Perhaps that title – Fine Lines – is a great tag line for women “of a certain age” (except mine are approaching “deep, cratered groove” status), but as I sit here in Sanibel*, avoiding the midday sun, what I am intending to tackle is that space between what is very good, and what can be unhelpful or misguided. The line between is, in fact, often quite thin.
I haven’t written much here since last February because (as you saw in the last post), the intervening months have been hard, in their way. We made it through another tax season (yay) and I was smart enough to limit other commitments; so that was good, not to be stretched too thin, to be really focused on one thing. In fact: work/having to show up every day saved my butt, because I needed that structure, that requirement. I have continued to battle some depression – watching many of my relatively few (admittedly often shallow – anyone else addicted to redfin.com?) interests/hobbies/habits lose their luster, vaguely hoping that God was in it all, somewhere, helping me winnow out non-essentials (while wondering where or if there would be a “next thing”; would I still be okay, in the void of waiting? And oh please, God, don’t laugh yourself silly as you reveal that all those career-finder tests I took in HS were right, that I am actually here to be (drum roll, please): an accountant. I love my husband-accountant, but still!). I also just felt really, really stuck in negative thought patterns (making me the ideal party guest!) to the point that I was truly…once again (sigh)….just tired of me.
Sarah also finally moved out, into her own condo, in early March, and even though it is absolutely right and good for her to move on, I really miss her…seeing her, just having her in the same house. Hearing about the kids she teaches and loves on in the little world of her classroom.
The good news is that all of this eventually drove me back into grief counseling with the woman who had helped us in the many months after Mark’s death. She’s 2 hours away, but (hint hint, for those of you who might also find this a viable solution) was perfectly fine with doing telephone counseling. We began talking a few weeks ago. And slowly I am finding some things out about myself that I hadn’t quite realized. Can I tell you what a relief it is to find out I am a little (okay, maybe a lot) neurotic? Oh, that explains SO MUCH! I find it hard not to tell this to lots of people.
Something I read today, as I sat on my screened porch, helped me finally frame some thoughts that have been floating around in my mind for a while (and here I am with some time and space to explore them): how much is too much? When does something good become something bad? For instance, where is the fine line (for introverts and turtles like me) between the benefits of solitude (which provides its own healing and regeneration for us) and the benefits of connection/companionship (relationship, for which humans are truly created)?
Or: when does the habit become a rut, like – for me and others who are grieving – where is the line between “the absolutely necessary work of grief” and getting stuck/not taking the next step forward? And is there a line at all? Or is it a rather wavy, permeable substance through which we transition back and forth for a long while? I’m realizing what I wrote above, about finally acting on the clear FACT that I needed professional help to break out of the rut I was in, is an illustration. This is also why I came to Sanibel without really committing to a departure date – I could not figure out, in advance, how long to stay, because I never quite know when too much solitude is too much. So, I gave myself permission, and saved money, so that I could leave when I felt I needed to (by changing my plane ticket – thank God for Southwest and no change fees!). Apparently, even in Paradise, a determined or afflicted person can create hell for herself.
Similarly: when it comes to being there for others, to being present in another person’s pain and struggle, at what point does your hopeful encouragement become a demand, or a “prescription” for success? Our marvelous gift of a kid died — sunny, funny, wacky (look! at that picture!), delightful Mark — and that is one of the saddest things EVER; it rocks many, many boats to this day, and will continue to do so. How long do I “get” to grieve, to be sad? How long can YOU handle my pain, or the pain of anyone who is suffering?
Really: this kind of sudden and inexplicable loss is TERRIFYING to every single person (especially parents) except, perhaps, to those who have experienced this level of loss/suffering. This fact of the randomness of death, that we truly have zero control over our children’s physical safety, creates a ‘recipe’ for all sorts of denial, whether complete withdrawal/retreat/running away, or – for some – Determined Distancing Disguised as Certainty. This comes in many forms and is well-documented by grieving parents and those who suffer many types of loss: often it is delivered in sentences that begin with “At least” (you have/can have another child, he isn’t suffering any more, you can get reconstructive surgery, you had x number of great years together), and “You just need to” (look on the bright side, practice gratitude, have more faith, move, get a new job, get a dog). And then there is the big, BIG one, often uttered as a determined defense of one’s own theology without regard for the impact of these words: “this was God’s will.” I won’t delve into the considerable pain caused by kind, well-meaning church-people, who think it’s important to “correct” you with what they believe is Scriptural Truth. For instance: I have actually been told that dreams where the dead appear – like, you know, those dreams where I hugged Mark and could feel him – are “demonic,” rather than a gift from a loving God.
This is not meant to be an indictment. I know I have said and done almost every single one of those “helpful” things, at one time or another. I still sometimes do fall into this habit, with other people’s crises and pain. It’s so easy to stand on the outside and think I can see so clearly what needs to be fixed, so that the pain and the fear it generates – theirs, mine – goes away.
I am also willing to say there is often (but not always!) some or a lot of truth in what is being said, absolutely — and yet that’s not the point: the point is that the longing in our souls, when we are suffering and struggling (and aware that there is no simple fix, if any fix at all), is simply to be seen NOW, at this time and in this moment. Please acknowledge this tremendous, life-altering pain I feel so acutely, and (perhaps? probably?) your pain too — the confusion you feel, how scared you are because stuff like the death of a child, or a terminal diagnosis, challenges every notion of security, and of God’s love, that we cling to.
Eventually – as she does the necessary work of grief, of mourning – the sufferer (i.e., not you) can decide about next steps of healing: that a new dog will help her lift her head up (or make her neurotic, co-dependent cat pee all over the couches some more), or that a new job could give her a positive focus; perhaps the person who suffered a miscarriage eventually decides to try again, or adopt, as she allows her broken heart to hope again. But those are truly up to the individual and on her timeline. Period.
The “problem”, the thing we all struggle with (what I struggle with!), is the truth: that grief (which takes many forms/is not limited to my particular situation) is a process, and often a very slow one. The fine lines of which I speak – they are so easy to cross, and forgiveness and humility is required all around, for yourself and for others. Perhaps, and you should ask first, one thing that can be offered – beyond your simple presence and willingness to face the fire, sit in the ashes with your friend – is what I touched on in the last post: how you find or have found God, comfort, reassurance, hope in the midst of your own trials (and I am tempted to say here that comparing the death of a child to the loss of your Great Aunt Hildegard is not quite what I mean). We could all use some more of that kind of present-day, real life, nitty-gritty gospel, where the kingdom of God-who-is-love is, as Jesus said, among us, even in this dark, dark place.
*Yep. Came back again. I couldn’t NOT. This time, I brought my sister, parents and Steve – we were at a family wedding just 2 1/2 hours away, so it was just too easy to extend our time in FL and drive here. After sharing my paradise for a few precious days, they are gone…and I am alone, trying to shed my Type A wackiness and let Sanibel be the balm I know I need.