The Prophet, The Proposition & The Proposal

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“Excuse me…sorry, you don’t know me…but I believe The Lord has given me a word for you, would it be ok if I shared it with you?”

It was a bright Monday evening in July 2016, I was sitting in a catering tent in Sligo at New Wine, miles from home, alone, and finishing my dinner. A mere hour before this most bizarre of introductions I had been in the throes of an emotional meltdown, which had involved getting lost on campus with two hangry children and many internal shouty claims that I was going home/wished I’d never come. I may have also been rather hangry myself (it’s a problem, people).

I had signed up to be on the New Wine team along with many close friends, thinking it would be a safe way for the kids and I to get a week away in the safety of knowing so many honourary aunts and uncles would be on hand to help. Except life is never that straightforward, and whilst my friends are the best, I had found myself stretched paper thin. A mix-up with accommodation, some general confusion trying to navigate around a new place, and two very clingy kids had left me seriously regretting my decision. To even confess aloud that I wanted to go home is troublesome for a woman as stubborn as myself…it’s not my style. But I was just worn out.

That morning, on my way to drop the kids off at the (incredible, might I add) kid’s programme, I threw up a frustrated prayer to God as I hurriedly rushed along.

“Right. I came here thinking I’d get time to properly reflect on what you want me to do with my life now, God. But it’s been nothing but rushing about, and since I’m on the AV team I’m technically “working” during ministry time, so I can’t even go for prayer. Is this all just going to be a waste of time where I go home more exhausted than when I came?!”

Now this is hard to describe to those who have never experienced it, but just as I stopped ranting my silent prayer, I felt a very clear internal voice say “Don’t worry…I’ll come to you”. I actually laughed. Audibly, in fact—such was my haughty position in that moment. “Yeah, right. Go for it.”…and off I rushed.

 

Four hours, yes, four hours later: “Excuse me…sorry, you don’t know me…but I believe The Lord has given me a word for you, would it be ok if I shared it with you?”

At this point I was on my own—most friends had left for soundcheck, another beloved friend was looking after my daughter outside and my son was sleeping in his buggy in the other side of the room. I was just a random woman eating her dinner in a catering tent, and now a complete stranger (named Bruce) was asking me if he could give me a word from God. The same God who told me not to worry about finding him, because he would come to me. Ok, well now I’m intrigued (but still churlishly cynical).

We began our conversation and he began telling me of private exchanges I had with God, all accurate.

Ok, I’m listening.

Then some affirmations of things intrinsic to my character, none of which would have been apparent to a stranger (some even a bit cringey). Again, all accurate. Ok…well now I’m definitely listening. 

“You have a deep compassion for the broken hearted. This is something I’m hearing very clearly”—well it takes one to know one, Bruce. I know a little about being broken hearted. Keep in mind at this point Bruce literally knows nothing about me other than my name, and what he can see in front of him.

And now, the sucker punch.

“You aren’t married…but you…were?”
*stunned* “Yes.”
“And you have children, yes?”
*more being stunned* “Yes, two…I’m a widow.”
That’s it. I couldn’t put my finger on it…I understand now. I need to ask you something, but it feels very impertinent…no…I can’t. No…it’s too much.”
“Oh, go ahead, I’m pretty unshockable, I promise.”
“Well…would you ever consider remarrying?”

Well, knock me down with a feather. It was 1.5yrs since Craig had died (I filled in some of the details for Bruce after explaining I was a widow)…his reluctance to ask me that question was palpable and I could completely understand why. That’s no time, is it?

But here’s the truth.

I had reached a point where I was wrestling almost daily with God, saying “I don’t want to be alone forever…if you want me to be alone then that’s ok, but can you just tell me/give me a sign/make it clear to me? I’m not rushing, I just want to know what you want for me.” Back and forth this one-sided conversation went, with nothing in reply. My week in Sligo was partially an attempt to clear the channels of communication and finally hear something.

And, the sledgehammer message delivered to me, a final parting gift from Bruce: “This is what the Lord is telling me loud and clear for you: He wants you to ask him. Does that make sense?”

And suddenly it hit me—my pleas with God were all about him telling me what to do. Oh, what a martyr I am. Tell me how I am to suffer and I shall endure, Lord. Isn’t that how it is? And here was Bruce telling me that God wants me to ask him for what I want. Surely not. It felt appalling to me. How greedy, to ask to find love again after having such a happy marriage. How brazen, so early on in my years of widowhood to dare to think of this.

But I was thinking it. A lot. I had just never been so bold as to ask for it.

Bruce and I parted ways and I thanked him for his words…so much to ponder. The rest of the week passed and I tossed and turned with this word and his proposition, uneasy about what that would mean.

Finally, on the Friday night, we were packing down and getting ready to go home. Two friends came and asked if they could pray for me, I happily obliged, and it was all very positive. Naturally I could explain away everything they were saying because they know me well and have journeyed with me in my grief…but then something odd happened. We had finished praying and were just standing chatting, when one of them put his hand on my arm, looked me right in the eye and assertively said “The Lord has told me you have to ask him for what you want. You have to ask him.”

I burst out laughing. Like, properly laughing. Ok God, I GET IT!!!

In that moment I finally gave into my pride and I asked God for a “someone” for the first time. Not a sign. Not a command. Just a someone. And I felt genuine joy.

 

***********

 

Three months later in October 2016 I met that someone.

In October 2017, almost a year after our first happenstance meeting (at a gig, of all places), he asked me to marry him. I said yes, by the way.

Our year in-between was a time filled with BIG new emotions and new experiences; including 8 months of long-distance with 350 miles between us, ups and downs, turmoil and bliss (mostly bliss).

My outward writing (namely this blog) took a fairly long hiatus while I waited for it to feel right to begin again. And here we are.

Curiously, my last post was written in October 2016, two days before I met Scott. I spoke of trusting God in a time of wilderness, of waiting, of feeling numb. Two days later and that numbness was entirely obliterated, replaced by hope.

And in it all, God’s voice, so gentle and counterintuitive, forever taking me by surprise.

“Don’t worry, I’ll come to you…”

“Ask me for what you want, that’s all you need to do”

And they say he doesn’t speak to us.

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Dreaming, lamenting, waiting.

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I used to have this recurring dream.

I would be going about a fairly mundane task, going for a walk or at a shopping centre, something dull…and very suddenly, instantly, I would be propelled upwards with great force into the sky. The photo above (found, not my own), is a decent representation. Even looking at it now fully awake makes me feel a bit disconcerted.

In my dream I would experience an immediate sense of panic, confusion and fear about not being able to get back down again, my stomach would turn, and then began this sort of out-of-body experience of watching the world below me shrink and become so distant. I would wake up unnerved, uncomfortable and disturbed. But in the dream, whilst I’m feeling those things, I am just…numb. I don’t say anything, I don’t flap or try to move, I just keep moving against my will, away from everything I know. A sort of inception-esque sleep paralysis within a dream while my mind is racing.

I haven’t actually had this dream since Craig died. I have been living it instead.

Let me explain. This morning I watched an old video on my phone of Craig and our daughter when she was a baby. I love watching these old clips, bittersweet though they may be. It has been just shy of two years since he died, three since that video was filmed…yet I found myself watching it and feeling very strongly that’s my real life, not this one I have now”, as if the last two years haven’t existed. For a brief moment in time I am there again, and everything is familiar and right. And then I remember that Craig is dead, I am alone with our two kids, and I wonder why I am still not used to this after 2 years. I’m supposed to be rational, right? That’s one quarter of our marriage. Half our daughter’s life. But grief is a paradoxical state—sometimes I forget what his voice sounded like, other times I forget that he’s not coming back.

The day Craig died felt a lot like that initial bizarre moment in my dream. Instantaneous, unexpected, jarring…frightening. Unnatural. Like I was being dragged away from everything I ever knew, completely against my will. My whole life was (and continues to be) an out-of-body experience where I am waiting to wake up and for “normal” life to resume. 

The sensation wasn’t quick to pass, either—the first two years have been rather occupied with the extreme emotions I described earlier—panic, confusion and fear. I’m not going to beautify this or over spiritualise it, even though I am a person who has a deep faith in Jesus Christ and who is ultimately hopeful, truly I am. But let’s get real here, it has been a harrowing season of my life and at times I have been pushed to the absolute limits of what my heart can take. I still sometimes can’t believe it.

But I recently find myself in this new season—I am completely numb. 

I have used the word “aimless” to describe myself numerous times in the last few months. Unsure of my future, lacking a five year plan (or a five day plan, often), living hand to mouth. God has told me time and time again to “wait” (whatever that actually means). But while I live in this sort of wilderness state I find myself thinking of that second phase of the dream where I am suspended mid-air, away from everyone and everything, paralysed. Grief is isolating. Lone parenting is lonely (the clue’s in the name, dudes). But here I am. For whatever reason, or none.

But I’m in this for the long haul, God. At least make me useful while I’m waiting.

One thing I have learned in this season is that you cannot humanly force order out of chaos. You’ll find this out pretty quickly if you’re paying lip service to the doctrine of “God is in control” whilst simultaneously trying to think of 281 practical solutions to dig your way out of your messy life. Clue: that’s me. Fun fact: it doesn’t work.

The numbness sets in when you start to believe that the state of waiting is your permanent state. But is it?

I was overly fond of the book of Lamentations when I was an overly emo teenager. I’d get dumped by my boyfriend and think that the book was inspired by my life. Adorable, I know. I read it now with slightly less narcissistic teenage melodrama and a little more understanding of what a lament actually is. I read this today in chapter 3:

17  my soul is bereft of peace;
I have forgotten what happiness is;

18  so I say, “My endurance has perished;
so has my hope from the Lord.”

19  Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
the wormwood and the gall!

20  My soul continually remembers it
and is bowed down within me.

21  But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:

22  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;

23  they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

24  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

25  The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.

26  It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.”

I love how this book does not shy away from the utter crappiness of life.
I, too, sometimes feel as though my endurance has perished. I’m grateful for the often visceral nature of these passages in the bible; they remind me that it is ok to be raw. It’s ok to bleed. To rage. I don’t have to pretend that everything is ok, for fear of someone not understanding that you can actually be miserable and hopeful in the same moment, under God. It’s all right there in a few short verses.

But I can see clearly here that I am also held accountable. Because while I have permission to feel this way, I must also acknowledge that my soul cries out and knows that my hope is in him alone. I must allow him to do his work in me, in his own time.

So I wait. I hope. And somewhere deep down I allow myself to believe that I will not spend the rest of my life viewing the world from a great distance, completely numb.

 

Choosing Lemonade

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“When life gives you lemons…make lemonade.”

 

Oh, that old chestnut.

I always liked the sentiment—I’d hear it and something would rise up in me, a bit of a middle finger to whatever the heck was dishing out lemons. It felt creative, powerful, full of ingenuity, maybe even a bit rebellious. Take that, life—you suck! How do you like them apples, wait…lemons? BAM. *sips delicious lemonade and rides off into the sunset*

I started thinking about this phrase on a drive down from the North Coast a few weeks ago, in the midst of praying (that’s what I attempt to do in the car on long stretches, I would recommend). It felt significant and came quite out of the blue. Suddenly it started to grate on me (that was not a zesty pun, people, calm down), but it wouldn’t really leave my mind. How does one make lemonade when your lemons are in the shape of being widowed at 29? Surely this is the lemonadeless exception to the rule?

So I prayed more. I prayed because it made me uncomfortable—what positive things can come from the death of someone incredible? What positive things can come from two tiny children losing their daddy? I concluded that this was the end of this line of enquiry because it made me feel so rotten, but I didn’t stop praying, because the phrase “make lemonade” wouldn’t leave my mind. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that this is how God gets my attention sometimes. I need to be nagged.

Fast forward a week and it was my daughter’s birthday. I was baking her birthday cake, a lemon drizzle (her favourite), and the recipe required me to juice and zest a few lemons. I rolled one across the worktop to soften it, cut it in half, squeezed…and suddenly, pain. A rag nail on my finger seared in agony, acidic lemon juice pouring into the fresh cut. I carried on (stoic as I am, ahem). My daughter’s face, on presentation of this wonky little cake, was a picture of joy and my heart beamed.

Finally the penny dropped.

When Craig died, I got handed a truckload of lemons. The trauma of a bereavement will metaphorically and emotionally leave your “hands” pretty cut up. If you are going to make lemonade it is going to hurt. But what’s the alternative? A truckload of lemons that rot, that’s what.  

Suddenly I felt I was starting to get this. This lemonade isn’t even for me. And it’s not going to be easy to make. Just as the lemons I juiced that caused me pain were really for my daughter, I started to wonder if the lemons I needed to metaphorically juice weren’t actually to make my own personal, “take that, crappy life!” branded lemonade, but rather to offer someone a quenching drink when they’ve grown tired and weary on their own journey?

There’s nothing about Craig dying that can be turned into lemonade. But I can take my attitude and my free will and say “I’m not giving up”, and from that there may be something drinkable. I have to choose if I’m willing to do this or not.

Grief is hard work. Some days I casually daydream about a life of hedonism, where I throw away all the daily emotional and mental rigour that I must discipline myself with so I don’t spiral into a life of sorrow, regret and misery. Sometimes it appeals to me more than my reality, when I’m stretched. But then I ask myself, “what good can come of that attitude?” other than my own temporary satisfaction, and I am back on track.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t for one second ignore the fact that God has sustained me beyond measure. To be honest, in the times when I submit myself to Him and say “hey, I can’t actually do this!”, I feel like he hands me a metaphorical electric juicer and I just have to push the button. Things are so much easier. But just the butterfly must struggle itself out of its cocoon in order to strengthen its wings, so we must too struggle and wrestle with the circumstances we have been given at times, in order to bring new and worthwhile fruit.

I have met so many people since Craig died who have been touched by the searing pain of loss, both in person and online. We have chatted, shared stories, offered solidarity to one another—all bonded together by this shared experience of sorrow. Some of these people have been my lifeline on my darkest days, some have inspired me to hope that I can have a positive future ahead of me (when I am at a point where I just don’t believe it), some have just listened to me vent my frustrations at how difficult this life can be. These people have offered me a refreshing glass of lemonade that no one else could give me—and the type that they make quenches me like no other. They have taken their own heartbreaking experiences, and instead of allowing their lemons to “rot”, they have chosen the road less travelled, the path that requires some additional sacrifice. And I am the beneficiary.

And so I am challenged. I have no idea when or where these opportunities face me, but I’d like to put in the work so I’ve got some decent lemonade in supply for when the time comes.

I end with this thought: what are your lemons, your own unique experiences that are less than ideal, and how can you “make lemonade” for those people who need to be quenched? 

For me, this means I keep writing, keep talking, keep hoping, keep smiling, keep going. Because tomorrow someone’s husband is going to die and she’s going to need me to put my arm around her, hold her tightly, and say “you’re going to survive this, and I am here for you.”

Love hurts?

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Love hurts“—a bit of a flippant, oxymoronic expression. I hate to admit it, but this used to be a phrase I smugly balked at—“well, that may be the case for some people, perhaps…but not me. Not us” We were solid. I viewed that phrase as some kind of masochistic notion; a hedonistic indulgence of a tragic, doomed relationship—not something that I felt any kind of association with. If love hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Right? 

That was, until I felt the pain of losing someone I loved so deeply. And there it was. Oh, it hurt. It hurt like hell. 

It wasn’t the person I loved who hurt me, it was the act of loving him that left my open, exposed heart searing in his absence. Only love could compel such a reaction.

So where does this leave me? Where does this leave any of us who love and want to be loved?

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

Well said, Clive. Isn’t it often more tempting to run away from that vulnerability, rather than live in that delicate balance of truly giving ourselves over to someone and opening ourselves up to the beauty that is love? It’s terrifying. The potential rejection, the possible hurt. And I don’t just mean romantic love!

I had coffee with a dear friend this morning, and as we caught up, our conversation turned to the subject of community. To thoughts of friendship, love, hard work, pain, and vulnerability. Because to even know true friendship with another human is to hand over your heart and say “here, take this…it’s yours.”

There have been many times since Craig died where I feel my heart so wrung and broken (as C.S Lewis so eloquently put it) after all I’ve been through that I cannot bear to feel anything like this again. And I trick myself into thinking that, if I just locked my heart away—said nothing, allowed no one to come close or see my struggles/ insecurities/ generally messed up life, then I would be ok. How can you hurt when there’s no one to hurt you? I’m cool. I’ve got this. But when I’m having a particularly bad day, there calls out that part of my soul that so desperately craves human connection, to tell someone about how I feel, warts and all, and have them care about me regardless. I think this is inherent to how we were made. Community is so intrinsic to our humanity.

Anything that is worth having costs us somethingIs our pride enough of a price to pay to have a truly real connection with another human? Ironically, when I am feeling my most vulnerable, I experience the strongest knee-jerk reaction to isolate myself and make my innermost feelings secret, when in reality these are the times I need community the most. I’m afraid of being hurt, whether that be through abandonment or rejection or just someone just not really liking me very much. Am I alone in this? I’m guessing I’m not.

I thankfully have a wide and wonderful circle of friends—weird friends, funny friends, gentle friends, fierce friends, challenging friends. None of these relationships have developed by accident, they have been carefully tended to and worked on following an initial spark of connection. And the ones that are the truest, the deepest? They have been fought for. Sometimes desperately hard. Because there comes a point in every relationship where you realise that, in order for this person to really know you, they need to know how hideous and desperate and messed up you are. And for it to be mutual, that person has to hand that part of themselves over to you too. We must take a risk each time we give a little more of our true selves to anyone, because of course reciprocation isn’t always guaranteed. But this type of vulnerability is necessary for any kind of authentic relationship to thrive:

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
Brené Brown

When Craig and I were two teenagers with nothing to lose, it was easy to be vulnerable with each other. Once we got past the initial stage of awkwardly fancying each other (oh, to be 17 and carefree again), came numerous hurdles of “knowing” each other more deeply. Sometimes it was superficial and welcome, sometimes there was a bigger issue at stake. Our relationship was generally very harmonious, but we were two imperfect humans just like everyone else.

In many ways, once we had become so deeply connected that we were willing to spend our lives together, it could have been easy to say “ok, I now have someone in my life who knows the true me, therefore I don’t need to reveal the whole of myself to anyone else”. I think that is very often the case with so many 20 and 30something couples. It’s easy to become insular, to contain community to your immediate family.

But where would I have been if this was my reality, for every day that followed 20th December 2014, when Craig so suddenly ceased to be with me? Because let me tell you, it’s not easy to make real friends from scratch when you’re dealing with unbearable grief. Thankfully, I had my core group of friends who loved me (and Craig) who clung onto me and refused to let go, rather than a group of sympathising acquaintances. These true friends cried with me, prayed with me, sat with me for hours on end in my darkest days and expected so little in return. They saw me in my pyjamas with no make up, heard me air my fears and my absurd, irrational thoughts. I didn’t have to justify a bad day to them…it just was. And so it continues to be. Our relationships are built on this mutual vulnerability that has been knitted together in stages over the last decade (or so), and now I have people I can rely on—to save me from myself when I am drowning in self pity, shutting myself off, or just having a really crappy day (which I still do, regularly). In turn they know they can trust me with their own darkness, fear and insecurity, because there is love. I love these people. 

I know what that means, though. It means they could make me ache. Hurt terribly. Even unintentionally, by something as certain as death.

But aren’t we worth the risk? Isn’t love worth the risk? 

What is a life spent without true community…friendship…love?

“A life without love is no life at all”
Leonardo DaVinci 

Well I can’t argue with that.

Getting good at going fast

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There I was, on my daily commute, flying along the motorway (safely might I add) at 70mph. And suddenly I thought “this is like a picture of grief”. Yes, I might have gone mad.

But let me explain.

I was a very reluctant driver. A minor crash as a passenger at age 16 in a friend’s car had left me shaken and very nervous about ever getting behind the wheel myself. Learning to drive in the UK is expensive, so when the time came, I was quite happy for Craig to learn first and for me to just get on with it when I mustered the courage.

Cue the passage of many years, a daughter born, and me still not being able to drive. I had all sorts of illustrious excuses: “it’s so expensive and we’re broke”/”we could only afford one car anyway”/”Craig and I work together and socialise together, so it seems a bit unnecessary”…and so on. Deep down I knew that they were all just reasons to avoid doing something I was afraid of. Craig knew this too, and I often asked him why he never insisted I learn. His reply, full of wisdom, patience and grace—”I want you to want it for yourself. I can wait…and then you owe me a few lifts!”

And then one morning in September 2014 I found myself staring at a “positive” symbol on a pregnancy test, and I knew I needed to do this. NOW. So, in a bizarre twist, my soon-to-be driving instructor found out I was pregnant before my husband did!

When I first got into the car with him, a week or two after making the call, I was petrified. I hadn’t a clue where anything was (even though I had sat beside drivers for nearly 30 years). My foot literally shook as I attempted to move the car forward. “I’ll never do this” was a recurrent theme that raced around my head as passing my test seemed a million miles away.  Every new hurdle seemed impossible—”you want me to turn RIGHT?! On THIS road?!”—every new feat was terrifying, for a woman who secretly wished she never had to drive.

But, with my twice-weekly lessons, lots of patience, practice and courage…I did it. I passed. Even in spite of losing Craig just two months after I started learning. 6 months of learning in total, I passed my test at 7 months pregnant. Unfathomable for the girl who used to cling on to the handle of the passenger seat door and would see potential accidents at every turn.

And then came the next set of hurdles. I vividly remember setting out on the motorway on my own, at 45mph, and thinking “whoa this is so fast…I’ll never be able to drive faster than this…EVER!”…eh, yeah, that didn’t last! But at the time the speed scared me. It was too dangerous, I didn’t feel in control, I didn’t feel safe. And in many ways I wasn’t—I was inexperienced and new to driving alone, so going slow was the wise thing to do until my confidence and skills increased.

Here’s where you interrupt me and say “Connie, why are you talking so much about driving your stupid car?” (her name is Mavis, thank you very much)

When Craig died, everything terrified me. For example, I vividly remember how scared I was just locking up the house at night on my own. That may seem odd, but it was something that Craig had always done in our 8.5yrs of marriage, and suddenly it was solely my responsibility. Everything was new. Terrifying.

So much fear, all wrought from a total inexperience of being alone.

What seemed so mundane to the experienced (like making a car move forward or turning right) was overwhelming for me. Food shopping, putting fresh covers on our massive kingsize bed (which I still argue is a two-man job), making financial decisions solo, the idea of raising two children alone—the spectrum of concern ranged from the utterly silly to the earth-shatteringly important.

The end of June will mark a year and a half since Craig died, and I no longer balk at those kinds of tasks. They’re just normal now. This is my life now. I’ve had endless, acute practice at many activities that would have once rendered me a quivering wreck. I literally and metaphorically can drive at 70mph now, when I once thought that impossible.

After I passed my test, people kept saying “are you beginning to enjoy it now?” The answer was always unequivocably “No”. It took a very long time for me to feel anything other than horribly nervous at the thought of having to drive somewhere (especially somewhere new). This isn’t the case anymore, for the most part. And it’s the same with my grief. I don’t often find myself inconsolably emotional as I once did. I’m not afraid to do things I once was. This isn’t because I miss Craig any less—I’ve just become experienced at living without him. It’s quite plain and practical.

I’m not advocating that grieving is something that (with enough practice) you can “get good at”. This is just a remark on the resilience of the human spirit, to try and try again until we are brave. Or braver, at least.

A lot of this journey has been forced upon me. I never wanted to drive. I never wanted to be a widow. And yet here I am. So I might as well try to get good at going fast.

 

To you, in your grief:

 

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Dear friend,

Oh, my heart aches for you. I have been there, where you are.

The eye of the storm. The ache. The agony. You are not alone—I promise you—You are not alone.

In the short 15 months since I was inaugurated into the Young Widows Club (there isn’t a club, but maybe there should be, we could do with more of a social life) I’ve come to recognise some things in my own story and the stories of others that bear similarity. I want to share them with you…maybe they will seem inane, maybe they will be helpful. But if the only thing you take from this is a sense that you are not alone, then this has been worth it.

People often read those “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” type books when a baby is on the way…impending change, newness, spurred by a sense of I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing-ness. Sounds familiar to being newly bereaved, doesn’t it? But there is no grieving-by-numbers, and just as parenting styles vary, we behave differently in times of grief and suffering. So this is by no means definitive.


What to expect when you’re grieving:

First, a few short truths. Just learn to accept these and save yourself a lot of annoyance/upset.
You will never “get over it”. But you will get better (than this).
You will never be the same again.
You will grow to both love and hate the phrase “the new normal”, because it’s true and that sucks.
You will not be this miserable forever.
You will always miss them.
You are not the saddest person in the entire universe. But you are, I know. Because I was too. It’s ok. It’s terrible.

Your memory will fail you, repeatedly.
 This one really bothered me, as someone who formerly prided herself on her excellent memory and attention to detail. I was galled by some of the mistakes I made due to lack of recall. And to anyone reading this who is close to someone grieving, give them a wide berth with regards to memory stuff, it is so real, and they aren’t forgetting things on purpose. I think that if someone had have told me in the early days and weeks “this WILL happen” I would have felt less mentally unhinged (and therefore not have wasted energy worrying about that). Keep a small notebook with you and write everything important down. You’ll likely be overwhelmed with one-off arrangements that would throw anyone on a good day, never mind someone in your position…so go easy on your poor frazzled brain and just make notes. And then tell someone what the book looks like, because you will most certainly lose it and need to employ the help of others to find it. It will be in the freezer, by the way. With the remote control (for the tv you just can’t bring yourself to watch because HOW CAN LIFE CONTINUE TO GO ON AS NORMAL?!)

You will be so tired. You’ll never have felt tiredness like this. If you’re able to, just sleep. If not, clear whatever time you can manage to allow your body to rest. Grief is physical work, too.

You will be amazed at how desperately sad you can feel. I know not everyone is a cryer, I don’t cry a huge amount, but I was genuinely surprised by the way I cried when Craig died…the tears just kept coming, when I allowed myself to cry. Like constantly. I felt like my heart was imploding. And that was ok. This is normal. Just allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you need to…even anger. Let them out, deal with them, and move on…don’t bottle up or run from them. They’ll just be waiting for you round the corner. And I promise you this, while my heart still hurts emotionally, it doesn’t physically pain me the same way after more than a year.

People will offer to help you—accept it. Yes, your life has changed forever. Yes, you’ll have to get used to it. So you might as well start now, right? Wrong. Now is not to the time to become a martyr. I found this out the roundabout way…after struggling over and over to be self-sufficient and capable all by myself, at a time when my faculties were greatly reduced. Just take the help. Meals, babysitting, whatever. Take it.

Stop feeling guilty! (I’m shouting this at myself, over a year later). Seriously. Someone helps you, you feel guilty. Someone upsets you and you snap at them, you feel guilty. You don’t think about your loved one for a few hours, you feel guilty. You think about them all day, you feel guilty. You have a good day, you then spend the rest of that day (after realising “hey, this has been a good day!”) feeling completely guilty. Because grieving people are supposed to cry all the time, aren’t they? The truth is, humans are complex and surprising and hardy. It’s ok to have a good time. Your life is still a beautiful gift, even with the pain of your loss. So say “bog off” to guilt, it’s fruitless. And yes, one day you will realise that you have become used to life without your beloved person, and that will make you feel guilty too. Stop. This is healthy—it sucks, but it’s healthy.

People will upset you. It’s best just to accept that this will definitely happen and then that way it might soften the blow when it does. For a start, you are an emotional basket case. That’s ok. You should be…you are grieving. And then there’s the added factor that people don’t really know what to say to a grieving person, and that makes them awkward, coupled with the fact that they just want to fix things and “make you better”. Try to take this in your stride as much as you can, for the person who causes you hurt may also be hurting themselves, and we humans are just generally a bit useless when it comes to this kind of thing. Keep those bridges safely unburnt. You’ll find yourself sturdier and less prone to offence and upset as time passes. Plus, practising forgiveness is one of the greatest things you can do.

Embrace your fears and do things that scare you. I know…haven’t you been through enough already? But I’m serious…this was one of the best positions I chose to take  (primarily out of necessity). Example: I took my driving test 12 weeks after Craig died—something I could not have *ever* imagined myself being able to do prior to my loss (I hated driving…still kind of do). Some people even told me to take a break from learning to drive while I let myself grieve…but I knew that was folly, as I needed to be able to drive more than ever. It took me two goes, but I did it. And it was a character building process. As someone who was once inclined to run from fear inducing situations, I was suddenly propelled into a lifestyle where I didn’t have a choice anymore, and I surprised myself, repeatedly. What’s the worst that can happen when the worst has already happened?

You will need an outlet—find your catharsis. For me, it was writing. For you it might be something else—running, cooking, sewing, long drives, whatever it is that helps you to feel like you’re processing your grief. I feel as though I am building up an almost tangible pressure until I release it, either through discussion with a close friend or by writing it down. And when it’s done, I feel a physical sense of relief as well as a mental and emotional unburdening. And more importantly, I find I am less troubled on the whole by that particular issue I’m obsessing over.

Talk. Even if you are an internal processor, you need to share your thoughts and experiences with other humans. A trusted friend or family member, a counsellor, a grief support group—anything that works for you. To avoid this is to deny yourself the healing power of a life lived in community, at a time when you could so easily be swallowed up by loneliness. Be brave…there is nothing you have thought or done that another grieving person before you hasn’t also thought or done. I went to a Griefshare course in my church and found it immensely helpful. And I’m not done with this by any means. But much like the personal catharsis point, I found that when I opened up and shared a fear/trauma/concern with another human being, it was lifted from me, even if only a little bit.

Do what you love. Want to watch all 7 seasons of Parks and Recreation in one go? Want to get a massage? Want to paint a picture? Want to eat an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s? Do it! Ok probably not advisable to do all those things and only those things (eat a balanced diet, people!)…but sometimes you just have to allow yourself an ounce of pleasure. If it makes you laugh (thanks Parks and Rec!), if it helps your body unwind (thanks massuse!), if it lifts your soul (thanks, rediscovered love of painting!)…and even if it’s just guilty pleasure (thanks Ben…you too Jerry!), just allow yourself some simple good honest “me time”, whatever that looks like for you. Your heart has been through a mighty war.

Finally. Just go easy on yourself. Throw out the 5 year plan (she says to herself, the consummate planner). Allow yourself days, weeks, or even months, where you achieve nothing. Apart from being kind to yourself. That is your job now. I’ve learnt the hard way that trying to achieve great tasks in the midst of harrowing grief is similar to trying to climb Everest in scuba gear. No one expects anything of you at this time. Yes, there are things to be done—jobs to return to, children to look after perhaps, commitments to be met. But do you really need to bust your chops keeping up with the Joneses, when the Joneses are having a pretty great time and you’re just struggling to get out of bed? Chill. You’re your own worst enemy (read: I’m my own worst enemy).

 

And in 15 months, or earlier, or even a little longer (that’s ok!)…you’ll be able to turn to someone in the depths of their despair, look them in the eye and honestly say “you’re going to survive this, I promise you.” 

I promise you.

The art of being alone

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I’ve mentioned before that Craig and I were pretty inseparable. Now…I may have a penchant for hyperbole (*ahem*), but I’m really not understating this.

We met in school and became a couple when I had just turned 17. We then went on to study the same degree at uni, married in our second year, and then started a business together when we graduated. And I suppose, because most of my formative years were as “Craig & Connie/Connie & Craig”, I knew nothing of what being alone was. And to be honest, that never bothered me. I felt independent in our togetherness. Life was better as a we.

People would often say “how do you stick each other—spending all day working together and then all your free time together too?!”…but it just never felt this way for us. I never got bored of his company, I never felt like I needed to break away from “us” to be “me”. In truth, the biggest shock for us was when I was on maternity leave when our daughter was born—my days spent at home were the longest periods we’d spent apart in our entire marriage. Our dialogue was never ending, even in silence. We’d long since reached that point where a look across a crowded room could communicate precise sentiments and meaning, such was the depth of our understanding of each other. In some ways I saw Craig as a continuation of myself, if that doesn’t sound too strange—we had very similar tastes and being together just felt natural, it always had. So that’s what we did.

Because I didn’t pass my driving test until 3 months after Craig died, the list of things I had never done on my own was absolutely massive (actually, almost cringeworthy).

Life was all back to front. Married before graduation. Running a business for 7 years before passing a driving test. Married nearly 8 years before getting a mortgage (culturally unusual amongst our peers), and having a baby before that too. Big, weighty things. Things that probably say “I’m a proper adult”…

But I had never even so much as done a food shop on my own.

 

And in the blink of an eye, I was alone.

 

The sense of loss was overwhelming, terrifying and it just felt insurmountable. I didn’t even know how to do the normal things that 29 year old women do without batting an eyelid, never mind trying to do those things with the weight of my grief.

I kept referring to myself as Miss Daisy, because everyone was driving me everywhere. I felt almost panicked trying to buy food. Even just simple things like appointments, sitting in waiting rooms. SO aware of my aloneness. And I was a novice at this…I didn’t even get any time to practice.

One of the worst moments was sitting in a hospital waiting room before an antenatal appointment, surrounded by couples. There I was, The Pregnant Widow, listening to couples excitedly discuss their impending arrivals…the loneliest woman in the world.

It’s coming up on a year since Craig died. Everyone is doing the Christmas countdown…I’m counting down to the 20th December. The day I had to learn what being alone was.

I have no time for platitudes or trying to take the edge off. Yes, I have my children whom I adore with everything I am. I have an incredible family and group of friends who love me dearly, and I them. My church has been amazingly supportive, always there. But none of these things can emulate a marriage. There’s kind of a reason that it’s a one-off type of relationship.

It’s the social convention here that when someone dies you put a notice in the Belfast Telegraph, often along with usually some kind of comforting verse to close. “Safe in the arms of Jesus” was always one that I found particularly barf-inducing (forgive me if you dig this, I just find the wording a bit twee). As Craig died at Christmas time, when it came to the decision of what to put in the paper, the family agreed that we wanted the words “Emmanuel—Our God is with us”. It was a proclamation of many concepts—we hadn’t forgotten in our grief that God had promised to be with us; we were remembering the reason that Christ came to live as one of us was to set us free from the chains of death; and just practically speaking, it was Christmas.

And I must remind myself of this constantly. Our God is with us. It’s actually a staggering concept. I’ve had it said to me a few times by well meaning people that “God will be my husband now”…but I’m afraid I am going to have to assign that to my Wacky Things People Say pile. I think I responded to one of those comments by asking if God would give me a backrub…forgive me for being facetious, but God is God and a husband is a husband. I had a relationship with God before and he is still with me now. And yes, I’ve been on a very steep learning curve this year, but I am still firm in that.

There was a Stephen Curtis Chapman song that was a firm favourite of ours every Christmas. Its production is pure cheese (it was 1995, people!), but good grief I just love it, I always have. We listened to it every year, shamelessly, with an array of other Christmas albums on repeat. I always found the lyrics quite profound, but nevermore so than now. And right on point, it’s called Our God Is With Us. I’d like to share some of the lyrics here, as I ponder the concept of loneliness. You can listen to the song if you click here (you should, it’s great).

One of us is crying
As our hopes and dreams
Are led away in chains
And we’re left all alone
And one of us is dying
As our love
Is slowly lowered in the grave
Oh, and we’re left on our own

But for all of us who journey
Through the dark abyss of loneliness
There comes a great announcement
“We are never alone”
For the One who made each heart that breaks
The Giver of each breath we take
Has come to earth
And given hope its birth

[Chorus]
And our God is with us, Emmanuel
And He’s come to save us, Emmanuel
And we will never face life alone
Now that God has made Himself known
As Father and Friend, with us through the end
Emmanuel

Ok, God isn’t going to be my husband or give me back rubs (unfortunately). But he’s going to get me through this.

I’ll have my days where I feel right in the belly of that “dark abyss of loneliness”. I’ll mourn the loss of my true friend and love for the rest of my days, truly. But when I stand back and reflect on those lyrics and the message of hope that lies therein, I somehow can muster to energy to do things I once felt incapable of doing.

I’m not being asked to do them on my own.