Book Review: How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies

Bill’s sister wandered through a book store and found this.  She sent it to me.  First published in 1988, I found it still the most comprehensive and helpful book on the subject, despite its age.  This comprehensive guide covers all facets of grieving and healing after loss.  She begins with a thorough lesson on grief–the physical, psychological, and social impacts.  She recognizes the practical implications and how they affect everything from your wallet to where you live.  She doesn’t stop there.

Whether you’ve lost a spouse, a child, a relative, a best friend or a beloved pet, the manifestations of grief threaten to overwhelm daily life.  While no map exists with a direct path to healing, insight does help.  A lot.

We lost Alma so suddenly, there was no time to say goodbye.  He was gone by the time we reached the hospital, and I found myself sobbing over his body, a part of me astonished by the depth of my expression, and a part of me asking, “What just happened here?”  I remained paralyzed for weeks, racked by the shattering question, “How could my son lay dying 100 yards from me and I not know that?  How is that even possible?”  Healing remains slow and each gain hard won. waiting

But let me be totally honest.  I didn’t want to just say goodbye, I wanted to say, “Could you fix the mower?” “I’d love a new coffee table, would you make me one?” “Katelyn is getting pretty saucy, could you start a boot camp and bring her in line?” “Would you go with us to Alaska?”  I still want to say all those things, and I still watch for him to walk through that door.  I am not the only one.

Finding the will, the courage, the peace, the strength, the oomph to go on living is a good thing.  I heartily recommend this excellent read.

Art Journalling for Grieving Parents

I admit it freely.  I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination.  I accepted that grim verdict in kindergarten, when my stick figures looked like trees from stories straight out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the scary ones (and that’s about all of them).  Fast forward 60 years, tamp in excruciating loss, and something magical happens when I get creative with my favorite scriptures.  Don’t get your hopes up.  It’s still not art.  But it’s MY art, and I love the experience, even when I don’t necessarily love the outcome.

My fascination began several years ago.  I first purchased a Bible with wide margins, because of course I needed space for my masterpieces (smiling, here), and I was NOT going to try anything disastrous in my study Bible, already cross-referenced and color-coded to my heart’s desire.  I found one with simple wording, and I loved it.  Then I got some colored pencils.  Awkward first attempts humbled me and brought it all to a screeching halt.  Nothing on the page resembled the fantasy in my mind.  Feelings of inadequacy were overpowering, so I put it all away for awhile.

Then Alma died.  My brain short-circuited.  I know no other way to put it.  Thoughts turned in circles or wandered off and got lost in a haze of confusion.  Taking a thought from point A to point B took repeated tries and enormous energy.  In between it all I cried a lot.  Counsel like, “Be brave,” or “You’ll get through this,” or “It just takes time,” did little to dissipate the swirl in my head.  I lacked a North Start for orienting myself inside of myself.  In describing sudden loss Dr. Rando aptly states, “The loss is so disruptive that recovery almost always is complicated.  This is because the adaptive capacities are so severely assaulted and the ability to cope is so critically injured that functioning is seriously impaired.  Grievers are overwhelmed.”  How good to know I was normal!

In desperation one day I picked up my journalling Bible.  A short verse that spiraled in my brain found expression on the page and amplified itself into a meaning I could understand.  I began coating pages with gesso, invested in paint markers and calligraphy pens.  I still am not an artist, but God does not require that of me.  He only asks for a willing heart and acceptance of His love; He inspires the outcome.  I hope He likes His handiwork, because it’s not really ART, just art.

How long will this stage last?  I have no idea.  Some days I think I function pretty well.  Other times I am reduced to tears.  As adaptive changes take place within Alma’s family I grieve all over again, and I feel like I’m losing him over and over and over.  Three steps forward, four steps back; five months later I’m still all over the map.  I hope Someone has a perfect plan for all this, because I feel very much like a marker in a game of Parchesi.  I wonder how I’d draw that…

Word Meanings

Gone.  A word with new meaning.  This morning a song from Fiddler on the Roof hums through my mind.  “One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.”  The beginning of a new year, which for me occurs at the start of the school year, not January 1st, gives rise to introspection.

Our next milestone is September 12.  Six months since Alma’s passing.  I’ve learned “gone” is not “the pie has been eaten.”  I can always bake more pie.  “Gone” is not “he just pulled out of the driveway.”  Cars return.  Gone assumes an infinite proportion when you lose a child.alma

Gone really means never again.  Never again will I catch a glimpse of my son working on a project in his shop.  Never again will he plop down and say, “What do you need, Mom?”  Never again will I see his crooked smile.  Never again will I hear his understated little phrase, “Well, that’s unfortunate,” when something goes wrong.

I weep less often now.  I try to keep my sorrow out of conversation.  I work on being brave.  I try to write about happy things.  Life moved on for everyone else, but here I am, a first grader in life stuck with new word meanings.  Gone means never again.  Who knew?

Alma John and Puppy Love

A number of wonderful dogs graced our home throughout the years.  Shelties, Golden Retrievers, and mutts of undetermined lineage all bore one thing in common:  faithfulness.  We did, however, attract some quirky little things.

Gypsy buried her treasures–like baby kittens with just a head and two paws poking out of the ground.  Quincy spelled his favorite treats and went berserk every time we passed a McDonald’s.  But this little ball of fur lounging beside me just eclipses them all.

Alma encouraged me to adopt this rescue puppy, and our first few days together didn’t begin with a good omen.  This rascal without a pedigree left messes everywhere.  He threw up for two weeks.  He clearly tolerated me without an ounce of real devotion.  But upon Alma’s death the entire landscape of our relationship changed.  He stopped making messes for one thing.  He became my shadow, whining when I closed the door to the bathroom without letting him in.  Love became his over-arching quality.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s still quirky as all get out.  He gets so excited to see me in the morning that he races like a whirling dervish around the living room squeaking his toys in a frenzy of delight until he collapses from exhaustion.  He gazes at me mournfully when a little curly headed granddaughter loves him too much, practically begging me for a reprieve.  He prefers any morsel from my plate over his Nutrish, which Rachael Ray so lovingly makes for him.  I consider Charlie Alma’s last gift to me.  It’s one of his best.


Are you the Gift, the Box, or the Gift Wrap?

Sometimes life just rips us apart.  Suddenly your heart, your whole self, or maybe your life as you know it drops into a cleft, what feels likes a endless chasm, until it strikes bottom and then it hits you:  I am undone.  Retirement signals such a change for some, divorce for others, for me it was sudden loss.  Yet I am just one of many who meander through this painful time, and I write for personal clarity as well as for others in like condition.

The realization may settle slowly, fluttering softly yet constantly drifting downward nonetheless, and the sudden knowing feels just as stark as the clang of a bell when a brawny man wields a sledgehammer at the carnival.  Either way, there comes that moment of when your heart registers the bleak knowledge that life as you knew it will never be the same again.  Day after day, at least for awhile, we wear the hollow cloak of life severed from its original purpose, feeling adrift, feeling lost.

Take time to reflect.  You may feel like the gift wrap.  Gift wrap lies torn or crumpled after its been ripped apart to reveal the joy of a present given to another.  Sometimes reused, it seldom lives on as pristine as its first wrapping.  The frugal save it.  Minimalists discard it without a second thought.  The wrap bears only symbolic reference to what lies inside the box.  Inexpensive and easily tossed, the gift wrap merely decorates the box.

The box lies empty after the gift is lifted from the security of its housing.  A sturdy box serves multiple uses besides protecting the palpable love of the giver.  It accumulates trash, stores treasures in the attic, provides a way to hold a jumble of items too disparate to categorize, moves dishes from one house to another…but a box always remains a utilitarian item, and at its pinnacle, a form honored with holding a precious gift.  The box serves its purpose nobly, and then slinks back to the realm of less regard.  After all, it’s only a box.

The gift, ah, the gift.  Simultaneously the thoughtfulness of the giver and the joy of the giftsrecipient, the gift epitomizes the heart of the exchange.  In everyday life the gift is visible evidence of energy transcending into matter, a thought taking root in the life of another.  When life casts us down and signals an unshackling of the ropes which moored us at a familiar port, a familiar and much loved life, the Creator who placed the spark of life within us expects us to remember that the spark still glows.  It may glow dimly perhaps, but the spark glows irrespective of sorrow or change.

We can adapt in a meaningful way to bless others near us, as well as others we meet on the street, for loss affects us all.  Be the gift.  Not the box.  Certainly not the gift wrap.  Be the person whose spark upholds and blesses, the gift in the hand of the Giver.  Be the gift to someone today.




When Wars Rage

One of our nation’s most horrific wars cemented awareness of a phenomenon little understood for centuries.  The Civil War resulted in catastrophic numbers of amputees, and phantom pain–in which sensation, often painful, is felt despite a limb’s absence–became a clinical diagnosis.  Dr. Silas Mitchell, who was the “father of American neurology,” treated hundreds of these patients and dedicated his life to alleviating this after effect of war.  He actually named the illogical sensation, and his memoirs trace his elusive pursuit of a cure for phantom pain.

That ghostly sensation of knowing a leg is gone, yet feeling the need to scratch a missing foot, simply cannot be reasoned nor willed away.  Current researchers believe the pain originates from a more primeval site, like the spinal cord.  To date, no specific treatment stills the shooting pain of loss.

  • As a teacher in a nursing home can close her eyes and smell chalk dust…
  • As a chef late in life can close his eyes and feel the texture of pastry dough…
  • As a mother can close her eyes and still see her son’s blue skin in death…

Loss brooks no reality.  The passages create a phantom pain in the primeval tendrils of the heart.  Not every day.  Not all the time.  Yet seeing sons of other mothers at church triggers the guilty sensation of not envy, but of wanting more, of wishing it wasn’t my cross to bear, of fighting against reality.  The quiet war rages again.  In its wake the casualties of peace and acceptance induce a very real soreness in the heart for which no real treatment suffices.  Reading the Word.  Trusting the Healer will bring the promised comfort.  Learning to live with loss.  Slow, steady bandages must be reapplied.

Phantom pain describes the heartache I feel when I open my eyes and reach out my arms…to emptiness.


On the Road Again Every Day

Okay, he’s not my favorite recording artist, but my gypsy heart loves embarking on a trip, so I warble the lyrics anyway.  I love every part of a trip.  Packing feels like Christmas.  Pulling out of the drive feels like opening a fresh new jar of apple butter.  The scenery, like a thousand snapping synapses, invigorates my mind.  Coming home to my own bed feels like heaven.

The trick lies in living each day as the ultimate journey, savoring each new experience in the scenery of my life.  Assign new meanings to everyday chores.  Derive excitement from the mundane.  Life lived to the max, pedal to the medal and interspersed with rest areas, creates a well-lived epitaph.  Wring joy from weeding.  Distill pleasure from folding laundry.  Let cooking fuel the imagination, not just the belly.  Mine the gold from the hearts lounging on the couch.  Let the Word serve as the most definitive map of life, and consult it often to stay on course.

We’re traveling this time to visit dear friends.  Desperately in need of talk therapy, this trip serves as a poignant divide between the landscape of grief and the fertile, lush foliage I’ll find at the hearth of a sister of the heart.  My goal transcends safe arrival.  I’m in search of a refreshed outlook, a calm spirit and a comforted heart.  I want to return refueled and road-ready for my crazy life.  Four camps, family dinners, a business where I try to bless others, grands camping out in our living room, little league, and a host of calendar engagements through a full summer require this tune up.  Above all, some very precious people need me at top-notch performance.

So I’m changing the tires on the vehicle my mind drives, realigning my chassis, recharging my batteries, and repacking my treasured memories to fit the current route I travel.  Every day I am on the road of life again.  Every.  Single.  Day.


What is the Final Goodbye? Boomers Need to Know

It’s been 3 months since Alma’s death, and I both looked forward to and dreaded his graveside service.  I wanted, needed, really longed for a sense of closure.  I found myself mired in an abyss of sorrow, my heart actually feeling torn inside my body.  I lost other family members through the years, but this loss of my child was not the same.

Friends asked why we waited so long to hold the service, and I can answer that in a single word: Katelyn.  His precious little daughter experienced a meltdown when she learned about his autopsy: “Cutting him open? NOOOO!!!!”  We shamelessly hid the little, almost insignificant detail about his cremation.  I’m good with that; not every lesson need be learned at 9 years of age.  Thus we waited until all the messy tell-tale signs of “no casket” were obliterated by nicely growing grass and a lovely headstone.  But postponement merely delayed the inevitable.  It finally came time to plan his his graveside service, time for me to quit thinking he was just at work, just in his shop, and to really face a regrettable truth.

For some of the family it may have felt like an unimportant after thought, but for me it was different.  From the unexpected visitors greeting us when we arrived to the Mountain Dew I placed on his headstone in memory of the ubiquitous aluminum can he always carried with him, a necessary rite of passage took shape.  The final goodbye.  I felt lighter when we left the cemetery, glad it was over.

Yet I awoke the next morning still wanting to see my son, still needing to say goodbye. Grief remained.  Perhaps loss remains as a sign of life, tears as a talisman of never ending love.  Perhaps sudden death carries the lifelong expectancy to see a loved one, a need to say the unspoken words of the heart.  And so I wonder: Is there ever a final goodbye?

We thought we said goodbye in the tearful final episodes of Mash, yet it airs everyday just like clockwork and as if it never ended.  We thought we said goodbye to flared pants and miniskirts, but they resurfaced with new names nonetheless. Gaucho pants?  Really?  Perpetual reruns and repeating cycles of fashion leave the uncomfortable notion that nothing in life ever really ends.  Yet death indeed spells an ending, a finite goodbye no one bridges this side of the grave.  The question isn’t one of ending, it’s one of beginning the long process of adaptation to a colorless landscape of never ending grief.  And I wonder if it spans into the great void of life after death.  Does Alma carry within his soul words he never got to speak as well?

Let’s put aside the ideas of the happy medium and science fiction, dwelling instead on the reality of the chasm between two worlds existing in tandem, yet ever apart.  No hugs, no phone calls bridge that gap.  Only faith permeates the void, and that’s a commodity more precious than any 401k.  Boomers eschewed materialism, but did they ever really cultivate the invisible commodities of peace transcending loss or faith supplanting despair?  We need to ask ourselves hard questions and find real answers.  For me the final goodbye was accepting he was really gone; now I begin each new day whispering, “Goodbye, Alma.  I love you now and forever, Tall Man.”  Now I cultivate that daily lightening, trusting in the Healer who promised He personally would heal my broken heart.  Now I must remember how to cultivate joy.  Acceptance became my final goodbye.

gb1  gb4

Memorialize Stories–Not Just Graves

I always decorate graves this time of year.  Getting my sons to join me in that endeavor ranks with “Gotta’ mow the lawn, Mom!” and “Time to change the oil, Mom!”  In other words, decorating grave sites may actually be at the bottom, the absolute bottom of the list of things they want to do.

We’re preparing for Alma’s graveside service.  Knowing all 15 of us, kiddos and their parents will be there, a flood of memories I want to share flood my mind.  Buried near Alma are my mom, my grandmother and grandfather, aunts and uncles, a host of family members who slapped Alma on the back or bear-hugged him in his transition.  I plan on taking the whole kit and caboodle on a little walk down memory lane.  I want to share a short anecdote about the people who shaped their lives, who pray for them, whose DNA prescribed their noses and chins and hair lines.  They even touch our adopted kiddos one way or another.

memorialsStories transcend time.  They take us to a time and place the imagination makes vivid with description.  We may live in a visually over-dosed society, but never underestimate  the osmosis of  values, love, or joy from words bridging generations.  Decorating graves is something I do, but yes, I’m telling stories this year.  True ones.


Does Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder?

I’m paring down to about three posts a week on my blog.  I expect sooner or later you’llmeatballs grow tired of my company, so cutting back for the summer just made sense.  It also made me wonder.  Absence and fondness became cliched so long ago, I doubt anyone remembers who first coined the phrase.  If you know, tell me!

I gave the whole concept some thought.  If you love someone and see your loved one less, I think you may feel tantalized with the thought of being together soon, but your love grows for other reasons.  Shared hopes in letters, calls, exchange of pictures…it all deepens fondness.  But not absence.

Mostly I think it’s true when we talk about things like meatballs.  Every so often we visit a new Italian restaurant where I don’t have a “usual” item I love on the menu.  The scent of meatballs wafts through the door as I enter, and shazaaaam!!!  I have to order meatballs!  It’s only when the plate sits before me with fork in hand that I remember.  I don’t really like meatballs.  Nope.  Not at all.  So did absence make my heart grow fonder?  No, it created an illusion of fondness totally devoid of reality.

When I disappear from sight three days a week this summer, I hope you still love me.  I don’t expect you to go all ga-ga when I write, but I do love your comments.  Everyone loves to be heard, even when those we most want to hear us abide across the great chasm no man bridges.  Absent but not forgotten, loving nonetheless.