Category Archives: Grief

Bygones 

There was a time, fifteen or twenty years ago, when I took an average of 2000 photos a year. That might not be so impressive now, in the era of unlimited digital storage, but this was when we had to buy film, carry a camera, get it developed, and hope that the shot came out right. It was expensive, especially since I was paying for it with a minimum wage job while in high school and college. 

Since then, I have moved A LOT. Over and over, I’ve packed up albums and books and boxes of prints and taken them with me. All those boxes get heavy after a while, especially when those pictures don’t mean what they used to. 

They are a record of my life, and in that, they have value. I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to only keep the happy, or the current. But at what point do I stop carrying those photos with me? 

What do you do with photographs of family members who have chosen to no longer consider you family? Or of former best friends who betrayed that trust? Or of religious celebrations and milestones along the path towards what was eventually abuse and cruelty? These people and places are part of my story. I don’t think I need to memorialize them anymore. 

So, little by little, I toss them out. When I have a brave moment, I sift through them and, if I feel only loss, bitterness, or sorrow when I look at it, I put it in the garbage pile. I choose which parts of my story to carry with me to the next place. 

Today has been one of those days. As part of a larger effort to take charge of some projects I’m always meaning to do, I sorted another album today. I have another stack of photos to toss. It’s always a terribly complicated feeling. I’m sorrowful for the way things ended, for the hurt caused. 

This time, though, I’m also sorry for them because they missed out. Life is pretty good now, and they chose to step away, not knowing who I have become. They never saw me so thoroughly happy. They will never meet my fiance. They don’t get to be a part of the adventures ahead. 

That sounds a little arrogant, I guess, but at least it’s honest. Maybe a different person would be more comfortable keeping so many old pictures. Maybe some day, I will regret it. What is more likely, I’m pretty sure, is that I would continue to carry them around, to wince when I see them mixed in with happier memories, that some day, I will find myself having to explain who the stranger is. 
Today, I made more room for more photographs. Photos of my upcoming wedding, honeymoon, anniversaries, parties, graduations, Christmases, and cats. There is a lot to look forward to. Even if it requires taking a few painful moments to let old memories go. 

The trash pile

Take It – I Dare You.

You stripped me of my
rank in a crowded Starbucks
on dismal and damp Sunday
evening on your way home
from my war zone.
Your day had been calm
and joyful and you asked
me if it really had been all that bad.
Fuck you.

You mocked my scars and
turned off your ears.
You are done with me.
You don’t care about me, and
to be honest, the feeling is mutual.

But you lazy, incompetent fools:
you half-assed it, again.
You canceled my legal status
as a minister, as if my
ordination had anything
to do with you.

I am ordained, whether you
like it or not. God did that;
if you have a problem,
take it up with God.

Because so far, God has not
taken it away. I preach,
though my sermons are
now meted out in segments,
dispensed more often as acts
of love that don’t make sense
to the angry and selfish sheep
who frankly piss me off most days.

God still places me
with those who need counsel,
but not in my office
with cups of coffee and
planned responses, but behind
a truck stop counter, when she
told me she is terminal, or
she told me she cuts herself
to ignore her pain.

Rank is of no consequence.
Yours does not make you
a minister, just as losing
mine does not stop me
from it.

You took my title but damn
if you didn’t cock it up again.
Because you didn’t take
my ministry, my sermons, my
goddamned heart.
You couldn’t if you wanted to.

They were never yours to
give in the first place.

We’re ministers – even when we’re not. – BobbyJeff

Clearly, I was pretty angry when I wrote that. Some moments, I still am, and those moments are getting fewer and farther between. I’ve gone in circles about posting it, more because it’s just terrible. But it’s honest, and honesty is what I aim for more than anything else. If nothing else, hopefully, it will help in some way, whether it is that someone will understand me better, or will be able to relate and feel a little less alone. My most frequent emotion relating to the trauma that happened is a sense of outrage over injustice. The things that weren’t fair, the things that are overlooked now, the people who failed to do their job without consequence, the annoying prices I have to pay over and over again… It all adds up to a lot of annoyance. But days are getting better, I promise. 

Double Starbucks

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a double Starbucks day, but today is one. In fact, today might be the first double Starbucks day I have had since I resigned from professional ministry. Last night, I worked until 11, and then had to be back at work at 6 a.m., which doesn’t sound all that awful until I factor in the half-hour drive each way, the fact that I am never actually out on time, and still had to eat dinner when I got home and shower when I got up, and, perhaps more significantly, my brain is more likely to misbehave when I’ve not slept well. My first cup was a venti dark roast I picked up on my way in to work. When I got to work, the place was full of customers. Men just standing there, talking about nothing and drinking their coffees. I think I may have grumbled a hello as I stalked through them to get to the office.

I did not feel very pastor-y today. I didn’t want to have to see or interact with people. I didn’t want to listen to anyone’s problems. And for the love of everything holy, I did not have it in me to be gracious to other crabby people.

As a pastor, I should have known better: people seem to know when I feel least pastor-y, and that’s when they demand it. 

My first shifter got a running start on pushing my buttons. She refuses to take on any responsibility, but wants to do all the management tasks that make her feel like she has authority. She has been in the store longer than anyone else, so she feels like she can do whatever she wants. She is forever telling me what she thinks I should be doing and is frequently disrespectful, particularly when she has an audience. It wasn’t even 7 a.m. when I was venting in my office, via my cell phone, to my sister.

I needed to be gracious in how I dealt with her. But oh my God, why today? Couldn’t she have waited until tomorrow to be in such a spectacularly awful mood?

I spent more than an hour trying to deal with a vendor whose delivery was every kind of messed up you can imagine: wrong products, wrong quantities, wrong prices. We scanned and counted and crossed things off of lists, and still, we got nowhere. There was no combination of things that got us to the right ending.

I needed to be patient. Of all the days to demand patience, today was hardly the best choice, but there we stood, reviewing stacks of Monster energy drinks and trying to sort out $3000 worth of beverages clogging up the hallway.

As a pastor, I should have known better: the universe knows when I can’t handle one more thing, and that’s when it throws its best curve balls. 

My two favorite people to work with are Carol and Abby.* Abby works at the sandwich counter in the store, is barely nineteen, with a pixie face and her dark hair up in twin pom poms that look like Minnie Mouse ears. Last night, we were talking about tattoos, and I told her that the verse written in Hebrew on my right wrist reminds me that no matter what is happening, God’s character is constant. She told me about her tattoos, from the matching bow tattoos she shares with an aunt to the flower on her arm “just because it’s pretty.” Her grandmother, Carol, works on my side of the store. She’s in her mid-fifties, with bottle-blonde hair, pink iridescent lipstick, and a voice that tells you that she has had a wild life. She’s shamelessly herself, chatty, funny, caring, loud, and has the ability to make people feel like they are the light of her world, just by being on the other side of the counter. She’s always talking about her dream of owning a food truck, making good, reasonable food for people in an environment where she can cook, hang out, and live the life she loves. Sometimes, despite the fact that I know she doesn’t have much of an income, she will make a bunch of food and bring dinner for everyone at work just to let us know she cares. I adore her. Last night, I got to work with both Abby and Carol, and it was really great.

When Carol came in today, she looked at me and said “Honey, you look so tired, and a little depressed. Hard day? is everything OK?” I said that I was pretty tired, and that it had been a hard day, but that I was otherwise OK. She asked about how things are going with a guy that I’ve been seeing, and I filled her in on the latest. She was, as usual, glad to hear that things are going well.

“I’ve had a hard day, too,” she finally said. “You know I went to that [lung] specialist today, and that asbestos disease that they talk about on TV? Well, I don’t have that, but it’s almost the same thing. My lungs are all folded up and full of shit and there’s no treatment or anything. I’m gonna get a second opinion, but if it’s this disease, I didn’t do nothing to cause it, but then it’s like, six months and I’m gone.” She wiped under her eye. “Don’t tell nobody. I’m not saying anything until I get a second opinion, and if I talk about it, I’m gonna cry again. So don’t tell nobody, OK?”

Regardless of the work polo I was wearing, I was immediately in “pastor mode” again. I listened, and told her that I wouldn’t talk about it with anyone in the store (given the fact that none of you know her/where I work and names are changed, I figure this isn’t violating her privacy). I was stunned. She has been in and out of emergency rooms for her breathing, and her condition was generally overlooked by the staff at the income-dependent medical clinic that she went to for far too long.

She’s too young. Too nice.
She doesn’t deserve it. I mean, how many people do you know who, when given a six-month sentence, go to work a few hours later and are first concerned about how their raggedy boss is doing?

I’m glad she feels like she can tell me these things. She’s part of my little unofficial mini flock, now that I am in a different kind of ministry. I doubt she thinks of me as her pastor, but she does think of me as a friend, and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.

As her friend, I’m devastated, heartbroken. I am so very angry that it is happening to her.

I’m helpless. My years of pastoring taught me well that I cannot fix anything. I can guide, love, teach, pray. but I cannot fix things, and that is the cruelest reality for pastors. Every pastor I know wants to fix things, and not one of us can. I’m reminded, again, by the verse on my arm that God didn’t change from one minute to the next. God is still God, diagnosis or not. No matter how hard that is to comprehend today.

So I do what I can do: I can love. Listen. Grieve. Pray. Be a friend. And drink this tea at Starbucks while I brainstorm how to do those things better.

*Names are changed.

Busted Not Broken

It was bound to happen. I was bound to encounter some kind of ghost someday soon.

Earlier today, as I drove to the gym, I caught myself thinking of how it’s becoming more normal to feel like I’m part of the larger world again, away from the microscopic universe that is The Salvation Army. It feels like so much less pressure. More air. That feeling you get in the spring when you can finally have the windows open and you realize just how closed in you have been for months.

I had my head in the safe at work a few hours later, when I heard him. I knew his voice before I looked up; he was in IT when I was in Training and he has a distinctive voice. I stood and answered his questions about his car wash receipt, and at first, I didn’t say anything. Should I? It has been years since we knew each other. A few lifetimes ago for me. Then his eyebrows furrowed and he said my legal name.

I was busted. I am prideful enough to hope that I never see people I know when I’m at work. So far, I’d been successful, but it turns out his parents live just up the street from my work, and he was stopping in on his way home from a visit.

He didn’t know I’d resigned, and after a few bits of conversation, I remembered that he also hasn’t seen me since I’ve lost weight. So while I was staring at someone who hasn’t seemed to change, I was something both familiar and foreign to him.

It’s the first time I’ve talked with someone who didn’t already know. Someone who wasn’t a part of my world for the years that changed everything, that changed me. I wasn’t sure what all to say, standing there on the other side of the counter, trying to sum up everything and not sound like I am crazy. I’m not so sure I was successful.

We talked for maybe five minutes and he left.

I don’t know why it matters to me what he, or anyone else, thinks. I know why I left, my tribe knows why I left, and I am OK with it. But I also remember how people in The Salvation Army can speak of those who leave. A prevailing assumption is that the person/people who leave are somehow broken. Morally, ethically, spiritually, financially, emotionally… No matter what the assumption is they are somehow broken.

Maybe I cared because I don’t want people to think I’m broken. I was, for a time, when I was still in, begging for help while I was drowning in the appointment from hell. I’m not now. I’m scarred, and vastly different from the woman he knew five years ago, but I’m not broken. I’m a far better person than I was then.

I know that. My tribe knows that. And I guess that’s all that matters.

Expats

This week, I got to catch up with an old friend. We have a weirdly speckled history, having met in the late 90’s, and then a few encounters over the middle years until the last couple years, when it has been sporadic, though more frequent. Amongst the reasons I appreciate him is the nebulous experience of “getting it.” We grew up in the same denomination and we both left it. I imagine it’s like when expatriots meet in foreign lands and connect (at least initially) because they have a shared experience of having come from a different land than the one they currently inhabit. While we were talking, he asked if I missed it. At the time, I hadn’t considered it much. In truth, the things I miss are both comforting and scary at the same time:

* I occasionally miss singing the songs I grew up with – even the ones I hate.
* I miss knowing who and what everyone at church is talking about.
* I miss knowing that it will only be a few months until I see people I love at regional events. Now, I’m certain I won’t see many again at all.
* I miss not being encompassed by such a complete subculture while simultaneously celebrating being out of it.
* I miss that part of my identity/culture. It was who I was for 33 years.

But all those things, as significant as they are, don’t make me regret leaving. I’m sad that my experience ended like it did, but I’m glad I chose to end it. It was the right decision.

I’ve had great support from my friends still deeply a part of it, and I love them even more for their ability to stick with me. This friend holds a different place in my heart, in part because of his willingness to empathize, to listen. He is proof that there is life and happiness on the outside. And that, my friends, is a hope and truth that outshines the darkness that comes with missing what I left behind.

Grief, and the Impermanence of Everything Else.

Some days split your life into pieces. There is a before and an after.

January 23 is one of those days.

I was a senior in high school and had left my part-time job at the video store for the day to go to my friend Diane’s so that we could work on an English project. The weather was wretched and I wasn’t looking forward to the long, inevitably nasty trek to her house. We stopped back in the store to get a movie to watch and one of my coworkers asked if I had heard about Chris.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because he died,” said the punk little 16-year-old behind the counter.

“What? No he didn’t,” I said, not finding him at all amusing.

“Yeah, he did,” he said, and I turned to look at the store manager, who silently nodded.

It seemed impossible. He was only 18. We worked together.

I went to Diane’s, and the night was a blur. The next day, I went to work. When I came home, I crossed the street to my grandmother’s house where my dad and uncle were working on a car. I had no words, so I just walked up to my dad, put my arms around him, and sobbed. Great big heaving sobs, and he didn’t say anything at first. My uncle must have given him a look, because between my sobs, I heard him explain that my friend Chris had been killed in the icy weather the day before, T-boned by a Toronado. When I was done, I went inside, got three cups of coffee, and stood in the garage while we froze and they worked.

He was not my first friend to die, but was the closest, up to that point in my life. In some ways, I feel like my childhood ended that day. The months that followed were not kind: five more friends would die in car accidents, during surgeries, and of health concerns.

Every year since then, January 23 has been hard.

Today, it became even harder. This January 23, a seminary friend passed away.

Admittedly, shamefully, I had lost touch with him and his wife over the years. Had I moved up to Minnesota last June like I “should” have, I would have been near them again. Despite the distance in time and geography, I’m grieving again.

It seems like I am always grieving anymore. I am far too familiar with how almost nothing is permanent. I’ve buried too many friends. Moved away from too many people. Left the church in which I grew up. But the hardest, of course, is grieving the loss of friends who died too young. Peggy, Chris, Rob, Tommy, Becca, Matt, Dan… I could keep going, but it won’t help to list them all.

Of all the papers I wrote in college, one of my favorites was a paper I wrote on the evolution of grief in western civilizations during the Industrial Revolution. To sum it up, when people moved away from their agrarian communities and into cities, the social allowance for grief was practically eliminated. When people lived in small towns and societies where everyone knew everyone, the death of a member of that community was felt by nearly everyone. It was expected that the grieving process would be more than a few days, or weeks, depending on one’s proximity to the deceased. In the cities, however, people came and went, lived and died, without too many others noticing. Those who grieved were expected to do so privately, on their own time, and not let grief get in the way of work.

Today, I was at work when I heard about his death. I was already kind of wigged out trying to learn a massive amount of things in such a short span of time, and then I saw the message from Linda. Just then, my boss entered the office. She wasn’t happy to see my cellphone in my hand, and I just looked up at her, stunned, and said “I just found out a friend died.”

She hardly said anything in return. In fact, despite the fact that I was honestly doing my best, she seemed frustrated that I was a little distracted the rest of my shift. I was trying, honestly… But all I could see was his son’s face. My memories of him are usually of his smile, his laughter. Even though it has been a few years, I felt like I’d just stepped onto a Tilt-a-Whirl, unsteady and discombobulated, and I was expected to act like nothing has happened.

I’ve learned, over the course of too many opportunities, to figure out a grieving process that usually works for me. I have also learned that grief doesn’t go away. It shifts and changes, lessens (and sometimes flares up again), but doesn’t disappear. January 23 will happen every year. Some years, it is sort of a speed bump, when I wrote the date on something and suddenly realize that it has been X years since Chris, and other years, like today, I find myself grieving more deeply. Now, it is for the loss of two, instead of one.

Crash and Burn

Apparently, CJ and I were a firework: fast, intense, hot, and over too soon.

I honestly don’t know what happened. On Saturday, all was well, and he was sweet and charming, telling me that it was so good to see me after a long day at work, that I am the best person he’s ever been with, that he so enjoys spending time with me… And then today, when I asked about seeing him this weekend, he just said “we need to talk.”

And then he broke up with me.

His reason was that he likes being alone more than in a relationship. That while he does like me, and all those previous things are still true, he just wants to be alone. According to him, it’s too much for him to handle, so he’s bowing out. 

I am kinda crushed. It was a short relationship, no doubt, and one that did seem to go from zero to sixty super fast, but I can’t go from sixty to zero without feeling it.

I hate the it’s-not-you-it’s-me speech, because it never feels that way when you’re on the receiving end. What it sounds like, instead, is “you aren’t enough to change the game.”

It probably doesn’t help that it came after a long, crappy day at my new job. A job I’m grateful to have, but that I hate, and where half the people I work with seem to be either terrible employees or jerks.

Today is not a good day. Not good at all. I’m doing all I can to not just crawl into bed and cry. I’m trying to not let myself think that I’m doomed to this horrible job and perpetual loneliness for forever, but anxiety makes that hard. I’m trying to not think that this is another joke the universe is having at my expense. I’m trying not to think about how a few days ago, I was so happy about how things were finally seeming to come into place after a really long, shitty few years, only to find myself heartbroken and humiliated.

Today is stupid.

All Up in God’s Business

This week, the pastor of the church I’ve been attending preached about how we, as the church in 2014, need to be conscious about not limiting God’s work to the stories in scripture. We need to be about God’s business now. We need to be concerned with the world we are in, paying attention to how God can use us to care for people outside our walls. It wasn’t exactly something that felt earth shattering. It shouldn’t be earth shattering.

It’s a challenge to be about God’s work this week. Not that it isn’t a challenge every week, but… this week, I’m grasping at very thin ropes to be civil about the outrage I feel.

I cannot think about the Ferguson decision, the Garner decision, and others like it without being utterly beside myself with outrage. If you think race isn’t a factor in law enforcement, you’re wrong. If you think that racism isn’t heavily institutionalized in the US, you’re entirely and completely wrong.

Some of my childhood and college years were spent in Michigan, and I have a lot of friends still there. Friends who identify across the spectrum of sexual orientation, and so when I hear that the state house passed a law exempting emergency responders from having to help LGBTQ people, it’s not just that it’s a totally BS, asinine bill to begin with, but now, there is the potential (if it makes it into law) that my friends could die because an emergency responder doesn’t approve of their sexual orientations. How am I not supposed to be outraged at that?!?

This week, I’m nearly cross-eyed with my inability to talk about these things as a civil member of society, because I just cannot believe that this week, we have to question whether or not it’s wrong for a cop to kill someone who isn’t trying to kill them. Or that we should have to debate whether professional helpers have to help people (if you’re fuzzy on this one, revisit the parable about the Good Samaritan).

My education has gotten in the way this week. Having a degree in sociological meta-analysis means I have done a boatload of research on a lot of things, but I particularly looked at racial/ethnic issues and gender studies (which includes issues of sexuality). It means that at least in an academic sense, I know what I’m talking about. I see the issues differently than most people. Then, add in my religious education and I am dumbfounded that people – Christians! – cannot recognize God’s image in someone who doesn’t look like them, that they do not share my outrage.

It is so tempting to just not talk about it, to not get into it with people. To be plenty overwhelmed with my own problems and say that I’ll deal with these issues another day. But I have to deal with them today, because that is the business of God today. I am supposed to be outraged about the injustice that is being done, because injustice is incompatible with God’s business.

It was pointed out to me in a blog earlier today that Christ came not at a time when everything was perfect, but when the world was desolate, desperate, and a total train wreck. Kind of like now. Christ showed up and was all about the business of God in a world that was one ugly mess. As Pastor Ivan reminds us every week, God is still showing up in the midst of these circumstances, and I have a choice: to be about the business of God or to skip it.

I think it’s better to take the challenge and pray for wisdom and tact.

Anticlimax

Today I had to meet with  my former boss to handle some final paperwork. Not knowing what to expect, I got to the Starbucks on time and waited for about 40 minutes because she didn’t listen to directions and got lost. The metaphor there isn’t lost on me. I hadn’t changed after church this morning, so there I sat in my dress, pencil heels, and Yves Saint Laurent glossy lip stain, trying to not look like I was being stood up.

When she got there, she asked how I was doing, and if I am glad I left. I said yes, and then she said that I look “so great, so much happier” now. I bit my tongue and didn’t respond with anything other than “thanks, I am happier.”

Then she handed me a couple pieces of paper that rescind my ordination, explained how much money I owe them for seminary now that I’m no longer a minister (don’t get me started on how I am now paying for an ordination that they rescinded), and that was it.

She asked why my first congregation was so bad. I hadn’t even scratched the surface when I realized I had been talking for about 2 minutes and she was nodding but not listening. So I stopped. And then she said she was going home, and I left.

Thirty-three and a half years of my life, and it ended so unceremoniously.

I want to misbehave. Years of abiding by stupid rules and under fear of punishment from people who seem to get high on power leaves me wanting to do something – anything – that was previously forbidden just because I can.

But there’s no one to drink with here in this town, and no old boyfriends to call, and no money for an impulsive tattoo.

No finally-free climax to be had.

It’s not even like I would do anything that bad. Ordained or not, my character hasn’t changed. I couldn’t stand the thought of getting black out drunk or hooking up with a stranger.

I guess I just want something to make the end feel at all significant. Instead, what I have is a few pieces of paper folded inside my purse and an empty Starbucks cup with a bit of #9 stain around the rim.

Oh Freedom!

A week ago, while packing up the house as fast as I could, an old choir song popped in my head. If I remember correctly, it’s a South African anthem that is little more than a few lines sung over and over:

Oh freedom!
Oh freedom!
Oh freedom!
Freedom is coming: oh yes I know!

I was hurrying to leave an unhealthy situation, and it was like I was inches away from exiting the dark tunnel I had been in for years.

I knew leaving was the best decision for me. My health and safety depended upon it. Despite not being as perfectly timed as I would have liked, I couldn’t wait any longer. I needed out.

For the last week, I’ve been happier than I have been in probably a decade. Well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right descriptor. “Lighter” might be better. “Freer” is certainly true.

I haven’t been afraid for a week. That is EPIC for me. I haven’t had to take my anxiety meds for a week.

When I told my youngest nephew, who’s almost 6, that I don’t live far away anymore, he gasped and squealed. My oldest nephew, 17, gave me one really long hug Friday night AND a second one on Saturday. My middle nephew hugged me while at his middle school with his friends and then later paused his Xbox game and made his friend wait while he hugged me goodbye. Oh my gosh, friends! Wanting to be there for them and wanting them to know I love them are a few of the reasons I left, but these boys were there for me and let me know they love me. I haven’t seen my niece yet, but I’ve already heard about how happy she is, too.

The second day I was here, I got on the scale in my parents’ bathroom, and it said I’d lost 20 pounds overnight. Clearly I hadn’t, but I feel lighter without the weight of the world on me.

My family has noticed, too. I have had a few moments when I snapped too harshly at them when I was overly tired, but even with those moments, they have seen a happier me than they have in a long time. When my mother mentioned it Friday night, I told her that there was great freedom and joy in knowing that the people I feared, the ones who had intimidated me for years, couldn’t take anything away from me anymore.

I commented to a friend tonight that I almost feel like I “should” be more upset than I am. I have moments that are harder than others, but generally, I’m doing pretty well.

I was very worried that I would lose people when I left, but if anything, I’ve become more certain that I’ve kept the right group of people around me. The same people who loved me several weeks ago are the ones who are still cheering me on today. They are magnificent.

This week is more job hunting and hoping for a call back from the place at which I interviewed on Friday. I tried out a new church today and loved it, so I get to look forward to going back next week. I still haven’t really unpacked everything, so that’s on the agenda as well. Nothing earth-shatteringly new, except for this little bitty thing that is still new to me:

Freedom.