The turn of this new year has felt a little strange. It came about during an in-between season of my life. Often the Christmas season ushers forth a sense of conclusion or a wrapping up of sorts to the year. Those few days between exchanging gifts and ringing in the sparkly new year typically provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on the adventures afforded and the heartaches borne. Hope usually rises as I begin to envision a new start and wonder and anticipate what lies ahead. But this year was quite different.
The unexpected move-pocalypse of 2015 has yet to be fully unpacked and understood. We are each still wrestling and sorting out how this shift in location will continue to alter the trajectory of our narratives. And the uncertainty of how or when this new place will ever begin to feel like home is evidence of the in-between nature of our current circumstances. In the past, these kinds of narrative gaps, the vowels between the consonants, the spaces between what was and what will be – these have been difficult spaces for me to find rest. I’ve often tried to hurry through them, assuming that plowing through transition as quickly as possible is what is best for all involved so that a new normal can be established. On other occasions involving transition, I’ve simply busied myself or distracted myself, or self-soothed by employing go-to addictions – all likely an unconscious effort (most of the time) to avoid feeling the stripping away effect transition can have upon one’s sense of identity, or belonging, or purpose.
It became clear just before Christmas that none of those avoidance tactics were going to be adequate in this season of transition. There was no running away or side-stepping the ever-present sense that the losses needed to be felt and that the confusion that has ensued in the aftermath is inviting deeper levels of self-exploration. I’ve wandered into a gap between identities. I am once again living outside of the weekly rhythms of our extended families of origin. These tribes we are born into and formed out of carry so much power in the shaping and fostering of our identities (for good and for harm). We are sister or daughter or granddaughter or wise one or funny one or strong one or smart one or wounded one. Whenever we venture outside or beyond or away from our people we have a new opportunity to explore who we are separate from them. I’ve found this space to be especially terrifying. Who am I outside of the communities that have affirmed my existence, communities that have formed my own micro-world? What remains when those micro-worlds are fading into the distance?
A similar stripping away has unfolded professionally as I’ve nearly entirely walked away from my previously thriving private practice only retaining a handful of clients who wanted to continue the work via online/video sessions. When we transition vocationally we have an opportunity to explore who we are simply as human beings when we are not striving so hard to be human doings. I began working at the age of 12 generating my own income by way of babysitting thus beginning a 20+ year career in offering care to others in a whole host of different ways. This is the only substantial break I have ever been afforded aside from when I pursued my graduate degree (which I struggle to call a break given the intensity of the program I undertook while tending to three kids simultaneously). I know that this vocational pause is a luxury in our culture and in our world, but I am beginning to see why that is such a travesty. My body and brain and heart and health have been begging for some rest in the gaps all along.
So I’m not quite at the start of a new journey like I would have typically hoped for at the turn of a new calendar year. Instead, I’m in the gap lands and I’m coming to realize that I may need to be here for a little while. It’s clear that I’ve moved too quickly through this terrain in previous transitions. At times, I am certain, survival must have required only a quick pause in the gaps. But I must confess there were others that I unapologetically pushed through quicker than the speed of light. So there is lots of unfinished business in this place, lots of rest needed, lots of recovery for this compassion-fatigued soul. Ultimately it is where a patient grief must finally be allowed. Here’s to hoping that this intentional posture of sitting and staying in the gap as long as necessary leads to restoration and an increased capacity to listen well to the voice of a more stripped-down version of myself.
Immediately after I sent all but the toddler off on their first day of school with that giant smooch they secretly love but pretend to loathe, I felt a wave of emotion that I instinctively knew I’d need to spend the day unfolding. This was not a surprise arrival. I knew this emotional release was inevitable months ago when we first discovered that life as we knew it would be dramatically shifting in a nanosecond. Look at me trying to sound witty and smart. Confession: I don’t really know what a nanoseconds is, but it sounds super fast, so I’m sticking with it. You see, nanosecond life-shifts by nature don’t allow the time and space to dig into deeper levels of the emotional and psychological processing of our experiences. But emotional data left unprocessed is persistent and perpetually attempts to make its way to the surface. I’ve learned at this point in life that it is much kinder to myself (and SO MUCH kinder to any and all creatures who come in contact with me) to greet the (re)surfacing of emotions with arms wide open. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few days – holding space for all that needed to surface.
Perhaps I should back up and catch all of you up just a bit. At the very beginning of our summer, the time of year that I most look forward to for a host of reasons that do not include an affinity for the warmer weather, we discovered that the path my husband’s career was headed down was a dead end and we were in desperate need for some re-routing. Within less than a week’s time, the re-routing we were searching for came clearly into view, but like most experiences in life, it possessed a duffel bag’s worth of pros and cons. Greater financial freedom and advancement in Brian’s career meant another relocation for our gang of six and an ending of sorts for my five year old private therapy practice.
Our summer consisted of selling our house, purging through and packing up our belongings, finding a new place to live and trying to wrap all of our minds around this sudden and unexpected disruption and uprooting of our lives. I knew that the real process of grief likely wouldn’t occur until we had moved through all of the steps involved with the relocation.
By the end of August, the initial relocation process was complete: I finished unpacking and getting everyone situated in their new space, completed and submitted a gazillion forms to process new school enrollment for each of the big girls and registered them for a year’s worth of classes, did all the back-to-school shopping madness, and took care of haircuts all while distributing a multitude of hugs and wiping away many tears as they each continue to grieve and accept this new reality. So there I was, standing at the front door of our temporary home (we’re renting to buy ourselves sometime to figure out where we want to plant our roots) watching each of my terrified yet courageous daughters walk TOWARD their next chapters. And I just knew it was time for me to find enough courage to face mine as well.
After our first family dog, Linus, died nearly 2 years ago we always knew that our remaining four-legged companion, Pippen, would need a new friend. He suffered from a strange depression after Linus died. Pippen didn’t play with toys or chew on bones. He wasn’t excited to see us when we got home. He didn’t trail us around demanding to be close like he did when he was following Linus’ lead. It was painful to watch at first, but we just weren’t ready to have another dog.
At that time, we also had two hamsters in the house – pets that we thought were a good substitute for the cuter and softer, but remarkably more sensitive chinchilla that Peter had originally set his heart on having. However, we quickly realized that you couldn’t pet, play, or cuddle with a hamster. They ended up being living tchotchkes on the top of our family room bookshelves.
Once the hamsters had lived out their long and prosperous 18-month life span, we ceremoniously buried them in the back yard complete with grave markers and recitation of the Numbers 6:24 prayer, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…” The small funeral acknowledged and honored life and death and provided a primer for my children to begin learning how to grieve. And for that opportunity, I was grateful to have endured many months of feeding, watering, and cleaning the cages of our little living tchotchkes.
A few weeks after the funeral, I had a long conversation with Peter one night. I noted that his pet quest began 2 years ago when he originally wanted a chinchilla. I admitted that the hamsters proved to be an unfit alternative. So, I began asking him what it was about the chinchilla that was so appealing. He began describing the small rodent as having the softest fur of any animal in the world. It was small enough to carry around in your pocket, and might play by running through tunnels, maybe, but it was at least active. I listened closely and surmised that he wanted a soft companion that was his very own that would always be with him to keep him company and to play with. I said with more question than statement, “Peter, it sounds like what you really want is a dog.” His eyes beamed with a glimmer of hope and he said, “Yeah, but I thought we couldn’t get another dog.”
For 2 years, Peter had been trying to get his needs met. He wanted a soft companion that was his very own that would always be with him to keep him company and to play with. After Linus died, he heard me say I wasn’t ready to get another dog. So, he assumed (probably correctly) that getting another dog, just for him, was out of the question. So, he set his sights on a chinchilla as an alternative to not getting what he really wanted. Then, when we learned that the chinchilla was actually far too sensitive for a young person to care for, I managed to convince him that hamsters would be a suitable substitute. Turns out, I actually had no idea what he really wanted.
How often do we do the same thing that Peter did? Our hearts have an initial desire and we conclude that it is too much or it can’t happen, so, before we even mention it to anyone, we lower our dreams and expectations and settle for something less. Then, when that something less doesn’t satisfy, we mince our longings once more and settle for something even further from the original desire. And when that mincing ends up being just as disappointing as settling in the first place, we stop believing that our original desires will ever be met and likely, we give up trying. But what if getting what we really want is not only possible, but probable? What if the universe (in this case, a boy’s mother) actually longs to give us what we need if we just asked?
That night, after I understood for the first time what Peter was really needing, I said, “I think now its time to get you a dog.” We began looking through books trying to settle on which dog would be best for him: playful, but not too energetic; soft, but not too much hair to groom; not too big, not too small; loving and affectionate, not independent and aggressive. After narrowing down our search to only those that met these criteria, we settled on a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Peter began saving his allowance and birthday money until he had a certain percentage of the actual cost of the dog. And once he did, we found him a puppy to call his very own.
It has not been easy for Peter to potty train a puppy and redirect its need to teethe on shoes, books, bark, rocks and pillows. However, I am happy to report that Gizmo has made Peter very happy. He is as cute and nearly as soft as a chinchilla. He likes to play games. And originally bred to warm the laps and feet of King Charles’ ladies of the court, cuddling is one of his favorite activities, second only to chewing on toilet paper.
*Sunday Specials are a weekly round-up of happenings on the web-o-sphere. So enjoy your coffee (or late night beverage) while checking out what’s caught our attention.
These Sunday Special posts have become a part of my weekly rhythm. They provide the space for me to reflect on the week gone-by as I allow hope to build for newness in the week to come. Here’s what caught my thoughts this week:
Because in the time it took you to take a selfie with a sign declaring that the world doesn’t need feminism (about four minutes) two more American women were sexually assaulted, nearly 100 American women were abused, four women worldwide died giving birth, eight little girls were trafficked for sexual exploitation, and 6,781,920 people looked at naked women online.
This is not a post about who is right and wrong in Israel-Palestine. This is a post about how the rest of us talk about who is right and wrong in Israel-Palestine…
So Listen- It’s Not Religious Discrimination Just Because You Can’t Discriminate by Benjamin L. Corey
It’s not discrimination when we are prevented from doing the discriminating. It’s not persecution when we are prevented from doing the persecuting. It’s not bullying when we’re told that we can’t bully others. It’s not any of those things.In fact, we should actually be embarrassed that we even have to be told that it’s wrong to fire someone for these reasons. Your place of business is NOT the same thing as your church– if you want to accept government funds, you’ll have to play by a set of rules that keeps it fair for everyone. Both for you, andeveryone else.
In my experience, most couples who come in for help during the first three years of marriage should never have gotten married in the first place. That’s not always true, of course. Some couples are super mature and have a proactive approach to maintaining a healthy relationship. I actually encourage all of my pre-marital clients to commit to a full year of maintenance therapy in order to help mitigate the transition.
We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering. As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways.
A year later I don’t know if we’re processing it all right or not. I don’t know if there are cracks in us right now that we’re not addressing. Cracks that will, like a windshield, slowly creep across our selves until we’re unsound. There is fear about tarnishing his memory, not holding him dearly enough, not feeling about him deeply enough. I still get like that, into a kind of anxious shame. ‘Am I fucking this up? Would I know it if I were?’
In light of our first Feature Story from Margot Hale, I want to offer some data regarding the social norms of grief. Shauna, Sarah and I were at a conference last November where we learned that in America, the standard timeframe wherein it is socially acceptable to grieve is twelve days. That means that after twelve days, people stop bringing over food. They stop asking how you are doing with a tone of empathy. They begin asking, “How are you?” with a raised inflection at the end of their sentences. This subtle shift is indirectly inferring that the only acceptable answer is that one has moved past grief and is now in the process of healing.
After twelve days, grief is seemingly no longer an acceptable burden for others to bear.
Moreover, this social stance makes it awkward for the person grieving to freely share their roller coaster experiences that inevitably follow a loss. After twelve days, they are likely still feeling sad and want to talk about how things were before they endured their loss. But everyone else has moved on and gives the impression that to live in days gone by is to suffer unnecessarily. However, psychologically, this is actually by far and away the most counterproductive measure.
It is in the retelling of the past that gives a grieving individual a firm and faithful foundation from which to begin their healing. Without a past, there is no hope for a future. They remain stuck in an unanchored present without memory or dreams. Allowing someone space to talk about what has happened (past tense) is rooting him or her in his or her experience (now). Unfortunately, what often happens is that people don’t continue to share the past after twelve days, because society expects them to be moving on to a hopeful future. And yet, I cannot stress this enough. Without a grip on the past, the visions of the future are not clear enough to move toward.
A beloved professor of mine once said,
Give me the norms of grieving in the Jewish community any day before those of the Christian church. They allow space for one another’s grief for a year.”
She went on to describe a Jewish custom of covering the mirrors in the home of one grieving. The mirror is traditionally the means of achieving social acceptance by enhancing the appearance. Covering the mirror allows for one to not feel the pressure to conform to social acceptance and gives them the freedom to render themselves just as they are.
I attended another conference more recently where a therapist was talking about a case in a South American culture where a young boy around the age of ten came into therapy mute. He had suffered watching his home and loved ones carried away by a massive flood. His trauma had left him bound up with emotion without words to communicate his feelings. Having some background information of the traumatic event from the parents, the therapist began by asking him to draw what he remembered. She described his initial drawings as chaotic scribbles and showed slides that were hardly recognizable. She also said that when he began drawing he started to speak and his words were as frantic as his fingers scribbling across the page. He took out another paper and continued to draw and tell the story. Each time he came to therapy he drew and spoke and drew and spoke the details of the event. It took several months of weekly sessions, but the drawings he rendered at the end of treatment were ordered and colorful and clear and bright. His ease of speaking had also returned and gone were the frantic anxious words he used to describe the story and in their place was the optimistic intonation that Americans demand after twelve days.
I want to use one more illustration before summarizing these thoughts. Several years ago when I first began my graduate education I attended a workshop that was aimed at helping children grieve in a group setting. Relatively new to the field, I was perplexed and even shocked to hear how children were encouraged to process their grief. The presenter explained several group therapy techniques to utilize. One was to stage a funeral for whom they lost. They would dress up and have a casket and say prayers. And they would want to enact this scene over and over and over again until they understood in their young minds what had really happened. Another exercise was to have the child lie down on the floor on top of a large piece of paper. Have someone trace a marker around their body so they can visually see themselves. Then, the exercise was for that child to find the hurt and draw where they feel it. They would draw pulse marks around their heart. They might have squiggles where their stomach would be. They could draw something heavy on their chest. Group leaders were encouraged to allow the children to find the pain, name it, describe it and tell their story again and again until they had some map of navigating grief, sorrow, loss.
There is a theme in these three vignettes that is counter to American culture of grief and loss. The antithesis of a twelve-day mourning period is illustrated by these more healthy and helpful measures. Don’t forget. Remember. Don’t go mute. Speak. Don’t stay with all of your confusing and painful feelings trapped on the inside. Get them out in a visual manner until you find some peace.
May we begin a community who will honor grief and loss in a way that is healthy, helpful, and ultimately healing. May we give space to tell stories of the past. May we be the listening ears so one needn’t try and forget. May we offer a blank canvas for friends to paint their pain. May we be the safe haven where the one grieving can go after the culturally mandated twelve-day recovery.