relationship, we must visit the relationship fully, see it fully, and not forget what we’ve seen. All of this takes a great deal of time and effort to get it into proper focus, and to move forward. 

Resolving the Process 

Six years later it was time to see beaches, visit friends, and new places. It was time to look back on the land behind me and face a new sea. It was time to say goodbye to the past and hello to the new life ahead. Bracelet Bay served as a point of closure as well as a new beginning.

Moving forward no longer feels or seems scary. I’m on my timeline. I’ve done the work. I don’t know what’s ahead. There is a sense of freedom and peace in all of this.  

Jon used to want me to send him a song, and I’d sing to him, and so I’ll end this journey with Lisa Kelly sending a song that works for both of us. Love you, Jon.

Lessons from Bracelet Bay: Part 2 of the Holiday Journey

So, what about the rest of the holiday? It was great! I managed to consume heavenly food, and the ice cream in Wales is scrumptious. I took advantage of the fact that I could get chocolate mint chip anytime they had it in the ice cream parlour. It was wonderful to enjoy every bite of that ice cream. I had the most delectable fish and chips at Langland Bay. The traditional Sunday lunch was a walk back into childhood and my mother’s cooking. Eating with friends, sharing a meal in a local pub where they served up Sunday lunch in two settings was the only way to do it while enjoying their company. Being able to binge listen to podcasts (and not be thought of as rude) was a cure for long years of working and stress. I warned my host/hostess about my binging need, and I’m glad they each honored my need to enjoy it guilt free.

While I was there, Queen Elizabeth’s life came to an end. It was interesting to observe the process. The British do pomp better than any other nation. What an experience and a joy to watch with friends who had lived their lives while she was queen.

This portion of the holiday wasn’t about the food, or the learning: it was about setting Jon’s ashes free. There were two stages in the process.

It began at The Shack, this quirky, quiet cottage that has the best chaise longue in the universe. We could have stayed on that longue for, forever! The host, Helen, was delightful and accommodating to my almost-blind needs. Helen was incredible and helpful, as neither Sara nor I had been to the area before.

One of the things I needed to do in the first few days was to scout out the bays for the one I wanted to scatter Jon’s ashes into. Sara and I spent Thursday and Friday looking at bays.

South Wales has some incredible bays; the views are spectacular. I was certain I’d find the right place.  

Exploring My Options

Caswell Bay is a happy place with its welcoming benches, café, and yummy food. Sitting on the benches and chatting was wonderful, and while the bay and the water were accessible, it wasn’t the right place.

The drive into Oxwich Bay was a normal drive—until we came up over a rise to this amazing and stunning view! This happened more than once in our travels. While this beach was the most accessible of all beaches, it wasn’t the one. I sat and took it all in. It was playful and wonderful, and I’d go back.

Langland Bay, full of people, sunny and warm, was wonderful, and the restaurant that served up my fish and chips has an incredible view. The tides in that area dictate beach access. It also meant that to get to the water, I would have needed to cross some difficult areas. While it was a wonderful place, it just didn’t do it for me.

Then there was Bracelet Bay. The moment I saw it, breathed the air, and looked at what was there, my heart was stolen! The ice cream was lemon—and the first ice cream I had in Wales. It did not disappoint.

The bay holds my heart with its lighthouse that I had seen as we drove into the area. I would have loved to see it up close, but not this time.

As I looked at Bracelet Bay, it called to me: Here! Here! But the beach was not accessible to me. It is accessible. This is where I wanted the ashes to go. My heart sank. AND, on the other side of the lighthouse: a pier! Where was its access? I wanted that pier. I sang “I left my heart in Bracelet Bay” to the tune of “I left my heart In San Francisco” because I had fallen in love. Sara got it.

My time with Sara ended on a Monday morning: Goodbye Mumbles, shack, and on to an area I was in love with. We drove to my next destination, and to the couple that would be with me when the ashes were spread.

Hello, warm and love-filled home! I’ve been lucky to know Grace and her husband, Ken, for several years now. The home, and these people, wrapped me in care. The cold from hell continued to rage. I rested, binged, and enjoyed the fact that when with Grace, you enjoy her enjoying her tea.

I informed them that when the weather was behaving, we’d be off to spread the ashes. I will admit to being concerned that Wales would rain on me, and I’d miss my chance to do what I needed to do. I found out that Ken knew where to park to get to the pier. Hope was alive! I relaxed and trusted that it would happen. That Wednesday morning, we put the ashes in the boot, and around noon, with the sky not promising a blue pallet, we set out for Caswell Bay. 

Lunch was delightful, and as I sat in the café the urge hit me. Ken and I walked onto the beach for confirmation of what I was thinking. No, not here. As we neared the car, the sky dumped rain. As we drove into town, my heart sank. Rain. NO, not now! And yet, it was present. Would I ever free the ashes? 

Joe’s Ice Cream Parlour called to me, and I let my heart enjoy some incredible vanilla. It is wonderful! I’ll go back for more. Then, a quick pop into a shop, and on exit, sun!!!! Glorious sun and, yes, I wanted to go to the pier on Bracelet Bay!

The Release

You really don’t want to script this type of thing, and I didn’t. I knew where I wanted to put the ashes. What I would say either silently or speak out loud would happen.  

I had run several things through my head. I had sat with this for six years of grief work. Yet, at the moment of release, my heart went to a quiet, sacred place. I spoke to myself, for this was mine, and mine alone. A silent “I love you” as the ashes left their container. As the ashes hit the water, there was only love. I had done the work of healing the pain, the hurt, the anger, and the struggle. There was nothing but love in my heart. His ashes were now in the water; they were free, and so was I.

I allowed myself the pleasure of a whimsical fantasy that now, Jon was exploring the bay, making friends, and asking lots of questions. For me it is a fun, harmless fantasy that expanded on who he was in life. I let the playfulness stand.

I was pleasantly surprised that all the anger had left me. When it was time to let go in fullness, there was no anger to be had. Six years, crying, angry, hurt by what he’d said to me in the last fifteen minutes of our life together. While I remember the words, the pain is gone. I had thought that I’d explode in anger; I didn’t. I had allowed myself to do the work of navigating through grief, to accept, to give time the chance to work on me. I had not turned from the difficult work. I have faced it head-on and accepted the process. I’ve run the river well.  Six years later, it was time to set the ashes, and myself, free. It was a closing that I can look back on and move forward into something new.

Where Were You When…?

On July 27, 1977, my life stood still as I watched my younger sister fall to the ground dead. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we were in Paradise, California, at the 76 gas station. During the next two or three hours, word spread in our church community. People would later tell me where they were when they heard the news. No one asked where I was: I was living it.

That was forty-five years ago! The memory is still present, but the pain and trauma of what happened that sleepy summer afternoon stand in my mind; the wound of that past experience healed but will never leave.

To this day, those who knew Joyce remember where they were and what was happening. They tell me where they were, but they don’t ask where I was when it all went down. The code of “don’t ask” slammed it all shut. They don’t need to know. To this day, I don’t know what was said about where my mother and I were. We witnessed it all in its horror.

The truth is that our trauma was not for public consumption. My younger brother never got to say goodbye to her. I left with two cousins for school, and he was now home alone having to adjust to being an only child—when that wasn’t the plan. You never plan for something like this, and yet I had thought about it because I knew she could die.

Her death messed things all up. We had to re-group, re-think, and adjust to life with no Joyce. Forty-five years later, the memories of people telling me where they were surface. Today is her death anniversary.

My mother and I talked about it when we were older and had distance from it. Death was riding with us that day and somehow my mother knew it. She thought it was going to be her that would die. We finally talked it out and realized that we were glad we’d finally said the words—late as they were to our journey of loss.

The truth is we all remember the “Where were you when…?”question. Those of us who are old enough know where we were when JFK, MLK, RFK, and others were brutally cut down. We remember the Apollo 11 landing, Challenger, the other shuttles, and now school shootings. We stand as witnesses to personal and societal pain.

We’ve taken to gathering at impromptu memorials to share as a community, and yet there is still stigma around personal trauma.

We’re not quite there yet with personal trauma; it’s like the accident that everyone drives by slowly in hopes of seeing the gory stuff. It’s about people wanting to be voyeurs into pain that they would not want seen themselves.

The catch here is that the “Where were you when…?” question enables us to talk through our own trauma around the incident. So many knew my sister, so many loved her, and no one had expected her to drop dead in a phone booth in Paradise, CA. So, the collective mind was collectively blown. Because of the collective trauma, we process it how we can.

For whatever reason, all of this came up forty-five years after the fact. I now live in The Netherlands, I’m far from family, and so, I’ll put this up instead.

Today I purchased flowers for myself and they turned out to be her favorite color: yellow. I’ll enjoy them for her.

I look at the clock and think about the fact that at this time forty-five years ago, we all had to eat. Some of us went for pizza and some stayed home at my aunt and uncle’s place. I went for pizza. I know, weird. The next day, my parents and my younger brother got into my father’s car and drove home and planned the service and all that went with it. Where was I? I was assigned to clean the house and so, like the dutiful daughter I needed to be, I vacuumed and answered the door for people paying respects. I think I’d rather tell people where I was when JFK was assassinated. Where were you when…?

Yes, I’m Taking a Holiday

I suspect that this will turn into a series of postings, partially because I’m amused at what I’m discovering about the journey out of grief and loss and what my brain seems to be doing with all of it. Let’s get on with it!

The first trip I took after my husband’s death was about a year later. It combined a conference with seeing friends and family. All things considered it went well, and the post-“husband-committed-suicide” conversations weren’t bad. I got home after three weeks and was glad to see my cat, Penelope. She had a blast at her kitty hotel in the country.

Traveling takes brain power, and once home I settled in for a year of hard work, looking at where I was and where I needed to go. I had a wee bit more confidence in the travel department, so when the next adventure rolled around, I dealt with it smoothly. I pulled it off with the help of charitable friends. 2019 produced two trips that I needed to take, and then: shutdown! We all know what happened next.

When I reflect on it now, I was fortunate to not have too many things go wrong. Going back into how my body was feeling when things did go wrong was telling. It was the same crisis response that happened a few times in the second year of post death trauma. It is so true that our bodies really do keep score on what is happening, and mine had.

When our bodies are in crisis, we miss a great deal. We can’t see how we’re reacting in the same way that others around us can observe what is happening to us. We fail to see signs that we’re missing cues. We tend to think that we have everything covered and that we really are just fine: Far from it!

The first year is the year of the first everything: a survival mode year. Then, during the second year, we drop defenses and we get slammed! It is the worst year to live through. It isn’t until the third year that our life texture really alters itself. In 2019 that is where I was. I was putting things together in new ways, able to see and understand how I was being triggered. I was able to understand that one month before Jon’s death anniversary was my younger sister’s death anniversary. It had also been traumatic, and when I connected the dots, things calmed, and I understood the strange depression that had set in and lifted promptly after his death anniversary.

I was thinking and functioning in healthy ways now and thought that all would go well. It would be onward and upward!

Here’s where things get dicey. The pandemic shut my brain down, again. I was doing so well, and then, splat! I slid back into I don’t know where. Our brains respond to stimuli and come to expect it when we begin to move forward. My brain had no way to know that the entire world would stop functioning as it once had. My brain regressed with the isolation. I think all of us regressed. Old traumatic events might have been triggered, new trauma might have been born, and the uncertainty of what the world would look like was an issue. So, my brain took two steps back, and until I really sat down and looked at the situation, I didn’t see it clearly in the way I needed to. I could have traveled last year, but I didn’t. Now, I get it.

A combination of fear and the realization that I hadn’t taken a real holiday in almost a decade set in. When I verbalized this to a friend, she was concerned: “You need to do something for yourself!” Stepping back, I could see the excuses I’d been making to myself and realized that yes, I needed to plan something that I wanted to do.

With all of this in mind, I thought about what I wanted: a beach, a reading binge, good food, seeing friends, seeing pretty places, and some lovely chats. It might not be your dream holiday and that is just fine. I’m going to create some magic on the beach. Why? Reason has returned and I need to do this.

The Relationship File

In the last decade, I’ve lost my husband, mother, brother, and sister. I’ve jokingly told my younger brother that he’s under orders not to die on me. I’ve also said goodbye to an old faith home and welcomed a new place of faith into my life. All of this comes with grief, loss, mourning what was, and needing to reexamine relationships.

Of those who have exited life, only one was old enough to do so; the other three were all far too young to go. The reality is that they are all gone. The relationships now stand for review in the memory file, and what is done is done. The past faith home also stands in a memory file. Everything is up for discussion and it’s all fair game; nothing is sacred, not even my mother, whom I love deeply.

In looking at all of this, I must turn back the clock to the year 2006, when my husband’s questioning of his faith began. At the time, I wasn’t questioning, but I did want to hear about what he was thinking, feeling, learning, and what was making him angry about it all. The process altered the way we communicated, and it led me to my own path of discovery. It was a good thing, and ultimately, I took from it that relationships can change and that the change can be for the better. We didn’t need to go to antagonism. The concept that we could be different and have a healthy relationship was new to him. We could talk and nothing was off limits. That was where we were when he made his exit. Because examination of things was possible while he was alive, it made it possible to return to the relationship after his death and turn over some of the things that I needed to look at.

Relationships don’t end at death. We carry them forward; they are woven into the tapestry of our ongoing existence. As much as we may wish to erase someone or something from our lives, we can’t. We learn through turning over the rocks to look at it all.

This is also true of my relationship with my mother. I was fortunate that for approximately eighteen years, my mother and I spent every Monday in conversation. We’d giggle, laugh, cry, learn from each other, and talk about things that were deep and serious. Obviously, we spent hours before that time in conversation. When she made her exit, the “I love yous” had been said, and the one question I never asked—the one that I’d like to go back and ask now—I think I know the answer to. Her death came less than six months after Jon’s traumatic death, and I did not go to the memorial. My not attending was a bad choice, and I learned from it. Being there is needful in so many ways.

As I examine my relationship with my mother, I can make peace with what negatives there were. I think the fact that we had that conversation base to draw on has really helped. Pushback was allowed.

Then I look at my sibling relationships. My two older siblings and I didn’t always understand each other. I’m sad about this, and I also know that it wasn’t of my making. I tried. Could I have done more?

In looking at the hard question of putting things right in life, and after they’ve made their exits, I’m challenged by the meaning of our relationship. What is “right?” I love them both. I know that they, each in their own way, loved me. As I take relationships apart, I arrive at the same nasty conclusion that I did in life: They never understood disability the way they needed to understand disability. They were never able to completely understand me. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can be at peace with my end of the relationship and that is the best I can do. This brings up another question for me, and it is one I’ve been musing on for some time.

Why is it that in death, loss, and grief, many people choose to move forward without the work of examining the loss they’ve had in life? The urge to replace someone or something can be strong, and it can also damage us. The more I sit with this question, the more I wonder if it has to do with the fact that our society has radically changed relationships, trauma, and life in general. I’ll explain using WWI and WWII.

Both of my grandfathers were veterans of WWI. They came home on ships. They came home together with war buddies, and in large numbers. On the ships they had time to process the violence and the trauma, and they supported one another. WWII came around, and their sons enlisted and went off to two different fronts: Europe and Japan. They also witnessed violence and trauma, and they came home on ships. They also came home to a hero’s welcome. Their fathers had processed the war and now could mentor their sons. War breeds atrocities, and WWII left the world with several that can never be undone. Old times weren’t any simpler, but they were slower. What’s changed? My grandfather knew the wisdom of allowing his son to prune the rosebushes and tend the garden. He worked through some of the trauma that way.

Leaving the site of battle is a matter of days or hours now. People now come home by boarding a flight that will carry them home. Veterans now come home to a fast-changing society, fast tech, and a culture that is in constant motion. They return traumatized and, in many situations, misunderstood by loved ones and society in general. It alters relationships. This is not to say that my parents’ and grandparents’ generation didn’t suffer from PTSD and other war-related issues. I’m pointing out that their return was slower and allowed for a different type of processing time.

I’m suggesting that maybe we’ve become immune to the damage we’re causing to each other by not slowing things down. In the past seventy-plus years, we’ve moved forward in both healthy and unhealthy ways. This applies to how we treat our relationships.

Are we willing to slow down and take the time to process our lives a wee bit more gently? Parting is hard. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, the past does catch us, and sooner or later what we failed to look at in the near or distant past resurfaces to bite us when we’re not looking!

I reflect back to a night around the dinner table when my father lost it over food. I realize now it was a war memory that he should have sought therapy for, but in those days doing therapy wasn’t common. At the time, it had been about thirty years post war—pruning the roses had not resolved it all. I wonder what would have happened had he looked, talked, and resolved? I wonder how our family would have been changed had he looked. I know how I’m being changed by working slowly and deeply on the past, whether it is peaceful or difficult. I’m moving forward in a healthier manner than had I rushed into my future life. I’m walking into something new, and I hope I’m doing it with grace.