Spiraling and Strolling: Moving through Grief

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Sometimes thoughts of the past can leave me sleepless. All of life has not been picture perfect, and images of brokenness can lead to pain that prevents sleep. For this reason, I often try to avoid lingering on the past, but the other night I intentionally strolled down Memory Lane for a little while. I looked at some old photos and replayed some old film. This is a new strategy for me.

For the past several years, moments of memory have come in unexpected flashes. I can be watching a television sitcom, for example, and see a mother and daughter share a glance or break into laughter. It seems like a benign — even fun — exchange, but it sparks a memory, and I am transported back 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years to a scene where, in a moment of frustration, I snapped at one of my children when I could’ve smiled or even laughed. Later, after the television has been turned off and the lights are out, instead of sleeping, I flail amid images of that moment and others like it swirling on a screen in my mind. Rather than a stroll down Memory Lane, it feels like a free fall between black walls covered in video screens replaying moments of regret, disappointment, and failure.

Once I am in this free fall, I can go for hours. I might see myself driving a carload of kids, for example — my shoulders tensed, trying to get them where they need to go, mentally working out return trips, meals, clothing, and bills. I can feel the stress of responsibility, of course, but mostly I feel sadness and regret — realizing now how brief the moments with our children were and wanting to get some of those moments back for a re-do.

Maybe this sounds familiar. Perhaps all of us mentally cycle through memories, wishing we could go back and redo some of the moments that fill us with regret.

In families like ours that have been impacted by trauma, this experience may be even more intense. Flashes of memory may feel like mini-traumas. In my case, the flashes from the past I see often induce not only regret but also shame for my role in what did and didn’t happen.

Since I’ve made a commitment to only tell my own story, I will stay cloudy on the details, but I have shared before in this blog that our family has been touched by crime, violence, and a season of extreme overwork wherein the stress level in our household could become volatile. While I take responsibility, rightfully, for some of that stress, my brain sometimes gets confused and tries to convince me that I am responsible for all of the trauma, too. It tries to show me moments just before and just after traumatic events and to accuse me of what I could’ve done to make things different. It shows me how I might’ve prevented pain or how I should have been more active in comforting, and it continually points an accusing finger at me, showing me piece after piece of evidence where I failed as a mother, as a wife, and as a friend.

I am transported, for example, to a moment on our front porch where I asked a question but didn’t notice a detail, where I heard a response that I shouldn’t have believed. I tell myself I should have looked more closely, should’ve questioned more. I should’ve seen; I should’ve heard.

Then, I see another image, a midnight drive through the neighborhood to calm a crying teen; I see myself feeling tired, wanting to help, but not knowing what to do. I tell myself I should’ve listened more carefully, should’ve driven further, should’ve called off work the next day.

And from there, I fall to the next image…

When I am free falling through that accusatory slide show, I call it spiraling. I spin through images of moments when I wish I would’ve known more, acted differently, or seen the situation for what it really was. If only I could go back and do it differently, but I can’t, so I continue to spiral from one failed moment to the next.

Recently, as I felt I was nearing the end of a several day stretch of night-time spiraling, having had little sleep, and wanting the cycle to end, my husband, in casual conversation, brought up a topic that I thought might set me back into free fall. I said, “I don’t know if I want to talk about that. I’ve already been spiraling for several days, and I’m really ready to stop.” He was quiet for moment, and then he said, “I think it’s all part of the grieving process.”

I was silent.

It’s part of the grieving process? Going back through all these images and feeling all this regret, this ache, this shame? For the past several years, I’ve been trying to avoid spiraling, if possible, and to endure it when necessary, but if it’s part of the grieving process, I wondered, do I need to lean in and sit with it? Isn’t that what you do with grief? Sit with it?

When something dies — a loved one, a pet, a dream, a hope — it hurts, and the hurt does not go quickly away. No, it takes all kinds of mental and physical work for our minds and bodies to accept loss. We try to deny that it really happened, and we get angry that it did. We yell until we can yell no more, then eventually we cry and sob and groan as we acknowledge the loss to be real.

And, you know, we’ve got to give ourselves space for this. Loss is real — it happens — devastating, bone-crushing loss comes into our lives and we sometimes can’t bear to look at the reality of it all — but when we are ready, we must. We must look at devastation with our eyes wide open. We must see the totality of the pain and allow ourselves and all those impacted the space to grieve — to really, fully grieve.

I’ve been avoiding that full-on look; it’s been too painful to take it all in at once. However, my brain won’t let me rest until I lean in and take a closer look.

The other night, I was lying awake casually spiraling — I was too tired to be frantic, so I wearily submitted to the images that were swirling on the screen of my mind. I lay there and took it in — the accusation, the shame, the regret, and then I finally gave in to sleep.

The next morning, after my alarm jolted me awake, I wondered if it was time to shift to a different way of looking. Was it possible to instead of merely seeing the failures and sinking into shame that I might view the images through eyes of compassion — not only for the members of my family but also for myself?

When I find myself on the front porch, for example, can I acknowledge that I was home, that I was watching, that I was aware, even if I didn’t see the full picture? Can I give myself the grace to say that I was present? Can I acknowledge that to the teen, my questions were terrifying and lies were the only safe response?

When I find myself driving through the neighborhood at midnight, can I thank myself for getting out of bed, for loading a teen in a car, and for driving back and forth to allow the time for tears, even if I didn’t know what they were for? Can I have compassion on the young one who was feeling so much wrenching pain and applaud the strength it took to finally allow me to see the depth of it, even if sharing the cause of such deep hurt was still impossible?

Am I ready to make the shift from spiraling to strolling? Am I willing to slow down and look, really look, at the images? to see not just what’s in the foreground, but to see the background, the edges, and what was happening just outside the frame?

Am I ready to accept grief’s invitation to stroll down Memory Lane, to look at both the wreckage and the beauty, to see the moments of love and tenderness that sit right beside the devastation. Am I willing to see not only my failures but also the moments where I may have done the only right thing I knew to do at the time? Am I willing to believe that two competing realities can exist at the same time?

I think I’m ready to try; I think it’s the next step through this grief.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Coronavirus Diary #27: Heavy

I knew the pandemic was heavy. Way back in April of last year, when I wrote Feeling the Funk, I was aware of the psychological weight of staying at home, isolating from our people, wearing masks, and altering the patterns of our lives. Ten months later, I’ve built up some muscle; I’ve gotten used to lugging around the burden and taking it in stride. Rather than moving in fits and starts, frantically watching the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center Map as the case numbers and fatalities tick up, I have turned my gaze to daily life, kept steadily stepping, and tried to find joy wherever I can — a student who shows up to office hours, our dog neatly snuggled under his newly-crocheted afghan, or a fresh pot of chicken soup.

Yes, I plunk on the couch and watch the news each evening — looking squarely at the carnage, racial injustice, health care inequities, and political corruption we’ve all born witness to in the last months. Then, I detach via Netflix, go to bed, get up the next morning, drive to Detroit, and do my best for my students. I try to keep going and to focus on the the mission rather than what I’m missing. Yes, I watch the news, I know the deaths in the US have climbed to over 485,000. I realize that over 10% of our population has now received at least one dose of vaccine, but I am also aware that a return to anything resembling ‘normal’ is quite a way off. I am aware, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to get up every day, take care of myself, do my job, and find some joy.

So last week, when I logged into my online therapy session and heard myself sharing how thankful I was for my current job in a tone that sounded like I was delivering bad news, I was caught off guard.

I was telling my therapist that I had had an opportunity to be involved in a lived experience conversation with my colleagues — the first, actually, in what we hope to be a long series of group discussions about the varied experiences of the members of the group — what we’ve seen as white, black, male, female, gay, straight humans living in cities, suburbs, and towns. We’re hoping to learn about each other, to break down the walls of assumption and bias, and to further our quest toward equity for our students.

This is exactly the kind of work I’ve been wanting to do, so why did my tone sound so defeated, so depressed. I even remarked, “Wow. I’m making this sound like it’s bad news, when really I am very happy to be doing this work.”

Then my therapist said, “Almost everyone I’ve seen for the last couple of weeks has kind of been in a funk. We just passed the one year mark of when the first case was found in the US, and we don’t see a time when we will ‘get back to normal.'”

And I knew that — I mean, I wrote about it just a few weeks ago (post here), and I was still surprised by the heaviness of it.

The weight of living in this pandemic has been piling on. We are carrying an enormous communal grief — the loss of plans, the loss of livelihood, the loss of community, the loss of routine, and the loss of life. Some of us are feeling it more than others.

Many have experienced the uncommon loss of being separated from a loved one during their last days like my Aunt Margaret who hadn’t seen my uncle for three months when he died of complications of Covid-19. After 71 years of marriage, his last days were alone.

Many while carrying the heaviness of the pandemic, have also been lugging extra burdens such as caring for young children who are suddenly schooling at home, supporting parents with comorbidities who can’t risk going out, being displaced from jobs and struggling financially, or newly navigating the technology that allows working from home.

While the pandemic has been hard for all of us, it has been exponentially harder for people of color. Not only have they suffered and died from Covid-19 at higher rates, they’ve also been harder hit financially and have had to fight against systemic issues such as disparities in health care, education, housing, and employment. And, as always, they continue to experience violence and death at higher rates as a result of such systemic inequities.

As a white girl who, along with my husband, hasn’t missed a paycheck, is employed by an agency I love, and enjoys the highest quality health care my insurance can pay for and our money can buy, I feel the weight of this past year on my shoulders, but certainly not to the extent of those who live in the communities of color that I have worked in.

I was reminded of this over the last few weeks. One of my current students, who lives in Detroit, just missed two weeks of class because a family member with mental illness burned her family’s home to the ground. They’ve been reeling from that trauma and trying to find a new place to live, when finances are tighter than they’ve ever been before. They were already carrying too much; this must feel like more than they can bear. (Here is a GoFundMe if you feel moved to support them.)

Another current student has missed the last three weeks of school because he is in the hospital recovering from a gunshot wound. A teenager with a gunshot wound. How heavy must it be for his parents, who were already managing life as a Black family living in Detroit in the midst of a pandemic, to now also be carrying all of the spoken and unspoken realities they and their son are now facing?

I feel an added heaviness just knowing that these students of mine who I’ve known just a few months are suffering, but what weight must their families and communities be feeling?

I got a taste of what such community pain might feel like this past week. Early last Monday morning, I learned that a former student, a member of the community of students, alumni, teachers, and parents that I was deeply involved with for almost 10 years — a classmate of two of my own children — had been shot and killed, along with her mother, in an act of domestic violence. She was 25, and now she’s gone. This determined young woman often showed up in my classroom after school to ask a question or just to chat. She’d been the first generation in her family to graduate from college, and within the last year or so, had reached out for a letter of recommendation for a position to which she was applying. After news of her death started circulating and I saw all of her classmates and friends posting on social media, I was in shock. How can such a promising young life be over?

Just three days later, I got another taste. Another former student, from that same community, a 30 year old husband and father of three, had died of a previously undiagnosed illness after five days in the hospital on life support. I remember the day he joined my class, having relocated to St. Louis from Chicago. He was a sweet soul, kind and tender. He, too, is now gone. (Here is a GoFundMe if you are interested in helping with funeral expenses and support of his family.)

These things are heavy, and our friends in communities of color have faced them so often that they know how to respond. While I am still sitting here shaking my head and wondering what happened, they’ve reached out to one another, organized GoFundMe campaigns, scheduled balloon releases, found photos of memories to post on social media, written poetry and tributes, and begun the process of mourning.

Me? I’m sitting over here still so stunned that I have no idea why my tone is depressed when I’m sharing good news. I haven’t processed the fact that my already heavy load just got a bit heavier. I haven’t realized that it’s time to put it down, to look squarely at the loss, and to grieve.

So, finally, as I write this, I am grieving — I’m mourning the loss of two young lives who will be sorely missed by their people. I’m grieving the realities of two more who are facing trauma upon trauma. I’m realizing again that the pandemic in itself is heavy and that some of us are carrying so much more.

Be kind to one another, friends. We’re in this for a while. Check in with one another — make a call or send a note.

Reach out to someone. What they are carrying is heavy; perhaps you can lighten their load.

Cast your burden unto Jesus, for He cares for you.

Gospel song.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

Memorial Day, in the time of Covid-19

Click to hear this post read aloud.

On any other Memorial Day, we’d be packing up picnic baskets, putting the finishing touches on the potato salad, and donning festive red, white, and blue.

We’d be joining friends around picnic tables, under tents, next to pools.

We’d be driving to cemeteries to pay our respects, plant flags, and place flowers.

We’d be remembering those lost in wars, yes, and those we’ve lost, period.

But today, in the time of Covid, when almost 100,000 have died in the US from the Coronavirus alone over the last three months, let alone all who have died of heart failure, stroke, car accidents, cancer, violent crimes, or suicide… when gathering — even in groups no larger than ten — can bring a risk of transmission leading to even more illness or death, Memorial Day is going to look a little different.

Families who have lost loved ones in the last three months have not had the privilege of holding their loved ones’ hands as they have died. They have not gathered for funerals. They have not hugged one another and cried. They have not had a chance to grieve — to accept the reality of death. What does their Memorial Day look like this year?

The New York Times covered the front page with this image, and yet few of us can wrap our minds around the reality of — the “incalculable loss” — of nearly 100,000 deaths.

The Times ran this memorial perhaps as a way for us to remember, to conceptualize, to note, to grieve, to mourn. It’s a list of names of a fraction of those who have died complete with brief descriptions, epitaphs, if you will, that help us attach lives of real people to the numbers. People like:

Alan, Peter, Joseph, Mary, and Lorena, loved by their friends and families, despite their weaknesses and flaws, will be missed, and mourned, and remembered, so will the other thousands upon thousands, as will those who have died in the last year from all things not Covid.

I don’t know how you are remembering today — if you are indeed visiting a cemetery, if you are gathering with a few friends, if you are isolating at home, if you are doing the same thing you’ve done every single day since somewhere in the middle of March, or if you will sit in your yard, on your porch, or on your couch, quietly remembering those you have lost.

We’ve spent the weekend visiting with those we have not lost — my in-laws, my parents, and my godmother — through porch visits and phone calls, taking care not to contaminate — keeping distance, wearing masks. We have laughed, smiled, and realized that life is precious.

We taught Ken, 85, Caseville, MI, who left home at thirteen and became a millwright and a father, how to use Google Duo to videochat with his kids and grandkids. We heard Dorothy, 83, Caseville, MI, a retired second grade teacher, talk about the time she helped her two sons transport a 17-foot aluminum canoe in a Chevette.

We greeted Margaret, 90, Bay City, MI, who after working on a factory line in the ’40s and ’50s loved collecting hand-painted china and now lives a few miles away from her husband of 70 years, unable to see him since they are in separate facilities that are both sheltering their residents.

We chatted with Harold, 81, Brownsburg, IN, retired businessman, who once hitchhiked from Michigan to California to buy a vehicle after serving his time in the Marines; we laughed with Joyce, (age withheld to protect myself from harm), Brownsburg, IN, a beloved fifth-grade teacher, who’s trying to figure out how to help others with her stimulus check.

Today we’ll see Roger, 75, St. Louis, MI, a butcher turned grocery store manager turned prison shopkeeper who enjoys riding his motorcycle and golfing, and Carol, 78 St. Louis, MI, a former hospital unit secretary who has spent most of her days finding ways to show love to her children and grandchildren.

And then we’ll head home, thankful that on this Memorial Day we have no fresh grief, other than the collective groaning of our nation.

And that groaning we will hold in our hearts as we continue to isolate at home, wear our masks when we venture out, and do our part to slow the spread, to reduce the casualties, so that we (and others) can spend more days with those we have not yet lost.

For those who are freshly grieving today, I extend my heart. May you find comfort in your mourning and joy for your soul.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Coronavirus Diary #4, loss, grief, and encouragement

This past week as we faced snow-covered ground and chilling temps, I started to believe that life as we once knew it was over and we be quarantined forever. I started feeling anxious and a little bit desperate. What if this continues for months and we can’t see our parents or our children — our siblings or our friends?

I started considering scenarios in which my husband and I threw provisions in the car and drove the three hours to check in on his parents and then two more hours to check on mine. I saw us driving twelve hours straight east to see our daughters — to eat lunch with them at a picnic table out in the open — keeping space but close enough to touch only if we dared.

My emotions are heightening. I guess because this coming Saturday was supposed to be our son’s college graduation day — after four years serving in the Army and another four years going to classes, he was set to walk across the stage to roaring applause. We’d already envisioned ourselves there, yelling, clapping, whooping, and hollering. Last night, I checked his university’s website — again — and found next to the original details the word ‘canceled’ in red. Just canceled. Period.

Next week, our daughter was supposed to celebrate her college graduation, too. After six long years of studying and getting sober she was going to proudly don her cap and gown to celebrate her achievement and her recovery. We had the plane tickets, the days off, and the desire to cheer her on, but her university’s website says that the graduation will be held at a “time that is determined to be safe,” which right now feels like a long way off.

Because really, despite recent talk of Phase One, Phase Two, and Phase Three plans for coming out of quarantine, no one is bold enough to imagine a time when we’ll feel comfortable packing a stadium or an auditorium. No one is picturing a crowded courtyard where families kiss and hug and snap a million pictures. No one can say when those kinds of meetings will happen.

And so I’m trying to find ways right now to celebrate them. I’m trying to find ways to let them know that we care — that we are thinking of them — that we love them — that we are so, so proud of all that they’ve done and all that they are. Even when we can’t see them or be with them.

And nothing I can think of feels like enough.

I know I’m not alone in this. Surely countless individuals across the globe have cancelled parties, graduations, weddings, and even funerals. Worse, thousands now have lost their lives — over 166,000 as of this morning. Experts say that number would’ve been exponentially higher had we not all gone inside and closed our doors last month. We could be grieving much, much more.

And so we stay at home — we keep our distance — because we know it’s our job right now.

That, and grieving.

I’m grieving the loss of these celebrations — grieving them hard. I’m trying to remember that quarantining/social distancing is necessary action in order to save the lives of those we love so that we can celebrate another day, but today that’s just not helping me.

A few things are helping a bit.

Work is helping. I’m thankful — I am — that I have steady work. In fact, we are busy providing online instruction to kids who are trying to understand why they are suddenly not allowed to go to school, see their friends, go to church, or participate in sports. We are providing consistency by showing up every day and providing high quality instruction, and we’re trying to have a little fun — playing tic-tac-toe and battleship online, telling jokes, giving prizes, and being silly.

My friends are helping. I am part of a small group of women who have met for breakfast and prayer for the past several years. We’ve read several books together, we’ve retreated together, and we’ve stood with each other through significant life struggles, so it makes sense that we would continue to show up for each other now. The other morning we were meeting and one shared about how she is processing her grief.

She said she had read, “wailing women teach one another… in grieving we take time to experience and feel the emotions…it’s a way to bring everyone home…”

We all agreed to make ‘grief’ a focus of our prayers and our study right now…we might as well, because we had already begun grieving.

On Friday and Saturday, I ‘met’ with a broader group of women — 100 pastors’ wives who meet each Spring. Our in-person gathering was cancelled, but the leaders decided to offer an online gathering. We started on Friday night with a welcome video on Youtube which offered worship music and streaming photos from previous gatherings. Then, we met on Facebook to “play games”. A post would pose a question, “What is your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “What would you never purchase ‘used’?” Dozens of women replied and commented in the moment, and I found myself sitting in my home office smiling and laughing. I felt so connected. Saturday morning, 100 of us met in a Zoom room for Bible study and prayer. I was so happy to just click through the four screens of familiar faces that I found myself asking if we could do this again soon — let’s not wait a whole year to get together again.

My family is helping. Like many of you, I’m talking to family more — we Zoom, we FaceTime, we phone call, we text. We crave connection from within our walls. We long to see one another — to check in, to laugh, to talk about this experience. It’s so good to see the familiar — those who’ve known us and loved us through all the seasons, who’ve seen us at our best and worst. Connecting with family feels like an anchor holding me in place reminding me of what we’ve already survived and that we’ll get through this, too.

My husband is helping. I’ve spent more than thirty years with this man, and he continues to be the one who sees me, understands me, cares for me, and wants to hang out with me. Right now we’re walking, laughing, hand washing produce and wiping down surfaces, and exploring obscure British television. I am so thankful he’s the one I’m sheltering in place with.

My dog is helping. Pure and faithful companionship — that’s all.

Here he is after surviving his Saturday bath.

My church is helping. We love our church. We love the people in our small group who we meet with every Thursday for conversation and prayer and who we worship “with” every Sunday as we sit in our own homes — joining each other on Facebook Messenger video chat while we stream our service on YouTube. We love our pastors, Gabe and Marcus, who continue to provide quality leadership through thoughtful messages on Sunday and twice throughout the week and who are coordinating and overseeing numerous activities to serve our congregation and our community during this time.

So, I’m grieving, as many of you are grieving, but I’m also hopeful because I’m connected — to friends, to family, to my husband, to my dog, and to my church. I’m gonna be sad in the coming weeks as I grieve the loss of some celebrations — some markers of significant life events for the people that I love — but I’m going to be ok.

The time of mourning will pass; we will celebrate again.

Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:13

Coronavirus Diary #3: Feeling the funk.

I lost my sense of humor this week. I found myself walking around with a scowl on my face, side-eying the dog, and unintentionally snapping at my husband.

I can’t trace it back to any moment, any inciting event, or any offense.

Instead, the funk descended on me, as the sunny skies of last weekend turned gray and then started spitting — rain, then hail, then snow. My facial expressions tightened, my tone darkened, and my sensitivities heightened.

Maybe you’re feeling like this, too. We’ve been sheltering at home for a million days, the death toll keeps climbing, and we don’t know when this will end.

Maybe you’ve got other stuff going on in addition to dealing with a pandemic.

Maybe, like me, you’ve got family members who are aging or have health issues, and you feel the weight of not being able to take an active role in caring for them right now.

Maybe, like me, you now know one or two or more people who have contracted the virus, or worse, some who have died. The whole earth is practically groaning with the deaths of over 114,000 from coronavirus let alone all the deaths from other causes in recent weeks.

And if all that wasn’t enough, it’s Holy Week and we can’t be with our people.

I tried to “make the best of it” when we participated in the livecast of our congregation’s Palm Sunday worship service last Sunday. We ‘joined’ our small group on Facebook messenger video chat while we live-streamed the service; then we ‘stuck around’ after church for coffee hour with our friends. It was great to see everyone; it really was. We truly are making the best of a bad situation. Still, I want to be at church. I want to hear the babies crying and the papers rustling. I want to gather in a circle for the bread and the wine. I want to hear the voices of the communion of the saints singing “Hosannah!”

But not this year.

I felt deflated on Thursday afternoon as we prepared to virtually share our Seder meal with our community group. It would be different, too, this year — with each family scavenging their homes for whatever they might use to represent lamb, charoset, parsley, and horseradish. We’d hear the story of the Passover, asking “why is this night unlike any other”, and remind ourselves that “it would have been enough,” but somehow, it doesn’t feel like enough.

And then on Good Friday, I paused from work at lunchtime and sat on my couch to hear music come through our television and to listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and burial.

I couldn’t stay through the end — the stripping of the altar, the darkening of the room, the closing of the tomb — because I had to sign back in to work, to meet a student, to put on a smile and behave as though everything is as it should be.

But it’s not. Not this year.

I’ve been trying to shake this funk — I’ve been exercising, eating right, practicing yoga, and getting outside whenever I can. I roasted a turkey breast and shared bits with my husband and our dog while I sliced it for dinner, and still I was left feeling weighed down, irked, and out of sorts.

I don’t typically give up easily, so even on Saturday, I crawled out of bed, did my morning routine, finished a couple housekeeping tasks, and threw on some clothes. The sun had come out, and I felt a spring in my step as I ventured out to the grocery store clad in mask and gloves, got the few items we needed this week, brought them home, cleaned them, and put them away. I took an extra long walk, ate a delicious turkey sandwich, soaked in the tub, and read a good book. I was doing all the self care that would shift this mind, this heart, this attitude.

Since I had a block of time, I decided to make some progress on the medical masks I’ve been sewing for a local hospital. I had several prepped for sewing, it shouldn’t take long to zip them through the machine and finish this batch so they could be delivered. I had everything running smoothly and was beginning to move efficiently, when all of a sudden, ‘clunk’, my needle broke. I didn’t have a spare, so I checked online to see if I could pick one up from JoAnn’s or Target, but no, not when everyone in the world has turned to sewing projects and every store is open only for limited hours. So, I tossed a few packs of needles in my online shopping cart, clicked ‘purchase’, turned off my sewing machine, tidied my area, and walked away.

Sigh.

This morning I woke up — Easter morning. Not a jelly bean in the house, not one egg hidden, and no reason to put on a dress.

I started by doing what I do every morning, reading my Bible reading plan, writing three pages, practicing yoga, and taking a shower.

My husband handed me breakfast as we walked to our living room sanctuary and turned on our church’s Easter service. We sang a few songs, and I confessed to my husband that I wasn’t feeling it. I was still in a funk.

And as though he knew, our pastor started by saying that while some of us were excited by the resurrection, others of us “can’t shake the uneasiness, the ‘not-at-homeness,'” of this season — the coronavirus season.

I leaned in. You mean I’m not alone? I want to be excited — even Easter-level excited — but I can’t seem to shake this funk.

And as though just the two of us where having a conversation, the pastor replied, “You may be tempted to look at this situation through the lens of common experience, but God is at work.”

This is not a common experience. We don’t have a frame of reference for life during a pandemic, but we can trust that God is at work.

Our pastor said that we might feel like the disciples did when they went home on Friday, knowing that their friend, their leader, their Messiah lay dead in a tomb. They must have felt shaken, uncertain of their future, and a little light on hope.

So when they heard the stone was rolled away, they were surprised — even though Jesus had told them He would rise, even though they knew He was the Messiah. They had gotten lost in their grief for a bit — they had forgotten that while they could not see Him, Jesus was still at work.

And He’s at work right now — He is always at work to heal and restore all things. Even right now. Even during a pandemic. Even when I can’t shake this funk.

Our pastor ended by saying this:

It may seem like the coronavirus has ruined Easter, but Easter has ruined the coronavirus.

It may seem like death has ruined Easter, but Easter has ruined death.

It may seem like sin has ruined Easter, but Easter has ruined sin.

It may seem like this funk has ruined Easter, but Easter is right now ruining my funk.

“Hallelujah, praise the One who set me free!

“Hallelujah, death has lost its grip on me!

“You have broken every chain; there’s salvation in your name!

“Jesus Christ, my living Hope!”

**After the worship service, we chatted with our community group during our virtual coffee hour. We went for a walk, then I spent some time here processing my grief, my disappointment, and my hope. Then, as we spent our afternoon videoconferencing with our siblings and our children, I could feel the funk lift a bit. We laughed, we smiled, and we believed that God is indeed at work.

***I will link Pastor Gabe’s sermon here, in case you, too, need a little lifting of your funk.

Tempted by Despair; Choosing Hope

And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.

It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.

After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.

I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.

I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.

These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.

All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?

We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?

What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?

I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.

I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.

We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.

Sarah Bessey wrote on her blog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.

And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.

We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.

I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.

Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.

I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.

I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.

Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.

And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.

I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.

We’re all broken — every last one of us.

We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.

And He. Is. Coming.

In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.

We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.

We will see every broken piece put back into place.

And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.

And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.

Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.

I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.

And He is coming again.

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Revelation 22:20

Off the couch, at the table

Trying something new. Click above to listen to me read this post.

I recently wrote a post, On and Off the Couch, which was both an acknowledgement that I had been grieving some substantial losses for quite some time and an announcement that I was ready to move away from that period. A recent experience helped me take the first steps.

While I was still sitting on my dilapidated pleather couch, the University of Michigan reached out to me — would I be willing to participate in a study the Nursing School was conducting? The participation requirements were that you a) be over 50, b) have a chronic illness, and c) have a wifi connection. The study would take 6-8 weeks, and upon completion, I would receive a $150 gift card.

Well, why not? Since I’ve lived in this little house by the river, I have been open to experimentation. In fact, I once even called myself a lab rat! What did I have to lose? The goal of the study is to determine if ongoing nursing care can impact the lives of those with chronic illness. Let’s find out.

Going into the study, I was picturing that a nurse would come to my house, clipboard in hand, checking boxes to make sure that my home environment was safe. I was guessing that she would give me some tasks to do. I knew that I would be expected to make a voice recording every day and to meet with my nurse via video conference once a week.

I was not anticipating being nudged off the couch and supported into a new rhythm of life. I did not see that coming.

Yes, I was ready. The couch was sodden from all the tears I had shed on it and was practically disintegrating under me. I could see that I was going to have to stand up soon, but I gotta tell you, I was still pretty comfortable, so I was lingering for as long as possible.

Then in walked this nurse, who sat across the table from me, asking me some non-threatening questions and inviting me to set some goals. What types of change was I interested in making, she asked.

I told her all the changes I had already made — practicing yoga, avoiding gluten and dairy (and now corn), and writing every day. I said, “If there is any stone that has yet to be turned over, it is probably addressing my weight. Since chronic illness benched me from running in 2013, I have gradually put on about 10 pounds.”

I wouldn’t say I am overweight, but I am not overly thrilled with the way I look, even if by lifestyle I have diminished most of the symptoms of my illness and I feel the best I’ve felt in years. I keep trying to decide if I should just be content and accept this as how I look as a 50-something woman, or if I should try to make a change.

I don’t overeat. I do yoga usually five or more days a week, and I often go for a 20-30 minute walk sometime during the day. What more could I do to drop some of this weight?

“Maybe,” I suggested to the nurse, “my husband and I need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV. Maybe we should go back to eating dinner at the table.”

I cringed as I said it. I didn’t want to make this commitment. We had established quite a rhythm during the Season of the Couch. Come home, utter a few words to one another, fill our plates, and plunk down in front a string of meaningless shows. It was quite comfortable. We were together, after all, and we didn’t need to say a lot. Couldn’t we just continue coexisting in our misery?

But I knew, I knew, it was a change that needed to happen.

We were the ones who, when our children were small, ate all our meals at the table. We all ate a big breakfast together before the kids left for school and he left for work. Those who were home with me ate lunch at the table. At dinner, we all gathered for a sit down meal — no matter how fatigued we were, how distressing the conversations got, or how many glasses of milk were spilled (typically three). Although it was sometimes stressful, we valued the face time this gave us as a family.

Even when the kids were teens, we still made an effort to eat breakfast in close proximity to one another (maybe standing with a bagel or a bowl of cereal in hand) and come together for dinner. I’d be lying if I said that every meal was blissful and meaningful — they were not. However, this rhythm allowed a check-in, a reading of the temperature of the room, a moment to gauge the health of the family and the individuals in it. It was sometimes difficult to look all that hurt straight on, but we continued.

I think when we moved — just the two of us — to this little house by the river, we started out at the table. It was natural. He was working all day, and I was taking some time off. Making dinner and setting the table gave me a project in the afternoon. We would sit across from one another, sharing a re-telling of the day, making plans for the upcoming weekend, or discussing a planned purchase or a current event.

But when our bottom fell out and we found ourselves scrambling for something to hold onto, we landed on the sectional in the living room, plates in hands, eating quietly, and watching Jeopardy or Law and Order. It was a comfort to be together, not talking, just existing in our grief.

So we stayed there.

Until I uttered those words, “maybe we need to stop eating our dinner on the couch in front of the TV.”

When I said them, the nurse asked me, “Will your husband be open to that?”

“Well,” I said, “I think he’ll initially grumble a little, but I think he knows we need this change, too. I think he’ll be on board,”

And he was. When I told him my goals, he gave a sigh, then said, “Yeah, I’m in.”

We started that evening. I made dinner, we filled our plates, and instead of walking toward the couch, we sat at the table, across from each other, and practiced having conversation over dinner.

“What was your day like?”

“Have you spoken to any of the kids today?”

“How are your parents doing?”

It was a little awkward at first, using those conventions that we hadn’t used in quite a while, but over time, we remembered how to have a conversation over dinner. We found the rhythm of clearing our plates and putting away leftovers together. We discovered that we can watch a television show or two in the evening rather than scrolling through several.

It might not seem like a big deal, but it was one of the first steps in getting us off the couch and out of the season of grieving.

I met my nurse, Karen, about six weeks ago. My husband and I have carried our plates to the living room three times since then. All of the other nights we’ve eaten together at a table, either at home together or out with friends or family.

We’re talking to each other; we’re laughing. It sometimes feels like we’re celebrating.

And, in a sense we are. Our reason for grieving hasn’t changed, but we have reason to hope that God is in the process of making all things new.

I haven’t lost any weight — not the kind that can be weighed on the scale. Instead, I’ve found some joy that I was beginning to think I wouldn’t feel again.

It seems to me that ongoing nursing care can make a difference in the lives of people with chronic illness (and chronic grief). I’m thankful to Karen and the University of Michigan Nursing School for giving me the opportunity to participate in this study.

I’m not sure this is the kind of change they were hoping to make, but it was the kind of change that we needed.

I will turn their mourning into joy;

    I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

Jeremiah 31:13

Hey, Thanks

A year ago, my husband and I were at the beginning of a season of difficulty. We were experiencing impact from past trauma which was affecting our emotions, our health, our faith, and our finances. Each day, it seemed, revealed new levels of despair, and we felt powerless. So what did we do?

Well, we cried a lot. We sought counsel — pastoral and professional. We prayed — “in groans that words cannot express.” We enlisted a trusted group of prayer warriors — confidants in arms. We made tough decisions. And we watched hours and hours of The Great British Baking Show — no joke, that show was one of the best choices we made last year. So much pleasantry and punniness — you can’t not feel lighter after having watched it.

And yet no quick rescue came.

Instead, month after month we continued — in counsel, in prayer, in judicious adherence to the decisions we had made, and in periodic detachment from reality by way of Brits engaged in a battle of the bake.

And slowly, over time, we began to experience restoration.

I’m reflecting because some friends invited me away this past weekend to engage in some restorative practices. It seems we’re all always walking in brokenness, and sometimes a pause can allow for healing.

We ate great food and talked and laughed. We did yoga together. And then one friend pulled out presentation boards and a pile of magazines, scissors, glue, and markers — she had provided a project. Our goals were broad — to find words and images that could express who we are, where we have come from, or where we are hoping to go.

We sat at a large oval table in front of a window overlooking a frozen lake, quietly flipping through pages, clipping out words and images, and arranging and re-arranging them on our boards. Pandora was playing Lauren Daigle and Corey Asbury, and voices could be heard humming or singing along. We occasionally commented on what we were doing, but mostly we were focused and quiet.

After we had each gathered a pile of clippings, we began the process of arranging them on our boards.

the process

As I experimented with layering images, I discovered themes emerging. I began reflecting on the past year and how our difficulty had led to so. much. healing. One section of my board captures my continued physical healing with images of tea and yoga and aromatic flowers and fruits. Another reflects on the transformation of my spiritual life — praying hands, a solitary walk, and ‘searching the scriptures’. A roll of dollar bills sits on a plate near the words “Reset your expectations” and “God Provides” signifying financial healing.

I was surprised by the number of flowers on my board, particularly after such a long year of grief wherein I cared little about what I wore or how my hair looked, let alone the adornment of jewelry or flowers. But as each bloom grabbed my eye — roses, wildflowers, hibiscus, and lilacs — I tore and clipped. I lavished my board with flowers. I couldn’t seem to get enough, because, guys, I’m not mourning any more. I’m celebrating. I’m thankful.

As I arranged words and images on my board, I was overwhelmed with thanks — for physical healing over the last several years, for spiritual healing in the past several months, and for newly discovered financial healing.

I heard Pastor Brian Wolfmueller say recently that when we give thanks, we “shift our view from doing to reviewing.” That’s what this process of clipping and arranging was for me — an exercise in reviewing.

A long Margaret Townsend quote about the importance of breath sits in the lower right corner near a box of tissues, a hand, and a photo of my husband and me taken at the height of last year’s difficulty. We’re smiling in the photo, but I can assure you that tissues were not far away. I am thankful for this photo because it shows that despite the fact that we were desperate for most of last year, we were committed to being desperate together. In the midst of trauma, our marriage bond was strengthened. We learned the importance of breathing through difficult situations and sitting in them together. One of the reasons that we were able to grow through these very difficult circumstances was the support of loving friends who continually made their presence known in very tangible but unobtrusive ways. They were compassionate rather than judgmental. They loved us when we were hurting.

And I guess that leads me to the last set of images. Our story of unspoken broken is centered in a city. Most of our trauma happened there, so you would think we would want to run from all things urban, but the opposite is true. Although we are safely nestled in a little house on an idyllic little campus, in a cushioned community, our hearts continue to lean toward the city.

Just before Christmas, we traveled to Detroit. We hopped off the highway to get a view of the neighborhoods — to see the brokenness and abandonment and to witness the opportunity for transformation. As I was paging through magazines this weekend, I found images of Detroit and I couldn’t turn past them. We love our life in Ann Arbor — our church, our friends, our jobs. We have experienced so much healing here and are so thankful for all the opportunities we have been given. I don’t know why I was drawn to this photo, but I put the city in the center of my board. It seems to belong there.

finished product

When we were all finished creating, we each retreated to privacy — to soak in a tub, or nap, or write — and then we gathered again. As one-by-one we shared our boards and what we had discovered, I was reminded of one more thing to be thankful for — the community that surrounds me, supports me, weeps with me, and celebrates with me.

I am so, so, thankful. And the words of Pastor Wolfmueller remind me that I can sit here and be thankful to the One who is making all things new. I can review the blessings for a bit. I can focus on what what’s next some other day.

 I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 9:1

Take Care for the Holidays, a Re-visit

Recorded in early morning voice for those who like to listen. Prefer to read? Read on.

As we head into the holidays, let’s gently remember that not everyone in our path is looking forward to reunions. I re-read the words of this blog this morning and remembered writing them through tears last year — we were broken and anticipating feeling all of that brokenness at the holidays. While much healing has happened in the past year, we are still tender enough to remember — and in that remembering, I want to be sure to take care.

Though we may not have admitted it — we are well on our way into the holiday season. It started with emails and phone calls early in October. Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving have already turned into talks about Christmas. Where will we meet? Who will gather? When will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

We begin our talking and planning early because holidays matter.

They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So, each year as we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning, we are tempted to build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week. You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “I am going to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer a few months ago.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on an average Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that. They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety. Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy. Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow or the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in. That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life. My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more, and perhaps, these small acts will begin to bring healing.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Romans 12:10