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Reflections on marriage shortly after our 3rd Anniversary

A friend asked me recently what I thought constituted a healthy marriage.  Below was my response.

First and foremost, I personally believe that a healthy married couple needs to be equally yolked spiritually/religiously.  This can mean both individuals are Bible thumpers or both are yogi hippies.  John and I believe in the importance of weekly worship at church and weekly introspection and fellowship within a Bible Study.  We say grace before ^most meals and have regular philosophical/theological discussions.

We are on the same page.  

John and I joining our church, Trinity Presbyterian Church, last fall.  When we moved, we made joining a church AND small Bible Study group a priority.

When shit gets real or hard, we have our faith AND the church community to support us. If the couple are yogi hippies, they should have mutually invested in a yogi hippie community that can act as their support network during hard times.  

Spiritual accountability takes a village.

First ever picture we took together!  February 2010 after his band played at IOTA.

More intimately, I believe a healthy marriage is one in which both parties communicate regularly and respectfully.  People will change, but if you are communicating your hopes, dreams, and fears regularly enough, these changes can be anticipated and can make for easier transitions. In our marriage, healthy communication also means not EVER calling each other names and avoiding angry tones.  If one of us uses a condescending or angry tone, we IMMEDIATELY call the person out.  A few deep breaths usually occur or the angry party says we need to revisit this topic at a later time.  But there are healthy couples who have shouting matches and are just fine.  In addition to spiritual/religious affairs, I think you need to be “equally yolked” in your communication styles as well for things to go smoothly.  
Healthy marriages also have each spouse trying to put the other person first.  This means learning the other person’s love language.  John’s love language is acts of kindness and service while mine is a split between verbal and gift-giving.  Because we know this about each other, we each endeavor to demonstrate our love more in the language that the other likes.  
Finally, one of the things that stood out to us in premarital counseling was that we should always order things: God first, then spouse, then kids, then ourselves.  The crucial ordering here is to make sure your kids don’t become the center of your mutual universe.  John is my team mate, my life partner, my best friend.  I should invest in him and that relationship first each day.  
What do you think makes a “healthy marriage”?


Listen/purchase: true that by Michael Cera


Suffering

When I was 22 years old, I had graduated from my dream school (University of Virginia), was living in my dream city (Washington DC), and was engaged to my college sweetheart.  I remember driving down the road dazzled by the huge rock on my finger giddy with happiness but also filled with dread.  

When was the other shoe going to drop?

I knew I was lucky so I said a fervent prayer of thanksgiving because I knew that ultimately all good things came through Him.  

At the time, I was attending McLean Bible Church with my roommates and I heard Pastor Lon Solomon preach on the importance of suffering in honing our faith.  I resented the message.  I hadn’t experienced any real suffering yet in my life but I was as faithful and appreciative as I could be.  

Because I hadn’t suffered did that mean I couldn’t be a “good” Christian?  

(keep in mind these were 22 year old whitney’s thoughts)  

I tried reading Pastor Solomon’s book Brokenness and it still got my goat so to speak.  I disagreed strongly then (and now) that God caused his daughter to suffer and by extension Pastor Solomon, but I was still reluctantly drawn to this message that suffering was somehow a key part of being Christian.

Nearly a decade later, I’ve suffered a broken engagement, my parent’s divorce, a car accident, and the loss of my mother and grandmother - in addition to a thousand other smaller disappointments and struggles.  

I know now: suffering is an inevitable part of living in a broken world.  How we choose to deal with this suffering can do a lot to further God’s kingdom.

This does not mean that you have to suffer to be Christian, but the Bible does call all of us to prepare ourselves to deal with the brokenness of this world.  

As I suffer through this season of grief, I am simultaneously rejoicing in all the gifts and blessings I have been given.  I fear these grief posts sound more melancholy than reflective.  Friends, know while I still suffer, I do have a lot to praise Him for.  There is joy in my life.  

While I don’t feel like the same outgoing, exuberant self yet, I am grappling with my new normal and taking the good with the bad.  I pray that I’m growing into a stronger, more caring person because of my suffering and that I will be better able to minister to others.

Thank you for being with me on this journey.


Undetermined

Just two days after I wrote my last grief update, my mother’s sweet general practitioner called and patiently and sympathetically explained the autopsy results to me.

Undetermined cause of death.  I don’t really want to share the details in public, but it is safe to say she died due to complications involving her Transverse Myelitis.  Spinal chord injuries can cause all sorts of things to misfire so they have no way of determining the proximate cause of death.  

I was scared it could be other things.  An overdose whether on purpose or accident would have been devastating for a multitude of reasons.  Heart disease or stroke could create anxiety for my own mortal fate.

Funny that no answer could be a good answer. 

Everything points to her going quickly and painlessly.  I take comfort in that as well.

I saw her no more than 30 minutes before she died.  I am still grappling with guilt as to why I didn’t stay with her, but I’m trying to take solace that this was the Lord’s will.  When I returned with Quincy in tow no more than 45 minutes later, the EMTs were already there.  

One of the EMTs (who had obviously drawn the short straw that day) told me that when they arrived mom didn’t have a pulse.  I collapsed. Why were they still in there then?  What was happening?  He ushered me out into the hall for what felt like an eternity.  

Aside - I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch a tv show or movie scene depicting resuscitation without crying.  The first movie I saw after mom died was The Captain America: Winter Soldier (an action movie is safe, right?), but Samuel L. Jackson’s character (spoiler alert) fakes his death and when they pushed the drugs and pulled out the paddles, I LOST it.  There I was sobbing uncontrollably over “Nick Fury.”  

After the seemingly unending chaos of trying to resuscitate her dissipated and they told me the news with all the finality they could muster, I became irrationally concerned about mom not being alone.  

Logically she wasn’t there anymore.  She was in heaven.

But I didn’t want her to be alone.  It didn’t feel right.  

I fought the urge to go in there.  Both an EMT and my friend who had arrived to be with me urged me not to go see her.  I’m glad I didn’t. Thank you Lord that I wasn’t with mom when she initially died.  How would I be scarred by trying to resuscitate her myself?  Thank you Lord for the beautiful memories I have of my mother.  She wouldn’t want me to see her in that state.

So the good news is that I’ll soon have certified copies of the death certificate and I can settle my mother’s affairs for good.  The bad news is that I get to settle my mother’s affairs for good.  When everything is checked off the list, nothing is left.  Nothing.

Nothing but the raw emotions of a daughter missing her mother.


Haunted

It’s been 3 months and 8 days since mom died, and we still don’t have cause of death or a death certificate.

Accounts need to be closed.  Final funeral bills need to be paid.  But we can’t do any of it without an official death certificate.  Each month I find a new recurring payment and have to call and argue with the company that my mother has been long gone and couldn’t possibly need their goods/services any longer.  Each month, I hope I can settle her affairs to no avail.  

But happens when I do?  Will that give me closure?

I am also racked with guilt because my mother is currently in an unmarked grave.  

I know she would have high standards for her grave marker so I’m trying to figure out how to get one of her geodes embedded in a custom piece of granite (she was a geologist), but I’m overwhelmed and tired of dealing with a million little things.  Should I just order a plain granite marker?  The graveyard hasn’t been responsive which hasn’t helped - I guess their work isn’t urgent.

Three times I’ve dreamt I’m on a runaway train.  I go to the engine car and there’s no conductor and I panic, feeling like I”m passing everyone and everything that I love.  I need to get off the train, but the train just keeps going and going.  There’s no imminent danger like a cliff or broken bridge, just a never-ending line of track.  There are people on the train, but I don’t know anyone.  My grief is a runaway train over which I have no control and on which I feel very, very alone.

The other night, I dreamt I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom and I woke up at 1am and couldn’t go back to sleep (very meta).  In the dream, I picked up the book I was reading in real life (The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion) and finished the last chapter.  It underwhelmed me - as most endings do.  I felt the urge to write a review on Amazon and a post on Facebook but I realize my computer is in my parent’s bedroom and their door is shut (funny I thought “parent’s” bedroom since they haven’t been together for 7 years).  So I decide to go to the bathroom but I open the door and the room is full of CLEAN laundry.  I climb over it and realize that it’s all of my mother’s clothes - she had a lot of clothes - it’s clean but disorganized just like it was in real life.  The clothes are covering the toilet and I can’t relieve myself.  Quincy cried and I woke up.

I finished the book today - “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Joan Didion writes about her grief and the year following the death of her husband of nearly 40 years.

Much of what she said was beautiful and poignant and rambling.  I think that might be the nature of grief…unfocused, confusing, and disorienting…I read these books about grief looking for answers and find none, but I do find compatriots in the battle for self and a new normal after loss.  When you lose a unique and all-consuming connection like a spouse or parent, it is isolating and lonely and you have to find a way to redirect all of that energy you used to spend on that person.  You miss the codependency that you used to resent, and you don’t know how to fill the time.  You feel like you should spend the time reflecting on that person or serving them in some way.  I am just now getting to a point where I’m trying to figure out how to live my own life and make my own choices and to spend the time the way I want, but it is very hard.  

Thank you again to all of my friends and family who have been there for my brother and me.  We are still hurting.  We are still haunted.  We need you.


Ramble On - Grief is not Linear

Allegedly, there are five stages of normal grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying:”

1. Denial and Isolation

2. Anger

3. Bargaining

4. Depression

5. Acceptance

I’ve heard other variations with more steps but I think any one of the numerous and crazy feelings I’ve felt in the last 10 short/long weeks (yes I’m counting) fit into one of the five categories above.

But I’ve also been told by several doctors and people that I’m suffering from “complicated grief” because I was my mom’s caregiver and so many family dynamics have been thrown into disarray.  And let’s not forget that I lost my Grandmother just 4 weeks after my mother.  

That’s been the kicker.

I was preparing for Grandmother to pass and my mother and I were going to lean on each other to get through it.  Likewise if my Grandmother hadn’t been put on hospice a few days before my mom passed, she would have been crucial to helping me get over that grave loss.  They were my people.  I lost my people.

(This is me THREE HOURS OLD.  How the hell does my mother look that good only 3 hours after giving birth!?)

(My mother and Grandmother at Thanksgiving circa 2005 or 2006.  They were dear friends and spoke to each other nearly every day until my grandmother got ill last year.  A rarity for a mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, no?)

The thing I’ve realized is that this process is nothing but linear, but really what in life IS linear?  

I vaguely remember reading Jacques Barzun (or someone of his ilk) lamenting the Western conception of time being a bold march forward when we have so much evidence to the contrary.  If history and civilizations are cyclical, if the seasons are cyclical, then surely our individual lives are as well?  

My first inkling of this was when I got hit by that SUV back on March 31, 2009.  

Not only did I see the remarkable cycle of parenting and being parented, but I also had some painful physical ailments to overcome which gave me a new body to maneuver.  

I started practicing Iyengar yoga in January 2008 and until my car accident, I could fold myself in half and had greatly increased my flexibility and balance.  The car accident gave me a new body/challenge.  My awesome yoga teacher Lori encouraged me not to look at my yoga practice as a linear progression but to approach the mat each day without any preconceived notions.  Likewise, I had FINALLY figured out how to kick up into handstand when I got pregnant with Quincy.  While I was able to do handstand until halfway through the pregnancy and I could do other inversions until week 37, postpartum it took nearly a year to get my balance back for a lot of my inversions. I had my most enjoyable yoga practices when I stayed in the present instead of dwelling on what I “used to be able to do.”

Being present is so important to grief.  My grief counselor chastised me last week because I asked her how I could force myself to grieve more in order to essentially “get it over with.”  She assured me that isn’t how it works and after much pleading from me she finally told me to expect my world to be topsy turvy “for at least a year.”  She was even hesitant to say that, but I was desperate for some benchmark on which to judge my sanity and my grief.  What she encouraged me to do (instead of my usual over-achieving-checking-things-off-the-list thing) was to just let grief in/out whenever it happens.  Yes, there will be times in a business meeting for instance when I can’t just unzip and let it out, but I shouldn’t fight grief when every time it threatens to boil over.  She encouraged me to be present with my grief and to reflect on it.  

So I journal.  I look at old pictures.  I look for my mother and grandmother in my son’s facial expressions and gestures.  I look for them in me.  

In many ways, I feel like my mother died yesterday.  In just as many other ways, I feel like my mother died 11 years ago when she got sick.  Either way, I feel very alone.  I know I’m not.  I’m thankful for my brother and for my awesome and patient husband, but I was my mother’s only daughter and she my only mother.  It’s irreplaceable.  

(my mom sipping a milkshake on my wedding day - how cute is she?!)

This is a rambling blogpost, but my grief rambles and rambles on (cue Led Zeppelin).


The Day I Got Hit By A Car

March 31, 2009

My mother was actually in DC that day visiting me on one of her marathon visits (before we moved her to Virginia, she would come to visit 2x a year for about 10 days each time).  I was still single then and she shared my queen sized bed with me.  I awoke that morning to the sound of her vomiting over the edge of my bed.  Great.  I got her a wet wash cloth and cleaned it up and she begged me to go get her more Excedrin Migraine medicine.  

I emailed work to let them know I would be an hour late, and left to get the medicine.  I didn’t want to lose my coveted street parking spot in Ballston so I walked instead of drove to the grocery store (also to blow off the steam of such a disappointing morning).   Then, I made sure mom was comfortable, had eaten, and was still ready to catch her taxi later that day for her flight home (she had been there for 10 days and I was ready to regain my privacy).  

So there I was walking across the intersection of 13th and L st NW one hour later than usual, just one block from my office, and I was literally lamenting my entire morning and my mother’s ailments in my head as the Lord sagely decided to ram me with a Lexus SUV.  Correction: I know the Lord doesn’t cause evil in this world, but He has definitely used this episode of physical pain and suffering to bring me closer to Him.

I didn’t tell many people this story before my mother died.  

I was ashamed of the thoughts I was thinking when I got hit by that car and thrown 20 feet in the air, but thankfully there’s more to this day.  

After I came to on the pavement, a stranger called 911 and another asked me who I’d like them to call. I told them to call my office and gave them the number - we were just a block away after all.  I prayed none of my coworkers would call my roommate because it would invariably derail my mother getting on her plane or so I thought.  There I was lying in the street in shock, not knowing if I broke anything, or had a serious injury and I was still determined to get my mother on that plane.  As the ambulance carried me away, I prayed no one would tell my mom.  But they did.  My roommate Mandy drove my mother to the GW hospital.  

And then I had some of the most precious hours I have had with my mother in the last 11 years.  

Despite having been out of commission when I left her just an hour earlier, she walked into that hospital full of adrenaline and Mama Grizzly (she would resent that reference) spitfire.  She demanded the nurse get me ice chips.  She held my hand and stroked my hair.  She pushed for information from the doctors.  For a few hours, she was the exuberant, confident mama I grew up with.  It was amazing.

After the initial Xrays and tests showed I hadn’t broken anything and that they just needed to keep me overnight on concussion watch, I talked her into taking a taxi to the airport anyways.  And she complied!  For once she admitted her limitations and that I wouldn’t be in any condition to take care of her as usual when I got released from the hospital.  She got on the plane.  

Before my mother died, I mainly thought of the day I got hit by the car as shameful evidence of me breaking the commandment to honor my mother and as evidence of me being a selfish brat.  But now I step back and see the beauty and balance in me starting the day taking care of her and ending it with her taking care of me as best she could.  

I have poured so much care and emotion into my mother over the last decade and this day is now a gleaming example that MY mother was still in there and kicking…somewhere.  And it reminded me of what a great mom she was to me growing up…always encouraging and supportive…providing unconditional love but also any necessary kicks in the butt…a challenging and inspiring mama.  

For 19 years she carried and cared for me and for the last 11, I tried my best to return the favor.  I often feel like I failed her, but I’m sure she felt the same.  Now I am just thankful that I had this day to remind me of what it felt like to be cared for by my mama.


Our Deepest Fear

Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson


Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. 
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. 
It is our light, not our darkness
That most frightens us.

We ask ourselves
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? 
You are a child of God.

Your playing small 
Does not serve the world. 
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking 
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We are all meant to shine, 
As children do. 
We were born to make manifest 
The glory of God that is within us.

It’s not just in some of us; 
It’s in everyone.

And as we let our own light shine, 
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. 
As we’re liberated from our own fear, 
Our presence automatically liberates others.


Note:
 This inspiring quote on our deepest fear is taken from Marianne Williamson’s inspiring book A Return to Love. Though often quoted as part of Nelson Mandela’s moving inaugural speech, “Our Deepest Fear” does not appear in the speech. Marianne Williamson herself has commented on this mistaken attribution. For Marianne’s website, click here. For other highly inspiring poems, click here



Grief needs Beauty

I first heard the term "#Grief Needs Beauty" when the spunky gal who took our engagement photos in 2011 (ergo an acquaintance/person-whose-blog-I-stalk) lost her dear mother to breast cancer in January.  

"Why does grief need beauty?" I naively thought.

She took pictures of pink sunsets, flowers, tea sets, and artwork that inspired her.  Being a photographer, I thought maybe that is just how she was processing her loss, visually.

I did not know then how ugly death could be.  

Little did I know that in just two short months I would visit my Grandmother Lee for the last time and see the ugliness that ovarian cancer had wrecked on her usually dignified and upright body.  Little did I know that I would lose my own mother suddenly for no explicable reason and how ugly that would make me feel inside and out.  Little did I know that I would have to move the rug over the blood on her floor while we sorted through her things to keep, donate, or sell.  Little did I know the ugliness that death would bring out in certain people whom I loved.  

After suffering the severe loss of my dear Grandmother Lee last week, I had to cry uncle to my boss.  Before my work had been a welcome distraction and means to focus me away from my grief… though admittedly it was really tough.  

But losing my Grandmother put me over the edge.  I cowered on the floor under my desk because I felt so low and because both of the beds in my house had been piled high with my mother’s belongings just that morning so we could vacuum the floor.  

I asked for a two week unpaid sabbatical which she graciously granted.  With the incomprehensive grief, a small child, and the onus of handling my mother’s estate, I haven’t had time to keep my normally organized household up to even my lowest standards nor process a lot of the complicated emotions and relationships I have been grappling with.  My husband, John, has been amazingly supportive, and I find his past experience with sudden loss extremely Providential, however, grief is very isolating and losing a parent its own unique experience.

Last week, I retreated to my in-laws so they could take care of my son (John was out of town for work) and then I flew by myself to Texas to honor my Grandmother and spend time with my dear brother.  

This week, I am seeking beauty.  

I am cleaning and organizing my house: an orderly house is beautiful to me.

I am reading my mother’s journals, finishing her scrapbook, and celebrating her beauty inside and out.  

I am gathering momentos from my beautiful Grandmother Lee from around my house and am eagerly awaiting the items I picked out from her apartment on Friday and had shipped (with insurance) by UPS.  

I plan to go to an antique store to find a beautiful wooden chest, my own variation of a hope chest. In it, I will store my mother’s journals and some of the precious items that remind me of my grandmother and mother…these two women who made me who I am today.  I want to be able to visit them when I miss them and I hope this chest will help.  Don’t worry I’m not hiding everything away.  I have photos and momentos of them all over my house already…the most mundane things remind me of them both…but I’d like to visit them and since they are both buried in Texas, I need this chest.

I hope this week is also filled with long walks, reading, and yoga and the beginning of some peace for my weary soul.  

Psalm 34:17-18 “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is near the brokenhearted; He saves those crushed in spirit.”

Beauty is transcendental and gives hope of a world beyond this broken one.  

I also seek beauty because grief is so isolating…especially when you lose a parent all too soon.  It’s a small club.  I now follow online two fellow soldiers (Kristen, the above mentioned acquaintance/photographer) and an old friend from college who lost her mother suddenly in November.  

Transcendental beauty makes me relate to the artist or our Creator and reminds me that I am indeed not alone.


Websites I visit EVERY day and have for at least two years or more

My favorite news commentary: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/

My favorite mommy blog that I read before she was even a mommy: http://lovetaza.com/ (and she doesn’t even post every day but I still go! every. day.)

My favorite fashion blogger: http://whatiwore.tumblr.com/

My go-to giggle of the day: http://surisburnbook.tumblr.com/

Yep, this pretty much sums me up.  

I’d love to hear what sites my friends can’t live without?  Don’t just tell me your RSS feeds…what are the urls you type directly in or have bookmarked so you can go directly there every day?