Something Other than Grief — A Poem

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I’d like to engage with something other than grief

Just for a respite, a Sabbath, a bit of relief.

Perhaps I’ll take down my Christmas wreath!

But why be hasty, this late January day?

I haven’t the energy to do much anyway.

When February comes, I’m sure I’ll be fine,

Once this tangled chaos in my head gets itself aligned.

I’ll be productive and cheerful and patient and kind.

I’ll make solid decisions and stop changing my mind.

For now, just some green tea with honey would be divine.

Tangled Chaos in My Mind

Tangled Chaos in My Head


Part II — In Which Grief is Surprised by Joy


Let me begin by apologizing to my atheist and aggressively agnostic friends for using the word “gospel” in yesterday’s post. I try not to annoy you, but it’s going to get worse. I need to tell this story; Betsy would want it told.

Also, Betsy is the one who introduced me to the author Anne Lamott, and Anne Lamott is the one who showed me that a person can write about Jesus and faith without being obnoxious. And face it, trying to write a blog journal about grief without incorporating one’s beliefs about spirituality is downright silly.

Anne Lamott -- One of Betsy's Faves

Anne Lamott — One of Betsy’s Faves

So: Jesus alert. Keep reading or not, as you like.

When we left our hero yesterday (that’s me,) she had just realized that if Betsy’s spirit was so obviously hovering around, then perhaps her recently departed brother’s was as well. But she wasn’t so sure and told her journal: “Somehow that makes it almost possible to allow myself to believe that Biff’s spirit is also still with me. Almost. Too good to hope for in a way. Too good to be true. Do I believe in Jesus or not?”

It seemed relatively easy for me to accept the truth of Betsy’s living spirit because the risk was not great. She was not my flesh and blood. I have known her twenty years, not fifty-eight. Stitching together the rip in the fabric of my identity left by Biff’s passing is trickier work, and I don’t want to be knitting it together with yarn that won’t hold up.

I decided to take the risk: I’d seek out Biff’s spirit, too. More from my journal: “And so I told God that I am ready to accept Biff’s love, to welcome his spirit to accompany me, to live in me and through me. To let us have a continuing relationship, to not close the book, to let him speak to me and show me signs. I told God I knew it meant pain, but that I didn’t want to be without Biff. Ever. That I would open myself to his presence and his company, forever.”

Here comes the Jesus part . . .

And then it hit me: that is exactly what God asks us to do. To accept Jesus’s loving spirit and allow him to accompany us, to live in us and through us. To have a relationship, to let God show us signs through that living spirit.  Forever.

And yes, opening to that spirit does mean pain, because Jesus softens our hearts to the world’s pain and so we share his deep sadness about the brokenness in the world. That spirit also convicts us of our own brokenness, and that can be humbling and at times mortifying.

winter 2013 & Jesus pix 045.tear

But the pain encourages growth and makes us more loving people. And oh, the joy of being one with that spirit of love!

We get to say yes or no to allowing that eternal, loving spirit to accompany us. If you say yes, I believe you become more and more aligned with God’s perfectly loving spirit here in this physical world, the way Betsy did.

The famous prayer asks God to bring that kingdom of love and kindness “. . . on earth as it is in Heaven . . .” and that’s what Christians should be about. (I’m certainly the first to acknowledge that many Christian spokespeople in the public life do not appear to be living in that spirit.)

When we’re truly tapped into the wisdom and power of God’s eternal loving spirit, we can’t help but bring Heaven’s love to earth right here and now. And when we “die,” we get to leave behind the last traces of fear and live in that perfect love forever.

With Apologies to My Conservative Christian Friends

Now I have to apologize to my conservative Christian friends – heretic alert! (I may have lost my atheist readers by now, but I know that you’ll keep reading because you need to decide if I’m going to hell.)

If a person chooses not to accept God’s invitation to travel together, I don’t think that person is going to Hell. Gasp! In fact, I don’t even believe in the old concept of Hell, the I-love-you-so-much-that-I’m-going-to-fry-you-forever-if-you-don’t-love-me-back narrative. I don’t blame people for not believing in that God.

This is Love?

No — I think that you are traveling with God whether you know it or not, accept it or not. You are accompanied and loved and cared for, and you aren’t going to burn. God’s spirit lives in everyone and they get to open the channel or keep their heart closed.

When a person says, “No thanks, I don’t believe in you,” they don’t burn up. No, they just miss the joyful awareness, the signs, and the “nudges” that send us on God-inspired adventures that we might otherwise miss. They miss the spiritual guidance that helps us find our purpose and meaning in God’s larger story if we listen. Worst of all, if we don’t open to God’s spirit, we might miss the fact that we are all one, that there is nothing to fear, that there is no existential aloneness, and there is no death.

We come into this world connected by an umbilical cord of love and we leave this world connected to a cord of divine love that runs through all time and out of time. Biff and Betsy have followed that cord of love out of sight, but we are still connected. And that brings me joy, which makes me want to dye my hair pink like Betsy’s and celebrate life for all it’s worth.

I wish each of you love and connection and joy.

“God is love.”

Sermon done.

Joyful Betsy and her husband Eric

Joyful Betsy and her husband Eric

Part I – In Which Grief is Surprised By Another Death


When I first heard the news, I was with some friends. (Thank God.) Bill looked at his phone and said, “This is bad.”

“What?” Shobha said.



“This is very bad,” Bill said again, as if his soundtrack was stuck in shock.

As he read the words of the text out loud, “tragic . . . died suddenly . . . flu . . . pneumonia . . . stopped breathing . . . unable to revive . . .,” I felt — no, I actually saw — my emotions shutting down. I was staring unblinking at a Christmas tree and I saw the white lights blur and then dim as my “self” withdrew deep inside my body.

Already hiding in shock and denial after my brother Biff’s death last month, this was too much for my raw soul. Impossible. Not our dear friend Betsy. Some survival instinct moved my inner emotional switch from the hibernate setting where it had been for the past month into the full OFF position.

Being Without Betsy

I entered church the next morning in full shut-down mode and so was able to do my usual job of greeting folks. At least I didn’t have to smile — many had already heard the news about Betsy on Facebook or by phone, but some were only just finding out as they entered the building and saw her face on the screen and the “In Loving Memory” underneath. It’s odd how many people thought it was some kind of morbid  humor, that it must be Betsy’s quirky idea of a joke. Because of course it couldn’t be true.

Actually, quirky doesn’t begin to describe Betsy. She’s very hard to describe, although many have tried over the past week of remembrances and services and Facebook tributes.

Of all the people I know, I think she is the most alive. Truly, fully alive and engaged with life.

Only she’s not.

None of us can imagine Cedar Ridge Community Church without Betsy. She’s been on staff there forever, often working in the sound booth, where you could see her hot pink hair poking up over the partial wall and her arms waving in full-on joyful worship when the band played the rockin’ songs. How she loved God!

Betsy Mitchell Henning

Betsy Mitchell Henning (photo by Jed Curl)

And how she loved us! All of us. As so many said at her memorial service, she was the most absolutely non-judgmental person you could find. She was utterly fascinated by people and their stories and found something to like in everyone she met. She knew how to connect and she knew how to love unconditionally.

The Good News

When I entered the sanctuary that morning, I was surprisingly unsurprised to feel Betsy’s spirit alive as ever, hovering in and through and above everyone and everything. It is impossible to imagine our church without her because we will never be without her. The unconditional love she radiated was absorbed by all of us and is being radiated back out to the world.

This is unbelievably good news! Did you know that’s what “gospel” means? Good news.

When I realized that Betsy’s spirit is not “dead,” I also realized that my brother’s spirit is not gone either. At least I realized that in a tentative kind of way — in my journal I wrote: “Somehow that makes it almost possible to allow myself to believe that Biff’s spirit is also still with me. Almost. Too good to hope for in a way. Too good to be true. Do I believe in Jesus or not?”

Do I believe?

Do I believe?

Stay tuned for Part II of this post tomorrow, in which I find myself apologizing to just about everyone: my atheist, aggressively agnostic, and conservative Christian friends . . .

In the meantime, here’s a lovely blog about Betsy by someone who barely knew her but felt her spirit: http://thedefiningyears.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/dear-betsy/

A Healing Winter Walk – A Photo Poem


My world is muted, not colorless as many mourners report.

All brown and grey and silky white. Gentle colors.

winter walk.clematis seeds

winter walk.hydrangea

winter walk ice crystals

There are patterns and intricacies visible only in winter, when life has seemingly stopped.

winter walk ball

winter walk.twirly thing

winter walk.leaf pattern

There are reflections of life in the muddy water and tiny buds despite the thorns.

winter walk muddy pond

winter walk bud

winter walk.thorns

I am walking through a long, bare tunnel. The cold air echoes in the emptiness.

winter walk.tunnel

As I emerge from the darkness, a surprised robin surprises me.

He’s here early.

He tilts his head towards me, all attention as if I’m a worm underground, which he decides I am not.

He flits from branch to branch before flying off, beckoning me to follow his melodious call of spring.

winter walk crocus

Postscript: I decided I wanted a clearer photo of the flower bud, so I went outside and traipsed through the slushy snow only to find that the hydrangea buds had turned black in the recent arctic blast. Ah well, I guess that’s why they call it seasons of grief. The good news is, this made me laugh. Also, the crocus is from last year. But I know they’re coming . . . 

One day at a time.

Momentary Observations: Aftermath of a Death


There are flowers. The ones Jamie sent me after I posted on Facebook that the rainy days were getting me down and I needed sunshine and flowers and maybe Swiss cheese. Isabel gave me a red cyclamen at dinner that night, too.

There’s a wooden bowl of rose petals I couldn’t bring myself to throw away, saved from the bouquet Ralph brought to the funeral — yellow, pink, white, and a pretty coral color.

Ralph's Roses

Ralph’s Roses

And dozens of cards atop the piano, mostly sympathy but a few of my “Congratulations, Graduate!” ones, too, so that I remember that life is not all death. The yin and yang of December, 2013.

All the Christmas paraphernalia I had out is still out, ready for wrapping and decorating that never happened because he died and life stopped for a time. Somebody needs to put that away.

There are books, many books. Novels and nonfiction, of  course, but also lots of grief books: my effort to understand, anticipate, and control. Always wanting to know: is this normal? Am I OK? It is, and I am.

Against the wall lean two picture boards from the funeral home, which have a lovely blue background strewn with delicate white clouds that I’m sure nobody noticed because the photos are taped too close together. I didn’t want to miss a single memory.

My brother as a little  boy: his cheeks as round and rosy as the half-eaten apple in his hand; his military salute as ill-fitting as his baggy soldier costume . . .

biff with apple

biff soldier salute

. . . his smile peeking out from under his too-large Davy Crockett coonskin hat. Older now, his hippie locks have been bleached by the Texas sun and he smiles awkwardly, gingerly holding our baby niece in his arms. Older still, he’s wearing dress clothes and a white silk tie, but squatting on the floor with our young nephew – they are deeply engaged in a struggle involving plastic cowboys, stallions, and stage coaches.

biff playing with Jeff

When the WordPress Gods offered a writing challenge for the week asking for brief, momentary observations at lunch time, it didn’t seem like much of a challenge.  Because life is still standing still for the most part, and these snapshots in time — momentary observations — seem to be all that registers.

So, there’s my living room at lunch time. Pretty much the way it’s been for a month.

“So – Are You Going to Sue the Hospital?”


I understand why people ask if I’m going to sue. My brother always said, “If you put me in the hospital, they’ll kill me.” And they did.

On the other hand, my brother killed himself. Biff’s choices led directly to his death. I know that.

Yeah, I yelled at the doctor and told him to quit bullshitting me when he said “the procedure” had nothing to do with Biff’s death. And yeah, I flipped out when the anesthesiology firm that “provided the services” that stopped Biff’s heart left a pre-recorded satisfaction survey on his phone. But in the end, I’m just looking for someone to blame other than my dear departed brother.



The Whole Story – Sort Of

I haven’t told you the whole story of Biff’s death, and I may never. Partly to protect his dignity, partly because the six-year story is too long, and partly because it’s ongoing. I’m still processing.

Here are a few posts that give you an idea:



In short, after our mother died six years ago, my brother collapsed mentally, physically, and emotionally. Deep depression, anxiety attacks, and PTSD led to congestive heart failure, and Biff declined treatment. Sadly, his distrust of the medical community – not entirely unfounded – kept him from having the surgery that could have saved his life.

Some days he would admit he had heart failure, some days he would say it was indigestion, some days he would boil up dandelion leaf broth, some days he would take vitamin C. But he would never see a doctor outside of the two times he landed in the hospital.

On his third and final trip to the hospital (a facility which will remain nameless so that THEY don’t sue ME), they told us it was too late for the heart surgery.  As much as Biff would protest my saying it, the doctors were right. Just as they predicted, he was experiencing multiple organ failure due to a faulty heart valve.

But just as Biff predicted, he was dead within days of entering the medical system. When they put him under “light sedation” to do a “simple” endoscopy to see how damaged his liver was, he died. His heart stopped.

What Was the Point?

Why did it matter how damaged his liver was? They had already told us he had weeks or perhaps several months to live. The palliative care “end times” doctor was due to talk to us that very afternoon. I was looking for a nursing home where Biff could receive hospice care.

So why? Did they just want to use their shiny new endoscopy machine? I don’t know. I choose to believe that there was some reason for the test. The cardiologist had said that Biff’s organs were improving: while they weren’t optimistic, they would reevaluate him for surgery. So I’m guessing that’s why they decided to do this risky procedure on a dying man.

Death is Not Simple

So you see? It’s very complicated. It usually is. Part of grief is all the second-guessing, the questioning, the anger, the search for blame. I would like to be through that stage and move on to proper mourning, where I can accept that he is gone and just pound the walls and wail. Unfortunately, the grieving process doesn’t involve a multiple choice menu. You just take it as it comes.

I’m not sure the endoscopy was the smartest thing . . . no, I take that back. It obviously was not, given that pesky old “do-no-harm” Hippocratic oath. Do you sedate a dying man with dangerously low blood pressure who is already on morphine? No, you do not.

But the fact is, he was dying. The hospital facilitated his death, brought on the actual event, but Biff chose the manner of his passing.

He had been in a lot of pain for a long time, and God had mercy on him, given the dreadful scenarios that could have transpired with multiple organ failure. He died in his sleep, after having spent the morning discussing his cat and Shakespeare with his nurses. There are worst fates.

So, no. I’m not going to sue the hospital.

I’m just going to be grateful for every day I’m alive, and I’m going to try to stay clear of hospitals.

I suggest you do the same — that is, unless you have heart failure. Then go to the damn doctor.

Things That Can Happen When Someone You Love Dies


I told you that my brother died. Three weeks today. I also told you that I’m numb, and that’s pretty much still the case, although rivulets of sadness escape my eyes from time to time — a good thing, or I might burst like a water balloon full of tears.

The numbness doesn’t mean I’m not grieving. It’s a stage of grief and is not the same thing as denial, according to a grief counselor I spoke with last week. She says it’s protecting me, which is what I was guessing.

I don’t really need a professional to tell me I’m in “the grief process.” (Doesn’t that nice, pat moniker make it all sound predictable and controllable?)

For one thing, there are the damn mirrors scattered throughout my house. I stop to gaze into them often nowadays, I guess to see if I’m still here. Or to see if there’s a huge red gash ripped across my face, or a jagged hole in my chest.

At first glance, nothing’s amiss. The facial components are all present, and I can even make the corners of my mouth go up when necessary. Like one of those grimacing theatre masks.


But look harder. The topography has changed. The lines at the sides of my mouth have become cavernous, and the small frown lines between my eyebrows now reach halfway to my hairline. My eyes are empty, as if my “self” is busy on an inside project and doesn’t have time to interact with the outside world.

This is where you have to be careful: when you are grieving, so much of your energy is busy with the inner trauma that you don’t have all your normal faculties about you.

Things to Watch Out For:

  • You may find yourself stopped at an intersection waiting for the light to change and then notice that there is no light. There’s not even a stop sign. You don’t know how long you’ve been there.
  • You’ll read a chapter in your novel (a big, fat one chosen to distract you) and the next night you won’t remember whether or not you’ve read that chapter.  You won’t even recognize the names of the characters. Or you won’t be able to find the book at all.
  • You’ll pack up your belongings after a potluck and forget to put the top on the vinegar bottle and then track brown vinegar all over the carpet at your friend’s new house. And you won’t care, because in the scheme of things, what’s a carpet?
  • You can bet that you won’t have clean socks or underwear because you forgot to do the laundry. Again. But you won’t care about that either, so that’s OK.
  • You may find yourself outraged at the woman at the gym, formerly a source of amusement, who talks incessantly about her scalp condition and her latest oils and rinses. She regularly asks your advice about what she should do, and you are dangerously close to giving her some less-than-gracious suggestions.

Speaking of Being Outraged:

Here’s something that I hope won’t happen to you, but given America’s health care system, I wouldn’t rule it out.

I dropped by my brother’s vacant house the other night to make sure the pipes weren’t freezing. I punched the blinking light on the message machine and heard several automated messages from the anesthesiology firm that recently “provided services” to my brother. They would like him to “press 2” to take a brief satisfaction survey.

I guess their records don’t show that my brother freaking DIED under their freaking anesthesia. Does not waking up count as dissatisfied? How about having your heart stop?

If my brother does not “press 3” to remove himself from the list, they will continue to try to reach him. Good luck with that.

So I cussed. Repeatedly. I felt angry and that felt good. A feeling! There’s somebody home behind those empty eyes. The feeling was gone in ten minutes, but I did feel. That’s the point. There’s been a crack in the nothingness.

An Outsider on Christmas Eve


There’s red, a lot of red. The overhead lights are dim, but there are candles. Bulky shapes mill about, coats and scarves and hats that presumably contain people. All of this I can see as I approach the double glass doors, and I slow my pace.

What was I thinking coming here?

I’ve met some friends in the parking lot, and they nudge me towards to the church building.

“You OK?” one of them asks, and my scarf nods. I feel completely disembodied, as if my physical self left with my brother when he died, now twenty-eight hours ago.

It’s Christmas Eve, my favorite church service of the year. I thought I wanted to come.

My friend opens the door and my body recoils from the music, the laughter, and oh my God, the smiles. An arm is around me and shepherds me through the door. Inside, I shrink against the wall, burying my face more deeply into my red scarf, the one my brother gave me last year.

I feel as if I’ve unexpectedly happened upon a horrible accident, and I wish for all the world that I was not here. I can’t bear to be near the joy.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I say to my friends. They circle around me, offering protection from the churning mass of smiling humanity. One of them hands me a cup of hot cider and I inhale the sweet smell but am afraid to sip it. Swallowing is not the simple matter it was a few days ago. Nothing is simple.

One foot in front of the other, I walk with my friends into the sanctuary. Delicate white lights twine through Christmas trees, wreaths, and holly, and quiet carols fill the room.

“Merry Christmas!” someone says. “How are you?”

“My brother died,” I say, because that seems to be all I will ever say for the rest of my life when someone asks me that question.

“Oh my God, no,” and I’m enfolded in arms and then more arms and I cry.

Then I’m sitting between my friends holding the candle that will soon be lit and raised upwards as we all sing Silent Night together.

“You OK?”

I take a sip of my hot cider and feel its spicy warmth move into my chest. I nod and smile, just a little.


This post was written in response to today’s Daily Prompt:

Tell us about the experience of being outside, looking in — however you’d like to interpret that.

Anticipatory Grief — A Poem


I just found a poem that I wrote this fall on Pitcher Mountain in New Hampshire. It’s only a draft, but at that time my grief was only a draft.

Odd how stunned I still am, two weeks after my brother’s death. It’s not as if I didn’t know. I can only hope that my process of anticipatory grief might make the blow — when it comes — a little less intense than it might otherwise have been. Again, I find myself waiting . . .

Anticipatory Grief

When you know it’s coming

And you try to have hope

And you do believe in miracles, but

You know it’s coming.

* * *

When you try to tell yourself

One day at a time;

He’s alive today,

But it doesn’t help.

* * *

When you walk beneath golden oaks

On a brilliant red carpet of maple

But you know it’s not for you.

* * *

When a chittery chipmunk

should bring a smile,

But instead its tail in a question mark

Makes you wonder . . . when?


My Brother is Dead.


It needs to be said: my brother is dead. And again. My brother is dead. I guess it wouldn’t matter how many times it’s said. It still cannot be true.

For one thing, I don’t believe in death. I am certain there is no such thing. We are eternal beings, embodied for the moment, trapped in time. My brother just isn’t “here” anymore, although I don’t know that for sure. Maybe his spirit is lurking around. I just know I can’t see him anymore inside of time. I can’t hear his laugh, except inside my head.

But that eternal spiritual stuff is not what I’m talking about. I just mean, Biff cannot be dead. Cannot be gone. Cannot have passed away, traveled — whatever you want to call it. Just no. No.

He’s my big brother, the one who taught me how to be in the world, what was right, what was wrong, what was funny, what was serious, what was worth caring about, and what to let pass.

Back in the day

Back in the day

Biff brought me up to be a good little hippie in the sixties and seventies, but then — surprise! He became a conservative Republican and I had to find a new path cause I sure wasn’t following him there. But we stayed close, very close, and over the past few years of depression and heart failure when I was essentially his caregiver — as much as I resisted and tried to get him to a doctor so he could care for himself — our relationship deepened even more.

That’s a long story. There are lots of long stories involved. You may be subjected to some of them over time. But right now, it’s just no. No.

I’m grateful, so grateful for the numbness and the disbelief. I know that there is some processing and integration going on at some level, but it’s not conscious. I am flat-lined.

From my journal:

“I am here, but not. Because obviously if I were really here, I would be devastated. This is such a strange netherworld. It’s like I’m alive, but not actually living. Dream-like. I guess I’ll just keep acting as if I’m alive, plodding through activities as if they actually matter. It’s not that they don’t matter, they’re just not real. I will trust God to allow me to experience what I can handle when I can handle it. I feel like a baby rabbit — so exposed and vulnerable and utterly helpless. If a strong wind came, I would blow away. Ungrounded, uprooted. Small. Timid. I can still act like my regular self, at least for the time being, but it — she — feels like a defense. A wall to protect the cowering baby rabbit.”

So — I wish you Happy New Year. For myself, I’m just hoping for survival in 2014. Thanks for listening.

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