Monday, July 30, 2012

Giving Thanks--21 Months Later

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough. 
Meister Eckhart

One of the things that happens after a loved one dies is that your community rallies around you in ways that you never dreamed of. It's astounding how you are lifted and held during those first few weeks. Meals appear at your doorstep, books and cards arrive in the mail, donations are made to the fund you set up, flowers and plants are left on the porch. The best of human nature comes forward and holds your family in a loving embrace.

Only now am I fully able to comprehend the magnitude of what occurred for our family. Twenty-one months later I want to say thank you to everyone who showed up in both big and small ways.

You see, for me, it was hard getting up out of bed and out the door each day in those early months after Matthew died. Everything was so flat, and time had slowed to a snail's pace as we entered those incredibly short, dark days of a typical Northwest winter. I wasn't able to summon up the energy to properly thank all of those who showed us such tremendous love and care. So now, twenty-one months later, I am giving my thanks.

I am grateful to those family and friends who came forth with the big and the little gestures; they all meant so much. The notes, the e-mails, the invitations for walks, coffee, lunch and dinner all carried great significance at a time when our world was knocked off its rotation and when, briefly, life's meaning was lost. But you stood by and gently held us until we could find our footing again. Even if we didn't acknowledge it at the time, your gestures did not go unnoticed. Thank you.

Some people tell me now they don't know what to do, or what to say to someone who is newly bereaved. They ask me for my advice. Of course, I can only speak for myself, because each person grieves so differently. But the one thing I can say with certainty is to be there for the person. Show up in the way that seems most authentic to you. This can be done in many different ways. It can be done by sending a card with a short note telling them that you are thinking of them, or a longer letter with an anecdote about their loved one. Both communications are treasured and appreciated. If you can handle a visit in the early days, then do it. Just keep it short because it's an exhausting time for the bereaved ones. And make it about them, not you. As those early days give way to weeks and ease into months, sending short e-mails and texts saying, "just thinking of you" help immensely. They remind us that people are there and haven't forgotten us (or even more importantly) haven't forgotten our loved one, and for a moment we aren't quite so alone in our grief.

Here's an example of a story a friend shared with me during those early months of grieving that helped me. Her mom volunteers at our local library's book sales, and consequently brings home lots of used books. In December of 2010 (just a couple of months after Matthew died), my friend's brother's family was visiting her and she settled in one evening to read to his two young children.  She picked up one of the books her mom had recently brought back from the library sale--The Story of Ferdinand. When she opened it up she saw an inscription dated November 1994, showing that the book had been donated to the Wilkes kindergarten class by Matthew Gaphni and his family. The inscription read that he hoped it would be the first of many adventures in books they would have. My friend told me that she just about lost it then and there, but quickly realized that this was a remarkable coincidence to treasure. She felt that Matthew was there with them, and she read The Story of Ferdinand to the two young children in his memory. 

I started this post off by voicing my thanks to everyone for all that they did during a very difficult period in my family's life. I want to end it by saying that even the smallest act of kindness can carry enormous meaning to a family in need. Even if it's not acknowledged then or ever, it doesn't go unnoticed. Trust me. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Ones Left Behind

Let me come in where you are weeping, friend,
And let me take your hand.
I, who have known a sorrow such as yours, can understand.
Let me come in -- I would be very still beside you in your grief;
I would not bid you cease your weeping, friend,
Tears bring relief. Let me come in -- and hold your hand,
For I have known a sorrow such as yours, 
And understand.

-Grace Noll Crowell

Sunset last Thursday evening
Like all of you, I awoke Friday morning to the news of the shootings in Colorado. My heart sank as the story unfurled and we were left, once again, with a senseless tragedy committed by an obviously unstable young man with easy access to firearms. Two days later, the stories are beginning to emerge:  the stories of the victims, the stories of moments of heroism that took place in that darkened theatre, the story of the mentally ill young man. We know that as the days turn into weeks, that more and more of the coverage will turn to the young man, to gun control, to violence in American society. We know this because we've seen it happen over and over again. But what I want to do is focus on those left behind.

Each one of the twelve victims left behind family and friends for whom this will be the legacy they live with. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters and friends will wake up every morning grief-stricken, their lives changed forever by ten minutes of the most unimaginable, pre-meditated violence. As the days go by, the media coverage will slowly shift away from the victims, and people will begin to forget them. But I guarantee you, the victims' families' losses remain front and center and will define them for the rest of their lives.

While I don't profess to understand exactly what the families of these victims are going through, I do know what it feels like to lose someone in an untimely manner. When my 21-year-old son died the world actually seemed to stop for us for a while. Time slowed down to an almost unbearable pace. Right now I can only imagine the pain and numbness that is settling in on these families. The wishful thinking that will play like a non-stop record: wishing that their loved ones had decided to wait and go to the regular opening the next day, or that they had taken a wrong turn to the theatre, or that they had been in the bathroom when the shooting started. Anything that would have put them in a different place than where they were.

This wishful thinking will give way to the reality of what occurred  last Friday and that's where I hope that all of us can remember those left behind. I hope we can continue to have moments of silence, to pray for them, to light candles, to donate money to the causes their families have hastily come up with, so that we reassure them that their loved ones have not died in vain. We need to honor those who died by holding close those who are left behind. 

When something like this happens we are again reminded of the preciousness and fragility of life. We need to love not hate, and we need to treat every day like the gift it really is. So as the families and friends left behind begin their journey through this first year of mourning, let's hold them all in our hearts. Let's hope and pray that they learn to live their lives with purpose as they learn to live without their loved ones by their side.  Let's also look around in our own communities and reach out to people we know who are suffering. Whether it's due to a death, an illness or something else, it doesn't take much to take the time to acknowledge someone's loss. It does make a difference. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reading the Obituaries

"The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas but in having new eyes." 

I have been an obituary reader almost my entire life. I started reading them in the sixth grade in Mrs. Seitz's class when we were all given a subscription to the Arizona Republic for a month. The purpose of the assignment was to familiarize us with every aspect of the paper. We learned about editorials, letters to the editor, international/national news, the classifieds, Dear Abby, the sports section and the obituaries.

I don't know what it was that drew me in initially, but I think it was the way a life could be summed up in a paragraph or two. When done well it was amazing what you could find out about a person. I found it fascinating. I can remember especially liking those obituaries that had a picture of the deceased when they were young, as well as one when they were old. I would stare long and hard at the two photos comparing them. I'd  see where the fine features seem to have melted away; the strong jawlines given way to soft jowls. It was the eyes that usually gave them away; I could always see them in their eyes.

Since then I've been a pretty regular obituary reader. During those periods when I don't have as much time, I scan them for the unusual ones--the freak accidents, the very young, and the very old.  Some are brief and to the point, while others are rambling and all over the place. Like life, they are not always written in perfectly punctuated sentences. But they almost always capture some essence of who the person was.

Now, of course, I read obituaries with very different eyes. No longer are they just a summation of a life lived. Now when I read them my mind also goes to those who were left behind. I read the "survived by" with a new found empathy. These are the real people left behind to do the grieving. I take comfort when there are many loving family members listed, or special thanks given to friends and community, knowing that those immediately impacted will be surrounded and nurtured in the days and weeks ahead. I worry about those that, at least in the obituary, don't appear to have much of a support system. 

Since Matthew was 21 when he died, I feel a special kinship with the men and women who die in the military. For if you look, they almost always range in age from 19-23. I think of their families who had their worst nightmares come true with that knock on the door.  My heart breaks for them. I sent my son off to university never thinking that an illness would strike him down. They sent their children off to fight for our country, always knowing in the back of their minds that it's a possibility they might not come back.  

I don't know if other people read the obituaries with the regularity that I do, and perhaps it seems a bit morbid or voyeuristic to some that I do this. I do know that I read them with compassion, and no longer view them with the detachment I once might have. For me, they serve as a daily reminder of the preciousness of life, and I don't think that's such a bad thing. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sharing Our Stories

The universe is made up of stories, not atoms. 
Muriel Rukeyser

The other day in Seattle I was in a local drugstore and the cashier was obviously having a bad day. She couldn't muster up a smile, and was genuinely crabby to everyone who approached her register. People were getting really irritated with her, and in some ways they had every right to. The black cloud that hung over her head was threatening everyone's day. When I approached the register,  I did my best to treat her with kindness and a smile, and I left the store without passing judgment. Believe me, I am no saint; I'm just as susceptible to getting annoyed with someone for rudeness. But one thing I've learned since Matthew died is that there's almost always a story behind someone's actions. Sometimes we just need to cut some slack, because we don't have any idea about what is really going on in their lives. We don't know if they have just lost a loved one, if they are waiting for results from a medical test, if they're being foreclosed on their house. It could be anything.

Everyone has stories, and our stories give life to our past experiences.  After Matthew died, people started sharing their stories with me and I got a lot of comfort out of hearing them. Somehow it made me feel less alone with my own heartbreaking story knowing that others had survived tragic losses in their lives, and continued on. Sometimes I heard from people I thought I knew fairly well, and they came forward and told me about a loss that had occurred in their past that, quite frankly, shaped who they were today. It made me see them in a new way, and gave greater depth to our friendship.

Just today we attended my husband's oldest sister's wedding. I saw a woman there I hadn't seen in many years and she asked where our other son was. When I told her what happened to Matthew, she (of course) gave her condolences. There was a pause and then she leaned in to tell me that she had lost a daughter to suicide at the age of 30. All of a sudden, this lovely 93-year-old woman and I broke down all barriers of superficial talk and formed an instant connection. Our stories made us see each other quite differently and with much greater depth. It seemed so much more real.

We carry our stories with us on the journey we are on. They shape us and lend definition to our lives. As I've gotten older, I find I have little patience for superficial talk. I want to have real conversations with people and hear their stories, and I'll share mine. I read this great quote by Robert McKee that sums it up nicely: 

"Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact." 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Seeing With An Open Heart

Today I was a guest blogger over at the Center for Courage & Renewal. Here's the link:

I'll try and post something later on this week. But in the meantime, have a safe and happy Fourth of July!