When Grief Returns

Wouldn’t it be nice if grief were linear? If it could start at A and end (permanently) at Z?

But grief doesn’t work that way. Working through grief is like peeling away layers of an onion. Some of the layers are really sticky and, most of the time, you’re crying while you do it.

YOU’D THINK 9 YEARS WOULD BE LONG ENOUGH

It’s been almost 10 years since my husband died. I thought I’d worked through every emotion there was. I spent three years in bereavement counseling, another year getting my Certified Grief Recovery Specialist® training and certification, and then the next five leading retreats for widows, and writing a book.

BUT IT CIRCLES BACK

I cried just the other day. Grief hitch-hiked a ride with my son during a discussion about what he plans to take with him when he leaves for medical school next fall. When we opened his closet I gasped for air because starring back at me was the gorgeous framed black and white wall portrait of me and his Dad, taken the year we were married. We were both in leather jackets, leaning against a white marble wall at the art museum, clearly in love. That picture broke my heart open again.

AND YOU HAVE TO BREATHE THROUGH IT

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t drowning underwater again like I was in the beginning. I’ve done a lot of healing! Because I’ve done my work with my grief, I knew the only way to get over this moment was to move through it and breathe into the memory. So I made eye contact with that younger me and pulled the love on his face and mine deep into my heart, where I’ll keep it as a treasure. I won’t put the wall portrait back up, it’s not helpful to endlessly sit with reminders of the past.

TREASURE THE MEMORY AND LET GO OF THE HURT

I’ve found that treasuring the memories that are stored in my grief is a key strategy for healthy recovery and happiness. There are lots and lots of memories after twenty-three years of marriage and I’m lucky that most of them are happy ones. Knowing that I was that deeply loved by him helps me remember to love myself more than I often remember to.

What helps you when grief circles back?

Check out my new book: Navigating Loss: A Survival Guide

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Love to you this day and always, Donna Marie

Repairing What We’ve Lost

I went to Zombie land today (also known as the home improvement store) because I’m in the process of some apartment repair and Dane and Davey needed more supplies. (When you get into a project like this, the supply lists breed like mice.)

Pulling in next to all the dualie trucks loading lumber was humbling. The dualies remind you that you are a woman entering a man’s world before you even venture inside. I slid the straps of my quilted leopard-print mask around my ears and began practicing my construction-speak on the way in. “Yeah, listen, gimme some almond switchplates, 3 with two and a 3, matching outlet covers, and 3 GFI’s. Oh, and throw in a white 30 inch range hood, self-vent.”

Thanks to Dane’s coaching and careful instruction I actually knew what all those things and I didn’t ask for “electrical thingies” in that embarrassing way women do. He teaches by the show-and-tell method, pantomiming his electrocution to explain the GFI, which I now know is a ground fault interrupter, and helping me count how many openings each switch-plate had (1, 2 or 3! Who knew? Seriously, I would have bought the wrong ones I’m sure).

My rehearsal was worth every minute. The clerk typed in my order, no questions asked, took my money, and then I moved to stand on an X in the delivery area, which is where this story actually starts.

Because you see, I haven’t been out in the world for over two months. And I found being thrust into the presence of all these people I didn’t know, who had also not been out in the world for two months, disconcerting, disorienting really. I was afraid of bumping into someone I knew and equally afraid of people offering to cut my hair. Who knew cutting your partner’s hair was the new disco dance?. Waiting on my orange X, feeling like a kid in kindergarten again, worried about who I would meet or who would cut my hair, I suddenly felt very silly because no one was making eye contact with me. People moved slowly and furtively past me as if they were on the other side of some invisible wall and were afraid of  getting caught and deported.

I know the politicians have said American is again open for business, but the grand reopening seemed forced and sad, hopeless even. Maybe helpless is a better word. And suddenly this awkward helplessness I was feeling, reached back and connected to something I’d felt 9 years ago.

For the first few months after my husband Perrin died, I didn’t venture out much. I didn’t want to have those awkward, impersonal encounters in the grocery store or post office. I hadn’t slept much or gotten my hair cut and I looked a wreck. My brains had fallen out and my emotions were all over the map and frankly, I was still working on feeling safe most of the time, just like now. My world was upside down and I was trying to make some sense of it, just like now.

Because my brains had fallen out, I couldn’t remember peoples’ names, which was embarrassing. Of course they couldn’t remember my husband’s name either, so I guess we were even.  “Oh! I’ve been thinking about you!” some vague acquaintance would say, “I’ll bet you miss Tadd. But we’ve all been wondering, was he a drinker” Who? Admittedly, Perrin is an unusual first name but Todd is a fairly ubiquitous last name. Not quite as common as Smith but close. Encounters like this made me want to stay inside.

Just like my grief then kept me on guard, socially isolated, and withdrawn, the COVID pandemic seems to be doing the same thing to me.

I’ve had so many memories arise lately from other helpless moments in my life, too: signing my Mom into hospice, taking the keys to my Daddy’s electric scooter so he couldn’t run away from the nursing home, and standing in a bitter November wind, listening to the kids in the marching band play hymns as people arrived at Perrin’s funeral, the black plumes on their hats blown back by the wind, tears streaming down their faces, and mine.

Memories are swirling with reality; fear is mingling with fact. Like kissing cousins at a cocktail party, this is my daily bread. These are my pandemic thoughts and I spend too much time on too many days sorting them all out. What will happen when we mingle, will infections rise? How many people will be evicted from their apartments  when 38.6 million Americans have applied for unemployment while corporations took the lion’s share of the small business loans. It’s business as usual and yet it isn’t. We’re navigating a whole new world.

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In Loving Memory of Mothers


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My Father, the Rev. Dr. Ross Evans, was a master gardener. Like St. Francis, he spent much of his devotional life pushing compost into the soil and coaxing tiny seeds into columbine, hand-plucking Japanese Beetles into a jar of gasoline for daring to attack his roses, and training Morning Glories up a trellis. He grew these for the sheer joy of seeing new life and beauty. But he tended his tiny bed of Lily of the Valley for one reason and one reason only: To shape their bell-laden blooms and elegant leaves into a boutonniere for his clerical suit lapel on Mother’s Day.
 
It was his way of honoring the woman who gave him birth and filled his early life with deliceious homemade carbohydrates of every description: Biscuits, homemade breads and cakes, dumplings, pies, and griddle corn (a kind of fried mountain cornbread). When my parents came to live with me in their early eighties, he pressed me hard for recreations of these artful carbohydrates, I was a competitive baker in state fairs at the time, and I’d won a few ribbons, and while I tried hard to reach his expectations, my culinary creations just never quite measured up. And I wondered why.
 
Now that I’ve lost some people dear to me too soon, and had time to think about that, I think his childhood memories were so precious to him that he enshrined them. He enshrined all those cakes and dumplings and biscuits. I see this all the time with the widows I work with, I’ve done it, too! We polish up the images of those we loved, because it makes living without them a little easier.
 
Daddy’s mother died when he was nine. She needed an emergency appendectomy and the tiny hospital in Glendale West Virginia only had one doctor. The doctor did a great job of getting her appendix out but he killed her with the anesthesia. When they brought her home, she laid in the living room, with coins on her eyes, for three days.
 
Her family were farmers in Pennsylvania and they couldn’t make it to the mountains in time to say goodbye. You couldn’t just leave dead people in your house much longer than three days. So it was just his father’s brothers who came, and a few neighbors. This was in the days before children had feelings, too, so no one hugged him or held him. His sixteen year-old sister was suddenly expected to take over her mother’s role, and she was busy cooking like mad to feed the people at the wake while tending to a two- year old, and, unbeknownst to the mourners, pregnant herself from her affair with a steel worker.
 
Daddy told me that he watched his mother from a corner of the couch, trying not to fall asleep, refusing to be put to bed at night, just to see if she would wake up in answer to his prayers. She didn’t. It was his first experience of hearing God say, “No.” and it shaped how he approached his parishioners’ denial and anger in his long years of ministry. At my Daddy’s funeral, many a person commented about how understanding he was when they expressed hard truths. I think his Mother’s early death was the seed God used to grow his empathy for ministry.
 
One day his Mother was there and the next she was gone. So every year he carefully created his Lily of the Valley boutonniere and placed it on his black wool lapel to say goodbye to the first woman he loved, and honor her in his heart.
 
In these frightening and isolated days of COVID-19, many people are celebrating Mother’s Day without their mothers, some of them for the first time. And because of this isolation, there’s no one there to hug away the heartache. So know that in this strange time, I’m holding the loss of these loving mothers, and you, deep in my heart.

Wired for Connection

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In Psalm 57, as he’s hiding in a cave from a murderous King Saul, David writes:

Be gracious to me, O God, be gracious to me,
For my soul takes refuge in You;
And in the shadow of Your wings will I take refuge
Until destruction passes by.

Until destruction passes. Wow. It seems that still might be a while. Politicians can’t seem to agree on when a safe time to come out from under the covers will be. Neither can the medical professionals and epidemiologists. Nobody knows where this virus is headed. It’s our first time at the rodeo with COVID. Even the oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, is sitting on his wallet. He’s not grabbing up bankrupt companies at fire sales like he did in 2008, even with his $185 billion in available cash. Even “The Warren” is unsure of where we’re headed now.

Which puts all of us in the middle of a crap shoot.

I don’t know about you, but this prolonged lack of contact is straining my emotional DNA. It’s at times like this that I need to remember: I am only an animal. I say this not in a disparaging way, but in a realistic one since, as mammals, we have extra wiring for social connection and protection.

You only have to watch a community’s response to a tornado, or a dance contest on a cruise ship, to see this social hard-wiring at work. The development of our 6-layered neo-cortex, a part of the brain unique to mammals, gave us this social capacity and as this capacity grew, our brains grew larger and larger and we became hardwired to give and receive social connection. This hard-wiring for social connection is what enabled us to become the most successful, and dangerous, creatures on the planet.

In his wonderful book “Resilient” neuroscientist Rick Hanson writes, “In an evolutionary spiral, the survival benefits of relationship for our primate and human ancestors encouraged the development of a more “social” brain, which enabled even more complex relationships, which called for an even more capable brain…” He goes on to say, “Being dependent may sound like a weakness, but it is one of our greatest strengths. Spreading to the farthest corners of the globe, even walking upon the moon, humans have become so wildly successful through depending on each other…”

And now here we are, alone. No 1970’s dance contests, no pints at the pub, no dinners out when just want a waiter to get you more tea, no hugs from friends at the store, no hugs or a funeral when you lose someone. It’s killing us, this second pandemic of loneliness.

As complex social creatures, this separation from one another is altering our personal realities. The complex regions of our brain that are wired for social connection are hurting and it’s a pain that we all feel. This hard-wired connection is not something we can turn on and off. COVID-19 is pressing us up against a wall that was built millions of years ago by our ancestors for evolutionary reasons: We formed social groups to survive and thrive.

But now, our COVID-19 isolation has gone on long enough that we’re coming apart at the seams. We mourn the loss of those hugs, those dinners with friends, those toasts around the table, the shared empathy of our community when someone falls seriously ill or dies.

Our brains are reeling from the lack of this essential connection. We’re sleeping too much, or we’re too anxious to sleep at all. We’re hyper-focused or we can’t concentrate. We’re snappy one minute and balling our eyes out over a song on Facebook the next. We’re eating everything or drinking everything in sight while we either hoard or ration toilet paper.

Now most of the messages from those in charge say you should look for the positive, put a smiley face on that, damn it, suck it up!  Think of it like a vacation—try a new board game or recipe!

But none of these messages are the truth, and none of them are the answer, and we all know it. The truth is, we’re hurting. Until we can truly be together again in safety, the only road forward is to treat ourselves kindly with extreme self-compassion.

You can’t fight this second pandemic of social isolation with self-bullying. But you can protect yourself by understanding that you are an amazing, complex mammal, wired for social connection.

Walking Hand-in-Hand

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I met them yesterday when I was finishing up a spring walk, a handsome couple in their early 80’s. Tanned from a life in Florida. She was admiring the neon lilac azalea in my yard, and when I saw her lean on my fence and take him by the sleeve and point to it with wonder, I was moved to ask if she would like a bouquet to take home. She eagerly nodded yes, her face glowing like a child being offered an ice cream cone. There’s a luminescence that comes to our faces when we draw near to the veil and they were both wearing it.

I’ve seen the glow many times before. I imagine you’ve seen it on the faces around you. I watched it light up my Mother and Daddy, and then my husband Perrin. It’s a sign for those who are privileged to see it.

I put my dogs in the house and cut a bouquet for her, heavy with bloom and scent. My lilac azalea is the only one I’ve ever known to have a scent and when she caught wind of it, she breathed deeply with delight. “Oh, it’s lovely! Thank you!” she said, her pale, beautiful blue eyes crinkling; a smile poured wide across her still-lovely face. And then she took his frail hand in hers and they walked slowly down the street to the condos at the end, handsome dwellings built by Presbyterian missionaries as a place to retire after foreign appointments.

Seeing them walk hand-in-hand made my heart ache. My husband and I held hands on walks and it’s one of those little things I really miss. There’s such a sweetness to long-term devotion.

I returned to my office and tried to get back to work, getting ready to publish my book about surviving widowhood only to be held hostage by nagging doubts. You know the kind. The ones that crawl up in bed with you at night and whisper worries in your ear. “Everybody’s afraid of getting COVID now, people aren’t worried about the ones it will leave behind or those ones abandoned by cancer and strokes. I don’t even know why you’re writing it.”

Those doubts all but paralyzed me by morning, and I woke up feeling pretty bleak, because I’ve put a lot into this new book. But, then I remembered something that Michael Craig Miller, the former editor of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, told me as I was writing this book “Something as simple as a daily walk has been shown to improve mood,” so, emboldened his words, I leashed my dogs and set out down the street.

We took our constitutional, which did improve my mood, and then as we walked back up our street an ambulance pulled up to the condos. When the paramedics took out the stretcher I stopped right then and said a prayer, because I sensed another widow had just been born. And I was so glad that I had been moved to give her a bouquet of sweetly scented azalea.

Seeing that ambulance was like a slap in the face, because that was how my husband left home, too. It helped me remember why I am writing this. I’m writing it for her. I’m writing it for the Fifteen million people who are widowed in the United States, men and women.

I’m writing NAVIGATING LOSS: A Survival Guide for the Newly Widowed because when death turns your life upside down, sweet as it is, you need more than a scented bouquet. You need a flashlight to see the way ahead because they’re not there anymore to hold your hand.  

Is it time for you to rest?

It’s winter. All of nature is resting because all living things need rest.

We humans are the only creatures that don’t take the winter off. When the days grow short and darkness comes early, the wild things burrow in and take a nap. But we turn on the lights and watch TV or surf the net or catch up on work. While we drive ourselves to keep producing, nature takes a four-month vacation. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I took a four-month vacation.

My husband died in November and by the time the holidays were over it was all I could do to pull myself out of bed and get dressed before three. But I kept pushing myself. Which was not a good thing, because when you’re trying to manage grief you need sleep.

You see, grief is cellular and you only renew your cells when you sleep. So don’t whip yourself up for wanting to sleep a bit more. (Maybe for the next seven years in fact.) Because in seven years every cell in your body will be different! Your cells are turning over, recreating themselves every day. When you rest, you help your body restore.

So I invite you to take a moment now to rest and relax into the world of story for a breath or two.

When I was 7 we lived in a big Victorian house with a little tiny yard in Parkersburg West Virginia back in the day when everyone grew a garden. It was just what you did.

A lot of people grew vegetables but my preacher Daddy only grew flowers, especially roses. He had all the popular ones: the shimmering white, fragrant JFK, the pink Queen Elizabeth grandaflora, and the everything a great rose should be velvety red Mister Lincoln with its 6 inch blooms.

The roses ringed our yard in carefully cultivated organic beds. When the Japanese beetles got on his roses, no pesticide would touch their flesh. Daddy would fill a small glass jar with gasoline and borrow the tweezers from Mother’s vanity. He’d get up before dawn, crouch between the roses like a ninja warrior, wait for the sun to rise and illuminate the beetle’s iridescent shells, and then one by one tweeze them off, drop them into the gasoline, and watch them fight for their lives all the way to the bottom of the jar in some weird return to WW Two.

But then my mother’s mother, a 100 pound, 94-year-old mountain matriarch came to live with us and she had no use for roses: “too many thorns, too much trouble.” She had been widowed for 20 years and reared 5 kids in the Great Depression. She was modeling widowhood for me, although I didn’t know it at the time. When she came to live with us at Thanksgiving she decreed that she would have a vegetable garden that spring, which was a problem, because the small amount of yard that was not taken up by my swing set was already planted with Daddy’s flowers and roses. But Grandma couldn’t see that because the flowerbeds had died back, so she didn’t know a problem was brewing.

In January the Burpee seed catalog came and as Grandma washed the dishes after supper she debated the virtues of corn: Silver Queens vs Country Gentlemen and tomatoes: Mr Stripeys vs Beefstakes, while Daddy sat in his armchair by the fire, crouched behind the Jackson and Perkins rose catalog, eyeing the latest All American tea roses and floribundas.

I made paste Valentines in February while Grandma ordered enough seeds to plant a small farm and Daddy closed the door to his study and ordered two new All American tea roses and a flashy floribunda.

The snow melted.

Daddy dug up the ground around our swings for his new tea roses and grandma snuck in and planted peas around the feet of the swing-set before staking out a row of tomatoes next to his dahlias.

Daddy built a new trellis and planted his hot pink floribunda. Grandma planted silver queen and runner beans on the other side. Every square inch of our back yard that was not taken up by our swing set that year held roses and turnips, dahlias and runner beans.

By the time the family reunion came in July, my sister and I had no place to play because Grandma’s peas had climbed the swing-set and were spilling down the slide. It doesn’t take long for things to crowd out your life, does it?

So as these last few days of winter coat the world in frost take a cue from Mother nature: send your roots deep into the quiet and rest.

Rest is what you need to restore yourself from death.

If you want enduring relief from grief, if you want to recover your life and live happily without guilt then join the online Widows Recovery System. A new program starts February 15! Email me to learn more.

Life is born in the dark

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Have you ever been afraid of the dark?

When I was a young child I had night terrors that involved alien beings. Once or twice a year, I would awake in the wee hours of the early morning to find them moving about my bedroom, looking at me with their luminous, tear-shaped eyes. They were hairless and wore draped clothing that reminded me of my father’s clerical robes, minus the velvet doctoral stripes on the sleeves. They spoke in voices that were more murmurs than sound, like the static on my grandmother’s old console radio when she forgot to turn it off after the baseball game. The aliens were tall, with swollen bellies, long arms, and fingers oddly shaped like suction cups that felt like the rubber gloves my mother wore to wash the dishes. They were creepy to say the least but what was really frightening was that I was unable to speak or move in their presence. My mind would not obey me. If I tried to get up or scream nothing happened. And, I couldn’t see through their eyes into their souls like I could with real people. Instead, their eyes reflected my room back to me like the warped antique silvered mirror in the hall. It was scary, even now I get chills thinking about it. I don’t remember being hurt by them but I was terrified of my own helplessness.

I’m still am. I haven’t had alien dreams since I was twelve or thirteen but I often fear my own helplessness. It infuriates me when I find myself unable to speak or move when I most need to. (I’m working on that.) Working on freeing my voice to speak out when someone says something unthinkingly mean. (I’ve discovered that usually when people say unthinkably, untruthful mean things it’s because they’re threatened and that’s how they make themselves feel safe, and while I get that, it doesn’t make it hurt any less.)

But the worst part is, when you’re afraid of the dark, you can’t see all the beautiful things that are being born in the safety of that darkness.

Like babies for instance. I can still remember the astonishment I felt with every inch of growth my son made inside my womb. I remember how, as he expanded into his 25-inch, 9-pounds, 6-ounce breech-baby self, my hips had to shift apart and my organs had to find new places to live. I am still amazed that my body could do that.

Or bulbs! Think of those! The ugly-ducklings of the flower world! Two amaryllis grace my home now, their flower heads rising taller each day from what appears to be a long-dead onion. Around Valentine’s Day they’ll burst into enormous white and red blooms and fill my home with their stately beauty. Not bad for a long-dead onion.

And even now, inside of me, new things are being born. On these soft, cloudy days of winter, a book is taking shape, words are spilling onto the page, stories are surfacing, illustrating the movement I experienced as I moved from new widow to recovered woman.

If I can hold on just long enough to not be afraid of the dark, very often miracles happen. (Statistically speaking, all life is a miracle, but that’s a topic for another day.) As winter wraps herself around you like a heavy velvet cape get ready for something special because in the safety of this darkness, something beautiful is being born inside you.

Get more of what you really need.

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New Years 2020

Sleep: the fountain of youth, restorer of dreams, maker of magic, the ultimate healer of the exhausted soul.

After the Christmas madness ended I slept. For 10 hours. I curled up inside, stretched myself out against it, allowed it to snuggle my sore and fragile places. Sleep balmed them and restored them as only she can.

I call sleep a she for who but a mother could see the weariness of her child and gently lead them to bed, tucking the warmth of the covers under their chin, stroking their face and smoothing their head with her soft hand, singing a lullaby to woo them into dreamland. Of course sleep is a woman.

I slept in my sixteenth birthday present: the cherry-wood canopy bed made by my Godfather Russ as the rain began in the mountains of NC. A gentle yet steady, slow into the night, watering the earth one drop at a time. My husband Perrin always called this kind of rain a mountain rain. He held fond memories of it from youthful days cavorting in the woods of my next-door neighbor, Montreat, the Presbyterian holy of holy lands. This kind of rain is soft and steady with a comforting, yet uneven, rhythm. It gets the job done and sometimes stays for days at a time until the streams begin to dance against their moss-covered banks and sing as they rush over large, smooth stones. Stones that often appear curiously placed, like the melting turrets of a child’s sand castle in the surf.

When sleep and rain came together this time, I found the restoration I so desperately needed. I had been on the road for months and then faced the hasty scurrying for the holiday. Before I gave into it, I felt like an anxious squirrel gathering nuts before the earth freezes over and the snow begins or perhaps a vintage Ferrari that barely made it to the garage before finally running out of gas, whichever metaphor works for you is fine. The important thing to understand is that I was tired.

Traveling in and out of cities this fall from Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois and back to the beaches of North Carolina, I swapped stories with the honestly aching souls of humanity, holding the pain they felt safe enough to share, seeing the frenzy of modern living in all the eyes that gazed back at mine. And you know what? I felt so honored to do the work I do as a storyteller with people I love and respect because I’ve discovered we’re all wounded and in need of understanding and restoration. It’s no wonder Mother Sleep keeps trying to put us to bed.

So as we enter a new decade of life, instead of making unrealistic “resolutions,” Perhaps we should make ourselves a sacred promise or two instead. Make a promise to spend more time comforting our soft inner selves and spending a few more hours in the arms of Mother Sleep, who just wants her children to be rested and happy.

Dear friend, here’s wishing you all the best in this new decade of life! If there’s any way I can help you have a happier, healthier 2020, please let me know and let’s talk!