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.”

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.

Do Expiration Dates Matter?

Did you know: According to the FDA, “With the exception of infant formula, the laws that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) administers do not preclude the sale of food that is past the expiration date indicated on the label. The FDA does not require food firms to place ‘expired by’, ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates on food products. This information is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.”

Article in Time, “…according to the new analysis, words like ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ are used so inconsistently that they contribute to widespread misinterpretation — and waste — by consumers. More than 90% of Americans throw out food prematurely, and 40% of the U.S. food supply is tossed–unused–every year because of food dating.”

So, it would seem that, to many Americans, the expiration date stamped on food products is gospel. It is critical to our health and well-being. Right?

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You wouldn’t consume this. Right?

road kill
I’m guessing you wouldn’t eat here!

So then, the question becomes:

Why do we so stubbornly and unwaveringly oppose, ignore, or deny THIS expiration date:

me expired

Don’t tell me you don’t. We all do. I think that reality is the most profound image of “whistling past the graveyard”. Every one of us has an expiration date. It’s not arbitrary or negotiable. And, yes, it IS set in stone. Okay, a bit of clarification: God can change that date. God can do anything he wants! It’s also quite possible that when your doctor told you you had six months to live – ten years ago – that all those prayers raised to heaven on your behalf were answered. But, I believe it’s more probable that the doctor was simply wrong. It reminds me of the expression, “If it ain’t your time to go not even a doctor can kill you.” But, that is a whole other blog post.

Anyway…

I can be, and often am, lax about the dates on most food products. Milk is a good example. After you reach the date on the carton you smell it, and then take the tiniest taste. You’ll know if it’s okay for another day. Simple enough and money saving.

Actually, (sorry, this is probably gross for you to consider) when we humans reach our final stage of life, usually the last couple of days or hours, there is an undeniable smell of death. It is one of the signs of the end of life’s journey, and I have experienced it often sitting vigil with Hospice patients. But, don’t count on that smell test to help you decide to hurry up and clean your act up. Unfortunately, at that point, you will be too far gone to make any life changing decisions.

And, what if, on your expiration date, without any warning, you just get run over by a truck on your way to work!?

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I know I use this a lot, but it’s SO funny!

I am writing this post at the beginning of Lent, a perfect time to reevaluate how I’m living my life. After all, it is a time when we too are called to die…

Take a breath – it’s okay

We’re called to die to our sins. I’m not saying that’s easy by any stretch. We so often fail miserably at our best intentions: I’m going to bake a pie for that grouchy neighbor of mine! Maybe. Or not.

We must keep trying though, and hopefully, by the grace of God, we will at least fall forward. With that in mind, I have determined – again – to make this my most profound Lenten Season EVER! (I’ll keep you posted on my progress)

I have so much to consider:

  • Needed changes I have refused to deal with.
  • Baggage I cling to.
  • Old hurts that still affect my life all these decades
  • Lies of other broken people I have fed on and nurtured.
  • Guilt and shame I cannot let go of.
  • And, most importantly, denial of my worth as a beloved child of God.

I long to grow in love. I want to use these final days of my life, however many I have left, to fully live as the person I was created to be.

Saint Irenaeus said: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I want and need to be that fully alive Christian, now. We should all, if we call ourselves Christian, want to strive for the ultimate goal of our faith. And it is not a goal to be realized after life here on earth has ended. It is a goal we should be striving for every day, right here, right now. The Kingdom of God is here, now. It’s not some faraway place we hope we’ve gotten our card pinched enough to qualify for entry.

Our hell is right here, if that’s the life we are living.

Our heaven is right here, if we choose to live as God calls us to.

Even if Lent is not part of your faith tradition, this is still an excellent time to consider fasting and praying as we approach Easter. You don’t have to eat peanut butter and jelly or fish on Fridays unless you LOVE peanut butter and jelly and fish.