It Can Be Just So Terrifically Awesome! (Conversations About Cancer pt. 3)

(Part 3 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful (pt. 2 – click here) and awesome results.)

I still remember talking with a recent acquaintance who knew Jeff had just been diagnosed with cancer. She innocently asked a question about his health and prognosis to which there wasn’t a positive answer. It was an awkward moment. And she handled it perfectly. She looked right at me, giving me her fullest attention, slowed her speech so she was very clear, and said from her heart, “I’m so very sorry.” Nothing more. She was slightly uncomfortable, but comfortable at the same time. And I was comforted – by her sincerity. By her honesty. She saw me. Heard me. Even though we didn’t know each other very well, she didn’t let the awkwardness keep her from acknowledging the gravity of what I had shared.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

Good conversations, especially those between older and younger women should be immortalized.

There was the friend I invited over to my home for dinner and we went into my office so we could talk. We’ve known her for years and she loves our family. It was the first time I was able to tell her our news.  She wept bitterly and gave full expression to her sadness for us. And I felt so deeply loved by her tears and the lack of shame in letting them go.

There was the friend in another part of the world I spoke to on the first day we heard Jeff’s initial diagnosis. The unexpectedness of our news squeezed a surprised and soft “Wow” out of her as she processed what it was I had just said. And, after a few moments, emotion washed through her voice as she simply and quietly said, “I am so sorry for you two.” As I sat there in shock, she then asked the right questions and allowed me to tap into her wisdom. She listened and counseled and did what older women are supposed to do in those moments. She led. And it was so great not to have to lead when it took all I had in that moment to just sit upright and keep breathing.

There were the crazy friends who, during one of Jeff’s stays in ICU, when things were so uncertain, drove a long way to be with me. They brought me food. Good food too. They let me talk all I wanted, made me laugh like only they can, engaged me in a real conversation…and then prayed over me as we all cried.  It was the ugly kind of cry too, with sobs and snot and running make up – the kind you only want to do in front of those who really love you.  And I felt very understood, cared for and loved.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

Sometimes we do the carrying. Sometimes we are carried. And it is beautiful.

There was the text message that asked just the right question at just the right time that saved me from going down a dark path. I wrote about it here. And I felt gratitude that someone dared to not let me go off on my own when I needed to stay connected.

There was the friend who doesn’t really hug very much who let me bury my head on her shoulder and sob. I know she was praying for me in my helplessness. And I felt the specialness of her gift to me, of her coming out of her comfort zone because I needed her. She put my needs ahead of her own. She even made me drink some water because she recognized I wasn’t doing well and couldn’t take care of myself. I don’t really remember how I felt in that moment because my nervous system was fried with fear and grief and unknown. But I wasn’t alone in it because my friend was there with me.

There was the older woman friend of mine who came and sat with me in the hospital, just to be present so I wasn’t alone in a moment when I really didn’t need to be alone. I didn’t have to talk if I didn’t want to, but I could if I felt like it. Even when I wasn’t sure what sort of emotional response I might have and that made me very nervous about another being with me, it felt very safe. And good.

There were the phone calls from friends I hadn’t seen in years, but had to talk with me. There were the emails and texts from around the globe from people who know and love both Jeff and I. There were the personal visits from those who had to really work to get to where we were but came anyway. In all this I felt…so grateful that friends didn’t let time or distance or fear or awkwardness keep them away.

It turns out, many many many of the conversations I have had about Jeff’s cancer have been awesome. Not in a “ha ha, hey, let’s throw a party” kind of way…but in a deep “we are here with you” kind of way. I haven’t had to be alone, either in my heart or in my outer world. These awesome conversations have been about more than just the exchange of words – but the exchange of love, relationship and presence. More than encouraging, but soul-defining. A blessing. A gift I get to keep the rest of my life. Who knew? That in the face of so much pain, there would, at the same time, be so much joy? Treasures hiding under the muck.

From these friends I’ve learned so much about communication and connection. About love. About how to listen. About what it feels like when another approaches my pain – and how to do the approaching… especially in those fragile, tender moments when a heart is breaking.

No wonder God wants us connected to each other, in authentic community and relationship. To not hide, to open ourselves to one another in all its messiness and hang out there – by the roadside together until the hurting one can get up and walk again. Offering grace. Taking turns taking care of each other – because each of us will be the hurting one at some point.

And I feel so grateful to those who know how to communicate, how to be human, how to be compassionate…how to stay with someone in pain and not run in fear or from the awkwardness. My interactions with them haven’t always been neat and clean and pretty, but they’ve always been real.

And the best part? Those friends always brought Jesus with them. And that is always an awesome experience.

Pr. 17:17 A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.

Pr. 25:11 A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.

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It Can Be Just So Terribly Awful (Conversations About Cancer pt. 2)

(Part 2 in my series on what it is like to talk with people about pain and the awkward (pt 1 – click here), awful  (today) and awesome (up next) results.)

It was one of the many, many times I’ve been sitting in a hospital waiting room while Jeff was in a major surgery, and I was talking with one of the many, many people who have visited me during these times and tried to bring comfort. And while I was grateful for the effort, it went horribly, horribly off the rails.

As he sat down, he began talking. And talking. And talking. (Let me preface this by saying I’m a pretty good listener. A decent conversationalist, able and willing to do healthy give and take. This story isn’t about me wanting to monopolize a conversation but about what was appropriate considering the situation.) At first, given our context, I couldn’t believe he didn’t really ask me how I was doing or feeling, beyond just the obligatory greeting. So the first time he took a breath I decided to try and volunteer some of my story. If you know me or have ever read this blog in the past, then you know I am kind of honest about heart and spiritual stuff. I didn’t go all Job on him, lamenting from the darkest places of my soul, but I was describing something of my fear and weariness and grief – as I thought was appropriate for a hospital waiting room. I assumed he would be interested and able at least to let me say what I needed to say and at least, tell me, “I’m so sorry.”

Um, I was wrong. He looked at me, not with rejection, (thank goodness) but with confusion. Like an actor must on stage when a fellow actor deviates from the script. He had no idea where to go or what to do with what I had just said.

So he began doing what many… so many have done with me in conversation when the topic of my husband’s cancer and what it has done to our lives comes up. He continued talking. And talking. And talking.

After a few tries to join the conversation, I just stopped talking to see if he would notice. He didn’t. For well over 30 minutes. At first it was sort of comical. I thought I was having an out-of-body experience, wondering where the hidden camera was. And then it just started to hurt. Because I was having to listen to him when I should have been given the gift to talk. Because I actually needed my intellectual bandwidth to manage my own stuff and he was taking it from me. Because in a moment when I was supposed to be loved, I wasn’t. And it hurt.

My guess as to what he was doing? I have several theories. First, he could have been trying run out the clock on our conversation – and by not giving me space to talk, he was avoiding having to go to an uncomfortable place spiritually or relationally. Second, he may have been working with the good intention that keeping my mind busy, off my circumstance and a few moments of distraction would be helpful. (I’ve been surprised to realize that many pastoral visits seem to operate from this mindset.) Third, he may have thought that his words were actually helping, that in that moment what I really needed was more input to help me process my pain. Fourth, he could have just been terribly un-self-aware, not paying attention to how I was receiving him and clueless about what I might have been feeling or needing.

I suspect there is another, more-common-than-one-might-think reason as to why he so epically failed in the comforting category, however. And it is a reason I have experienced often as I move through conversations with people about my husband’s cancer and what it feels like for me. I think I scared him. Oh, not me directly, but my situation. Because if God loves me and I’ve been a relatively faithful servant of his for years now, and He could let this horrible thing happen in my life…then He just might let it happen to him too. Or to someone he loves. And that can be a very scary thought.  A paradigm-shifting, theology-busting thought that many aren’t ready to handle. A God who lets (and might even cause) bad things happen to those He loves.

And so I find myself periodically confronted with people who hurt me with their words, who shut me out of the conversation about my situation (ironic) because they are afraid of where things might go. These people refuse to let me communicate honestly about how I am doing and feeling by saying things like, “Let’s just focus on the positive.” (meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) Or, “I know God will heal Jeff.” (which shuts down whole streams of conversation ) Or, “It will all work out for good.” (again meaning, let’s not talk about the negative possibilities) While I appreciate and value faith-filled positive folks, what I’m talking about are the times some are unable or unwilling to participate in conversations that don’t follow a specific script. They seem unable or unwilling to believe God might just defy their expectations in this situation and break someone’s heart. And that He would still be loving in that moment of profound pain and disappointment.

Then there are the people who want to talk about things like God’s glory and what a gift it can be to  suffer for Him. (They are almost always young folk, without any real suffering or significant life experience behind them.) They quote lots of verses or a book they’ve read – and often go into preaching mode instead of conversation mode. (Which works in the pulpit…in the hospital waiting room or coffee shop? Not so much.)  In their head-lead desire to be theologically accurate, they end up being heart-less, rejecting the very Biblical imperative of being human and compassionate. (For the record, I know God is good. I know most circumstances have the potential to bring about some good. But there are days I don’t feel very good about it all. If theology can’t meet me here, if it can’t allow God to be sovereign and me to be human at the same time, it is lacking.) They hide behind an impressive theology because they are afraid of a God they can’t understand or put in a box. And they are afraid of those who challenge their paradigm.

I am learning compassion for those I meet whom I scare – and I am learning to be patient with the multitude of words that come forth from their mouths, unchecked by their brains and uninformed by their hearts. I know they are trying to help and do what they know to do. But sometimes, I just need to get out of the way because a conversation with them in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a hospital waiting room, can be just terribly awful.

Pr. 10:19 When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.

Job 6:26  Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?

It Can Be Just So Terribly Awkward – (Conversations About Cancer pt. 1)

(As I’ve been talking about Jeff’s health and our circumstances with people for a while now, I think I’m ready to write a bit about what the experience is like, to have pain in my life and to have conversations about it with others. This is part one.)

I feel kind of sorry for many of the people I’m relating to in my life right now. Because as I’m going through various conversations with them, I have a choice to make. At what point, if ever, do I mention, “My husband has cancer.” ?

Just for the record, I’m not one of those over-sharers who bares uncomfortable truth out of context, with terrible timing, throwing very private, personal and valuable information to anyone who unfortunately happens to cross my path. In fact, at times  I can be a slightly socially awkward introvert, who waits a while before opening up. I am ok with listening first, asking questions of the other and sharing healthily… if it is safe, appropriate, if I’ve read the other person well enough to guess that they are indeed interested and it is the right time. (FYI – it isn’t always safe or appropriate, I don’t always read people properly, not everyone is interested and it isn’t always the right time.) For the most part, I am comfortable with myself and even when things get personal,  I’m not a bad conversationalist.

The conundrum comes when I realize this person will be in my life for a while and Jeff’s and my situation will eventually come up. How to tell them, to introduce the information for the first time? If I bring it up too soon or botch the actual words… before they get to know who I really am…maybe before I’m emotionally ready to release such personal information…they may retreat. I don’t blame them for being unsure if they want to commit to anything more than just a superficial relationship with one whose life is going to be so very messy. On the other hand,  if I wait a long while to share, after we have actually become friends or it is obvious I’ve had the news for a while, they may justifiably ask, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” How on earth do I make this easier for them? For me?

Because that moment when I actually say the words, “My husband has cancer,” can be just so terribly awkward. It is not an emotionally neutral statement and there are so many the unspoken implications that go along with it. Where exactly does a conversation go after that? And who leads after this point?

For some, it can be an emotional moment, especially if they know Jeff, if they already care about me or my kids, or if they have a similar experience in their background and more fully understand the weight of what I just said. Some have cried or gotten choked up with me as I’ve told them, which is powerful. I am almost always touched deeply when this happens – I don’t find this awkward at all. It is just that in these moments, I realize that, while I’ve had time to process the shock and grief, the other person hasn’t. So sometimes I get thrust into that also-awkward role-reversal moment of having to offer comfort to someone else about my grief. I’m ok with this and fully understand how we get here. But sometimes it still doesn’t seem quite right.

For others, they don’t know what to say. Either because they themselves are socially awkward around heart topics and don’t want to say the wrong thing. (Which is totally ok by the way.) Or they may want to ask questions but aren’t sure just how to do it or if it is appropriate. Sometimes there can be long awkward silences I am expected to manage because I am the only one in the conversation who seems to know what to do next. For the record, I appreciate these people, because I know they mean me no harm. In fact, I don’t mind subtly coaching them on how to handle me or others like me. I usually don’t even mind leading the conversation from here based the other person’s comfort level and needs in the moment.

Then I’ve had some conversations where the other person wasn’t really listening and didn’t hear what I said… either literally or metaphorically. Or they were so unsure of what to do that they pretended they didn’t hear me. (This has happened more than once.) These are truly awkward moments because they usually go on with the conversation as if I just said, “My husband had a burrito for lunch.” And I’m left to figure out where things drifted off to the surreal. I just mentioned cancer and they are back to talking metaphorical Mexican food. I dared to get vulnerable and go to the deep end of the conversational pool, entrusting them with something valuable from my heart… and they ran, screaming for the shallows, leaving me treading water, wet and alone.

Fortunately, awkward doesn’t kill. It is just uncomfortable. Sometimes it leads me to question myself and my relating abilities, which isn’t always a bad thing. A little more introspection and self-awareness can often be quite helpful in learning to relate better to others.  Sometimes I let it hit me in my self-worth, which is pretty much always a bad thing. Or, I wonder if staying connected in my outside world is worth all the work it takes. (Hint – almost always, when I consider hiding, it is dangerous.)

Ultimately, creating congruence in my life between my inner and outer worlds, between my heart and my relationships – working the discipline of appropriate honesty rather than secret-keeping – is very worth the effort. The pain of talking about A when my heart is breaking about B…well, I suspect if I did that long enough, unlike awkwardness, it would eventually kill something inside of me. Secrets create a powerfully destructive duplicity. And this is much more painful than an awkward conversation.

Awkward passes. Thank you Jesus. So I’ll keep at it, trying to figure out how to do that for which there is no real instruction manual. Trying to learn conversational graciousness, kindness and gentleness – and walk with others well as we learn to communicate about important things during an important season of life.

Pr. 12:25 An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.

 

Meditations On Grief

(Earlier this week I wrote Meditations On Pain. Now I turn my attention to grief.)

Grief is the heart’s and body’s natural response to loss. It is God’s gift to us, allowing us to experience, process and survive things we weren’t meant to endure in Eden. It enables us to eventually go on – even when we aren’t sure we will ever recover. In light of my experience with loss over the last few years, that include my mother’s passing, death of some very precious and personally defining dreams, several heart-wrenching moves and the overflow of years of unresolved grief that finally made its way to the surface, here are some of my thoughts on it:

Grief is universal – One of the unifying experiences that all humans share, regardless of culture, generation, economic or educational status or health is that we all grieve. (Pr. 14:10) We all lose things: People we love. Seasons of life we hoped would never end. Precious relationships. Prized possessions. Opportunities we really wanted. Futures that are robbed from us. No one on planet earth escapes unscathed. (Eccl. 3:4) This is important to remember because…

Grief can be isolating – The world doesn’t stop moving, even when our individual worlds do. In the face of loss and the resulting grief, we often still have to go out there and keep operating and interacting. This means we that often, we have to create a public face that is very different from our private heart. When people ask how we are doing, we answer, “Fine,” even if we are feeling the opposite of fine. We still have to go to work, small talk with acquaintances and rub shoulders with those in our relational circles. Because of social convention and practicalities, we can’t (and shouldn’t) share our heartache with everyone. And this can make us feel very, very alone. (Job 7:11-19) Many have had the experience of walking into a room with others, yet carrying great pain, caring about such different things than what others are talking about and with their mind and heart being a million miles away from where their bodies are. It is the feeling of being misunderstood. Unseen. Unknown. Not present. Because what we must present to the outside world in the situation is so far from who we really are. And it makes us want to disconnect, disengage and judge others for their lack of depth, compassion or awareness. It isn’t other people’s fault that their lives are in such different places at the moment… but still. It is so ironic that grief, what should be a most unifying experience, can also be a most isolating one.

Grief has no master – Many describe the experience of grief as waves of emotion. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you most likely understand this metaphor. It is like the emotion within you bubbles to the surface – maybe at random times or maybe with a specific trigger – and it washes through and over you. When someone you love hugs you and shares your grief with you. Looking at a photo or smelling a familiar scent.  And few can stop it. No one can say to their grief, “Go away!” and it obediently tucks its tail behind its legs and goes to the corner. Grief demands its say. It comes and goes when it wants, stays in our lives as long as it wants and with a magnitude of its choosing. In those moments when grief rises, some can squash and conquer it, swallowing it and denying its expression. But this is only temporary. The grief doesn’t really go away. Unresolved grief is a most dangerous thing to carry in our lives. (And so many of us carry A LOT of it around – because we’ve never given ourselves space to fully and healthily process the loss that has come our way.) If our grief doesn’t eventually surface and make its way out of our bodies the traditional way, it finds a place in our faces, in our muscles, in our backs. In our unhealthy relational patterns, our tempers, our inability to control our emotions in different places. Grief will have its say one way or another. This is why…

Grief should have the freedom to show itself – People grieve differently. It is individual. It is cultural. It is generational. Some people wail and sob and beat themselves. Some grieve silently. Some need others. Some want to be alone. Some post things to Facebook and some want privacy. Some people create works of beauty and art and others want to destroy things. Some people grieve in the moment. Others need time to pass before they can let it go. The common thread? People should have the freedom to grieve in the way that makes sense for them, that brings relief to the immense pressure in their inner worlds and that helps them make sense of and resolve their pain. (Pr. 32:3) When we tell people things like, “Don’t cry,” we are trying to deny grief its say. This hurts people.

Grief carries a deeply spiritual component to it – With loss can come the terrifying awareness that we aren’t in control. We couldn’t stop the cancer, the runaway car, the economy, that person’s choices, the timing of events, etc. And we can’t make things reset to how they were. Life is forever changed. In these places, we are faced with the reality that God is in control – and sometimes He makes choices for us, or allows things to happen to us, that are not anything we would choose for ourselves. Loss confronts us with God’s God-ness and our humanity. When we awaken to this reality (if we do…and not everyone does), grief presents a beautiful opportunity for us. (Is. 61:3) We can lean into our experience and ask God the really tough questions. We can grab a hold of Him and wrestle with our faith until He answers or gives us peace in our hearts that He is good, even without the answers. Or not. When we choose not to, we multiply our grief. Not only do we lose something or someone, we lose a bit of Jesus at the same time. (for Christ-followers that is.) We may not walk away from Him directly, but we may trust Him less. We may hold a grudge and deal with Him, not lovingly, but out of a sense of duty. When we do this, grief becomes exponentially destructive. Loss piled upon loss. Because of this…

Grief appreciates honesty – When we allow our emotions to surface as they truly are, when we give ourselves permission to grieve honestly…not as we think we should or how others think we should…grief responds. It moves through us. It deepens us and our faith. It strengthens us for the future, showing us that we can survive things we never thought we could. It links us to other people. It invites Jesus to come in and be our Healer, Counselor and Friend, knowing Him in newer and richer ways than ever before. It allows our broken hearts to heal. Part of the problem however is that grief can surface some pretty raw emotions. Things we are afraid to admit to ourselves, let alone to other people.  Maybe we are secretly relieved by the death of someone because it makes our lives easier . Or ashamed by how we respond to the loss. Or guilty because the role (real or perceived) we think we played in something happening – or not happening. When we deal with our grief honestly, not hiding the potentially ugly and dark things that pop out of us, we get the emotion of it out of our system. Denying it or glossing it over can be like leaving a bullet in a wound. It may close itself up and eventually look ok from the outside, but it is going to get infected. When we face our grief head on, deal with it honestly, welcome it to stay in our lives for a while and lead us to wherever it wants to go, it allows us to work through our loss. (Ps. 142:1-7) Then, we have the potential to recover.

Meditations On Pain

After the last few years we’ve had, with loss and disappointment piled on top of grief, sadness, shock and lots of spiritual banging our heads against a wall…I’ve been thinking a lot about pain. About what it does in us. About how God uses it and how we respond to it. Here are some of those thoughts:

Pain reveals what is in our hearts. Pain not only squeezes our bodies to their limits, it squeezes our hearts too. And when pressure is applied to our hearts, just like when a tube of toothpaste is squeezed, whatever is on the inside comes squirting out. Bitterness? Optimism? A tendency to hide or deny? Pain numbing behaviors?  A love for others and Jesus? Willingness to endure? A love of easy outs? Self-discipline? Joy? Relational patterns of hiding, using, blaming…or healthy communication and expression of emotion? As Solomon said, our hearts are indeed deep waters. (Pr. 20:5) And what is in there, is complex. It takes an awful lot to get what is hidden in there to show itself. But once we get a glimpse of what it is…then we have a starting point of where Jesus might want to do something in us. And if we are willing to pay attention to what comes out of us during the darkness, and deal with it honestly…well…this has the potential to be a very good thing for us.

Pain is unique to each of us. What hurts me may not hurt you to the same extent. Loss of a job may be a bump in the road for one and the end of the world for another. A three-year old loses a beloved stuffed animal that is her best friend. A wife loses her husband of years to a terrible accident. Both are in pain. It isn’t fair to compare and rank it because it is so unique to each one of us. (Pr. 14:10) Let me clarify – I don’t think all pain is equal. Some pain is definitely more…well…painful. But what I am saying is that I think everyone should be allowed expression of their pain, whatever it is. Each individual has value and each person should be allowed to feel and process their hurt as it is for them, not as someone else thinks it should be. And the rest of us should offer compassion – or a graceful distance so that the person can work their way to recovery.

Pain has a work to do. Nothing opens a heart, revealing what is inside quite like pain. Nothing opens us up to the possibility of change, asking for and accepting help like pain. Nothing opens our hearts to the realization that the truth of a situation might be much different than we’d ever imagined quite like pain. Nothing opens us up to the realization of the pettiness of what occupies so much of our time and affection like pain. (I Pet 4:1) Nothing drives us to the place where we need Jesus and want Him more than anything else like pain. If we don’t run from it, numb it or insist it can’t be God’s will for us, pain has the potential to do something beautiful and deep within us. (Rom. 5:3)

How God views pain and how we view pain is so very different.  It is an amazing experience to take off in a plane when it is overcast and rainy and ascend through and over the precipitation to what is above. Because the topside view of a cloud is so amazingly different than the underside view. I suspect the experience of how we view pain (from down below) and how God views it (from up above) is a similar one to a plane ride. We hurt and think, “Ow! This is so horrible! This can’t be God’s will for me.” Or, “I’ve got to avoid this, ease it, minimize it, deny it or medicate it.” Or, “God, how could you let this happen? If this is Your plan for me, I’ll handle things on my own from here on, thank you very much.” And maybe God sees us experience pain and He sees…the potential it holds…for soul-deep healing, for awakening to spiritual truth, for greater reliance on and intimacy with Himself. Maybe He leans forward a bit, catching His breath, knowing that the potential fruit of pain is eternal, while pain itself is temporary. Maybe He grabs a hold of our hands, speaking to us and granting us greater dose of His presence and love – hoping we will slow down long enough to notice.

We have some say in what we do with our pain. I know that sometimes, our pain is so great or our resources to manage it are so stressed that sometimes, we just react. We don’t really have the option to respond. But sometimes we do. God gives us the dignity to allow us to choose much in our lives. When pain comes, as it does for all of us, we have some choice what we will do in response. We can run. Avoid. Numb. Medicate. Deny. Minimize. Descend into despair. Pretend it isn’t happening or doesn’t matter. Create two lives – one we present to the outside world and the reality we live with in our inner worlds. Blame. Grow bitter. Or. We can let our pain turn our hearts to our Healer. Open us up to relationship with others. Invite us to grow from the inside out and find, with Jesus, we are capable of so much more than we ever thought possible. Show us the depth of His love by meeting us deep in the mess. Our responses can be as varied as we are. But the one constant between us all is the choice – what will we allow our pain to do to us? What will we allow our pain to do in us?