An intense episode about coping with death and what I've learned from the passing of my son and my father.
I’m Lisa, your host. I am honored you chose to be here with me right now. I created this podcast as a way to regain a little more of my own personal balance and to share my journey with anyone who might stumble upon it. Although it is not intended as advice, it’s my hope that you might find a little nugget within these episodes to inspire you to seek ways to regain or hold onto to your own personal balance. The podcast is available through iTunes, Stitcher, and Googleplay Music.
With that said, I’d like to talk about grief. There's no straight answer for it. It is as unique and individual a process as we each are in our human experience. I am about to share some intensely personal stories with you about the loss of my loved ones. It might be too intense for you to listen to so don’t feel bad if you need to skip over this episode. It will be here for you should ever choose to come back and listen later. This is a tough topic that seems to be clouded in as much mystery as it is filled with many schools of thought on the subject.
We can grieve the loss of a loved one, a pet, a job, a relationship, a home – basically anything or anyone we have lost. Grief can last for months, years, or even decades or a lifetime in some cases. It hits us when least expected and can settle into our hearts like a ton of bricks.
I feel there is no right or wrong way for us to cope with this process. It is yours to own. I knew a young woman once, who was so attached to her cat, then when the cat died, she was so bereaved that she didn’t show up for work for more than a week. On the flip side, I know another young woman who showed up for work the day after her father passed, to keep her mind occupied away from her grief.
We can feel so very alone, as though no one can relate to or understand us, even if we are lucky enough to be surrounded by loved ones.
Ten years ago, in 2007 I lost my eighteen-year-old son, followed by my father not five months later. Even a couple of years after this double loss, the simplest of things – a song on the radio, a triggered memory, a specific bird flying near me – would literally have me in a ball on the floor, crying in the most inconsolable way I have ever experienced.
I began thinking of it as being in an ocean. When the grief wave comes, I just let it take me, knowing waves eventually reach the shore. Fighting the wave risks being drowned. Riding the wave and accepting it for what it is may not be easy but it lets me see that it is just a moment in time that will pass until the next wave comes.
I am reminded of a little piece I wrote back in 1999. At the time it wasn’t so much about grief but a deep analogy about going along with the flow of life rather than fighting it. I’ve used this analogy through many tough times and especially in dealing with my own grief process.
• • •
Floating in a Sea of Upgrades
Not so long ago, I felt as if I were about to drown. For many years, I struggled in what appeared to be a cruel and turbulent sea that was intent on consuming my life. Fighting and splashing about with all my might, I would try to remain afloat. As the tide would begin to wash my tired body toward the shore, I would instinctively try to cling to whatever earth I could grasp. Yet after only a moment’s rest, the sand would slip through my fingers and I would once again be pulled back to the wild waves of the sea. I feared that soon, my lifeless body would be discovered face down in some far away cove.
One day, I decided I could fight no more. The sea was too powerful. I stopped struggling and let the current drag me where it pleased. At first I was pulled right back among the strongest waves. I did not fight. My body was loose and relaxed. I had not so much given up as I had given in. When I flowed with the water rather than against it, the waves did not seem so bad. Even when I was dragged under, I would hold my breath and trust that I would be bounced right back to the top. And I always was.
Soon I realized that there were no more waves. I was surrounded in the warmest and most gentle water. It was crystal clear and there was no sign of danger. I could move my arms and legs in the most graceful manner and watch the ripples surround me and then spread out. The sun was glistening on every drop and I felt as though I had merged with it. Had this sea been trying all along to guide me here? Yes, it had indeed, and I had only been fighting against it. Struggling against the tide.
Once the struggling was left behind at the shore, and peace had found me, I realized something was missing, not quite right yet. The only way I can think to describe it, is in terms of a computer’s hard drive. The years of struggle can be likened to a computer virus. It attacks our memory, and our software, rendering some of it useless. If we do not remove it completely, we have trouble using our computers. They crash and freeze, we lose files, we get error messages. Very irritating and limiting at best. As we clean up our hard drives and remove the viruses, we sometimes realize that the software we were using has become outdated based upon our operating systems or it just does not work at all any more for what we desire to achieve. So we remove it from our hard drives along with the viruses and do not bother to reinstall it. Continuing to use software that was created when the computer age first dawned can be as useless as continuing to use outmoded forms of behavior from as far back as childhood that no longer are appropriate to who we have become as adults.
So, there I floated thinking of my computer (although I do not recommend tossing your computer in the sea--especially not when it is plugged in), and about all the free space I had now. I had eliminated the bad stuff and the outmoded stuff and was left with all this empty space floating around just as I was floating around. All was calm and all was empty.
No sooner did these thoughts invade my head, then the current guided me from this glorious resting place and onto new awareness. The empty space became filled with the potential of what I could achieve, just as if I had upgraded my old software with the latest and greatest versions instead of reinstalling the old stuff. As with any software package, it is merely as good as what the user can do with it. And so...after playing around with the basics of my new “programming” for a while, I invested much energy and time into discovering all of its capabilities. I wanted to learn each new upgrade well and use it properly to its fullest capacity. After all, is this not what the programmer had intended for us to do?
Each moment spent floating in my sea of upgrades has provided much new knowledge and insight into what I can create and how I can better do it. I rather like this computer, not a bad model with so much potential when things are loaded and used properly.
I think I shall enjoy staying right here just a bit longer...until the current starts to tug again, signaling the time to move further. I am glad I have learned to feel it and let it guide me rather than fighting it. Can only imagine what lies beyond that I am not aware of yet. Hmmm, maybe a memory upgrade? --12/06/99
• • •
I’ve carried that double analogy of floating in my sea of upgrades with me for a long time. In my own process, I have chosen to see “signs” in every day living, reminding me of the ever curious patterns in life and nature, that the energy of my loved ones can touch me anytime I miss them.
Although the signs have been more intense with my son, my dad has been knocking at the door of my soul lately.
The other day, I came home for lunch and became distracted my some old photographs on my computer. I opened an album from 2007 containing the images of my family – probably the last photos ever taken of my father. He was my hero and savior when I lost my son. I looked intently at his face in the photos, and the half smiles as he supported and protected his daughter through something he couldn’t imagine. In the photos he was wearing his retired US Navy hat, an Old Navy t-shirt, and sporting his classic white beard.
I glanced at the clock and realized I needed to head back to work. As I drove through the quaint little Vermont town, the essence of my father on my mind, a man caught my eye. I had never seen him before. He was wearing a cap, similar the one my father wore, had on an Old Navy t-shirt, and had a white beard. He was walking his dog while carrying a walking stick. Now had I been so stuck in my head that I couldn’t notice what was around me, I would never have given this man a second thought. I smiled as I drove past him and thanked my dad for the hello.
These occurrences, which I DO take as signs, were so abundant when I lost my son. The simplest of things, like noticing a street sign with his name on it, or a new store with his name on the sign, were everywhere. I didn’t seek these things out, they just continually popped up. And they still do. Whether or not you believe in such things, or they were merely products of my active imagination, they nonetheless gave me comfort when I needed it the most.
I would think to myself, why does God love me so much that he shows me these things, while my ex-husband would say, “Why does God hate me so much that took my son?”
My Jake and his entire young life, was magical in many ways. Over the years, I have ebbed and flowed on that grief wave, often embracing feelings of gratitude for being able to have him in my life, to extreme sorrow.
I have not written or talked about this until now. Ten years after the fact. Although it is incredibly difficult for me to dig up the courage to tell you the rest of this story, it is very much a part of my ongoing healing process.
In the progression of saying our final good-byes to Jake, I could not process my loss and chose to step outside myself to acknowledge the grief everyone around us was experiencing. Even those I later would refer to as the “grief hogs.” My son had chosen to live with his father, which was a family decision that worked for all of us. In so doing, there were those who perceived me as a bad parent, unworthy of grieving my own son’s death. These were people who didn’t understand our relationship and I had no need to explain to them what they would never comprehend. This is where my father stepped in to protect me and keep me standing while his illness (that would consume him less than five months later) barely allowed him to stand himself.
Many of my son’s classmates had never experienced a loss of this magnitude. I remember standing with my father beside me as these kids walked by, one by one, expressing how Jake had touched their lives.
The essence of one girl in particular, whose name did not stick in my memory, I will always embrace with love and light. She was a shy, awkward girl. As she timidly approached me, she opened a clenched fist to reveal a handmade bracelet. I had taught Jacob (he went my Jake, I was the only one who could call him Jacob), how to tie knots with hemp to make jewelry. He in turn had taught this girl the same. She handed me the bracelet and asked me if I would give it to him, as a thank you to him for teaching her, to take with him on his final journey. Of course, I obliged.
Of the many stories I could share about this journey, that one especially stands out. I remember the utter energy of hatred being focused on me and my family by the grief hogs. How dare anyone question the relationship I had with my son or my worthiness to grieve his death.
I stepped outside of my sense of self and looked at every single person filling the auditorium that day, acknowledging their individual sense of loss and grief. I embraced how each of their lives intertwined with my son and how very sacred that was.
It wasn’t until I returned home that the reality of what had just happened started to sink in.
I will try my best to keep my composure in telling you this next story, which revolves around a woman who would have been 113 years old this month. I met her “by chance” mere weeks after losing my son and it perfectly illustrates how we can receive signs of hope in the most unlikely ways.
At the time, I was working for a local newspaper in a lovely Kentucky town. I wrote articles and editorial pieces for the paper but was also tasked with creating two monthly magazines, which I was most passionate about. I’ll paraphrase some of the following story since it had a very local flair to it. I wrote it as an editorial piece and the impact it had still resonates in my soul.
• • •
Making a Difference at 102
As many of you are aware, my oldest son, Jake, passed away suddenly on March 21 at his Indianapolis home. There will come a time to share the deep loss my youngest son, Jordan, and I have been through recently. We have so many people to thank and stories of being divinely guided to share. For now it is still too painful for my heart to express those things.
What I wish to share with you today is not about Jake, but perhaps it is because of him I am urged to tell you about Lisa Martin. I would like to ask your help in celebrating her life.
I find myself in a situation where I am compelled to write and deliver a eulogy for a woman I barely knew and had only encountered twice.
I met Lisa Martin for the very first time at a local nursing home. (It had barely been three weeks since my Jake had died.) I was going to there to simply to take some pictures for a magazine ad. I have always liked going there. It feels happy.
The lovely Ms. Lisa Martin insisted we go to the lobby to take her picture in front of the fireplace.
“It has a home atmosphere,” she told me.
Rather than taking the photos and leaving, Donna, the ad rep who was with me, and I talked with Lisa for nearly an hour. She brilliantly commanded the meeting and seemed quite driven to tell us all about her very fascinating and long life. Lisa was 102 years old and would soon be celebrating her 103rd birthday in June. Always up for a good story, I started jotting down the things she was telling us.
Sweet, energetic, and with a sharp mind and clear vision, Lisa explained that she born in 1904 and had been raised in an orphanage in Oklahoma. She never knew if she ever had a family, and had no children of her own.
I was quite intrigued by her story.
Her nursing career took her to places the world over, such as China, where she met and married her husband, who was killed in World War II. She continued nursing, before settling into a place to call home.
Like me, Lisa really had no reason to come to this Kentucky town. We were both guided here. Friends of hers decided to move to another town, and she opted to stay.
At 102 years old, Lisa Martin was just happy to be who she was, living at the nursing home, and doing pretty much anything she pleased.
It was obvious to me in that first meeting, Lisa Martin knew exactly how to get what she needed, but she did it in a way that made you feel pleased to have been in her presence.
“I just treat others the way I would like to be treated,” was her motto.
As Lisa’s mission to tell her story continued, I listened, but allowed my mind to wonder. How could this woman be so incredibly happy and energetic after more than a century of life and not a soul to call real family? She had every reason in the world to be bitter and angry. She had every reason to question her own existence, but she didn’t. Her life at that very moment, as she looked forward to her 103rd birthday on June 15, was her genuine life, and she loved it.
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. I softly told her that I had recently lost my 18-year-old son. Meeting her had given me hope that life is indeed beautiful and precious, no matter how long or short.
I sat in Donna’s car that morning and cried as she drove back to the office. The tears were not filled with sorrow. They were purifying and healing. Tears of hope.
On the following Tuesday, I went back to the nursing home to see Lisa again. The May issue of the magazine needed a great cover depicting the theme of living longer. I wanted her to be our cover girl. She did not hesitate to give her permission.
Lisa essentially directed the photo shoot, telling us where she wanted her pictures to be taken.
She had her hair done earlier in the day and was dressed beautifully, wearing jewelry she had received as a gift. She made sure we had photos of her standing in front of a tree and several with the nursing home building behind her. I promised her I would have the photos printed for her. It would be a good excuse to bring my young son Jordan back to meet this wonderful lady. Her joy was so infectious.
I never got the chance to see her again. She died Friday, April 20, 2007.
I quickly realized that Lisa had no family to give her a proper funeral. With the help of a local funeral home, we are all going to do that for her. That’s where I need your help.
You see, in my way of thinking, meeting Lisa Martin was one of those divinely guided moments I’ve been experiencing lately. It’s as though God had been whispering in her ear, telling her she had yet another caring mission to carry out before He carried her home. (Although I do believe she danced there in her cute little black slippers adorned with red flowers.)
Maybe God’s whisper in Lisa Martin’s ear went something like this:
“My dear Lisa, there is someone who needs you. Don’t worry about finding her because I am going to send her to you. Her heart is heavy and saddened. I need for you to give her the gift of hope for a loving tomorrow. In return, she will give you the gift of honor and recognition for your genuine life lived on earth.”
Whether you knew Lisa Martin or you didn’t, you are invited to join in celebrating her genuine life on Friday, April 27, at 7 p.m. The funeral director has so graciously opened his heart and his business for her to be honored.
I feel privileged to tell you all a beautiful story, if you wish to hear it. Your presence will help me in thanking her for the much needed gift of hope she shared — perhaps her final good deed for a stranger whom she happened upon. This helps me continue to honor Jake’s genuine life as well.
If you will please bring a single beautiful flower with you on Friday, I’ll bring the vases to put them all in. Jordan and I will bring your gifts of nature Lisa Martin so loved to her nursing home on Saturday for all her friends to enjoy. As you open your newspaper on Saturday morning, please look for Lisa Martin gracing the cover of the magazine you will find inside.
• • •
That editorial piece had more power than I could have possibly imagined. As young Jordan and I prepared the room at the funeral home that Friday evening, with photos of Lisa, and empty vases I hoped would soon to be filled with love, I wondered if anyone had read the piece, or if anyone would come.
The people of my town started pouring in, each with a flower in hand. They placed the flowers in the vases and we gave this woman a funeral. I read the eulogy I had prepared from the stories she told me, trying my best not to succumb to my own intense personal grief.
My community not only had embraced my silly notion to throw a funeral for an unknown woman, but they also embraced me. It was an opportunity for them to honor my son, since his funeral had taken place in another state.
It was a much more genuine and open display of love with no boundaries, expectations, or judgment from anyone. It was the passageway I needed to truly begin my grieving process and it happened all because of a “chance” experience that I chose to be open to receiving.
Along this journey, I’ve become separated from friends who were at such a loss for knowing how to approach me, or who felt guilty for having a child the same age as my Jake, whom they would see graduate from college, or have kids of their own while I would not. There were people who just could not wrap their heads around how to communicate with me after this loss or those who would express feelings of not being able to fathom what I felt. I wanted NO one to know what I felt or to try to. I harbored no animosity toward the people who thought I had no right to grieve, or those who told me to get on with my life or that I was lucky I had another son, or those who pried to know the intimate details of my son’s passing. I mustered the strength to just be who I am, one day at a time, riding my grief wave when it came for me, seeing my little signs of hope, and gracefully offering no explanations or apologies when none were required.
There were things that haunted me in ways that were very different from losing my father so soon after this experience. Things I couldn’t really talk to anyone about. I clung to these thoughts as if they would bring Jake back, only to have reality slap me in the face that he was gone.
I don’t profess to having any answers when it comes to grieving – ten years after the fact, I’m still discovering my own process. One of the biggest steps for me, is acknowledging that mine it is MINE to experience and yours is YOURS to experience.
If you are listening to this while in a state of grief, I can only encourage you to find what comforts you and brings you peace, and to take with a grain of salt what others tell you you should be doing or feeling or thinking, if it doesn’t offer your comfort. Please don’t ever hesitate to reach out for professional help if you feel you cannot cope. Or join one of many wonderful support groups, filled with people who will understand and embrace you.
Your thread in this beautiful tapestry we call life is still intertwined with that of your loved ones who have left before you. Time may not exactly “heal” all things, as people like to say, but time does afford you the opportunity to evolve with your experience and find ways to live in gratitude for the love we feel that cannot be taken away.
If I could reach through these airwaves, please feel me wrapping you in love and light, honoring your own individual process, and praying for you to be divinely guided to the people and experiences offering you the compassion and hope you so richly deserve.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Seeking Balance a Personal Journey and for allowing me to share my stories with you.
Until next time, love well my friends.
Email me at Lisa@VTBalance.com