Good Grief

Last year, an unwelcome course correction arrived at my doorstep with the sudden passing of my husband. My life came to a screeching halt as I faced the stark reality of being thrust into the unknown and the numbing emptiness that followed.

I unwillingly became a part of a club with no guidelines, rules, or secret handshake. I was signed up without permission, and I can’t “cancel at any time”. 

The blessings that came from a forty-seven-year marriage were overshadowed for most of this past year by regrets over things said or done, the if only’s, and lost opportunities. I thought that dark cloud would not dissipate. It totally sucked.

I needed someone to complain to.  Ahhhhh, God. I could complain to God. I’m so good at that. But the last time I tried, it went something like this:

Me dialing the number I found on the Internet…

The message in response:

                Dial 1 to leave a message of gratitude.

                Dial 2 to leave a complaint. You will be prompted to whine, grovel and beg. (FYI, this box is not monitored.)

How in the world did I fool myself into believing that my life would just keep plugging along with only a few potholes here and bumps in the road there until I drifted unceremoniously into eternity? I was lulled into believing that the way my life was would not change drastically or without some kind of damn warning.

Wrinkles and gray hair warn you. They don’t just show up one fine morning. They tiptoe in without much fanfare giving you plenty of time to disguise them before your next high school reunion. The aches and pains of aging sneak around your joints like a ninja, which mercifully eases you into the acceptance that your running days are over.

For as long as I can remember, each day of my life seemed to blend into the next. Birthdays piling one on top of another were no more thought-provoking than a trash can filling up. Any thought of purpose or meaning was often left unaddressed – till tomorrow, next week, or…. 

I think life’s subtle changes are meant as a wake-up call. But they’re too subtle for me. They need to scream loudly into my failure to act before it’s too late…but…oh yeah…pride helped me ignore the fact that I probably needed a hearing aid. Until now – until this.

Then, just as suddenly as I was knee-jerked into widowhood, the dark cloud lifted to reveal God’s promise to turn my mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11).

Being thrust into the pain of loss must become the catalyst for change, for the hope that there is more to this life. Or why do we even bother? Matthew 4:16 says, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light”. Jesus came along and spent his life showing us how to live abundantly in that light, often despite the darkness.

Then one morning, God spoke into my broken heart, “This is your new reality, Linda. You’re still here. You are surrounded by my love, the love of an amazing family, and supportive, loving friends. Now get up, dust yourself off, and do what you were created to do. Because if you haven’t learned anything else this past year, you surely have realized that this one precious life you have is short. Quit wasting it!  Roll up your pity party mat and GO!”

I will leave you with two of the most powerful quotes that have helped me move beyond my sorrow:

Gian Carlo Menotti wants us to let this sink in, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”

 John Shelby Spong tells us, “It is to live not frightened by death, but rather called by the reality of death to go into our humanity so deeply and so passionately that even death is transcended.”

Oh Death Where is Your Sting?

Today is Good Friday. I am struck to tears and unspeakable heartache, now more than ever before.  Why? Every Good Friday we are called to remember the brutal beating and crucifixion of Jesus. He walked in the midst of those deemed lesser and unimportant. They experienced his love and compassion for them. But, he walked a lonely road to his death. Sure, there were a few who had the courage to walk with him (ahem…the women!). But many, his disciples in particular, scattered for their own safety feeling powerless to stop it from happening.

Also, today we are reliving the horrific facts of the death of George Floyd during the trial of Derek Chauvin. To hear the testimony of the witnesses as they broke down and grieved over watching Floyd die has been excruciating for many. Most of the witnesses were strangers to him, yet they all spoke of feeling helpless and guilty that they didn’t try to help him. Even though they also knew they were powerless to do so.

Jesus was innocent of any crime, George Floyd was not. But, the fact remains that neither deserved to die in such a violent way at the hands of another.

So I sit quietly and contemplate both these men and how their deaths have impacted me. As a professed Christian I am called to emulate Jesus’ radical love in every aspect of my life. I mostly fail, but keep trying and longing to be more like him in the ways I live my life.

And, George Floyd? I didn’t know him and likely never would have, nor would most of us, if not for witnessing his horrific death on the daily news.

Both men have touched my life. In those beautiful and poignant words of John Donne, “No man is an island; entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

“Any man/woman’s death diminishes me.” That is a fact of God’s making, we are all interconnected – like it or not. It cannot end there. The death of another, be it a loved one or a stranger, should call us to stop and take inventory of our own lives. Every funeral I attend does that for me and often shines a light on my failings to be Christ-like to others. Thankfully, every day is a new day – a day to begin again.

So, here’s what I will be contemplating and praying about today, on this holy Good Friday, and hopefully be acting on daily. It doesn’t have to be Jesus who calls us to be better, kinder, softer; to live and love more fully. It can also be the death of a stranger we have never met that wakes us from sleep-walking through life. Facing the realization that we will also die (sorry if that is news to you) – maybe sooner than later (sorry again) – should cause us to ask ourselves if our houses are in order and, more importantly, what we are leaving behind because…

Death does not care if we have left business unfinished, relationships broken, or children to be raised. It doesn’t matter if we are not ready or sit on promises to change. It will take the weak with the strong, the humble with the proud, the saint with the jerk. Death doesn’t respect wedding plans, vacation plans, or unmet deadlines. It does not operate by a timetable we set, and is no respecter of age. It does not discriminate between the most loved or most hated. It may not wait for the most brilliant to cure cancer, bring peace to a troubled nation, or receive a Nobel Prize.

Denying that death is a part of life is like believing we still look like our high school picture. We can’t rely on death to come when we are ready. But we can rely on it to teach those of us who are willing, how to truly live. It can and should be a time of reflection: Have I lived well, loved well, forgiven — honestly – and sought forgiveness humbly?

For good or bad, I have touched the lives of family and friends, the mailman, and the grumpy receptionist at the doctor’s office.  I may have amassed wealth and recognition, and may leave a fortune to my loved ones. All things they can pack away, gamble away, or throw away. But, at the end of the day...what have I left in their hearts?

Waiting for Tomorrow are Ya’?

Originally posted 8/08/2012

Some day, you’re going to apologize to your neighbor (who hates you, by the way) for backing over his cat and blaming it on the mail carrier.

Some day, your humdrum existence will magically transform into the fairy tale life you have always dreamed of.

I hate my horrible life

Some day, you will hit the lottery and buy your neighbor a new cat. Okay, you won’t do that because you’ll move to a deserted island where you won’t have any neighbors.

If you believe one morning you’ll just wake up and your butt will have fallen off as you slept – that’s right – you’re delusional. (You might want to just lay off the chocolate darlin’)

Wanna know where I’m at as I write this and why my thoughts went were they did? I am sitting with a dying hospice patient. I’ll call him Fred. I can’t show you a picture of him for obvious reasons, but I can show you a picture of the wall I’m staring at in his room. It’s 2:30 am and I have been staring at this wall for two hours.

Bare Walls

I have been visiting Fred for about five months now. He has little family and no one visits him. He was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease when I first met him, so we were never able to communicate. I have no idea what he did for a living, but, for now, he is my teacher, like all the patients I see.

I know what you’re thinking. How could someone who has lost the ability to respond to their environment or converse with anyone teach you anything? How could they impart words of wisdom like Mahatma Gandhi; shine light on injustice like Martin Luther King; inspire Jesus’ call to “serve the least of these” like Mother Theresa? Well, they can’t….

They can do more – at least for me – in this moment.

When I meet a new patient the first thing I do is look at the pictures in their rooms. Some, like my dear mother-in-law, have their walls and shelves cluttered with family pictures. They make for great conversation. But, here’s my buddy Fred with four blank walls.

What am I supposed to do with that? I have discovered that that is the wrong question. The real question is: what is God wanting to teach me here?

It is no coincidence that at this very time I am also reading a most profound book by Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging. I read her other “most profound” book during my clinicals, The Grace in Dying.

So, what am I finally learning at this late stage in my life? What I have grown to believe from Gandhi, King, and Mother Theresa, has been personified by Singh and Fred.

What I am reading in Singh’s book moves from words on a page to experience that reaches the depth of my heart as I sit here with a dying man.

I got up in the middle of the night to come here because I believe no one should die alone. I have grown to appreciate that this is Holy Ground; that God is truly present here and he calls out to anyone with ears to hear, “You’re gonna die too! Maybe even today”. Which makes me laugh (maybe I’m just silly tired) because I remembered this hysterical cartoon.

oh-crap-was-that-today

At this stage in life it’s about time for us to be getting our act together before it’s too late! Don’t you think? To stop obsessing over things that don’t…actually, never did…matter. Stop dwelling on old hurts, lost opportunities, and someone else’s expectations. Stop striving for more and more of what someone else will trash before you’re cold in your grave. Stop lusting after useless stuff. Stop trying to control everything. Stop shadow boxing.

Singh tells us:

When we are deeply aware of our own impermanence, every fleeting moment is recognized as precious. Our desire to be present in each moment amplifies. Contemplating the fact that we truly do not know if we will still be alive in this human body with the next breath, we can witness a stunning decrease in our attachment to and interest in anything but now.  

Meditating on death instantly calls us to question on the deepest of levels. What am I doing? What do I want? What does this all mean? What is it all about? Who or what is the “I” that is asking the questions?

Our desire to explore, to inquire, to see, intensifies in urgency….Contemplating our own mortality…our precariously impermanent existence, can call us to complete and thorough accountability. It can call us to instant reordering, a rearranging of our priorities and our intentions. A deep opening to our own mortality brings us to our knees and down to the nitty-gritty. It blocks off all of our habitual detours into denial. It forces us to face the way we’ve lived our lives, the choices we’ve made, the polestars we’ve chosen.

Thank you, Fred. In your dying you are teaching me how to truly live while there is still breath in me.

Now, go in peace…I pray…into the hands of our loving and merciful God. I’ll be right behind you.