Change Your Way of Thinking

Excerpt from The Tender Scar by widower Richard Mabry, MD –

The loss of a spouse causes us to change many things.  This should include making an effort to change the way we think about ourselves.

I discovered more of Cynthia’s papers in a nightstand the other night.  Included were notes from a grief seminar she attended at one of her nurses’ meetings.  The discussion of the initial states of shock, emotional lability, depression, guilt, resentment, and anger are followed by the notation “hope arrives.”  Then in capital letters she wrote, CHANGE YOUR WAY OF THINKING!  I’m trying, but it’s not easy.

As I go through the house, straightening and cleaning, everything reminds me of her.  We did so many neat things together over the years, and part of my grief centers around the fact that she isn’t around to share with anymore.  I look at the sunset and turn to comment on it, but she’s not there.  I hear a bit of news, and think “Cynthia would like to hear that”, but she’s not there for me to tell.  I see an ad for a movie, and think, ‘Maybe we’ll see that.’  But there’s no more “we”. (Author’s journal)

The world is made for couples.  You never think about it when you’re part of that world but, now that you’re single again, you see that you’ve become a “fifth wheel”.  For a while after your bereavement, friends invite you out to dinner or to other social functions, but these often are uncomfortable situations.  How many times in the past in similar functions did you depend on your spouse or companion for rescue from conversations that were boring or uncomfortable?  Now you’re stuck.  And you sense (often correctly) that the folks engaging you in such conversation would probably rather be talking to other couples but feel it’s their duty to cheer you up.  No one wins in these situations.

And, in the midst of all this, is the unexplainable feeling of guilt at having somehow departed from the norm, for being less than is expected of you because you’re without a partner.

There’s no need to belabor the point—your status has changed.  The important question is, What do you do about it?  The answer is simple to say, hard to carry out:  change your way of thinking.  Change the rules you’ve set for yourself.  Be prepared to ignore the rules you’ve come to accept from society about single persons.  Change your priorities to include making yourself happy.  Begin to think of yourself as an individual, not as part of a couple.  Is this disrespectful of your departed loved one?  Think about it.  Would he or she want you to perpetually mourn and sequester yourself from society, or would your spouse be pleased if you once more found happiness in your life?  You know the answer.

In other words, begin to think in terms of “I”, not “we”.

Will you ever be part of a couple again?  It may be too soon to think about that.  Whether you continue to live alone, or once again become part of a couple, your current task can be described very simply: CHANGE YOUR WAY OF THINKING.  The rest is in God’s hands.

Comfort of the Staff

“…..thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”  Psalm 23:4b

A shepherd’s staff is a long stick made of wood that has a “C” shaped curve at the top. In those times of great hardship and trouble in our lives, how does God our Shepherd comfort us with His staff?

As I began to wonder about this and look for the answer to this question, I found that there are three areas of sheep management in which the staff plays a very significant role.  The first role is to draw the sheep together into an intimate relationship.  If a newborn lamb becomes separated from its mother, the shepherd uses his staff to gently lift it and bring it back to the mother.  He does this because he does not wish to have the ewe reject her lamb it if bears the odor of his hands on it.

The staff is also used to draw the sheep close to the shepherd for intimate examination.  It is very  useful in this way for the shy and timid sheep who tend to stay at a distance from the shepherd.

The shepherd uses his staff it to guide the sheep gently onto a new path, through a gate or along dangerous and difficult routes.  The tip of that long slender stick is laid gently against the side of the sheep.  The pressure applied guides the sheep in the way that the shepherd wants it to go.  This reassures the sheep of its proper path.

When things happen in my life that causes me to feel that God has betrayed me in some way and does not really love me, He comforts me with His staff.  My tendency is to close down my heart and pull away from Him, but He loves me too much to allow me to do that.  He does not want to be separated from me.  So, He takes His staff and gently lifts me up bringing me back to Himself.

Once I am drawn close to my Shepherd, He uses His staff to examine my heart very closely and helps me to really see myself just as I am.  This allows me to take a deep, long look into my heart and open up those doors that have been sealed shut for so very long.  This process then brings to light the things that have been hindering me from having that truly intimate relationship with Him so that I can deal with them.  It opens up my Pandora’s box and cleans it out.

Change happens in life……..changes that are unforeseen and unwanted changes that blindside me.  When those kinds of changes come, I find myself at a complete loss as to what way to go.  This is when my Shepherd again takes His staff and gently guides me onto the new path that He has already prepared for me.  Then as I begin to go down this new path, He takes His staff and lays it with gentle pressure against my side reassuring me that He is right there with me and I am going the right way.

“My dear Shepherd, thank you that even when I am resisting the path that You have planned for my life, You are not turning your back on me leaving me to figure things out on my own.  Thank you that you love me with an everlasting love and that I have the comfort of your staff always.”

Unfinished Projects

Excerpt from The Tender Scar by widower Richard Mabry, MD –

The death of a loved one will leave projects and accomplishments undone.  Self-imposed pressure to finish what your loved one started may be unrealistic and unhealthy.

Some friends came by this afternoon and took a bunch of Cynthia’s gardening magazines and some of her seedlings.  Still some left, and I’ll try to find good homes for them this weekend.  The remainders go to the nursery next week–they’ll be glad to get them.  I’m alternately frustrated and depressed by having to deal with so many things that to Cynthia were second nature and to me are a mystery.

I had been really “down” about the number of unfinished projects and plans Cynthia left behind–until it dawned on me that, to her, life was a work in progress, and she would have left just as many behind at age ninety-nine as at age sixty-two.  And it’s foolish of me to think that by completing the projects (which were fun to her, not necessarily to me), I would be honoring her memory.  I think she would want me to realize my own limitations, and I can just hear her giggling if i tried to become a gardener.  As Allen (our son) said, the worst mistake I could ever make would be to try to live out Cynthia’s life for her.  So I’ll clean up her garden as best I can, put her seedlings up for adoption, tie up the loose ends of her projects, and try to move on.  She’d want it that way. (Author’s journal)

It’s a significant shock when walking through the house after the death of your spouse, to encounter projects they will never complete.  whether it’s finishing the laundry that overflows the hamper, planting the flowers that sit in rows of pots on the back porch, or knowing what to do with the unfinished painting that sits on the table in the study, dealing with these matters is painful.

There are two primary emotions engendered by unfinished projects.  The first is sorrow that your loved one will never again know the feeling of completing an earthly task.  Whether it was a household chore or a recreational project, the very presence of the unfinished act reminds us that he or she is gone from this earth.

Following hard on the heels of grief for our loved one is grief for ourselves.  We have been robbed of their companionship, presence, and love.  This hurts and will continue to hurt for some time to come.  So we try to assuage the pain in a very direct way–by continuing to live their lives for them.  The temptation is great to throw ourselves into completing the unfinished tasks in an effort to somehow hang on to our departed loved ones for just a big longer.  Some tasks must, of course, eventually be finished.  Clothes must be washed, beds made, and daily household chores carried out.  Others can be completed if, and only if, we are up to it.

In some cases, you may “give the projects a good home” with someone who shares the interest and talents of the one who left them behind.  Some things may be kept, even in an uncompleted state, for sentimental value.  And finally, some may be discarded.  This is not disrespectful.  It merely recognizes that your loves one has moved on.  He or she would undoubtedly be the first to tell you, “Don’t try to continue living my life for me.  Move forward with your own“.

His Plan?

Richard Mabry, MD’s book The Tender Scar is written from his journal entries written after the death of his wife.  He writes the following:

“In the days, weeks, and months after the death of a husband or wife, the survivor can expect to experience periods of grief and absolute desolation, and a deep sense of loss all of which can be devastating.  There is no predicting when these periods will come, how long they will last, and to what degree they will prevent any semblance of normal functioning.  But it is absolutely certain that they will come.  and they will be accompanied by anger at God and doubts about His plan for us.

We all learned in Sunday school that Job’s faithfulness was rewarded by God, and things were put to right.  What bothers those of us who suffered the death of a spouse is that God hasn’t reached down and put things right for us.  We don’t understand how or why this happened, and, because we don’t see an end to the suffering and inequity that these circumstances produce, it tests our faith as surely as Job’s affliction tested his.

I accept the fact that God is truly all-powerful and all-knowing, able to perform miracles whenever and however He chooses.  I’ve come to the realization, however, that I will never in this world and within the confines of my own humanity be able to understand God’s plan as it affects my life and that of others around me.  I cannot successfully argue with God about why He spared this person and not that one, why my wife died and some else’s mate lived.  Yet I feel a firm assurance that someday, I and my Christian brothers and sisters will understand the reasons behind events that we now find incomprehensible.  For now, all you and I can do is continue to pray for grace for the moment and a revelation of God’s continuing will for us, day by day.

All-powerful and all-knowing God, we are frustrated because of apparently senseless events that rob us of our loved ones and put doubt into our minds about Your caring for us.  Teach us once more that we cannot in this world know the ins and outs of Your plans for us, and help us to wait patiently on You.  Give us grace for the moment, day by day, until someday we see fully revealed what You have prepared for us and for those loved ones who are already enjoying the fruits of their labors.  In Your Precious name, Amen.”

Missed Conversations

Excerpt from THE TENDER SCAR by widower Richard Mabry, MD –

The death of a spouse takes away the opportunity for daily conversation.  Whether trivial or profound, those conversations have been shared for years.  Finding an acceptable outlet and substitute is difficult but necessary.

Sorry to bend your ear so much.  I talk with the kids almost daily, but I just don’t feel I can unload on them every time we talk.  I have friends who call me, but none of them know me like you do, and I can’t really unburden myself to them about some things.  I miss Cynthia so…I’d give anything to talk with her again. (Author’s email to friend)

I don’t know how many more of these letters will come.  I’m emailing a lot of folks, but some of this I’m not ready to share with anyone.  I guess that’s what I miss the most–the fact that for so long we were essentially one person, and sharing didn’t always involve talking.  Just being together was enough.  And when we did need to talk, we were always there for each other. (Author’s letter to wife Cynthia after her death)

The grief that stems from the death of a spouse is even more difficult to endure because we’ve lost the very one to whom we turned for so many years to talk out our disappointments and calamities.

A “Looking Back” Understanding

Excerpt from To Heaven and Back by Mary C. Neal, MD

“Growing up, I was taught that Psalm 23-4 (‘Though I walk through the alley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.  For You are with me: Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me‘) referred to one’s own death and the dangerous journey back to God.  Now I believe it actually refers to the people who are left behind to grieve.  As grieving people walk through the valley of the shadow of a loved one’s death, their sadness, confusion, anger and despair can inadvertently prop open the door of their hearts allowing evil to silently enter.

King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that ‘people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end‘ and I would heartily agree.  We live our lives in forward motion, but only understand them when looking backward.  I therefore challenge you to keep a six-to twelve-month journal of coincidence.  In that journal, write down the details of every ‘coincidence’ you experience.

In one column, write the details of each major event in your life…What are/were the circumstances surrounding your acceptance into college, meeting your significant other, finding your job, choosing where you live, and so on.  Note every time the arrangements easily fall into place.

Similarly, every time you struggle with a situation write down the eventual outcome.  Write down the ‘bad’ things that happen to you or others and, in an adjacent column, list what happens as a direct or indirect result of these bad things.  I believe that when you look back through your journal at the end of your exercise, you will clearly see how many of people, events, decisions and outcomes are interconnected.  I think you will see a pattern of linkage that cannot be attributed to statistical chance.  You will see evidence of God’s work in your life, giving assurance that God has a plan for your life.

You will begin to recognize coincidental events for the miracles they really are, and you will know that God is with you even in times of sorrow, loneliness, or other misfortune.”

How Does God Look to Me?

Excerpt from GOD: AS HE LONGS FOR YOU TO SEE HIM by Chip Ingram

“What you think about God shapes your whole relationship with Him.  In addition, what you believe God thinks about you determines how close you will grow toward Him.  Many of us have formed a picture of God from impressions we’ve picked up in passing.  If we see Him as an overzealous policeman, we’ll always be walking on eggshells.  If we see Him as an angry judge, we’ll always feel guilty.  If we think He’s just like us, we’ll be casual about our sin.  But are those ideas accurate?  What if they’re not true at all?

Misconceptions about God can certainly create a barrier in your relationship with Him.  And meanwhile, the friendship, love, and encouragement you could be sharing with your heavenly Father are never realized–all because of wrong conclusions about Him.

He created you for closeness, love, and friendship.  Are you experiencing that?  His Word is meant to disclose His deep, personal thoughts to you, and prayer is meant for you to disclose your deep, personal thoughts to Him.  Are you enjoying that kind of intimacy?  Do you feel like you never measure up, that God is “down on you” or waiting for you to mess up so He can discipline you?  Do you often find it hard to pray?  Does the thought that you are the object of His utter delight seem foreign to you?  Your answers to these questions will tell you a lot about your perceptions of God.

You may be used to thinking that God is a distant, impersonal observer who is too busy to be concerned with you.  Despite your desire, He may have always seemed out of reach.  Forget that for a moment.  Just for now, can you set aside the feelings that tell you you’re not good enough to be accepted by Him, or that He’s been unfair, or He’s too busy to care?

Now imagine breaking through all of those misperceptions and somehow experiencing complete acceptance and deep intimacy with your heavenly Father….the God of the universe…the One who made you just for His pleasure.  What if all the hurts that you’ve felt from other people could be dissolved in His perfect love?  What if your disappointments could be instantly reversed by the complete satisfaction He brings?  What if you could stop looking at God through all the distortions of life and begin to look at life through Him instead?”

The Oak Tree

The Oak Tree
by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.
A mighty wind blew night and day.
It stole the Oak Tree’s leaves away.
Then snapped its boughs
and pulled its bark
until the Oak was tired and stark.
But still the Oak Tree held its ground
while other trees fell all around.
The weary wind gave up and spoke,
How can you still be standing Oak?”
The Oak Tree said, “I know that you
can break each branch of mine in two,
carry every leaf away,
shake my limbs and make me sway.
But I have roots stretched in the earth,
growing stronger since my birth.
You’ll never touch them, for you see
they are the deepest part of me.
Until today, I wasn’t sure
of just how much I could endure.
But now I’ve found with thanks to you,
I’m stronger than I ever knew.”