On Being Temporarily Absent

“To love at all is to be vulnerable.

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.

If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

To love is to be vulnerable.”

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, my heart feels wrung. And possibly broken.

My wish in sharing our story is to be a voice of hope and encouragement to other parents who are walking a difficult path. My deep desire is to come alongside those who love their struggling teens.

To do this, I feel strongly that authenticity is a non-negotiable, and vulnerability is essential. And so I have been sharing our journey; even more specifically, I have been sharing my journey. I have been reliving a heartache that I could never have anticipated, and that I know others are even now experiencing.

And my heart has been wrung. And possibly broken. Again.

Broken-Heart-Backgrounds-1

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I have shared in earlier blog posts that my daughter’s descent  into clinical depression came virtually on the heels of my husband’s death.

What I am not so sure I shared is the feeling that while my husband’s death bent me, my daughter’s ensuing suicidal depression broke me. One tragedy on the heels of another left me barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually and unsurprisingly, I faced my own clinical depression.

I have shared that some of the details of my daughter’s difficulties and hospitalizations are hard for me to recall, but the emotion, the struggle, the heartache … those are ever near. Even though that dreadful chapter began six years ago and my daughter has been back home for four years. Even though my husband took his last breath nearly seven and a half years ago. Even still.

In my mind I see snapshots of moments that broke me over and over. I see my children grief-stricken and confused, and my inability to make sense of any of it for them or for myself. (If you want to torture a mother, render her incapable of helping her own children. Or at least let her live in that belief.)

I see a young widow whose grief was cut short by a need she will never regret tending to, but whose heartache upon heartache bent her low and broke her down.

depression line drawing

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It’s not that I don’t want to share our story anymore. It’s not that I am no longer passionate about walking with those whose hearts and families are breaking. It’s that I didn’t expect it to still feel so intensely raw.

As someone who believes strongly that we are created for relationship and community, story is a necessary part of the equation to me. It’s the only way we know we aren’t alone. It’s the best way to walk with each other.

Sugar coating the hard stuff is a disservice, I think. Not that we gratuitously compare stories to see whose is worse. No. That is a prostitution of the roads we each must walk.

But an honest story is a powerful and loving weapon when we are fighting for our lives and wellbeing, and for the lives and wellbeing of those we love. Honest stories build trust.

So I haven’t stopped sharing my story, our story. I have just come to a place where I need to remind myself to breathe.

My heart is so wired into the NOW that I must remind it that these things are not happening now. The emotions can return full force though. At the drop of a hat. And I know that there are consequences and costs that everyone in our family will always deal with. There’s fallout. That’s not bad. It just is.

Every now and then it simply still hurts. And I get stuck. And the past pains and current challenges in my life magnify and compound one another. It takes work for me to untangle all those things and put them back in their rightful and appropriate places. Compartmentalizing doesn’t come naturally to me. In fact, it exhausts me.

My husband has not just died. My daughter is not slicing her arms while raging about how she wants to kill herself. Those things happened a while ago. But pieces of my heart can sometimes feel like they are happening now. Again.

It’s not PTSD. It’s just the journey of grief and growing and living in the wholeness of life, the good and the painful (which can sometimes be the same thing).

My head wants to move on, but my heart wants, needs, to stop and grieve a little. Not the same intense grief of a few years ago, but a grief that must be tended to nonetheless.

Now that I am officially pushing Old Broad-hood, I have learned a thing or two about myself. I have asked friends for support in several areas of my life. I have asked for accountability, for grace, for humor, and for witness to my tears.

NeverBeAfraidAskHelp

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I have learned that if I am not gentle with myself, I return to that place of wanting to lie down in front of a bus. And since the place I now rent has a bus stop literally behind the back fence, that’s not really such a good place for me to get to.

So I’ve been temporarily absent.

The words roll through my mind, trying to coax my heart to participate.

Just write. That’s what the writing experts would say. Put your butt in the chair and write. But I’ve chosen to put my wellbeing over my word count, because I’ve spent decades ignoring what I need for what I “should”. And the bus stop behind me isn’t going anywhere.

Just write. My heart wants to. It really does. And it will.

But lately my heart feels wrung. And possibly broken. And I’ve been learning to take care of it.

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013
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Say What?

The inside of the house still smells like a campfire today, which is fine by me. We had a lovely evening yesterday, grilling dinner and chatting around the fire in the backyard.  My kids were all here. At the same time, even.

My mom was here too. She brought The Best Three Bean Salad In The World, and she’s going to give me the recipe. Tastes just as good now as it did when I was a kid.

Eventually everyone left and I was alone. I sat in the darkness by the fire waiting for it to die down before dousing the last two crackling logs.

firepit at night

(Photo Source: Google Images)

It’s still hard for me; I admit it. There are times I feel very alone.

Ironically, alone feels most alone after having been around people, after shared laughter and lingering good-bye hugs.

Maybe that’s why I am less social than I was before my husband died. Sometimes it’s by choice, and sometimes it’s simply by default. People have lives, and they expect you to get on with yours. Their obligations and marriages haven’t ended. They just don’t understand what you’re dealing with because, thankfully, they’ve not experienced it.

They might not realize that when you do go out and partake in life, the fun may just be followed by deep exhaustion of every conceivable kind. They don’t get that sometimes crowds are the loneliest place in the world.

If you’ve never buried your spouse, please don’t presume to tell me that I haven’t moved on, that I shouldn’t be sad anymore, that I need to keep busy or be less busy, to simplify or find a hobby or go on a date.

And if you have buried your spouse, I don’t want to hear it from you, either.

There is a fine line the widowed must learn to walk, a line that involves rejoining the living, and learning – allowing for – happiness. But it also involves knowing that your loss will always be part of you, and knowing that somehow those things need to coexist. They can. It’s possible; it really is.

But please never make the mistake of telling us how to do that, how to integrate loss and life. Or that we’re not doing it right, that if we will “just _______” it would be better. For the rest of my life my husband will still be dead. And while I can and do experience happiness and fulfillment, that fact will always make me sad. There are some wounds that will never fully heal.

It seems that the ones most bothered by that are the ones without the wounds.

Those of us living it, it’s hard but we’re okay working to figure it out daily. Our sadness doesn’t scare us near as much as it seems to scare others. We have been handed the tricky task of learning to survive in a different universe than the one we thought we lived in. Sometimes, even years later, it’s still painful. Sometimes, even after finding a new love or a new life, it still stings.

It’s okay. Let us feel it. We need to. Don’t try to talk us out of our grief, even if you think it should have ended long ago. It doesn’t define us, but it’s still part of us, and we need you to allow for that. If you can’t, then it’s fine for you to keep your distance. Or at least keep quiet about it.

*****

Why oh why did I awake in such a melancholy mood today?!? I think it’s because I woke up sick. Achy. Congested. Sneezy. Dizzy. And whoever those other three dwarfs were. I woke up that way, feeling like one of them. My beard is fuller and I may even be shorter than I was yesterday, I think.

I’m so thankful we had our Memorial Day gathering an evening early because I have spent today sick in bed, except for loading the dishwasher from last night and seeing my mom who brought me a small tin of yummy pistachios, which I have already eaten. I hear they’re good for colds.

 pistachios

(Photo Source: Google Images)

I think my hearing is a bit off too. While watching mindless TV a bit ago, I heard an insurance commercial that started out like this: “Funerals are a very difficult thing for families to go through.”

But I didn’t hear funerals. I heard urinals. I’ve been through funerals, but never dealt much with urinals, especially as a family activity. It threw me for a quick minute, but then gave me a much-appreciated belly laugh, which I think is better for colds than even pistachios.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

In The Beginning

It began about sixteen months after my husband died.

He’d battled a rare liver disease for a few years, his diagnosis coming less than two years after we were wed. His final two months were spent in the hospital, save for a Valentine’s Day discharge home that lasted less than 72 hours. About five weeks later, we gathered around him, saying our final goodbyes as he lay unconscious. The nurses, by this time very dear to me, were kind enough to turn off the alarms that began sounding after life support measures were removed.

Hospital Monitor

(Photo Source: Google Images)

We had cried, we had prayed, we had sung, we had told him the things we felt were most important to say, many of us at the same time. It was a cacophony of loving sentiments and earnest anguish expressed in the most grievous of times. He breathed his last. We lingered a while.  And then we all went home.

My adult step-kids and their cousins left to return to their families. (I sure love all those “kids”.) My in-laws drove back home after the death of their firstborn. (I love them even now.) My dear mother, herself widowed a few short years earlier, left with what I imagine were difficult thoughts at best.

My son (age 16) was living with his dad, so while he departed to a separate destination, my two daughters and I walked into our darkened and forever-changed home. And while I rarely allowed them to sleep the night in my bed when they were little, we all piled under my comforter together in the cold March darkness. It didn’t matter that they were 12 and 13 years old. No one was going to sleep much anyway.

Life changed, of course. In drastic ways that could not be undone. Grief is an odd phenomenon for so many reasons, not the least of which is that everyone experiences it differently. But we could say the same about life, couldn’t we? Everyone experiences it differently. The triumphs and losses a family experiences together are processed and assimilated uniquely by each individual.

As I did my best to adjust to being a widow, an unexpectedly single mom for the second time, my kids did their best to adjust to life without the step-dad that they had known and loved for more than half their lives. The wound was deep.

My older daughter, a few months shy of her 14th birthday when my husband died, began to grapple with adolescence in more marked ways when she turned 15. It was subtle at first, not nearly as obvious or aggressive as it became in time. She had always been quiet and observant, even as a baby. Though introverted, she was affectionate, with a natural talent for words, music, and bold creativity. But as she prepared to enter high school, any sense of worth or identity she had possessed seemed to disappear into thin air.

When the kids were quite young (ages 7, 4, and 2½), their dad had made the choice to leave our family. Having been the child of divorced parents from years ago (before the divorce statistics were so high, when – unlike today – I didn’t know anyone else whose parents had split) I knew the potential for damage to my impressionable children. I took them to a counselor, and the most useful long-term piece of advice I received was that, as young children of divorced parents, they would most likely struggle more than normal during milestone transitions as they grew up.

This had absolutely seemed to be the case up to that point, so when my daughter started to act out with impatience, eye rolling, frustration, and withdrawal, I chalked it up to the cumulative losses we’d all been through, plus the hellishness that adolescence in general can be. And I reminded myself that the ride would likely get bumpier than most, but we’d get through it.

I saw her as I saw her brother and sister: capable, full of life, with so much to experience and to offer the world. I hoped that as she entered high school she would be able to try a myriad of new things, to find her niche. I expected the confidence in her many talents and abilities would only strengthen. I was wrong.

I am not so old that I don’t remember high school and what it takes to try to find your way socially. In fact, I went to three different high schools in three different states all within the final year and a half of high school. I remember well. But as I said, we all experience life differently, and my daughter’s experience was nothing any of us expected. Her sense of identity and worth were shaken to the core. The beautiful and talented girl I saw was nowhere in her view. While I tried to reassure us both that she would return to herself, she was spiraling into an abyss of confusion and despair.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think there is one particular reason we can point to for this. I believe it was the culmination of so many things, both genetic and environmental, that landed my daughter where she ended up, with peers who tended towards emotional dysfunction and physical self harm. Her black hair, black fingernail polish, and thick black eye liner didn’t concern me near as much as the darkening shadow in her heart. She was trying. She was trying so hard. But she was at a loss, and I was simply not fully aware of all she was wrestling with.

Goth makeup

(Photo Source: Google Images)

At first she tried to make excuses about the cuts I saw on her arms and wrists. At first I tried to believe her. In retrospect, I can see that she was initially reticent and even somewhat delicate with her self injury. But as time went on, as her darkness descended, the increasingly aggressive scratches, cuts, and gashes began to mirror the turmoil she felt inside.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

A Great Disturbance in the Force: The Sequel

{Please see the first part of this post here.}

*****

Why does it sadden me that we cannot be always and intensely aware of the suffering in our world? I suppose it’s because it seems to me that, apart from a public tragedy such as the Boston Marathon bombing or numerous others of which we are all aware, many shy away from those who are hurting, or at the very least the wounded become the forgotten ~ not necessarily on purpose, but simply as a matter of course. (I am guilty of this myself. Most definitely.) I know what it’s like to be on the other side, to be the one who wants someone to bear witness to my suffering, even as others may think I should be ‘over it by now’, or are simply unaware of my struggle.

A great disturbance in the Force deserves a great deal of attention.

I believe we are created for connection, and sometimes connecting to someone means feeling their pain. Just as we rejoice with those who rejoice, we need to weep with those who weep. We need to celebrate with one another when there is cause, and we also need to mourn together when necessary. This isn’t easy. It isn’t pleasant. But it’s right and necessary if we are to fully embrace the entirety of who we were made to be.

We cannot all fly to Boston, or Iran or Pakistan, to comfort those in need or pain. Thankfully we will not all experience the trauma of being present at some type of public disaster so that we can step in to offer aid in the midst of violence or loss. But we can all be aware of those around us, if we so choose.

We can seek out the hurting; we can step in without judgment or verdict. We can set aside our own opinion of what we think those in crisis must do, and simply be. Be with someone whose heart is breaking. Hold their hand. Enter into grief with another, refusing to be scared away by the fact that you do not (and cannot) have all the answers. Sit together in silence. Or ask a question about their loss. You may be surprised to learn that they really want to talk about it. Allow them the necessary depth and length of their grief. You would want no less were you in their situation.

I am not here to debate the Why of any tragedy. Whatever your belief or lack thereof may be, the fact remains that sorrow, loss, and heartache surround us. We live in a world where violence, death, and grief are not new, but are certainly more quickly able to be made known than at any other time in history. We may choose to rail against the injustice of suffering, but that makes us no less culpable in relieving what distress we are able.

We have seen an outpouring of goodness in response to an act of destructive aggression. Individuals, groups, even cities have stepped in to show support and solidarity to those reeling and recovering from the attack. And then there were those Bostonians who opened  their businesses, homes, and hearts in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. They had no answers for those who were suffering. They were simply willing to do the best they could with what they had. They took a risk and chose to enter in. May we be bold enough to daily do the same in our own relationships and communities.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

A Great Disturbance in the Force

Like so many in our country, I am saddened by the recent Boston Marathon bombing. The literal loss of life and limb, plus the trauma experienced by so many, is difficult for us to process.

With the clarification that I am not a Star Wars geek, there is one line from Star Wars: A New Hope that has always stuck with me. As the planet Alderaan is destroyed, Obi Wan claims, “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.” (Please don’t ask me to quote anything else from Star Wars. Besides some poorly executed Yoda grammar-mashing, the only other line I know by heart is, “Luke, I am your father.” I even had to Google Obi Wan’s exact words in regards to Alderaan’s explosive ending.)

So what does Obi Wan Kenobi have to do with how I am trying to sort out this difficult situation in my own mind? For so long it has seemed to me that when large scale tragedies occur, we should all be able to sense it, to know that a menacing or malicious act has taken place, that fellow human beings are suffering, hurting, and dying. It seems so wrong, that we aren’t aware, that we don’t immediately feel “a great disturbance in the Force” when tragedy and turmoil strike. Short of living in George Lucas’ invented universe, we won’t. And I’m sure that’s a good thing because the constant, uninterrupted anguish and heartache would surely be our undoing.

These types of events occur regularly throughout the world, so we would constantly be quoting Obi Wan, weary with the exhaustion of grief, fear, and every emotion that haunts us when there is such a catastrophe, either man-made or naturally occurring. Consider for instance the earthquake on the Iran/Pakistan border, which occurred only hours after the Boston Marathon attack, or the one that struck just a week earlier in the same region. And then of course there are those areas of the world where bombings and attacks are a way of life, where children grow up knowing to expect chaos and turmoil every day. Even though my daughters were at the Aurora Theater shooting nine months ago, we still live in relative peace and calm compared to so many others sharing our damaged and hurting world.

Still, I am struck by the fact that such dreadful things can happen, and we only find out about them on the television news, via our Twitter feeds, or by scrolling through our Facebook pages. Shouldn’t we all feel the piercing pain and angst of our fellow mortals, wherever they may be? Why is it that I should be shopping or chatting with a friend while others are losing homes, limbs, livelihoods, and lives?

Beyond the calamities that are newsworthy on an international scale, there are millions of misfortunes happening daily on a much more personal level. How is it that I can be taking a nap or curled up with a good book when someone is burying a beloved parent, or watching their child battle for her life? Why should we be gathered around the dinner table while another family has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver? What about my fellow widows, one of whom was jarred awake early one morning by a phone call informing her of her husband’s death, or another whose husband’s unknown illness took his life one Thanksgiving Day a few years ago?

How do we continue about our lives without feeling a great cosmic disturbance from these tragedies?

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Something along the lines of a severe mercy. Were we all to be constantly and acutely aware of the suffering surrounding us, life as we know it would not exist.

I’m certain that on the Friday night I made the decision to turn off my husband’s life support, there were lots of happy people celebrating the end of a long week. I know that as I signed the admission papers for my daughter at the adolescent psychiatric unit, it was the middle of the night and most of the people in our state (and country, probably) were tucked safely in bed. As my daughters heard the first shots ring out in the theater next to theirs, I was actually falling asleep myself. We can’t know and sense all these things. We can’t.

And I am thankful, even as I am slightly saddened.

*****

{Please see the conclusion to this post here.}

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013

To Walk in Another’s Shoes

Warning: This is a rant of sorts. I admit it. I rarely do this (beyond anywhere but in my own head). And perhaps I am guilty of doing what I am saying others should not do. I get the irony. I do. But here goes …

I am one to believe that no matter what difference of opinion may exist, people ought to set aside judgment and simply walk alongside those in grief. It’s naïve of me, I know, and perhaps it is born of my own experiences, the times when I have felt so alone and abandoned, and subsequently shocked by the insensitivity and abrasiveness of people I may or may not know. My belief system leads me to surmise that, apart from sheer ignorance, people who hurt others the most are the people who themselves are hurting the deepest. Maybe their pain displays as arrogance, bitterness, indifference, or outright assault either verbally, emotionally, or physically. It is heartbreaking to me to see this type of reaction by people who more often than not think they know a situation in its entirety, even though they’ve only caught glimpses of the most peripheral details. From there, right-and-wrong and black-and-white judgments and declarations abound, and the lack of gray (and grace) leaves little to no room for compassion or mercy.

The recent suicide of Matthew Warren, adult son of California pastor and author Rick Warren, is a sad example of this situation to me. I have never read any of Rick Warren’s books, but out of curiosity, I went on a few websites to read comments in response to articles about the Warren family and Matthew’s death. Knowing that mental health issues play into this, I was very interested to see what I would find. Setting aside the fact that this could easily be my family – or yours – I am dismayed at those who are using this grievous situation to speculate, to mock, and even to gloat. Some may blame this on our celebrity-worshipping culture, and the fact that many feel justified in drawing their own conclusions because they read an article or heard what someone said about some hot-button issue, so they feel warranted in making their ill-informed proclamations. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s part of the equation.

Admittedly, I didn’t stick around to read all of the comments; there were just too many. There were those who expressed sadness and support, but it seemed they were greatly outnumbered by those who blamed the parents, blamed their faith, blamed reasons that were admittedly speculative at best. I won’t go into the details because they really are mere speculation. But I will say that I was most taken aback by those who mocked the family, as well as those who felt they had a right to demand more information (as if this family’s grief is any of their business), and those who intimated that Matthew’s struggles with depression were just an excuse for him to be selfish enough to take his own life. Really? To make such blanket statements, to presume that you know the details of, or what is best for, anyone else’s life is sheer arrogance at best. Truth be told, most of us are having one heck of a time just trying to keep our own lives in order. How dare such pronouncements be made upon a grieving family simply because they happen to be more well-known than our own.

As a parent who has walked the path of mental health issues (both my own and that of my children), I find this appalling and offensive. Living with mental illness (however brief or extended the experience may be) can be a living nightmare. To simply wake up and fight to put one foot in front of the other, to dread the thought of going to bed because it leads only to waking up and wondering if your daughter will be dead or alive in the morning, driving your desperate teen to the Emergency Room for psychiatric care, or being forced to call 911 because the child you bore is suicidal and raging … I have lived these things and more. No amount of denigration or finger wagging from those who demand to know details, or think they have it all figured out, does anything to help anyone. Ever. These things are added violence to the already swirling mayhem that for some is daily life.

It takes courage to walk alongside those we love in the best of times. When depression or other mental issues are present, we must gather together more courage than one person alone can possess. We must ask for and accept the courage and hope of those willing to loan them to us, of those willing to bear us up when we are barely able to crawl. Shame on those who think they can render a verdict about a situation in which they are not intimately involved. And at the same time, my heart breaks for you who behave that way; I am sorry you are so wounded that upon seeing another human soul or family in pain, you cannot muster enough kindness to offer a word of sympathy. Or at least keep your mouth shut out of respect. I suspect this is the very thing you want and feel you have not received, either from the ones you harass or from someone significant in your life. And this makes me sad for you.

Some people are still so stuck in the dark ages about mental illness. Why are they so reluctant to admit that there are some things that are beyond our (and their) control? Why the reticence to simply say, “Sometimes things are awful and scary and hard, and we just do our best to love each other through them”? Perhaps because acknowledging that it can happen to others means acknowledging that it can happen to you, too. Knowing that some things are so grievous and difficult that they can actually cause death … this is a terrifying concept, but it is real. Sometimes treatment works, and sometimes it does not. And whether you want to believe it or not, many people wrestle with that truth every day. We are sorry if it scares those of you who have never experienced it, but we ask that you not condemn those of us who have simply because you may not fully comprehend it.

Instead of judgment, a good and courageous start in response to the struggle of another – whether stranger or friend – is compassion, which can be defined as “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune”. Compassion is simply imagining what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes, then responding with empathy. I believe we all long for this most basic of human connections, but our woundedness and fear can make us reluctant to give it.

Compassion is a powerful weapon, one that we must use to fight against the stigma of mental illness as well as many other societal ills. It is one weapon that is, ironically, inherently devoid of violence.

 

© Monica Simpson and Help To Hope, 2013