Never Give Up on Hope

My husband and I are on our way back home, after spending time with my brother-in-law, Jim, during his last days on this earth. His journey across the divide was shorter than any of us ever expected. We felt blessed to be able to say our “Farewells” and assure him of our love. My sister was by his side when he breathed his last.

After the initial shock, we helped my sister, her children, and grandchildren plan the memorial service and together we grieved the loss of a great husband, loving father and grandfather, brave fire fighter, loyal friend, gentle servant, and generally funny guy.

As I attempted to ease back into some semblance of normalcy, I logged into my Facebook newsfeed and was greeted by this quote from St. John Paul II, “I plead with you – never ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

I know that many of you may call this “coincidence.” Some of you may say that it is an “ironic happenstance.” Still others may say it is just “pure chance” and that, if I had been greeted by any other quote, my broken heart would have found a way to relate it to this recent loss.

Believe what you will, for me, these words have touched my brokenness with love and reassurance, like no other could.

When someone you have loved for over 54 years passes from this life, the loss has deep physical repercussions. For the last ten days, though I feel profoundly exhausted, my sleep has been fitful. There is a physical sensation in the center of my chest that I can only describe as a heavy emptiness. Symptoms of acid reflux have amped up and tears always seem to be just below the surface during any conversation. The mention of his name, and even the most happy memory puts a lump in my throat and pressure behind my eyes. I feel slightly off-balance and easily distracted. It is difficult to accept the fact that I will no longer see him or speak with him in a physical sense.

My usual daily routine has been everything but normal. I have been trying to nurture my sister as she learns to carry the pain of her widowhood, to be a gentle companion as she attempts to get through this dark forest of grief. In some ways it is the blind leading the blind, but I truly believe the old adage “a burden shared is a burden lightened.”

While it is true that we have lost our parents and many beloved relatives and friends, this loss is different. It is a loss that has stripped away great chunks of her confidence and energy. It is a loss that is felt every time she opens the door to an empty house. It will be experienced each time she gets into the car they bought to accommodate his increasing medical needs. It will fill her days and nights in ways that no one but she will truly understand. Still I hope that when those times come, she feels our love and realizes that though she is lonely, she is not alone.

For now, Jim’s laughter and off-beat sense of humor are conspicuously missing. We all tell ourselves that one day his spirit of joy will again well up in our hearts and shine through our own eyes, but right now we are numb, exhausted, and hurting. Right now, hope is all we have. We are contending with the temptations of doubt, discouragement, and fear. We are leaning on the foundation of our faith and the love of friends and family.

Into the midst of this darkness, today a light has shown. It was like standing in a pitch-black room being fearful of stumbling when a ray of light illuminates the familiar and comfortable surroundings. In my heart I feel Jim reaching through the veil. It is his voice saying, “Never ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

Okay, Jim, I hear you!!

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Being a Good Listener

My comment to an online presentation began something like this, “I am frustrated by the natural process of watching my body age. I am glad my health is improving, but I’m struggling with the cost of that improvement. My husband no longer enjoys my cooking, and I’m bucking up against our doctor’s recommendation for a low sodium, calorie controlled eating plan. Though I’ve tried literally hundreds of new recipes, the vast majority fall short in flavor and/or texture. The joy I’ve always experienced with good home cooked meals is gone. Eating is now practical and functional, but all the enjoyment is gone.”

There were very few respondents who truly understood what I was saying, instead most comments gave advice or answers which worked for them. “Eat more organic food.” “Use more herbs and spices.” “Try the THM diet.” “Get a different doctor.” “Your vision is tainted by old feelings that you are not good enough.” Though much of the advice was good and everyone was honestly trying to be helpful, it was not what I was needing. Skilled psychologists, nutritionists, and physicians are easy to find, I was seeking a friend, a comforter, an ally and good listener…a more scarce commodity.

I know it’s a common habit, I have done it myself, all too often. In an effort to be helpful, I’ve given advice, passed on what has “worked” for me, and related my own experience with a similar circumstance, but did I truly LISTEN? The brutal answer is “Not really!”

Years ago, I participated in a week-long seminar in Epworth, Iowa as part of the Counseling and Learning Institute. The whole week was focused on “understanding and active listening.” I guess I never truly mastered what they tried to teach me, though I’ve been practicing for almost forty years. As I get older, I am realizing how important that process is. I guess it is a step in the right direction that I recognize when I haven’t been a good listener, even though it has usually been an after-the-fact recognition.

I believe it was Steven R. Covey who said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to respond.” It is extremely difficult to listen with the intent to understand. The ego must be disengaged, control must be relinquished, and one must be willing to admit powerlessness. The listener tries to hear the emotion and real message undergirding the words, in an effort to become a mirror so that the speaker can better understand the process taking place within. The listener begins with the belief that the person speaking already has the best pathway and just needs another person to help uncover that direction.

This ability to “let go” is especially difficult for people like me who have come to think of themselves as helpers and healers. We become very uncomfortable in situations where we feel helpless or out of control. Our desire to make things better is challenged by the realities of life and death. Sometimes improving a situation is physically impossible, and we don’t like to admit that truth.

In the statement at the beginning of this blog, the responses which were the most helpful were simple. “It is very difficult to age gracefully.” “You’re feeling angry and wondering if all your sacrifice is worth the results.” “You wish there was an easier route to accepting life as it is.” “Change is always a challenge.” “I’m sending positive energy in your direction!” “It’s a struggle, but you can do it!” They didn’t solve my dilemma, but they let me know I was not alone, pointed the way to hope and helped me find my own courage and perseverance.

As I type this blog, my husband and I are on our way to spend time with my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law is very ill and has been in the hospital for over two weeks. He has recently been given the news that his time on this earth may encompass a year or less. Much of that time, may be filled with doctors, medical procedures, tough treatment decisions, and restrictions.

They have been married 54 years! The stark reality of being separated is leaving their emotions raw. They are frightened and overwhelmed. These same concerns are always lurking in the back of the mind as we age and recognize that we have more years behind than ahead. But the word “terminal” and the shortened window of time brings those issues to the forefront and creates an urgency which batters the psyche and causes disorientation and confusion.

My prayer, as I travel, is that I might be a peaceful presence, that I may truly listen and surround them with love and support in this time of few answers.