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Lessons learned from swimming in the waves (of grief)

The waves of grief hit me (again) yesterday.

Last night I attended a visitation for a friend who was taken too soon from his family. Another life lost to cancer.

I shared a moment with the widow and told her to please call whenever she needed to vent, to cry, or just to have someone listen who might have the slightest understanding of what she is going through.

Last month was two years since I lost my husband to cancer. And although some days it still does not seem real, most days I have accepted this new life situation (I searched for another word, but after reading the definition “a set of circumstances in which one finds oneself” – situation seems to be the best word to convey my meaning).

As I left the visitation and started driving, I wondered what I would say to her if she calls. I started thinking about my trip to the ocean earlier this summer and how grief is much like the waves in the ocean.

When instructors are teaching swimmers how to swim in the ocean (a much different type of swimming than in a pool) some of the lessons they try to convey are:

  1. Stay in tune with the movement of the water.
  2. Adjust your breathing in unpredictable waves. When facing unpredictable waves, take a breath whenever you can, or hold your breath if you must.
  3. Keep up your momentum
  4. Dive under the big waves. Submerge your body until it passes.
  5. Don’t go alone, have help available in case of an emergency.

As I think about each of these lessons, I realize that this is how I have survived the past two years.

  1. Stay in tune – the calendar is the best way to stay in tune with the movement of grief. The first year there are so many predictable events that will bring about a heavy feeling of grief. Allow yourself the time and space to feel those and realize that the wave of grief will be coming at you during those times: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. When you know the wave is coming, it is ok to ride it out. Trying to fight it will only wear you out and you may get sucked under or swept away by a deeper undercurrent.
  2. Unpredictable waves – As the words suggest these are the times that you have no idea why you are feeling so pulled into the wave of grief. This will happen. It is ok to adjust your schedule to allow yourself to be swept into the wave. Fighting it will just mean that more unpredictable waves may come and they will be bigger and more fierce. If you learn to stop and take a breath you may actually be able to discover what the trigger may have been so that the next time it may be a predictable wave instead of unpredictable. [Note: there will be unpredictable waves that you will not ever see coming, but after time, the unpredictable waves do become smaller].
  3. Keep your momentum – momentum is the key. Stay in touch with friends and family. Get up every day. Put one foot in front of the other. And all the rest of the cliches. When you start to feel yourself stopping, seek help. There are many people around you that care for you and love you. Some days this will be harder than others, but wake up, put your feet on the floor and find one thing to help you to keep moving forward.
  4. Dive under the big waves/submerge – For me the big waves are still birthdays/anniversaries. I have found that if I allow myself to submerge myself in the grief temporarily it is easier to come out of it on the other side. Ignoring grief and trying to stay above may work on as a stopgap measure, but the wave will come back, and it will be stronger the next time. One of the best books I read after my husband passed away was “You Can Heal Your Heart” by Louise Hay and David Kessler and my favorite excerpt is “The only way out of the pain is through it. You must feel it, but not stay in it or live your life from it. The only way to feel love when you’re grieving is to stay aware of how you treat yourself during the loss.”
  5. Don’t go alone – Finding a friend who understands your circumstances and being able to share your feelings is a huge relief. Holding all the feelings inside and not being able to feel like you can share them with friends because you think they are tired of hearing you cry is very common. I have never been a huge fan of support groups, mostly because of one very bad experience a long time ago. But I have found a support group that has changed my tune. If you have not found a support group, keep looking. A good grief support group will be nonjudgemental and will listen to all the crazy thoughts that you have been holding in, because, believe it or not, at least one of them has had that same thought.

Experiencing Prevenient Grace in everyday life

Have you ever really thought about Grace?

Not the grace that we say before eating a meal, but the Grace God offers each and every one of us.

Last summer I bought a hot tub. I didn’t really have a full vision for my backyard, so I had a concrete slab poured for the hot tub along with a sidewalk from my covered patio to the hot tub.

Now that I have lived with it for a year, I have all sorts of thoughts and ideas on how to improve the design and function of the area. But, as a widow, this is just one more thing that makes me miss having my husband to bounce ideas off of (not to mention he usually could do the work, or knew where to find someone to do the work).

At this point, you may be wondering what my hot tub and patio have to do with grace, but stay with me…

Recently, the sermon series at church was about God’s grace. In the Methodist Church, we see grace as threefold: Prevenient Grace, Justifying Grace and Sanctifying Grace.

Several weeks ago I mentioned to some friends at church that I wanted to expand my back patio. I was looking for recommendations for a trustworthy contractor to come bring my vision to life. Instead of a recommendation, one of them said he would come take a look and see what I had in mind. A couple of days later, we stood in my backyard and I described my vision to him (nothing fancy, just adding some pavers and stone to improve the flow and expand the living space with some outdoor seating). It turns out he really likes doing this kind of project and said he and a buddy could do it for me.

This week has been full of activity. My friend and a couple of other recruits came over and began the process to expand my patio.

As I watched them work in the hot sun, I wondered what I had done to deserve these friends in my life. (And, if you know me at all, you know how hard it is for me to ask for help, which is what this felt like). Which led me to think back on the sermon series about Grace…Especially Prevenient Grace.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, defined prevenient grace as God’s active presence in our lives, not dependent on human actions, but a gift that is always available.

I have done nothing to deserve God’s grace, His Prevenient Grace. It is a gift that is there always, and there is nothing that we can do to escape it. Even if we try to turn from it, it will be there when we are ready to finally accept it.

And so it was with my patio. I did not do anything to deserve these men and women coming over and spending a Sunday afternoon (and several evenings throughout the week) working on my patio. It was their way of expressing God’s love and showing me a living example of Grace.

God uses the people in our lives to show us, in terms we can understand, what Grace really is. It is not just something we say before a meal. If we are willing to look around, we see it is through everyday people doing things (for us or for others) that are completely undeserved.

I will never be able to thank these folks enough, nor will I ever be able to thank God enough for his Grace. The best I can offer is to live my life expressing the same kind of grace to people I meet every day (and maybe offering a nice steak dinner to those that worked on the new patio).

How have you experienced God’s grace? How have you been an example to someone else of God’s grace?

Don’t tell me it is Impossible

My dad’s favorite song is/was “The Impossible Dream“. The last stanza is one of my favorites:

And the world will be better for this

that one man, scorned and covered with scars

still strove with his last ounce of courage

to reach the unreachable star

Last week I had my final physical therapy appointment (maybe not by choice, but because of insurance rules). At the appointment, the physical therapist handed me a slip of paper with the words Girdlestone Procedure written on it. He had been to a conference the week before and was telling a colleague about my situation. The colleague said, “Oh, yeah, that is the Girdlestone Procedure.”

May 9th will be exactly 5 months since I went to the hospital believing I was just going to have an infection cleaned out. (you can read more about that here). Instead, I stayed in the hospital 10 days and the doctor removed my left hip prosthesis and peformed the Girdlestone procedure (somewhat modified for my situation).

As of today, I walk with a cane and have a lift on my left shoe. Occasionally, I have been known to look around and realize I walked around my kitchen island without even using the cane. My goal at physical therapy was to walk with a cane. Now I have set a new goal for myself to walk a mile on the treadmill by the middle of June.

The idea of walking a mile and perhaps walking without a cane eventually all seemed normal to me – until last night.

Last night I was having trouble sleeping. So I got up and found the piece of paper with the name of the procedure on it and proceeded to do what anyone with a computer and insomnia would do – I googled “Girdlestone Procedure” (here is an interesting link to understand more about it).

It was originally developed to treat patients with complications from tuberculosis. With the development of better, stronger antibiotics and hip replacement joints, the procedure is not used very often now. It is considered the last effort, as was the case for me.

[If you are reading this for the first time, you may not know I have Stage 4 Breast Cancer with metastasis to the bones. A large portion of the socket of my left hip was destroyed by cancer in 2010.]

If I didn’t already know I was stubborn, reading the articles and case studies I found last night would have solidified that description (my family has been known to say that when you look up stubborn in the dictionary, you find a picture of me – I have not found a dictionary that has that picture yet).

As I read the case studies and the description of the procedure, I realized I am way ahead of the curve. I was walking with a cane 10 weeks after the surgery.

When I finally put the iPad down and drifted off to sleep, I was thankful that I had not known anything about this procedure and the case studies in December or any time during my physical therapy.

My scars and I are going to use every last bit of courage to reach for the unreachable star. I can hear my dad saying “That’s my girl!”

Got to get the gym and get moving on the treadmill so I can knock that next goal out of the park.

 

Friends

Friends. Over my lifetime, I have had many friends. The only person I ever considered to be my best friend was my husband. Growing up I don’t remember ever having a best friend. Most likely that is from being raised in the military (at least that is what I have always blamed it on).

Being a military brat, there were always new faces around. And you had plenty of friends, but none of the friendships ever lasted beyond the next move. You see, either we were moving or the family of my friend would move. I learned to adapt. Those friendships were great for the time and place, but when we got to the next place there would be other people and friends. I never kept in touch with the friends I left behind after we moved (there were a couple that I tried to keep up with, but as kids, that never lasted long, we each had other friends to engage with where we were).

This morning I was reflecting on what I read last night in Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend (I’m trying to read one self-improvement book per month this year). Last night the chapter I was reading was “Boundaries and Your Friends.”  I was able to see myself in many of the situations described in the chapter (probably not a good thing). Mostly, the compliant friend. Again, I think that goes back to having to make new friends all the time. It was easy to be compliant to make a new friend.

As I reflected, I thought about being a military brat and making new friends every time we moved. Then I moved onto the friendships I have now. In many ways, I feel like I’m back to that (scared) military brat kid. I have many friends, but sometimes I wonder when one of us will move on (I think that is the cancer talking). I find that I can easily adapt to new friends (probably because I am the compliant friend) but I often struggle to keep meaningful relationships going (or maybe that is just self-doubt talking to me).

After my husband passed away, I sold our house and moved closer to friends. Because of the toll cancer has taken on my body I needed a lot of help from friends – packing, moving, unpacking. Then in December, I had surgery and I needed more help – rides, meals and general help around the house.

Share each other’s burdens

Friends were great about helping out. Many rallied to the call for help. But once the crisis is/was over, I find myself apprehensive to call for fear they will wonder what I need now.

And that leads me to ponder – how am I being a friend to them? Am I listening to them? Am I offering support? (Physically, I can’t offer much help – certainly I can’t carry a couch up stairs if you are moving, but I am willing to hang out and listen if you need an ear). Am I offering a two-way street?

I worry some people don’t share their problems because they don’t want to burden me, but Galatians 6:2 says “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” I have shared my burdens, how can I lighten your load?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The doctor Believed I could

Have you ever had someone believe in you, even more than you believe in yourself?

If you read my last post, you know that I had surgery to remove (yes, you read that right) my hip prosthesis. Because of the damage to my hip from stage 4 breast cancer, there is not an option to replace the hip. The prosthesis lasted me 6 and a half years. Now I have to figure out how to get around without the use of that left hip. In December that seemed like a daunting task.

Even before the doctor performed the surgery, he told me he believed I would be able to walk with a cane because I would have enough scar tissue to support me (not to mention the muscles). I thought he was crazy, and everyone else (including people in the medical profession) asked “How can that be? Don’t you need a hip to walk?” Honestly, I always thought you needed a hip to walk.

But because he told me I could do it, I believed it too. And I held onto that belief at every physical therapy session.

He Believed I could so I did!

Yesterday, March 1st, was exactly 10 weeks from the date of my surgery to remove my prosthesis.  This video captured my third lap around the cone and is evidence that I can walk without a hip joint!

I’m not sure that I would have believed this to be possible, if the doctor who performed the surgery had not believed first and shared that belief with me.

What is holding you back from believing the seemingly impossible?

I believe that I will get stronger and I will walk with a cane. And beyond that, I may just decide I can walk without a cane.

I BELIEVE!

A Lot has happened in Two Months

What has happened in the last two months? More than you can even imagine.

When you have cancer, you never really know when things are going to get crazy. Well, for me, that happened (again), in late November and December.

You see, I had been having pain in my reconstructed hip and then an infection started to show up.

This was new, odd, and completely unexpected. After all, I had my hip reconstructed six and a half years ago, in August 2011 (you can read more about that here).

My surgeon did an MRI in November to see if there was anything else going on and, thankfully, the results were that there was some inflammation. The surgeon aspirated it and sent that off for a biopsy and it, too, came back negative (yea again).

In December, after several rounds of antibiotics not really working, the surgeon decided that it would be best to “go in and clean it out.” It meant a trip to the hospital and a “small surgery” that would only take about 30 minutes.

On December 9th, I arrived, completely at ease, because the MRI and the biopsy had both indicated that this was nothing more than an infection, and the “small surgery” would fix everything.

That surgery did take only about 30 minutes. However, what the surgeon found when he got in there was that my entire prosthesis was infected. After much deliberation about how to proceed (I will spare you all of those details for now), it was determined that my prosthesis (all of them, after all the original surgery was much more than just a hip replacement).

The morning of December 14th I went back to surgery. This one was much longer than the “small surgery” by several hours. Afterwards, I had nothing holding my hip together anymore.

The human body is an amazing thing. I left the hospital on the 18th of December (got to spend Christmas at home with my wonderful daughters) on a walker. I was putting about 20% of my body weight on my leg, and my surgeon was/is hopeful that I will build enough scar tissue and muscle to be able to walk with a cane.

January came and I was back to physical therapy. If you want to see a physical therapist at a loss for words, tell him you do not have a hip anymore and that you have a goal to walk with a cane.

I started going to PT three times a week, and have now graduated to 2 times a week. Each time they introduce a new exercise, they ask if I think I can do it or not. My response is always “I’m willing to give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, I will let you know.”

In the midst of all of the physical therapy, it was also time for my regularly scheduled scans. This article does a great job of explaining the roller coaster ride of living from scan to scan.

I am happy to report that “it was just an infection” in my hip, and all my scans showed that I am STABLE. I will continue with PT, stay on my current medication that has kept me stable for over four years, and continue to live joyfully until the next scan.

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming a Social Introvert

I am the first to admit that I am an Introvert. Some people may think of introverts as shy, but that is not exactly the truth. An introvert recharges oneself by being alone, while an extrovert gets energized being around people.

I have been an introvert my whole life. I like small groups as opposed to large ones. I can get almost a claustrophobic like feeling when I’m in big groups. It’s not that I don’t like people. I do, but as an introvert, I can feel overwhelmed and extremely drained after being around too many people.

I started reading Micheal Hyatt’s book ‘Your Best Year Ever’ this month with my church Life Group. We all took his Lifescore quiz. Not surprisingly, one of my low scores was Social; I scored a 5 out of a possible 12. I already knew this about myself and before I even took the quiz, I had already planned to work on being more social (not a resolution, but a promise).

But when you are an introvert, how do you suddenly become more social? That was the question.

My answer: Being social does not mean I have to go out in big groups. Instead, I can be more social by being more intentional about planning a lunch with a friend. Or by having a few people over for dinner. It does not mean that I have to go to 6th Street in Downtown Austin on Friday or Saturday night.

Over the past 18 months, I’ve learned that just because you are an introvert does not mean you don’t want to be around people. I live by myself and find that I actually need to be around other people – just in moderation.

[A short side note for those of you who aren’t around me much, I had to have surgery in December for an infection and currently I am unable to drive. I am having to rely on friends and family to take me to doctor’s appointments and physical therapy.]

I have found that I have really enjoyed the conversations in the car going to and from appointments. This is my social time.

I also learned that I don’t have to leave my house to be social. And, no that does not mean Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat. It means I can have friends come to my house and just hang out. We can order a pizza and catch up or watch a cheesy Hallmark movie.

As I was thinking about how to improve my social skills this morning (especially as an introvert), I realized that some of my friendships were like my house. I used to be the person that would not let someone come over if the house wasn’t spic and span. I was putting on a happy face, clean house style, for friends to come over. But in a true relationship/friendship, you have to be willing to share the messy stuff (even if the messy stuff is just the dishes from lunch still on the kitchen counter). Just like a dirty house, I can’t hide my imperfections from true friends if I want to have real relationships.

I am fortunate to have many friends who have seen my imperfections and brokenness and still want to come over to sit on the couch, eat pizza and maybe share a bottle of wine.

Cheers to this Introvert learning to be more social in 2018.

 

 

 

 

Butterflies, Miracles and God’s Timing

Do you believe in Miracles?

A few days ago I was doing the weekly maintenance on my hot tub. There were several butterflies flitting about the yard. Butterflies have always been my sign from God, and I have extended that to J.R. the past months. I asked God (the butterfly) to land on the hot tub side so I would know it was J.R.

I’m always looking for signs that he is watching over me and happy with the choices I’ve made since he has been gone. When you have made all of your decisions together for over 20 years, you still seek reassurance from the one you used to make all your decisions with.

I waited and waited. Sure that it would eventually land on the hot tub, but finally, I had to leave. As I walked away I knew it was J.R., in true J.R. fashion, the butterfly continued to flit around and land everywhere but on the side of the hot tub where I asked it to land. All our married life, he did things on his schedule and not on mine. It was a constant frustration for me while he was alive. Now, all I could do was laugh, knowing how much he knew it irritated me.

I realized that this was not unlike our prayers with/to God. God does things on his own timeline. We may ask for something, expecting it to happen on our timeline. But God’s time is infinite, unlike ours. So when He does things on His timeline, it may frustrate us that it is not done as quickly as we would like. When a prayer is answered it may not be in the way in which we expect it, but He is taking care of things in ways we cannot comprehend or understand.

I have been reading some blog posts recently where the author was asking God for miraculous healing. In one post, the author had a long list of friends or family that he was asking God to heal. In another, the author was the one who had asked for the healing. In both of the posts, the authors “received” miraculous healing.

I admit I have a hard time with these posts. In my days of self-doubt, it makes me wonder if I don’t have enough faith. Do I not ask for healing in the “right way”?

I know that there is nothing that is going to bring J.R. back to life. I have asked for healing, for myself, for my husband before he passed, for my dad before he passed. While I do not claim to have received a miraculous healing (I still have Stage 4 Breast Cancer), it is a miracle that I am still here 7 years after my Stage 4 diagnosis (14 years since my original diagnosis).

It occurred to me as I was reading these blogs and thinking about the butterflies that were flitting around, that these authors were not writing to me. I was not their intended audience. Much like the disciples who wrote to different audiences, I too, am writing for a different audience.

I’m not going to claim miraculous healing. I am going to claim that God has done miracles in my life and now it is time to honor those miracles and live a life of purpose – to glorify God in my own way and by sharing my story.

MBC – a glimpse at just one day

I want to give you a small glimpse into what it is like to live with Metastatic Breast Cancer or MBC (also known as Stage 4 Breast Cancer).

Time stands still while you are waiting for a phone call

I try not to let MBC control my life, but there are some days when I just can’t help it.

I’ve had MBC since 2010. Since then I have had scans every 3, 4 or 6 months.  More frequently at the beginning, and then the doctor started to spread them out as I became “stable” with no signs of progression. The scans are so routine, that when I call to schedule them, I sometimes have to help the scheduler understand how to get them on the schedule in the right order (you know, because if you have to get more than one scan done, you want to get them all done on the same day so you don’t have to go back another day).

A couple of weeks ago it was time to have my scans done again. I have had so many of these scans that I should be a member of a frequent scanner plan (too bad that isn’t a thing, I’m sure I would be eligible for my free scans by now). I go in like a pro. I’m dressed so I don’t have to change into a gown for the scans. I schedule the CT for first thing in the morning because it requires me to fast (no eating or drinking for 6 hours before).  The total bone scan requires an injection and a 3-hour wait before the actual scan begins. This gives me time to go get breakfast after the CT is done and then still be done with the scans before I’ve lost the entire day.

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Ours not to reason WHY – Alfred Lord Tennyson

Early on in our education, we are taught to ask the questions (especially when writing) – Who, What, When, Where and WHY.

If you are a storyteller you need to be able to share all the information (and if you are a dramatic storyteller, you know when to best share each of those ideas) to those listening or reading. If there is no WHY, then what is the point of the story?

If you are a scientist, you are driven by the WHY. Why does something happen the way it does? If I do this other thing will it change the way that happened? If so, then WHY?

And if you are a 2-year-old, you constantly ask WHY? So much so that the parent’s response may come back as “because I said so.”

But as a Christian, if you ask WHY, you are likely to not get an answer. You may get other people’s opinion and/or told to “look to the Bible”. But does that really ever answer the question WHY?

I heard a great line by a presenter in a bible study I am taking. I’m not sure the exact wording, but it was something like this:

You can’t ask WHY or you won’t be able to HEAL.

Believe me, there are thousands of times I would like to ask the question Why.

  • Why do I have cancer?
  • Why did it come back?
  • Why did dad get cancer?
  • Why did he have 3 types of cancer?
  • Why did J.R. get cancer?
  • Why am I still here when they both had such a shorter battle?
  • And the list goes on…

One thing I have learned on this journey of mine, I will not have an answer to these questions. I do not know, nor will I ever know what caused my cancer. And in order to move forward, I have to be OK with that.

Friends and acquaintances are sometimes shocked that I can get up and face the world each day. How do I do it? (Oh, yeah, I forgot that one at the beginning).

The HOW lies in not dwelling on the WHY.

This is not a debate about whether God caused the cancer, or if God could have taken the cancer away.

No, this is more. This is about believing and trusting God to be present in my life. Through the good (there was lots of that) and the bad (there has been lots of that, too) God is present, He rejoices with us and He mourns with us.

I don’t know why bad things happen, we won’t likely ever know. But through Faith, I can HEAL and face today, tomorrow, and as many days as I have ahead of me

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