Grief Really Shouldn’t End. Here’s Why.

Recently, the husband of a dear friend of mine was killed when a tree limb fell on him while he was working in his yard. A freak and random accident, it has left my friend stunned and so very, very sad.

I’ve written many times in this blog about grief, and how it bounces in and out and around our lives and lands sometimes in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times (like there’s ever a good time for loss). But you know grief. It doesn’t wait for an appointment.

Sudden loss can feel like an ambush. It barges in and takes over everything, and the accompanying emotions crawl inside us, infiltrate and define our most tender feelings, and they never really leave, even when we don’t feel them as acutely anymore. Time goes by and we go about our lives, not thinking about grief, perhaps even (foolishly) thinking we’ve conquered it, feeling like we’re so over ____________ (fill in your loss), and then WHAM! We find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen, helplessly hugging her as she cries desperately in her own mourning, grieving a loss that, while uniquely hers, feels very, very familiar. The emotions from our own day of loss flood back, perhaps not as strong, but it is grief’s way of reminding us that it never, ever goes away.

There are times, too, when grief is more subtle. It refuses to readily identify itself. Your life, by all accounts, is fine, you’re holding it together, and you even dared to be happy and smile again. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you wake up one morning with an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, feeling like you can’t pull the blanket off from around your head. You wander around dazed for a while – a day, a week, a month, longer – unable to put your finger on the culprit because, you know, that death/loss was so long ago and you’re, like, totally over it, so it must be something else.

But it’s not.

I write this to remind us that grief is not something we ever finish. And honestly, I don’t think it’s supposed to end.

I’m not saying we should feel miserable all the time or constantly remind ourselves of what we’ve lost in our lives. But loss and grief are inevitable for each one of us, and instead of trying to drink it away, drug it away, fuck it away, eat it away, or work it away, why not we use the hell out of it and grow empathy where perhaps there wasn’t any? Even if someone’s loss isn’t exactly the same as ours, understanding that the experience of loss is overarching and universal can train us to be more understanding, kind, helpful, and – when warranted – involved in bringing change to what is wrong.

Grief can strengthen us and, sadly, destroy us, but there’s no in between. The thing is, though, that even when we think it’s destroying us, it just might be strengthening us, teaching us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know. This is not to say that what brought us to grieve is somehow a good thing. Personally, I’d rather my (and my friend’s) husband was alive, or the baby I miscarried had been born, or that the things I lost in the fire hadn’t burned, or that my brother’s memory was intact, or that any of the other losses I’ve experienced in my life hadn’t happened. But all of these losses make up my real life. Subsequently, grief, too, is a part of my real life, and I want grief to have meaning and a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to listen to a friend who is hurting.

P.S. We witnessed a simple and bittersweet lesson in grief recently when a female orca whale carried her dead baby on her back for 17 days before finally letting it go. She didn’t adhere to some cultural agenda that said you get a few days to grieve and then you’re supposed to get on with your life. She grieved in her own way, and so should we.

 

 

Advertisements

Things

I listened to a heartbreaking interview on Wednesday with a woman named Katy Brogan, who last week lost her home in the Pawnee wild fire in Northern California. She offered a raw and honest account of her experience, including her bewildering feelings about the things she and her family lost, and the often not-so-helpful words a few people said to her following the loss. (Hint: Don’t be a sanctimonious ass and tell someone who has suffered a catastrophic loss that it happened because you didn’t love (G)od/Jesus enough.)

I’ve said it before in this space years ago (see “Fire”), and I say it again: “Things” are important. Not as important as life (usually), but “things” are often what help us remember and honor our own life, as well as the lives of those before us. For instance, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who emigrated from Norway in the early twentieth century, were very poor, and they brought their things over in one trunk each. I have the great fortune of owning both of those trunks, and I would be very sad if I lost them, as they reflect part of my history.

History in the Kitchen

A few years ago, my daughter Carlene rearranged her kitchen to make room for the items she received when she got married. However (and this made me happy), she kept many of the things I’d given her over the years, including loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and decades-old dishes that we used when I was a kid. I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff in particular, including how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my the lefse stick and roller when the grandma (with one of the aforementioned trunks) passed. Her initials, K.H. (Katinka Hagebakken…you can’t make that up, folks), are still printed in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse. I also still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 37 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. I won’t part with any of these items until 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing.

The folks in California who lost their homes to wild fires also had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and dishes and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways. Katy Brogan lost “Memories of my dad, pictures, some family heirloom jewelry. All my Carhartt stuff. I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, so all my Grateful Dead stuff’s gone — just kind of things that might seem stupid to somebody else.” These aren’t stupid, Katy! We all have that “stuff” that may not make sense to anyone else, but that’s not their business. Losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective is painful, and despite what the “well-intentioned” say, “At least you got out alive” isn’t very helpful when it comes to needing empathy and comfort from others.

It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your great-grandfather used to fry the walleye he caught in Lake Erie when the family camped on the weekends; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from that six-week Asian cooking class. Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways.

When we witness the suffering of those who have lost their things, rather than offer pithy, moralistic, and priggish sentiments that suggest they’re simply lucky to be alive, we’d be better off to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal “things.” Look at the loss from their perspective. Think about the stuff we still have the good fortune to touch, look at, and use. Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup or flour for cookies. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up.

Using your things or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives. And when those lives are gone, “things” can offer comfort in the memory of how, and by whom, they were used.

About Last Night…

There have been moments in my life when I’ve sensed the presence of a deceased loved one. While warm and bittersweet, I understand those feelings to be resurrected memories of the connection we had when they were alive; me consciously sating some need I perhaps hadn’t completely identified. I don’t believe those vague presences stem from a visit by their spirit.

That’s why I can’t explain what happened last night.

I often employ the “Just ignore it, it will go away” approach to healthcare. But after a months-long battle with hip pain – in which the last few days I’ve been barely able to walk – I finally mentioned it to my doctor. She ordered x-rays, and as I wait for the results, I’m living with limited mobility and a crap-ton of pain which makes me feel trapped, angry, alone, and scared, bordering on the edge of self-pity. And I hate self-pity, especially in the middle of the night.

Jim and I were at my house last night, and he fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. My bed tends to envelop us like a taco and I knew my hip would not be comfortable within such limited space, so I got up and limped to the spare room where I lay awake, playing Canasta on my phone.

After a few hours, I found a comfortable position on my side, facing the wall. Hugging the top of the body pillow I’d tucked between my legs, I started to fall asleep, but not before Jim walked in the room and – saying nothing – placed a hand on my shoulder and one on the back of my neck and kissed my head, just above my ear. I felt safe and loved and more than that, I wasn’t afraid anymore.

I woke up at 4 a.m. when again, Jim came in the room.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” he whispered. At some point while I was sleeping, I’d rolled over on to my back, and Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked my hair

“I couldn’t get comfortable and I didn’t want to wake you,” I said softly.

“You can wake me up anytime.”

“I know. But you knew where I was. You came in around 1, remember? You kissed my head.”

“This is the first time I’ve been up,” he said. “I didn’t know you weren’t in bed until just now.”

“What do you mean?” I started to cry. “But I felt so safe. I was finally able to sleep. I thought it was you.”

“No, it wasn’t me.” He moved his hand to my leg, covered in three layers of blankets, and began rubbing the top of my hip. “But someone wanted you to know they cared.”

When I’d crawled into that spare bed, it didn’t occur to me to reach out to anyone – dead or alive. I was entirely alone, physically and mentally. I made no effort to meditate or pray. I was resigned to my fear and went through every scenario I could think of for how – or if – I would walk normally again. I assure you, I was in the throes of self-pity. My mind was all about me. I had no conscious thought to partner with a departed loved one or god or anyone else.

Whoever or whatever touched my shoulder and kissed my head knew better than me what I needed, and gave me the one thing I could not give myself: peace. And even skeptical me knows not to attempt to explain, justify, or otherwise dispute such a gift.

How about you? Have you experienced something like this before? Leave a comment if you’d like to share your story.

Rebuilding

Seven months ago today, my boyfriend Jim’s garage burned down, taking with it 70 percent of all he owned in the world.

Second only to the pain of personally losing something or someone we love is watching someone we care about lose something they love.

Conversely, the same is true when we witness their Phoenix moment, when they rise above the loss.

Some people – including me – wondered if Jim would sell his place and move away from the memory of that night in February. But he meant what he said when the fire still smoldered: “I’ll rebuild.”

I bought this bracelet yesterday:

When I saw it, it struck me that for awhile now I’ve been living in the future. “One day, when my knee doesn’t hurt anymore, I’ll ride a bike again.” “One day, when I say no to the white bread in a restaurant again, I’ll lose weight.” “One day, when I work out with hand weights again, my arms will have the definition they used to.” Envisioning an end goal without considering the journey is like Jim dreaming of one day having another barn. He can dream all he wants, but dreams don’t get things built.

Whether you’re rebuilding a barn or rebuilding your resolve to lose weight or start exercising…again…starting over takes a lot of courage. The work will take place in the shadow of what took away what you built in the first place. Will the same thing happen again?

Today, seven months after the fire, there is no sound more lovely than that of a backhoe hauling away ash and debris and digging a ditch for a water line. Soon enough, there will be a barn, of that I am certain. There could also be another fire, of which I’m not certain. But that’s the chance you take when you rebuild something you love.

Cooper inspects the site of the new barn.

Love Always Trumps Weight

Today is my 31st Mother’s Day, and it’s also 31 years since I first weighed 200 pounds. Kind of a strange two things to put together, but if you’re like me, you remember what you weighed at momentous points in your life.

I made my formal debut in the 200-pound zone when I stepped on a scale in the labor and delivery ward of Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on March 10, 1983. I made my husband Bruce stay in the labor room. Anyone who didn’t wear scrubs to work didn’t need to know how much I weighed. Bruce was a hair over six feet tall, weighed 170 pounds, and had no clue that when we were married a year earlier, I weighed just 10 pounds less than he did.

As I walked to the scale, I felt the air on my bare back since my stomach took up most of the gown. The nurse held my hand as I stepped up. I looked down at the round monitor that brushed against my lower belly. 205.

“Please don’t tell my husband,” I begged.

Not that Bruce would have cared that I weighed over 200 pounds. I was the one with scale issues. When I looked at myself I saw a double chin. When Bruce looked at me, he called me beautiful. I told him he was just being nice. He told me he never lied.

I’d gained 45 pounds in nine months, 15 more than my obstetrician recommended. It’s not that I didn’t care about my health; I’d just never been told by a doctor to gain weight, only to lose. So when chubby, self-conscious, 19-year-old me was given permission to gain 30 pounds, I went a little food crazy for the first seven months.

I was free to “eat for two.” I didn’t have to “suck it in.” I made grilled Spam and Velveeta sandwiches on white bread, doused salads in full-fat salad dressing, ate ice cream late at night, and put half-and-half and brown sugar on my cream of wheat every morning.

When I developed high blood pressure in my fourth month, I watched my sodium intake and cut out cheddar cheese, ketchup, canned soup and TV dinners. But there isn’t much sodium in baked potatoes with sour cream, prime rib, fried eggs, Hershey Kisses or zucchini bread.

We were farmers. Bruce and I had moved back to the family farm when his parents retired. We had a couple hundred cows, three sows, a bore, and a couple dozen feeder pigs. Bruce and his brother also farmed several hundred acres of corn and soybeans. There were endless chores every day.

When I blew out of my maternity coat late in my eighth month, I dressed in layers and wore Bruce’s coveralls when I went outside. My fur-lined boots were heavy, but twice a day I trudged through knee-deep snow to the silo, then the pig shed, and then the water trough. I even cleaned out the silo room a week before my due date, thinking I could “help things along.” I burned dozens of empty pellet bags that had accumulated over the winter. It took 10 trips back and forth between the silo and the area where we burned trash – easily a 100-yard hike one way – and for my efforts, I was rewarded with eight hours of Braxton Hicks contractions.

At week 40, the baby was still a few weeks from coming out on her own. The doctor predicted she weighed more than eight pounds and measured longer than 20 inches so, certain she was “done,” he decided to induce labor.

Returning from scale, Bruce helped me into bed and the nurses hooked up a Pitocin drip and fetal monitor. After the first contraction, I didn’t think any more about my weight. Scale shock gave way to labor, and for 13 hours, my body cramped and pushed until Carlene was born, all 9 pounds and 22 inches of her.

In the recovery room, a nurse brought Carlene to us and offered to take our picture. My hair was matted to my forehead, I had IVs in both my hands, my face was swollen, my breast was exposed, and Bruce was still wearing scrubs. Normally I’d have protested, but this was not a normal night. Bruce and I were smiling and gazing at Carlene as the nurse took our first and only family photo.

The next morning, the water weight bloat from the drugs was mostly gone and my blood pressure was normal. As I waited for the nurse to bring Carlene to me, I laid in bed and touched my stomach. I gathered its soft folds of deflated skin in my hands. I’d heard it was called an “apron,” the skin that folds over the top of your pelvic bone and rests on the crease where your thighs meet your torso. I followed the rivulets of squishy stretch marks with my fingers and remembered how upset I was when I noticed the first one – a small, light purple line just to the right of my belly button. My mother birthed five children and never had a stretch mark. After one baby, I was littered with them.

I kneaded my skin gently and smiled. I still weighed around 200 pounds, but I had a perfect little girl and an awesome husband.

I’ll lose the extra weight, I thought.

Until his death 10 days later, Bruce and I spent our time figuring out how to be parents. He got up with me for every feeding, especially the ones at 2 a.m. when a Sioux Falls TV station aired “Rocky & Bullwinkle.” In the evenings, he rocked Carlene and sang to her while I slept. In the mornings, Carlene sat in her infant seat on the kitchen table while we ate breakfast. While I moved gingerly and leaked profusely, it was…to this day…the most contented I’ve ever been. A lesson in love, which always trumps weight.

The Pause

March 10, 31 years ago, was my daughter Carlene’s due date, but she wasn’t interested in coming out. According to his measuring tape and his best guess, my doctor said Carlene was in excess of 8 pounds and she wouldn’t be born for another few weeks if she had her way.

“Your blood pressure’s high, the baby is big enough,” he said, taking off his gloves. “We need to get the baby out.”

“Ok,” was all I said, like I knew what he meant. Only I didn’t.

He left, I got dressed, and a nurse came in with some papers. Told me to check into the hospital.

“Ok,” I said again, and again, I asked no questions because I was 19 years old and I was stuck between the fear of the unknown and the mandate by which I was raised: never question authority. I walked numbly to the waiting area. My husband, Bruce, met me near the coat rack.

“So, what did he say?” he asked cheerfully, helping me into my coat. Bruce was terribly excited to meet the baby. Every night, he rubbed my belly like it was Aladdin’s lamp. “Come out and play!” he’d say.

“I have to go to the hospital,” I said quietly, trying not to cry. “He said the baby has to be born soon.”

He took my hand and I clutched the papers with the other. We walked outside. Bruce helped me into the car. Nothing was easy anymore.

Bruce slid into the driver’s seat. I looked over the papers the nurse had given me and could feel my heart beating in my temples.

“I don’t know what any of this means!” I slapped the papers. “I don’t know what they’re going to do. Am I having a C-section? Is the baby OK?”

Bruce took a deep breath. “Let’s just sit here for a minute,” he said.

“But they’re expecting us at the hospital! We have to go!” I protested. God knows we had to do exactly what we were told.

“They’ll be there when we get there,” he said. He reached over and stroked my hair. “We need some time to think.”

So we paused. I took a deep breath and loosened my death-grip on the papers. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember not feeling alone. I was afraid and so was he, but we were afraid together. When we felt ready to go, as was always Bruce’s positive approach to life, he said, “We’re having a baby!” Which we did, the next day, at 7:27 in the evening after more than 13 hours of labor. No C-section.

Carlene Rae came out looking just like her father, and as she grew, she took on his nature, even though they only knew each other for 11 days. Like her father, Carlene prefers to take her time, and she chafes against the hectic world and deadlines. She’s the person you want holding your hand when you shake, and she will remind you – with a joyful heart – about the good stuff yet to come.

 
Carlene was the joy of his life, if only for 11 days
   
Our wedding day; Carlene today

Fire

As long as I live, I will never forget the glow of light dancing on the snow outside the front door of Jim’s house. I threw open the door, looked to my right, and saw his barn on fire, with flames shooting 40 feet in the air.

What was burning was more than a wooden structure, tools, and his pickup. On fire was the labor and the love that built it. On fire was the bow tie given to Jim by his mother when he was a young boy. On fire was his favorite dog’s ashes. On fire was the Harley that took Jim and I on many adventures and instilled in me a confidence I’ve never had. On fire was his grandmother’s dining table and chairs, and a dresser his cousin inherited from her mother, who passed away last year. (Jim was refinishing it for her.) On fire was his grandfather’s .22 pistol and the BB gun Jim and his nephews use to shoot targets when they come to visit. On fire were my brother’s snow shoes he bought in 1970, the ones he said gave him a sense of peace when he treked across the fields around his college campus. On fire were the photos of good times with friends and family, a vintage poster for the Sinnamahoning Rattlesnake Bagging competition, and the original watercolors – painted by Jim’s neighbor – of the cabin that used to sit on the site where his barn was built.

When you walked into Jim’s barn, you walked into his mind, his past, his dreams, and his craft.

Anyone who has lost something special through fire or theft or some other loss knows that when things are more than “stuff,” it is necessary to grieve them for the life-giving, memory-filled things they were. And so it is for Jim. And for me, as I mourn the loss of my antique glider and whiskey barrel and, the most difficult, my bike.

While no one was hurt, I hope and pray our barn kittens weren’t in the barn when the fire started. We haven’t seen them yet, but we’re clinging to the hope that they are hunkered down close by.
So much to process. So much to do.

Vulnerable Much?

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” for the last few weeks. Halfway through the 7-disc book, I knew I had to have a hard copy. “Daring Greatly” is a book that screams, “Write in my margins, people! Highlight! Underline! Reread!”

Embracing vulnerability is a new concept for me. While I credit my training in mindfulness for helping me to not fall completely over my feet as I stumble my way through this new way of thinking and living, embracing what I usually ignore/avoid/run away from (fill in your own coping mechanism) is like stopping a freight train and then putting it in reverse.

When I look back at the times I’ve felt most vulnerable, many of them were appearance focused. When I was obese, I felt most vulnerable in a crowd of people who could – and sometimes probably did – judge me.

I can recall only a few times I didn’t let the vulnerability of obesity win. One was on a May day in 2001 when I gave out the Tony Fabri Memorial Scholarships at the Clarion High School auditorium in front of hundreds of teenagers – in my imagination, the worst audience of all when you’re feeling vulnerable. But Tony was a best friend to both of my daughters, and I loved him like a son. When he died, an entire community went into mourning, and my daughters’ lives changed forever.

When Tony’s parents asked me to present the scholarship awards, I was both honored and scared to death. But I kept in perspective what they were asking me to do: honor their son. They also asked if it would be OK if someone videotaped my presentation because they couldn’t bring themselves to attend. I didn’t hesitate to consent. I have a Ph.D. in grief. I know how caring for yourself while grieving means sometimes not touching the hot spots. Wait til they cool a bit, then lay your hands on them.

Fortunately for me, my weight was pretty much the only reason I felt vulnerable that day. I really don’t mind public speaking, at least when I’m prepared. Throw me out in front of a crowd with little or no warning and ask me to say something intelligent? I’m pretty sure I’d rather pass kidney stones. But that day, I was more than prepared. I was eager to talk about Tony and the legacy of his short-lived life. Only a few times did I worry about what people thought of my size, hidden as best as it could beneath a flowing top and long skirt.

What I’m seeing as I read “Daring Greatly” is that vulnerability is there, up front or in the background, from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. Sometimes it visits my dreams. Last night I dreamed Eddie Vedder was sitting on my kitchen counter. I asked him if he liked sautéed mushrooms and he said he loved them. I remember feeling tense. I used all my best lines trying to be cool and then I hyperventilated when I realized I only had vegetable oil and no butter in which to sauté the mushrooms. That’s when I woke up.

What the hell did I eat before going to bed?

Anyway, after waking from the Eddie Vedder dream, my vulnerability went straight to the morning activity on my mind: going to my first-ever aqua aerobics class. Not only would I be trying something new, I would be wearing a bathing suit in front of a dozen or more people. Yikes!

As I should have predicted, but didn’t trust, was that the outcome of my first excursion into aqua aerobics was the same as when I plow through most of my other vulnerable moments. It was worth it. I had fun, and I met people who wear bathing suits in public and don’t seem to mind. I also changed my attitude about aqua aerobics being easy (my arms are talking to me this morning about this) and I walked from the pool to the locker room with a little more belief in myself and with a little more love in my heart for who I am – vulnerable and imperfect, but usually hopeful.

I’m learning that being my own best friend is about opening up and being receptive to vulnerability, rather than caving in to my nemesis self who, in the face of a challenge, yells in my ear, “Oh please, please, PLEASE can we not think about this? Can we just pop popcorn and eat Hershey Kisses and watch the first season of ‘Mad Men’ for the third time? Please!?”

Every day we’re “out there,” whether we leave our homes or not. (The Internet is a breeding ground for vulnerability!) Vulnerability is present when we start a new job, go out on a first date, break up with someone, get fired, go to the doctor…. Heck, vulnerability’s present in a restaurant! I always feel bothersome when I ask a server, “Can you please hold the capers and bacon and add a few more tomatoes instead? Oh, and can I get the dressing on the side?”

Online or in person, our faces, our bodies, our personalities, our cars, our houses, our coffee order at Starbucks, our sandwich order at Sheetz, and even the books our children and grandchildren want to check out from the library (“Ummm…OK… ‘Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People’ is fine! Yes! Just fine…ugh!”) make a statement about who we are, and in those moments, we’re open to judgment by the outside and the inside. That’s right. We judge our own vulnerabilities!

I know this isn’t rocket science and that many of you have already figured this out, but wow…. Clarity is creeping up on me like the spider that walked up my calf on Saturday while I scrubbed floors. Not wanting to kill it, I let it creep while I walked outside and set it free, all the while fighting the urge to sweep him away like he wasn’t real and move on with what I was doing. Sort of like the times when I feel most vulnerable and I want to crawl in a hole and shut my eyes and hope no one wants anything from me.

My audio copy of “Daring Greatly” is due back at my library on Friday. While I now own a hard copy, I was hoping to finish the book on CD. When I tried to renew it, I was told I couldn’t because someone else has reserved it. That’s OK. It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one trying to stop the freight train and throw it in reverse.

My new anthem: Sara Bareilles “Brave”

Pray Help

One middle of the night a few months ago, I was half awake, tossing and turning, trying to run away from the incoherent thoughts racing through my mind. After an hour, no closer to sleep, I did something I haven’t done in years. I folded my hands and I prayed. I talked out the fuzzy thoughts and feelings with the one I know now as little G god, and the next thing I knew, the sun was up and I woke with a light heart and a calmed mind.

I stopped big G God praying several years ago and began a mediation practice, which is like prayer, only not a conversation with a deity. I find staying mindful and staying present for all feelings – good and bad – has brought me a greater sense of peace and understanding of who I am. But always in the back of my mind, I missed the deity. I missed the comfort of the one thing that got me and my brand of crazy.

After some thought about how I might reconnect with that deity, I realized how talking to big G God had often made me feel small and afraid to speak my truth. This wasn’t big G God’s fault. It was a simple matter of spelling. Stripping big G God of that big G did not diminish its greatness, but it brought it eye level with me, to a place where I would be heard and I could listen, even if both of us whispered.

I’m reading Anne Lamott’s book, “Help, Thanks, Wow,” a gift from a friend who I’m convinced is in cahoots with little G god because she is as close to understanding me without running away as anyone I know. She offers me shelter without judgment and honesty without making me feel wrong or ruined.

Praying Help, writes Lamott, is like saying, “Here. You deal with it,” and then waiting to hear back.

“The willingness to do such a childish thing comes from the pain of not being able to let go of something. The willingness comes from finding yourself half mad with obsession. We learn though pain that some of the things that we thought were castles turn out to be prison, and we desperately want out, but even though we built them, we can’t find the door. Yet maybe if you ask God for help in knowing which direction to face, you’ll have a moment of intuition. Maybe you’ll see at least one next right step you can take.”

Too often in my cries for help, I have already devised a solution. And so my intention now when praying Help is to sit in the quiet – of meditation, perhaps – and allow clarity to find me and work with the answer provided.

I have been praying Help all morning after learning that my Aunt Ethel is dying. Help that she be free from suffering, Help that her daughter, my mother, and Ethel’s family and friends find strength. Ethel dictated a note to her daughter that I wanted to share here because, to me, it exemplifies what it means to pray Help.

To my wonderful friends and relatives –

This is the most difficult letter I’ve ever had to write because it is my final one. I have been informed that I have 1 to 6 months to live. All of the medical issues I have been having are related to the metastatic lung cancer recently discovered.

Your wonderful cards and prayers have helped me through this difficult time. Now, however, rather than focusing on my getting well, I ask you to focus on a peaceful transition to my dwelling in the house of the Lord forever.

I’m sure I will be allowed to take my memories with me – and I have many with all of you.

I will love you forever, Ethel

I, too, will love Ethel forever, and I will honor her wishes and pray Help that she has a peaceful passing. A difficult thing to do, to be sure, because we prefer so much to pray for healing.

Pray Help. Breathe. Crying is OK, too.  And may you find your way out of those prisons you thought were castles, and calm the obsessions that became your new normal.

My aunts and mother, circa 1936. Clockwise from top left: Mavis, Ethel, Doris, Ardith (my mom), and Helen

A Little Story About Mental Illness


<!–[if !mso]>st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) } <![endif]–>It was 3 a.m. and my sister, mother and I were watching cartoons in a hospital waiting room, anxious for news about Dad, who’d had a heart attack. What began in my stomach as a churning crept upward to my heart, which began beating wildly. The feeling crept to my lungs, which couldn’t complete a full breath. It then crept into my mind, which began thinking, I’m dying, too. Within a few minutes I was on my own gurney and a doctor was handing me a pill.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “Here, put this under your tongue.”
It was Halcion. Valium with a kick. Within seconds, I was calm. So calm I forgot why I was at the hospital. My sister reminded me and I remember saying, ‘Oh, that’s right,’ and I drifted off to sleep as my sister poured me into the front seat of my car and took me home.
I slept the rest of the morning. When I woke up, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. I was groggy and deeply frightened. Did my heart just skip? What did that sigh mean? That I can’t breathe? But no fortress could stop it. Panic returned and my only defense was to slip a Halcion under my tongue. It came back the next day and the next. By the end of the week my defenses were spent and the pill bottle was empty.
For two weeks, panic poured over me like tsunami. I went to every emergency room in the Minneapolis area begging for Halcion, usually in the middle of the night, waking my then-husband, Jason, and dragging the kids out from their beds because I couldn’t drive myself. The last ER physician I saw said I needed to see a psychiatrist and refused to write a script. He sent me home shaking and throwing up.
So I called a psychiatrist. He wanted to explore my past. I just wanted drugs. He assured me I could control my panic through deep breathing. I told him I hadn’t caught my breath in weeks. We were in a shoot-off and I was running out of bullets.
Then came the day at work when my Selectric II typewriter ribbon broke and I began to cry. I cried while I changed it, cried as I typed a memo, and cried when my boss sent me home because I couldn’t stop crying. I cried driving home, cried while eating a grilled cheese and Old Dutch potato chips dipped in cottage cheese (best comfort food ever). I cried when I dialed the phone to tell my psychiatrist I was crying, and cried even harder when he told me he was checking me in to the hospital. A special hospital.
A few hours later, Jason dropped me off at Golden Valley Health Center and I checked in to the psychiatric ward. I’d stopped crying, but I was exhausted. My head felt like a bowling ball and I answered questions with monosyllabic words.
After filling out insurance forms, a nurse led me to a scale in the hallway across from the nurses’ station. I was wearing knee-length knit shorts and a size XXL t-shirt stained at the hem. Tears had washed away my makeup, and my hair was matted to my head. I took off my slip-on canvas shoes with the hole in the toe and laid them beside the scale, like their half-pound weight would make a difference.
The nurse optimistically started the large metal weight at the 150-pound position and nudged the smaller weight higher and higher. The balance arrow didn’t budge. She moved the large weight to 200 and again moved the small weight higher. The arrow bounced a little around 240. For accuracy, she should have moved the large weight to 250, but she said cheerfully, “We’ll call you 249.”
The next day, I spent two hours in group therapy drawing pictures and writing in a journal and feeling completely out of place and ridiculously selfish among people facing electric shock therapy. One woman was the only survivor of a car crash that killed her niece and sister. She’d been the driver. A chain-smoking young man had locked himself in a closed garage and started his car’s engine a few weeks before. He’d been repeatedly molested as a child.
Could I be a bigger baby? I thought as I wrote my name with a blue crayon on a piece of yellow construction paper. We were to draw a “family tree of feelings.” The only thing I felt was guilty for taking up space in a facility meant for people with real problems, and stupid for having called my doctor in the first place. So I’d cried for a few hours? Big deal. People cry.
I took a two-hour, fill-in-the-hole-with-a-#2-pencil psychological test that asked me to answer yes or no to statements such as, “I would like to do the work of a choir director” and “If I could sneak into the county fair or an amusement park without paying, I would.” Were they kidding me?
The next day, a psychiatrist went over my results. She showed me a line chart indicating how I “scored” in regard to various emotions and behaviors. The line was flowing along nicely, indicating I was “normal” here and “normal” there, just as I expected. Then a steep, jagged line rose across the paper like a fjord on the Norwegian coastline. It went all the way to the top of the chart before plummeting back to the middle.
“That’s your anger line,” the doctor said.
“What?” I laughed. “Just because I don’t want to be a choir director, I’m angry? I have nothing to be angry about!”
I explained that my psychiatrist said I had a panic disorder and that a few days ago I couldn’t stop crying and that was why I was there. I just need to calm down, maybe lose some weight, and I’d be fine.
She nodded, wrote a few notes, and gave me Xanax. I promised to visit my psychiatrist weekly for a month and was released from the facility at the end of the week.
The Xanax worked almost instantly and it kept the physical symptoms of anxiety at bay. But the relentless weeks-long waves of panic prior to the Xanax made me afraid of fear and I was scared I’d have another attack at any moment. I needed something to change, something to help me feel normal again. God knows my psychiatrist was no help. He read the hospital psychiatrist’s report and ran with her whole “anger” diagnosis. He wanted me to journal about my anger, even though I insisted I wasn’t angry. But in order to get the Xanax, I wrote in the journal.
He also brought up Bruce’s death and asked me about Jason (domestic violence issues….another blog for another day), but I wouldn’t go there with him. I said there was nothing I could do to change the past, so why dwell on it? He said something about unresolved grief and lack of self-esteem and blah blah blah. Buddy, I thought, all I want is some control of my life.
I discovered the golden loophole a few weeks later when I went to my gynecologist for a routine exam. I told her how anxious I’d been feeling, leaving out the part about the hospital and the psychiatrist, and she diagnosed me with severe PMS. She wrote me a script for Xanax and that was the end of journaling about non-existent anger. I focused my energy on the one thing I knew I could control: my weight.
I joined Weight Watchers, but not before saying goodbye to a few of my “friends” – the ones I knew I wouldn’t be able to “contact” once I was on a diet.
The week before the first meeting, I made Kraft macaroni and cheese with real butter, and I grilled a T-bone steak. I ate garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy hash browns, baked a chocolate cake, and went twice to Dairy Queen for a Hot Fudge Brownie Delight. I poured 2-percent milk over Captain Crunch for breakfast, and made a parade of pasta dishes for dinner. Then on Saturday morning, after throwing out the leftover brie and French baguette, deviled eggs and Hershey Kisses, I walked into a Weight Watchers facility, paid the $8 fee, weighed in and left without attending the meeting. After four weeks, I’d acquired all the basic program materials and stopped going.
“You’ll leave me once you’ve lost weight,” Jason said.
“No, I won’t!” I insisted.
I subsisted on raw and boiled vegetables, fruit, skim milk and plain baked white fish. In my food journal, I checked off every allotted carb, protein and dairy allowed. I ate nothing more. I quit drinking and started riding a stationary bike I bought at a garage sale for $10. In return, I averaged a 3.5-pound loss every week.
I wasn’t angry. Heck no. Just highly motivated.
——————————————————
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. NAMI is my go-to place for info and support. Mental illness is often a family thing and should not be an embarrassment. Ask for help, whether it’s for you or someone you love.