Grieving As Transformation

cup

Last week, to honor the one-year anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, and the six-month anniversary of my job loss, I attended a grief workshop.

About twenty of us sat in a circle around a beautiful, multi-tiered display of broken mugs. There were many kinds, colors, and shapes of mugs. Some were merely chipped, some were smashed, and some had no handle. The analogy centered on Psalm 3:12 which says, “I have become like a broken vessel.”

We were told to pick a mug that resembled how we felt, and then we had twenty minutes to spend thinking through some questions we were given about the mug and our grieving process.

The people in the group were all over the map in their grief work: one woman looked like she was still in shock, head bowed, eyes wide, unable to speak. Her husband had died six months ago and he was only in his forties.

One man had lost his wife two years ago, but described his heart as “shattered.” He looked like he was on the verge of a physical heart shattering with the level of pain he was still holding in.

Some had lost grown children, others lost parents who left them orphaned, as only children, with no children of their own for comfort. Each had their own process of grief.

Some were not grieving the death of a loved one, but a divorce or retirement from a beloved profession.

I chose a cup with no handle because losing my mother and my job felt like losing the things I held on to, the things that took a large chunk of my time and made up a large part of my identity.

But as I examined my cup I saw that it was still beautiful, useful and mostly intact. I saw that it could function very well without its handle…life was going on for me and for the most part, my life is very beautiful. I have a wonderful husband and fantastic children and grandchildren. I work, I write, I have a ministry. I am happy.

When we returned from our time of reflection, we talked about our cups. Everyone had found hope in this exercise in some small way. It gave us words for our experience of grief.

At lunch, we put our cups at the foot of the cross in the chapel. Later, when we returned, there was a new display at the center of the room: it contained beautiful, colorful, whole cups. We were each allowed to choose one and take it home. A cup of blessing.

I realized that I have come far in my grieving process. I am letting go. I’m sure there will be times when I continue to be blindsided by grief, but I have come a long way in healing. And the point of this exercise drove home for me that grief can lead us to transformation, to new places of depth, compassion, and growth. (Tweet This)

In one handout adapted from Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy by J. William Worden, Ph.D., it listed four stages of grief which I will briefly sketch here:

    1. To accept the reality of the loss: When someone dies, even if death is expected, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. The first task of grieving is to come full face with the reality that the person is dead.
    2. To experience the pain of grief: Many people (and society) try to avoid painful feelings. You must allow yourself to experience and express your feelings, difficult though they may be.
    3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing: There may be many practical daily affairs you need help and advice with, but there will be a great sense of pride in being able to master these challenges.
    4. To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship: The final task is to effect an emotional withdrawal so that this emotional energy can be used in continuing a productive life.

I learned that each person’s grief is completely unique. It doesn’t really help to compare our grief or expect another to grieve like we do. But, it does help to share the human experience of grief with others who are going through it.

Where are you at in your grief experience? What kind of cracked cup are you and what does God say about it? I’d love to hear about your grief experience so we can hold our cups up together and toast a life of transformation.

 

 

Blindsided! Surviving Grief, Loss, and Disappointment

blindsided

A year later: I’m still in awe of the support and encouragement of our friends during our Blindside!

My mom died a month ago, suddenly, in her sleep, just died. Did I mention it was a shock?

When something shocking happens, it sends us reeling in a way few other things can. In Baz Luhrmann’s famous graduation speech – Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen,) he says a line that has stuck with me and comes back to me at times like this:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindsides you at 4pm
on some idle Tuesday.

I’ve been blindsided on a few idle Tuesday’s as I’m sure you have. It might be an unexpected death, losing your job, getting a bad diagnosis from the doctor, or being betrayed by a friend. It “knocks the wind out of you,” “pulls the rug out from under you” or otherwise “smacks you upside the head.” We spend a lot of time trying to find words to describe these experiences.

How do we handle it?

How can others help?

When Mom died, David and I spent the week following trying to find words for how we felt. I might say, “I feel like I’ve been beaten with baseball bats,” or he’d say, “I’m totally fried.” Last week I had an experience that gave me the perfect metaphor for the shock I had experienced.

I was walking around a lake in Chicago, it was a beautiful day and I was noting how the forest around me had taken a beating during their rough winter. The ground was littered with broken branches. Ahead of me, the only other person in sight was a man on a backhoe removing some of the branches from a path. He was working away and since I was a lone woman in the middle of nowhere, I was doing a threat assessment. How fast could I run if he turned out to be a bad guy?

Suddenly, his backhoe hit something, there was a loud “bang” and as I looked up, a spray of some kind of liquid covered his entire torso, including a direct hit to his face. Then, it wasn’t about me anymore, it was about him. I ran up to see if he needed help. I thought maybe he’d just been scalded with boiling water from an overheated engine or something.

He was sputtering and wiping what turned out to be oil, from his face. He looked confused and was just trying to breathe and figure out if he was okay. My presence seemed to help comfort him and he found a hanky and wiped his eyes and face. We talked about what had happened, I described what I had seen and he was able to find a broken hose that had caused the trouble. I left him to it and later, on the way home from my walk, he was driving back in the opposite direction and waved.

It hit me then, that is exactly how I felt when mom died. I was working hard; David and I were loading the car for a trip to visit a student in Chico when I got the call. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by a blast of the unexpected. I was confused, sputtering, trying to breathe, and wondering if I would be okay. Many people rushed to us, offering Kleenex and casseroles. And life has forever moved in a different direction.

rembrandt-prodigal-son-detail2

Yep, that’s how it felt for me; I’m wondering what words have been helpful in defining your grief?
And also, how did others help you?

A friend asked me today, “Where did you see God when all this was happening?” My answer was, through people. One friend came right over and sat with me while I filled out papers at the mortuary. Friends brought food, flowers, and wine. One asked what we needed from the store. I said “Milk,” and she brought it right over. We were barraged by lovely cards, Facebook messages, and offers of help. My kids were amazing, giving constant love and support. And for the memorial, I sent out an email to my friends asking them to bring food and never thought about it again. I never even went down into the church’s kitchen area until it was time to eat. Everything had been set up and the tables were laden with food. Yep, my friends were the hands and feet of God to us during our hardest time, and I feel rich indeed.

Now I feel better equipped to respond to others who get blindsided on an idle Tuesday. But everyone’s grief experience is different.

What have you found to be helpful?

 

Second photo from Rembrandt’s Prodigal

A Tribute To My Mother, a year after her death

mama

My beautiful mother died suddenly, a year ago, March 14th, 2014. This is the tribute I wrote for her memorial. At the end is a link to the video my son made of her life in pictures.

LaDonna Fae Terry was born August 29th, 1935 in Wendell Idaho. Her parents, Jack and LeRue Smith had four daughters, of which mom was the youngest: Betty, LeRay, Beverly, and LaDonna. Mom was the boy my grandpa always wanted and she loved her daddy. The locals often called her “Little Jack,” and her family called her “Donnie.” They lived on a farm in Wendell and Mom loved to play clarinet in the high school marching band.
Mom married Tom Terry in April of 1954. He had one son from a previous marriage, our beloved half-brother Jim Terry, and although we didn’t meet him until about 17 years ago, he has been a wonderful addition to our family.
Dad was a produce buyer and he and mom traveled to follow the crops. In 1956, they were in Oregon when Thomas Terry III was born, then in 1959 they were in Burley, Idaho when I was born, and they were in Colorado when Skye was born in 1964.
The family finally settled in California when Dad began working for Safeway in their Produce Division. Upon Dad’s retirement, they moved to Reno in 1984. Mom and dad briefly moved to Idaho where they were living when Dad passed away in 2003, and then mom moved back to Reno.
At that point, Mom thought her life was over. But in 2006 she met Carl Sanford and she and Carl traveled the world together, visiting places like Greece, Spain, England, The Bahamas, Hawaii, and Mexico.
I had lunch with Mom every week and she never failed to say, “How did I get so lucky to have two men who loved me so much. Carl is such a good man and I’m so happy.” Our family is very thankful for Carl, who made Mom’s last eight years such a joy and delight.
That’s the overview; mom died peacefully in her sleep Friday, March 14 and it was a devastating shock to us all. To help you understand why we miss her so, I’ve chosen four words to describe my mom.
First: Mom had Style! You’ll see in the slideshow that Mom loved to dress up. In the 60′s she never left the house without matching hat, shoes, and purses. In the 70′s she was one mod mama! In the eighties and nineties, she found sequins and loved to sparkle. I always called her “my little magpie” because she loved shiny things. When she met Carl, her style relaxed but she still never went anywhere without a wrist full of colorful bracelets and her fingers covered in huge rings.

Mama's hats

The second word is Fearlessness! While dad had his career, mom also worked. It was not normal for women in her day, but she worked as a telephone operator. Then with no schooling, she worked as a nurse and even got to help deliver twins. Again, with no formal education, she worked as a dental assistant in both Colorado and California. Then she went to beauty school and eventually owned shops in both California and Reno. Somewhere in there, she was a real-estate agent. She wasn’t afraid to try anything.

The third word I’ve chosen is Fun! Mom told countless stories of the various shenanigans they got into as kids, including how she and her sister Bev, scheduled several dates a half-hour apart and watched from across the street as one sad suitor after another drove away from their house rejected. And, she was always up for a spontaneous road trip to Idaho and loved to play with her children and grandchildren. Mom loved pranks and it was not unusual for her to turn around and be wearing something like this, or this or this (at this point I put on some of her more outrageous hats). I remember the last road trip we took in November. Every now and then she’d turn to me and be wearing these, or these, or these (Here I put on some of her hysterical sunglasses). She was full of whimsy.

The last word I’ve chosen, though I could go on for hours – and I’m hoping some of you will share your stories – is Energetic! Mom had more energy than any person I have ever met. When we were growing up, she played the Banjo and took us to pizza parlors and parades to watch her play. She never really stopped moving, even when she was sitting. As you can tell, she loved to paint (The room was lined with her paintings). When she wasn’t painting, she was embroidering dish towels, or making colorful bracelets. I have hundreds of these, as do all of my siblings and her sister and her friends. I’ve brought a stack of bracelets and put them out for each of you to take some as a reminder to have style, fun, to be fearless and keep moving.

It was mom’s energy level that made her passing so strange to all of us. I had lunch with her Monday morning; Her friend Evelyn went out with her to the Gold and Silver restaurant on Tuesday and mom won $75! Skye was with her Wednesday, and we all saw her Thursday. Carl said that even Thursday night, they watched Pretty Women before bed. Her friend Pat said mom was a “Whirlwind of energy.” I guess that is why none of us thought she would hold still long enough to die, it just wasn’t like her. Mom’s video

Driving Miss Donnie: How to survive a road trip with someone with dementia

I wrote this blog when my mom and I did something we’d done our whole lives: We took a road trip to Idaho. I had no idea when we did it, that it would be our last. I’m so grateful for these memories. 

senior-headphone-stuffed-animal

I’m just back from a four-day road trip with my slightly demented and partially deaf mother. Think Thelma and Louise with a Perry Como soundtrack. It was a wonderful/memorable/trying trip and here are the things I learned from it.

  1. Plan ahead. This was a trip for her to see her remaining friends and family for possibly the last time. I called ahead and made sure everyone was in town and we were able to see them all, plus visit the old towns, houses, and farms of her childhood.
  2. Ask for support. I asked my Facebook friends to pray for safety and patience. This really helped because the conversation went something like this for 900 miles: Mom: “Would you like a root beer candy?” Me: “No Thank you.” Mom: “Huh?” Me: “NO THANK YOU.” Ten minutes later: Mom, “Would you like a root beer candy?” Me: “No thank you.” Mom: “Huh?” Me: “NO THANK YOU”…
  3. Take this opportunity to find out all the wonderful family stories and juicy bits of dirt. When talking about the past my mom is very lucid. I kept her talking most of the way there, to avoid the root beer candy question. I learned lots of lots of great family history now have it memorized after hearing each story at least ten times.
  4. Be sure to plan a part of the trip that is fun for you too! I planned an overnight with an old friend and I also set aside an hour for book research. It really helped to break up all the visiting.
  5. Be prepared to think of this trip as a labor of love. When I kept my mind in this frame of reference, I did well. When I let down my guard and say, wanted to check my email at night and got interrupted every two minutes, Oscar the Grouch came out. Oops, the expression “labor-of-love” is just that: hard work.

plant

  1. Be amazed at the stories people tell. As we visited the relatives and friends, much reminiscing about “the good old days” happened. I felt like I had a front row seat in history. The hard part was that for some, the past was about all they had left to enjoy. Let me tell you, leaving each person we visited was painful. The hard truth that we probably won’t see most of them again.
  2. Pay attention to who fares better. My mom’s family is made up of two kinds of people: Mormons and Jack Mormons. Jacks are people who don’t want to be Mormon’s, mostly because they like to raise hell and drink a lot; at least it seemed to work out that way in our family. I’m not a Mormon but I can attest to the fact that on this visit, the Mormon’s were physically and mentally stronger. Something to be said for clean living!
  3. The “second childhood” thing can be rather enduring. My mom enjoyed finding pictures in the clouds and surprising me by putting on funny sunglasses when I wasn’t looking. A  magic moment occurred during the overnight at my friend’s when the lights went out in her room and the ceiling glowed with stars. She was thrilled.
  4. Bring some old music to make the trip shorter – and a great book. On the way home, mom started cleaning out her glove box. There she found two treasures: her car manual, which provided hours of good reading because when she got to the end, she’d forgotten the beginning and started over, saying “I didn’t know I had a rear defroster!” Second, she realized she had a built-in CD player loaded with music! We were serenaded by Perry Como, Elvis and The Sons of the Pioneers all the way home, which was a nice break from talking.
  5. Cherish the memory you made. I learned more from this trip than I ever thought possible. We pulled some long days and my mom never complained once. At every home we visited she was warm, affirming and loving. This is the Mommy I’ve forgotten, the one I missed during the busy years, and the one I rarely see at our weekly lunches because it’s a predictable environment. But four days trapped in a car with someone shows you who they really are, and I loved getting re-acquainted with this Mama. What a wonderful gift. Tomorrow I present her with a photo book full of the pictures we took along the way. I can’t wait.