Confession: I visited Steve’s grave last week for the first time. I don’t know why I put off going, but I know I did. It wasn’t an accident or an oversight or, “Wow, look how time has gotten away from me.” It was intentional avoidance of what I thought would be painful, though I wasn’t sure why. I know that’s not the real him. I know it’s just a little plot of land that marks his earthly life while his eternal life is vibrantly strong and whole. But still I waited.
I went on his birthday. We had put off ordering a head stone as we debated what we wanted to write on it – turns out, it’s a lot of pressure to pick the words that will literally be written in stone to mark someone’s life for the rest of all time. I was under the impression the cemetery would put a temporary marker at the site, so we hadn’t rushed our decision, but I was wrong about that. My first feeling upon arrival was disappointment and guilt that my husband was in an unmarked grave, with weeds growing around it. I don’t love flowers – especially silk and/or dead flowers – so we brought golf tees with little tags tied around them to put by the grave. It seemed like a perfect idea at home, but they ended up looking tiny and inadequate. It was a disappointing and difficult experience. And it didn’t dawn on me right away, but in the days that followed, as I sifted through some of the emotional fallout, I think I figured out what was so hard and it’s this:
Visiting Steve’s grave doesn’t reconnect me to the real him, but to the old me; the Wife part of me.
That grave is my responsibility. It is, in fact, my only remaining responsibility from my 30-year run as Steve Stern’s wife.
The day before the visit, I shared some concerns with a friend of mine who then wished me “closure.” I’m not actually sure closure is possible or necessary in regard to the sorrow of losing Steve. That seems like it will be a lifelong journey with different levels of angst or pain along the way. However, my friend was right. After I ordered the headstone, I felt it. Weighty. Crushing. Closure. The wrapping up of my Wife Life. These past few days have been like emptying out the house that had contained my hardest, happiest work and handing the keys back to Jesus. And it has been really hard.
I know it might be tempting at this point to jump in here and tell me I’m still a wife and I’ll always be Steve’s wife and I still have all my memories and other things that I know are meant to comfort, but please resist. This is a road I need to walk and words like that tend to minimize what’s been lost and aren’t actually helpful. I loved being Steve Stern’s wife. I loved cooking for him. I loved hearing his theories on life and golf and friends. I loved encouraging him when things got rough. I loved taking long walks on summer nights. I loved being someone’s very best friend. I loved knowing there was a good chance that, at any given moment, he was thinking about me. I loved knowing that if I disappeared, Steve Stern would search for me til his very last breath. I loved sharing Saturday mornings with him. I loved going to Costco and weddings with him. I loved sitting with him in church. I loved the way he let me read in bed instead of making me go to another room. I loved opening a bottle of wine before we paid bills together. I loved sharing a home and children and a whole, big, wonderful, difficult life with him. These are the things that made a we out of Steve and me and these things cannot be replaced.
Closure. This season is over so much sooner than I wanted it to be. And, yes, the memories remain and I’m grateful for them. But the memories don’t make me feel like a wife any more than photos of vacation make me feel like I’m still in Mexico. Grief, I’m convinced, has no closure. But seasons do. Seasons begin and seasons end. I thought closure would look like comforting resolution, but for me it’s been a sort of painful, gasping resolution. Both work, I suppose.
What happens next? I guess the same thing that happens when you hand the keys of a house over to a new owner. You move into the next one. And even if the next one is a grass hut with a mud floor, you’re still going to hang a few pictures on the walls and find a nice throw rug, you know? I might not get to choose the house, but I think I do get to choose what I make of the place. I want to make this new, single life a good place to call home. I am, in fact, quite determined to do exactly that.
I argued with myself (as I often do) about publishing this one. It feels a little raw to share openly. In the end, I decided that I wanted to put it out there for those of you navigating the shadowlands or the pain of divorce, but also for those of you who are married. I harbor the hope that you might take the chance today to love your sweetheart a little deeper, give grace a little longer and work a little harder to care for the gift you’ve been given. Maybe take a walk or pay some bills together or go on a fancy date to Costco just because you can. That’s my hope, because I love you and I love love.
P.S. One note: I understand that I’m still in process here and that where I land today may not be where I land tomorrow. My feelings will change, but I think there’s beauty in chronicling the way things unfold in real time. I also certainly know that my journey is not universal. The details will be different for everyone; I can only write about mine. Hopefully they will be helpful for some.
I had this light-bulb moment the other day as I was thinking through the advice I give to hurting people who contact me. Actually, I was thinking through the advice I don’t give. At least, not typically. I rarely say: you should see a counselor. And I rarely refer to it in my blog posts.
This is a pretty significant omission and the reason for it might surprise you. I am familiar, and have a lot of experience with, the school of Christian thought that says counseling is bad. All you need is Jesus and your B-I-B-L-E (you stand alone on that thing, for goodness’ sake!) I am not of that school of thought; not by a long shot. The primary reason I rarely mention seeing a counselor is because I pretty much assume that someone going through deep levels of grief has already heard that advice. I take it for granted, I think, and that’s dumb of me. The secondary reason I don’t mention it, is because I don’t want to offend an already-overwhelmed person by implying that they may need professional help – this is also dumb of me. On some level, we probably all need a little professional help. I know I do.
l started seeing a counselor just before my husband was diagnosed with ALS. Shelley helped me process my thoughts and deal with the overwhelming sorrow and anxiety in healthy ways. When I felt like I was drowning, she helped me learn to breathe underwater. I don’t see her regularly now, but I do when I run into a roadblock in my thinking. That happened last week. I hit an issue I could not resolve on my own. I was getting some conflicting advice from people who love me and I knew it was time to bring in the big guns. I sat on her couch yesterday and spilled a million jumbled thoughts. She helped me pick them up, one-by-one, really look at them and decide which could stay and which should go. She helped me adjust my self-talk. And, more than anything, she reassured me that – nine months in – I’m doing okay. I left her office feeling sort of wrung out and exhausted from the process, but I also felt ordered, clear and hopeful about the future. You know what I didn’t feel? Ashamed. I am not embarrassed that I can’t figure everything out on my own. In fact, I am proud of myself for being willing to ask for help when I need it and I think I’ve avoided a lot of time in emotional ditches because I know when to call the tow truck (that’s a weird analogy, but I’m sticking with it.)
As a pastor, people come to me for counseling often. They tell me their issue and I listen and offer biblical perspective. But if the thing they are facing is not primarily spiritual, then I often refer them to a counselor. I don’t have the training to deal with emotional or mental crises and I also don’t have the time that is required to give it the attention it deserves. I’m very particular about who I refer them to because – just like dentists, doctors and hair stylists – there are those I would trust and those I would not. And just like those other professions, sometimes it takes a few tries to find the right one, but the search is worth it for those who are truly committed to building healthy, happy lives.
I don’t know why it’s taken so long to address this on my blog, let’s blame widow-brain, shall we? The conclusion of the matter is this: If you are in a season of deep heartache – for any reason – or if you just need help getting your thoughts to come together and work for you rather than against you, please would you consider making one appointment with someone who can help? The days of the counseling stigma are over, or at least they sure should be, so go ahead and ask your friends for references. Try someone out. Give it a chance. It just might be the very thing that helps you escape (or avoid!) the ditch.
Comments are open – feel free to leave questions you might have and I will answer them if I can.
PS: Hospice offers free grief counseling for their clients and families as do many life insurance companies. If you feel you can’t afford counseling, there are resources out there for those who are willing to do a little digging.
Just a quick note on a beautiful Monday, and it’s mostly a note to myself. It’s a placeholder for a year from now or a decade from now, when I might sift through the words of my history and come upon these and be reminded who I am.
I’ve been wandering a bit recently. Not literally, but emotionally. Faced with a life I haven’t lived before, so many decisions that used to easy are now complex. Things that used to live outside my world are now right here in my own living room. I know my metaphors are vague. That’s on purpose and I’m truly sorry, because I hate when people are vague, but trust me when I say: the details wouldn’t matter much if you knew them. So here’s where my wandering landed: on my couch, in a bit of a heap, asking God to show me something that would help me figure out my future. At the risk of sounding woo-woo, spooky, spiritual – here are the words that came to my mind. I believe they were Spirit-inspired and I think they might help someone else who’s living in a waiting, changing season.
You are like a little girl at an airport, waiting with her Dad for a flight to you-don’t-know-where, but you know it’s good. And you don’t love waiting. It’s boring. And frustrating. And it steals the joy of anticipation of the trip.
You see a hallway. Just a regular, old hallway and you wonder where it leads. You ask your dad, “What’s down that hallway?”
He answers, “Nothing.”
You ask again, “Nothing? Really, nothing?”
You wait a bit and try not to think about the hallway, but it begins to consume your thoughts. It becomes the road less traveled. And so you try again, “But can I go see it?”
Your dad smiles and says, “It’s a dead end, Bo. There’s nothing to see.”
“But pleeeeeze? I just want to see it and all I’m doing here is waiting.”
Again He smiles and says, “Okay, but don’t stay too long or you’ll miss the flight.”
Suddenly, you remember: the flight. This is, after all, why you’re here at all. But…that hallway. This is a conflict that seems easy to resolve. “Okay,” you agree, “I’ll be back with plenty time to spare – what time is the flight?”
Your Dad says gently, “I’ll tell you when it’s time.”
Well, that’s a problem. It will be hard to enjoy the hallway if you have to keep running back and forth to Gate 56 and checking in with your Dad. And yet, you know better than to question Him outright. “So, can you give me a general time frame? Ten minutes? An hour? More? Less?”
He shakes His head, “I’ll tell you when it’s time.”
Frustrated and weary from waiting, you ask, ” Why can’t I know when the flight is going to leave?”
Your Father smiles again and says simply, “Because both of us can’t be sovereign. “
Every day, I hear from grieving spouses. They are either in the process of caring for a terminally ill spouse or have recently lost him or her. The question I am asked most often – by a landslide – is some variation on “Why would God let this happen?” Because I’ve written a lot about the beauty that comes from battle, people often assume that I don’t deal with this question or that I’ve found a magic answer, but neither is true. I don’t have anything in the way of a formulaic answer, but I do think I’ve learned a little about what to do with the question itself. For the next couple of days, I’m going to write about what has worked for me on this and you can feel free to take it or leave it. Also, this may apply to situations beyond losing a spouse after a lengthy illness, but I can’t say that I know that for sure. I write from my battlefield and I know some principles will cross over, but I don’t know how many. Having said all that, here’s Part 1.
I know you want to know “Why?” I know the question is screaming at you for an answer. But the first thing I want to tell you, need to tell you, because I wish someone would have told me, is: you are not okay. I mean this with all the love and grace I possess. But, really, you’re not. If you are in the middle of caring for a dying spouse, or have recently lost one, you probably also:
1. Haven’t slept well in months, maybe years.
2. Have learned to ignore your own physical and emotional needs in order to keep the needs of your spouse first and foremost.
3. Are dealing with a myriad of external stressors related to long-term illness like insurance and money and doctors and paperwork and stuff with children, friends and relatives.
4. Are perhaps even dealing with a fair amount of PTSD.
5. Are really, really sad.
These things are completely normal, but they do not make this a good time to tackle deep, philosophical or theological questions. Imagine a rescue diver who just kept someone afloat in an ocean for hours, treading water, dodging sharks and praying they would both survive it. Now imagine, that as that diver stumbles into the boat, exhausted and overwhelmed, he is presented with a three-page test on bio-chemistry. He might know the answers are out there somewhere, but he is going to need a little time to restore and recover before he can trust himself to think coherently, much less solve complicated problems.
And the thing about this question – this big, beefy, large-consequences question – is that it will wait. It will be there when you’re back at your fighting weight. And when you get to that place, there’s a really good chance the question will look a little or a lot differently than it looks right now.
Let me be clear: you own this question and you have every right to tackle it whenever you want to. But nine months on the other side of my husband’s passing, I’m glad I waited. I’m glad I gave myself permission to shelve some of the big stuff while I learned to know myself again. There were moments when the question thumped like a drumbeat in the background, and I would have to say out loud: “This is not the time for that.” Instead, I focused on breathing deeply, eating well, sleeping again, journaling often, running some trails, loving my tribe and letting something that looked like “normal” seep back into my being. Once I arrived at month four or so, I felt a definite shift in perspective and I could see more clearly, think more comprehensively. Was the question still there? Yes. Sort of. But it wasn’t as weighty and desperate as before. And I had a broader frame of reference to bring to the process of answering it.
I have more to say about the Why God question, but for now, just know this: even if you’re not okay, that’s okay, because you are amazing. You are still standing and still fighting for hope and that makes you heroic. You have questions, I know, but you also have my awe and respect for the way you live and love. May you find all that you need for the day at hand.
Photo credit: www.lifelovelauren.com
(I can’t knit mittens, but I love my grandboys more than anything.)
Someone sent me an article recently about how widows in America are perceived. The author concluded that we are lumped into two categories and they are – hold onto your hats – Grandma or Vixen. The “grandmas” are those who decide to throw their energies into kids and grandkids and – oh, I don’t know – knitting mittens and baking cookies and other things that our tiny minds ascribe to excellent grandmothering. They stop coloring their hair, stop fighting the wrinkles and embrace the wisdom and invisibility that comes with old age. The “vixens” are those who have decided it’s not too late for a second act. They take singles cruises, shop dating sites, invest in botox and aren’t often invited over to couple’s homes for dinner (I’m not making that up – turns out widowers are included far more often in couples’ events, since the women planning the events are not threatened by them.) (I’m also not criticizing the article – it wasn’t bad or accusatory.)
I know. You’re shocked by that grossly oversimplified compartmentalizing of an entire group of women. I was too. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that the heart of it is this: widowed women are generally perceived as either wanting to remarry or not wanting to remarry. In spite of the fact that the institution of marriage has taken a beating in the last few decades, it’s still a central focus in American society. We still love love and romance and weddings. We still subconsciously gauge someone’s happiness by their relationship status. Every time I go out to dinner with couples, I feel the weight of their sympathy at the end as I walk to my car alone. And the reason I think I feel it now that I’m single is because I remember feeling it towards others when I was married. We are a society obsessed with belonging to someone and we assume that most widows are focused primarily on the will I or won’t I question as well.
I certainly don’t speak for all widows on this subject, but I can give a little bit of insider information from those I’m privileged to know. While a few women in my circle have decided that remarriage is absolutely, positively not in the cards for them – now or ever – most have not made that decision. However, I also cannot name a single woman who is dead set on remarriage either. Because it’s so much more complex than that. The idea of marriage is different at this age and stage of life than it was the first time around. Couple of reasons for that:
- We’ve already done it and we know it’s pretty hard. Even those of us who were married to amazing men have very realistic views on the complexities of joining two lives together in holy matrimony.
- We have kids and families in the mix now. Part of what held Steve and I together during the seasons when marriage wasn’t fun was our shared love for the children we created together. It’s hard to imagine sharing a marriage with someone who doesn’t also share your love and commitment to your children. I know it isn’t impossible, it’s just hard to imagine from this vantage point. It’s also hard to envision the seamless mingling of two family entities.
- For widows my age and older, we just don’t need marriage for the same reasons we used to. There are definitely still reasons to want it, they’re just not the same as they were when we were twenty. When I married Steve, I was focused on the family we would create, the home we would build, the ministry we would share, the money we would save. Now, I have all those things, which means I’m making decisions through a different grid.
- We are afraid. We have endured the death of a beloved. In some cases, we cared for them through the long, treacherous process. The idea of loving to that degree again is all tangled up with the very real risk of losing that love again. And it’s almost impossible to consider surviving it again – at least it is for me.
So you can see why it’s a hard question to answer with a Yes or a No. And, I tell you what, I am asked this question a lot (or I wouldn’t waste blog space on it.) At first I was shocked that people asked – not offended, just shocked. Now I’m neither (though I am thankful no one has so far asked: Grandma or Vixen?) My answer – and I believe this would be reflective of many widows I’ve talked to – is this: I haven’t made a decision about the idea of remarriage and I don’t think I need to. The institution of marriage, in and of itself, will never be enough to overcome all the concerns I have enumerated above. However, the possibility exists that somewhere in this great big world is an actual person who could convince me to take a risk on love. Not yet. Maybe not ever. But also: maybe. Someday.
I do not kid you when I say I feel zero inclination to push my way forward on this or to spend any precious minutes worrying about it. I feel 100% peace in living and building this amazing life God has given me, while trusting Him with every person, project and possibility that exists in my future. I don’t want to disappear into grandma’ing, though I love it. I’m also not going to fight my age (except I still color my hair and I won’t apologize for it!) or live on the lookout for someone who will please, please love and validate me. I just want to live out every minute in an all-caps YES toward the plans God has for me and the days He’s already written for my life. And most widows I know are in the very same place. So maybe, in the final analysis, our categories are too weak to hold the weight of life’s complexities. Maybe we should just let widows be women. Regular, wonderful women who want to live and love well with the days they’ve been given. Wouldn’t that be a good start?