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?
The question I am asked most often right now is: What is the best way to relate to and care for widows and widowers? It’s usually closely followed by, “I’m afraid I’m going to do something wrong, so I don’t do anything.” First, it’s such a good question. Secondly, I struggle to answer it. I know the ways my community has blessed me, but my situation is only mine. I don’t have a complete worldview on this issue. So I turned to my friends who have been widowed in the past year or so and they sent me amazing input. Then I had a conversation with someone who was recently divorced and was struck by how different our experiences were. That’s when I decided to talk to a few people who haven’t experienced the death of a spouse, but they have experienced the death of a marriage. Now, I’m not sure which one is harder – they’re both so difficult and so different, but both leave us all in the same place: the land of the newly single. We’re different than the always-single. Used to being part of a couple and usually part of a community of couples, this strange land is fraught with frustration and heartache and, in some cases, shame.
These ideas are not my own, though I do share most of them. They are the collective thoughts from my conversations with some of the bravest people I know. They are by no means exhaustive nor universal, but I hope they inspire you to new levels of love and compassion toward the newly single in your life. Here are our thoughts:
It’s never bad to invite us to…well, pretty much anything.
Holidays can be hard and lonely, but so can regular old Tuesdays. Events with mostly couples can be hard, but invite us anyway – we’ll decide if we can handle it or not. And even though we’ve said no once or twice or five times, please keep asking us. Our ability to move out into society changes from day to day, so please don’t be offended if we have to decline a kind invitation – it still felt so nice to be asked into your world.
Be willing to listen long.
We have, in most cases, lost our primary processing person. We don’t necessarily need answers as much as we need to be able to talk our way to a conclusion or solution which is why we may cover the same ground over and over again. It’s tempting to want to give a lot of advice and it’s okay to offer some – but those who listen well are an amazing gift to us.
We appreciate your love for our kids – especially when you run it through us first.
Again, this one can be difficult to navigate because whatever it is that made us single has undoubtedly caused heartache for them as well. We have our eyes out for signs of fallout in their hearts and are cautious to expose them to anything else that might be hurtful. Offers to take them to coffee, or school clothes shopping or on your family vacation are so kind, but there may be reasons it won’t work, so just ask us first.
Here’s a tricky one: be careful in your attempts to set us up.
So, so careful. Some of my newly single friends are eager to welcome the involvement of their married friends in their dating lives, others are not. And across the board, my friends expressed a fair amount of shock and awe at how they’ve been set up and with whom. Let’s tackle those separately, shall we? Now understand, please, that I’M not in the dating market, but I’m going to speak collectively for the people who trusted me with their insight and so it will sound weird, but that’s just how this is going down.
- HOW to set up your newly single friend. Here are the don’ts: No blindsiding. No secret invites of other single friends, hoping they’ll meet, mingle and marry (totally going to trademark Meet, Mingle & Marry for a new dating web site. Because I have time for that.) Here are the do’s: Do ask permission. Do be honest about your motives (wanting to introduce two people who may become friends or more is not bad, it just becomes bad if people feel tricked) Do give your friend a way out if they are not comfortable.
- WITH WHOM: This one is a little tricky to talk about, but talk about it we must. We understand that the dating pool gets smaller as we get older. However, that does not mean our standards shrink along with it. We want someone who shares our beliefs and values. We want someone who has character and integrity. We want someone who – and I can’t stress how many times I’ve heard this, so it must really be a thing – is not crazy. I get that crazy can be subjective and a little crazy can be cute to some – but use good judgement here. And here are some random don’ts:
- Don’t put your friend in a situation that you yourself would not want to be in. Ask yourself: If roles were reversed, would I think this person was a legitimate option for my dating life? Then, add in all the pain and sorrow that comes from divorce or widowhood and multiply by 17 and you have the level of caution and disorientation your friend is feeling as he or she faces the whacky world of dating.
- Do not be offended if your friend asks to see a picture or a Facebook page before committing to a meeting. You would want one, too.
- Do not be offended if, after viewing said Facebook profile, your friend takes a pass.
- Do not be offended if, after one date, your friend doesn’t want another. Love and attraction are entirely subjective and what makes sense to you may not make any sense at all to them, and that’s okay. Almost every one of my friends made a comment along the lines of, “I’d rather have no one than settle for something that doesn’t feel right.” In my conversations, people who had lost their spouse to divorce were much more adamant on this point than those who were widowed. Though walking a spouse all the way to the end of his life is difficult, it also re-emphasizes the beauty and strength of committed love. Those who have watched the wedding vows die, on the other hand, do not always enjoy that same faith in relationships.
- Do not offer the possibility of finding a mate as a source of comfort. “Don’t worry, you’re young – you’ll love again” just really isn’t comforting. It implies that what we lost is replaceable and often times, the thing we lost was our faith in the safety and sanctity of marriage itself. So “again” is loaded with all sorts of emotions.
Speaking of people who have been through a divorce or difficult break up: This one is very tender. Every divorced friend I spoke with had a word in their lexicon that the widowed group did not, and the word is a powerful one: shame. They are carrying the weight of failure, whether perceived or actual. They are often locked in bitter battles for children or property or reputation. They haven’t just lost the friendship of a spouse, each one expressed the depth of pain in losing half their friends or their church or their in-laws. Sometimes they feel that married people eye them suspiciously when they get near their spouses. It is sorrow on top of sorrow.
Widows and widowers usually receive an outpouring of love and sympathy (at least initially), but divorced people are often tragically neglected as communities choose sides and scatter. The bottom line here, however, is love. Be willing to love your divorced friends without condition and without needing explanations or apologies. And in those situations where the social dynamic must change in your relationship (you probably won’t keep having your ex brother-in-law over for Christmas dinner), refuse to get caught up in the mudslide of gossip and slander that so easily rolls through communities (and social media!) in the aftermath of a marriage breakdown. Refuse to throw mud. And love instead. For the sake of broken hearts and hurting children and in honor of the grace of Jesus, choose generous, covering love.
Finally, stay in the game.
Many I talked with mentioned feeling that their friends gradually began to slide out of the picture. Sometimes it’s friend fatigue, sometimes it’s just forgetfulness. Once the initial shock is over, the surrounding community returns to their regular lives while the newly single person stands in the wreckage, wondering if rebuilding is even possible. If you’ve lost touch with someone you love who is rebuilding, it’s never too late to reengage. So many people have told me how sad they are for neglecting to stick close to their hurting friend and that they’re now too embarrassed to reach out. Don’t be that friend. Reach out. No need to over-explain or over-apologize, just say, “Hey I love you and I miss you and I want to get together whenever it works for you.” And then make it work. Because we’re all in this together, guys. And from my side of the newly-single fence: I need you. And I’m so glad you’re in my life.
And hey – single or formerly-single friends – comments are open: what did we miss?