Brokenness and Beauty; Grief and Hope

Papa and I had a wonderful lunch together in 2017 at The Modern restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art– a fabulous day!

This has been a deeply sad week for me. My father died last Monday, Memorial Day, which seems fitting for a veteran. We had some very good times, and I am overflowing with wonderful memories, both from my childhood and from more recent years. Sadly, though, we also had times throughout my life when there was tension between us. The last two years were not good for us, though thankfully in his final weeks I felt that we had some renewed connection. It still does not seem possible that he is no longer here; I was so hoping for more time to reconnect, to hear his stories, to show him my sketchbooks, to sit with him watching the birds and chipmunks he so enjoyed.

I was thinking during the weeks of my father’s recent decline about how all people are both broken and beautiful; broken by others or by their own choices, beautiful because all people are created in the image of God and bear something of that image, no matter how broken they may be. That was very true of my father; he had significant brokenness that, along with my own brokenness, strained our relationship, but he was also an extraordinary person with many talents, who was people-oriented and generous. I am thankful for many of the interests and abilities that I carry on from my father and, going forward, I hope to pursue them in his honor and to God’s glory.

Here is what I wrote to be shared at his funeral:

I’ve often been told I look like my father. I don’t know if I do or not, but I know I am like him in many ways, and Papa is a big part of who I am. I owe much of my love of nature and appreciation for and beauty to Papa. I still picture walking with him in Butler Sanctuary, admiring a long black snake draped across the rocks on Blacksnake Hill; finding morels on a steep, rocky slope; picking bayberries to make bayberry candles. One day when he and I walked in our own woods, an enticing scent suddenly caught my attention, and I turned to see oyster mushrooms climbing a dead tree. FIVE POUNDS of oyster mushrooms, as Papa often told me with delight and obvious pride in me for finding them. I think of that day with Papa every time I see oyster mushrooms.

I remember the day not so many years ago when Papa took me to an exhibit of Van Gogh drawings and paintings. We went through the entire exhibit together, quietly discussing many of the pieces, then decided to go through separately to each study our favorites. I focused on a number of drawings and a few paintings; Papa just sat in front of his favorite, a large, colorful painting, silently observing it, deeply appreciating the opportunity to simply enjoy it. I so admire his ability to sit quietly, whether observing a painting; watching a hummingbird hovering in front of him; or taming the chipmunks that gamboled by his feet, on his hands, even in his shirt pockets.

Papa, like most of us, was a complex person with a blend of strengths and weaknesses and, sadly, he and I had a frequently strained relationship. He didn’t always show an overabundance of sensitivity to others’ emotions, but one occasion will always stay with me. I’d heard at the bus stop that a black and white cat had been hit by a car a ways up Chestnut Ridge Road. As soon as I got home I told Papa, and he immediately drove me up there. I had been wondering if it was our semi-feral Bilateral Symmetry, but when we drove past on the other side of the road, I stiffened as I saw a long-haired cat lying beside the road—Dis? Papa turned the car around and stopped by the cat. It was indeed my beloved Dis. We drove home, me in tears with Dis on my lap, then Papa dug a grave in a beautiful spot in the woods by the rhododendron-covered pathway. Papa took Dis’s body, laid her gently in the grave, covered her with dirt. He spoke with me some about death; I don’t remember specifics, but I have always remembered with gratitude what he said right afterwards—that he had buried Dis facing east with her head uphill.

Papa, I trust that on the last day you will rise up, facing east and rejoicing to see Christ come to take us home. I love you always and will be looking for you then.

Papa watching the birds and chipmunks- something I loved doing with him
Papa singing “Amazing Grace” with my mother and siblings two days before his death (I was “there” via Zoom)
The last card I painted for Papa


Musings on Loss and Longing

A couple of weeks ago I had a dream about Rowan in which I felt the strongest longing I’ve ever felt. It wasn’t just missing him; I’m not sure it would be possible to miss Rowan more than I have so much of the time since he passed from this life three months ago. In my dream I had left him with someone because she needed some help or company, but after I got home, I realized I couldn’t bear to be apart from him, and I was determined to go back and bring him home as soon as possible. It was an overwhelming feeling that was different from the abject grief I’ve been feeling, in that it was intense missing combined with an urgent drive to go to Rowan.

The intense longing of that dream has stayed with me. I have lost many dogs and cats and some people dear to me, and have deeply grieved, often for a long time. My grief for Rowan has been even more overwhelming than most of those other losses, but the longing that dream awakened was on a whole new level for me. Then a few days ago I started reading Psalm 42 and got as far as the third verse, when I suddenly recognized that I was reading a description of the longing from my dream.

  As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night…

To be sure, the psalmist was speaking of longing for God, not for a dog, but I realized that the intensity of the psalmist’s longing was the same intensity that I had experienced for the first time in my dream.

It’s been somewhat comforting all along to remind myself that Rowan was a gift from God to teach me more about God. Actually, not so much to teach me as to help me experience more of God’s love than I had previously been able to experience, through the ways God worked through Rowan in my life. But now I’m wondering if perhaps Rowan wasn’t here just so I could know God better only through Rowan’s presence, but perhaps also, through his absence, to open me to a greater longing, as in my dream, and then realize that in some way, that longing is actually my soul’s deep, and previously unacknowledged, longing for God. A longing that will keep me actively seeking God with all my heart throughout this life.

My longing for Rowan remains and makes my heart ache and my tears flow day and night, but I pray that it will always keep me open to longing for God, the ultimate source of all that Rowan was for me.

Photo by Arielle Fischer Wellons

Musings on Grief and Advent

I thought I was doing a little better about losing Rowan, but I’m not. I think I was just distracted by preparing for my art show and also a bit numb, and now reality is hitting hard, really hard. No matter how tired I am, when I lie down to sleep, my mind starts going and going, and sleep is impossible for hours. I know it was Rowan’s time and he needed me to let him go. I did it for him because I never wanted to take the chance he would suffer or panic, and we were coming very close to that point. I will always be thankful for the clarity I had about the timing, so that I could give him the gift of a peaceful, gentle departing, but I can hardly bear it that he’s not here with me anymore.

I know it could be much worse. Stephen is here with me. My family and close friends are alive and, for the most part, in good health. As incredibly hard as it is to have lost Rowan, I know that losing any of them would be much, much more devastating. But, while that does help me keep some perspective, it doesn’t lessen the intensity of my grief for Rowan.

Unlike any of those people, Rowan was with me almost all the time for most of his thirteen years, so I feel his absence acutely throughout the day (and night, when I’m not able to sleep). Nearly everything reminds me of him, like the loud sound of my electric kettle lid closing, which bothered him, so I automatically look up to reassure him. Or the early dark of these late fall evenings, when Rowan and I would often go outside, just the two of us, to walk and play in the dark yard together. Or every time I head out the door to go someplace and start to think that it’s cool enough out to take Rowan in the car with me. Even those words, “with me,” which almost always got Rowan to leap up and dance in front of the door so he could go “with me” wherever I was going. And so much more, all day, every day.

Several wonderful people have reminded me that grief is grief, whether for a person or a beloved dog. I know that is true, and I know it’s going to be a long time before the sharpness of this pain softens and the many good memories cause me to smile rather than sob, but it is hard to know how to be and do life in the meantime, especially in this holiday season. I’ve been busy with show prep, matting and framing paintings, which has required a lot of focus. While I’m doing that, I can feel fairly normal at first, but a fog of sadness gradually creeps in, almost without me noticing, until finally the fog obscures nearly everything and I am exhausted and overwhelmed once again. And if I stay busy too long or too late in the day and don’t spend time feeling and processing the grief that is always there, I am all the more likely to churn wakefully through long hours of the night. I know this will get better someday, but right now that someday seems a terribly long ways off.

So I guess I need to take extra time to ponder and be and journal and process, and I guess this year that is going to be a big part of my focus for Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Not my usual Advent focus, but maybe not entirely inappropriate, as I think of Jesus, who came to live and die and show us God’s love, God’s comforting, redeeming, renewing love. In my calmer moments I can turn my thoughts to him and be thankful for his many gifts, including the wonderful gift of his love expressed to me through Rowan. And I trust that in my less calm moments he is right here with me, caring about and understanding my grief, because he came to live life on this earth, experiencing the pain and grief that comes with being human.

My sweet boy on his last morning


Comfort in Grief and Trials Prayer Guide

Always in your heart
Always in your heart…

Many people I know are grieving the loss of a beautiful, vibrant, beloved young woman. I am sure there are also many others who are grieving for losses in their own lives, so I am drawing thoughts for prayer and meditation this week from a couple of passages that speak of Jesus’ compassion and God’s comfort when we face loss or trials. In addition to these passages, there are many psalms where grief and lamentation are clearly expressed in prayer. Feel free to comment if you would like to know other passages that I have found comforting when going through hard times.

“When Jesus saw her weeping… he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. …Jesus wept.” John 11:33,35

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

God is a God of mercy and comfort. Jesus weeps with his people when they grieve, and he cares about each of us and longs to comfort us in our sadness and afflictions. Let’s sit with the words of these passages this week and allow them to work peace in our souls.

Monday: Bring your heartaches and tears to Jesus, knowing that he feels your sadness and welcomes you with open arms. He weeps with you and joins you in your grief.

Tuesday: What are some things that remind you of God’s love for you? Try to think of some ways you can remind yourself when you’re feeling down that Jesus understands and is always there to comfort you.

Wednesday: God, who created the entire universe, is full of mercy and comfort for us, small though we are in relation to the rest of creation. Let’s meditate today on the truth that the God of all creation cares tenderly for our hurting hearts.

Thursday: God often uses people to comfort others and touch them with his love and grace. Ask God to give you discernment and compassion, to recognize when others are hurting so you can comfort them.

Friday: Pray for people you know who are grieving or struggling in some way. Ask God to be close to them and to fill their hearts and minds with his peace and comfort.

Saturday: Thank God for the way Jesus showed us God’s compassion. Thank him also that he can use our pain and brokenness to someday help us comfort others, lending purpose to our times of sorrow. Move forward with him, asking that your struggles enable you to experience more of Jesus’ presence in your life, maybe not today, but over time.

Third Sunday of Advent- a Time of Grief

What does one write about two days after a terrible shooting that took the lives of so many young children and the teachers and administrators who taught and loved them? Little else has been on the minds of much of our nation since Friday. How do we look forward to Christmas in the face of our grief and anger? Joy and celebration are not what come to mind.

Like the rest of us, I have no answers for the many questions that hang in the air, that bombard our minds. I think of the parents and other family members of the victims, and I feel overwhelmed with sadness at the thought of their brokenness and overwhelming grief. I think of the gunman’s family and how horrified and grieved they must be.

Like many, I can’t help asking why God would allow this. As I pondered and grieved over the weekend, though, I kept coming back to the thought that God is grieving too. That doesn’t answer the “why” questions, but it does show me God’s heart. He created all life, carefully and lovingly forming each child and adult who lost their life in Sandy Hook on Friday. He has told us over and over to love our neighbors as ourselves, that by loving one another we both express and experience his love. And he must now be grieving that so much violence was done to those he loves and that so many others whom he loves are torn apart with grief.

Advent is a time when we remember God’s gift of Jesus, his Son. He sent Jesus to live on earth to bring us God’s Fatherly love. Jesus lived, sharing God’s love and, in turn, he was violently killed. God knows the grief of losing his Son and he shares in the grief of those who mourn.

In Advent we are also reminded to look ahead to Jesus’ return, when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17) We grieve deeply for what has happened and for the brokenness of this world, and we look for the hope that someday we will be comforted and all our tears wiped away.