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A Grateful Heart

Sunday, May 13, 2012
I recently finished reading a book given to me by my good friend, Catherine Stradinger. She had read it after losing her father and it helped deliver her out of the pit of grief. She gave it to me in March of last year but I have cautiously read books on grief, one at a time, when I felt like the timing was right. I finally picked up this one several weeks ago, and now I know why God used it for such a time as this, in this particular part of my grieving process. It is entitled, “Tracks of a Fellow Struggler”, and is written by John R. Claypool. John is a pastor who lost his daughter to leukemia when she was ten years old. This small book is the compilation of his sermons that he preached to help him through his struggles during her illness and after her death. I finished it while on an airplane this past week and its final chapter quickly nudged me down the road that will lead me out of this darkness. He referred to it at the “Road of Gratitude”.

Using the example of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Claypool says, “God was trying to teach Abraham…the basic understanding that life is a gift – pure, simple, sheer gift – and that we here on earth are to relate to it accordingly.” We have not done anything to earn it or deserve it, and yet God gives us the gift of life. I was a gift to Michael and he was a gift to me…neither of us deserving one another, but the gift was given for our enjoyment. He goes on to say, “And when I remember that the appropriate response to a gift, even when it is taken away, is gratitude, then I am better able to try and thank God that I was ever given her in the first place.”

In the first few weeks and months following Michael’s death, I told many people that I was so thankful for the life that I did have with Michael. I was thankful for the 24 years that I had. I was thankful for the rewarding marriage I had with him. I was thankful that my kids were old enough to remember what a great father he was. I was thankful that Michael Anthony was old enough to remember the example that his dad had set on how to treat a wife. I was thankful that God chose me to be the recipient of the gift of Michael Barranco. This was all in the initial shock stage of grief, and then the pain, the void, and the loss began to set in with all of its weight and darkness. It got so dark at times in this valley that I had a hard time stirring up even a glimmer of my grateful heart.

I am making a conscious decision to try to focus on having a grateful heart. I need to try to stop focusing on the past and what things used to be like with Michael in our lives. I need to stop thinking about what I don’t have anymore… I want to focus on what I do have. This is going to take a constant effort. It will not be easy at first, but I need to set an example for my kids.

We need to keep looking to the future, make plans, and keep dreaming.

Claypool’s final statements settled deep into my soul and lifted my chin up where it should be. “Everywhere I turn I am surrounded by reminders of her – things we did together, things she said, things she loved. And in the presence of these reminders, I have two alternatives. I can dwell on the fact that she’s been taken away, and dissolve in remorse that all of this is gone forever. Or, focusing on the wonder that she was ever given at all, I can resolve to be grateful that we shared life, even for an all too short ten years. There are only two choices here, but believe me, the best way out for me is the way of gratitude. The way of remorse does not alter the stark reality and only makes matters worse. The way of gratitude does not alleviate the pain, but it somehow puts some light around the darkness and creates strength to begin to move on.” I am grateful that we ever even had Michael for the time that we did. He was a gift from God. I am grateful that we shared a life, even if it was short in our terms. A grateful heart will bring light into the darkness and, I believe, it will give me more strength as I exercise it.

Claypool gives this advice to his church from the pulpit, “I need you to help me on down the way, and this is how: do not counsel me not to question, and do not attempt to give me any total answers. Neither one of those ways will work for me. The greatest thing that you can do is to remind me that life is a gift – every particle of it, and that the way to handle a gift is to be grateful.”

With this said, I have decided to stop writing on this particular blog. I believe that God’s purpose in having me do this is now finished. Not that the healing process is over, because that will continue on for years to come. I have come through my long journey in the valley of the shadow of death but there are still repercussions of having experienced the valley. I am planning on moving onward at a stronger pace, with a stronger heart. I will still need and seek solitude for strength, because I have needed it in that form my whole life. I will still lean towards the introverted side, because this is my nature. I will always have setbacks, because there is no magic formula. I will always miss him, as well as what he brought and added to our lives…. But, I will try to focus on the things for which I have to be grateful and try not to let the remorse bring me down to places so low that I may get stuck down there. As Claypool said, “I know that gratitude does not alleviate the pain, but it somehow puts some light around the darkness and creates strength to begin to move on.” I am ready for some light around this darkness. I want to feel the warmth of the light on my face again. I turn my grateful heart towards heaven and give it to God. I don’t know what the future holds but I believe God’s words in Jeremiah 29:11,” ‘For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

I am grateful for that promise.

Sinking Spell

Friday, May 4, 2012
I have felt it building all week. A little weight here, a little weight there. Each day has brought an added heaviness from unexpected places at unexpected times. I still need time each day, in solitude, to continue the healing and to process my new life and all of the new demands on it, but, most of the time, I am not getting that time. The more time that passes without quiet space, the more frazzled I become. This makes my inner emotional volcano steadily build with each day that passes where there has not been a space in my day to pull away, be alone, contemplate, be quiet, and process. I process all things best while in solitude. It restores me, refreshes me, clears my mind, and helps me make more sound decisions than when I do not have that time alone. It does not have to be much…sometimes 30 minutes alone can feel like a personal retreat. In my “previous life”, I continually had my own processing time each afternoon when I would make the kids read for an hour on their beds. I would read sometimes on my bed during that time, or I would just lie there and absorb the silence and time to think.

Michael recognized this need of mine and always created some space for me on Saturdays and Sundays because he could see how it settled me. Because I have always homeschooled, there were never built-in frames of time in each day that I could count on being alone, so it always took planning to set a small amount of time aside for me. When Mia was our only child, Michael took her to a local Jewish deli every Saturday morning that also served a great breakfast. She would take her doll along with her and order pancakes every time. Irv, the older man who owned the restaurant, would always come by their table each week to visit with them. After breakfast, they would walk to the huge fountain in the courtyard area in the shopping center where the deli was located. He would let her throw lots of coins and walk around the edges of the fountain. He continued this tradition as each child was added and stopped doing it only because the place closed after decades of being open since the couple needed to retire and there were no family members to step in and keep it going. Those Saturday mornings were precious to me. I did not fill them with busyness but kept things slow, quiet, and restorative.

I have regularly found myself in sinking spells this past year when I have not had enough time alone to process my new life. This week, with each passing day, I have felt myself sinking in spirits. Loneliness creeps in, the awareness of the absence of joy, the overwhelming reality of parenting alone and managing a household, the weightiness of being the sole decision maker, and the vacuum that was once filled with Michael’s life take it’s toll. Then suddenly, I cannot take one more step forward without having to come to a screeching halt.

This afternoon I came to my screeching halt. I had taken Michael Anthony out to meet one of Mia’s college buddies to join him and a group of his friends in an air-soft war. I felt the heaviness in the air around me on the drive out there and then once he got out of the car, I gave final instructions, rolled up my window, and I felt everything caving in on me. The tears from Sunday came gushing up just as quickly as they always do and I felt the need to have a hard cry but had to drive 20 minutes back home. I was tempted to call a friend on the phone to talk and cry my way back home with her on the phone but decided to handle it alone. It is getting harder to reach out and share those moments with people the further away we get from February 22, 2011. Most people have moved on with their grief at a completely different speed than I have, and for obvious reasons, and when I am needing to stop and cry, I feel like it catches some people off guard that I still need to frequently do that. It reminds me of a blog post that I wrote about 12 months ago called, Things Are Not What They Seem.

"I know it is only natural for us to look at someone and make a judgement call on how they are doing.... they look nice, are dressed sharp, nice hair, smile on the face, can converse about the details of dailyness, and even answer ‘good’ when asked how they are doing. Things are not what they seem. In everyone's lives, there is so much going on sub-level. We have all learned how to show the side that we think people want to see. We can become, what John Eldredge refers to as, a poser. I have never wanted to be a poser and work hard at being transparent, but, lately, I have found that putting on a face is really my way of surviving ‘outside of the box’. Don't be fooled... beneath the surface, the kids and I are still ‘inside the box’. “

In another post entitled, Business as Usual, I speak of the exact same thoughts that I am feeling again now. I call these "boomerang emotions"…they keep coming back no matter how hard I try to get rid of them.

“I know many people assume that when I am not posting anything new, things must be going well. Other people I know begin to pray more for me when I am not writing because they recognize that it could mean I am pulling away, going deeper inside the box. The second is more the truth. Even though I appear as if I am functioning and doing my daily tasks, the longer I operate ‘outside the box’, the more I privately go ‘inside the box’ on the inside. Sometimes I must function for longer periods of time outside, but all I really want to do is disappear to my room and focus on my aching heart that is always present, no matter what I am doing or where I am. As I get busy with life schedules and decision making, and the longer I go without writing, the more lonely and sad I am and the more I feel the need to allow myself to pull away to be quiet, write, reflect, cry without anybody watching, and do nothing. The more I write, the better I am on a daily basis. Facing the reality of the loss daily is much better than staying in a busy state, which does not allow me the time to feel, discern, contemplate my life, or to hear from God. There must be a balance between the two and my emotional state seems to suffer when I stay in one place too long, inside or outside. Most all of the time, it is too much time outside.”
The adjustment continues daily in this new life of mine (I still feel like I am grinding gears throughout the day as I shift from one way of doing things to another and from one emotion to another) and, because of the wound of having something severed from my life, the healing time and space is even more imperative than it was before. I have been fighting back the tears ever since I forced them back down this past Sunday after my encounter of “seeing” Michael. Today, I grinded gears all day, as I had to attend to a variety of choices and tasks within my house. I had to face a small portion of Michael’s side of the closet…. out of necessity.

Behind one of his shelves is our main security panel for the house security system. It was time for the annual system check so I needed to clear out the space for workmen. Thank goodness I had already done most of his shoes, which used to be the majority of things in front of the security panel. Between Michael Anthony and my 24 year old nephew, I had slowly pulled out shoes over the last several months to give them as needed. While I was going through what was necessary today, I thought, “Maybe I can handle one of these drawers too…”. I decided that the sock drawer directly above the panel would be relatively free of emotions…. I was wrong. Michael had this funny little habit with his socks. He was a dress sock “horse”. (Some say he was clothing horse too.) He always looked great and wore nothing but the best from head to toe. He probably had at least 30 pair of stylish men’s dress socks. He would have favorites that he loved to wear every week. In an attempt to always have all of his favorites as options each day, he would take off his socks at the end of the day, fold them back together and put them back into the sock drawer. I was greatly puzzled by this one time when I noticed so many socks folded in his drawer that had the full size shape of his foot in them. He said he may want to wear a certain pair before it is laundry day, so he kept them in the drawer! It baffled me but I would laugh about it and he would even giggle at himself about it. When I opened the sock drawer today and began lifting up pairs of socks, I discovered, again, his little habit. Within the drawer were about 5 pairs of used socks folded back into place, with his full-sized foot shape formed into the bottom of the socks. I smiled and thought of our many little friendly banters in the closet discussing his sock secret. After discovering this unique sign of him in the sock drawer, a sign of his life, his quirks, his habits, I could not bring myself to finish the job. I straightened the contents of the drawer a bit, picked up each pair that had been worn, then placed them neatly back into the drawer and shut it for another day.

....I have begun to learn when to catch myself so that the sinking spell does not go too far because it can require a great deal of strength to lift myself back up out of the box.