Meeting Rob Moll

Back in my college days, if you were a guy, you had to get past me to get to my sister. I was Rosemary Clooney straight out of White Christmas: “Lord, help the mister who comes between me and my sister!” Whenever my sister had a love interest, I made sure to research him well to make sure he was worthy of her affection.

My sister and Rob were both English majors at our college and shared the same circle of friends. When she divulged romantic interest in Rob, I scoped him out with the prowess of a private eye. I stalked Rob online, watched for him on the sidewalk between classes. I finagled my way into sitting with his friends at lunch in the cafeteria to observe him up close. After extensive research I told her, “He’s not your type.” Her love interests moved elsewhere, and I never considered Rob might be my kind of guy.

A few years later, after I graduated and moved back home to work, my sister called me from college to say that Rob would be coming to a wedding I was attending a few weeks hence. A group of our college friends were coming east for a friend’s big day, and my sister thought I should keep an eye out. Of course, my interest was piqued. I worked two jobs, and my life could use a little excitement. An evening with old college friends sounded perfect. And I’d finally get to meet Rob without my Sherlock Holmes persona. Legitimately. I couldn’t wait.

Of all the days that are special to me, May 18 is my absolute favorite. 19 years ago today, I met Rob at that wedding. We met in the church stairwell, sat together at the ceremony and talked all evening at the reception’s singles table. I have no idea who took this blurry picture of us that night. I wish I could thank them. I look at it and remember every moment. The excitement. The awkwardness. The feeling of coming home. The sense that something big and beautiful was happening right before my eyes. I adored Rob from the start. 

When he returned to college that weekend, Rob emailed my sister. He told her he’d met me at the wedding and wanted to share the title of a song we’d talked about. Could she forward his message along to me? The tables now turned, my sister looked out for me. She clicked send, and the rest is history. My sister used to joke with Rob that she was the first Band girl who fell in love with him. I’m proud to say I was the last.

Every May 18, I used to remind Rob what day it was. (God love him, he was never very good at remembering special dates.) He’d smile and say, “I fell in love with you when I met you on the stairs.” Today, I’m thankful for the marriage of the friends who brought us together all those years ago and for the sister who liked him first. 19 years later, I’m still head over heels for the college guy with the green eyes and ringlet curls who chose me to be his girl. I wish he were here so I could tell him.

Poetry Friday: “All You Who Sleep Tonight”

After seventeen years of marriage, sleeping alone in our bed evokes a deep, intimate loneliness. I miss Rob every time I turn off the light and slip beneath my blankets. Since he died, many nights I just can’t do it. I grab a sleeping bag and pillow and camp out for the night on the floor of one of my kids’ rooms. Grief has disrupted my sleeping patterns; and when I wake in the night, the sound of a child breathing in her bed nearby reassures me. I am not alone.

“No hand to left or right,” is not the way I wanted my life to be. If you are here, I imagine it is not the way you wished your life to be either. Wherever you are in your grief journey, “far from the ones you love,” you are not alone. The world shares our tears.

All You Who Sleep Tonight

Vikram Seth

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

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When Despair Speaks

Many people who mourn don’t feel they can admit the darker parts of grief. The days they don’t get out of bed. The feelings of anger or hopelessness or desperation. Oftentimes, when a grieving person tries to share these darker places, his or her feelings are diminished or silenced by others. “There’s always hope,” we’re told, even when we’re feeling hopeless. “Look on the bright side,” we’re encouraged, even when all feels dark. Few understand that deep darkness is a natural part of grief.

In my own life, every day of grief includes a conversation with despair. Even though I choose to move forward with grief, despair is a dark voice that still speaks, sometimes just in a whisper and other times as a shout. My past, my present and my future have all been touched by death. Sometimes life looks very dark. As I journey with grief, I am learning that despair’s voice is important too. To be whole, this darker voice must be acknowledged and heard, not silenced or diminished.

It’s hard to imagine feeling hopeless about my past. My life with Rob brought me so much joy. Yet, I am the sole custodian of that past now. Everything. From the big events to the seemingly insignificant memories now made priceless by his tragic death. I worry that time will take even our past away from me. If I don’t remember it all, it will slip away. The pressure feels overwhelming. I look through old pictures, and I don’t want to forget a single moment. But how can I ever remember it all alone? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

In my present, I have little time for conversations with hopelessness. I bear the weight of so much responsibility — four children to raise, a home to tend, finances to manage, a life to rebuild. I cover my ears, talk louder, move faster to drown out hopelessness’ voice. Yet when I’ve tucked my children in at night and the house grows quiet, my fears grow. What if something happens to me? How do I find the energy to really live again?  I’ve done this alone for ten months, but can I keep this up? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”

If hopelessness whispers in the past and present, it shouts as I look to the future. Lord willing, I have many years ahead. So many years without Rob. I’ll build the second half of my life without him in it. I’ll retire without him in the camping chair beside me. Even the anticipation of joy is tinged with sorrow. Standing at my childrens’ weddings. Bouncing my grandbabies on my knees. All without him. My daughter asks me, “How do I tell my children someday that they don’t have a Grampie?” I don’t know how to answer, and my future begins to look bleak. What will bring meaning to my life once my children are grown and flown? Will I age alone? How can I shoulder this sorrow for the rest of my life? Despair mocks, “You can’t.”

When hopelessness speaks in my life, I am learning to stop and listen. I no longer shush her or tell her to chin up. I don’t spout verses or platitudes or remind her to have faith. Instead, I attend to her. I listen and cry with her. I tell despair how sorry I am that life feels so dark. I remind her that what she has to say is normal, even if it isn’t the full story. I tell her that her presence, her voice, is important — a natural part of grief.

I want to believe that hope, not its lack, will get the last word in my life. I want to believe that resilience is real and attainable. Nevertheless, hopelessness still speaks. If I am to carry my grief in a way that brings life not death, I am learning that I must listen to despair. I must attend gently to her woundedness. In acknowledging this darker part of grief, in giving her a voice, I will find freedom and peace, life and light.

The One Who Lost Her Husband

“Oh, you’re the one who lost her husband,” she says as I introduce myself and shake her hand. “Yes, that’s me,” I reply. I wonder now if she caught my name, or if this single event in my life will be my defining feature, the one thing she remembers each time she sees my face. I’m no longer the homeschooling mom, the transplant from Seattle, the woman who brings her own tea bags and mug to Panera Bread. I am the widow with the young children, the one whose husband died in “that tragic accident.” Grief has become my calling card. 

Some days, I want everyone to know that my universe has exploded in the wake of my husband’s death. The world can be such a callous, unfriendly place. Grief has made me tender; I want to be treated with gentleness, with extra care. I need empathy, patience, attention. Some days, I willingly lead the conversation with my widowhood. It just feels right. 

However, many times as I move along my grief journey, I don’t want to talk about grief anymore. I don’t want to be the widow in the story, cast in this role for which I never auditioned. I wish I could be like Clark Kent, ducking away to switch my identity to something new and different. I want to be “normal again” (whatever that was). I want to talk about trivial things like the Netflix shows I binge watch or my guilty pleasure chocolate indulgences. 

However, I find that even when I get the chance, the conversations loop back to sorrow. If Rob were here, I’d talk to him in the evenings instead of stream movies. If my husband hadn’t died, I’d have to share my chocolate stash. Try as I might, I can’t elude this new identity that has claimed me. I couldn’t even be a chameleon if I wanted to. My colors change to grief without warning.

I struggle with the reality that for many people, Rob’s death is the first thing they will know about me. Before they know my favorite drink or movie, before they know anything about my personality, they will know this most intimate detail of my existence. I feel exposed. I bristle under this identity of widow that will define me for the rest of my life. 

And then I remember that grief is simply love that continues after death. Grief remembers the love that was, bears witness to the love that remains. The stronger the love, the deeper the loss. When I remember that my grief is not something to be avoided, an identity to be shirked, I am able to embrace it as a precious testimony to my love for Rob. My grief is a love that will endure even though he is no longer here. I can learn to love my grief because it manifests my love for Rob to the world.

No matter what course my life takes, I will always be Rob’s wife. I will always be his widow. Both are identities of love: joy of love found, grief of love lost. When I remember this, I can introduce myself proudly. I am a widow. I was loved by Rob. I loved Rob. I still do.

Reteaching Loveliness

My youngest daughter adores pigs. What began as an obsession with Peppa Pig cartoons has grown through the years into a full-blown love affair with swine. She owns a full pig costume, complete with snout, ears, and pig slippers. She fawns over adoptable pot bellies on Petfinder.com. She sleeps in a bed invaded by an army of pig stuffies. And, of course, her favorite color is pink. “Someday,” she tells me, “I will have a pig of my own. A little pink pig I can hold in my arms.”

I’ll admit, I’ve tried to enlighten her on the less-than-appealing qualities of her beloved animal. Pigs are ornery, I tell her. Sometimes they bite. They root around in the soil and make a mess. She will not be dissuaded. I remind her that pigs aren’t actually soft. They also smell strongly. It is of no use. Where I see a stinky animal good only for bacon, my daughter perceives something more. She sees sheer loveliness. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or is it?

Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

When I think of my daughter’s love for pigs, I am reminded of Galway Kinnell’s beautiful poem, “Saint Francis and the Sow.” In poignant language, Kinnell paints a picture of Saint Francis, lover of animals, bending to bless the lowly barnyard pig. I imagine my daughter as Kinnell writes, “Saint Francis / put his hand on the creased forehead / of the sow, and told her in words and in touch / blessings of earth on the sow.” 

The result of this tender blessing? The pig, standing in her muck and mire, remembers her own loveliness. Kinnell tells us she remembers in every part of her being — “from the earthen snout” to the very babies who suckle at her teats. She is blessed. Regardless of her smell, her looks, her bristly personality. Regardless of the messy situation in which she finds herself. None of these things can change the fact that she is a creature beloved by her Maker.

I look around, almost ten months post-loss, and it’s easy for me to see a barnyard mess. My life has not turned out how I expected it to. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much mud and muck I don’t know where to start cleaning it off. I stare into the mirror and succumb to the belief that Rob’s death really was the end for me too. That everything from now will just be hanging on. That my access to a full, satisfying, beautiful world ended when I placed my husband in the grave. I look at my life and want to turn away in disgust and disappointment. What is beautiful about a widow’s life?

“Sometimes it is necessary,” writes Kinnell, “to reteach a thing its loveliness, / to put a hand on its brow … and retell it in words and in touch / it is lovely / until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing.” In grief, these are the words I need. After all that has happened, I need to be reminded, retaught, that life is — can still be — lovely. Even when its beauty seems obscured by the muck and mire of sorrow. Even when life feels directionless, random, harsh, foreboding. I want to flower again from within. I want to hear words of beauty and blessing spoken over me. I want to believe that they are true.

The night we learned Rob died, I read my children this verse from Zephaniah 3: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.” This verse reminds me that life is and will always be beautiful because I am beloved. Like Saint Francis’ sow, I am treasured by my Creator. He rejoices over me with singing. In the midst of all the change that grief has wrought, Rob’s death cannot change that. As I look to him, God himself will reteach me loveliness.

Poetry Friday: “A Green Crab’s Shell”

As I child, I loved to collect shells on family trips to the beach. Walking along the shore, I added smooth stones, shards of sea glass, even crab parts to my bucket. A diverse assortment of seaside treasures. Inevitably, the crab shells and legs and claws I found so fascinating would begin to stink in the warm car on the ride home. However beautiful they were, their smell betrayed them. These weren’t just beach detritus. They were parts of something dead.

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I don’t believe in looking for the silver lining in someone’s death. Death always is and will be tragic. It doesn’t help anyone, the griever or the onlooker, to sugar coat or gloss over the horror and sorrow of loss. However, I do believe that beauty can be found in the midst of death. In the marvel of the universe, one does not cancel the other out. That’s why I love the image Mark Doty paints of the crab shell. The shell that represents death also reveals beauty.

I have come to believe that the persistent search for beauty in the face of death is what keeps life from becoming hopeless. For those who grieve, beauty and death live in tension with one another. Not forever, but until that day when, as Dostoevsky writes, “Beauty will save the world.”

A Green Crab’s Shell

Mark Doty

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like—
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The Comfort Between the Words

I once visited a high end restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, where video screens were installed in individual bathroom stalls. Once you latched the door behind you, the screen booted up and began to play. It felt like the perfect motherhood cliche. Even in the bathroom I couldn’t get a sliver of silence.

We North Americans hate silence. Screens talk to us in restaurants, in airline terminals, in the grocery store checkout lane. Even in quarantine we somehow figure out how to fill our lives with the noise. It is no wonder then that we don’t like it when we perceive God as quiet. Especially when life is hard. Oftentimes in grief and in crisis, we crave words, assurances that we are not alone, that the end of suffering is near. We cry out, How long, O Lord? We demand, Why [Lord] do you hide yourself in times of trouble? And we expect an answer. We want God to speak. 

Our desires are partly warranted. God is at his essence a communicator. He spoke creation into existence, sent Jesus as the Word made flesh, and wrote his message to humankind in sixty-six books. He has promised to hear us when we pray and throughout Scripture and church history has responded to the cries of his people. Dallas Willard writes in his classic Hearing God, “People are meant to live in an ongoing conversation with God, speaking and being spoken to.” But how do we live when it appears Jesus has nothing to say? Could it be that there are moments where something more than words is needed?

In that most beloved passage of scripture, Psalm 23, we never read of Jesus speaking. I find it striking that we run to these verses in times of trial and sorrow — straight into the arms of a Shepherd who doesn’t have any lines to say. Of course, we know that shepherding was not a silent job. Elsewhere in Scripture we read of Jesus the shepherd calling his sheep by name. He tells us in the gospel of John that his sheep know the sound of his voice. Verbal communication is foundational to our relationship with our shepherd.

But verbal communication isn’t the only way that Jesus communicates with his sheep. As I used to tell my public speaking students, verbal communication isn’t the only way to talk. Our bodies often speak more powerfully than our words ever could. I suspect we know this intuitively when we run to Psalm 23 in times of pain. There are some places too dark and heavy for words. There are places where another kind of communication is most needed. 

Photo by kailash kumar on Pexels.com

And so, the psalmist describes an affectionate, protective, loving shepherd’s actions. Jesus leads us beside still waters, prepares a table for us, comforts us with his rod and staff — nonverbal gestures that tell us just as much about his care as his words do. In Psalm 23, Jesus never has a memorable line, but his actions speak volumes. He gives us what we need in our hour of struggle — his strong and quiet provision and presence.

We love words because we love the logos Himself. But if we are to attend to ourselves and others in times of tragedy and sorrow, we must learn to seek and embrace the Jesus who comes to us between the words. The Jesus who appears in times of trouble to be awfully quiet. This Jesus is no less capable when he does not speak. He is no less attentive to our needs. Psalm 23 reminds us that his care taking simply takes a different shape. He knows our every need and fulfills it even if he does not say a word. We can trust our shepherd even when we do not hear his voice.

After Rob died, I became the recipient of many words. Some very beautiful, others very painful. Many awkward, most heartfelt. But in the shock and sorrow of his tragic death, no words could quiet my spirit. Promises of heaven, verses of reassurance — all of these fell flat in the face of the horror I experienced when I learned Rob had fallen to his death. Words were woefully inadequate. They offered little comfort. But in that darkness, Jesus’ presence did.

Jesus came to me in unexpected ways in my early sorrow. He came as the friend who quietly slept on the floor outside my bedroom in case I panicked in the night. He appeared with the meal left wordlessly at my doorstep by another young widow, only 11 months out from her own husband’s death. He carried me on his shoulders as I repeated the truth, “I am held, I am held.” In my time of sorrow, Jesus ministered to me in quiet. And like a lamb nestled close by her shepherd, I learned that as long as he was near, that was good enough. I learned to rest in Jesus’ strong and quiet presence, in the space between the words.

I have so many questions I want God to answer. I long to hear Jesus’ voice. ”But words from God, no matter how well we know his voice, will not spare us the times of grief and pain, as Jesus was not spared,” writes Dallas Willard in Hearing God. 

Many times, we demand words of divine reassurance but hear none. But lest we read Jesus’ silence as inattention, Psalm 23 reassures us — he is still communicating. There is not a moment where we are out of his mind or forgotten. He always gives us exactly the kind of care we need. Instead of the words we want, in silence, Jesus offers us his quiet presence and asks us to trust him. Perhaps Jesus knows more words do not always bring peace. Only his presence can do that. So he offers us his strength in silence, the arms of a shepherd surrounding us when words fail.

The Nicest Gift You Could Give

The year after our first daughter was born, Rob gave me a Kitchen-Aid standing mixer for Mother’s Day. In secret, he headed down to our local Williams-Sonoma store and picked it out. We’d only been married for three years. He didn’t yet realize how much I hate to cook. 

In those years, we were pretty poor; and a gift that sizable was a big deal. I was shocked when I unwrapped the gift — and kind of miffed. It bothered me that Rob had spent so much on something I cared so little about. It bothered Rob that I wasn’t grateful for what he saw as a generous gift. We’d run into the classic problem all married couples encounter at some point in their relationship: determining how to spend “our” money.

Photo by david yohanes on Pexels.com

Even though we worked hard, Rob and I struggled to make ends meet for the first years of our marriage. We were on the same general page about spending and savings, but we had no idea how to develop and achieve financial goals. Finally, 10 years into our marriage, we signed up for a Dave Ramsey Financial Peace University (FPU) course. Back in his Christianity Today days, Rob had written an article about how churches who used FPU helped free folks from debt and inspired them to give generously. He was convinced the program could work well for us too. 

Over the course of the FPU class, Rob and I learned a lot about the role of money in our marriage. We learned how our families of origin and our personalities shaped how we interacted with money. We began tackling Dave’s Seven Baby Steps of money management. We learned skills in long range thinking: planning for a car purchase, a home purchase, retirement. Even planning for death. When we analyzed our cash flow, Rob and I agreed to a $30 limit for gifts to each other. It was genuinely what we could afford. And when we looked ahead at our future, we purchased a different gift for each other. We bought term life insurance. 

I laughed the night we sat in class and heard Dave Ramsey say, “If something happened to mom, you’d have to hire Mary Poppins to do all the things she does.” But the more Rob and I thought about it, he was right. If one of us were to die, there would be no way to replace the irreplaceable. But life insurance could offer financial support as the surviving spouse cared for our children and built a new life. Term life insurance was a small gift we could give each other. A gift we could hope the other would never have to open.

There are myriad financial complexities for a woman who loses her husband. I am grateful for the training I gained in our FPU class years ago and for wise advisors who have assisted me in the days since Rob’s death. I am thankful for the gift of term life insurance and the peace it has brought as I grieve and transition into my role as sole breadwinner for my family.

Mother’s Day is coming up in a few days. Father’s Day is close behind. If you’re stumped this year on what to give your loved one, consider the gift of term life insurance. Some policies cost less than $200 a year (the cost of a Kitchen-Aid mixer!). At the $30 gift limit, that’s a combined birthday-Christmas-Valentine’s-Mother’s Day-anniversary gift. Your gift will lack the glamour of a dozen roses and a bottle of champagne. But what it lacks in pizzazz, it will make up for in comfort and peace. You won’t be there when your loved one needs to open your gift. But be assured: she or he will be deeply grateful for your thoughtfulness, love and generosity.

Note: These opinions are my own. I am not affiliated with Ramsey Solutions or any life insurance vendor.

Poetry Friday: “Before Writing Back…”

What do you say to a friend whose loved one is dying? What words are adequate in the face of death? We stammer or babble or, worse, say nothing. What our friends need in their grief, what we need in ours, is the person who will allow her heart to beat beside ours. The companion who will, in Heather Kirn Lanier‘s striking words, “lie down next to” us in our sorrow.

Before Writing Back to a Friend Whose Mother is Dying, You Stare…

Heather Kirn Lanier

Before writing back to a friend whose mother is dying, you stare…
at the empty fireplace.

Don’t make it a metaphor.

That the soot in the fireplace has smothered
every brick but where the fire burned,
that the bricks now hold a ghost
of flames that once flickered there

doesn’t mean anything.
Just write your friend back.

You have to figure out how to fill
an email with nothing
but a bed of silence, and the silence

can’t be empty,
though it must be empty of your own grief.
Continue reading

Have Mercy On Me, A Sinner

During the research and writing of What Your Body Knows About God, Rob got serious about prayer. In his research, he discovered that 12 minutes of focused prayer actually helped to rewire the brain; and he worked hard to carve out time to pray, often in less than hospitable locations. At work, Rob found a handy prayer closet under his desk. He’d sit cross-legged underneath it, making his cubicle look empty to passersby. At home, Rob prayed at night when he sat in our boys’ room, encouraging them to quiet down with his presence in the darkness.

In his prayer life, Rob relied heavily on the Jesus Prayer. Short and simple, this prayer is central to Orthodox piety. The repetitive nature of the prayer lends itself well to praying while running or praying with beads. Rob enjoyed doing both.

The Jesus prayer finds its roots in Luke 18, the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. In Jesus’ parable, two men come to the temple to pray. The religious leader, a Pharisee, makes a production of his righteousness, comparing himself to those around him. In his own assessment, he always seems to come out on top. The other, a socially marginalized tax collector, stands to the side and begs God for mercy. In a heartbreaking detail, Luke notes, “He would not even look up to heaven.” His profound knowledge of his sin weighs him down.

Today I’m honored to join the voices at RELEVANT Magazine talking about mask shaming in the midst of COVID-19. I’ll be honest, I’ve been guilty of mask shaming and have needed to repent. When it comes to wearing a mask, too often I have played the role of the Pharisee.

I look down my own masked nose and silently assess my neighbors’ character. I critique their intelligence, their political sensibilities, their empathy and love, even their spiritual depth. In the privacy of my car, the words of the Pharisee run through my head. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.”

Saying No to ‘Maskshaming‘,” RELEVANT

These days, as I drive around town, I’m often needing to turn to the Jesus prayer. I need to be reminded of its elemental truth: I am a sinner in need of Jesus’ mercy. I don’t want to be the Pharisee in Luke’s story. Instead, I want to be the tax collector with the tender, repentant heart. What a grace that Jesus offers love and forgiveness in unending supply!

If praying the Jesus prayer interests you, I commend these other helpful resources from blogger Sarah E. Westfall for practicing God’s presence in your life. You can check out her upcoming podcast here.