On Loss and Grieving

One of the decidedly unpleasant parts of this midlife is the increasing frequency of loss.  It is becoming rare to have a friend who hasn't experienced the loss of a parent.  What is becoming more disturbing is the number of friends who have lost spouses, siblings, or God forbid, children.  While we can look at loss as the inevitable downside to a life lived surrounded by people we love, it does not lessen the sting. As I think about those I know who are grieving, I struggle to find words to ease their pain. When we look for words to comfort, we realize the limitations of our language.  There truly are no words that will ease the burden of grief. Time seems to be the only balm for aching souls. 

I have experienced the loss of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, father, and father in law.  I don't claim to have any special insight or experience- many of us in this age group have similar losses.  What I am learning is that just as every relationship is unique, every loss is also unique.  Whether the death is sudden, expected, or drawn out; there is no one way that is "better". Loss is still loss, and we will grieve. No two people (not even in the same family) will grieve in the same way, or in the same time frame.  It is a process that is deeply personal and at times frustratingly lonely. 

I can best describe grief as a box.  When you are newly grieving, you are inside the box.  The box is deep and dark with sides that are unnaturally tall and slippery, with a lid that fits firmly on top.  There is very little light inside the box.  It is scary and claustrophobic and you are pretty sure you will never get out.  There are moments when you aren't sure that you want to get out because the struggle is so hard.  You aren't just in the box, you are the box. There is no separation between you and the grief. 

One day, in a time and place that may surprise you; you will notice a crack of light near the lid.  The box will no longer be sealed shut.  For the first time, you will see a little light in what is still a very dark and unnerving place.  The respite is brief and the lid may close again, but that little beam of light shining through the crack offers some hope of the peace to come.  

As more time passes, you will realize that you are no longer trapped inside of the box- you are separate.  The grief still lives in the box, but you will no longer dwell there.  The box will still spring open often spilling its contents across your mind and there will be little control over when and where that happens.  But, you will still be relieved to have some momentary separation from the grief. 

While you are thankful that you are no longer in the box, you will continue to carry it around.  The box will become very heavy to carry. At some point, it will be time to put down the box of grief.  As you set it down, you will tentatively examine the box from the outside and realize it no longer looks quite as menacing as it once did.  You will no longer fear that you will fall into the box and never get out.

In the course of time, you may choose to pick up the box and look at it carefully.  You will start to see beauty in the box that you never noticed before. You may open the lid and explore what is inside.  Memories that were once jagged and painful now seem smoother and more comforting.  The desperate darkness that was once there has been tempered by time and light.  

Even though the box has been put down and packed away, the lid may still open unexpectedly.  The grief that spills out will feel sharp, but more familiar and less consuming than it once did.  It will never be perfectly clear what makes the lid open. The box can be mysterious and inexplicable. The lid may occasionally spring open for the rest of your life, momentarily overwhelming you with emotion but not overcoming you like it once did.

Comfort will be found in those who are willing to share your grief--the ones who are not afraid to climb into the box with you and let you know you aren't alone, the ones who will sit outside your box and let you know they are there for you even though you may not be able to see them. There will be a precious few who will actually carry the box for you when it gets too heavy.  The thoughts and prayers of many will sustain you, but ultimately it is still your box and your box alone.  

As I write this, I am nearly overwhelmed by the grief of the families of Parkland, FL  Their grief is palpable, their circumstances unimaginable. The hole their loved ones have left behind is enormous and their families and communities will never stop missing them.  I pray that they will find comfort in their faith and that they will experience peace beyond all understanding through God. The most helpful piece of advice that I can offer to those who are currently grieving is to know that you won't always feel the way you do today.  The early stages of grief may feel endlessly brutal, but it does get more bearable over time. Try to hold on to the fact that you won't be in the box forever. 

There is never a time frame for grieving, but remember that letting go of the grief is not the same as letting go of the person.  Your loved one will always be with you.  Remembering their lives, talking about your memories of them, and sharing your stories will help them to live on in a new way.  We can look forward to the day when we are reunited in the heavenly realm, but until then our love forms a bridge across time and space.  Til we meet again...  

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16

The Google of Yesterday

I am curious.  I was as a child and I still am.  I wonder about things.  And if I wonder about something long enough, I try to find answers. One of the most impactful inventions of my life has to be Google and the internet.  I am still blown away by the fact that whatever question I have, I can Google it and get answers.  That is a modern day miracle! Whenever we are together as a family if one of us asks a question that we don't know the answer to or if there is something we are "just wondering" about; my response is always the same, "We don't have to wonder anymore, let's look it up!"

It hasn't always been that easy. Growing up in the pre-internet days (some of you are old enough to remember), looking up answers was more difficult. If you had a question, you had to remember it long enough to go to the library and check out a book. Of course, that was assuming that your local or school library had a book on that topic.  This was good, but not easy.  The local library was not walking distance and the school library came with restrictions (only 2 books at a time, can only keep them for a week, only go on Thursdays, etc...). Sometime in the late 70's, my parents made a decision that may have changed my life. They purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias! This was an extravagant purchase for them and I know it involved some personal sacrifice, but they listened to the sales pitch and decided that this would be a good investment in the education of their children.  I can't speak for my siblings, but it was definitely true for me!

I was hooked from the beginning.  The fancy leather-bound books with the gold edged pages sat on a shelf in the closet at the end of the hall.  Flipping through the pages felt exotic.  These pages were different- thinner and silkier than a normal book.  They felt important.  If there was anything that I was curious about, I could walk to the end of the hall and pull out the appropriate volume and read.  There were entries on everything I could think of and more that I had not even imagined.  There were pictures, maps, and diagrams.  There were drawings of the human body with plastic overlays of the different systems- skeletal, muscular, nervous. I could learn about countries from the other side of the world, various types of rocks, and unusual weather phenomenon.  I could pull out the M encyclopedia and just start reading about whatever started with M! This was my very geeky idea of fun :-).

The set of encyclopedias also came with an extensive two-volume dictionary.  Two big thick volumes of A-K and L-Z. Can you imagine all of those wonderful words in one place?  I was in heaven! I would look up a word and then just start reading all the words that came before and after it.  How could you not? So many words to learn! I thought this was fairly normal behavior until I got to college.  My friends would laugh at me when I got out my (much smaller) dictionary to look up a word because they knew I would be "lost" for awhile.  It isn't as easy to do that on the internet now, but give me a hardback dictionary and expect to lose me for at least 20 minutes.  For some reason, not everyone is as interested as I am in hearing all of the unusual words that follow the word esoteric :-).

As I got older, I got busier with life and school.  Homework required more resources. The encyclopedia was a good starting place, but it could not be the only reference that we used. Our home encyclopedias did not get the work out that they once did.  I started to see the limitations.  Even with the addition of the yearly updates via the World Book Year Book, the encyclopedia could not keep up with the most current changes to subjects.  I didn't love them any less, but they did become less used.

At some point, the encyclopedias disappeared. I can't tell you exactly what happened to my treasured set of books.  I am guessing they didn't make the cut when my parents moved away from my hometown when I was in college.  It saddens me to think that they were cast aside.  When I see this picture of them, I have a sense memory.  I can feel the textured leather cover and the gentle hand of the pages. I can smell that precise book smell that was new at the time. I can sense the weight in my hand as I carried one or two off to my room.  I can remember the excitement of knowing that all of that new information was just waiting for me to discover it!

 Some things have not changed. I still like information and I still get excited about learning new things. I like facts, data, details, descriptions, definitions, and explanations. For me, understanding the details of the world helps to bring more order to it. Interestingly, this does not make my world more black and white with certainty, but grayer.  Information may be knowable, but what to do with it is way more nuanced.  The more I learn, the more I realize how much there is still left to learn and how much of it will remain unknowable. 

While encyclopedias provided a concrete set of facts that seemed masterable; the internet offers a never-ending, always changing set of information that one could never even get to the bottom of.  Does having all of that information available make us smarter? Do we do good things with it? Does it make the world better? I don't know the answer to those questions.  It has always been about not just what we know, but what we do with what we know.  I do know that it is essential to continue to be curious and full of wonder at any age.  The world continues to spin, new discoveries are made every day, and technology continues to change faster than we can keep up with.  We have to keep asking questions and seeking answers. And whether the answers come from ancient books or from the information we find on our phones, we have to keep seeking. 

Can't Stop the Noise

Do you ever feel like there is just too much "noise" in the world?

We are inundated with noise-- alerts, text messages, emails, social media updates, endless visual images, constant breaking news, any music we want at our fingertips, and the helpful (but annoying) voices of Siri, Alexa, and Google Maps-- from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed.  We are experiencing stimuli at a rate that we have never seen before. It has become a very noisy world and we have no way to know what impact this is having on our bodies and our brains.  There is a song and video by Kenny Chesney aptly title "Noise" that perfectly illustrates this new world we live in.

"Noise" by Kenny Chesney
Twenty-four hour television, get so loud that no one listens
Sex and money and politicians talk, talk, talk
But there really ain't no conversation
Ain't nothing left to the imagination
Trapped in our phones and we can't make it stop, stop
This noise
Yeah we scream, yeah we shout 'til we don't have a voice
In the streets, in the crowds, it ain't nothing but noise
Drowning out all the dreams of this Tennessee boy
Just trying to be heard in all this noise
Every room, every house, every shade of noise
All the floors, all the walls, they all shake with noise
We can't sleep, we can't think, can't escape the noise
We can't take the noise, so we just make
Link to video: https://youtu.be/k-VAXRC_hxk

How do you get away from it all? How do you know when you need to get away?

As one who enjoys quiet, I would expect that I would intentionally add more of it to my day, every single day. What I have noticed is just the opposite.  More and more I seem to be filling my days with "noise".  From checking my phone first thing in the morning, to scrolling through social media throughout the day, to frequently monitoring the news, to researching various topics on the internet, to watching favorite television programs, to shopping online, to texting or talking to friends, to doing a combination of all of those--I am living in a state of near constant noise.  Even if the noise is good or worthwhile or necessary, it is still noise.  There are times when we need to clear our heads.  We may not always recognize the signs, but they are there.  

One of the ways I like to escape the noise is by going for a walk outside in nature.  When I go outside, I can focus on the good noises- chirping birds, running water, crunching leaves, rustling wind. Those noises don't overwhelm, they cleanse. As I walk, my mind becomes noticeably clearer.  I tune in to the rhythmic sounds of my feet hitting the ground and look up at the vast sky above me. I pause by the water and watch the current flow. I start to notice the little things around me.  Soon I am part of nature and not separate from it. Problems that have troubled me start to find solutions.  As my mind opens up, creative ideas flow in.  I can't really explain why it happens, but there is something about the quiet that changes my mind.  I can only assume that there is also something about the noise that changes it in a different way.  

Recently, I took advantage of a warm day to go for a walk. The sky was heavy with clouds, but I decided the fresh air would be worth it.  I was enjoying a relaxing walk when it unexpectedly started to rain. I wasn't dressed for rain so I picked up my pace and headed for home, but along the way I observed something interesting.  Although I could hear the rain hitting the ground, I couldn't see it right away.  Then, I could see the rain in the air long before I could feel it on my skin.  I could watch the rain accumulate on my jacket, but I didn't yet feel wet.  It took awhile before all the little raindrops accumulated and built up to a point that made me feel wet and uncomfortable.  It was surprising to me how subtle the change was. I expected to be soaked right away. 

This made me wonder if this is similar to what happens with the noise in our life. We hear  sounds all day long, but we don't feel anything. We see all of the images coming at us, but we don't notice any immediate effect. We put up with the steady drone of noise until we are vaguely irritated and upset or worse, but we still can't quite put our finger on what is wrong.  As it is with the rain- we don't get wet immediately, but we all get wet eventually- it is with the noise.  We are fooling ourselves if we think this constant daily mental onslaught isn't having an effect on us. 

Most of us are drowning in a sea of noise.  We have gotten so used to the steady stream of noise and visual stimulation, the constant hum of traffic and technology, the never ending habit of multi-tasking, and the urgent drumbeat of news and information; that we no longer know what to do with quiet. In fact, we make excuses for why we don't need it.  We convince ourselves that we work better with background noise, that having headphones on with music is comforting, that checking our phones frequently is calming, that staring at a screen is relaxing.  We fill every moment with activity, images, and sounds; and then resign ourselves to the idea that quiet is for other people.  We are too busy to be quiet, we aren't wired to be quiet, we function better in noise and chaos.  Although ALL of our brains need it more than ever, quiet seems to become more elusive each day.  We need a brain break!

How do you find time to add quiet to your day? And what does it take to be truly quiet?  
There is not one right answer for everyone.  But, as the noise in our life continues to increase  finding quiet is something we need to become more intentional about.  Can you spare two minutes for silence? That's all it takes for real health benefits to kick in!

"Take time every day to experience quiet. Research shows that silence has measurably relaxing effects — even more so than listening to relaxing music. As little as two minutes of silence reduces heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure. If there are no quiet places for you to retreat to, consider getting a pair of ear plugs or invest in a set of noise canceling headphones or ear buds."
Overstimulation: Taming A Modern Problem that Leads to Anxiety, Deane Alban

Walking outside is one activity that helps me to become quiet, but there are so many other ways to embrace silence.  Here are a few examples of how you can create pockets of quiet in your day:

Sitting silently wherever you are
Practicing mindfulness
Walking/being in nature
Committing to technology free times/zones in your day

As I have become more committed to periods of intentional silence, I have seen personal benefits such as feeling calmer and experiencing more mental clarity.  But science is also on the side of silence!  Here are some notable benefits:
  1. Silence relieves stress and tension
  2. Silence replenishes our mental resources
  3. In silence we can tap into the brain's default mode network that helps us think deeply and creatively
  4. Getting quiet can regenerate brain cells 
Source: "Why Silence is So Good For Your Brain" by Carolyn Gregoire

If you are feeling a little overwhelmed in your day, or just vaguely out of sorts; I would suggest you try adding in some times of silence- even if it's just a few minutes.  Try one of the above suggestions or come up with one of your own. It might be the easiest thing we can do to decrease the stress and tension in our lives and increase our mental well being.

 Embrace the silence!


Let's Talk About Breasts...

After getting a mammogram this week, breasts are on my mind- - specifically, the strange and complicated relationship women have with their breasts!  It's an unusual thing to write about, but I’m going to give it a shot. I can only imagine what will come up on my computer after searching for breast related images :-0!

As women, we have been given this incredible machine of a body that does amazing things, but it is a body that also changes a lot over time.  Can you remember being young (pre-boobs) and thinking that this was the carefree body you were going to have forever?  Then one day, something started to change.  Officially the term was "budding", but more practically it meant that it was time for a string of camisoles, undershirts, tank tops, or the (super embarrassing) training bra.  It was time to cover up because our bodies were starting to change.  It is around this point that many young girls became confused about how to feel about their bodies.  Is this a good thing, and if so, why do I have to spend so much time covering it up??

At some point, those "buds" actually became real breasts and nothing but a real bra would do.  For some girls, this development happened too early and they were the only ones who had them.  For others, it happened late and they were certain they were the only ones who didn't.  Some are still waiting for their breasts to come! And for sure, whatever size you had; it was never quite right.  Too big, too small, wrong shape, wrong structure.  There was a lot of attention paid to something that was completely out of your control, and not all of that attention was welcome.  Why was this a thing that we were judged on? Why did the boys seem so fascinated? And what was up with all of the bra strap snapping in middle school?!?

As time went on, we became used to what we had.  We tried to find bras that fit our particular shape and size and were thankful for inventions like the Miracle Bra, the T-shirt bra, or the Minimizer.  We learned to dress our body type and figure out what clothes flattered our large breasts, or made the most out of our small ones.  Although it was still more work than it needed to be, (why do I have to pack a regular bra, sports bra, strapless bra, and t-back bra for one vacation?!?) we made peace with what we had.  Apparently, this was the body we would have forever.

Then...there was pregnancy.
Every woman has a different experience with pregnancy, but for some their breasts were the first to say, "Hey look at us, we're pregnant!".  One morning I seemingly woke up with these oddly large and ultra sensitive vessels attached to my chest. I felt no connection to them.  It was as if aliens had landed on my chest and set up shop. They were sore, swollen, and made me feel 3 times my normal body size.   What the heck was going on?   Ah yes, thank you pregnancy hormones! 

Turned out that all of that pregnancy fun was just preparing our body for the next step- nursing. If we thought the pregnancy boobs were out of this world, then we had no idea what the nursing boobs would be like!  Enormously full one minute and completely deflated the next, there was no way to have any real idea of what they would look like from hour to hour.  I remember being measured and fitted for a bridesmaid dress during this time.  When I returned for the second fitting, the seamstress was like "No, no, no! Something is wrong! Your breasts were an inch higher when I measured you last time."  Yes lady, I know. I am a human freak show. There is no telling where they will be next. But, I am an amazing human freak show who has the wonderful ability to feed my babies :-). Although appreciative of the miracle, I was relieved that this wouldn't be the body I had forever.  

After the baby years were in the past and we had been pregnant with and nursed all the babies we had been blessed with, we realized that our breasts were not what they once were.  The oddities that we happily put up with because we knew they were serving a greater purpose were now mostly gone, as was the greater purpose.  In some cases, we felt our breasts were gone too! Our boobs returned to normal, mere mortal breast status and then we had to get to know them again.  Not as big, not as firm, not as high, not as perky; whatever the case was we had to get to know them all over again.  We started to look for new bras and tops with things like "structure" and "support".  We loved the word "engineered" when it came to our underpinnings and our swimwear. We started to have a new relationship with our new breasts. We were pretty sure that this would be the body we would have forever.  

Around this time, we had the first of our friends to be shockingly diagnosed with breast cancer.  We considered ourselves way too young to have this happen. We watched as she made the decision- sometimes voluntary, sometimes not- to remove her breasts to save her life.  We supported her decision. We heard her joke about how it was a no-brainer and how she looked forward to her post-cancer reconstruction.  A boob job we called it, just to make all of us feel better.  

We were prompted by age or circumstance to get our first mammogram and complete the family history chart of cancer.  Somehow we never realized there was so much cancer in our families.  We learned about the risk factors for breast cancer and the BRCA gene and made decisions with our doctors about genetic testing and risk level and how often we should be monitored.  Meanwhile, another friend found a lump and was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She was "lucky" in that she would only  need a portion of her breast removed.  We rejoiced at the good news and were reminded that we really needed to do those monthly exams.  

Time went on, a mother was diagnosed, someone you knew died, another friend went through chemotherapy. mastectomies were done.  We saw what the scars looked like.  We attempted to lessen the discomfort of chemo and radiation. We witnessed the pain in reconstruction.  We saw the incredible bravery and resilience of our friends and family members. We learned that the mammogram was our friend, early detection was key, and we started to pay more attention to what was happening in our breasts.  

Then the day came when they saw something on your mammogram, and they wanted a closer look.  You sat there staring at the image on the ultrasound while you waited for the doctor to come in. You looked at the blob on the screen trying to determine if it was friend or foe. You had been through this process enough to know that this wasn't normal.  You started to make those special deals with God that you only make during desperate moments.  Remove whatever it is, take both of my breasts, I don't need them- just  keep me alive!  The breasts- your breasts- that had been a focal point to so much of your life became disposable in one scary moment in an overheated little waiting room.  As you waited days for biopsy results, you continued to make peace with the idea that your breasts were history.  You started imaging how you would look without them. You and your friends joked about the perky C cups you were going to get when you got your new boobs. 

 You were lucky this time, all was clear.  Meanwhile, another friend was diagnosed with breast cancer.  

So the relationship with your breasts changed again.  Yes, we still fussed about the size and shape.  We added in the issue of gravity and we searched high and low for bras and swimsuits with even more advanced engineering. We may have even considered surgery to add or subtract or lift what we had.  But now we knew that healthy breasts were a gift-- but possibly a gift with an expiration date.  Sure, I might have been lucky this year but was it only a matter of time before I was next? It turned into a strange relationship where you tried to be thankful and appreciative of a body part while you also accepted that it might have to removed someday.  

Meanwhile, another friend waited on a biopsy.  

This new relationship with your breasts can be a difficult one. Some women have great stress about it and others take it in stride.  Some avoid mammograms for fear that they may find something.  Others do monthly exams meticulously because they want to be the first to find it if something is there.   Regardless of how calmly or anxiously you walk into your mammogram, there is at least one tiny moment in time where you will silently consider the fact that this may be the time when they find something. And if they do, you will gladly trade your breasts for your life--if that is an option, and you really hope it is.  I can't think of another situation where the choice seems so stark and so clear.

So what do we do? We continue to joke about the toll that time and gravity is taking on our breasts.  We search high and low for the perfect bra.  We try to be better about monthly self exams. We go get our yearly mammograms. We continue to wear our pink ribbons and t-shirts, and we walk in breast cancer walks, and we contribute to breast cancer research, and we support our sisters who have been diagnosed,  and we celebrate the advances, and we pray for a cure, and we live.  We live with our love 'em or hate 'em, too big or too small, too high or too low, crazy, non-perfect breasts because that is the only option we have. And we still think, and now hope, that this will be the body that we will have forever.

This post is dedicated to all of my dear friends and family members who have battled breast cancer. Thank you for showing me what bravery looks like.

Previous Post

Moving Truck Blues

Unusual noise and chaos woke me up early this past weekend.   It didn't take long for my sleepy eyes to see a large moving truck parked ...