Losing It and Finding What Works
“what i appreciate about seasons (even though i’d love to live on a beach where it’s perpetually summer) is that we need winter for spring to emerge. dying-winter-grief can feel so dark, ugly, painful and cold but if we hang in & hang on, new life can rise out of the ashes, buds can start to form on bleak, stark limbs.” –Kathy Escobar
It won’t come as any surprise that I have been a bit focused on grief and recovery lately. Even before my recent grief, I was reading about and trying to dig into the idea of what comes after loss. In fact, one of the things I have been working on the last few years is letting go of perfectionism, and with that comes a huge sense of loss. I spent years clinging to and doggedly believing in some ideal existence, this unattainable identity, a perfect picture of what my life and home and family was supposed to look like. Even when it became clear I would never achieve the precise standards I had set for myself, I held on to them ferociously, desperately.
After Lincoln was born, a huge chunk of that perfect family image I had built up in my head was unceremoniously ripped from me. It felt cruel at the time, unfair, unfathomable because I was just sure I was supposed to have the happy little cookie cutter family I had been dreaming of since I was a girl. So much of the sadness over Lincoln’s diagnosis was the pain of me being forced to let go of an unrealistic ideal that had captured and controlled my thoughts for years. I tried so hard to wallow in my anger over that loss, but every time I held that beautiful baby in my arms I knew, just knew down deep in my bones, that he was perfect just as he came to us. Our family would never be cookie cutter again, but there was an infinite sense of freedom in that, too. Nothing was expected of him, or of us in regard to him. There were no milestone charts to pore over, no private schools or ivy league colleges to get him into; there was just this tiny blue-eyed bundle who took our breath away and would show us what he was made of in his own sweet time.
I thought after Linc gave me that first taste of letting go the rest would come easy. I would be an old pro at disentangling my thoughts from the perfectionist tendencies, and I wouldn’t grieve the loss of each aspect of my old ideals because I would know from experience that what was waiting for me on the other side of those old broken down ideals was something so much sweeter. But darned if I don’t still walk around my house and grumble that it isn’t as big or as nice or as clean as I think it should be. I still find myself wanting to hide in a corner when my kids don’t behave like I think they should in public. When I hear about the amazing date nights our friends have, I get the panicky feeling that our marriage isn’t going the way it’s supposed to because we aren’t getting out to dinner and movie once a week. And I am still mired in the sense of loss over the perfect body that I never had and am certainly not going to wake up and discover in the mirror any morning in this lifetime.
Most days, I don’t feel a vast sense of freedom from letting go of the ideal images of what I thought my life was supposed to be. Most days, I feel loss. I feel untethered without those hefty expectations I had been measuring my life against. What’s left after losing the list of should be, should do, should have’s that I had been frantically trying to check off?
I think that sense of being directionless is fairly universal after a loss of any kind. What do I do now? Where do I go and who am I supposed to be now?
I’ve been reading this series called Rebuilding after Deconstructing on Kathy Escobar’s blog. It addresses the deconstruction of faith, the process of watching your old faith groan beneath the weight of growth and change, a transition from inherited faith to a personal faith that does not feel forced or adopted from someone else’s expectations of your faith. Kathy describes deconstruction as a process:
“where much of what we believe shifts.
where things we once held dear unravel.
where the number of questions begin to overtake all of our past certainties.
where we find ourselves saying ‘uh oh, our faith might be in big trouble.’
where we lose the safety of familiar communities because we’ve changed.”
It’s a place I know well, a place I got stuck for almost a decade. It is a painful and unnerving place full of loss. The certainties that came from always knowing the right answer, from having everything spelled out for you, those are gone the moment you enter the deconstruction phase, and their absence leaves a cavernous hole. Deconstruction, just like my experience of divorcing myself from perfectionist ideas and my difficulty adjusting to Linc’s diagnosis, is painful because you have been stripped of your expectations.
In that sense, loss is loss is loss. Even the death of a loved one is painful primarily because it strips us of the expectations we had of shared future experiences with them. Although we have never had those particular set of experiences, we expected to. We expected to hear that person’s voice on the phone again or make them coffee in the morning just like always or rock them to sleep when they woke up crying in the night.
And when we have to swallow the nasty truth that those expectations will not come true, it feels like an over eager kiss from a brick wall. It stops us flat. The Rebuilding after Deconstructing series looks at how to move past that sense of loss, how to hold onto what’s left instead of throwing out your entire faith baby-with-the-bath-water style. The 4th installment talks about finding what works to stay afloat during the days of limbo between deconstruction and rebuilding, and it really resonated with me, with where I am these days.
When I started to go back to church after years of being away, what worked was embracing one of the side benefits of the Sunday morning ritual, a big Sunday breakfast with the family. I still cried every Sunday morning in the shower and came up with a thousand excuses why I couldn’t possibly go to church that day (Linc would be exposed to germs in the nursery, Nico would cry when we left him with strangers, or maybe Sam looked too tired from working the night before and should sleep in), but I took comfort in serving my family a heaping plate of pancakes and bacon, in putting on nice clothes and going somewhere together as a family. The church part scared me, but I held on to the parts that what worked for me until the church part became manageable.
This week, a very wise friend shared with me what her doctor told her after the death of her newborn son. He told her to find the one thing she could eat and stick with it. Eat Lucky Charms for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you have to, just as long as you have one safe choice you can hang on to when just getting out of bed seems impossible. Find that one thing that works, he was telling her, the one thing that can be counted on when everything else has gone to hell.
The doctor had no fear that she would live on Lucky Charms forever, though. During the season of loss, we have to find what works, but there is an understanding that beneath the winter of our grief, the promise of spring is coiled, patiently waiting to push up through the surface and surprise us with its resilience. Or perhaps, surprise us with our own resilience.
Lately I have been reminded how reliable the seasons of our lives are. The winter of grief always comes as a surprise, the sense of loss always feels fresh, sharp, unexpected. The return of spring and life and hope seems unavoidable, but it is no more reliable than the times of winter. My talented brother co-wrote a song called “Glass” that opens with these words :
“Trying to live and love
With a heart that can’t be broken
Is like trying to see the light
With eyes that can’t be opened”
The times of loss are written into the code of our inner workings, wired into the makeup of our brains. Our hearts were made to break and then heal and then break again. I sense the return of spring in my own recent brush with winter as I realize my "thing that works" lately has been holding Lincoln in my lap, feeling the weight of him warm and tangible on my legs, and finding peace and comfort in kissing the child whose very birth four years ago felt like its own descent into an endless winter. The product of another winter, the child whose future we were so unsure of, now wraps his arms around me and drags me, with sticky hands and sloppy kisses, into another spring.
And now, just for fun, here's the video for Glass. Enjoy!