Lighter

I had a realization yesterday. One that kind of hit me between the eyes. I’m happy. 

Most days feel incredibly normal once again, if a bit frantic at times due to the combination of work and grad school. But underneath it all, I’m happy. I’m content. I feel purposeful and alive and - at least on most days - energetic at heart, something I wondered if I would ever feel again. I feel like I have a purpose and life has meaning. Occasionally the skies are still cloudy and gray, but it’s rarer now, and when I cry, I’m able to shed my tears, have my moment, and then go about my day. Gone are the feelings of hopelessness and despair, gone is the fear that my future is over. 

You may think this sounds crazy. After all, I’ve had so many good times and memories since Phil’s death. I’m remarried, I've traveled some, and I have this tremendous opportunity to go back to school! Of course I should no longer be sad! 

All I can say is that grief is unpredictable and we carry our loss with us forever. At first, my grief was a reality that was almost too heavy to carry. I realized yesterday that my grief over losing Phil, the changes in my family, my changing relationship with my Mother due to dementia, even a decade old grief over a change in career, was somehow lighter. Oh yes, it’s there.  It didn’t dissipate into thin air. I am marked by the experience of watching my husband suffer and die, by his absence from my life and the life of our children. My grief has altered me - in profound ways. Some of this is for good - it has transformed me. Some of it I continue to struggle with - I still have occasional panic attacks and flashbacks, I remain in counseling for support. I’ve learned how important it is to take care of myself. Death was the great educator in my life. But I can bear the grief now. It is a part of who I am but I no longer labor under that weight, it simply is. 


I sat for awhile this morning and tried to think of why this is. What brought healing? There is no one answer I don’t think. If I had to pinpoint “ingredients” to my healing, I’d mention these….quiet time to process and write it all out….space to think and rest (at first)…. my children…friends who allowed me to talk and be where I was…prayer…adventures to new places, doing new things…. music…hours spent paddling down the river on my board… lifting heavy weights again and again….time in nature…sunshine on my face…crying a lot of tears…writing my book and connecting with readers who could relate…the help of a good counselor or two…reading helpful books on grief and taking classes on the grieving process…going to Italy which felt like a dream come true …long walks on the beach and by the river…my sweet pup, Ruby…the love and friendship of Matt…knowing Phil wanted me to live a meaningful life again….learning to dream again…serving others…a new environment….new friends that encouraged and accepted me…walks at sunset….and, yes,  moving and going to graduate school…..continuing always to grow and learn.


As you can see, it’s a lot of things, and maybe not one thing in particular. What is helping now wouldn’t have helped in the beginning. What helped in the beginning is not what I need now. It has been a journey of the soul, ever-evolving, twisting, turning, climbing at times, resting at others. But one thread remained constant: Every moment of the journey required courage and a determination not to give up. Each step forward required some hope and a lot of persistence. I had to make choices that were helpful and healthy. I had to let go of beliefs and thought patterns and behaviors that were not. And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 

The bravest thing I ever did was choose to live when I’d rather not. My grief was complicated. My journey has felt convoluted and tangled up at times. I am not done yet. But I feel lighter now. Hopeful. Joyous. At peace with myself. Purposeful. Wiser. It’s been three years and eight months since Phil left this earth. What a beautiful affirmation of his life and love for me to live again, and to do so with a full heart. Thank you, Phil, for loving me and encouraging me to begin again. Thank you, Matt, for having the love and courage to enter this new phase of life with me. Thank you to old friends who patiently held me up through it all. Thank you, new friends, for loving me as I am. And thank God for new beginnings. 

*I cannot emphasize enough how healing my time in grad school has been for me. It has not been easy for sure. But the entire experience, along with the incredible friendship of my cohort, has been a healing gift and I am thankful.*

God, Is This Really You?

I vividly remember the first “grief work” I ever helped foster as a minister. I walked into it quite ignorantly, truth to be told. I had spent some time with a friend leading an infant loss support group. (I have no idea how I was tapped for this? What did I know?) But I was the staff member asked to do it so I showed up, we read a book together and the women discussed the children they had lost, the grief that they felt. A common theme among those who lose a child through miscarriage or at birth is that there are few, if any, public mourning rituals, no accepted grief practices. Some had named their children, many had not, or not officially. Many times they are left to mourn alone. Their grief did not feel respected or acknowledged. This was, obviously, an open wound. 

In our discussions, it became clear that the women desired a chance to publicly honor, remember and mourn the children they had lost. And so we held an Infant Loss Remembrance Service. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, no idea what I was doing. Looking back, I can only hope I did no harm to the bereaved parents in my ignorant attempts to help. 

We met on a Sunday afternoon. We invited anyone to come that had lost a child in any way. No questions were asked. No one was required to share or say a word. It was a small crowd. Most I knew but a few faces in the crowd were unfamiliar to me. We dimmed the lights for a bit of privacy, we sang, we read scripture and two friends - one a father, one a mother - shared about their individual losses. In the end we lit candles for those we had lost, to remember, to call their names. 

I was totally unprepared for the incredible outpouring of emotion that day. I expected tears. I didn’t expect the gut level keening and wailing as loss was held up to the light of day, as those precious children were remembered, mourned. In essence, we were holding a mass funeral. Everyone there was a principle mourner and it was like a wound had been lanced. It took all I had to keep it together just to finish the service because I knew myself well enough to know that if I started crying, I would not stop, and I was the person in charge. It was hard - a deeply painful service to conduct. And yet it was precious - perhaps one of the most difficult, yet meaningful things I have ever done as a minister. It is my hope even today that it brought a measure of comfort, healing and closure for some of those parents that attended, whatever the circumstances of their loss may have been. 

This came to mind for me today I think because this week I have felt so defeated. Wondering if I have made the right decision to uproot my family, move, spend a lot of money and time and go to graduate school to study for becoming a professional counselor. Do I really have what it takes? Am I just kidding myself? It has been a tearful week, if I’m honest, and my self doubt is pretty high at the moment. Past feelings of failure have come at me like waves - are the harsh things said about me at times in the past true? I have so many questions and I feel quite alone as I think through them. Is this really what God is calling me to do? I prayed about it this morning, wondering if it was wrong to ask God for a sign, for some measure of encouragement or affirmation that I had not missed his will. 

In the midst of that prayer, two scenes came to my memory. One was this remembrance service, something that I had not really thought of in a long time. Another was of the time I sat with sweet little Anna in a remote village in the hills of Rwanda hearing her share of her losses, of watching her entire family being slaughtered in the Genocide that occurred there. I sat with her in a little mud hut on a small bench someone had borrowed from a neighbor. She shared, and as she shared, she wept, she cried out and she fell to the floor on her face. She later told me she had never told her story to anyone before, that she didn’t think anyone would listen. In that moment I felt a sense of peace and calling, that this is where I belonged, sitting with the suffering, with those in pain. The least of these. 

I’m still struggling. I’m still discouraged. But I do know God has shaped me for something, a calling I can’t deny, although some days I’d like to. May I not lose sight of that. Pray for us, if you are one who prays. This transition has been difficult for us and we are still trying to find our feet. May God meet us here. 

We Don't Want to Go There (or, What I Learned in Rwanda)

Yesterday I publicly spoke up, denouncing the white nationalist marches and violence in Charlottesville as what it is: racism pure and simple. I also added that these attitudes are not birthed from the Spirit of God, but from the pit of hell. Strong words to some and I lost a “friend” over my words.

However, I stand by them. Some argued theoretics, wanted to blame liberals or Obama or whomever,  or talk about what other groups do, but I can’t discuss politics in the midst of this. To politicize a tragedy is wrong and so I try not to go there. The Bible tells us to “Weep with those that weep” and so today I do that. 

I weep with my Jewish friends who had to see the Nazi flag fly in the U.S.A. and hear anti-semitic chants on the streets of their beloved country, I weep with my black friends who often feel enough fear already without seeing white men march with torches that call us back to the day of lynchings and cross burnings, I cry with my hispanic friends and Muslim friends who may now feel unwelcome - and unsafe - in a country they dreamed would give them opportunity and freedom as well as refuge, a place they call home. I weep with my Japanese friends who perhaps remembered internment camps and the hate they experienced simply for being Japanese.

And I weep for my white friends, because while this is not a belief we all espouse, it is a belief we all must stand against. It belittles all of us and if we do nothing, say nothing, we give the impression that we share the belief that we are somehow better, superior. I weep with my country because I had hoped we were better than this - we are, after all, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. 

I have traveled to twenty countries. I have friends of many nationalities and races and skin tones and backgrounds and religions as well. I have learned from them all, been blessed by them all. I cannot begin to share all the lessons I have learned from people that are different than me, that have been raised in cultures different than my own. I often say that while I am not sure how my teaching and sharing impacted those I worked with, I am certain that my encounters and experiences enlarged me and taught me very powerful lessons. 

In my travels and work I have visited three countries (at least) that have a history of genocide. If you are not familiar with the term, it is simply put, the systemic and deliberate extermination of a particular national, racial, cultural or political group. And it is evil. And guess what? It always starts with the idea and belief that one group is superior to another, and anyone different is a “scourge” on society. When any group of people “dehumanizes” another, it is a step in the wrong direction, a slippery slope. 

We Americans are perhaps most familiar with the one that occurred in Germany and swept across Eastern Europe, the Holocaust. Obviously I did not see this first hand but my grandfather fought in WWII and was a POW in a German prison camp. I understand, as much as I am able, the price paid to turn back this tide. I did, while in Munich, visit Dachau, a death camp run by the Nazis in WWII. 

Now, even 60-70 years later, it smelled like death.  I could not even go into the area with the ovens and gas “showers”, it was if the angel of death still hovered over it, my spirit and heart could not bear it. I stood at the door and wept. My skin crawled. My heart hurt. I felt a physical reaction to being there. Later I visited all the chapels that have been erected there and prayed in each one, I admired the incredible art and music and poetry forged EVEN THERE in the midst of a living hell. I wondered at the resiliency and beauty of the human spirit in the midst of acute suffering.  

It is my understanding that the Nazi salute and symbols are absolutely forbidden in Germany now. Six million people are estimated to have died, and they understand the price their country paid for this time in their history. Each school year students visit the camps and learn so that “never again” will this be allowed to happen in their country. It is not theoretical to them, the price of “nationalism” and “white supremacy” is a reality in Germany. It cost them almost everything. 

I also worked in Guatemala many times. The genocide that occurred there in the 80’s, with origins in the Civil War in the 60’s. This is often called the “Silent Holocaust” and was the systemic campaign of repression by the Guatemalan government against the Mayan Indians in the villages. The government destroyed 626 villages using a “scorched earth” policy and killed over 200,000 people and displaced an additional 1.5 million. Because of the “scorched earth” tactics, after it was over there were no villages to return to, no family left. The effects of this era are still felt in Guatemala today. And while this was obviously not a “white nationalism” issue, it was a racist issue. 

My most vivid personal experience in seeing the effects of genocide, however, came from working in Rwanda. I was privileged to work in “the land of a thousand hills” eight different times and made many deep friendships during this time. Since the Rwandan genocide occurred more recently, in the spring of 1994, many of the friends I made were genocide survivors or had family members that were. In the Rwandan genocide, they estimate between 800,000-1 million people were killed in just 100 days - the race issues were between two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi, where the Tutsi were targeted by extreme Hutu nationalists, but they also targeted moderate Hutus who did not go along with the killing. 

That number is staggering. Mind blowing. One million people in a hundred days. And they weren’t just killed. They were tortured in brutal ways that are hard to even hear about. They were dumped in mass graves still being discovered today. Limbs hacked off, raped, people killed by machete in ways that seem to leap from the scenes of a horror movie. Yet this is real life. 

I have sat with survivors that ran for their lives. Questioned at checkpoints, wondering if they would get through to safety, turned in by neighbors or fellow church members. I sat with sweet Anna and heard her story, she who watched every member of her family slaughtered in front of her eyes, while, for some reason she was allowed to live because she was “too small of a cockroach to bother with”. I am friends with Asnath whose family escaped in one moment to run and live in fear during these days. I sat in the homes of many in the villages who had neighbors kill their husbands, brothers, sons - and they still live side by side. I taught conferences where many attendees were genocide survivors and watched them weep and wail out loud as they tried to move forward from the fear and trauma of their past. I’ve worked in villages with prisoner work areas and watched the genocide perpetrators walk right beside me. And I visited the Genocide Memorial more than once. Mass graves. Photos of innocent children deliberately slain. Rows and rows of skulls and bones. Seeing where priests were complicit, having their own churches bulldozed while their Tutsi or moderate Hutu congregation huddled inside, praying with their rosaries, seeking refuge in their place of worship. I cried, I shook, I threw up as I saw it all. Indeed, may we never forget.

Today, it is illegal in Rwanda for an employer to ask if a potential employee is Hutu or Tutsi. In fact, most people would not tell you if you asked. The standard answer now, in a time of rebuilding and healing is, “We are all Rwandan.” There are annual days of mourning. They have taken many steps in order to heal their country and to assure that this horror will never visit their land again, including requiring a certain percentage of women in parliament since they saw that only 2% of genocide perpetuators were female. They are committed to never going back.

And, finally, obviously there has been systemic oppression of people right here in the good ole U.S. of A even if we - thank God - have not had our own genocide. But slavery and lynching are not too big of a step from an all out genocide, are they? We have certainly had the seeds of hate and oppression in our country that we need to guard against, and not encourage for sure. We should know better. 

Evil is too light of a word even to describe what I learned about as I worked in Rwanda, what I saw left behind in Germany and Guatemala. I have tried to come up with an explanation, tried to understand what in the world drives an entire group of people to behave so utterly crazed and inhumane. Demonic is the only word that comes close. Birthed in the depths of hell. And it begins with racism, clothed in the excuse of “ethnic pride” above all else, accelerated by fear perhaps as well. It begins with belittling someone for who they are, what color their skin is, their origins, religion, focusing on what is different.

So perhaps some might say that what happened in Charlottesville was simply free speech, not hate speech. “There’s no need to get upset. What about this, or that? Isn’t that wrong too?” I’ve even lost friends due to my stance on this. But while I have not lived through genocide that began with racism, I have looked at the remains with my own eyes. I have looked into the face of many who have lived it, survived it. It is not a place we want to go as a nation, or as individuals. I have seen the end result. It is hellish.

I will say it again. Racism has no place in Christian theology, it is pure evil and is a tool of the devil himself. Partake of enough of that rhetoric and it will corrupt your heart, history has taught us this lesson. 

How Does Healing Happen?

Healing is a funny thing. In some ways, physically, there are elements to healing that take place without our permission, participation in or even knowledge of; processes of the body that are mysterious to us laymen, put there for our protection by a loving Creator. And yet, healing also needs our involvement. We must keep a cut clean, stay off a broken limb, take our antibiotics, rest and so forth. We can either help our healing or we can ignore what is needed - or, worst case - we can actually do things that are detrimental to the healing process.

    This is equally true in the healing we all hope for following a loss. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, says it this way, “We must participate in our own healing.” This was illustrated for me so personally and vividly through a recent physical injury. 

    One morning this spring I got up and put my left foot on the ground and experienced sharp pain. I could barely stand to take a step. My arch, heel and ankle felt stiff, weak and any weight on it at all was excruciating. I rested, researched, determined I probably had plantar fasciitis and tried some remedies off and on at home. I asked friends what they thought or had experienced and tried some of their suggestions. My approach was kind of hit or miss. Some days I felt better, other days worse. I thought it would eventually resolve itself so I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have.

    Eventually, I realized my pain was crippling my ability to live my life fully so I went to the podiatrist. He gave me one exercise and told me to ice it. I tried it five or six times, it didn’t seem to help. I bought new shoes - which did help, at least while walking - and, again, hoped it would get better with time. It never did. 

    Finally I was sent to physical therapy and I knew that if I didn’t really get with the program I could say good-bye to long walks by the lake, paddling longer distances, hiking or even being on my feet for extended periods of time. In short, I was limiting myself by not fully addressing what was needed for healing. And so, armed with this obvious solution, I began to do EVERYTHING the physical therapist told me to do. I never walk barefoot anymore, I do my list of exercises religiously twice a day, I go to all my PT appointments, I adjusted my weightlifting to accommodate the injury. In many ways, I now participate in my own healing....and my foot is so much better.

    Lesson learned. The same is true for us as we heal in grief. Will we ever be the same? Probably not. A significant loss is a life and heart-altering event. The goal is not to get back to where we were, but instead to grow, to reach a place of acceptance, with a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in life. In order to do that, we will have to participate in our own healing. 

    Emotional healing doesn’t just happen. Grief rips us apart. In fact, that is what the word means: “to be torn asunder”. We are often told time heals, and I will say that it seems to have a contribution to make to the healing process, however it offers no magical healing all on it’s own, it’s just this one small ingredient that may or may not help. We must mourn, grieve, and do the inner work to move forward. Healing is not an outward force that just “happens to us” along the way, it is warrior work, something we must determine we desire and be willing to work towards. 

    Just as I had to become committed to the healing of my foot, which is almost totally better, I have to be committed to the healing of the gaping wound in my life left by loss. So many times, I see widows in particular (which is who I mainly work with) seem to refuse to take any steps. They refuse to read, to see a counselor, to take good care of their bodies, to seek out supportive friendships, to rest, to address the inner issues that come up as they mourn, to challenge themselves to do what is needed. While I can only guess at the reasons why some seem to desire to stay stoically stuck in their grief, I do know this: None of us will heal unless we participate in our own healing in a proactive way. And, at the end of the day, this requires a desire for healing for ourselves.

That is something no one can do for us. It is our own journey, our own warrior work.

    About fifteen months after Phil died I was sitting on the couch crying. I was lonely, felt a big forgotten, and I was tired of life. To be clear I had consistently done things to facilitate healing but I still struggled with unhealthy and unhelpful - even self defeating -  thought patterns. I vaguely thought at some point a door would open, someone would reach out a hand, the way would become clearer. In that moment I had a sudden realization, an epiphany of sorts. I remember the moment clearly. I realized that no one was coming to save me. No one was coming to swoop in and fix my world. It was up to me. 

I had to become my own hero and if I wanted a brand new life, with new purpose and meaning, I had to build it. 

Healing and a new beginning were not going to be magically dropped in my lap. And, honestly, I was sick of crying. Sick of feeling lost. Tired to death of myself and my constant fears. 

It was time to saddle up. To become my own knight on a white horse, my own hero. To do my warrior work.

    I won’t pretend that healing is easy. In some elements of healing I can understand the process. However, there is an aspect of healing that seems mysterious - like how a cut heals itself. Some evenings I have taken a walk at sunset and something in my heart just settled, felt at peace. I don't know how or why. Some piece of life just "fit" again. Some of it is action oriented, some is a mental toughness/thought control I have had to learn, some of it is about silence, reflection, rest, a time to restore my body and soul. It is a divine mixture of hard work and grace, a balance of pushing myself and also resting my heart and body, of pressing forward while honoring memories, of reaching out and letting go. 

    One thing is for sure. It won’t happen without me.

What are some things you can identify that have helped you heal? 

Beginning Again

I needed this time, this space tonight. Sitting here in the darkness on my back porch, watching the colors of the sunset slowly fade away beyond the mountain, listening to nothing other than the music of the insects, catching the occasional glimpse of a lightening bug. Peace. The last few weeks have felt incredibly hectic. Not just physically busy, they have been emotionally “busy” as well. I desperately wanted to sit and write about it all but just...couldn’t. I could not find the words, or perhaps even identify what was going on in my own heart yet much less write about it. The words felt stuck inside me somewhere and so it all stayed tucked down, hidden while I did what had to be done in preparing for the next phase of my life. 

You see, I just finished moving furniture into an apartment to relocate for graduate school. Up until now, all the preparations, applications and resulting discussions have felt like discussing a dream - it all felt a bit unreal and theoretic, and far in the future. But now, well, now things are real. We have an apartment, our furniture is moved in and Matt even has a new teaching position in the local school system. And, all of a sudden, I am terrified. 

With every new beginning there has to be an ending and letting go of sorts, even if the new beginning is something you dearly want. And life after loss can be full of really conflicted emotions because, first of all, we did not ask for or desire a new beginning. Starting over after loss is a necessity but it is not one we were looking for. Yet, even so, new beginnings are hopeful aren’t they, a confirmation that with the death of our loved one the world did not stop spinning and our life is not over as well. New beginnings are a sign of hope for a good future. And that is something I desperately wanted to be assured of after losing Phil - I wanted to know that his death did not end my life as well, I longed for signs of hope. So I rejoice in my new beginnings: finding love again, graduating from college, writing and publishing a book, and, now, uprooting our family to take this risk of going to grad school. I am deeply and humbly grateful. Still, today, it feels a bit like jumping into the deep end of the pool and not being sure I remember how to swim. 

As I drove down the road to Tuscaloosa on Monday, with my pup Ruby riding beside me, I listened to this song by Danny Gokey over and over:

“Tell your heart to beat again, close your eyes and breathe it in,

Let the shadows fall away, step into the light of grace,

Yesterday’s a closing door, you don’t live there anymore,

Say good-bye to where you’ve been and tell your heart to beat again....

Beginnings, just let that word wash over you. 

It’s all right now, love’s healing hands have pulled you through.

So get back up, take step one, 

Leave the darkness, feel the sun, 

Cause your story’s far from over and your journey’s just begun...”

As I drove, tears ran down my face. I felt such an incredible mix of emotions. So thankful for this opportunity, so grateful to be able to chase this dream, so amazed that Matt would choose to follow me on this quest and support and love me in it. And yet, in the midst of it all, I really felt a sadness at missing Phil, of knowing that life goes on without him and I wondered what he would think or feel - would he be proud of me for refusing to lay down and die too, for continuing to fight? I suppose any new beginning after loss brings us full circle to the reason we have the new beginning in the first place, and that is the loss that brought us to this point in life. I also felt a twinge of fear. What if I had it all wrong? What if I had just imagined somehow that God was leading me to this place, down this path? What if I ran out of money or could not get a job? What if, what if, what if....

Graduate school was not on my bucket list. It was not a dream of mine, in fact, I had never considered it before Phil died. But I felt this magnetic pull and drawing towards it that I could only interpret as God’s calling to me for this next assignment in life. After a lifetime spent in ministry, I felt a pull to a new way of loving people, a new place of ministry. The door is closed on so many things in my past, things I loved and still, on some days, grieve the loss of.  As I drove down the interstate towards my new beginning, these words echoed over and over in my heart, “Yesterdays a closing door, you don’t live there anymore, say good-bye to where you’ve been and tell your heart to beat again...”

Tuesday night I went out alone to grab a few more things we needed for the apartment. As I made my way back to our new “second” home, I drove north over the Warrior River and saw the sun setting in spectacular fashion to my west. Sunsets have always felt important to me, healing, like a benediction and prayer of sorts. Last night as I saw that sunset, I felt God whispering to my heart that this was my new path now, my new assignment, my new beginning. The sun was setting on the past and rising on my future. 

“Cause your story’s far from over and your journey’s just begun...” 

You Raise Me Up

Mother’s Day is really bittersweet for me these days. My children are far-flung so I don’t see them often. I am an only child of a mother that is living in the cruel grip of Alzheimer’s disease so the combination of these two realities often reduces me to tears. The days of big family get togethers with lots of laughter and food seem to be a thing of the past at least on this holiday. I often feel torn between being a daughter and being a mother - wanting to go be with my children but also not wanting to leave my mom. Like so many other things in my life, this very emotion filled holiday is just not the same anymore and serves as a painful reminder of what all has been lost. I don’t often talk about the fact that my mom has this dreaded disease. I never want her to feel humiliated or hurt. But it is our reality as a family and it is hard. 

This year I decided to take my Mom to do something different to celebrate. Last night we went out to eat and I took her to see “Celtic Woman” in concert. She was so excited, more excited about this than anything else I have seen in a long time. And during the show she was like a kid sitting on the edge of her seat, eyes wide in amazement and wonder at it all. She loved every minute of it!  The voices, the drums, the bagpipes, the dancing, the beautiful videos of the Irish countryside that ran in a loop across the screen behind all seemed to just delight her soul. I loved seeing her smile, clap her hands and ooh and ahhhh. At the intermission she looked at me and said “You are the best daughter in the whole wide world. This is the best thing you have ever done for me besides being born!” We laughed together over that. 

Music has always touched my heart in ways that mere words cannot. I cry often during concerts, no matter the genre of music. Predictably, I wept during several of the songs last night. Towards the end of the concert, they did a song that I didn’t think I had ever heard, “Time to Say Good-bye”.  It is the English translation to the song “Con te partirò” and as the haunting melody played, I realized I had heard this song before, in an unforgettable moment. 

A little over a year ago my mother begged repeatedly to go to Italy and so, eventually, I said “Forget the cost, let’s go to Italy!” And so we did. One afternoon strolling in Florence, we passed through the the piazza del Duomo near the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and were stopped in our tracks by the most beautiful, angelic voice singing. I am not a fan of opera and yet I could not move. I just stood there transfixed as this woman clothed simply in blue jeans and a sweater, stood alone and belted her heart out on the streets of Florence. And in that moment, I listened and wept. Tears ran down my face. I could not move, even though I was unable to understand a word she sang. I had no idea what the song was about. Yet it pierced my heart in an unforgettable way. It is a moment that will stay bright in my memory of our time in Italy.

Imagine my amazement last night when I heard the words in my own language: 

“Time to say good-bye

horizons are never far

 and I have to find them alone

without your light

on my own, with you, I will go

and, Yes, I know

that you are with me;

you, my moon, are here with me,

my sun, you are here with me,

with me, with me, with me.”

I struggled to hold my sobs in check as I listened. I leaned over to Mom and whispered, “Do you remember hearing this in Italy?” I had to jog her memory a bit but she remembered the woman singing on the square. I sat back and thought of the fact that yes, I have had to say good-bye to Phil. I have said good-by to my grandparents and my uncle, all strong forces for good and love in my life. I am currently having to say good-bye to my mother - the long good-bye they call it - and it is torturous. But “you are with me, my moon, my sun, you are here with me…” With so many experiences I will take them with me even though they are not with me physically. They will always be a part of me. They have all shaped me into the woman I am today. Their love will forevermore shine light on my life and heart. I cry even as I write this today because it, at once, breaks and comforts my heart. I am richer for their presence and poorer for their passing, yet I carry some of that treasure within me forever.

As this song faded away, they began to sing “You Raise Me Up” and Mom reached over and held my hand. This is one of her favorite songs and I sat there in the dark with tears running down my face feeling my mother’s hand in mine, hanging on to me tightly, and hearing her voice warble bravely as she sang along,  

“You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains, 

You raise me up to walk on stormy seas,

I am strong when I am on your shoulders,

You raise me up to more than I can be”

What an unexpected gift there in the darkness amid the music last night. A moment in time to be cherished forever. Amid her confusion, a sweet moment of clarity and joy. A moment of true grace I'll hold in my heart forever. I could write a book about all the ways my mother has influenced and impacted my life. But of all the eloquent words I could share about my mother, perhaps the words of her favorite song are most appropriate. Thank you Mom, for letting me stand on your shoulders to become a woman that I hope makes you proud. Thank you for raising me up to more than I can be…

Happy Mother’s Day…I’m proud to be yours. 

Letting Go....Again and Again

My uncle died last week. 

This loss unleashed a wave of emotions in me that I am still struggling to figure out. 

Last Monday I went to be with my uncle, aunt and cousins as we awaited his passing. Hospice had said he had only a couple of days left and so the family was called in. I went and stayed with my family, hoping to offer some help but also wanting to see my Uncle Kerry one more time, even though I knew he was unresponsive. I just needed to kiss his face one more time and tell him “I love you”. I wanted to be with my cousins and my aunt and offer a shoulder if I could. As sad and hard as it was, it was a sacred time. When someone is hanging between two worlds there is a sense of the holy, even amidst the anguish. I felt like we were in some ways escorting him on his final journey as we cared for him in those last hours. It was a privilege to be there, one I wouldn’t trade. I am thankful I was allowed that opportunity. 

And then he died.

For some reason, his death unleashed a renewed grief about previous losses in my life, or perhaps the totality of them all combined. When I lost Phil, I lost other relationships as well. My mother’s Alzheimer’s worsened dramatically. Two of my children relocated to California, and although we are still close, I miss them being near. I felt as if my family was upended and changed in a short period of time. 

Visiting that small town in Walker County, Alabama where I had so many sweet memories growing up and when my kids were younger and our family felt “whole” brought the grief of all these losses to the surface in some kind of “grief boil” that burst this weekend. I cried so hard for so many things - sometimes I couldn’t even tell which loss I was grieving. It was almost as if I was feeling all of them at once. I missed Phil, I missed my grandparents, I missed my mother being whole, I missed having my children close by and now…I missed my uncle too. 

 

I felt as if I relived each one of these losses and it made my knees buckle. I struggled to hold myself together at his service, particularly when speaking. I have always thought of my family as an old handmade quilt, softened with use, sewn and crafted with love. This week it felt that my quilt had giant holes in it and was becoming threadbare. I felt very vulnerable and unprotected by those generations that for so long were above me like an umbrella. I longed for what once was. 

And yet it is gone. I thought I had learned the work of acceptance: that letting go of what once was is the pathway to peace. I cannot have what I once had. I can only choose to live in a place of acceptance. I once thought this act of acceptance was a one time deal; that once I had opened my hands and heart I was done with it. Apparently not. Instead, the letting go seems to me to have to happen over and over again, a work that is ongoing, constant, never ending. I think as we move through life we will always carry our loss with us and, at various times, we come face to face with them in some new way and we grieve again. After we grieve, we will have to, once again, choose to let go, choose acceptance, choose to live in the here and now. 

The goodness of the past is just that - in the past, a beloved memory. As I stood in that family cemetery on that hill in the countryside, I was surrounded by nine generations of family members that have gone on before me, a stark reminder that my loved ones are no longer here with us. I cannot rebuild the past. I cannot recreate it. I have to open my hands and let go...

It is now up to me to build a beautiful and good NOW and future life as much as it is up to me. I shared at my uncle’s funeral service that I wanted to not only grieve his passing but use it as a springboard to remember to truly live my life fully, to be thankful for what I have been gifted with. 

Today I remember the legacy of love that has brought me so far in this life and vow to live into it in the future. For that is the legacy I also want to leave one day. A legacy of love. 

Listening to My Life

I haven’t sat down to write like this in so long. With the publication and release of my book, life seemed to speed up to about a hundred miles per hour and those hours were incredibly emotional! If there is one thing writers need, it is time and mental space to, well, write. Every morning I sat down to journal the answer to the prompt: Where I am. Almost every day something came out in my writing that showed my need for quiet time and space. 

So here I am. Pondering something I have been reading and living lately. I am reading, for the third or fourth time, the classic written by Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. He talks about the Quaker belief that when you are praying for and seeking guidance for your life, “way will open” in many ways and you will see the path appear ahead. But perhaps just as importantly, he refers to the other side of this proverbial coin: “way will close”. He shares that we can consider the way that closes behind us to also give us good information and leading as well. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I consider the trajectory of my own life, and more specifically, my calling and vocation.

As I shared in my book, I left a long held staff position as a worship pastor in 2009. This was deeply painful and disappointing to me and I have struggled with the circumstances surrounding this transition in my life and career over and over through the years since. Although I sensed God was leading into a new arena, I still felt so discarded and hurt. I spent several years following this involved in non-profit work, training indigenous church leaders in developing countries. And then my world imploded….

When Phil died I was not involved in ministry or even church in any shape, form or fashion. After his death, I prayed and prayed about what to do, where to go, what the direction was for my life. And I felt, for the longest time, absolutely nothing. No desires of my heart to try and interpret, no opportunities or invitations presented themselves to make a direction clear. In fact, when I thought of going back into a staff position in a local church, I felt what can only be described as a shut door in my heart. Like someone holding up a hand halting me from even considering that path. I did not know what this meant. Did it mean God was angry with me? Or done with me? I now know I was experiencing this Quaker idea of “the way closing” behind me. God - and LIFE - was leading me elsewhere.

In times of grief it can be hard to interpret feelings and to recognize our gut instincts. Grief just clouds everything, and made me question any feelings I had. I wanted to move, I wanted to stay, I wanted to run away. I felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, unable to trust my gut instincts because I constantly wondered if my feelings were valid or just grief talking. Additionally, as I have said before, a blank chalkboard might sound nice but it can be incredibly daunting and intimidating to start all over from scratch - a blank page is the hardest one to write on! So at first, it was difficult to see any “way will open” in my life. 

In time, small things added up. I had a vision of a healing place for people post loss, a place for rest, respite, retreat. I decided to pursue my masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling while taking other training courses in order to pursue greater strengths and skills in working with those who are bereaved. I began working with online and local support groups for widows and made precious friends. And along the way, I wrote a book. With the release of Fighting Forward: A Widow’s Journey From Loss to Life, I began to gain an even clearer vision of the road ahead as the response to my story was positive and heartfelt. The “way will open” is now opening along pathways I never dreamed of or imagined. How strange life can be. And how true that our greatest pain can be the source of our deepest ministry and gifts to the world around us OR the source of our deepest bitterness. We get to choose. 

I realized something else too. We can stare so intently at our past that we become completely blind to what is in front of us. For so long, my eyes were locked on the closed door of ministry and vocation as I had known it, as a staff pastor in a local church. I loved it so much. Additionally, I see now that I had a limited definition of ministry. I stared at what I knew. That is so much easier isn't it? We long for what we know.

While doing so I almost missed what was happening in front of me. This week I have reached a place of peace in the way closing behind me. I can almost see it as a picture in my head, a beautifully ornate door that is no longer mine to walk through. In front of me I see a wide open adventure, a spacious place to “minister”, to show love, to offer an encouraging hand to others. A place of ministry and work outside the walls of the church, with so many markers that this, is indeed, where I am to be planted and to work. 

And I am thankful. Thankful that as my heart has taken this winding path through the hills and the valleys of pain and grief and loss, I have grown and been enlarged. I believe I am becoming my best and most authentic self. Thankful that I have met some precious friends along the way. Friends I didn't know I needed but who have enriched my life. Friends I might have never connected with in my old life and world. 

I can honor my past without living there. I am thankful to simply begin again. 

How have you seen the "way close" or the "way open" in your own life?

You can get my book HERE on Amazon. Also available on Barnes and Noble, iBooks and Kobo. 

Sitting With the Suffering

A few years ago I was working regularly in Rwanda, the Land of a Thousand Hills. Oh, how I miss it and all my friends there. On this particular trip I was working in a village alongside native Rwandans to help start a church. I was doing some training with a small group of women, none of which spoke English. I had a ministry partner with me that translated anything we needed. 

One day we were walking down a dirt path and one small woman who had closely followed me all week asked a question. She wanted to know about God, she wanted to know Jesus. Later we found a private spot to talk. I asked her if she would tell me her story. She agreed, sharing that her name was Anna and that she had never fully shared all of what happened to her. 

You see, in Rwanda, almost everyone has been impacted by the Genocide that occurred in 1994. Anna, a tiny woman, shared that she had lost her entire family in the Genocide. Her parents, siblings, her husband, and all but one of her children who later died from an illness. She said she begged the soldiers to kill her but they said she was small, a cockroach, and not worth the effort. For her, the ultimate nightmare was being the only one alive while her entire family died. She explained in great detail how they died, and how she, somehow, survived. She shared that after the Genocide was over she visited a church but was told to sit down and be quiet because the entire country was mourning and grieving and no one wanted to hear another person talk about it. 

And so she didn't talk about it. For 17 years she kept quiet. Until one September day when someone sat down with her and asked her to tell her story. And then she talked, she wailed, she cried out to God on her knees, she prayed - her story and her voice finally heard. 

I believe our stories are so important. Each one of us has our own story to tell and the world needs each one of these lessons and perspectives. And as I sat there with Anna and other friends that day, I felt a peace wash over me. A feeling that this, right here, was where I belonged. Sitting with those who are broken in their suffering. No politics, no drama, no judgment - just simply being present with another human being who needed to be heard. I felt my soul come alive and I felt a deep resonance - it was a sacred moment in time.

So whatever happened to Anna? Well, the woman I met on Sunday of that week rarely smiled or looked you in the eyes. The woman I left on Friday was beaming with joy and singing at the front of the church gathering. I have no idea beyond that but that little woman who followed my footsteps so doggedly that week taught me quite a bit. In that moment I learned the absolute importance of sharing our stories, of being heard. And I learned I'd rather sit with the suffering than be the guest of a rich man. Or have a position of high earthly honor. 

I was quite at home sitting on a little bench in that house made out of dirt, hearing sweet Anna's life change all because someone cared to listen.

What's your story? Try writing it down in bullet points in a journal today. 

 

Even in Loss I Am Thankful

What I am thankful for...

I’m sitting here thinking on the things I am thankful for at this time in my life - there are so many things. Loss has so altered my perspective, so altered ME, that I am more grateful now even in the midst of difficulties. And, believe me, there are still hard and difficult things going on in my life. I don’t deny those at all and I am certain that the tears will fall in the next few days and weeks. But in the midst of that, I am thankful. 

I am thankful for happy memories and the reality of love and joy. Holidays are now much different than they were years ago when I was surrounded by a big family and the laughter of children and our family felt very normal, whole and complete, with generations intact and this great big family tree spreading over me and reassuring me at every gathering. I am thankful I have those beautiful memories, thankful I have been loved well my entire life, thankful for growing up under that graceful and protecting arch of multiple generations of family. 

Now, however, big, noisy, warm family gatherings (at least on my side of the family) are not my present reality. I will not allow my mind to dwell on what I don't have, however. I have learned that this is a quick road to feelings of hopelessness and insanity. I will be thankful for what I do have.

I have a husband and best friend that loves me dearly, showing me patient understanding. He is more than I deserve. Even though my mother’s dementia is worsening, and I feel I am losing her as well in many ways, I am thankful that I have loving parents that care about me and encourage me and I am thankful for the good moments with my Mom. I am thankful my children love me, and are responsible and kind adults, learning to navigate in this world without the comfort and presence of their Dad. I am thankful for family and friends who have patiently loved me through my darkest hours, and my angriest moments and who still are by my side to celebrate my victories both big and small as I fight forward. They never stopped believing in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. And I am thankful I have sweet memories of 31 Thanksgivings and Christmases with Phil. 

I am also thankful for a strong and healthy body - I no longer take this for granted. I relish being able to stand on my paddle board and feel the muscles in my core tighten and the muscles in my shoulders and back flex as I slip my paddle into the water and move on down the river. I love being able to take long walks or lift things as I need to. I am thankful that, in this moment, my body is functioning properly, even if I might never fit into a size 10 again. 

I am thankful for the ability to learn, for a mind that is curious, for books to help me grow and stretch, for increasing clarity and for that dang widow’s fog to be receding some finally.  I am thankful for my sweet Ruby girl, my warm and cozy home, sunsets and the wind in the tree tops, the lake that I drive by every day, sunshine on my face, and hope. 

I am particularly thankful for hope. Without hope I would have given up long ago, but somehow, hope kept coming back again and again, even as I lay facedown on the floor. So, whatever dark spot you find yourself in, keep holding on to hope. Hope for a better tomorrow, hope for a returning joy, hope for a new beginning, hope for a solution and hope for transformation.

I am also deeply grateful for things that may sound out of the ordinary. I am thankful for new beginnings. Endings are not just endings, they are also beginnings, although we cannot see that at first. We have to live into it. I am thankful for a heart that is learning to be more compassionate and judge much, much less. It’s so much more peaceful just to love. I am grateful, yes GRATEFUL, for all the lessons life - and death - have taught me. I am thankful that I am hopefully growing wiser as I learn from my own mistakes and the lessons life so faithfully dishes out. I am relieved that I am learning to love myself more, granting myself an acceptance I did not know in younger years. I am overjoyed that my heart is stretching and learning to love in new ways, and that I am making choices in my life based more on love and hope instead of that ever nagging fear. I am grateful I am learning to take chances on life, to walk forward with courage. I am thankful I am learning to let go, to say good-bye to what I cannot keep, and to open my hands in acceptance. Not everything is in my control. In fact, maybe not much of anything is. I am thankful I am able to be more at peace with that. 

Life moves on, doesn’t it? Like a never ending river it winds it’s way through valleys and pasturesand mountains. The view is ever changing. Life does not remain the same, however much we loved what we once had. The river contains currents of both joy and sorrow. 

In this new reality, I will make new memories. And I will remember and focus on the love. Always the love. It is still here with me, enveloping me from generations and years past, as well as my present. For that I am thankful.