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10 Cancer Thanksgivings and Some Grief

In 2018, 53,990 new cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed. So, I am going to make a list of 53,990 things I’m thankful for, in honor of each case.

Just kidding.

My tumor was 3.5 cm. So, I’m going to make a list of 3.5 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

In the week post-surgery, I took approximately 72 pills. So, I’m going to make a list of 72 things I’m thankful for.

Just kidding.

How about 10?

10 seems like a reasonable number.

But first, this was hard for me to write. Thankfulness is a choice and its one I am consciously fighting for in this season.

Yesterday I visited Last City Church in St. Paul to hear Austin Channing Brown speak, author of I’m Still Here, black dignity in a world made for whiteness. Read it. The pastor opened the prayer time by saying she wasn’t going to force a Thanksgiving prayer, even as it is Thanksgiving week. She said (I loosely quote), “Some people are angry and grieving. Some of you have lost something. Or have had something taken from you. Some of you are lonely and confused.”

I started to cry. As I sat, all by myself because my family is not here, less than two weeks post-thyroidectomy, with cancer still in my body and radioactive iodine treatment in my future, grieving what I’ve lost and what was taken from me. And I felt free to feel it all. All the sadness and anger and frustration and confusion and loneliness. And then, rising right up alongside it, surprising to me, was gratitude.

So I guess I’m saying the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. I wonder if they actually belong together. I can’t be truly thankful if I don’t let myself feel the sadness. And the sadness is empty if I don’t see all I have to be thankful for. I want to think about that some more. But, this post is long enough already, so here’s my list, written through tears.

Here are 10 Cancer Things I’m Thankful For

Timing. 15 years ago, I made a plan to be in Minnesota this fall, for the first semester of college of our twins. Never would have told you, fifteen years ago, that I’d get cancer at the same time.

Location. Minnesota, especially in a house by the lake or a farm in the countryside, is an idyllic a place for recovery. The United States, where clinics are clean and wild animal-free, hospitals have equipment and electricity and trained medical professionals, and where pharmacies are stocked with legitimate medications that are not expired.

Insurance. I mostly complain about insurance. Because, let’s face it, it sucks. There is nothing easy, simple, or clear-cut about health insurance. But. I have not paid full price for all these procedures, not even close. So that helps soothe the pain of paying for that insurance, which we have barely used in 15 years. My husband and I are employed and we have access to insurance. I don’t take any of that for granted.

Dr. D. and Dr. D My doctors are easy to relate with and don’t laugh at my questions about hair falling out or gaining weight or hot flashes. They did laugh at some of my jokes. Family practitioner noticed the lump and said, “Check that out. Quickly.” Surgeon didn’t balk at photographing the thyroid after he removed it. They take my disease and pain and family situation seriously. I’ve seen many other doctors and nurses throughout this and they have all been compassionate, professional, and personable. I even got a hand-written get well card from the OR nurses.

My Community. Starting with my husband, who has had to endure this mostly away from me, he is a rock star. My kids, who can’t be bothered with worry and are happy to be properly awed by the thyroid photo, are also rock stars. My parents, who have born the brunt of caring for me.  My in-laws who have been steady and loving and so helpful with everything from providing pumpkins for carving to nursing advice. My siblings who make me laugh until I cry. Friends who drive across states and cities and bring flowers, candy, socks, books, hugs, food, listening ears and their own stories. Phone calls and emails.

My Scar. I like scars. Of course that is easier to say now that I’m borderline old. But, I find them fascinating. Each one is unique and carries a particular story of trauma, and of healing. I don’t like trauma, not saying that, but none of us gets out of this scar-free, and I value the story-telling power of the marks on our bodies. This scar on my neck tells me all these things I’m thankful for: the body, medical care, community, health. The scar across my belly tells me Henry and I survived a dangerous birth. If you have a scar, I might ask about it. Because a scar isn’t just the story of the wounding, but the story of the healing. Of the mother tenderly, agonizingly, rubbing burn cream into her infant daughter’s neck, night after night for a year, singing to her baby, thankful for life. The story of the teenager, bravely dressing the salty, gushing wound of his cousin, ensuring he doesn’t lose a toe over the long, bumpy ride to the ER from the remote beach. The story of my mom being an adventurous, climbing kid (imagine!). Jesus has scars, too. Even in his resurrected body. Think about that.

My Body. So many parts! So much is going on this body! I had no idea. Of course we think about limbs, hearts, lungs, skin, brain. But there are all these wacky small body parts that don’t get much attention and yet, ooh boy, they matter. And I’m thankful for all of them, more aware of them, less likely to take them for granted.

The Body. The body of believers. Sometimes I can sink into borderline cynicism about American Christianity. But then I experience The Body and I’m humbly reminded that we are an imperfect family, like every family. I’m awed by the generosity of time and money, affection and kindness, from strangers and acquaintances and dear friends. I mean blown away to the point of tears, consistently. The Body here has loved me well, while I am away from my family and my team in Djibouti.

My Weakness. This is another tough one. I don’t like it. But I guess I can still be thankful for it. I don’t like that my quads trembled when I walked up and down stairs or that a fifteen-minute walk made me take a nap. I don’t like that when I spoke to a group of women 6 days after surgery, my voice shook and by the time I sat down, my entire body was shaking. From standing up. But. In my weakness, God is strong. And now I understand a little bit better what that means. In my weakness, people were strong for me. They wrapped a coat around my shoulders. They laid a hand on my back to steady my breathing. They offered encouraging words. In my weakness, the Body, each of them an image bearer and a temple in themselves, was revealed as strong. And, weakness teaches humility and patience. Sigh. Hard lessons to learn and lessons that are never fully learned.

Jesus. Especially the scarred Jesus of resurrection hope. Jesus who touches lepers and bleeding women, who cares about hunger and loneliness, who knows hunger and loneliness. Jesus who tenderly protects a vulnerable woman and who violently overturns money changers’ tables. Jesus who is not afraid of our sorrow, or anger, or fear, or regret, or confusion, or weakness.

What are you thankful for this year?

By |November 19th, 2018|Categories: cancer|Tags: , , |9 Comments

When Do You Grieve? Pre, Post, or Present?

(this is a bit delayed, I have good reasons which I’ll keep to myself. In any case, I’m posting it now)

When my twins went back to boarding school last April, I was a hot mess. A throwing myself on the bed and sobbing, holding my head in my hands and yelling at my husband (so the kids wouldn’t see), kind of mess. It was a really hard goodbye. It was the goodbye that closed the door on their childhood home, the goodbye that meant an ending. Sixteen years in the Horn of Africa (Somaliland and Djibouti) and it was over for the twins, at least over in the sense of living under my roof and being children here.

The goodbye was sweet, too. We celebrated, we had a graduation Open House and friends from all the varied and diverse sectors of our decade and a half in Africa came, we did all their favorite things, we laughed hard and played a lot, like we Joneses do.

But it was a goodbye without a hello, there was no new adventure to move on to just yet, simply the final semester of boarding school.

***

When they then graduated from boarding school in July and we spent the afternoon saying goodbye to roommates and dorm parents, best friends who had become more like family, and packing up dorm rooms to fly things back to the United States, I was a mess. Crying, taking all the pictures, hugging all the people, watching the kids say goodbye to their friends and feeling my heart explode. So much love, so much loss.

It was also a sweet goodbye. These people, both other students and particular staff members, have been sources of life, hope, laughter, challenge, community, strength, and rescue for my kids. One group in particular, watching them say goodbye to each other was one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching scenes I can imagine.

But it was also a goodbye without a hello. It was goodbye to Kenya, goodbye to these people, but it was not yet time to move on to the next adventure.

***

Now, with both of them going to University, the goodbyes still sting. It is still hard and strange and new. But it is also a great big hello. It is hello to exploration and adventure, to curiosity and new community, to the next step.

We are really dragging out this goodbye. We’ve been saying goodbye since April and the goodbye will last until January, when I leave Minnesota and go back to Djibouti to join my husband and our other daughter. It is a real good, long Minnesota goodbye.

***

As I questioned why my emotions have drastically shifted from grief and loss to pride and excitement, I realized that I am a pre-griever.

I anticipated this pain and cried it all out at the start of the grieving season.

Some parents have shared how they were surprised by the hurricane of emotions that struck them in the dorm room when they said goodbye and turned to leave. They would be present-grievers.

Other parents have shared how a week or two after dropping their student off, the emotion hit and took their breath away. They would be post-grievers.

Knowing this about myself and my response has helped me not feel guilty for not crying in the dorm room. It helped me understand why I rushed out two weeks before they left to buy them surprises and why I wrote them long letters ahead of time, but also how I am okay when they don’t call or text me for a few days after the separation.

It also helps me understand my husband and our youngest, as we talk through how we are each doing.

Helps us not compare our specific emotional states in time.

Helps us not judge other parents.

Helps us not judge ourselves.

Helps us do the grieving so we can do the healing, too.

How about you? Pre, Preset, or Post griever?

By |October 5th, 2018|Categories: parenting and family|Tags: |1 Comment

What I Never Knew About Grief

Quick link: Things No One Told Me about Grief

grief1

This essay is at Brain Child. It is about the loss of a child and about grief and love and community. I’m thankful for my editor there, Randi Olin, who sadly understands the experience and who graciously helped me turn emotion into words for when there really are no words. I hope the words here are honoring, that they are honest, maybe encouraging to someone.

Before computers, when we wrote with pencils and paper, evidence of our emotion was right there on the page. In hastily scrawled letters or imprinted periods or dampened corners and ink that ran where it mingled with tears. The computer screen reveals none of that. It makes the words feel naked almost, unmoored from the tears through which they were written. I don’t mean to be all melodramatic but there must be space online, in our pinterested and instagrammed worlds that portray joyful perfection, for acknowledging brokenness, for honesty, for corporate sadness, for a modern-world way of honoring people we’ve loved.

Fumbling through that here.

No one ever told me grief was so physical. I feel it in my bones, they ache. I feel it in my muscles, they are sore, as though I’ve run a marathon. The few times I have tried to run, I struggle to see the ground through my tears and my legs feel weak, my pace slow but my body screaming that I’m trying as hard as I can. I’m dehydrated from crying, from forgetting to drink enough water. I’m hungry but can’t eat, nothing looks appetizing. I haven’t slept all the way through the night since the day my daughter’s friend fell.

What is it for anyway? Who cares if I’m in shape or strong or feel the wind in my face? The child of my friend is gone, my daughter’s friend is gone. My 5k pace is irrelevant, sleep a luxury repeatedly interrupted by damp cheeks and a runny nose. Grief forms in a lump in my throat and lodges there, moving in uninvited. It fades and comes back and it is hard to swallow food, to force sustenance past the sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me grief felt so like fear.” No one ever told me that, either. Fear of how to respond, fear of how things will change, fear of fragility, fear of how to respond to my daughter’s grief while facing my own.

Click here to read the rest Things No One Told Me about Grief

Pajamas in Public

Quick link: I’m the Mom in Pajamas at the Grocery Store

This one’s at Babble. Its about grief and being an expatriate and community. And pajamas.

Recently a school called out parents for wearing their pajamas to drop their kids off at school. It seemed ridiculous to me, especially considering that I had this essay coming out this week about when I wore pajamas in public.

Sometimes, there are really good reasons, like stress, exhaustion, grief… Can’t we just give each other a break?

pajamas

…Forget about perfume — these days, I can barely remember to put on deodorant. I don’t think I have forgotten to brush my teeth in years, and yet, last month I went several nights without brushing or flossing. (I know, I know; disgusting. But at least those are privately disgusting.)

Turns out though, stress and exhaustion and grief become public when I either forget to change out of my pajamas to go to the store or I simply can’t summon the energy to change. And so, if you came to the grocery store in Djibouti, I’ll be the mom in the pink and black faded flannel pants and the ratty black t-shirt, unwashed hair in a messy ponytail. I’ll be the panicked mom digging through my purse and realizing that I forgot my shopping list, or I’ll be the mom at the cash register in tears, realizing I also forgot my wallet.

Click here to read the rest: I’m the Mom in Pajamas at the Grocery Store

*image via Flickr

When Someone You Love Dies and You are Far, Far Away

someone you love diesMy Grandma Jeanne died last week.

Death sucks.

Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”

Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”

Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.

She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.

She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.

Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.

It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”

Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.

Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.

My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.

grandma

Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.

I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.

I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.

When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.

*update: I wrote this post the morning after she died. I wasn’t planning to go to Minnesota but then couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to, that now was the right time to go back. Thanks to the generosity of others and a kind-hearted husband, I will be with these (my) people for about 3 days.

*image via Flickr

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