Every time I go back to Colorado for a visit, I have a standing date with my friend Colleen Gottlob. We each commit to walking together around “our” lake in Littleton at least once, even if my visit is only for 48 hours. We call it “our” lake, because after Lucy was born, we walked either that lake, or the track right next to it nearly five times every week for almost five years up until I moved to Washington. On those walks, I got to know a lot about Colleen. At 55, she can add grandmother to her other roles of sister, wife, mother, aunt, avid runner, voracious reader, encourager, friend and fan. On my last visit, I asked her if she would be willing to share her story. She seemed surprised because she didn’t know what there was to tell. I reminded her that she is the most loyal, supportive and encouraging person I know and I would like others to get to know her as well. She agreed to let me interview her via email over a couple of week’s time, and this is what transpired.
K: Colleen, recently you told me that you just received the best compliment someone could have ever given you. Tell me what was said and why it was so important.
C: While I was working at an outdoor buying show for Boone Mountain Sports and 32nd West, I went over to say hello to a woman, Susan, whom I only know as an acquaintance. She said she had seen me walking around and been trying to figure out where she knew me from. Even though she couldn’t place where we had met, she said what she remembered about me was my kind face. I think that was a big compliment. It was not about my outfit or my fitness or my shoes. It was about me.
K: So, it seems easy for people to comment on outward appearances, but less on the character of a person. Why do you think that is?
C: Krista, this question is hard. I am going to try to think this through… it is easy to compliment people on their outfit, shoes, purse, new hair cut or color. But, to compliment them about what is on the inside, you would have to know them or have been paying attention to them. That takes some time, generally.
I love the opportunities I have had to meet people in so many situations. Some I may just get to have a conversation with only one time. You have to open yourself to the possibility of maybe getting laughed at or facing a negative reaction or even a bit of heart hurt. I think I have always been willing to risk my heart. And I have received from it. I have just a few couldn’t-ask-for-better-friends. And I am thankful for them every day.
K: I’m so glad that you mentioned the risk required in order to be known by others. How have you calculated that risk? In other words, have you chosen certain people to open up to? I am not sure I am so “open”. What makes someone safe for that risk? Or worthy of it?
C: I don’t think about the risk at all. You never know what some people are going through or their past life experiences. I try not to take things personally. So, I don’t know that I choose anyone. I think they are just where I am. If someone becomes a friend, I am thankful. If not, there will be another person sometime. The ones that become a friend are very important to me. I am very thankful for my close friends. I feel like I love them like a mother lion. I am on their side and love them no matter what.
K: Before I ask you about your mother lion prowess that I have experienced from you, I’m curious about what your risk has afforded you in relationships. You said, “I think I have always been willing to risk my heart. And I have received from it.” Can you give me some examples of what you have received?
C: Well, I received your friendship as a gift and you are one of the most important people in my life.
K: I like how your answers bring me down from the clouds and back to reality. You’re right. Our friendship was a risk that has paid off immensely. Maybe someday I will write about how our friendship came to be. I’m glad you took that risk for me.
I have often struggled with an inability to receive. I have believed that somehow, I’m not worth the attention or the money or the time and effort that others want to spend on me. Thanks for modeling what it looks like to receive goodness from others for whom you have risked your heart. Speaking of modeling…back to your mother lion prowess. I have seen this side of you in action with your kids. One thing you always did that I’ve tried to model is jumping through whatever hoops necessary to just see your girls, even if it was only for five minutes. That simple act showed me how a mother can be her kids’ biggest fan just by making time to see their faces and kiss their cheeks. Where and/or when did you learn how to do that? Who has been a model for you?
C: I think this takes a couple answers. The first one is a man I worked with when I was about 20. I worked for a veterinarian for 7 years from when I was 18-25. I did front desk, tech work and some light bookkeeping. I can’t even remember his name. It might have been Jim. He was one of the techs. Every now and then his young son would come in. I noted that he always made a big effort for his son and would really get down low to hug his child every time he saw him. He mentioned it in passing one time as he was giving his son a big hug. Jim told me his father didn’t hug him and he didn’t want to be the same with his children.
The second part of my answer is that I am not sure. I love my children. I always wanted them to feel special. Every child should feel special by their parents/grandparents. I wanted them to feel like I loved them unconditionally. I do. I am not sure I have felt that a bunch in my life from others. There are only a few that make me feel that way.
I have known some children (roughly the same age as my children) who have lived with me for a time. One of them calls me every mother’s day. I also love them a bunch. I would stick up for any of them and be on their side and hopefully they feel the lion love. There are also a few adults. When they trust that I will (hopefully) never hurt them, they fall into a lion love category for me…
Who was a role model? Possibly, the people that treated my children the same way as I tried to. My oldest daughter’s high school counselor was still calling to check in on my oldest daughter when she was 25. She was someone that I really admire. Another time, the same counselor took care of a problem for a student that was not in her half of the alphabetical part of her kids. I will always remember her for how she went above and beyond. She was also completely trustworthy. My current employers were also a wonderful example. In a time that I was separated, they (among others) took care of some financial things for me and my kids. They also took a lot of care of the many, many young people who worked for them…really cared for them, talked to them, including my youngest child…including many who still come visit them when they are in town.
K: You said that when others trust that you won’t hurt them, they fall into the lion love category. That sounds like part of your protection of them comes when they trust you. That is a brand new thought/concept for me. Can you say a little more? I’d like to understand better.
C: Let me think. I hope they know that I love them. I hope they know that I would not hurt them intentionally. I hope and pray I say the right things and help them make good decisions. I hope I help them with their self-esteem. I hope I am positive. I hope I am discerning. I feel like I am encouraging. Some of them are just in my world for a time – so, I guess it gets to be a bit of a friendship for just a little while.
K: I know our friendship seemed like it might have been for only a little while, but it still stands strong even with my move away from Colorado. So, if you had a chance to share one last piece of advice or thoughts to younger women and/or moms, what would you tell them about friendship.
C: Try to remember that nobody is perfect. We all screw up. Accept your friends despite their faults. Try to remember them, write to them, call them, send them a “thinking of you” text or card. Try to not let time go by without checking in. Pray for them. Make time for them.
K: So, what you’re saying is just…
C: Love them.
K: Again, you bring a simplicity to your encouragement – not denying that loving is challenging, but that nevertheless it can and should be given liberally and without condition. Thank you so much for extending that kind of love and friendship to me. I hope others are inspired to go forward and do the same. And blessed are the ones who get your lion love – they will have their biggest fan in you – indeed, a gift worthy of receiving.
Colleen Gottlob is a mother to two young women and grandmother to one little lady. When she is not working as a merchandise buyer, you can find her running the mountainous trails of Evergreen with her favorite four-legged companion, Tillie. Her favorite drink is iced Bhakti Chai.
As I mentioned last week, this summer I am taking time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye. Summers have always been a season of transition for me and this year is no different. This summer marks five years since I moved from my hometown of Denver and relocated with my family to Seattle. This season is also the end of many requirements such as a master’s degree, internship, externship and thousands of clinical hours necessary to become a licensed therapist in the state of Washington. For the first time in five years I have no one that I must answer to for a grade or for a signature of approval. And while to some, that may feel freeing, to me, it is terrifying. It means that the constant state of someone else being responsible for my fate has now shifted to me being responsible to create my own assignments and requirements for what it is I want to achieve.
I’d like to illustrate this contrast more clearly anecdotally.
On our recent family vacation, we visited two separate water resorts. One was Glenwood Hot Springs resort and the other was Denver’s epic Water World Outdoor Family Water Park. Going to both locations was a treat for me to share with my kids the places that I frequented when I was a child. And each experience was markedly different from the other.
Dipping into Glenwood Hot Springs was like sinking into one’s personal bathtub. The water is a balmy 93 degrees naturally and its presence on my skin felt like a hug over every inch of my body. If the pavement all around the pool was positively blistering, the water was its salve. In fact, I had gotten two large scratches on my arm earlier on the trip and had put ointment on them daily to try to prevent both scarring and infection. But after my time in the magic sulphur spring my wounds closed perfectly and looked better than they had since the initial puncture.
Even before we swam in the pool, when we exited the I-70 tunnel out of the canyon and into the town, I felt a sense of ease and peace and knowing. I had been there many times before and memories of youth trips and diving contests and steam off the hot water in the winter filled me with consolation and giddy elation. It was like coming home from college for Thanksgiving dinner. I was met with the sites and sounds of the familiar, of tradition, of knowing and being known and I was comforted.
My experience at Water World was vastly different. We went there in the afternoon because the astronomically priced tickets were half off. We knew this meant that we wouldn’t get to do everything we wanted to do, but Lucy and Peter are still young enough that a full day might have been too much sun and water for their little bodies to handle. Since we only had a few hours at the park, we chose our rides carefully, because we knew we would be waiting in line for at least an hour. Neither of our kids had been to water parks that had the caliber of rides that Water World affords, so they were wide-eyed and mesmerized from the time we entered the gates. So, even though waiting in line for an hour was less than ideal, we kept telling them that it was worth the wait. And after we rode on the spiral spinning cavernous Journey to the Center of the Earth, they agreed.
Next, we chose to wait in line for a ride where all four of us were seated in a large raft that would take us plunging down a steep incline and dump us into a toilet-bowl like structure where we would swirl around and around and around and finally be dumped onto another landing that slid us through a waterfall and out to the finishing pool.
One of the best moments of the whole trip was the look on Peter’s face when we approached the initial incline of the “toilet-bowl” ride. I had shifted in the raft to where I was heading backwards down the incline and couldn’t see where we were going. Peter, to my right, was looking dead ahead and saw what awaited us all. As I felt myself fall backwards, I looked at Peter. With goggles over his eyes and his mouth wide open, he screamed a sound that was a mixture of terror and delight while his face expressed the notion of being both scared and excited at exactly the same time. It was priceless. I would wait at least another two hours in line if it meant I got to see that expression again. In an instant, he captured for me what it feels like to be in a place where what awaits you is inextricably both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying.
Lest I digress into more dreams of time gone by, let me circle back to my initial paragraph. [The natural problem with using anecdotes is that they only illustrate the point if they’re not so long that one forgets the initial point meant to be made]. What I meant to demonstrate was contrast. The two water resorts were very different experiences of very much the same thing – water fun. One was comforting, soothing, even healing. The other was exhilarating, terrifying and unnerving. These are the two states that I currently find myself between. I am saying good-bye to the familiar of the last five years and awaiting the unfamiliar of the next five. One has been a source of consolation and healing, will the next be terrifying and unnerving, even if exhilarating at the same time?
Perhaps what is at the core of saying good-bye is that one is leaving the familiar and heading into what is unfamiliar. Who really ever wants to leave the cozy, warm and containing presence of knowing and being known into what seems to be the cold, stark and steep dive into the unknown? And yet, when I really think about it, if I had my choice, I would choose the experience of Water World and witness Peter’s face of exhilaration and delight over the comfort of the hot springs bath any day of the week and twice on a Sunday.
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.
It was the fall of 2008 when Lucy was four and Peter was two that I was frantically trying to make use of the two-hour afternoon nap time. That was the only time of the day where my kids were both otherwise occupied when I could scour the final surfaces of my home before I had company over that night. The night before, I had already scrubbed four bathrooms, vacuumed the upstairs, main level and basement, swept and mopped the kitchen floors, ran the dishes, cleaned the refrigerator, wiped down the oven and microwave, Windexed the glass backdoor and dusted all the wood furniture in the house. That afternoon, I just had to Comet the kitchen sink and countertops and I would feel adequately ready to have friends in my house. My two-hour window was closing and I just knew that Lucy would likely be ready to get out of bed before Peter. As I desperately wrung my Comet covered sponge under the kitchen faucet willing it to get rinsed quicker I began my Hail Mary. In those moments, a mother hopes, prays, promises, says the rosary, barters, pleads, bribes, and otherwise commends her spirit into the hands of the Universe to just make her kids stay asleep a little longer so she can finish her tasks uninterrupted. That’s when I heard a voice in the distance. Only it wasn’t the Universe. She hadn’t heard my plea. It was my daughter, “Mommy? Can I get up now?”
I ripped off my rubber gloves and threw them on the counter in an attempt to punish the Universe for not accepting my righteous petition and huffed upstairs to let Lucy come out of her room. I told her I would put a show on for her to watch while I finished cleaning in the kitchen and would get her a snack in just a little bit. I sat her down on the couch and turned on Curious George for her to watch. At four years old, she had surpassed an interest in Sesame Street which meant Peter practically missed Big Bird and Elmo entirely.
I rushed back to the kitchen and skipped trying to wriggle wet rubber gloves back on my hands and instead proceeded to douse the countertops in Comet. [I for one, am a Comet kind of girl. When I was young and cleaning the bathrooms was my chore, I picketed if my parents ever bought the grocery store version of the same cleaning solution. It was Comet, or they could clean the bathrooms themselves. Paying the extra $.59 per canister was apparently worth it, as that remained my chore until I moved out of the house at age 22]. Bending over, I proceeded to apply the elbow grease my mother and grandmother swore got the job done and scrubbed the cracks and crevices of the Formica countertops. Mid-scrub I heard Lucy call from the living room. I stood up straight, with both hands on the countertops and my head tilted back chanting to myself “Why me? Why me?” and finally answered her as calmly as I could muster “Yes, Lucy?”
“Mommy? I think I need some love.”
I looked down at my hands clutched a little too tightly to the blue sponge and thought, “Love. Love. Love. Ok. I can do that. Love. Ok.” So, I rinsed my hands and went to sit next to her on the couch. She was still watching the onery monkey and I ran my hands softly on her back…side to side up and down in circles back and forth. When I thought she had either forgotten her request or I had fooled myself into believing she had gotten enough love, I slowly removed my hand from her back and snuck back into the kitchen to pick up where I left off. My time was most definitely limited now. I knew I only had moments before Peter would wake up and between the two of them I would not have a minute to finish. I started scrubbing again when I heard, “Mommy?” I responded more quickly this time, “Yes, Lucy?”
“Mommy? I think I need some more love.”
I sat the sponge down and rinsed my hands again. Then, I proceeded to sit next to her on the couch and rub her back a second time the same way I had done the first. And when I thought she had either forgotten her request or I had fooled myself into believing she had gotten enough love, I snuck away to the kitchen and was able to finish rinsing the sink and countertops before Peter woke up.
I was able to reach my goal. I succeeded in getting my house clean by the time both kids woke up. Friends came over that night and enjoyed a very clean and hospitable environment and left with plenty of food and fun.
It is difficult for me to find these next words. I am trying to be kind to myself – to look back on the young mother that I was and extend to her grace and mercy, because she didn’t know any better. But, really, in my shame I want to grab her by the arms, drag her from the kitchen to the couch, sit her down and say, “This is what matters! Not a clean countertop, not a clean sink! Love on this little girl right here, right now, so much that she doesn’t have to ask you twice. Scoop her up and rock her in your arms for all the times you couldn’t…for all the times you didn’t!”
Tears of regret stream down my face as I remember that moment. What I wouldn’t give to have a do-over. And…in the same breath, I also believe in redemption. I know that because of that moment, I have been more aware of my daughter’s need for love. I have listened more closely, been more attentive, picked up on the nuances of her needs more acutely than if I had not failed in that moment so terribly. She has never made a direct request like that since. And for that, I am deeply grieved. But, because of my mistake, I have grown a strong attunement to her heart’s needs, and I believe she still asks me in many ways to give her more love. Every time I pause to scratch her back or give her a squeeze, or snuggle with her in the morning to wake her up, or sit extra close to her on the couch when we watch movies, or insist on having my arm around her when we sit in a booth at a restaurant, or hold her hand anytime we are out walking, I get my do-over.
What actions or goals or values get in the way of you being able to give others more love? Is it your to do list, or your image, your busyness, or external pressures? Is it all the ‘shoulds’? We’d love to hear specifics from you in the comments below.
Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, these multiple images convey more than my original blog post could.