Tuesday, July 13, 2010

On Coping (Essay for Class)

If I had been asked to write this reflection nine months ago, I would have written that coping with stress was often simple. Adjusting to life’s challenges was relatively easy. I knew who I was and I was confident about the direction my life was taking. I was engaged to a wonderful man, I was a part-time seminary student, and I was following God’s call for my life. What more could I ask for? Of course there were days when my stress level was high, but all I had to do was pick up my cell phone and call Brian. He instantly knew something was wrong by the sound and tone of my voice. He instinctively knew what to say or do to calm me down or to make me look at my problems in a more rational manner. Brian was my buffer against the world. He was the extrovert while I am more introverted. He was levelheaded while I am emotional and sensitive. While we both had high personality traits of being open to experiences as well as agreeableness, his extroversion was balanced by my conscientiousness. And, importantly, Brian was able to inject humor into our conversations as a way to help me smile, relax, and laugh in the midst of stressful life situations. Or, he would suggest that we head to the gym for a long, stress-reducing workout.

But, that was nine months ago. That was before my world, as I knew it, and my entire being plunged into chaos. On September 23, 2009, Brian died very suddenly and very unexpectedly. Over night my life changed. My soul was ripped in half and I was left to live with these jagged edges. My heart was shattered into tiny fragments and they will never fit together in the same way. I am forever altered by this loss. I used to be part of a couple—Brian and Linda or Linda and Brian. I used to be happy, content, and filled with joy. I used to be normal—whatever constitutes normal. But now, I am Linda grieving. Many nights I fall into bed totally exhausted because the stress of grieving is taking a toll on my body. Other times I experience anxiety and panic attacks. Sometimes my thought processes are slow, sluggish, or non-existent. I cry easily. I have learned that grief affects people on multiple levels—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. And, since this class is about adjustments, I have to honestly admit that I am in the middle of the greatest adjustment I have ever faced in my life. To be authentic, I have to address the class lessons as they apply to my life in the midst of this chaos.

The first chapter of our textbook spoke of the “paradox of progress.” In reality no matter how many devices we buy or how much technology we acquire, we cannot buy more time. Time, in this human realm, is finite. We may not know when our lives will end but we know that they will. Living in a society which links happiness with materialism—a larger house, a newer car, a bigger television—is innately stressful. Material items don’t guarantee happiness. Rather, they encourage people to want more and more. As a result, people work longer hours while hoping that perhaps tomorrow, next week, or next year they will have a chance to slow down and enjoy life. They sacrifice time with their families believing that once they have achieved that goal or mastered that accomplishment, they will be content. And then, they will have the opportunity to focus on relationships, to make up for missed opportunities. What I have learned since September 23rd is that what matters most to me in this life is my son, my two cats, my relationships, my faith in God, and this one box which contains my cherished memories of Brian—pictures, cards, note, tapes, treasures. Progress, as defined by society, is not really progress at all. True happiness and contentment come from realizing what is important—relationships, people, and a connection with God (or whatever higher power one believes in). The death of someone you love, someone who left this world with half of your soul, abruptly changes the way you look at life. And, it requires new coping skills and fresh ways to adjust—it requires reorientation. It means finding a way to live again, a new way to define self. What used to work is no longer relative. The world has changed—or at least my perception of the world has changed.

It is difficult to cope and adjust to life without the person with whom I was chasing my dreams. It is hard to grasp what my future will hold and how I will be able to learn to live life fully again. I always understood that grief would take a toll mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I was not prepared for the physical impact. I never expected such great anxiety and initially I could not comprehend the panic I was feeling. And, I did not know that I would have to find a new way to define who I am. These are just a few of the adjustments I am actively working on as I grieve. Many days I am exhausted because my sleep patterns have changed. On any given night I may find myself awake at 3:00 a.m. unable to fall back to sleep. My eating habits have changed. When Brian first died, I didn’t want to eat at all. Now, I eat because it is required to sustain life. How can I continue to cope with this chronic stress and exhaustion which attacks me on a daily basis? What strategies have I tried and have they been successful? I willingly admit that I have used both positive and negative coping strategies in an effort to deal with the stress of grieving. I am learning that the positive strategies are more beneficial.

On a positive note, I have sought out social contacts—family, friends, my counselor, and my spiritual director. Many of my friends are supportive by offering love, compassion, and care. They listen and are willing to sit with me in my pain. However, I have also learned that some people don’t know how to deal with me right now. Some want to fix me but don’t know what to do. Some are unable to be present with my pain and tears. Some are scared to acknowledge my loss because it means the same thing could actually happen to them. Some just do not understand the process of grief—that it is not linear but more like a spiral. I have realized that for now I need to be mindful of taking care of myself and sometimes this means that I cannot be in the presence of those who merely offer platitudes or change the subject when I want to talk about Brian. In our society, many are afraid of death and do not want to face their own immortality. I have also learned that I am now part of a new “in group” and it is a group nobody wants to join. I am a person who has lost her significant other. Other members of this “in group” have important lessons to share with me. Initially a few members of my church who lost their spouses contacted me to offer support and to walk with me on this journey. Previously we were acquaintances. Now, we are friends. I also found amazing support through an on-line network of people who are grieving the death of a spouse or significant other. I have been blessed to meet some of my new friends in person; others will remain internet friends because they live across the country or on the other side of the world. But, all of us understand the devastating pain of this loss and the need to vent our feelings in a safe environment. In all honesty, this group has helped me the most because they truly understand. There is no place for platitudes. Rather, we share a deep connection and a sense of peace knowing that we are not alone. And, this helps to ease the loneliness which is prevalent as I try to live without the other half of my soul.

Recently while talking with my counselor (who I see ever two weeks), I asked if she thought I had the characteristics of hardiness and optimism—two additional traits which will influence my ability to handle stress. She assured me that I do and that these traits will help me as I attempt to heal from this loss. I never really thought of myself as being hardy but now I am able to look at the term, and myself, a bit differently. I will find a way to survive this loss. I will persevere. It is always going to be with me; but some how, some way, I will adjust and find a new way to live. I believe the fact that I am willing to explore a variety of options as I try to heal attests to my hardiness. In addition to counseling, I have been going for bi-monthly massages with energy work as a way to heal both my body and my soul. I am optimistic that I will grow through this loss. I believe that some day when my seminary education is done, I will become a better, more compassionate pastor. I believe I will be able to sit with others who are grieving. I will be able to listen as they share their pain and I will guide them through the journey of grief. I now have a deeper understanding of what to say, and perhaps more importantly, what not to say. I do not pretend to know what my future holds, but I know as long as I have faith and a bit of optimism, there will be a place for me at the end of this journey—when my new journey will begin. While I used to focus on congregational ministry, my present experiences have revealed the importance of hospital chaplains and grief counselors. These are both viable options for my future, but, for now I am content to live in the mystery of the present. And, I understand that there are never any guarantees.

It is a bit difficult to explore the less positive ways that I have tried to cope with my overwhelming grief, however, I accept the fact that many of these attempts were done unconsciously. At first I experienced complete denial—this was not happening to me, to us. Rather, I thought Brian was going to walk through the front door any minute. I know this was a defense mechanism which is prevalent during great loss and stress. This numbness was my mind’s way of protecting my body because I could not handle the level of shock I was experiencing. Reality often gave way to fantasy. I was struggling to wrap my brain around the chaos of this new life. I remember realizing that I was working hard at this grief work with the belief that it would bring Brian back to me. I have since learned this is normal in the early stages of grieving. And, as long as I do not get stuck in the fantasy realm, it is okay to slowly face the loss and to finally acknowledge the permanency. Another potentially negative coping skill I turned to was self-indulgence of alcohol. While Brian and I were prone to sharing a few drinks as we discussed our days, our concerns, our joys, my one or two glasses of wine was turning into three or four. And, as my counselor quickly reminded me, alcohol is a depressant. Since I was already experiencing periods of depression, the introduction of alcohol could have had detrimental effects. I acknowledged that continued consumption of alcohol could lead to addiction issues. I now tread very carefully and try to limit my alcohol consumption.

Other less than positive defense mechanisms I have relied upon include assessing whether I have the stamina to go on—to heal. There have been times when I asked myself if I should just give up. There have been times when I questioned whether I should stop chasing our dreams. I will admit that I have asked Brian to come and get me. But, that hardiness did kick in. I will live my life for Brian and myself. I will not give in to the depression which took a grip on my life over the winter months. At that time, it took enormous effort to get out of bed in the morning. When we had the huge snowstorms this winter, I felt isolated and alone. It seemed that the stress and the grief would never end. I can now identify my grief as chronic stress—there is not a defined end. At times I resort to negative self-talk. Did I mess up? Is it my fault that Brian died? In reality I know that I am looking backwards with hindsight information that we just did not have when Brian got sick. And, I understand that guilt is part of the grief process. I am the one who is left behind. I am the one who has to find a way to heal. When I find myself focusing on negative self-talk, I know it is time to phone a friend, to pick my journal, or to write a poem. Writing helps me express my feelings and it is a way to connect with the optimism inside of me. Through my poems, I acknowledge that God is carrying me right now. It’s not always easy but the alternative, self-destruction, is harder. So, I try to confront my problems and my feelings head on and take action toward finding a way to heal. I cannot change the events which led to Brian’s death. I cannot change the fact that I am grieving. But I do have control over my responses, the strategies I used to cope, and the ways I try to adjust. I do my best to refrain from self-defeating behaviors and I remember to breathe.

I have also redefined my definition of the terms widow and grief. A widow is not always an older person. A widow is not always helpless or lost. Rather, a widow is anyone who has lot their life partner. Some of the widows I have met are very young—women or men ranging from early twenties to mid-fifties. And, just as every relationship is different, every path of grieving is unique. I no longer believe that grief will end after a pre-determined period of time. I understand that the second year can be worse than the first because the numbness has worn off and there is the expectation that life will get better or will return to “normal.” Society seems to have unrealistic expectations of those who grieve. In reality, grief comes in waves. Some of the waves are small and pass relatively quickly. Other waves are tsunamis and rage for longer periods of time. Sometimes these waves crash when you least expect them. Other times guilt and anger bring them on. But, they do pass and are often replaced by moments of peace. I have learned to long for those moments of peace because that is when the healing occurs. And, though I believe I will heal, I know that my life will never be the same. As I reorient myself, I will discover a new “normal” and a new me.

In the beginning of this reflection I spoke of the fact that Brian was able to relieve my stress through conversation and humor. What I did not speak of is the fact that our relationship was based on open and honest communication. We both came from failed relationships. We both understood what we wanted out of this relationship. We both had a sense of knowing who we were. Shortly after we met, I enrolled in the Interpersonal Relations class at RACC. Brian and I spent hours discussing the content, exploring how we relate to each other, and talking about how we wanted to shape our relationship—our life together. Though we did not have an opportunity to get married, we lived together for three years. Our conflict style tended to be compromise or collaboration. We honestly cared about each other’s feelings and thoughts. I respected him as much as I loved him—and he returned both the respect and the love to me. For you see, not only could he relieve my stress, I was able to do the same for him. So now I go on knowing that he watches over me, that he will be with me as I chase our dreams. I am thankful for the gift of memories. I hope that one day, after my heart, mind, body, and soul have had more time to heal, remembering Brian will not be so bittersweet.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dance of the Souls . . .

This morning I went for my bi-monthly massage and energy work. After Brian died, my Pastoral Counselor suggested I consider massage therapy to help my body heal. A lot of people don't understand that grief affects us physically as well as mentally, spiritually, and psychologically. I was hestiant. I had never had a massage and I was scared to have someone touch me. I thought that it would feel to intimate, especially since I just lost the man who was the other part of my soul. I was afraid that I would breakdown and have to leave. I was, however, interested in energy work because I had no energy left. It was hard to get out of bed in the morning. Tasks which used to be easy had become extremely difficult. So, I gave in and called the massage therapist my counselor recommended.

My first massage / energy work was in February and I was amazed how light my body felt when it was done. I had opted for the 1 1/2 hour massage because it included more energy work. When I was leaving, Amanda told me if I purchased four massages in advance there was a discount. Finally understanding that I needed to take care of my body along with my mind and my soul, I paid for four massages.

Today I went for my third massage / energy work. Last night I had a panic attack which came out of nowhere and really took a toll on my body and my mind. I spoke with Amanda about this before the massage. She spoke about identifying the emotions I was feeling and I remembered feeling deep sadness followed by joy and then guilt. She told me that it helps to identify the feelings/emotions which bring on the panic attacks. And, she told me that it takes a lot of courage to face this grief journey head on and seek healing in a variety of places. I appreciate her openness and willingness to listen to what I am feeling. Healing comes from many people on this grief journey.

What I really want to speak of is the amazing experience I had during today's massage. As I allowed myself to go deeper and deeper into this time of relaxation, listening to the Native American flute music, I felt my soul leave my body. I knew that my body was there, but I was no longer in it. I know this might sound odd but it was real. My soul floated above my body as an energy force. And, this is the best part, I connected with Brian's soul. It was beautiful. It was peaceful. I understood that he is okay. I felt his love pour over me. And, our souls danced together. We have a bond which cannot be broken--even by death. He loves me and he knows that I love him. I wanted to stay with him. I wanted to continue our dance. But, it's not my time yet. For now, it has to be good enough to know that he is with me always. That our love surpasses our humanity. That it is divne.

For the past eight months I have been saying that when Brian died he took the other half of my soul with him. That I live with those jagged little edges. Recently I read that if two souls were indeed connected and if our partner took half of our soul with them, could they have left half of their soul with us? As I pondered this statement, I understand that I am not half of a person. I am half of me and half of Brian. I won't be the same person I was before. But, I will learn, slowly, to become someone new. I will live for both of us. I will chase the dreams we had -- although they may have to be altered slightly. And, I will go on. It won't be easy. In fact, it is extremely hard. Some days will bring peace. Other days will bring anguish and sadness. But, I know that I will keep trying. I will look for the many ways that healing comes to me. And, I will always remember the dance of our souls.

Peace, love, and blessings,


Thursday, May 20, 2010

For One More Day

This is my first attempt at blogging. I hope that it is something I will be able to keep up with. I hope that it helps me to get all of the confusing thoughts out of my head. And, I hope it helps as I grieve and try to find a way to live without the other half of my soul.

I see a Pastoral Counselor every other week as I try to navigate my way through this world of chaos called grief. The last time we met, I mentioned that I would give up everything I have, with the exception of my son, to have one more day with Brian. My counselor gave me homework. She asked me to think about what I would do if I had that one more day. I don't think she expected an epic but that's what she's getting. I wrote a letter to Brian telling him what I would want to do on that one more day . . . .

For One More Day . . . . .

Dear Brian,

As I learn to navigate this new life without you by my side, I find myself wishing, hoping, praying for just one more day with you. I would give up everything I have, with the exception of Kevin, for just one more day with you. Material items mean nothing to me. Life has become difficult without you. The sun doesn’t shine quite as brightly. The birds don’t sing quite as joyfully. There are shadows cast on the world which were not noticeable when you were by my side. Your presence made my life bright, joyful, and fun. I knew that I was loved. And, I knew that you would protect me and love me forever and always.

As I ponder that one more day and consider what we would do, I think about all of the places we wanted to go. Should we go to Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man? Should we rent a water-front hut in Cebu? Should we spend the day at our favorite Bed & Breakfast, Sayre Mansion, or the one at Glasbern Farms with the huge hot tub? Or, maybe go back to New Hope, the Poconos, or the beach. Perhaps I should choose a day during Musikfest or Celtic Classic? We could drink a few beers (okay maybe more than few) and listen to some good music. But then, Brian, I considered that these were either our dreams or the extraordinary moments in our life together. Sure, we had fun. Yes, we made some wonderful memories which I will always cherish. But, Brian, our life together was more about the ordinary moments. Spending time together. Enjoying the life we forged. Basking in our love for each other. So, I think I will choose an ordinary day in our life.

What would we do on that ordinary day? A day in the life of us? I could pick a Sunday because that is when we gathered with all of our children. But, I think I want to keep you to myself on this one more day. So, I’m picking a Thursday—but it will be your day off and I will take the day off, too.

I want the day to begin as most of our days did. The alarm clock blaring—I’m going to set it on alarm rather than radio so I can hear you calling it a nuclear blast and telling me to turn it off. I will hit the snooze button and you will roll over and wrap your arms around me—pulling me closer to you. I miss feeling you beside me every morning, Brian, and I promise this time I won’t be in a hurry to get up or to fall back to sleep. Instead I will cherish the way you feel beside me. The way you make me feel. And, we will make love—gentle and tender. Afterwards, I hope that you will play your guitar for me. I want to hear you play and sing Song For Ireland. I want to hear your sweet voice and the strum of your guitar. It has been silent for far too long.

When we finally rise, I will make a pot of coffee—and then you can joke about the fact that I carrying my cup around and set it down more than I drink it. When we are in the kitchen, I know that you will pull me toward you and give me one of your great big hugs. I promise I won’t pull away. I’ve learned that nothing is more important. This time I will let you be the first to pull away.

I imagine you heading out to the computer for a while. I envision you checking your e-mails, catching up on sports news, making necessary changes to your fantasy sports leagues. I will sit by your side and listen to you ramble about the comments from other players and whatever catches your attention. Of course, I will chatter away and distract you. I miss talking to you, Brian. I miss sharing all that I’m learning. I miss hearing your stories. I miss your affirmation of what I think and feel. I miss your validation. I just want to spend some time talking with you. Listening to you. Having you listen to me. This was such an important part of our relationship. It wasn’t something we had to work at. I don’t remember a moment when there wasn’t something I had to say to you. Or that you didn’t have something to say to me. While silence could be comfortable, we just loved talking to each other. I could spend this entire day sitting and talking with you, Brian, but there are a few more things I would like us to do together.

When you are done looking at your teams, maybe we will go to the gym. Or, since it will be a beautiful, sunny day, we both know that I will try to talk you into taking a nice long walk instead. Let’s pack up the car with your guitar, a blanket, chairs, some drinks and snacks and spend part of the day outside. First we will go to the Wyomissing creek. I want to walk through the pine groves with you. You always wanted to play your guitar there so this time you will. I want you to hold my hand. I want you to stop on the bridge, tell me it’s a kissing bridge, and then kiss me. We’ll look for woodpeckers and deer. We’ll talk some more. I will cherish this time together.

After our walk, we’ll drive to Gring’s Mill. Oh, I know we could have gone there for our walk . . . but I wanted one more moment in those pine groves. When we get to Gring’s Mill, we will walk down the hill, set up a chair for you and spread out the blanket for me. I’ll get out my books and you will pick up your guitar. But this time, Brian, I’m not really going to read those books. Rather, I’m going to listen to you. And, we will both look for falcons, hawks, and herons. Maybe we will see that monster turtle I told you about—the one you never really believed that I saw. Then, I will glance at you only to find that you are looking at me. I’ll shake my head and say, “why are you looking at me?” and you will say that you can’t believe how lucky you are to be with me. I’ll smile because I know that it is me who is the lucky one.

After a while, we will pack up our stuff and head up the hill—you will complain and ask why there always has to be a hill. Although I know that we could spend the rest of the day together in this beautiful setting, there are a few more things I want us to do. A few more memories I want to relive. I want to stop at West Lawn Beverage. I want to watch you checking out the specials. I want to hear you trading stories with the owner. And, I want to see the excitement on your face when you discover a new beer that we just have to try—because it’s a really good price. Brian, it was so easy to make you happy. And, that is why we are having an ordinary day—because you always understood that life was about people, feelings, and experiences—not material items.

We will stop at the grocery store. I want to watch you meander around the deli and meat section. I want to see you get excited about buying items to make the perfect sandwich when we get home. I’m guessing you will suggest Reubens—corned beef for you and turkey for me. Plus, you will buy coleslaw because that is your favorite. But, you’ll pick out pasta salad for me—the one with spinach and feta cheese. And, Brian, I know you will have to find the perfect rye bread—because that’s the most important building block for your perfect sandwich. When we get home, we’ll put some of those beers on ice while you make our perfect sandwiches. Please, don’t let them in the toaster oven too long—please don’t burn the bread. When the sandwiches are ready, we will take them outside. I want to sit in the backyard with you. I want to have more conversation. I want to hear your thoughts. I want to talk about our dreams. Just one more time I want to pretend we are going to win the lottery. I want to dream about what we will do. I want to hear how I will come home to find my dream car—a silver convertible Mustang—in the driveway. Though we always knew it wasn’t really going to happen, it was so much fun to dream. We dreamed great dreams together.

I remember now how you even shared your daydreams with me. You would call me on my cell phone anytime of the day and start telling me what you were daydreaming about. It always made me smile—because I was always included, it was always about us. Oh, Brian I love you so much. I miss those phone calls. I miss your texts. So, on this one day that we get to share, please send me my text messages. Please tell me that I am beautiful. That you will love me for always and forever. Please write WAMHAS. And, ask me to always love you in return. For, Brian, that is a given. I don’t think you ever really understood how much I love you. I don’t know if you realize that you hold a piece of my heart—that you still have half of my soul. And, that you always will. There will always be jagged little edges. My heart can never be put back together the same way it was when you were here with me. You complete me, Brian. And, I complete you.

Well, I guess maybe you are wondering why I picked a Thursday for our one more day with you. Or, perhaps you already know. As evening nears, we will go to the Ugly Oyster, our favorite restaurant. Tonight is Celtic music night. There are other restaurants I could have picked but I think this was the restaurant that meant the most to us. You will order Guinness and I will order Boddingtons. Of course, we will order the smoked cheese (remember how you tried to recreate this at home but it didn’t work?). Simple pleasures. Simple joys that we shared together. Nobody else will understand—but we will. I don’t really care what else we order. We can share the tuna because that will bring back good memories. Remember when it was blackened and it was sooooo spicy? We’ll chat with our favorite waitress. We’ll listen to the music. I will tell you that you should have brought your guitar, bouzouki, or mandolin. You will talk with the musicians but you will tell me that you are not good enough to play with them. But, Brian, I want you to know that you are good enough. You have such a passion for playing music. I know you can’t read music but it doesn’t matter because you have an ear for hearing what note should come next. And, you have a wonderful voice. But, I understand, that you do things in your own timeframe—when you feel comfortable enough. And I respect that about you. In fact, I love that about you.

The day is nearing an end. We will take our tootsie pops from the Oyster and get ready to leave. If there isn’t a chocolate tootsie pop in the basket, you will ask for one because you know that it is my favorite. You will be happy with raspberry, orange, cherry or grape—because you are easy to please. How about we take a quick drive up to the Pagoda—it’s been a long time since we stopped there. Viewing the city from above. Taking time to enjoy our love. Holding hands, kissing . . . . And then we will go home. I promise no TV tonight Brian—although if we were going to watch TV I would give you the remote control. And, you know how hard that would be for me. Instead we will go to bed. You will pick up your guitar and play some songs for me. We’ll make love one more time. And you will doze off. I’m going to stay awake. For you see, Brian, the reason I never wanted to go to sleep is because I always thought I would miss something. For me, sleep seemed to be a waste of time. I’m sure you wonder why I sleep so much now. It’s because there is nothing left for me to miss. When you died, you took my joy, my sunshine, my life. I’m learning, very slowly, how to live again. But nothing is the same without you.

As you sleep, I will watch you. I know that I asked for only one day. But it wasn’t good enough. There are so many other things I want to do with you. I want to play a game of Scrabble. I want to see a movie at Goggle Works. I want to watch you cook on the grill. I want to go to Church together. I want to spend time with our friends. I want to hear all of your stories again and again and again. I want to kid you about your New York accent. I want to give you the “jerk” look just so you can tell me about it. I want to laugh at your jokes. I want you to be there when I come home from class so you can help me absorb the material and the discussion. I want to read my sermons to you. I want to go to concerts together. I want us to play with your grandchildren together. I want to share our accomplishments. I want to live out our dreams. I want to grow old with you by my side. So, Brian, you probably know what I am going to do next. As you drift away from me on our one more day together, I am going to beg. I am going to scream. I am going to plead with God. I’m going to pray. I am going to ask for just one more day with you. But if my request is denied, I am going to ask you to take me with you when you go away again. Because, Brian, in the depth of my heart and soul, I know that a huge mistake was made. For, my love, we are not supposed to be apart.

Peace, love, and blessings forever and always,