Tag Archives: love

What Young Grievers Want You To Know

The best tactic of any villain is to isolate you from those you care about–just ask any fictional protagonist’s best friend.

Grief is the ultimate villain. It knows exactly how to make you most vulnerable, inflicting a lethal combination of loneliness, irritability, and self-doubt. It touches everyone eventually, and we know it’s a part of the deal we make when we love someone, but somehow, we still underestimate it.

We don’t understand it. Society doesn’t really accept it. So, the grieving are often left in the clutches of the villain’s most powerful tool: shame.

I’m tired of allowing grief to be the unknown enemy. I am reaching out to you, fellow grievers, because I want to know what your life looks like after loss. I am most interested in hearing from the younger crowd, like myself, because I think we have a particular challenge that is rarely discussed outside of counseling offices and support groups.

Being young, we’re supposed to be in our prime, full of the energy and passion for life that gets us through the grueling early years of our career and helps us grow, explore, and fall in love. Our friends and peers are mostly doing that. Are we? Grief changed so much for me, and I don’t think I’m the only one who wishes they had a bit of that pre-loss optimism back. I’m probably not the only one who feels like the world expects from me a totally different story than the one I have to share.

I would like to feature guest bloggers on these themes. If you’ve lost someone close to you, and you have something you’d like to share, please reach out to me. What do you want people to know about your grief? Where did you find support, and where did you wish you had more? How has life changed for you? What do you know now that you didn’t before?

I’ll start with my own post on the topic, but I hope to have more perspectives to share. Everyone has a unique experience and process, and I want to hear about yours.

If you’re interested in sharing, please write to:
elenamcoe@gmail.com

When Privilege is Grateful

In light of the spotlight on humanitarian crises and injustices across the world this Thanksgiving, I’m finding it really hard to be grateful.

On the one hand, I feel like I should appreciate that most of these atrocities are not directly impacting me or my loved ones. I should be grateful not to be searching for safety like a Syrian refugee family. I should be happy that I know where my loved ones are, ecstatic that they all have homes, food, and relatively healthy bodies. I should be glad that my family and many of my friends are not targets of violence and hate that has been perpetuated by terror attacks and brutal police misconduct.

But, I’m not really grateful for those things.

I refuse to look at my privilege as something to be grateful for. I know and appreciate the advantage that I have been given, just because of my skin color and the family I am a part of. But, I appreciate it the same way I appreciate the ocean–a powerful, sometimes scary presence in my life that I can only interact with when I come from a place of seeking to understand.

To be grateful for things that so few people have in this world just feels off to me somehow. I want so much more for the beings that inhabit this earth, and so much of what makes my life ‘good’ and ‘safe’ comes at the expense of others who are less fortunate–humans, animals, and planet alike.

So how do I answer the quintessential Thanksgiving Day question? What can I say I’m thankful for without feeling the words eroding away beneath me before they’re even spoken?

I’m amazingly grateful for connection. I’m grateful for the beings in my life that have opened me up, taken me in, shared with me, created with me, touched me and others’ lives in beautifully spiritual and human ways. I’m thankful for the beauty of the mountains, the strength of the wind, the patience of trees, the quiet of midnight, the questions in the sky. I’m grateful for music, for dance, for prayer, for communities that share those gifts with one another. I am grateful for hope.

There are so many things in my life that are good, and a lot of them are the direct result of luck. But what I am grateful for has little to nothing to do with who I am or the advantages I have.

I am grateful, above all else, for the wonderful, awesome, exhilarating parts of existence and for the fact that, with or without me, these wonders are shared and loved among people everywhere. On the days when we hear so many negative news stories reminding us of all the things in this world that are grim, I can only hold on to the potential of the utterly simple beauty surrounding us and hope that with all this light out there, we’ll one day figure out how to lift everyone above the clouds.

Day...?

I’m not sure where I am in this days of happiness journey. For the record, I keep another blog where I do post a bit more regularly about this.

Last weekend, a friend of mine drove with me up to the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. It was a beautiful day, and I was once again blown away by the beauty of this state. Mountains, flowers, water, sunshine… There is really only one place I’ve been that’s better, and that’s only because Alaska and Washington are actually very similar in their beauty.

But I think what made this day really special to me was the fact that I’ve been to the Tulip Festival 3 of the last 4 years. Each time, I’ve come with different friends, and every time, it’s a unique experience. The flowers and the food are always the same, but I share different stories, different observations, and even different pictures, with each year. It’s one of the few traditions I’ve begun in my adult life, and I think it’s one I’ll keep.

Because, tradition isn’t just about doing the same thing repeatedly. I think it’s about having landmarks in your life where one element is the same, if only so you can more astutely realize just how much has changed.

Oh, Happy Day: Day 1 of the 100 Days of Happiness Challenge

To give a little background: there is this great little movement on the internet (100happydays.com) that encourages us all to find little things to be happy about each day. The challenge is to post a picture of something that makes your life brighter every day. The challenge lasts 100 days, which is actually quite a long time, particularly for those of us who don’t have instagram and have to carry our cameras around… But I’m going to do my very best to keep this up. Because after all, happiness is a choice–sometimes a very hard choice, but a choice nonetheless. So here we go.

Day #1

Happiness has a lot to do with love, and it has a lot to do with hope. Nothing says love and hope more to me than my two beautiful little nephews. They are the best part of my life right now, even though they are so very far away from me physically. This is the perfect bright spot in my day.

#100daysofhappiness

Christmas

I’ll just put it out there: Christmas hasn’t been my favorite holiday for a good ten years.

It’s not that I stopped liking Christmas. In fact, I love Christmas. I love the lights, I love caroling, I love cookies, and I love the spirit of the season. But as we get older and things get more complicated, staying excited about Christmas can get a little more challenging. This year, though, I enjoyed Christmas in a different way than I ever have before. I wouldn’t call it the ‘best’ Christmas, but it made me feel something new, and that’s a really valuable thing.

On Sunday night, my dad and I decided to call 911 and have an ambulance take him into the ER. All day, he had been too weak to support himself and had been drifting in and out of a clear head. Although I’m stronger than I look, I can’t carry my dad, and he didn’t have the strength to transfer into our new wheelchair, so 911 it was. Even though I knew my dad wasn’t in immediate danger, there’s something about having emergency workers in your house that amps your adrenaline.

My dad spent the night and all of the next day in the MICU, ironically in the same exact room he had been in the very first time he had stayed at the VA overnight. He didn’t remember, but I did. (It’s kind of hard to forget coming to the hospital after a 17 hour flight and seeing your dad completely unconscious and on a ventilator.) This time around, though, he didn’t need a ventilator, which meant a much shorter hospital stay. He was transferred to the main oncology unit late Monday night. We hoped he’d be able to be home before Christmas, although, I think both of us knew that it wouldn’t really make a difference; I think it was more like we felt we were supposed to want to be home for Christmas.

While we were at the hospital, several volunteers made rounds to say Merry Christmas and to hand out goodies. One woman brought my dad a really nice fleece blanket. Another brought a card and $10 for the Canteen. And a small troop of younger men wandered the halls handing out cookies and candy. It was weirdly karmic to me because my very first experience in the VA hospital was doing that very thing. I appreciated what those volunteers were doing on a really fundamental level. And even though my dad wasn’t one of the neediest patients–after all, he had me with him–I hope he was touched by their kindness the way I was. But even with their warm spirits, the craziness of the last days had wiped me out, and I had all but given up on making any sort of Christmas effort.

The night before my dad came home from the hospital, his good friend Gene met up with me to deliver a few strands of lights and a tiny Christmas tree. Up until that point, I had pretty much decided that Christmas was going to be pretty bland this year in terms of traditions and decorations. My dad didn’t seem too excited about the holiday, and I didn’t want to expend the energy if he didn’t care. But once I had the lights and the house to myself, something kind of came over me.

I can’t quite explain it, but decorating by myself, and mostly for myself, was sort of therapeutic. Maybe it was because I was taking some ownership of my space, or maybe it was because I was creating beauty, or maybe it was as simple as the fact that I was appreciating having some control over my life for a few hours. Whatever the reason, as I set the DVR to record White Christmas and I strung lights over door frames, I suddenly felt Christmas sitting on my shoulder.

It’s funny because the commonly celebrated theme of the holidays doesn’t often include the scene in which I found myself. Christmas is ‘supposed’ to be about togetherness, connectivity, love, and family. While those are all great things, this year I realized that I don’t think that’s what Christmas is really about. Christmas isn’t about any individual’s specific relationships or circumstances. Christmas isn’t about getting along with your estranged grandmother, and it isn’t about giving someone a gift they’ll really love. When I think about what Christmas is really about, I think about the birth of a humble, yet pervasive, symbol of hope and love.

Sometimes people find their connection to that spirit through family or community. But, sometimes we don’t. I think sometimes it’s more effective to tap into the hope and love we carry within us. Sometimes, Christmas is most beautiful when we’re all alone.

Privacy

When I came to St. Gertrude’s, I received cautionary notice that living in a community could be challenging. I’ll be honest, I didn’t take this too seriously. Sure, as with every group of people, personalities can clash, misunderstandings can cause conflict, and various styles of living, working, eating, etc. can annoy or frustrate others. But, as I have been living in community as a Resident Assistant and most recently in a house with four other women, I felt pretty prepared for the potential hazards of mood swings and unique needs. I am typically an accommodating person, and I have never had a huge problem getting along with all sorts of people. Plus, I knew that this situation was ultimately temporary. I can deal with a heck of a lot if I know it’s ending in nine months. All this being said, I have finally found a challenge.

Part of Benedict’s rule includes an emphasis on letting go of our possessions. We are not supposed to consider things ‘ours’ because that is a function of your own will, or your ego, which is an obstacle to succumbing to God’s will (or, if you’re like me, you might think of it more as a distraction from what actually matters in life). At St. Gertrude’s, this is taken with a grain of salt. Everyone has their own room, which is usually filled with each person’s own clothes, own books, own toiletries, and that sort of thing. In that way, I don’t feel much like I’ve had to give up ownership or share my things with the community. However, today, after being asked four or five times about whether I’d spoken to my dad recently, I began to see that there is another kind of sharing that is expected.

The first indication of this new standard was subtle, and it happened at the dinner table. There is no topic off limits at the dinner table. Death, health, politics, history, current events, all of it could come up. And the nonchalance with which I’ve heard sisters say someone died—I can’t say it doesn’t still surprise me at times. It also probably shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when my father became a topic of regular conversation as well. At the dinner table. While doing dishes. When I passed someone in the hall. “How’s your dad doing?” follows me everywhere.

At first, this was a little bothersome. Of course, I knew full well that the intentions were incredibly pure and loving, and I also knew that I could always say I didn’t want to talk about it without getting reprimanded or losing any esteem in their eyes. But all the same, I wondered why it was that I couldn’t expect to go through a day without anyone calling attention to a delicate personal matter in front of or in the proximity of several other people. It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Today, it dawned on me that this is part of what makes the community at St. Gertrude’s different from my other communities—and it’s also what makes it harder, and what makes it better. Your ‘private, personal matters’ are not so private or personal here because your mental and emotional wellbeing is essentially a part of the larger community. Difficult matters are shared because the community wants to help carry the burden. But even more, at the core of this community of sisters, there is an understanding that everything is discussed, everything is on the table, because none of it is so bad that we stop loving God (or whatever you imagine God to be). There’s a sort of underlying acceptance of all tragedy, all good and bad stuff that happens to any of us or to anyone. And I have to say, it’s amazingly freeing.

And to take it a step further into the practical, how can we care deeply for others or for God if we aren’t being honest and open about our own state of being? If I am zoning out all day and decide not to tell anyone why, I am not doing anyone any favors, including myself. But if I accept the difficulty of being vulnerable in a community, I can at least allow others understanding of my journey and potentially let them help me along.

Being For Others

There’s something a lot of people talk about doing, especially here in the monastery and in my Jesuit school, but also very frequently in the “real” world that might require a little more examination. The way my school put it, “we want to be men and women for others.” A lot of people say it another way: we want to make the world a better place; we want to live God’s word; we want to do service; we want to go out and do good.

I once referred to my experience at the monastery as one of the most selfish things I’ve done—not in a negative sense, but in a practical, “this is really going to mostly benefit me” sort of way. Being here, I temporarily forgot about that realization until tonight. In evening prayer, I found myself combing through my day and trying to think of ways that I had helped other people, little ways I had made the world a better place. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t think of anything. Sure, I helped with dishes. I worked on projects to help promote the Monastic Immersion Program. And if I really wanted to stretch it: I smiled at people and said thank you.

But none of those really felt like they counted. I didn’t go out of my way to do them. They’re things that I kind of feel are obligations to living in a community, and most of them are technically assigned tasks. And did I really do anything to make the world better? Or did I just help the world continue on its normal track?

My days at the monastery often revolve around trying to find time to do things for me. I do my work quickly and plan time so I can pray, work out, have coffee, write, read, call friends, or send letters. I am constantly wondering when I’ll have time to sneak back to my room and write a few more sentences or do some more push-ups. No matter how I spin it, I can’t help feeling pretty sure that all of those things are not really helping anyone besides me.
What have I done for others besides loving and appreciating them as people—which may be a challenge sometimes, but I feel maybe ought to be the bare minimum?

And in thinking all of this, I began to look back at the last ten years (since I was 12 and slightly more aware of the world as an entity much bigger than me or my family) and ask the same kinds of questions. To my slight discomfort, overall, I don’t feel like I’ve done that much; I have consistently been pretty self-focused. I’ve focused on my own education, relationships, growth, work, and personal needs pretty exclusively, with volunteering thrown in every so often when I had some extra time.

I’m not ashamed of this. It’s not as though I think I’ve been a terrible person. It’s important for us to grow and learn in order to become the people who are informed and skilled enough to participate in positive change and to really be of service to others. It’s probably good that our early adulthood is driven by self-understanding and self-betterment. But, it does make me think.

What happens now? How can I truly be a woman for others now that I’m temporarily done with formal education? Most of the lives I’ve thus far imagined for myself don’t really seem quite up to that standard.

In our culture, we are trained to think that survival is really hard. Getting a good salary is really hard, finishing your projects on time is really hard, living a healthy lifestyle is really hard—we just don’t have the time to work for the good of others because we barely have time to take care of ourselves. How many times have I complained that I don’t have time to eat, or read for fun, or relax? (Quick note: I’m speaking specifically from an upper middle-class, white perspective, and I fully acknowledge that for many other people in our country, even simple survival can be incredibly more complicated and difficult than it has been for me.)

If we don’t think we’re taking care of ourselves, we feel fully justified in not doing things for others. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. I don’t think that mentality is wrong. After all, it is true that we can’t really love others without loving ourselves; if we’re sinking, we probably won’t help someone else stay afloat. But I think we are too caught up in how hard it is to take care of ourselves; the oxygen mask bands need to fit perfectly around our head, and the oxygen has to be flowing at just the right level, and we have to make sure the color matches our outfit before we can even consider helping the person next to us. In real world terms, it ends up being about accomplishing a certain weight loss goal, getting above a certain income level, having a house, actually managing to take up yoga, meeting the right person, making peace with our parents… How many things do you want to make better in your life that you’d prioritize over spending a few hours a week volunteering?

I sincerely don’t want to call others’ lives into question. I don’t think anyone is less honorable for living life primarily for themselves and their happiness. I personally believe that the more happy people there are, the better the world will be. So by all means, please practice yoga and learn to love your mother and take that extra business class that will earn you a promotion. But for me, I think I may need a little more. They say that the call of a monk is to ‘seek God above all else.’ If you think of God as peace and love in the world, then I want to be a monk. I have a body that works, skills to rely on, and a whole network of people who would be willing to help me if I needed it. With all that, I’d say my struggle to survive isn’t too hard to start spending a bit more time on something greater than my own needs. And if I have the time and the resources, I don’t think I’d feel right not living for others.

 Of course, figuring out just what that might look like for me is an entirely separate issue and definitely another blog post.