Just smile already

Originally Posted on August 31, 2011

Hindsight is quite a thing. Of course I appreciated Janie when she was here, but never to this degree. You see, Janie was just good at everything she set her hand to. She never seemed to break a sweat, she was just good at so many different things. If she struggled, she kept at it until she got it. She was the best kind of persistent. There is something in that of which I am learning.

But that’s not the most valuable thing I learned from her. They say opposites attract. Janie was very different from me in a number of key areas. The most obvious of these in our relationship was in the area of outlook: whether positive or negative.

I’m an odd mix. I am very sanguine, very outgoing and lively in social situations. Normally, sanguines are fairly upbeat, positive people. I am most definitely not wired that way. We had this joke running between us: my glass was not half empty. It was not half full. There was no glass. In fact, the glass had been stolen from me at a young age and I carried around massive “glass” issues that required deep introspection, perhaps counseling.

All said in jest, but so true. Janie wanted to open businesses, climb mountains, travel places, be adventurous. I mean, the girl took hang gliding whilst in university. I was the one who tied her down in those regards. It was always “we don’t have the money” or “we’re gonna fail miserably” or “we can’t take time off to do that.” Funnily enough, there was always enough money for my next iPod, my next stab at pulling together a band, or for me to take a day off of work because I was unhappy to be stuck in a dead end job. Wah, wah, wah. That was me.

Intrepid Janie the fearless. Sophie gets her chutzpah from her mom. I’m not going to choke it out in her. That’s my goal with Sophie.

But I digress… Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Phil beating up on Phil. This is really just a confessional. And I’m using the past tense here: I was that way. The negativity still lurks in me like the stink from a truck stop bathroom. But the cleaning lady is coming.

An amazing thing about someone like Janie: she still does her best work even in her absence. She was just phenomenal. I am so swollen with gratitude tonight. That girl of 18 I met in the Colorado wilderness taught me that the glass is there to be full, to empty it and then to fill it again. The emptiness is transitory, it passes. She never lost sight of the fact that a positive outlook on life is half the battle.

Where did she gain this incredible insight? Why, from mom and dad Spence, of course. Where else? Anyone who has had the privilege of their acquaintance knows this about them. They are can-do people. They never look at the downside of things. Every problem has a solution. If it doesn’t, there’s always family there to hold everyone together. I love this about them. Things in life come along that can knock the wind right out of them, but they just get back up, dust themselves off and keep on going. Janie did this over and over again. She was just relentless in her positivity.

I used to growl at her about her glass-half-fulledness. What’s so great about this situation? This is a perfect time to lose hope, to despair, to throw in the towel. No matter what I said, she just set her jaw, narrowed her eyes and forged ahead. Nothing would stop her when she set her mind to something.

Some people call this stubbornness. I certainly accused her of being stubborn more than once. She’d retort that I was a pessimist. I’d always say that no, I am a realist. Nonsense. Every pessimist says that, and every pessimist is full of crap. Seriously. If this is you, time to change.


I hate the fact that Janie is gone. I know that she is in a perfect place, in perfect peace, perfectly joyful and better off than she ever was on this side. I’m the kind of selfish that would wrench her from that bliss to have her back. Most people if not all would do the same. But that’s wishful thinking.

Wishful thinking, daydreaming about ideal situations is characteristic of pessimists. We dream up the kind of life we’d love to have but never have the stones to actually go out there and make it happen. It’s always “oh, there’s no money” or “I’ll just screw it up” or whatever. But our imaginations, oh, those are active. But what good is an imagination if you don’t actually act upon it?

Janie knew I was good at so many things: a good writer, singer, cook, etc. She always had a plan for me to take it to the next level, to stretch me. Always me with the excuses… What a waste.

But as I said earlier, her best work is still being achieved in her absence. Little by little, I am taking the steps necessary to actualize my dreams. The courage and wherewithal to do this was sowed into me by her. That is her greatest and most enduring gift to me: the confidence, even faith to stick my neck out.

So as I said, tonight I’m full of gratitude. I wish she were here so I could tell her how thankful I am for this. She saw it in me and believed she could call it out with enough love and patience. Love is, after all, patient and kind. She was that in spades. She learned that from her magnificent parents. And I am learning it from her and them, now. I’d still have her back, but I wonder if I wouldn’t just snap back into the old me if she were back on the scene. Who can know these things? Wishful thinking that, in the end.

What are the people who love you the most teaching you? What are you refusing to learn? Remember folks, time is short.


On callings

Originally Posted on August 29, 2011

It occurred to me this weekend that I actually don’t want this life. Two days of very small children, trying my hardest to keep them busy and get things done around the house (which didn’t get done; the place is a disaster). Taking the kids to the farmers market, to church, to mom and dad Spence’s house, back home, back down there… a weekend of child minding that just runs one into the ground. It’s amazing how such small people take so much out of you.

And so I came to the conclusion: this is not what I want. I didn’t ask for this. Given a choice, I would have said “no” to this a thousand times over, shuddering at the thought all way.

I love my children. I love them with all my heart. Please don’t think I’m about to pawn them off on an orphanage, because that is the farthest thing from my mind. But I cannot help but feel that I am utterly inadequate for this task. This thing, this task I’ve been handed is too great for me, especially as I try to slog through grief and deal with the loss of my wife.

But then I remembered this funny thing that happened to me several months ago. I was at my church, and I prayed with some of the pastors up front that God would show me what my destiny was on this earth. I didn’t receive an answer that day, but the pastors said that I was being called into a season where I would be stretched, but the God’s favor would be over me. To all my non-religious friends out there, this might sound a little odd, but bear with me for a minute.

Stretching and favor. I guess God stretches us from time to time. I don’t put this death and subsequent fallout at God’s doorstep and blame him for it, but I do believe God is very active during this time of grief. I feel God’s presence about me often, in the kind words of friends and acquaintances, in the financial supply that just keeps coming, in my freezer full of dinners, when I am with God’s church singing praises to him. When I look into Seanie’s big blue eyes, when Sophie giggles. When a friend calls me out of the blue at just the right time to encourage me. Segway: en-courage. From the French, meaning to add or increase heart (coeur) in someone else. Neat word, innit?

So God is busy stretching me. There are plenty of examples of people in the bible and throughout history that were called into situations where they were stretched far beyond their ability to cope, or so they thought at the time. And many of them said the same thing I have: I don’t want this. I don’t want this thing you’ve given me. Take it away, if it be your will.

I can think of one person who said that last line. I’m sure glad he wasn’t spared his particular cross.

And so I have to ask: what am I being called to at this time? Is it just to learn to be a better parent, to whittle out the character flaws and shortcomings that are too numerous to list in this or a thousand other blogs? Maybe that and more. A devastation such as this one opens up the landscape to a whole new world of possibilities. I am coming face to face with so much that is of a poor quality in me: issues with temper, trust, default settings that I never questioned. I have to ask over and over: is God enough? Are you enough for all I need, are you enough to carry me through this wilderness into a new land flowing with milk and honey?

My intellect and upbringing say “yes!” My heart, honestly, says a sullen “no.” Somewhere in the mists of the past, somewhere in there, I felt God let me down. And you ultimately, when it counts, say what you believe Out of the overflow of the heart speaks the mouth, and so on. It is hard to accept God’s goodness when deep down you don’t really buy it.

However, God has seized the opportunity wrought by this devastation to say “this is where you believed that lie. I will change your mind. I will prove myself faithful to you.”

Oh, lover of my soul, do it. Do it for me. Do it for my children. Do it for our future. What a gift you gave me in Janie. What a terrible, crushing loss I am experiencing.

Step by step, the language changes. Janie went from having been “taken” to knowing now that, at the end, her Lord “came” for her. I am beginning to see that rather than being “dumped” with the responsibility of raising two children largely on my own, I have been “called” into a season where I will learn the fullness of God’s provision, love and goodness. And God’s goodness is key. If God is not good, then what happened to me and the kids is an unforgivable, evil thing wrought by a depraved, wicked cosmic deity. Who would want to have anything to do with a being such as that?

But if God is good, then God is good always, even when bad things happen. Being open to this truth allows God’s goodness to penetrate the wound and heal it, and then for him to bless: abundantly, richly bless. If God is good, then the devastation is not a permanent state but a transition into new promise. If God is good, then the sun will rise, the clouds will break, the birds will return, life will spring forth again. If God is good, then promise, hope and renewed life are in fact the conditions of my existence, not fleeting glimpses in an otherwise depressing outlook.

And if I am closed off to this truth, then I am in deep kimshi, to quote my dad. If I keep the door closed to this truth and keep God from coming in, then I shut myself off from the healing. I closed the door after being disappointed at God a few times during my childhood. I have had to learn this very lesson over and over again, and there have been advances and retreats in my relationship to God, much like two neighboring countries with a history of conflict but also a shared history. Both sides long to unite, but so long as one holds on to hurt, then true reconciliation can never take place.

To be reconciled to God. Some theologians like to posit that humanity has so offended God that we are the ones that must tremblingly approach him, so great our offenses and so monstrous his wrath toward us. I think this a mistaken way of presenting God, as angry, wrathful, offended. Is God not bigger than us, his children? Is God not wiser and more understanding than us, his children?

We are the ones who rail at God, saying things like “where were you during the Holocaust? Where were you when I was a little girl and that man raped me over and over for years? Where were you when those men broke into my house and killed my dad and little brother? Where were you when my mom’s car lost its brakes and crashed into the wall?”

We are not the ones who so much long for the reconciliation. It is God. God longs to be reconciled to us. I do not believe that we forgive God, but I think the moment of reconciliation is much like an act of our forgiveness for the disappointments we have toward him. And in that act, he restores or begins to restore our brokenness, and if not answer the “where were you questions,” at least he moves into that place and his goodness meets the need in our soul.

Because God did not cause the Holocaust. God did not abandon you to a sexual predator or bring that calamity upon you. God did not put it in the hearts of those thieves to attack your house that night. God did not loosen the brake valve on your mom’s car so that she could die in a fiery automobile accident. He did not cause the darkness in our world. God does not interfere with every aspect of the human condition, because to do so would reduce us to automatons. The darkness in this world is not God’s doing. Much of it is ours.

However, in our personal wildernesses of suffering and grief, much like it did with Jesus, a voice cries out in the desert “make the path straight for the Lord.” God does not cause or even allow suffering so much as transform it into the anvil to shape us, if we are willing to accept him doing so. I think I am at that place now. I’m listening. I’m watching.

This, too, can be a teachable moment.

I have been called into the wilderness to allow God to be my all in all: my life, my breath, my supply, even my overflow. I have not allowed him to be so in the past. God did not take Janie in order to bring me to this point, but since he is good he will use this catastrophe to show himself as just that. And nothing like a low point to instill a bit of humility in the object: I am a broken lump of clay now, not much good for anything but to be reshaped.

The funny thing is we are all in that state, but pride blinds us to seeing that. We all reckon ourselves as more than we are. This is the human condition. God’s goodness is such that he will take moments of despair and transform them into hothouses of new life. This is goodness: that in every death there is an opportunity for new life. But only a life giver can bring that about. We have the choice to let him do it or not.

I do not want this thing that has been given to me. But then, no one would. No one wants this sort of thing. So there is some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only one who has been here, looked around and said “um… no. No thanks.” I will say those words again sometime in the future.

However, for every calling, there is the supply, the grace to endure it. God has not left me, nor will he.

I can do this.

Evenings off

Originally Posted on August 26, 2011 


Thursday evenings have become my recuperation evening. Mom and dad Spence have been taking the kids on those nights, and I take the opportunity to get out and do something other than be a parent. The past several times out have included afternoons spent with the inimitable Right Reverend Benjamin James Jacob Aldous, who is an ordained priest in the Anglican Communion and a rather genial guy.

Ben is a proper pastor. He asks questions to find out what is going on in order to know how to encourage and pray for you. But Ben has also been one of my closest friends for nearly 13 years now. It is incredibly wonderful to have someone I have known so well for so very long here during this incredibly difficult patch of my life. He and his lovely wife Sharon and two darling little girls had been living in Cambodia up until the end of 2009. I can hardly believe how God orchestrated this.

But it’s not only him. My dear friend Shaun Gannon only moved back from the UK with his darling wife Emma in January. The pair of them rented the cottage behind our house for a few months, and wonderful memories were made, good times had by all and sundry. The kids have indelible memories of the fun they had at their little flat out back. Seanie still calls it Big Shaun’s house.

But there’s more. One of my dearest friends, Chris Steyn, returned late last year from Israel. He has walked with me closely during this time, coming to the house every few days to hang out, to talk, to let me cry.

Three of my closest friends, one living in Asia, the other in the UK and another still in Israel all came back in time to be here for me when this happened. I know they didn’t come back here because of that reason. They came for work, because they missed it here, etc. But God has brought them here just in the nick of time for me. What would I do without these three guys?

Janie’s friends have continued to check on me this whole time, and so many of you who read, reply on here and shoot me Facebook messages over and over, every day.

God is sending a message, I guess.

This month there was supposed to be a massive financial shortfall because I only work about half of last month. Instead, over $3000 were given to me and the kids by different people and churches.

Yeah, God is sending me a message. Am I hearing it?

Little by little, it gets easier to understand that mysterious verse “in all things give thanks…” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) One version says “in all circumstances give thanks to God.” So, don’t give thanks for all things, but in all things (circumstances), be grateful. The second part of that verse states that this is God’s will for us.

Much of the time I ask God “what am I supposed to do now?” This is a question borne out of extreme pain and sorrow. How am I supposed to live, to carry on without the love of my life? What do I do with my life now?

Be thankful. Huh?!

Yeah, in the end, that’s part of the secret of life. I can be really bitter about this. In fact, none of you would argue with me on that one. “Phil is full of bitterness and rage because his wife died when she was young, and he had to struggle raising two kids, in debt and loneliness.”

Kinda hard to argue with that kind of scenario…

But I’m not in debt, other than my debt to you people and to God. I have received abundantly more than what we need to survive on a monthly basis this last month. We are beyond flush. In fact, I bought a fridge today. I great big awesome fridge for aaaaaall those frozen meals! There’s money to spare this month. Next month might be different. But God won’t be any different than he is now or has ever been next month.

The apostle Paul in in his letter to the church in Philippi wrote that he had learned to be content no matter the circumstances (Philippians 4:11). A line or two later he says that it was, in fact, a secret that he learned (4:12). It’s a secret because our natural state is to complain, to gripe, to be sour and angry at how much our lives suck.

Imagine a heavily wooded mountainside, kind of like the slopes of one of those dormant volcanoes in Central America. Now, let’s say a meteor slams into the side of the mountain. All the trees on the hill, all the streams, everything living within a ten mile radius is vaporized in an instant. The verdant, lush panorama is now black, smoldering, ashen. You can see for miles and miles in every direction, and all you see is destruction.

But you remember what it was like. You remember the birds, the warmth of the air, the humidity causing your clothes to cling to your body. Everything in every direction hummed with life, from birds to insects to jaguars in the trees. Now all that is left is blackness, ruin and death.

This is the same scenario for someone who has lost someone very close to them, such as a spouse, sibling, parent or best friend. All I have left of Janie is what I remember of the landscape of our life together.

And I regret nothing of it. We had our trials, our fights and difficulties. But I regret nothing of my life with her, other than I could have been better to her, but I just thought she’d always be there. That’s what you do.

So when I pray with the kids at night, I say “thank you Jesus for the years we had with mommy.” I try to say it every night. They don’t understand yet. I hope one day we can talk about the significance of saying a thing like that.

I am grateful for every day I spent with Janie. I am grateful for our two gorgeous children. I am grateful for my wonderful mom and dad Spence, for my sisters Andi and Philippa. I thank God for my mom and dad Jones, for my brothers Randy and Tomas. I thank God for Ben, for Shaun, for Chris, my three amigos out here who have walked a dark road with me.

I am thankful that you are reading this post. Thank you.

I have not learned Paul’s secret to be grateful and content in every circumstance. Gratitude and contentment aren’t the same thing, but they are in the same family. Perhaps they’re married, or twins, or something like that. One accompanies the other, like grief follows death, like halitosis follows garlic. One will guide you to the next.

So as I learn to give thanks, and mean it, in every circumstance, I will learn the secret of contentment. Life isn’t always fair. Life isn’t even good much of the time. But Gd is. I believe that.

I know in my “about” section I stated I didn’t want to be heavy-handed on all the religious stuff. I’m trying to not be that way. What I can say, though, is that without God’s concern, love and care, I’d be dead now in all likelihood. Yes, Janie died. God could have healed her. He didn’t. I still don’t know what to think about that one. But I can’t deny the good things God is doing every day for me, from friends like you to financial gifts to my church and my big family.

Life isn’t always good. God, however, is. I cling to that like moss to a cliff wall.

This post went up late. Today kind of got away from me… I started this last night, and here is is 7:30pm here in Durban, and it’s still not up! Oh well, it’s Friday now. Tomorrow I will go to the farmer’s market. If you’re local, hope to see you there. If you’re not, just move out here. It’s a good country with lots of room, and the food’s really good.

Love to all. God bless. Enjoy the weekend, and we’ll chat again Monday.

“I miss mommy”

 I don’t really fully understand the ins and outs of this grief thing. I’ve read a little, and of course there’s the grief group and what I’ve learned from them and the accompanying video series. I don’t understand how I’ve been able to maintain for weeks on end, not happy but treading water and at least not drowning in sorrow.

Last night just about killed me. And it’s dragged into today. What caused it? Who knows. I was looking at pictures when it came on. I’ve looked at the same pictures a hundred times before, and yes I’ve cried sometimes, but not like that. And to have it just drag on into today like a hangover is just… I don’t know. Cruel, I guess.

I became angry at the fact that I was so exhausted. I went to bed at 9:30 last night, slept until 5:30 when the kids woke me, was able to steal an extra 45 minutes or so of sleep after getting their tea and setting up the TV. Did I feel rested? Oddly enough, I was more exhausted when I awoke this morning than when I went to bed. So I am growing angry at this exhaustion. I want it to go away. It’s hard enough to do anything during the day, let alone trying to fight off a weariness that is as foreign to me as it is draining.

I promise all this whining is leading somewhere! All of that to lead to this: I arrived home tonight with the kids at around 6:20 pm. I was getting their bottles ready for story time, my very soul craving the promise of a few hours of child-free nothingness until I can go to bed.

That’s when Sean walked into the kitchen with Buddy (his little stuffed reindeer, his most treasured possession) and said “Daddy, Seanie’s sad.”

Why are you sad, honey?

“Because I miss mommy.”

I suppose I always expected him to say those words eventually. It is 24 August as I write this. Janie went into hospital on 13 June. It has been two and a half months since Seanie has seen his mommy. I knew he missed her. He had to miss her.

But he’d never said it before tonight. Not in those words. Not that plainly.

I sat on the floor of the kitchen and pulled my dear son onto my lap. I told him I was sorry, that I would be there for him, that I loved him. What else could I say? My poor, poor son. I guess he’ll have solid memories of his mother after all, despite being so young.

Mothers have a special bond with their sons. Janie was no different with her Seanie. She loved that boy in a special way. Not more than she did Sophie. Just… different. And he, being her darling boy, worshipped the ground she walked on.

What must his soul be going through? What must he be feeling inside? My poor son.

I’ve shed enough tears in the last day or two to last a lifetime. This particular storm of grief came up unannounced. There was no warning, no way to tell it was on its way. I’ve heard this is common for the bereaved. Funny… knowing so doesn’t help.

Seanie has been “ouchier” than usual today. A sore tummy, a sore head, a sore this, a sore that. He’s wanted to play with me more. He wanted to hang around me more. He must pick up on my sorrow.

I’ve told him before that sometimes daddy is sad and that daddy cries because he misses mommy.

It would appear I offered him a template for expressing what’s going on inside of him. I guess I can be proud of that. I’ve not done much right since Janie died. But this time, I gave my son something to express his pain. I did a good thing for my son.

Part of the arduous aspect of the grief, beyond the exhaustion that is, in my opinion, the worst part of this whole thing, is the fact that I must shepherd my children into this valley with me. Unfortunately, they need to grieve Janie’s death too.

Sophie still thinks Janie is coming home. The babysitter arrived the other night at 5:30 pm. Sophie still remembers that 5:30 is when mommy used to arrive home from work. She shouted “mommy!” She’s done this once before. She has no concept of the passage of time, of the permanence of death. She does not miss mommy, and if she does, she is quickly distracted by something else. She recognizes mommy in pictures. So I’m going to put up LOTS of pictures.

Seanie, however, is making his first tentative steps down this dark path. It hurts to see it. It hurts to witness it. I am expecting a night terror tonight, so I’m keeping a towel in my room ready for that, if/when it happens. It’s been an emotional day for him. But he said it. He said it. That’s the important first step.

Children start out not being able to do anything for themselves. They would die if the parent did not feed them, change them, burp, wash and repeat for them. They grow up quicker than we might realize, but some phases seem to last an eternity. Like the terrible twos. Sophie is two. Oy vey…

However, at three, Seanie is a big boy. He dresses himself, brushes his own teeth (and does it right), takes himself to the bathroom, feeds himself, does basically everything for himself. I think he feels a greater need to do it all now that his world has been turned upside down by the death of his mother.

But tonight, he was my little boy again. The plaintive cry of a broken little heart. I hurt for my son so much. I know he needs to experience this, but I would give anything to spare him the pain. Short of resurrecting his mother from the ashes, though, I cannot protect him from this. Even at the tender age of three, my dear boy will need to confront death.

What a thing to have on his soul. What a landmark to have on his life. Sure, life isn’t fair. But pick on someone your own size, dammit.

That’s what a dad wants to do, though. A dad wants to shield his children from the dangerous and painful things of the world, only allowing them to test the boundaries under controlled circumstances. Can’t do that. Not gonna happen. Not this time. Sorry, but the date for this especially difficult test has been moved up to… NOW. Yeah, your kid is only three, but too bad.

It makes me angry. It makes me feel helpless, a bystander as my children hurt. Maybe Sophie doesn’t notice too much right now, but her time is coming. I’m beginning to pick up on Seanie’s signs. When he’s especially ouchy, that’s when she’s on his mind. I was starting to get really exasperated earlier this evening. I kept thinking “great, on top of all this crap, I have a hypochondriac on my hands!”

But now I see it. His mommy was sick with a sore head. Mommy went to the doctor to get better. Mommy never came back.

Seanie has a sore head. Seanie has a sore tummy. Seanie has a sore ear. Seanie has a sore finger. Seanie has a sore knee. Seanie has a sore bum. Seanie has a sore eye.

Seanie misses mommy.

Maybe Seanie will need to go to the same doctor where mommy is, and he’ll find her there. The last time I took Seanie to the doctor’s office, just last week, he asked me if mommy was there. I didn’t really connect the two. Seanie’s grief therapist mentioned to me that this could be the case. That was on Monday.

And today, I see she is right.

This is obviously nowhere near done. This will go on for years and years. I suppose it’s important to discover these things along the way. I wish I weren’t so tired so I could feel happier about it, but all I can think about right now is sleep. So I’ll probably get on with that.

The challenge is to understand the contours of my own grief and learn to navigate through them whilst trying to understand my children and their version of it. Everyone is unique. Everyone grieves differently.

It’s gonna be a long, long road.

This was us

Some nights there’s no hiding from it. Some nights, you are simply going to get hit like you were in the path of a tornado. The sorrow will lay you flat. It will make your eyes burn and your heart break like it never has before. Your throat will ache from a thirst you cannot quench, not ever again. You will weep until you think you can’t any longer, and then you’ll start again.

This was us. We were a family. We were a unit. Mommy, Daddy, Seanie and Sophie. We had our routines, our rituals. We had our high holy days. We were building our traditions. We were growing together, all of us at once.

In this family, she was our heart. In this family, we all sort of orbited around her. In this family, she was the glue, she was mom to us all. We are all orphaned by this to a degree.

She will not walk in the meadow any longer with you, son. She will not sit you upon her lap as she used to and read your favorite story. She will not be there when you go to your first day of big boy school, will not be there to comfort you when you fall in love for the first time and then have your heart broken. She will not see you marry the woman of your dreams. She will not hold your firstborn in her arms and thank you for it. My heart is broken for you tonight.

She will not hold you again, my sweet little girl. She will not talk to you about what it means to be a woman, she will not cry with you during sappy movies, she will not fight with you as you grow older. She will never meet your future husband and never rock your babies to sleep. My heart is broken for you tonight.

Once upon a time there were four us. Now there are three. Once upon a time there were plans made for all of us. Now those plans must change. Once upon a time, life was so simple as to make me forget what was of  value.

I wish I hadn’t taken you for granted, my love.

I wish you could come home.

We all miss you so, so much.

Originally published August 24, 2011

Good Grief

Grief sucks. There’s no nice way to put it. Grief is the partner of a great loss: it follows death like a travelling companion. The two arrive at your doorstep one day, death walks away with the one you love, and grief moves in for a season. But grief is more than death’s companion: it is also the precursor to life.

That last statement may strike as odd, even a bit offensive. Perhaps I can conjure a useful metaphor to help clarify this point. When death touches your soul, it is as though a massive volcano has erupted in your landscape, sending ash and lava everywhere, blowing things to bits and basically wreaking destruction as far as the eye can see. This is a cataclysmic event that shatters one’s entire world, utterly altering the once familiar landscape forever.

Grief is like the cooled lava on the plain. Like a scab on a wound, the cooled lava begins to settle and harden, eventually becoming the contours of the new landscape. As time goes by, its crust yields and begins to accept new seed, from which springs forth new life. Riotous splotches of colour pop up on an otherwise black and hardened scene. Given more time the lava yields even further and transforms into the rich soil feeding all sorts of new plant life. Trees grow, birds return, animals roam in the underbrush. A new landscape, somewhat reminiscent of the old one, but forever changed. But it is still life. A new life, brought about by the cataclysm.

Death is common to all, meaning, we will all experience it at one point or another. Therefore, we will all at some moment in time encounter the bitter pang of grief. Put it off as one may, grief always catches up with us. This is so because grief’s ultimate goal is not to destroy, but to heal.

Without grief, there is no cost. What I mean by that is if you read an obituary in the paper tomorrow of someone whom you never knew, you will feel no pang of grief. This is because you likely did not know the person. Therefore, you never invested anything into that person: it cost you nothing. The people in whom we invest the most cost us the most when they depart. The bereaved speak of losing a part of themselves when a loved one dies. Indeed.

The task of grief is not, however, to replace that loss, but to heal. I say that it can be a healing agent. Often times it is not. Some people become so lost in grief that it leads them to untold depths of depression. This has obvious psychological effects, but it can also lead to physical ones. Some research points towards prolonged grief leading people to suffer from cancer. A cancer of the soul that leads to cancer of the body. A dreadful thing.

But aren’t there other things which, when abused, can rob us of life? Wine gladdens the heart and can benefit the body, but when abused can lead to alcoholism, even death. Sugar makes all kinds of things palatable, but again, when abused can lead to all sorts of physical problems.

Grief can also be abused. One can wallow in it for too long.

Grief is not the soul’s natural condition. It is an extreme emotion, if you will. It comes when great disasters occur: the loss of a loved one, when one’s home is burned down, when you bid your youngest child goodbye as he or she heads off to university and you face an empty house for the first time in many years. These are extraordinary events. Grief is present in those occasions to shepherd the grieving person into a new phase of life.

The death of a spouse is an extraordinary event in any one person’s life. Yet, sooner or later, it will happen to us all if we were fortunate enough to be married to someone who counted.

Grief is good in that it brings up everything you had with that special someone, good or bad. You relive the good and bad times in the theatre of your mind. You look at the photos and cry rivers of tears, because the memories formed were sweet and brought you life.

Grief is good in that it forces you to take stock of your life. Many people say a death will do this to you, but death is all around us at every moment of the day. People die left and right, and they do not affect us until it’s the death of someone who mattered. This is the province of grief: those who count, those we love. Grief is the one that forces you to take stock. You check to see what is of worth, which of your priorities are really, truly worthwhile. “What is life all about, anyway?” is a question asked ad nauseum until the season of grief passes. Is this not a worthwhile question for us to ask ourselves every day, no matter where we might be in life?

Grief is good in that it shows you that you did love someone very, very much. This is bittersweet, indeed. To have lost so much and only then to realize how much was in fact lost is hard to stomach. You would think that you would think about it every day. But none of us do. I didn’t. I took it for granted that Janie would always be there. Now she’s not. I loved her so, so much. As much as it hurts, it makes me feel alive and significant that I loved someone else so much that it hurts like hell now.

I said earlier that grief heals. That might have been the wrong thing to say. Grief is the EMT at the accident scene that gets you to the hospital. In my world view, the healer is God. Grief forces me to confront God. Why did she have to die? Why am I, the lesser parent, given the task of raising our two children? Why did this have to happen now when everything was just starting to come together, when we were just really hitting our stride and getting along better than we ever had before? Honesty about these questions opens me up to God’s healing. It also produces perseverance, character and hope. (Romans 5:3-5)

A real faith wrestles with just these sorts of questions. A real faith hits the mat with God and goes back and forth until, at last, either the soul finds its answers or rests in the knowledge that the One who has them is good and will not abandon you to a wilderness of sorrow. This is the point of these verses:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)

Later on in the same Psalm, it says the following:

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psalm 23:5)

Quite an image. God has set a table, and I am seated there with my enemies. Who are my enemies? In this instance, my enemy is death itself. Yet, while seated at the table, my head is anointed with oil. This is, to me, an image of God’s own Spirit flowing over me. The image in the Old Testament harkens to when someone was called into a sacred office, like that of a king or a prophet. Kings and prophets are anointed to lead their people, their nation. At the table of my enemy death, I am called into being in that place. I am anointed with God’s Spirit in that place. In that place, my cup overflows. Abundant supply. Of what?

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:6)

An abundant supply of goodness, love, and the joy of being in God’s presence, God’s house, now and beyond the now on the other side. An abundant supply of goodness and love here, and a dwelling place with the God of the universe. This is what we Christians like to call a promise of God.

So why doesn’t it feel that way? Why is grieving so hard? Why must I wake up every morning to this dreadful sense of loss and emptiness only to carry out my daily tasks in rote fashion and finally collapse in bed at night contemplating the meaninglessness of my existence, praying for death to come swiftly that I might be reunited with Janie, whom I loved so much?

For one, because she mattered. If she didn’t, I’d be fine.

For another, recovery takes time, and there are stages. Already I function better than I did on 21 June, the day the doctors said Janie was brain dead. I still feel dreadfully sad much of the time and helpless. A year from now, I won’t be in as bad a place.

Healing takes time… but not only time.

This is where grief is most useful: it can spur you to action. You can get to the point where you ask a very meaningful question: “isn’t there something I can do about this?”

And yes, you can. For one, you can stop lugging around all that weight on your own. Open up to someone close, then open up to a group. I go to grief group every Monday night. I was just there tonight. It’s absolutely the most positive experience for me right now.

For another, you can allow the One who can heal all that hurt to get into you and do what he does: restore. The whole of the gospel of Jesus is about restoration: restoring humanity to a loving relationship with the divine. God won’t leave you. God hasn’t left you. Immortality has its perks.

But the single most awe inspiring, most wonderful, most joy inducing thing about grief is that it is not permanent. If you can be a gracious host to your grief when it is with you for a season, then like a good guest it will leave when its work is done. This is something I cling to. There is something good at the other end of this thing. I still struggle to accept Janie’s death. I will for a long time. But there is a life for me at the other side. Right now, I don’t want it. But when I get there, when I arrive at the other end of this valley, I will.

Several friends of mine have lost someone dear to them: a parent, a dear friend, a child. They are still among us today. They laugh, they joke, they work, they live. Some have walked through their season of grief. Others haven’t.

I am on my road through this valley. I want, more than anything else, to know that those who read this blog and have been or are in a similar situation to mine understand that this is temporary. Life changing? Oh yes. Soul wrenching? You bet. But temporary. And no, time alone will not heal the wound. You have to go into the valley if you want to get to the other side.

So as they say in England, get stuck in. Go after it. Be purposeful. This blog is part of my attempt to do just that. If you’re in this wilderness with me, find your avenue, your outlet, your conduit to go through what is now raging inside of you and, eventually, find your way out of the valley too. That is my prayer. Now pray it with me:

God, your name is holy. Teach us to treat it as such in our daily lives.

May your kingdom come here, and your will be done here as well, just like it is in heaven, where you are.

Give us today what we need.

Forgive what we have done wrong to you and others to the degree that we forgive, because we know that we cannot ask for it unless we freely give it out.

Deliver us from the darkness and the forces therein.

You are King of the kingdom. You are its power, its glory, now and always.


August 23, 2011

Turning down kindness

I am so glad this blog is being read by a wider group of people every day. It’s encouraging to hear that people who have been through a situation such as mine, are single parents, or even folks who haven’t gone through this kind of ordeal are drawing some insight and courage from these posts. That was part of the original intention, and I’m so pleased to see it happening.

Another goal of this blog was to keep people who know me and the kids, knew Janie and want to stay abreast of what’s happening in or world the opportunity to do so. I also want it to be a way to transmit messages that need to put out there but that I haven’t the energy or ability to say to each and every one of you. That was the thought behind the very first post on Janie’s death. Telling the death story over and over again really takes it out of me, so I thought I could put it in one place where anyone with the inkling to find out the details of what went down can go there and read about it.

That is also the intention of this post. I have something to tell all of you, especially those who live nearby.

Many of you who are reading this post today have, since Janie’s death, kindly supplied my family with meals (that we are slowly getting through! So many meals!), offered to babysit or have invited us around to your house for a play date or a birthday and so on. For all of your kindness and good intentions, I want to say a heartfelt thank you, from me and the kids.

I will deal with the last of the three points above first, on coming around to your place. Many of you have invited us around. You may have noticed that we have yet to show up. There are so many reasons for this, but I will try to keep it to four.

1.) We haven’t come around because I don’t have the energy. This will be the case for a long time, still. I am writing this post on Sunday, 21 August. The kids woke up today at 4:30am, and have demanded my attention from that point forward. This is not the case every day, but it does happen more often than I’d care for. But even if they did sleep in every morning, the grief process is wearing. As I have said on this blog before, the processing of this loss happens during waking and sleeping hours. And sometimes, out of the blue, a wave of sorrow blows over me and sucks out the will to live or do anything, really.

But this would seem like an opportune time to come around, wouldn’t you think? Not really. There is the matter of getting the kids ready to go, and once the play date/birthday party/ hang out time is done, there’s the matter of getting them back home, washed, dressed and in bed. This is a lot of work for one guy, and when you are constantly battling with emotional and physical exhaustion, you just don’t want to add to that.

2.) We haven’t come around because of matters pertaining to stability. Seanie and Sophie have just lost their mother. At their young ages, this cornerstone of their short lives literally disappeared from one day to the next forever. This has shaken their foundations and rattled them deeply. As a family, we always had our circle of friends and people the kids knew well, and they were always very keen to hang out with these folks. Suddenly, mommy is gone and now daddy is taking them around to the houses of a whole new batch of people. Suddenly, they have all these new faces, new environments and relational dynamics to contend with. I’m no expert, but my instincts tell me this is a difficult thing for children of their age (or any age) to deal with. So, frankly, I am protecting them. Their circle of acquaintances will grow, but not right away. Remember, it’s just been two months since Janie’s death. I am trying to preserve a sense of continuity for them: their surroundings, their toys, their beds, their routine. This last one brings me to the last point.

3.) We haven’t come around because of matters pertaining to routine and schedule. This point is closely tied to the one above. Janie always came home from work, every night. The kids always had her in their lives, every day, from the day they were born until just over two months ago. She was a part of the rhythm of their lives, and that has suddenly and irrevocably screeched to a halt. That massive and unwelcome change to their routine far eclipses other changes to routine such as naptime, bath time and bedtime, but these other routines must be maintained at all costs in order to preserve a sense of security for the children. That I take them to school, fetch them, take them home, put them down for naps, wake them, feed them, bathe them, play with them and put them to bed at night at the exact same time on our schedule, every day, provides a thread of continuity that helps them cope with the loss. Mommy has gone, but everything else has stayed somewhat the same. So as much as a play date at someone else’s house sounds like a good idea, I am trying to protect my children in this matter, also. Certainly one day out of the week won’t upset them too much, will it? Honestly, I don’t know. Again, I am following my instincts here. I don’t want to mess about with their rhythm just yet.

All of the above said, this does not mean we will never come around. All I am saying is that for now I am turning down almost every invitation to have the kids around for these three reasons. As time passes, I think this will change. Their circle will grow, but it must be done organically, not in response to this tragedy.

So many of you have offered to have us over out of a sense of wanting to help. I can say with sincerity that I am so grateful for your willingness to have us around. However, I have to listen to myself, to my instincts regarding the kids and my own soul when it comes to me. I am not purposefully trying to thwart your well intended attempts to help us. I am simply trying to do what I believe is best for myself and the kids.

Now, on the matter of babysitters: I have followed principle number 2 on this one. I have a babysitter that comes around on Mondays so that I might attend grief group. Her name is Claire and she is the daughter of Faye Weston, who runs the playschool where my children attend. She is well known to the kids, so they feel secure when she is in the house. If I have turned you down for babysitting, it is probably because my kids don’t know you terribly well. In time, you will, and in time, if the offer is still open, I will gladly accept. But not now.

No, food… I have a freezer heaving with meals right now. It is a small freezer at that. To further complicate matters, I am a cook. However, in order to make room for freezable groceries, I first have to clean out the readymade meals that now occupy every square inch of the freezer. Please understand me here, this is NOT me saying that this particular show of concern and care is unwelcome, but the reality is I don’t have any more room left! So, for now, don’t worry about feeding us. Check back in mid-November when I clean out the last meal!

This leaves people living close by to me with very little to go on. Do I not want you to help out in any way at all? Do I really not want any of you folks to be in relationship with me? Have I purposefully shut everyone out? No, people, no.

First of all, there is MUCH you can do, every day, on your own. The most important thing you can do is pray. Pray with others, organize a team, and read this blog to know where we are emotionally, physically and spiritually. If you need more details, shoot me an email. I will gladly fill you in. I had a few almost good days last week, and one amazingly restoring night’s sleep. That is, I believe, as a direct result of your prayers. Our family’s walls are down, our defenses are weak, we are wide open to all kinds of attack. I don’t pray much anymore, mostly for the reasons outlined in point number 1. My prayers normally consist of one word: help. So pray more intelligently than that, and you’ll be doing us a massive favor.

If you want to do more, you can come here and visit. Email or call, and I’ll give you the address. I know that puts the burden of throwing the kids in the car on you, but if you want to help with keeping my kids distracted and have a chat to me so I can have some adult conversation, than that is the way forward. Come here. I WILL return the favor, but right now I just can’t.

Also, if you want to help out with food, come here with your family and I’ll cook for you. That might sound a little odd to you, but cooking is a joy for me. Bring the ingredients. Tell me what you want, and I’ll make it for you. Seriously. Cooking is more relaxing and life-giving to me than pulling a frozen meal out of the freezer. Not that those don’t come in handy, but if you really want to help, then come around for supper. Tell me ahead of time what you’re bringing, and I’ll plan out how I’ll cook the stuff, and we’ll have us an earlyish dinner, and then you can get your kids back home in time for bed, too. This goes for those who don’t have kids too.

I know I can’t have everything I want in life on my terms. Nevertheless, right now I need to go with my gut, and all of the above is what my instinct tells me to do. I must listen to my instincts on this one. I hope you can all understand that.

I know that I will need to go back eventually and do some maintenance work on many of my relationships once I begin to find my feet again. Janie’s passing has massively rocked my world. I do value all of you, all of your shows of care and concern. That I do not reach back every time is not out of ingratitude. I simply do not have the emotional resources to stretch any further at this time. There will come a day when I will be able to do so, and you can expect a phone call on that day.

In the meantime, keep praying for us. Every day is a challenge. Every day has its own hardships. No prayer for us at this time is frivolous, stupid or pointless. I quite literally covet your prayers. That above all is the most important thing you can do.

Originally published August 22, 2011