What Do I Thirst for this Christmas?

A friend recently pointed me toward Mary Oliver’s poem “Thirst” and encouraged me to consider what I am yearning for in the coming season. I’ve been reflecting on this all month, both because it’s Advent and because I’ve been in the habit this year of writing in my One-Line-a-Day journal. I’ve found it supremely helpful to spend a few minutes summarizing the day, good and bad, before bed. However, it’s rather different to look back on a single day than to look forward several weeks toward a day seeped in so much expectation and attention and baggage.

I have been looking forward, however, with the help of a one-page-a-day Advent journal. Each day of December, the journal prompts you to answer a question about your upcoming Christmas and provides space for you to record the festive things you did that day. Many of my entries thus far include passages processing my younger cousin Santee’s death, as well as notes about what gifts I’m looking forward to giving, what traditions are new for Tyler and I, the movies we watched, the shopping I did, and the flavors I’m experiencing (like gingerbread cookies and peppermint hot chocolate).

So what do I thirst for as Christmas approaches?

Comfort for Santee’s friends, girlfriend, sister, and niblings. I yearn for comfort as well for our extended family, including conversation about Santee’s life and death. A death so near Christmas, as well as experiencing the first holiday without a loved one, is it’s own unique brand of pain. Worse because your grief is in direct tension with calls to be jolly and joyful and the insistence that all is merry and bright. Our family has experienced this before, but many of Santee’s friends won’t have.

Time to rest and enjoy the season. That means time to read a fluffy Christmas romance and watch a ton of movies. That means time to bake and make ornaments. Time to run errands without feeling rushed. I’d love to get my wedding photos organized and printed but I’m concentrating on enjoying the season, not bogging myself down with something I can do any time of the year.

Peace for all people. The peace I refer to comes from a Hebrew word, shalom, referring not only to a cessation of violence and vehemence but also the wholeness and wellness of the entire community. This won’t happen on the scale I want, maybe not even in my family, so I’ve chosen several ways to work toward providing a more peaceful holiday for others.

What do you thirst for as December trots on? Silence? Solitude? Companionship? Rest? Understanding? Shortbread? I’d love to hear the desire that sings for you.

4 Years After Loss

I have a theory that you don’t really know people are gone until they’ve been dead for about 4 years. That’s the recommended length of college and of high school. It’s two Martian years and a quarter of a year on Jupiter. Not a long time, but still plenty of time. Plenty of time for the not-right-ness to settle into your bones, for you to get used to this new normal, an alternative universe where the one you love isn’t dead, just away. Right up until the illusion can’t hold anymore. Not when I didn’t see them daily anyway. Not when I stay so busy, even when I’m home, to avoid visiting their empty house.

One autumn day, 4 years and a couple months after my grandfather passed away, I was sitting at my desk at work watching the red and gold leaves fall and twirl in the wind. I suddenly missed my grandfather so deeply, with such a long-suffered ache, that I stood up to walk into an empty office so I could call him. I couldn’t, of course. And that was the moment I knew he was gone forever. And I grieved, silently, viscerally, until I had to get up and walk into an empty office to ensure privacy for my tears.

My grandmother passed away 4 years ago last month. I thought of her often in the snowy day we had recently. A few days ago, her last sister passed away as well. Yesterday, a friend texted to ask when we could get together, as she had a present for me. It would be another week before we were able, and she confessed that she’s always impatient to give people their gifts. “I’m terrible at it,” I told her. And thought, I get that from Grandmother. And just like that, I realized anew that she is gone. I will never hear her voice, hold her hand, feel her love, receive her gifts or smiles again.

It’s been building. Someone asked about the small tablecloth my grandmother’s sister crocheted for me in the 11 months between her sister’s passing and her own; blue because it was my grandmother’s favorite color. The pendant my grandmother gave me when I was in middle school, which my mom bought a chain for and gave to me this Christmas; the pendant I wore this week after my last great-aunt passed away.

I’ve been calling the dog “Babe,” my grandmother’s nickname for me, even though I didn’t like it at the time. (To be fair, my mom was “Babe,” I was “Little Babe”.) I dream, sometimes, that I’m back at her house. She and my grandfather are in their armchairs. I’m sitting on the floor listening to a conversation I don’t grasp any of. Or I’m racing around the pool table with my cousins, a small metal grocery cart full of our toys. I picture the house the way it was before the remodel. Dark wood panels and old brown carpet. My grandparents in their places. Me in mine. Our family around us. When last this happened, I woke up knowing my grandfather is gone, but had forgotten my grandmother is. After this week, I suspect that will change.

For my cousins, I am so sorry. Your loss is fresh and deep. Many of you saw your grandmother and aunt and mother much more often than I saw my grandparents in those last few years of college and travels and work. Maybe you’ll experience the knowing just once, and soon.

I love you. I’m so sorry. She worked so hard, loved so well. I know you will miss her. And I am sorry.

Snowy Days

In my day, [grumble grumble] we didn’t have snow days. We didn’t have snow! I remember exactly 4 times in my childhood when I saw snow at my home on the southern coast of South Carolina.

We did have hurricane days. We built them into the school schedule because the Atlantic was pretty active in those years. One season, we evacuated five separate times. We could not wait for October! And we barely unpacked in between. Still, we didn’t suffer a direct hit. And we had minimal damage. Not so in the past two years. But I’m not here to talk about hurricanes.

I’m here talk about snow.

The first time I saw snow fall and stick, I was in college. It was also the first time I saw accumulation. I don’t even know that we got a full inch, but it felt like two or three. Statesboro hadn’t had snow since the last time my hometown had snow, which had been the year I was born: a 21 year gap. I made my first snow angel and built my first snow person. I got to witness my Bajan friend experience snow for the first time in the coat that I helped him buy.

I had seen more snow than that before, but it was at Snowshoe, West Virginia on a church youth group trip, and there was no beautiful powder to learn to ski on. Snowshoe’s fresh snow had iced over several days earlier, and only the snow machines were keeping a semblance of dust on the trails. Which dropped off into mud and trees. I know, because I careened off of one. But I’m not here to talk about that either.

The last time it snowed in Macon, my grandmother died. Not exactly at the same time.

Four years ago, it snowed. During every cold snap that winter, a friend stayed with my roommate and I because the house she was renting was crowded and poorly insulated and notoriously frigid. We refused to let her sleep at home in four layers and hat, so our spare bedroom became hers for much of the winter. The night it snowed, we three went out front with the dog, throwing snowballs and laughing in the driveway and stomping designs in the snow. Then we all came in for hot chocolate and warm, dry clothes.

The next day, the office was closed so I stayed in with my friend, crocheting and knitting and watching a little TV curled up on the couch with the dog. Morgan had to go to work, but when she came home we watched movies and ate chili in the coziness, after playing in the snow a bit more.

It took something like an hour to clean enough snow and ice off my car the next day that I could go to work. I was an hour or two late, and by that afternoon my grandmother was dead. She’d been in and out of the hospital for a while, so I didn’t realize this one was different. I didn’t know she was in ICU until we were under several inches of snow. There was no opportunity to get to her.

Her sister has been in the hospital for over a week now. This is my grandmother’s last sister.

I’ve been looking forward to the snow all winter. I was thrilled to wake up early to see it fall. My roommate’s dog from the previous snow has passed away, so this dog experienced snow for the first time. Watching her joy and confusion were my greatest joys of the day.

The roads are dry now, I’m back at work, and I’m trying not to be superstitious about things, but I’m also wondering if I’m going to get a call from my aunt or my mom. I’m wondering if I’m going to know even before I answer. I wonder if I’m going to rush out of the office and into a spare room, surrounded by discarded and antiquated computer parts to sit and listen to what I already know.

I hope not. But I don’t begrudge her rest and healing, whatever that looks like. She’s had a very hard life, and her sisters are gone.

I pray for her children. I pray for our family. I pray for everyone who suffers in the cold like this: those without heat, those without enough insulation, those with no home, those with disabilities that make cold especially difficult, those who are lonely. I pray for those who are more prone to slipping and breaking in this snow and ice. I pray for the families, friends, and coworkers of those who have died since the storm began.

7 Ways to Care for the Grieving

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.

Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.

Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.

Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.

Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.

Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.

Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.

Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”

Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.

Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.

The Collapse

A tree fell at the office next door to the building where I work.

It had rained hard for much of the long weekend after a drizzle-y week, and the roots seemed to have just sighed too hard and either they or the ground let go. Maybe both.

The once shapely Bradford pear tree fell away from the driveway, the building, and other Bradford pear trees to lay down in the thin seam of grass between that property and the parking lot for our building.

Every day for a week, I watched the branches of this 30 foot tree slowly collapse from their own weight and lack of nutrition. This tree settled first onto its thicker, inner limbs. After a couple of days, the edges of this very round treetop, which faced the windows nearest my desk, had collapsed. Those thicker branches bore the weight of the outer, smaller branches until they could not bear that weight anymore.

For a few scraggly limbs, being pressed laterally by gravity is not so different from being pressed vertically. Those branches reaching high are still almost as tall as the one-story gabled building behind it. But even their leaves had grown pale. The undersides faced the sun in the morning and, without water from the roots, the leaves were scorched, dried out, and squeezed off.

I did not expect to watch a tree die every day. I expected people with saws to come, and trucks, and for a scattering of leaves and twigs to be all that remained.

I expected death to be that way. Surgical. Clinical. A gush of blood or a shot or a nap. A beeping suddenly ceasing. A sudden fall and a swift demise. Surreal in its swiftness but over. For the fear of my own suffering, I think I want it that way. But in others, I think I want a fight, a prolonging, even when it’s clearly almost over. Yet, I haven’t found death to really be this way. I have more time than I think—so much time, no sense in rushing—right up until I don’t.

They are the tree. Or, if there’s an accident, a massive heart attack, a fatal stroke, the tree is me.

The profound suffering is mine, is yours: weight that can’t be carried the only way we have ever carried anything. And now the edges of our life, our family, our emotions are collapsing. Our tender surfaces are exposed. And I see how cut off we can become from all that feeds and sustains.

Then there’s the weight, the crushing, the breathlessness, the collapse.

It’s horrible to see.

You know it’s coming. Sagging skin, brittle bones, dodgy balance, purple welts. Moans. Face so slack you have to strain to see the chest rise. Forgetfulness and fewer filters, if they remember much of you these days. Gradual. Unexpected. Sad. Slow. Mean.

Or you don’t see it coming, except maybe while squinting into the past. Flagging footsteps. Early to bed. Insomnia. Shallow sighs. Hurting eyes. Dropping things. Forgetting to eat. Obsessing over the trivial. Biting anger chased by the inconsolable wretch of sobs.

And when do you call it “over”? When do you say “the tree is dead”? When the limbs are all broken, the roots all severed? When the dying one—person, relationship, friendship, pet, home—has finally lost all it’s leaves? Or when it first falls?

Take a leaf. Squeeze it between pages. It’s coming.

It’s coming, so watch. Don’t turn away. It’s hard to look but this isn’t the first tree that’s fallen in this way and it sits in a line of Bradford pear trees, shapely and tall. You know that Bradford pear trees split. You know they grow too top-heavy and fall.

The others will fall. You can’t stop that.

Park a little farther away from them. Enjoy the reddening leaves, the shade, even the smell.

Witness the end.

Maybe, later, plant another.

Music and Talking to Myself

A counselor once told me that A + B = C, where A is what happens, B is what you tell yourself, and C is your emotion(s). From C comes D, which is your action(s)/response. This is a gross oversimplification, of course. Physiology, for example, plays a role (sometimes a large role) in this process. But for most people most of the time, the physiological (and other) effects are slight.

You can’t much affect A. A is what happens to you, the situations you find yourself in. Sure, you chose to take this flight or walk into that office, but you didn’t choose the thunderstorm at 5 o’clock or the traffic accident on your route home or your aunt passing away.

A lot of people, looking at their emotions, their C, think that C is nearly equal to A, so they repeat A‘s that lead to C‘s they like and avoid A‘s that lead to C‘s they don’t like. They like laughing with this person, so they go to their office to chat more often. They don’t like feeling embarrassed running to their car in the rain, so they make sure they keep an umbrella at work.

Of course, when you view A=C, or A being almost equal to C, people can resort to significant changes to try to eliminate C‘s they don’t like. For instance, they don’t like feeling anxious, so they try not to fly. They don’t like grieving and feeling helpless, so they distance themselves from elderly family members.

Sometimes people don’t mind the C‘s, but they loathe the resulting D‘s. For example, they don’t like feeling angry in the car because it prompted them to curse in front of their kids. They decide to change the A by taking a longer, slower, but less-busy way to and from work to try to avoid the C that led to the bad D.

But, there is also the B. Studies show that we can talk to ourselves an average of 1300 words a minute. That’s a lot of talking. You talk to yourself more than anyone else in your life does. (No, don’t make a crack about your spouse or sister or whatever. It’s not the same.) You talk to you a lot, so it stands to reason that it matters what you’re saying. If it makes you feel better to think of your B as being your thought process, that also works.

Which leads me to music. Music, studies show, can literally change your brain waves. We talk about not liking what a song says, but it’s so peppy or interesting that you find yourself listening and even humming along. If you’re like me, song lyrics and musical phrases regularly get “stuck”, repeating again and again in your mind. And those repetitions can easily come up when I’m talking to myself. Even just singing along to the songs stuck in my head is me repeating those words and messages to myself.

My great-aunt passed away at the end of 2014. After weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip, she’d been moved to an outpatient rehabilitation center and, it seems, a blood clot moved to her lungs and she died between three and five in the morning. My cousin called to tell me a few hours later, while I was scraping the ice off the windshield of my idling car.

I didn’t know what to do. So, after a minute or two, I started driving to work. I called and told my parents. And, about two miles from my house, I began to cry. While yielding at a busy intersection, my brain drew up the lyrics to David Crowder’s “All This Glory”. Not all of it, just these lines:

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

I couldn’t remember any more. I couldn’t focus to try. I didn’t know what to say to myself about what had happened. I wanted to extrapolate, find meaning. So as I imagined my aunt lying in the bed in her darkened, borrowed room, exactly as I had left her mere hours before, my brain called up the lyrics to a song I hadn’t heard lately but I had listened to and sung often.

Singing these lines to myself, I realized that my great-aunt had passed through the veil of this life and into the very presence of God.

In the middle of the night,
all this light.
In the middle of the night,
after all this quiet.
Jesus, God with us.

And these words comforted me. That’s a good C.

The lyrics gave me perspective, which was a good D.

The A was bad, and I know how drastically I’m oversimplifying, but a helpful B led to a helpful C. Notice I didn’t say a “good” or “positive” B, because grief needs to be experienced but there is little good or positive about it. It’s pain. Pain like a current. And just when you feel you’ve got your footing, or you can handle this, it rushes with new fury.

Here’s the crux. Deciding what songs I should listen to matters. I’m putting language, messages into my brain and my brain only puts out what I put into it. That’s another gem from counseling: I put in, I get out.

A happens. (I often can’t control A.)
I think B. (I can learn to control B.)
I get C.
Based on C and my moral principles, I do D.

This doesn’t mean that I’m only going to listen to contemporary Christian music. (Have you heard some the nonsense in that category?) I’m not going to categorically cut out anything, either. But I am going to acknowledge that Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out of Heaven” isn’t what I want to be repeating to myself and Christina Perri’s “I Believe” probably is.

I don’t want Bieber’s “Love Yourself” or Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” influencing my B thought processes, but I am good with “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles and Lukas Graham’s “Seven Years.”

“Photograph” by Ed Sheeran is a yes but his “Don’t” is a no.

And let’s not leave the Christians out: I don’t want “Above All” by Michael W. Smith and “God’s Great Dance Floor” by Chris Tomlin coming in or out of my head, but “Run Forward” by Audrey Assad and “Instrument” by Matt Maher are a-okay by me.

These are, of course, very personal choices. But they are choices, and I’m owning mine.