Pete’s memorial ended with a Dixieland band leading us out to the cemetery across the street playing Just a Closer Walk with Thee. The sad drawl of the trumpet and trombone. The constant beat of the tuba. When we arrived at the farthest part of the cemetery, the band leader stopped to let us know a bit of the New Orleans history of the funeral parade. When a musician had died, the band heads into the grave somber and leaves their friend among the dead. But in honor of the music that they made together, they march out dancing. This is called the second line. The second line was what I promised Pete before he died. In the second line, the trumpet transforms leads a new tune, confident and strong. The trombone dances through the bass line as if grabbing hold of our waist, twisting and twirling us as a skilled dance partner.
The most common song associated with the second line is - Oh when the Saints, Go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.
We left death behind us that day and we danced on the graves of the saints who have gone before us. It’s powerful to dance on death. Death will certainty have its say in each of our lives but death is only one moment. Death is the moment the breath leaves the body. But who is to say that the breath itself dies?
I have experienced what perhaps is the “breath” of Pete several times since his death. Or speaking theologically, I have been in the presence of the unique breath of God that enlivened Pete Scibienski. In the second version of the creation story, God breathes life into the first earthling, enlivening it with the ruach – the wind, the breath, the spirit of God. Take a breath. Seriously, stop and take a breath. You have it too. The wind, the breath, the spirit of God animates you.
Our breath is a powerful force. With each inhale we are created. At the top of the inhale there is sacred moment of pause before the exhale. With every exhale we let go, clean out, release what was. And again at the bottom of the release, there is another pause where our bodies put to rest the most recent moment and then our next breath resurrects us. Our breath is automated; we don’t have to think about breathing. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that we are being breathed. This is why I tend to believe the breath expire with our bodies. The breath, our unique breath continues – but where? What does the breath animate if not the body?
When I have been in the presence of Pete’s disembodied breath it has felt intact, held together by meaning and purpose. Like last week in church when I imagined him coming to church to share in the communion table with us. His unique breath was still very much him. Even in death, his “life” animated by the Spirit has purpose, a calling. Who is to say that the Spirit that animated Pete in his bodily life does not continue to animate Pete in his death?
This is most certainly an exercise in theological imagination. But let me tell you a secret – all theology is an exercise in imagination. Theology is imagination fueled by ancient words, personal experience, and communal understanding. Theology is not a science. Theology is idea in conversation with others ideas, stirred with hope… lots of hope. And right now, in month six without him, the hope that is stirring my current ideas imagines Pete having work to do even after his body is gone. I am so comforted to think that Pete continues his calling to encourage and love others, something at which he excelled. I am so deeply comforted by this possibility.
Yesterday was the first day that I can remember not crying. I don’t think it was the first day I went without crying but it was the first day that I can remember where my grief was not crowding me. I wonder if this has any correlation to the the imagination of Pete having a “life” to lead after death. By releasing him to the work of the Saints, have I released some of my grief as well?
Oh when the saints… go marching in… it is a dance. It is a stomp your way out of death dance. It is a let yourself loose, swing around with your neighbor, let it go kind of dance. It is the kind of dance enlivened by the breath of God – in life and in death.
Last week was Halloween, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The Christian tradition has often celebrated these three days together, creating a festival of sorts. In my current context, Presbyterians in central NJ, we typically honor the folks who have gone before us on the Sunday after by pausing to name them during worship. There is a connection between the living and the dead that is worth remembering, celebrating, honoring.
This was the first year Pete was among those saints to be honored. I honestly hadn’t made that connection before Sunday and even while we were naming the saints who had been meaningful to our spiritual journey, I didn’t think of Pete. I thought of my grandmother and the first pastor I remembered from my childhood. I thought of a few of the folks whose funerals I had led. It wasn’t until we were celebrating communion later in the service that I thought of Pete.
You see, I have a friend, who is also a pastor; he has been a widower now for 15 years. He remembers looking desperately for his wife to appear during communion, perhaps now appear physically but in the way that Pete has been present for me so many times. Communion seems like it is the most likely place for us to experience togetherness with the dead.
When Christians gather at the communion table, we believe we are seated with all who have gone before us and all who have gone after us. The table extends beyond the barriers of this world. In fact the table resides in another realm. John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation (that has just celebrated its 500th year), believed that we are transported from our current space and time to God’s space and time. It is not that God meets us where we are at the table; we meet God where God is at the table.
So back to Sunday, I’m sitting in one of our fancy wooden chairs up on the chancel, presiding over the celebration of communion. The piano is playing. The servers are passing out morsels of homemade bread and tiny shot glasses of grape juice. I closed my eyes as I was breathing and praying for those in my congregation. And then I had a thought, “I wonder if Pete is here.” And then as quick as that thought came to mind another followed. “Well if you’re here, you better not have come without...”
I opened my eyes in surprise. I looked around the room. Was he here? Were they here together?
I had this interesting notion that Pete had not stopped being my wing man at all… he was just given a different job. He was part of the “church triumphant” - the church that exists above, beyond and outside of the church that exists for us.
I didn’t “sense” Pete’s presence when I had these thoughts as I have at other times. But I believed in Pete’s presence in a way I had before.
I have another story of Pete’s presence beyond this realm that I have held to mostly to myself. Months ago the friend of a deceased friend messaged me about an encounter with a psychic. “I’m not sure if you believe in this but...” someone she knew had gone to a psychic and this deceased friend of mine “visited.” During the visit he said, “I’m hanging out with my good friend Pete.” Nothing was mentioned of Pete during the session with the psychic. The psychic would not have known of the important friendship Pete had with this friend.
I sat with this for a day or two and then I remembered that during this friend’s memorial service, Pete shared about how they had met.
Thirty years ago, Pete had begun to reengage his faith with some neighbors who attended a Presbyterian Church. They invited him to attend when and if he wanted. They kept telling him the church was casual; he could even wear jeans. He took them up on the offer on Easter Sunday, not knowing that this Sunday is the one Sunday of the year where everyone dresses up. Pete would tell the story by saying, “I had one eye on the sanctuary and one eye on the door when someone walked up to me, put one hand on my shoulder and reached to shake my hand with the other.”
When Pete told the story that day at his memorial, he added, “I hope he was greeted in heaven the way he greeted me that day in church.”
For our deceased friend to say, “I’m hanging with my good friend Pete,” speaks to me of this space above, beyond and outside the church that exists for me, for us.
Was Pete in church on Sunday? Did he bring our friend? Were they all there, all the folks who had gone before us? What about all those who will go after us? I don’t know; we can't know yet. That’s what faith is – trusting when we are not sure.
I study and practice Reiki, a Japanese healing art. Through my studies, I have learned to listen to my body, to notice how various places in my body feels, inside and outside. By placing my hands lightly on my own body and turning my attention inward, I can feel the pulsing within myself. Sometimes the pulse feels more like a hum. Sometimes the hum is shaky, even frenetic. Sometimes the hum is shallow, sometimes deep.
The place I am most drawn to lately is the section right above my navel and beneath my breast bone. This section of the body covers digestion, the pancreas and kidney function along with adrenal glands. But it also is where we keep our will power, or personal control. It is in this area where we form our opinions and beliefs and make decisions. This is our gut. And when our gut disagrees or doesn’t feel settled, our confidence, identity and independence falters.
My body feels so good, soothed, comforted simply by placing one hand in the middle of my belly and taking a few minutes to be mindful of myself, inside and outside.
I’m having to learn about myself again, my opinions, beliefs. I’m having to make decisions, be independent. I’m having to find my own confidence and reassure myself in ways I have not had to in two decades. I’m having to set directions, create new disciplines.
My belly, my gut, my middle, also known as our solar plexis is unbalanced and overtaxed. But I am listening to it, being mindful of it, of me.
I was reminded yesterday of a belief that the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth held about the Holy Spirit. He says we are less rooted or standing firm and more like we are being upheld by the winds of the Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of myself or trying to make myself “rooted.” Rooted feels secure. But this image of being upheld by the Spirit captured me three years ago after Superstorm Sandy.
Trees were uprooted everywhere. But round masses standing on their side with their trees lying beside them. The roots seemed to be mocking us saying, “the world is not near as sturdy or reliable as you thought.”
Perhaps we are not nearly as “rooted” as we think. But rooted feels more solid and being upheld feels like relinquishing control to the wind.
I want to say, put me down. Let me stand on my own. Let me make my own way. Live my own life. Set down some roots. But the wind says, “let go, I’ve got you. I’m holding you, firm. You are much more buoyant than you think. Sway with me.”
And so I place my hand on my belly and I breath, slowly allowing my breath to meet the rhythm of the Spirit’s swaying.
I’ve begun to attend a grief share group. It meets weekly at a local church. I’ve met some wonderful people who are each experiencing the roller coaster of grief, just like me. I’m grateful for the chance to speak candidly about my sadness, my worry, my loss. The big difference with these folks compared to you is that they didn’t know Pete.
As a result, we talk more about the feelings and circumstances of grief rather than the specifics of the people we are grieving.
A couple weeks ago we were encouraged to write a “grief letter.” A grief letter is meant to communicate with your loved ones, your coworkers, your friends, what they can expect from my grief and what I may need from them.
In just a few days, Pete will be gone six months. For me (since grief is so very different for everyone), I am feeling the effects of not seeing him for six long months. 180 days without sharing a cup of coffee. 180 days without talking to him face to face. 180 days without hearing about what he is reading or learning. 180 days without telling him about my day. His absence feels different these days, more real perhaps, like his absence itself is a tangible thing.
Yes, I am sad. I cry several times each day. Usually just a few tears leak out while my jaw clenches. I usually try to take a deep breath to calm myself. But my breath gets caught in the middle of my chest, right where my heart is. But with a second try, I am able to take a deep breath. With this breathing, I am not trying not to stifle my tears. I’m just trying to conserve my energy. Big snotty crying is exhausting.
But at least once each week I have what I call a “full body meltdown.” While it’s happening, I am questioning things like, “how did this happen?” How did my life change so fast? Or I am wondering what kind of life will I build now. And then I go back to how did this happen? How am I having to build a life at 46? I already built a life. And it was a good one. It is a good one. It is… it still is a very good life! It’s just missing one very important person.
And all of those questions, all of that crying and even those meltdowns are happening while I’m going to work. It’s all happening while I text back and forth with friends and family. It’s happening while I read the news and pray for the world and worry about healthcare. It’s all happening while I lead a congregation who is about to break ground on a new sanctuary. It’s all happening while I study and prepare sermons for weekly worship. We are remarkable creatures really, our capacity to keep living is stunning.
That's what you can expect from my grief these days.
But a grief letter is also meant to ask for what I might need from you. This is really hard. To ask for what we need is vulnerable and hard and I’d rather not do it. I’d rather you read my mind… isn’t that true for most of us?!
But here it is, I wish people would talk about Pete more. Or when you think about him or are reminded of him, that you might mention it specifically.
Yesterday my grandson, Mateo came into my room and asked, “Was that PopPop’s birthday?” He was looking at a picture I have in my room and at one point he must have asked what the picture was from. And it was from a birthday party a couple years ago. Many of his friends met us at a hot dog stand. It was almost rainy if I remember correctly. We ate and laughed around picnic tables. Mateo remembered and he asked me about it. I turned around and said, “Yes, the picture is from PopPop’s birthday a couple years ago.” He said, “PopPop is in heaven.” I said, “yes.” And then he went about playing with his fire truck.
I was grateful for him just saying Pete’s name, which of course to him was Poppop. It made me happy. And it reminded me that I am not the only one thinking about him.
So if something reminds you of Pete, would you please tell me.
It may make me tear up. It may not. Our memories are precious. And I am grateful that you are sharing this roller coaster ride of grief with me.
The other day a friend of mine told a story of taking a long train ride, several years after her husband died. For some reason the trip set off her grief in a terrible way. She was undone by what my grief share calls the “ambush” of grief, sometimes referred to as a “wave” of grief. There are moment where grief seems to come at us as a wave, knocking us off our feet and sometimes knocking us over.
I love the beach and I love to swim in the waves. Not all waves are alike. There is the first wash over our feet wave that shocks our ankles with its cold temperature. Then there is the wave that is about two feet out of the shoreline that smashes into our legs, right above our knees. Then only one foot deeper into the ocean is the wave that slams into our middle and splashes up into our face making us look away. A couple feet past that wave is the one that demands we get our heads wet. To this one, we dive under and swim out past the crashing waves and into the floating waves. When I was a kid, I would stay out there floating up and down until my teeth chattered and I could no longer feel my legs for numbness.
But on my way out to the floating, teeth chattering experience, I have to navigate those harsher waves that can easily knock one over. Have you ever been knocked over by a wave?
The first thing that happens is you stumble to the ground with an arm reaching for the sand to steady your body, so you can quickly jump back up to a standing position. Because if you’re knocked over by one wave, another one is right behind it.
And a wave were to knock you on your butt, the tide would now be at the height of your head. So the next wave that is coming fast will not only knock you down but will likely turn you over. And tumbling under the tide is the worst feeling ever.
You lose which way is up and your arms reach for the ground, your legs are taken by the water and seem to be of no use to you. It’s horrible.
When I liken grief to a wave, that’s what I mean. When a wave of grief comes, it is that strong kind of wave that comes up from under you and knocks you down. It throws your arms and legs into a panic to try to “right” yourself.” It’s horrible.
And the more I’ve listened to my own experience, the more I’ve heard stories of those traveling this grief road with me, the more I realize these waves are unique. Waves of grief come with specific memories. And these “knock you down kind of waves” carry sensory data. They come fueled by a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch.
Sensory memory is out of cognitive control. Let me say that again – sensory memory, memories we have saved from stimuli related to our senses are not controlled by the cognitive part of our brain. So we cannot control what sensory data we retain or how we store it or for how long we store it.
Instead this information is controlled by the somatosensory system, which is a 3-neuron system that relays detected senses through pathways of the spinal cord, brainstem, and thalamic relay nuclei ultimately transferring them to the sensory cortex in the parietal lobe.
What I love about that last paragraph is that I worked on it for ten minutes and I’m still not quite sure what it means. What I do understand is that there is an element of passivity in the somatosensory system meaning that the information “sensed” and then “stored” is not done cognitively or intentionally in the same way we “learn” and “store” what we learn.
The somatosensory system detects a sense. So this system isn’t the one doing the sensing, it’s the one figuring out what to do with the senses.
And so back to my friend on the train. The wave of grief she experienced; the one that knocked her over – it came from the movement of the train. You see, she and her late husband used to take the train to work together. And on top of that, her dad worked on the train. So she had a relationship with trains AND her body had stored sensory data from being on trains. Think about how our bodies move when on a train. We sort of jiggle with the cars. Think about a train ride from an auditory sensory perspective. There is a consistent rumble of the train. Close your eyes, can’t you feel it in your body and can you hear the sound of the train?
Somatosensory memory. Somatosensory memory unfurled a wave of grief that knocked her over that day.
Pete said that sentence often. He said it to punctuate the end of the day. He said it to punctuate a story. He said it to provide a lens through which he wanted others to understand the world. And he always included it in prayers.
Since Pete married a pastor and so many of our friends are pastors, it made perfect sense that when we gathered for a meal, we would ask Pete to pray. He would jokingly say, “The room is lousy with pastors and you want the bass player to pray?”
Pete didn’t close his eyes when he prayed. His prayers always felt to me like he was directing an intentional conversation with someone present at the table. As we bowed our heads, Pete would clear his throat, swallow and begin, “Dear God, we live with an embarrassment of riches.”
Turns out we pastors knew what we were doing; the bass player had great theology.
Even on days like today, the day after dozens were killed in Las Vegas by a person holding a legally acquired weapon. Even on days like today, I believe Pete would mention the riches with which we live.
This lens of always remembering the riches in our lives has served to frame most of my memories for the past two decades.
The longer Pete is gone, the more I find myself framing memories. In fact, coding and storing memories is essential if I am ever going to be able to recall and remember my life with Pete. The better I can code and store a memory, the better chance I will have at not forgetting.
Unlike short term memories, long-term memories have a physical presence in the brain. Neurons create actual physical connections and those physical connections endure whether they are being used or not. They need physical space in our brain.
Storage and encoding go hand in hand. Storing a document in a specific folder helps define it. We access memories based on how and where we store them in our neurological brain cloud.
Grief this last month has often felt like a “memory making factory” has set up shop in my brain. As if there is a sharp witted woman in the recesses of my mind who is calculating the right size, shape and color of each memory. She is coordinating the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that is associated with each memory. She is working overtime and I am so grateful for her but I also worry about her accuracy in the coding and storage of these memories.
Sometimes she hands me memories where Pete is larger than life. Our life together in the memory is all light and no shadows. And that’s not accurate. Our life had lots of shadows.
Pete was diagnosed with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis 12 years ago. I will code this diagnosis as happening halfway into our marriage. But I will also code his diagnosis through the lens of the riches. We lived with a lot of riches at the time, some very specific riches. For example, I had just begun my first pastorate. This community of faith fit me so perfectly that everything I ate at the time tasted like it had extra butter in it. That wasn’t all. Dan had found his love, Faith. She belonged to a piece of his heart long before he met her. She says it this way, “there was a place in Dad’s heart, a nest of sorts, that was made just for me.”
We had a lot of light, a lot of riches. A diagnosis of MS formed an obstacle in the light and shadows were cat around it. But we only knew those shadows because of the light that was there in the first place.
How much of the shadows would Pete want me to keep intact for long term retrieval? What would Pete say of the woman in my brain who is working so hard at coding and storing? What would he say about how important it is for me to remember the way he felt when I hugged him or what his voice sounded like when he welcomed me home?
How would Pete code and store the memories of our life together if he were the one trying to ensure long term retrieval?
Well I think he told me how. He would code and store the light first. When he would say, "we live with an embarrassment of riches," he was defining life by the light and not by the shadows.
A week or so ago, a facebook friend crowd sourced the following question, “For those of you who've lost a loved one in the past and feel like you're healing… What habits, practices, or efforts have contributed to that healing? What should grieving people make sure they're doing?
I responded with, “Do massage or yoga or energy work as often as you would do regular therapy. Trauma lives in the body in ways that typical talk therapy can’t get to.”
Since Pete’s diagnosis with MS, I have been consistently curious about the mind/body connection. I use Louise Hayes Heal Your Body like a reference guide, easily acceptable to me on my kindle app. That led me to learning, practicing and teaching the Japanese healing technique, Reiki. I have used massage as a regular form of healing for myself. And recently, I’ve engaged in private yoga lessons with a skilled, loving Iyengar yoga instructor.
Iyengar yoga is new to me. In the past, I have gravitated toward a flow practice, where my breath worked with my movement to find and release stress and discomfort. Iyengar seeks to perfect a post by building it from the bottom up. Staying in a pose and making microscopic changes has allowed me to explore my body more thoroughly.
Last week, upon arrival to my yoga lesson, I explained to my teacher that during a massage the week before we were surprised at how “locked up” my sacrum was. Well, “surprised” is probably not accurate; it makes perfect sense. Our sacrum is at the base of our spine. Our spine holds us up, supports us all day, and all night. The sacrum is the beginning part of our root chakra. The root chakra is the portion of our body from our hips down to our feet. Energetically, or psychosomatically, our root chakra is all about grounding, being rooted in life. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to either of us that my root chakra is “locked up.”
With the death of Pete, my life has lost much of its footing. We cannot underestimate how much our primary relationships provide solid footing for us. Pete was the one at the end of the day who affirmed that I was deeply loved, despite whatever the day had brought. In a very real sense I have been uprooted and as a result my body is clinging to itself for stability. Physically, my muscles are locking onto themselves and affixing themselves to my spine.
So my yoga instructor and I did a full hour of poses that would help release my sacrum. We started in seated position, stretching forward. We moved to side twists. We ended in down dog, finding that my hamstrings are connected to my gluts are connected to my sacrum. Yikes! Ouch! But here’s the thing, instead of loathing my body, being angry or frustrated that it was so locked up, I found myself in down dog, sending the thought, “I’m so grateful for you,” to my body.
Maybe that sounds odd, but I am so deeply grateful for this body that continues to hold me upright. This body of mine is astounding. It is teaching me and supporting me. I am a body. I believe as a spiritual being that I am more than a body but for too long my spiritual life positioned my body against my spirit. As if my body was bad, evil, sinful. My spiritual life posited that it was its own being that could overcome, dominate the flesh part of me. Ultimately this is so unhelpful.
My body is working really hard to help me be spiritually healthy. My spirit ought to be working really hard to make my body healthy. John Barnes, a renowned physical therapist says, “the body is not just a reflection of the personality, the body is the personality.” He also believes “the body remembers everything that ever happened to it.”
I believe that too.
At the point in my yoga lesson where I was thanking my body for helping me live my life, my yoga instructor asks, “do you know about fascia?”
Here’s what I’ve been learning since that question. Fascia is like the membrane of an orange and it’s all over our bodies. Fascia is made up of densely packed collagen fibers that wrap around each of our internal organs and connect them to our muscles and bones. Some like to imagine that perhaps we are not made up of 600 different muscles but instead we have one muscle that separates and distinguishes it into 600 different parts. Our fascia stabilizes our entire body and gives us our human form. It is a fluid system that literally holds all of our life together – and not just physically…
Fascia contains sensory nerve endings. Proprioceptive sensory nerves help us perceive ourselves as separate from the outside world. Nociceptive sensory nerves help us perceive harmful substances like chili powder in our eyes or hot and cold temperatures. Interoceptive sensory nerves help us perceive pain and hunger.
Our fascia not only holds my back together, it also holds all of the emotion that I have experienced since Pete’s death – the dread, the sadness, the fear, the relief, the gratitude, the delight, the want, the hope. It’s all there, in my fascia – in your fascia. John Barnes, renowned physical therapist says, “when one experiences physical trauma, emotional trauma, scarring or inflammation, the fascia loses its pliability. It becomes tight, restricted and a source of tension to the rest of the body.”
So there is no amount of talk therapy that can get at the emotional memory locked in our beautiful, complex bodies. We are at our core, body. And I am lovingly helping my body loosen up its grip on life.
Pete visited me again – this time it was after yoga class. I was sitting on my mat, the rest of the class had left. I was basking in the after glow of mindful movement. I was wondering how long they would let me stay in the space when all of a sudden he was in front of me, in the trademark Scibienski gargoyle squat.
I looked up slightly as if to find his face and he said, “Hi cute girl.” A familiar greeting.
“Hi,” I said.
After a pause, I settled into his “presence,” I asked, “you ok?” A familiar question.
It was the question I had asked so often for the past several years. Pete was so sick for so long. And as I settle into his absence, I am remembering how very sick he was this past year. I thought we had more time together but he was so very sick. And he needed so much of my attention and love and care. And our lives had become quite small, him and me and our greetings – hi cute girl and you ok?
But that morning when I was settling into his presence, I had to imagine that the answer to “you ok?” is quite different than it had been. He was more than ok. He wasn’t sick anymore. He wasn’t wheeling through life anymore. He had full use of his legs and arms and he was squatting like he had done for most of his life.
His answer came to me within his silence. His silence returned the question. “And you? You ok?”
“I think I am. I’m not really sure what ok is. But I’ve started doing yoga again.”
After a pause, I added, “And I miss you.”
And again his silence spoke as if to say, “I miss you too.” and “I want more for you.”
He misses me? Is that how this works? And he wants more for me? More what? Certainly not more grief. Maybe more than grief. More than the gnawing question of how I will do this without him. More than the constant struggle to breathe deeply. More than the confusion of how to live without him.
Maybe those two thoughts go together. Maybe it’s not that he misses me wherever he is but that I am not myself. I am no longer who I was before he died. And I feel it. And I guess if Pete is real, he feels it too. He's right, I am not the same. And I miss me too.
And although I wish I could hold a conversation without my mind drifting. Or hope to go into meetings without breaking down in tears, the missing myself is much deeper. I don't feel like myself. My body feels different all the time. My instincts are not the same. I am acting oddly for me. And it's truly intriguing that no one else seems to notice. In other words, I'm presenting fairly "normal."
I suppose on the outside, I look the same, my relationships are the same, my job is the same, my voice is the same. I know I'm working to provide leadership and care as a pastor, and I'm doing so by relying on skill sets that I have honed over decades of ministry. But as I am living out each moment, I do not feel the same. You know what, Pete? I miss me too.
He misses me and he wants more for me.
But I don't want more. I want him. It all comes back to that. I want life with him. And he wants more for me. He wants me to find life without him. And so I said, “But I don’t want to do this without you.”
When I looked up next, he was standing, waiting for me to get up off my mat. To take my practice into my day. To find myself and to find my more.
I’m reading Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story. It’s scrumptious. In this retelling of her husband Ray’s sudden death, her writing is beautifully broken and raw. It’s not that she writes in fragments but her thoughts are short and contained. One thought at a time. One truth or one question or one observation. The story is told by a grieving brain.
Don’t get me wrong – the book is still written by one of the most prolific narrative writers of our time. And while I’m no Joyce Carol Oates, my grieving brain has made a friend with her grieving brain.
Grieving brain is odd. Grief affects many areas of our brain. I found this great article by Barbara Fane, that has helped me understand what is going on in my brain. For example,
Our parasympathetic nervous system (in the brain stem anda lower part of our spinal cord) controls our autonomic nervous system – rest, breathing, digestion. When a person is grieving, breath can become short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases. And sleep can be disturbed; insomnia can be an issue.
Our prefrontal cortex/frontal lobe holds the ability to find meaning, to plan, helps with self control and self expression. “Scientific brain scans show that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly impact your emotional and physical processes. Articulation and appropriate expression of feelings or desires may become difficult or exhausting.”
The limbic system, the emotion-related brain region, particularly thte hippocampus portion “is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention and our ability to take interest in others.” While we are grieving, this area of our brain creates responses to loss and grief as a threat as a way to protect us from more pain.
I can attest to my parasympathetic nervous system being fully functional.
My breathing is shallow. My appetite is not what it used to be. I can’t finish sentences – and not like many of us who can’t find the right word sometimes. I am at a loss for words in regular speech so regularly that I’ve grown accustomed to speaking at a different cognitive level or being incredibly quiet in social settings. My vocabulary and syntax is decades below what they were before Pete died.
As a pastor, I have feared I am not fully engaging with people in my congregation. Building relationships has always been the foundation for my ministry. But I’ve noticed that when others are telling me stories, I’m listening but not engaging the way I have for the whole of my adult life. Sometimes it feels like there is a me watching me listening to someone tell me a story.
The best advice I’ve received is what would you say to someone if they came to you with these concerns? I would give them so much grace. I’d say, “Oh my word, you’re grieving your husband, your best friend. Your entire life is upside down. Of course you can’t breathe deeply! Of course you can’t finish sentences! You’re doing just fine. Be patient with yourself. Be kind.”
But now having gone through this, I would add, “your brain is doing the best it can and its even doing some of these things to help you. It’s good to remember that grief is a process of the mind and body.”
I have worked so hard at controlling my thoughts, keeping my mind focused on what I think is best. But at the end of the day, I am a body. My body, specifically my brain, is working at Pete’s death. And I will choose to embrace my brain and its process.
My brain misses Pete as much as my body.
There is a chapter in my memoir (the one we are all praying will find an avenue for publication soon) entitled “Christians Believe in Resurrection.” Here’s a portion I am considering today:
While I was a chaplain, I watched a group of doctors resuscitate an elderly gentleman. Resuscitation is a gruesome act. It often involves broken bones and blood. While physicians monitored blood pressure and breathing, I monitored grief and loss. Everyone in the room wanted to save life. I wanted death. I wasn't callous to the family or the doctor's desire to prevent death. I get that not everyone is comfortable with “do not resuscitate” orders. The doctors did not save this man. He suffered yet another major heart attack. And his last minutes on earth were traumatic.
Pete’s last moments were complicated just like that experience I had as a chaplain. Pete had a major heart attack. I watched it happen in his eyes as he reached for me and said, “Help.” Then he fell back on the bed, gasping for breath. I held his torso in my arms as I reached for the phone to call 911. He took four labored breaths as I cried and whispered “no, no, breathe honey, breathe honey, no, no.” And then I believe he was gone.
But the switchboard director answered the phone and asked me to get him onto the floor. She instructed me to do chest compressions. And then the squad arrived and they took over. And then at some point they thought they saw cardiac activity so they continued. And then finally, I asked, “are we doing the same thing over and over and getting the same response?” There was a pause and this time I did not whisper, I waved me arm and said, “Everybody stop. Really. Stop. Death is ok.”
Here's a bit more from the memoir:
“Resuscitation is about holding onto the life we have. We hold onto what we have; we cling to our lives – exposing our lives to traumatic acts of resuscitation just to hold onto what we know. We try all kinds of things to resuscitate the life that we know… There are obviously some situations that require some more grit. Sometimes in life, we need to keep working at something. But there are a lot of times where we need to stop for a second and imagine an end. Stop. Let go. Allow death to happen. Embrace loss. Wait for resurrection.
When Pete and I can no longer do certain things or go certain places, we adjust and sometimes those adjustments seem bitter. I have grown to understand that bitterness is a sign that I am still trying to resuscitate. I don't want the life we imagined to die. I want to try to keep it alive. I cling to the life we had. I cling to the dreams we dreamed together. But when a dream is dying, or MS has taken Pete's ability to walk, I want to have the courage to say, “Do not resuscitate.”
As you can imagine, I am having to imagine a new life. A resurrected life. But at the same time I am most certainly clinging to the life we had. I am overwhelmed with wanting to maintain or recreate the family life we had, the home we had, the comfortable conversation I so deeply miss. I worry about whether my life will work without him. I worry if I will know how to be who I have become – a stepmother, a grandmother, a pastor, a writer, a friend, even a lover – without him. But “who I have become” is not tangible. There’s nothing physical to hold onto.
In fact, all of the tangible things are either donated, packed or treasures that we have kept. We have donated Pete’s clothing, the dishes we used during our life together, many of our books. We’ve thrown away cds and packed up pictures. In one week, movers will pile our “life” together into a 10x15 climate controlled box, a tomb if you will.
The Christian scriptures say Jesus was in the tomb for “three days.” Three days is a literary device that essentially means “when the fat lady sings.” Jesus was in the tomb until the “fat lady sang” or “until it was time” or “when God was good and ready.” The “three days” is when the magic happens, the miracle of new life from death.