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

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

Righting the Course, Re-visit

I wrote this post last year, while my husband and I were on our annual vacation. This year, we were supposed to be on a 30th anniversary celebration trip, but due to Covid-19, we are instead resting at home — not North, not South, not East, not West. Nevertheless, we have had time for rest, for recovery, and for remembering and celebrating the course we’ve been on.

Three years ago at the end of May, my husband and I retreated north, so far north that we couldn’t get a cell signal. We each brought the materials we would need to plan the courses we’d be teaching that fall. Away from the Internet and the daily routine, we found time to go for walks, take naps, eat well, and outline goals and objectives for our in-coming students.

Two years ago, we escaped south — we spent two weeks in Fort Myers and even rented a car and drove south, south, south, until we got to Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States. We didn’t plan for classes on that trip — no, we’d been particularly busy all year, so we devoted time to beach exploring, CSI Miami binge-watching, puzzling, and pleasure reading.

Last year was the year of the Great British Baking Show — the year of sitting on our couch, the year of grief, the year of remembering how to breathe. We didn’t go north or south — we were doing well to stay right where we were.

This year, in the middle of winter, we marked off this week to head north. Our bags are packed, and we’ll soon be on our way. We won’t be writing any courses this year, but we may continue ‘righting our course’.

We’ve been ‘righting our course’ since we came to this little house by the river. We weren’t really planning on that. We knew it would be a new season with our kids all moving into adulthood and us moving back to our home state, but we didn’t really know how much our lives would be under reconstruction.

We knew that we were stepping into change — my husband was leaving congregational ministry and moving into a much different role at a university, our kids were moving on, and I was committing to healing. What we didn’t know was that my physical healing was just the beginning. Our move back to Michigan would be the start of a much more global transformation.

We’d been living a propped up existence — caulking leaks and mending seams with duct tape — for a long time. We’d been moving too fast to make thorough repairs in the moment, so we’d patched up what we could and just kept moving, unaware of the extent of the underlying structural damage caused by years of neglect. My health crisis was the impetus for slowing down and dealing with the repairs, and once we started looking, we kept finding more and more projects. However, since life doesn’t have a pause button so that you can do a full renovation before you move on to the next chapter, our reconstruction has been a work in progress.

In the past five years, we’ve witnessed our children move into adulthood — facing and navigating obstacles, chasing and re-defining dreams, finding and losing love, losing and finding themselves. We’ve watched, supported, and done our best to encourage, while we have at the same time found ourselves figuratively pulling down dated wallpaper, exposing water-damaged drywall, and tearing up old floor boards.

As each project has presented itself, we’ve surveyed the damage with crossed arms and furrowed brows, and have then chosen — sometimes reluctantly — to do the hard work of repair. We’ve addressed our health through different approaches to diet, exercise, physical therapy, and medication under the supervision of myriad medical professionals. We’ve examined our emotions through intentional work together, separately, and with therapists. We’ve explored our work/life balance through experimentation with different levels of responsibility and various forms of recreation. We’ve invested in our spirituality by spending time with our congregation, our small group, and our own individual study. And bit by bit, little by little, things are starting to come together.

And, now that we are able to sit comfortably in this reconstructed existence, we are finding ourselves sipping tea, taking walks, and questioning our thinking — testing long-held positions on most every imaginable topic.

Every day it seems, my husband and I look at one another and say, what’s God doing here? how do we feel about that? why do we feel this way? what steps should we take? what needs to shift? how do we still need to heal? what is the root of this problem? what is our part in the solution? where are we going? what are we doing?

We don’t have any answers — just a lot of questions.

This is new.

We have been the leaders, the doers, the deciders for most of our adult lives. We have written the courses, made the plans, and mapped out the journeys for ourselves and others. We have called the shots, made snap decisions, trusted our guts, and driven the bus.

But guys, we found ourselves on a course set for collapse.

And now that we’ve taken stock and submitted to a period of reconstruction, our posture is very different. We are realizing that life is full of nuance and complexity: we couldn’t possibly know all there is to know. We have admitted that we got some stuff wrong, and, we are asking some serious questions.

And the interesting part of all this is that, now in our fifties, we aren’t scared. In fact, I would say that we are energized. We’re reaping the benefits of the changes we’ve made in these last five years, and we are on the edge of our seats, big goofy grins on our faces, waiting to see where the questions lead us.

So this trip north is going to be a little different. We’ve packed sweatshirts and flip flops, notebooks and pens, trail mix and tea, and so many questions. We’ll carry them with us — tucked in our pockets, shoved in our bags, and strapped to the roof of the car. We may take them out and look at them, we may discuss a few, and we may leave a few on the beach among the rocks, but I am picturing most of them will come back with us unanswered. And that does not discourage me, in fact, it’s a relief, because I am reminded that we are no longer in the season of having all the answers.

We have moved comfortably into the season of holding all the questions. And you, know, I’m starting to like it here.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

John 6:68