Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Grief: Yoko Ono: Another Wise Widow

It's funny, isn't it, how we notice people who are like us.  With famous people, I don't even know if they are really like me - I only know what I read.  For those of you who don't know, there was a group of musicians who were mega popular called the Beatles.  John Lennon was one of the "Fab Four".  He fell in love with Yoko Ono and they did a lot of performance art together.  The Beatles split up and some people blamed her.  I couldn't believe that the newspaper article said that she is 80.  John Lennon was shot to death in front of an apartment building in NYC called the Dakota.  He was shot by someone wanting to become famous,which is why I am not mentioning his name.  I was in a theater once and John Lennon and Yoko Ono walked in.  They were mesmerizing together.

She recently posted an anti-gun message on her Twitter account but that wasn't what I noticed.  On what would have been her 44th wedding anniversary she said she walked through a park recalling how much she and John had laughed and smiled on their wedding day.  Then she said, "Then I felt the emptiness more acutely because of the beautiful memory."   That is what I noticed.  She also said, "The death of a loved one is a hollowing experience.  After 33 years our son Sean and I still miss him."

She is a vibrant expressive woman.  She appears to have lived fully since the awful day when her husband stopped to autograph a record album and fell victim to the bullets that tore through his body.

I think the truth is not that there is morbid grieving or stages of grieving.  I think the truth is that when you love someone you love someone.  When they die you go on loving them; you go on missing them. The lesson isn't to forget or let go.  The lesson is to respect the empty space, the hollow space, as a sign of much you love and are loved.  The lesson is to let those memories - when you can - inspire you to transform your self in ways that you could not have imagined when the person who died was alive.  To be extra gentle with yourself when you hide away and collapse - but to be extra proud of yourself when you do simple things and also great things.

Sometimes the greatest thing someone can do is look at another human being and smile.  You have to have a face to smile with.  That means - smile and laugh while you still can.  There must be a way of smiling after we are dead - but it won't be with the face we have now.  So much is impossible to understand - but this isn't.  Understand that you are important, you have a purpose, and as grief warriors we stand together to hold each other up and cheer each other on.  xo

Grief: Another Round Of Holidays

I went to see a professional person (I try to be a little vague in describing real people since I don't know who may be reading this).  When I made the appointment I was told that his father had died and he was going to the funeral.  When I did see him I wanted to honor what he was experiencing.  He is very knowledgeable and proficient so it didn't bother me that he was unshaven and his office was in disarray.  I told him whatever he was feeling was normal.  I said that there weren't really stages of grieving, it was more like a roller coaster.  His eyes were drinking in my words.  He told me that for his entire life his father had led the family Seder (the meal shared which tells the story of Passover).  This year he would have to take his father's place.  He wasn't nervous.  He couldn't believe that his father would no longer be at this important family meal - or anywhere.  After almost four years I still sometimes am rather startled, angry, or sad that I am going through another holiday and Artie won't either be with me or be waiting for me at home because he didn't want to go somewhere!

Easter, is this year, like Passover in March instead of April.  A great time for families gathering to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Children painting eggs and bunnies and baby chicks.  All symbols of new life.  Who is physically present to say a prayer before eating food lovingly cooked?  Who is not.

With time the empty chair doesn't speak quite as loudly.  When Artie first died even a simple dinner outing seemed very strange.  Especially with a couple friend; seated at a table set for four.  Where the heck was Artie?  In no shape, obviously, to join us.  How could I be sitting there without him?

With time, while I am still conscious of his physical absence, I am also aware of his spiritual presence.  I can look down and concentrate on the almost physical pain of his death if I need to - remembering when I look up to fully root myself in the present.  In the present I can use my five senses to see color, hear the sounds of people's voices, smell food cooking, touch a friend's a face, taste something delicious.  If I am alone this holiday I can still use my five senses to experience what is around me.  I can create a day, a series of days that I want to be alive in.  I don't believe in pretending the missing, the loneliness isn't there.  I believe in saying hello to it and then, forcibly if necessary, bringing myself back into the now.  When I say look down for a second it's a modified NLP technique.  If you are in public and you look down or close your eyes for a moment people won't notice.

The best way to anchor yourself in the present is to notice things.  I'm one of those people with a mind that doesn't quit.  It babbles and shrieks and won't leave me alone.  I can quiet it by really looking at my surroundings.  If I am washing dishes - what does the water feel like on my hands?  If I am walking - what color are all the cars that drive by?  The more I pay attention to what is outside of me the less I am able to pay attention to what is inside of my hyperactive mind.  This is a practice.  The more I practice, the easier it gets.   For me, I am lucky to have my granddaughter.  When she walks up and says, "Hi!  Up!" her blue eyes call me to be there for her completely.  I have to learn to say "Hi! Up!" to be there for myself completely.

It's okay to be sad that it yet another holiday.  It is okay to be happy that it is yet another holiday.

Celebrate the memory.  Celebrate the creation of new memories.  Whether it is Passover - the freedom from my own slavery to what keeps me from being fully alive (yes - that it is not the same as being enslaved by other people), or Easter - the ability to resurrect myself from Artie's death and mine (I hope no one is thinking I am a heretic!) there are metaphoric reasons for these holidays.  They are about remembering the sacrifice and the pain - and filling our senses with joy and love because of the triumph that came after.

I hope this is a holiday season that creates new memories that tug the ends of your mouth upwards.  If this isn't a holiday season for you at all I still wish that.  I don't know if the snow will every stop falling but I hope for spring to be a season that can come back into my heart.  xo

Friday, March 22, 2013

Grief: Ethel and Bobby Kennedy - A Contributory Life

When Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed his wife Ethel was pregnant with her 11th child, Rory.  Rory has made a documentary about her mother and her family, simply called Ethel.  Thinking of them more as "the Kennedys" it is interesting to hear the now grown children call people we know as historical figures Mummy and Daddy and Uncle Jack.

Ethel talks about how after President Kennedy was assassinated Bobby "dwelt in the pain" for six months.  It was as if both his arms had been cut off.  However, the day after the assassination he wrote his oldest daughter a letter telling her that she must always think of others and what she could do for them and her country.  What brought him out of total despair was a lot of reading, his children, and this idea of doing something for others.

When Rory asks Ethel about the day "we lost daddy" Ethel's eyes well up with tears and she says she doesn't want to talk about that.  It's been over 40 years since her husband died and still the tears have not dried up.  She does say that every morning when she wakes up her first thought is, "Bobby is happy.  He is with his brothers and sons and family."  She is, like many, someone who has had too much death to handle: her brother-in-law, her husband, and two of her grown sons.  Yet she lives a spirited giving life.  Her way back in was her family, her faith, and this idea of doing for others.

I don't talk too much about faith because this is a very personal blog and I am not a religious person.  I like that Elie Wiesel says that if you are cursing God that also is a prayer because you are still making a connection.  I have developed a faith in and seem to have evidence for some kind of existence after death.  If there isn't one, it doesn't matter to me because believing that Artie and I can continue our journey keeps me sane.  Faith provides comfort for many people.

I know I'm always finding people who live fully and stay married to dead people.  Although, most of them wouldn't say it that way!

Ethel and Bobby, at least in this documentary, are a true love story. A love story that didn't end with death.  Part of that love story is always what they could do in real time for not just family but for folks that suffer.  One of their grown sons called it a contributory life.

I dislike the idea of visualize it and it is yours; or you can have anything you want.  It's not true.  I can't have Artie back.  I still ask him to come back, but I know it's impossible.  However, I do have choices about what I do with my own life.  I don't always treasure it.  Sometimes I think it would have been easier if I died too.  At the beginning I felt like I had died.  I used to say, "We died" by mistake.

I've come to believe that I'm still alive because I have work to do and it is up to me to figure out what that is.  It goes back to creating meaning instead of asking why there isn't any.  If I do something for someone else - no matter how small - it takes me out of my own self pity.  I am thinking of them instead of about me.  It doesn't have to be a stranger.  It could be a family member.  It makes people a little crazy because when I'm with my granddaughter I don't answer the phone.  Giving her my time; sitting down on the floor playing with her is doing something for someone else.  It's important to do this with family members and friends.  Sometimes people who are involved in causes forget about those at home.

If you have time, there are many volunteer organizations that can help you get involved with other people, animals, the environment.  You don't have to feel like doing it - you just have to show up for a while and see what happens.

It also addresses the question of why bother.  For me, why bother is my selfish question.  It's about my unbelievably huge capacity for self pity!   I can't do it.  It's too hard.  Especially now.  How can I do anything if Artie isn't here physically to hold me and comfort me and make me laugh?  The answer is I can.  I may not want to.  I may not do it.  It might not be easy.  But - I can.

From the day Artie died until now I feel a struggle between the part of me that embraces life and the part of me that is quite comfy, thank you very much, staying in bed hiding from everything surrounded by cupcake crumbs.  Sometimes doing good things, having fun times makes me as anxious as doing nothing.

The thing is - when I look back on my day I want to see that the balance keeps changing in the direction of life.  I want to see that I am trying.  That I am taking some action.

I have no control over whether or not I will fall in love again.  I have no control over when I will die.  I do have some control over how I will live.  I look to people who live passionately.  I don't compare myself.  Well, I do sometimes.  But that's not good because I have to give what I have to give, not what someone else has.  What if I don't write that novel but I make someone laugh who is sad?

Some days I feel like I am struggling through quicksand and I stop struggling.  However, the days on which I look outside myself and do something - the days in which I take an action that makes me think about someone other than myself - those are days with happy moments.

A contributory life doesn't have to be the whole.  I do a lot for myself as well. There is time to be silly and have fun.  There is time to cry and shake your fist.  However, when that moment comes that you get to be with the one(s) you are missing so much (please, please, please!) I hope you can say that your life touched others, like a thrown stone casting ever widening ripples in a pond.  xo

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Grief: Was That A Breeze of Happiness Blowing On My Neck?

I was on Madison Ave. which is the street in NYC that has a lot of high end fashion and jewelry stores.  I was looking in the window of Chopard at the most beautiful gemstones. Color and sparkle.I had been to my wonderful chiropractor Dr. Safko.  I don't get snapped.  They start by putting electrical stimulation pulses on my sore muscle places, cover me with a blanket with heat and leave me resting in a darkened room for ten minutes. With my muscles more supple, masage follows.  Then Dr. Safko does Active Release Technique and/or other stretches. In other words, my body was feeling good. I have to admit that in my bag I had a big cupcake.  I had read Celeste's letter (see the last post). As I was walking and window shopping I was thinking how lucky I was to love Artie and have him love me.

I felt a kind of lightness that I have not felt since Artie died.  I didn't know what it was.  I laugh a lot; I have a lot of happy moments.  However, there is always a kind of heaviness weighing me down.  Dead husband heaviness.  Longine, missing, loneliness for a specific person.  For a minute I felt as though I was a helium balloon floating above the clouds.  I was feeling happy.

I used to live in Phoenix, Arizona.  In the summer it can be 120 degrees.  At night it "cools down" to maybe 100 degrees.  One summer I went up to Flagstaff which is on higher ground and is much cooler.  I left my motel room window open.  I felt something.  I didn't know what it was.  Then I laughed.  It was a cool breeze.  I had forgotten what a cool breeze felt like. That is what this moment of happiness felt like - the unexpected, forgotten caress of a cool breeze after a long hard time.  It was like Artie was tousling my hair and kissing my neck.

I'd like to say that I welcomed it.  I did for a little while but then I poked it, analyzed it, stabbed it, punched it, threw it away.  I made a space for all the sadness and heaviness to come back.  I'm used to living this way.  It's as comfortable as it is uncomfortable.  The thing is - you can't really push away a breeze.  It comes back when it will.  It makes its own space and its own time. 

There is a poem by Li Young Lee that says (I have to find the exact quote) something about the very thing we do to survive keeps us from living.  I read that line and cried.  How does my grief still keep me from living?  It isn't a bad thing to survive.  We need to survive to live.  However, some of our coping mechanisms grow old and we cling on to them anyway. 

I've felt that light breeze of happiiness a couple of more times since that day.  I want to learn how to invite it in.  It's all part of the process of letting the joy of Artie's love and his love for life inspire me and be stronger than how diffiuclt every breath seems without him here with me in his old earthly form.  I'm not interested in losing my connections.  When I am present my past is part of my present and my presence.  I don't make letting go a necessary part of my reaching for complete aliveness. 

I think of my granddaughter Gwendy blue eyes - now almost 15 months old.  When she is happy she laughs.  When she is sad or frustrated she cries.  She delights in so many things but her delight doesn't stop her from expressing her other feelings very strongly. That's what we lose as we grow up. The ability to be intensely present with the wonder and awe as well as the tears and the shaking of the head while saying, "Nooooo".  (When she says no she makes the O part long and quavery.)   So...here's to more moments of light breezes of happiness blowing our way.  And here's to the ability to enjoy them. Sometimes unbearable and happiness can be in the same phrase - and sometimes happiness can wander off by itself and stand alone.

Why bother to live?  Becasue we're alive. xo

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Grief: A Letter from A Widow Whose Only Child Also Died

When Artie died my friend Celeste wrote me a letter of love.  As I have moved it has moved with me.  I want to share it with you.  Celeste is a tiny woman with a huge heart. She has a cloud of now gray hair around her head.  Her beloved husband died many years ago.  She has never stopped loving him and told me that she sits in his chair because she doesn't like to look at it being empty.  A few years ago her only child, a loving son, also died. 

How does she spend her life - even as she ages and walks now with a cane?  She visits prisoners, she works in hospice and with the church.  She protests against the death penalty.  She invites people who need a home into hers.  At her last birthday party there were people there of every age from the tiniest to the most elederly, every race, every religon, and every sexual orientation.  I have never seen anything like it.  She has not let her grief get in the way of her love.  It is a love that goes all the way through - not a love that percolates on the surface of frozen denial.

There is a famous story of how she broke up a fight between two huge men weilding lead pipes in the middle of a Memphis street by walking up and saying in her soft southern accent, "Now boys, you don't want to be doing that."  At this last birthday party she told me that the bravery I have always admired is really not caring which side of life or death she is on.  She is another example for me of someone who is fully alive and yet continues to feel the pain of living without the phsycial beings of those two wonderful men: her husband and her son who she so loves.

Here is what Celeste wrote to me in 2009:

My dear friend,

I am so very sorry for your loss of your Artie.  Now I know why you have been on my mind and heart so strongly the past weeks.  I have felt your pain over all the miles.  I have searched my heart for words of comfort to offer you.  There are none.  Words are so inadequate.  All I can say is with time the pain and loss will "gentle down" and you will be able to think and feel past the last days of illness and death. back to all the good and joyous times you shared.

I know from going through the death of a loved one comes the question, "What do I really believe?"  Following is my answer.
1.  I believe love is the strongest force in the world.
2.  I believe love, if it is real, lives on long after the lovers have gone and becomes a part of UNIVERSAL LOVE that surrounds uss all the time and is there for us to call on and use whenever we need it.  Use it, Jan!
3.  I believe love works.  We may not see or be aware of this working but it will eventually.
4. It's fun.  Especially when unexpected and undeserved.

Two thoughts that helped me when Harmon Sr. died.
1.  The thought of all the millions of women who had experienced the same loss and had survived.
2.  The thought of all the women who had never known a good man, but only abusers.  I had a good man for 40 years and consider myself lucky.

I have certainly not "grieved appropriately" for Harmon Jr. as I have not cried a single tear.  I would have thought I would just collapse and die, but am being held up by his spirit and by the life of service that he lived. I recently spend some time in Nashville with the prisoners he taught and learned from them what a profound effect he had on their lives.  Did a mother's heart good.

After his dad died, Harmon Jr. asked me, "Mother, have you cried?" and my reply was, "Not much, but I sure say "SHIT" a lot."  He said, "That's just as good."

I will have you on my mind and heart for the weeks to come. 

I love you, Jan.


Thank you Celeste.  Three and a half years later I read your words and feel supported by them.  I cry and say "SHIT".  Still,I am inspired by your example, your courage, and your unconditional love.

Grief warriors:  I wish you the love of Celeste combined with her ability to say "SHIT" when that is what is needed.  It's about doing what we can while we are still here, about remembering to love when sometimes that seems a difficult thing to do. It is also about treasuring the joys we have been blessed with. I give you all Celeste's love which is a constant star and mine which still flickers but doesn't go out.  xo

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Grief: I Get To Define My Own Healing

Healing is a slippery word.  Some people define healing as not feeling.  When I am healed from grief I will be happy and not talk about my dead husband and and and.  Nope.  If you are reading this you are healing.  To me healing means that there is a possibility of change.  Healing is feeling Why Bother? and doing it anyway.

I don't define healing as more loss.  I have had loss enough already, thank you very much.  Healing is having more happy moments and more productive moments while still leaving time for sad or angry ones.  It's like memories.  Some memories of Artie made me sad.  I'd walk past a store where I used to buy him something and feel so sorry for myself.  I trained my brain.  I started thinking about how happy I felt when I bought this picky man something that he liked. Recently, after three and half years without him, I find myself going into stores and LOOKING for things he would like.  I hear him say, "No body!".  It makes me laugh every time.  Someone might say I'm not healing because I look for things to buy  for a dead guy.  I think I am healing because doing that makes me laugh instead of cry.  At the beginning it was a process.  I had to consciously stop my thoughts and change them.  Now most of the time it happens automatically.

My biggest problem is the morning.  I wake up disappointed that I am on earth without my husband.  I would like that to go away.  It hasn't yet.  I can say I'm not healing and beat myself up for feeling sad and wasting time. Or, I can say I am healing because I do get up eventually and get things done.  Healing can be doing one thing this year that you didn't do last year. Healing can be washing your hair even though there is no one there to notice that it is clean.

I know people that say they don't feel pain any more about the person that has died; that they have turned a corner or started a new chapter. Bless them if they have really done that.  Sometimes they say that in a public space and then tell me something else in a private moment.  For example, I know widows who are dating, or even quite happily engaged or remarried.  That's fine for them.  I'm not there yet.  That's fine for me.

What ask myself is - "How can I make my life look more how I want it to?"  When I succeed I am proud of myself.  When I fail I am told I am too hard on myself.  I am.  Some people write grief blogs for a while and then stop. One person said they were going back to the real world.  I'm living in the real world. Grieving and living and having fun and giving are all part of my real world.  Some people read grief blogs for a while and then stop.  In both cases they feel they don't need them anymore.  I feel that way about bereavement groups.  I'd rather talk to my friends who understand.  Is that healing?  I don't know.

I know that my ability to laugh and be present is a lot stronger than it was when Artie first died.  I know I show up more often for more things.  That co-exists with the still struggling parts.  Sometimes I make plans and then I don't show up. That's okay.  The pressure from some people to feel happy all the time seems strange to me. To me being present is the ability to feel what is appropriate to the situation.  I saw a picture of a little Israeli baby whose face was bleeding after being stoned.  I thought of my granddaughter and I was heartbroken.  I always ask people to give up their group story and at least keep children safe.  I'm glad I was affected by that picture.  I would have been affected the same way if it was a Palestinian child or any child.

We shouldn't be scared of healing. The fear comes from the idea that healing means letting go of the love we have for someone who died and the loneliness we feel because however they may be with us in spirit they are not with us on earth anymore.  We can be fully alive and not let go of that love.  I met a lovely young man.  A personal trainer who is kind and handsome and charming.  He is engaged to be married.  His grandmother died and because I talked about Artie he told me that he talks to his grandmother every day.  That's how he starts his morning.  He misses her.  That's what I want (not to be a young handsome personal trainer LOL) but to keep shifting the balance.  I want to spend more time enjoying my time here on earth and less time wishing I could hurry up and join Artie. 

I don't care how people define healing.  I like to see people who are locked in sadness open the door and step out; even if for a little while.  However, I don't define healing for you and I don't want you to define it for me.

I do want people to know the good news which is that they are probably already healing in more ways than they are aware of.  If someone says you need healing maybe you can say, "I am healing."  It's a process.  It's your own private process.  My little granddaughter Gwendy blue eyes at 14 months old and without much language is full of personality and opinions.  She's her way of being - not anyone else's.  We forget that.  It's okay to be our way of being in the world.  If we want to change it...we can learn how.  If we get stuck...we get unstuck...when we are ready.  So...think of all the ways you are already healing for a while and forget the ways in which you are not.  That, my friends, will be healing in itself.  xo