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Saturday, September 15, 2012

This Too Shall Pass

I spend a fair bit of time here thinking about and processing some fairly difficult experiences of bereavement and loss.  These reflections these days often come out of conversations I've had with people who have recently lost loved ones.  So I try to write for those in the midst of grief that is fresh.

For the most part, that is not where I'm at personally.  I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed.  I have an amazing spouse, Brenda.  She is central not only to my recovering but also to my capacity for embracing the future.  I am twice-blessed and dare not be so ungrateful as to ever complain about small struggles.  She is an incredible partner in love, in life, in ministry and in our future.

I have an amazing family.  Some of you have been with me a lifetime--either mine or yours.  Some of you are relatively new to me and me to you.  All of you make my life so rich and so wonderful.  And I love you all.  I cannot imagine my life without any of you at this point.

I have been given back my vocation, even though it's not entirely clear how it will work out in the long run.  Of course, I'm not all that concerned about the long run these days.  I have good work in the church and beyond the church.  I have a better sense of the kind of person I need to be in order to serve well.  We have the chance to make the world a better place now.  And we have hopes and dreams for exciting and creative work in the future.

I remind my readers of all this because I know that hope and happiness come from the choices we make.  It's not so much the choices about particular actions or paths.  Instead, I am talking about the choices we make regarding how we feel, how we respond, how we make the most out of whatever it is we receive from life on a daily basis.

Those who are new to this grieving business cannot see past the next moment.  I know that.  Those who are new to this grieving business have trouble believing that anything but darkness stands in their path.  I know that.  Those who are new to this grieving business are entitled to your times of despair.  I know that.

My experience is that it does not have to last.  This too shall pass.

The Pain of Choosing

Every bereaved person I know deals with massive amounts of regret.  We have regrets over what we didn't do, say, think, and feel in our relationship with our lost loved one.  We have regrets about our decisions that may have impacted in one way or another the fact that our loved one died.  We have regrets about decisions we have made since our loved one died.  And we have regrets about decisions connected to the actual deaths of our loved ones.

We all know intellectually that we live in a time when we must make choices about the how, the when, and the where of the deaths of our loved ones.  We try to insulate others from such choices by making them ourselves through advance directives, pre-planning of funerals, living wills and other instruments.  Those are wonderful gifts we can give to those who remain alive when we are dying and dead.  I can tell you, however, that those instruments are not inoculations against choice or regret.

I had choices about the how, the when, and the where of Anne's death.  Since those choices existed, I had to make them.  I certainly made those choices in consultation with others.  Nonetheless they were mine to make.  Since I had choices (and a great array of such choices) I now have regrets.  And only slowly do those regrets integrate into a peaceful sense of myself.

In the cognitive psychology of choice, we learn that beyond a certain point the multiplication of choice makes us miserable.  We may have greater personal autonomy and self-determination than every before.  We may have more "freedom."  And we feel worse.  

  • When we make choices, we imagine that we might have made better ones.  
  • When we make choices, we know we could have made alternative ones.  
  • When we have choices, we enter into the bondage of seeking the perfect choice.  
  • When we have choices, we are responsible for the outcome.
The morning after Anne became unresponsive, one of the specialists came in and nearly turned into a murder victim.  His first advice was to do nothing and to let her go.  I knew then as I know now that he was right.  And I wanted to kill him for what seemed to be his callous and calculated hopelessness.  I know now that he was a pessimist and therefore had a more accurate perception of reality that did I.  


He was also in the business of giving advice.  I was the one who was forced to make the choices.  When giving advice, talk is cheap.

We did everything we could.  I know that.  We made the best decisions we could at the time.  I know that.  After that, I chose the time, the manner and the location for the removal of all supportive measures.  I knew that within a matter of hours or days Anne would then die.  It has taken many months of reflection and conversation, of prayer and pondering, to let go of the dozens of regrets that I had about it all.  By the way, they are not all gone.  And they don't stay away permanently once managed.

It's not that I made bad choices.  I made good choices.  More than that, I made the best choices I could at the moment.  Part of the problem was simply having the power to choose and then to be responsible. That is the price of having choice.

I don't advocate that we take choice away from folks in our medical practice.  I do urge that practitioners--physicians, pastors, counselors, nurses, social workers and other caregivers--remember as clearly as possible this relationship between regret and the sheer reality of having choices.

I found that the pastors in my life knew this all intuitively.  They did all they could to reduce the number of non-medical choices I needed to make.  They didn't ask me if I needed a visit and when.  They just came.  If it wasn't a good time, they left.  They made the choices for me in that regard.  It may seem like a small thing.  But when you multiply all the small choices we normally make and subtract them from the huge choices needed in a crisis, that subtraction is a marvelous gift.

We must choose.  We will have regrets.  We can find ways to mitigate the pain of these realities.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Worse or Better?

"Maybe some people get let off the hook, but most of us have to carry some big weight through life.  We lose someone or something important.  Then our job is to feel close to God, to love other people, and be happy anyway.  We learn to live carrying the weight of that loss."--Melodie Beattie, The Grief Club, page 22. 
I found the temptation almost irresistible--the desire to compare bereavement experiences.  Well, comparing experiences wasn't so bad.  The temptation was to decide that one kind of grief experience was better or worse than another.

Is it worse to suffer a sudden and unexpected loss or to suffer through months or years of debilitating decline?  Is it worse to be widowed because of cancer or crime or accidental calamity?  Is your grief somehow better or worse--more or less intense--than mine?

I'm not sure of the value of such conversations, yet I couldn't help but enter into them.  When I talked with other bereaved people, there came a point almost always when we got down to this topic.  Perhaps it was a way to establish some common ground.  Maybe it was a way to get some distance from our own pain.  Perhaps the experience of loss made us bereavement connoisseurs.

I don't know.

Here is what I do know after many such conversations.  My grief is worse than your grief because it's mine.  And your grief is worse than mine because it's yours.  There is no comparing one experience or story or history or reaction to another.  Each instance of bereavement is unique.

I try to remind myself of that over and over.

That doesn't mean that no common patterns exist.  That doesn't mean that we have nothing to say to one another that might be helpful.  That doesn't mean that we have no common ground as bereaved persons when we talk to one another.  

In fact, the only people I could really talk to were of two categories--those who had lost spouses in one fashion or another, and those who were well into a twelve-step recovery program.  The former folks had some idea of what I was going through.  The latter folks had some real answers for how to go on.

That being said, I need to remind myself over and over of several things now as I share with and offer support to other bereaved people.

To compare is, at least potentially, to judge.  And my experience is that nothing brought me up short faster than the feeling that I was being judged based on how I was grieving.  I felt damaged and incompetent and shamed and worthless enough.  I didn't need to feel that somehow I was screwing up my grieving experience as well.  So I try not to compare, if I can help it.

Since every bereavement experience is unique, I really have no advice to give to anyone else.  I can share my own story, and that might help someone else.  But I have no idea what it is like for another person.  

The things that worked for me may be useless to someone else.  I've been asked, "How did you get through it?"  For one thing, I'm not quite sure.  For another thing, I don't think I would recommend my path to someone else.  For a third thing, what worked for me probably won't work for someone else.

One more thing I try to remember is that every grieving person has something to teach me.  If I can stay in touch with that--if I can remain open and teachable--then I can learn from others.  If I'm learning from someone else who is grieving, then I might stand some chance of doing some good.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Always and Never

I was reminded today of how little meaning the words "always" and "never" hold for me now.  It was a conversation with some people who had experienced spousal loss in several different ways.  One of the losses was very fresh.  I mentioned my recollection that in those early months I had no idea who I really was or where I was headed.

One of the other speakers talked about the way in which folks urge the bereaved in several contradictory directions.  

There is the "don't give up on love" school of thought--as if we might be so scared of losing again that we would remain alone forever.  Some might choose that, but in the early days and months, who knows?  

There is the "don't change anything for a year" school of thought--as if we might lose our sanity temporarily and fly off to Rio for an emotional binge.  Of course, some of us do precisely that, but in the early days and months, who knows?

All I know is this.  When Anne died, everything changed.  The plans and projects, the hopes and dreams, the assumptions about the future all changed or simply evaporated.  "Always" had come to an end.  

There were those moments when I thought that things would never get better.  There were those moments when I was sure that I would never be able to go on.  Then the Holy Spirit put Brenda and me together.  After that, "never" was a term I could no longer use.

We make our plans.  We put together our maps for the journey.  We prepare for the future day by day.  Those are good and important things to do.  But none of those plans are for "always."  None of those maps can guarantee any "nevers."  We do our footwork.  We put ourselves in places where we can respond faithfully.  Then we see what God has in store for us.

Living through this high-wire act called life can be gut-wrenching and stomach-churning at times.  If I look down and notice how little is really certain, I can have moments of spiritual, emotional and even physical vertigo.  If I think very hard about how little is nailed down in this life, I can suffer a dawn to dusk anxiety attack.

I can do that if I choose to do so.

Living through this high-wire act called life can, if we allow it, also be exhilarating--a cosmic thrill ride of a eternal proportions.  We do our footwork.  We put ourselves in places where we can respond faithfully.  We see what God has in store for us.  It's a hoot and a half, because the surprises are astonishing.

You know, I was ready to load up the truck with camping gear, pick a direction on the map, and head out.  I was going to keep going until my brain cleared or the money disappeared--whichever came first. Days after that decision, I walked through Brenda's door in Elkhorn.  And everything changed.

God said "Surprise!"  So much for "always" and "never."

There are only two exceptions.  God is always faithful.  And God never gives up on loving us.  Everything else is just part of the adventure.