Life Lessons from the Super Bowl

February 10, 2013

Super Bowl XLVII is over and, hopefully, friends with loyalties on opposing sides have shook hands and made up. Now that the dust has settled and the commentary has been wrapped up, I’d like to offer an observation about the game—and it’s one you may not have heard.

The next time you are tempted to roll your eyes at the idea of stopping the whirling dervish antics, getting quiet, and taking a deep breath (an idea usually served up by shamans, yoga instructors, and mothers), consider Super Bowl XLVII. The game looked like a runaway, right through the first half.

Do you know what a group of ravens is called? A group of crows is a murder of crows, a group of owls is a parliament of owls, a group of larks is an exultation of larks . . . and while a group of ravens is sometimes called a constable of ravens (apparently dating back to their crowding around the Tower of London), these days, it is more often called an unkindness of ravens or a conspiracy of ravens. The 49ers might have given that some thought.

But whatever conspiracy was afoot and whatever unkindness had been served up during the first half, the Ravens’ momentum was brought to a halt when the power went out in the stadium. And they did have momentum before that. The players retreated to the sidelines. The smart ones stretched to keep loose. When the play resumed, the 49ers seemed to have absorbed the momentum sucked right out of the Ravens by the outage.

So what does this have to do with stopping the whirling dervish antics, getting quiet, and taking a deep breath? Everything. Moving at twice the speed of life has become the norm instead of the exception in Western society. Accompanying that warp speed lifestyle is a level of distractibility that has made sound bite, techo idiots of so many that, put on an island with their ilk, they might die before it occurs to them to rally together to build shelter, find potable water, and hustle up something to eat. Why? Because they’d all be trying to text their buddies back home or tweet the experience.

It’s hard to persuade folks to stop long enough to become aware of the world around them. Pausing is a major life skill, and a critical one if you’re in a fix. Momentum will keep you going, often down a road that has a Mack truck coming straight at you from the opposite direction. But if you pause, take a deep breath, and become aware of the natural world around you, something quite magical just might happen. You might be able to gather in a bit of energy and move it for your own behalf.

Shamans do this all the time—consciously. Of course, shamans have also usually done the hard work of clearing and healing their internal landscapes, which makes for a place to actually hold that energy. And, of course, when the shaman talks about power, she’s talking about energy. When the shaman needs to accomplish something, she pauses, gets still, becomes centered and grounded (more or less instantaneously), consciously harnesses a bit of energy, and changes the energetic dynamics around her.

I’m not an expert on Shambhala Warrior Training (for that, I suggest you search out Cynthia Kneen’s very fine audio series by the same name), but what I am describing is, I believe, sometimes described as “riding windhorse” in that system of spiritual warriorship. We all have the capacity to experience the world around us directly. That includes taking it in, responding to it, and initiating action. This capacity is what is known as basic goodness. Windhorse is the energetic nature of that capacity and riding windhorse is to consciously tap into this energy. Which, as I said, is exactly what a shaman does.

It is difficult to sense the energetic quality inherent in all things when you are unconsciously moving for the sake of moving and when you allow yourself to be jerked from one thing to another, changing directions endlessly, drawn by the next shiny thing . . . and the next . . . and the next. It takes a moment of pause. It takes the kind of conscious interaction with your environment you get from placing your attention on your breathing (if only for a moment).

The 49ers got that chance when the power went out. Have they been in Shambhala Warrior Training? Stranger things have happened, but I rather doubt it. Still, very good athletes have always understood, at a visceral level, that they can place themselves in a heightened state of consciousness and tap into the energy of . . . something. So whether they understand what shamans do or what Shambhala warriors do, they have been known to step into that same stream of energy. And when they do, magic happens.

Unfortunately for the 49ers (and fortunately for the Ravens), they didn’t ride windhorse to victory. But the next time you’re in a fix, exhausted from the lack of results associated with whatever you’ve been doing, try pausing for a moment. Take a deep breath or two. Become aware of the natural world around you. Maybe even do a few stretches (like the players did). And then gather in a bit of energy and make a tiny shift. You might find yourself shifting the energy of whatever has gotten you into the fix. You might make a little magic for yourself.

Copyright 2013 by Melanie Mulhall

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How Others Responded, Part 2

July 22, 2012

“Counseling wisdom is that it takes five years for life to start feeling normal again after the loss of a spouse,” a woman I knew said.

How do you respond to a statement like that? My husband had been gone for more than fourteen months at the time. Her statement was not unlike a curse. It came hurtling across the internet and into my email inbox as a prison sentence she seemed bent on imposing: three years and ten months more before you will be okay.

But I already felt okay. I’d experienced an energetic shift at the anniversary of Howard’s death. There were still moments of sadness (as there always are in life), but I was back. The concept of “normal” seemed ridiculous to me, not simply because I’d never aligned with statistics for the “normal” person, but because what normal is changes with major life events. Including the death of a spouse.

Actually, there was something more to her pronouncement than a sentence. It felt like a judgment, a way of saying, “Don’t try to fool yourself. You’re in denial and you’re suppressing grief if you think you’re okay. I’m a member of the psychology community. I know better than you.”

Of course, I’m overeducated in the field of psychology, with two degrees in it. Psychological generalizations and labels had been among the things that had disenchanted me with psychology. Too much of the field seemed divorced from the “psyche” in psychology—the soul of it. When I became a shaman, I realized that while I couldn’t deny the impact of psychology on my thinking and life, it was shamanism that spoke to the soul-based way I lived.

That woman’s reaction was a bit more blatant that others after my husband’s death, but it was one of the classic reactions I got: Know that you will be devastated for a long time. In fact, you may never get over it. There were four other reactions: Discomfort over the death; heartfelt sympathy for my loss; surprise that I wasn’t over it yet; and, genuine acceptance of however I was dealing with it. It was a relief to be with people who were grounded in that last response and could radiate it. These four basic reactions remained the fundamental reactions I got from people throughout the first eighteen months after my husband’s death.

Many people expressed heartfelt sympathy when they first heard of Howard’s death, and they expressed it again when they were face-to-face with me. A few people avoided me. A few rallied to support me. But over time, it seemed to me that the fundamental mindset that a person had about life and death came oozing out when I responded to their question, “How are you doing?” Some people seemed permanently fixated on the pain of loss. The woman who pronounced that it would be five years before I felt normal again appeared to me to be one of those. Others projected a kind of fearlessness about life, an understanding that tragedy happens, but life wins out for the survivors of death—if they let it. Maybe because I fall into that latter category, I appreciated that reaction from others most.

It wasn’t that this latter group pushed me to be perfectly fine when I wasn’t. On the contrary, as a whole, they were better at assessing exactly how I was feeling and accepting it more than others. More than anything, they didn’t lay a judgment on me about how I “should” be responding to the death. Their response to my response allowed me to relax into exactly who I was when I was with them.

If there is something to be learned from all of this, for me, it is that we cannot really make assumptions about how anyone will handle the death of a spouse. And the person who has experienced the death cannot make assumptions about how others will respond to them, as survivor, or to the fact of the death.

So what can any of us do for another when they lose a loved one? We can bother to pay attention to how they are and what they need—reading it in what they say, what they don’t say, and what they project—instead of making assumptions. And we can send them waves of love, from our heart to theirs. Does anything else really matter, anyway?

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

How Others Responded, Part 1

June 9, 2012

Terminal illness and death are topics that elicit interesting responses from people. I found that many people simply didn’t know what to say when they heard the news that my husband had metastasized prostate cancer. Others seemed to assume that my experience would fit some model based on what they had read or experienced themselves. A few made no assumptions and were just there for me.

One close friend had lost her husband to cancer many years earlier. When I first told her the news of Howard’s illness, she seemed to assume that things would become dire quickly. That had been her experience and she assumed it would be mine. Every time I saw her, she asked, “How is Howard?” in that voice that radiates the expectation of bad news. When month followed month and he was still alive, still on his feet and carrying on with everyday life, she seemed confused for a time, then settled into a kind of watchful waiting.

I love this friend and she proved to be one of the strongest, kindest supporters I had during Howard’s illness. But her early responses to his illness, while quite human and understandable, were more focused on expectations based on her own experience than curiosity about mine. What I needed was for her to serve as witness to what was actually happening in my life. She eventually stepped into that role, and in doing so, gave me an invaluable gift.

Early on, I found I had no desire to tell most people about the drama unfolding in my life. Howard didn’t want his identity to be prescribed by the cancer and I didn’t want mine to be fixed by my role as “wife of a man slowly dying of cancer.” Once, while with a group of Boulder Media Women colleagues at a potluck, the conversation among a small clutch of us turned to residential writing retreats. I wistfully admitted I would love to apply for one of the programs that offered room and board for a month in a quiet mountain setting. When one of the women encouraged me and I said it wasn’t an option at the moment because my husband was ill, she replied, “Maybe he’ll be better by the time the retreat is set to start.” I didn’t respond. I couldn’t without admitting that I didn’t believe he would be getting better. That would have been the equivalent of a sharp left-hand turn in the conversation, and the road we would have been traveling was not one I wanted to take them down in that moment.

I did go down that road with people, but some joined me on the ride sooner and others later. “I can’t imagine what this is like for you,” some admitted upon hearing the news. I told them it was like having a slight fever . . . all the time. You adapted. It became your new definition of “normal.” But there was no denying that it sucked a bit of the life out of you, was impossible to ignore, and changed your focus.

As the months wore on and Howard became more fragile, I became more open about his condition. And it never ceased to amaze me that many people responded by immediately lapsing into their own experience with the illness and death of a loved one. Sometimes the loved one was a spouse, but more often a parent or friend. Occasionally it was a pet. It was as if their own undigested emotions over their loss surfaced as soon as I mentioned Howard’s illness and their need to process their experience took over. No doubt, some of them just wanted to show that they could have empathy for my situation, but often their own story supplanted the story unfolding for me in the moment. And there is a need, for those in the midst of terminal illness—their own or that of a loved one—to be able to include the fact of it in conversation without finding that the conversation has jumped from their own present to someone else’s past.

By far the worst of those experiences were the stories of grief at the loss of a pet. While I’m no stranger to the depth of love for and grief over the loss of a beloved pet, it is fundamentally insensitive to draw a line between the terminal illness of one’s spouse to the illness and eventual death of a pet. It made me wince internally and because my internal states are often transparent to even the most casual observer, I’ve no doubt that wince was visually perceptible.

Many people seemed surprised that I was “handling it so well.” Some of them bluntly stated that they believed I was feigning strength and bravely playing at stoicism. Others looked at me with curiosity, searching my eyes for signs that I actually loved my husband because they couldn’t quite grasp the idea of living with what is and just savoring what little time you actually have with a loved one who is dying. More than a few shook their heads and said they didn’t know how I was keeping it together, as if expecting me to come unhinged and fly apart at any moment—a little unsure of whether they feared I would do so or be disappointed if I didn’t. A few wanted to cast me as some enlightened human, a model for taking life on the chin with equanimity. In truth, of course, I was just another pilgrim going down the road.

The response I found truly helpful mostly came from an inner circle of very close friends who were willing to walk with me on my road for a little while, shoulder to shoulder, as fellow pilgrims. They could be with me without looking for signs of structural fracture. They were empathic without being cloying. They asked how Howard was doing and really did want to know the answer, whatever it was. They didn’t tiptoe around me, but cut me exactly as much slack as they always had, no more and no less. They stayed present with me when I needed to talk—didn’t flee mentally, didn’t try to change the subject, didn’t doubt my self-appraisal . . . but did energetically hold me in a loving embrace.

It was that response that helped carry me through.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Shedding Energetic Debris

May 14, 2012

The beginning of the end had happened at the beginning of Thanksgiving week in 2010, so it would have been a fair assumption that the holidays were going to be difficult for me in 2011. But by October, I thought I was going to be fine during the holidays and planned to spend them alone.

That was October.

November 1st came and I was not so fine. The idea of being alone Thanksgiving seemed like the plan of a crazed woman. Howard had almost died the night before Thanksgiving in 2010 and I’d spent Thanksgiving cooking a huge turkey with all the fixings while he slept through the day. The cooking had kept me occupied. At the time it seemed a better idea than, say, drinking Jameson and pacing the floor. A year later, I suspected I might be drinking Jameson and pacing the floor if I was alone Thanksgiving of 2011.

When Cindy Morris invited me to spend Thanksgiving with her and her roommates, it was like a postcard from God informing me that my plight had been noted and taken care of. Cindy had been such a solid friend during Howard’s last days, not to mention the months that followed, and here she was, turkey baster in hand, looking after me one more time. Being looked after by someone else had been such a rare occurrence throughout my life that she seemed like some combination of Mother Earth, Mrs. Santa Claus, and all of the Greek goddesses, all rolled up into one person.

It was one of the best Thanksgivings I’d ever had.

But right around Thanksgiving, I began having problems with my gut. Since my gut was reliably healthy, it got my attention. What in the heck was going on? I might have had little experience with being taken care of by anyone else, but I was very good at taking care of myself. I got plenty of sleep, ate healthily, exercised, meditated . . . leaped over tall buildings, bent steel with my bare hands . . . . Okay, maybe I didn’t do those last two things, but I took good care of myself. And my gut was suddenly the gut of a sedentary, junk food eating, hyper-stressed burnout.

As I meditated one Sunday morning, right before going to my massage therapist (David Kochevar), I was told that the problems with my gut were coming from debris in my energy field. And it wasn’t even my own energetic debris. It seemed I’d somehow accumulated some of Howard’s energetic debris during his last six weeks of life. It had been time-stamped to come into my awareness for release a year later . . . and it was now time to dispatch it. I was told by guidance to have David work on my midsection. That would do part of the job.

Fortunately, David is a kindred spirit. Our appreciation for the workings of Spirit—if not the specifics of our personal theologies—tended to dovetail. He had not only been my massage therapist for most of his career, but he had become one of my favorite people in the world. I knew he would take what I’d been told in stride. He did. And I walked out of his office a new woman.

But I knew his work on me was only part of what needed to be done. I wasn’t quite sure of what constituted the rest. I decided to do a shamanic journey, and while I was quite capable of journeying myself, I wanted Antonio to drum for me. Journeying with Antonio was always a richer experience than journeying on my own, just as those who came to me for shamanic journey work had a richer experience journeying with me than they would have attempting to journey on their own. I always likened it to massage: You can massage yourself, but the involvement of another person’s energy makes being massaged by someone else a very different experience than massaging yourself.

I scheduled the journey with Antonio, only to cancel it within a week. I told myself I was crazy to think I could fit a journey into an already over-booked December. But it was more than that. The timing wasn’t quite right.

During another morning meditation, I asked my “council” (a council of spirit guides I often meet with in meditation) what I needed to do to clear the remaining energetic debris, and I asked for their help. They not only agreed to help, they wanted to accomplish the deed right then and there. I was a bit taken aback. Excuses raced through my mind, but really, I wasn’t sure if I was ready. I had no idea why I was balking. What, exactly, would make me ready? When did I think I would be ready? I took a deep breath and told them to lead the way.

And they did. When we were done, I knew that the debris was gone. I felt clearer, more myself, than I had felt all year. And I realized that I had postponed the journey because it was not to take place until the anniversary of Howard’s death had passed. I scheduled it for December 30th, the day after the anniversary.

I spent Christmas alone, at peace. I wasn’t quite so serene on December 28, the day before the anniversary of Howard’s death. The death ceremony, his final hours, the coma he lapsed into . . . it all occupied my mind and surrounded my heart like an old memory, both painful and beautiful. The 29th felt less constrictive, and it seemed fitting. Howard had been released from the constriction of his failing body a year earlier on that day.

I was ready to journey on the 30th. It was a beautiful, profound journey (and, perhaps, a story for another time). When January 1st, 2012 came, I felt ready to reclaim my own life . . . a life richer and deeper because of my travels with Howard as he made his way from life to the great life beyond, a life I embraced fully because I was happy to be among the living, happy to continue my Earth walk, thrilled to see time spread out before me like a carpet of flowers. I was back.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Visitations

April 16, 2012

Some dreams are more than dreams—they are visitations. Numerous times, I asked Howard to visit me after he died. That request was sometimes made in jest, but even then, I had no doubt he knew I really wanted him to make an attempt to contact me once he crossed over.

Just a little less than six weeks after he died, he visited me using a dream as the vehicle. This was certainly not the first time I’d dreamed of him since his death, but his appearance in the dream was so vivid, so real, that once I drifted up from sleep, I knew he had contacted me. And it was more than contact; he gave me a sweet and wise piece of advice in the form of a question.

In the dream, I am trying to find a man’s telephone number. We had met and been attracted to one another. He’d suggested we get together and we’d made plans. It is now the day we’d arranged to meet. But I don’t know what time we are to meet or any other details. So I want to contact him. My friend Cindy has taken a call from him but hasn’t given me his number. I realize that it is too early to call her for it, so I am online, trying to find contact information on the man.

As I sit at the computer, I sense that someone is in the room, to my left. I look up and to the left, and I see Howard standing nearby. We just look at one another for a moment.

“Do you always wake up smiling?” he finally says.

The question gives me pause. I cock my head to the right and think. Have I done that? Did I do it that morning when I awoke? I decide I like the idea and realize that I usually do wake up happy.

“I guess I do,” I reply.

I turn back to the computer. Some part of me feels guilty about looking for the telephone number of another man, especially with Howard right there, but I realize that Howard is dead and it is actually okay for me to be doing this. I turn to look at him again and he is gone.

When I drift up from sleep, I realize that this is no ordinary dream, but a visitation from Howard. I also realize that his question is really not so much a question as a statement: Wake up with a smile on your face. Be happy. Carry on with your life. I suspect he is also encouraging me to wake up and accept the possibility of romance at some point when I’m ready.

His fundamental message is simple, but very important to me. It becomes a kind of mantra: Wake up smiling.

Later in the year, in October, I have another visitation during a dream.

In the dream, I have been sleeping and awaken. I’m troubled by something that happened before I went to bed and get up, deciding I won’t be able to return to sleep immediately. I walk through the house, noticing that some things are out of place, not put away by me before I’d gone to bed. Worse, I see that I have inadvertently left the front door open with my keys in the lock. I pull out the keys, shut the door, and return to bed, admonishing myself for my carelessness. Someone could have walked right in. I return to sleep.

I awaken (in the dream) and realize that I’d actually been dreaming earlier and hadn’t really gotten up. I can sense that someone is in the house. I get up and go into the guest bedroom. The light is dim, but I can see a form on the bed. I walk over to the bed and realize that it is Howard lying there. I lightly touch his chest and realize that he is solid, not ghost-like. He rouses.

“What are you doing here?” I ask. Then I bend down and kiss him on the lips.

“Soon I’ll be going into stasis,” he replies.

Without his saying anything else, I realize that he is telling me that when he goes into stasis, he won’t be able to contact me again. Somehow, I also know that “stasis” means that he is transitioning into a new form and will be going somewhere new.

When I drift up from the dream, the sense of how physically close I have just been to him is still palpable. I consider the word “stasis” and realize that the meaning of the word in the dream visitation is not any definition with which I am familiar, so I pad down to my office, pull out the dictionary, and look up the word. Sure enough, I see a definition that is consistent with this concept of being between one form and another.

But . . .

Time passes. I have recounted the dream to a few people—including Howard’s sister, who has a BS in nursing and, therefore, understands the concept of stasis. No one has ever heard of the definition from the dream. I find it all curious, so I eventually return to the dictionary and look up the word again. The definition I’d seen that morning in October is simply not there. I know I was fully awake when I looked for the word. I know what I saw. But now it is not there.

I laugh and shake my head. It seems that Howard was very clear about what he meant when he used the word. And he was not going to let the mere fact of a waking reality definition get in the way of his dream visitation definition. So when I looked up the word that morning after the dream, I saw what he wanted me to see in the dictionary.

It was so Howard, so like him. I knew he’d managed to hover nearby for just a bit that morning, even after I awoke.

He may be off somewhere, in another form, but he still manages to whisper words of encouragement now and then and he still gives me his opinion when I ask for it. But . . . there have been no more dream visitations.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Things I Missed

April 2, 2012

By fall, I had grown accustomed to the word “widow” and to the fact of widowhood. I found myself referring to Howard as “my late husband,” a term I was sure would make him double over in laughter on the other side. In his best Jack Benny imitation, his left hand cupping his jaw and his right hand supporting his left elbow, I imagined him saying, “Well!” in mock frustration, then arguing that his timing had always been impeccable.

I missed “my late husband” in many ways, and not the least of them was his goofy humor. He didn’t pull out the Jack Benny often. More often it was his East Indian guru—an irreverent imitation of Deepak Chopra—or his Transylvanian vampire version of the song, “You Do Something to Me.” I may or may not have had the power to mystify him, but he had the power to make me laugh every time, without fail, with his Transylvanian vampire rendition of that song. He’d done a little standup comedy in his youth and he not only chose to look at life with humor, he chose to take the events and happenings of our everyday lives and use them as material. My job was to roll my eyes and fight to keep from cracking a smile. A tiny drawing of an egret would be accompanied by “Egrets? I’ve had a few.” He was willing to do slapstick but preferred taking the ordinary and putting a little twist on it. If all else failed, his answer to practically everything was, “Let’s all get naked.”

I missed our conversations. He was erudite, smart, and philosophical. We agreed on many things and disagreed on many others, but we never lacked for interesting talk. His head for facts and my head for concepts gave us one nicely balanced mind between us, and he was one of the few men I’d ever been close to who could keep up with me intellectually. The fact that I didn’t want to talk politics and he didn’t want to talk metaphysics didn’t hamper us. There was always something to ponder aloud and roll around so we could get a good look at its many sides. And we were always as happy talking about the birds at the feeder or the flowers coming up in the garden as we were talking about the meaning of life. In fact, it could be argued that we viewed the birds and flowers as inherently meaningful components of life.

I missed having a companion who was at much at home at the opera as at a Rockies game. I missed dinners on the lower deck, under the flowering crab. I missed trips with him to bookstores and antiques stores, and I missed having a beer or glass of mead with him at Wynkoop Brewing Company.

I missed his unique stride, which was just a tiny bit bow-legged and always taken with the kind of casual confidence that made him look as if he owned the turf on which he tread.

I missed our morning ritual. As I put on makeup and styled my hair, he would stop outside the bathroom or dressing room door and wait until I paused what I was doing to turn to him. Then he would say, “You’re gonna look pretty today, aren’t you?” or “Are you putting on your fascinators?”

I missed his calling me “Little One,” sometimes emphasizing the word “One,” as if to say, “Forget the first three wives, you’ve always been the one.”

I missed that particular brand of loyalty and integrity he shared with a few other remarkable men I’d known, a commitment to what was right and true, with no apologies for loving America or staying true to his friends or being just a tad bit conservative. Well, okay, maybe more than a tad bit conservative.

I missed the fact that he knew as many lyrics as me and I even missed his annoying habit of playing fast and loose with lyrics, changing them at will if he couldn’t quite remember all of them or if he just wanted to be perverse.

I missed his native view of the world, a way of seeing things so different from mine that it was sometimes startling to me.

Often, something would flit by on the screen of my consciousness, something that caught my attention because of its absence, or caught my attention because it called up a fond memory, or caught my attention because a sight or sound or smell or internal sensation reminded me of that particular uniqueness that was him . . . and was gone.

That the particular uniqueness of any human cannot be replaced became something I came to understand in the same way we come to understand the uniqueness of a sunset or a spring day. That uniqueness is there and then it is gone. Nothing can replace it. It, and everything else, is fleeting and gorgeous and just a little sad . . . because it is fleeting and gorgeous.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Tears

March 7, 2012

The tears just came when they decided to. I had little control over it. I’d never been able to make myself cry, but I’d been able to keep myself from crying. Now it seemed my psyche and emotions were calling the shots and I could either accept it or stay holed up in my home for however long it took before I could emerge back into society without the threat of tears overtaking me. I decided to accept it.

Besides, my feelings and behavior were surprising to me and I was curious about them. How would I feel next? What would I do before the day was out? I felt pulled along by some higher force that knew what was good for me better than I apparently did. Mostly, I was okay with that. But when I dissolved into tears in public, it was, admittedly, a little disconcerting.

In January of 2011, I sobbed in front of the entire Colorado Independent Publishers Association (CIPA) group as I thanked them for their support. Little more than a week later, when I held an open house to honor Howard’s life, I managed to make it through that event without tears. But in February, I mistakenly thought I could attend that month’s CIPA meeting without a repeat performance of tears. I hadn’t considered that there would be people at the February meeting who hadn’t been at the January meeting. When our eyes met, the tears began to form at the corners of my eyes.

At home, no day passed without tears for the first three months or more. I missed Howard, to be sure. But sometimes I suspected the tears were more about the loss of what had once been between us than the absence of him in the moment. It was tricky stuff. At times the tears felt like the necessary discharge of built up energy–a kind of relief valve. At other times, I felt they were little more than a form of feeling sorry for myself. Mostly, they didn’t last long, but I could never predict what would trigger them. Going through his things? Making dinner for me instead of the two of us? Canceling his credit cards? Maybe those things would trigger tears and maybe they wouldn’t.

I was finally ready to have a face-to-face meeting with the Social Security Administration by the middle of April. I was there primarily to file for the death benefit–all two hundred and fifty-five dollars of it–but I had also been told I needed to talk with them about widow’s benefits, something I had no clue I might qualify for. I was taken aback by the almost immediate combativeness of the young clerk. She behaved as if it was her job to protect the government’s money from fraudulent filers, and I might be one of them. She disliked the marriage certificate I presented, but ultimately accepted it. She drilled me not only about Howard, but also about my first husband. I’d arrived an innocent, but had the odd feeling of being a criminal because I was being treated like one.

I managed to hold it together until she referred to my dead husband as my “second ex.” I clarified. I’d divorced my first husband. He was my “ex.” My second husband had died. I was a widow. Haughtily, and with a shake of the head, the clerk said that to them (the SSA), they were both my “ex” husbands.

That was it. I started to cry. I looked her in the eye and said that I guessed she’d never lost a husband.

And she softened. From that instant, the formerly combative clerk was more advocate than opponent. She apologized. I apologized for crying. I said that while she could refer to my first husband–the one I’d divorced–any way she wanted, I expected a bit more respect for my dead husband. She apologized again. But I couldn’t stop crying, and it was more than a few tears sliding down my face. I was sobbing and I struggled, with limited success, to curb it. The clerk handled my business as quickly as she could, apologizing again for making me cry.

When I’d finished my business (and discovered that I would, indeed, be receiving a widow’s benefit), I made my way back to my car and stopped trying to keep the sobs in check. I just leaned over the steering wheel and let them have their way with me. Once I could actually see straight, I drove home.

By summer, the post-death fog had lifted and the tears were no longer a daily event. But when my youngest sister was diagnosed with cirrhosis in the liver she’d been given some years earlier to replace her failing one, the impact on me was cumulative. She went into a quick downward spiral, and I responded to more than her plight. My feelings about her plight were piled on top of the still-raw loss of my husband. Grief upon grief. Threat of loss upon loss. Social events I’d been looking forward to were now impossible and drifted by without my attendance. Some of the returning life in me had been sucked out with the news about my sister.

Still, I was working. I was seeing clients. I was managing.

Then, in July, I presented a recently expired “bird bucks” certificate for ten dollars off to the clerk at Wild Birds Unlimited. The certificate had arrived shortly after Howard’s death and had been forgotten until I found it buried in my billfold, days before my trip to the store. I didn’t want to lose the ten dollars. My hope was to have the certificate honored and I actually thought I could make my case without tears.

It would be fair to ask why in the world I thought I could do that. It would be fair to ask why I felt compelled to ask that the certificate be redeemed, even though it was expired.

My answer? I don’t really have one, but I suspect that there are clues in the words, themselves: lose, redeemed, expired. Maybe I just didn’t want to experience another loss. Maybe it seemed to me that enough had “expired.” Maybe my subconscious was looking for redemption. And maybe a cigar is just a cigar and a “bird bucks” certificate is nothing more than that. Life’s mysteries are not all profound and mystical. Sometimes they are mundane, the only profundity to be found in their abject silliness.

When tears threatened, the young man behind the counter went looking for help. The gray haired woman who emerged from the back room assured me that the certificate would be honored. Before long, she was offering words of solace that sounded right out of a grief training manual and I began to feel like a character in a Monty Python movie. I couldn’t laugh in that moment. Let’s face it, feelings of embarrassment bordering on mortification do not segue into belly laugher easily. That would have required a level of spiritual adeptness I most assuredly found lacking in myself in that moment. True, I wasn’t far down the road with my discounted birdseed before I saw the humor in it, but standing before the bird expert cum spiritual advisor, I just didn’t have access to it.

Tears and laughter do, I came to understand, often share the same psychic space . . . and I could hear my late husband laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation all the way home.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

The Organic Nature of Grief

February 5, 2012

When my husband died, I had many a conversation with friends and family members about the grieving process. The term “grieving process” was one most people seemed to understand, and I thought I had at least a sense of it, myself. I’d had a fair amount of time to get used to the idea that Howard was dying as he made his pilgrimage through cancer treatment. I expected to be heartbroken but also a bit relieved when he died and I expected to be my old self, whatever that was, fairly quickly after his death.

I was right about being both heartbroken and relieved when he died. I was wrong about being some version of my old self quickly after his death. I wasn’t even sure what my old self was when he died.

My “self” had been on its own pilgrimage for a dozen years or more. I’d transformed and transformed again. I was familiar with transformation and more comfortable with it than most of the people around me seemed to be. My friend Cindy Morris, a gifted astrologer, explained this by saying, “Well of course! You were born with Pluto in your eighth house.” My own take on it was that I’d experienced enough transformation to know there was little use in fighting it. Ride it as if riding a surfboard on a mammoth wave, that was my attitude.

But in February of 2010, I’d gone to Lake Titicaca in Peru to join with other shamans and many pilgrims in the reactivation of the Solar Disc. That experience had changed me profoundly. Many years earlier, during my shamanic apprenticeship, I experienced a change right down to the level of the DNA. That was profound. When I came back from Peru, though, I felt like someone who had reincarnated into the same body. I looked like the same person I’d been, but I wasn’t.

During the remainder of 2010, something in me opened further as I accompanied Howard on his slow march to death. After his death, when I could sort myself out from that part of his energy field still hovering about me, I realized that one of the blessings of having been with my husband as he was dying was that it further softened me, further opened me to what it meant to be human. One side effect of the transformation triggered in Peru was that I was better suited to accompany my husband on that march as it quickened its pace, and one side effect of having done so was that many of the barnacles and unidentifiable encrustations of life had been worn away. What was left of me was someone I actually wanted to know.

But that person I had become was grieving and it became very clear to me very quickly that grieving was not a process—at least not a process as most of us have come to think of the term. It was neither rational nor linear. It had an almost unidentifiable beginning, but a beginning sometime before Howard’s actual death. It could not be flow charted, Gantt charted, or PERT diagramed. There was no chain of events as predictable as Kubler-Ross suggested in her theory on dying and death.

No, grieving was far more organic than that. It seemed to flow according to the laws of nature, as opposed to following models structured by man. In everyday terms, that meant, among other things, that I could not predict what would take the wind right out of me, nor could I predict when that would happen.

I also couldn’t predict which days would be inexplicably sorrowful any more than I could predict which days would be filled with pure joy, just because I was alive. I couldn’t predict whether I would want to see others or be alone, nor could I predict who I might want to see. Much of the time, though, I did want to be alone. What I felt most of the time when I wanted to be alone was not unhappiness, but something more like curiosity about the very air around me and interest in my own internal landscape.

Grieving, it seemed, was filled with surprises—some of them pure astonishment and others numbly shocking. And it was as organic as fertile earth.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Widowhood 101

January 22, 2012

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll be fine.” The naïveté and hubris of those words are breathtaking. But, then, I’ve had some time to learn just how wrong I was about it.

I had lost both of my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, beloved animal companions. I thought I had some experience with death. In fact, I did have experience . . . I just didn’t have experience with losing a husband.

I made that pronouncement within days of Howard’s death. I used it as a shield against the pain I saw reflected in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances. Even when they said little or nothing, their eyes were a mirror of the grief I held and refused to admit to others. I’d already been through the hard part—the long process of his dying. If I’d handled that, I was certain I could handle what came next. As it happened, I was right . . . and also just a little wrong.

Within twenty-four hours or so of my husband’s death, I’d packed up most of his clothes and shoes (with my sister’s help) and handed them off to my friend Gretchen Minney for donation to the Birds of Prey thrift store. If anyone but family and close friends had known how quickly I divested myself of his clothing, they would have been stunned. But I’d had a long time to plan the chain of events following his death. Months later, I saw the wisdom of it. If I’d waited, I might have clung to more than the few things I kept. It was a good move.

I also wasted little time rearranging the house. It was a relief to have the hospital bed, oxygen concentrator, and other accoutrements of end-stage cancer out of the house. Just looking at them made me weary. I moved furniture around, too, and got rid of a few pieces. I needed to reclaim my home for the living, so I bought a comfortable reading chair for my bedroom, moved Howard’s leather wing chair from the living room, replacing it with something new and comfortable, and rescued my small secretary from sickroom status.

Within a month, I held the post-death party I’d promised to have at the house. It was something of a homecoming for Lakewood PD people with whom Howard had worked in the 1970s. Many others came, too, including some of my friends, colleagues, and clients. I was grateful for that. Still, it was something of a blur. I fortified myself with champagne to serve as hostess—rather than crumbling widow—and got through the day.

My friends and colleagues in Boulder Media Women sent cards, many with checks. It was more than a thoughtful gesture, it was a gesture that saved me from worrying about the cash I needed to live on for that first month following his death, a time when I was completely unable to even contemplate work.

For the first several months after Howard’s death, I moved through my days, attending to the administrative and mundane details that had to be managed. I filed the will. I got Howard’s name removed from the vehicle titles. I battled with the annuity company to distribute the funds coming to me in a way that would benefit me optimally over time.

I learned a thing or two in that battle with the annuity company. Those who have just lost a spouse are easy prey for questionable behavior on the parts of those who have something to lose by that death. If I had folded in my grief, it would have cost me a good deal of money—at least a good deal of money for a simple woman with limited funds. Howard had worked hard for that small bit of money he’d tucked away and I refused to allow it or his efforts to look after me with it to be disrespected by problematic practices on the part of the annuity company. Besides, I knew I would need those funds over the next few years.

They gave IRS citations I knew didn’t apply. They blithely argued that they simply couldn’t do what I asked. The agent who had sold the policy—one of Howard’s oldest friends, a man who considered him a mentor—had difficulty believing that if the company said they couldn’t do something, they could be wrong.

I called in my own version of the “big guns”—my longtime broker and financial advisor. I’d always been a minor client, but he rose up to offer support as if I were a major account. Ultimately, I didn’t have to press my broker into service. My tenacity got the case taken all the way up the chain of command to the highest levels of the company for a decision. They agreed to distribute the funds as I requested. I wondered how widows and widowers with less tenacity dealt with these things. I was sure I knew the answer: many didn’t—and got run over by big companies during the most vulnerable time of their lives.

But I didn’t expect the fog that hovered over me. Hadn’t I removed the cords that connected Howard and me during the death ceremony before he died? What was this miasma enveloping me? I was a shaman; I read energy. What in the world was I experiencing? It took a while to understand. Howard’s energy field and mine had overlapped more than I had ever guessed. He was gone, but remnants of that field remained and the part gone felt like a black hole. It felt a little like being blindfolded, spun around, and set loose in a room that was completely familiar but disorienting because it wasn’t being experienced in the usual way.

I couldn’t even bring myself to use the word “widow” yet, but I was beginning to understand what it meant.

Copyright 2012 by Melanie Mulhall

Moving into the Mystery

December 28, 2011

“Pittsburg,” is the only part of what he says that I can make out. He sits up, trying to muster the strength to do what I know he cannot: move from the bed to the commode next to it. He has asked a question that I cannot decipher, except for the word “Pittsburg.” I can think of no connection to Pittsburg, no conversation we’ve had about the city—nothing. Either I, in my weariness, am just not putting together something obvious or he has drifted farther away cognitively. I consider the possibility of the former but suspect it’s the latter.

I have given him his morphine and I eventually get him to lie back down, but he sits up again almost immediately. I tell myself that if I could get a bit of Adavan in him, he might be less restless, but he won’t take the Adavan. I call Antonio, thinking that he may be more successful at it than me, but before Antonio can get to the house (a thirty-five minute drive), Howard is down and has taken it. I call Antonio’s cell to tell him that he needn’t come, but he insists on coming anyway.

While Antonio is at the house, Kristen, the hospice angel of a nurse who had helped get him back into bed the previous night (Christmas night), calls. She had promised to follow up and is fulfilling that promise. She manages to convince me that we can get a hospital bed into the room without removing the queen-sized bed and her description of how we’ll manage it makes sense to me. Howard needs the restraint of the sidebars and I need the ability to move the bed up and down.

It is a stroke of luck that Antonio is with me. Kristen has ordered the bed and it arrives in less than an hour and a half. Kristen continues to behave as if she has angel wings. She comes to the house and the three of us manage to move Howard from the guest room bed to the hospital bed—no small thing because even though he has lost a great deal of weight over the past month, he is still somewhere around two hundred pounds . . . of dead weight.

Howard is semi-comatose and cannot help at all in this process. That’s the downside. The upside is that he also cannot fight against it. He has refused a hospital bed up to this point because it represents death to him. But it can no longer be avoided and he is, indeed, close to death.

In a moment of overwhelm, I call my sister Maureen, who has offered to drive out from Illinois to help with Howard’s care, and tell her, “I give up. Come on out.” But after we have Howard settled, I think, I can do this. Nevertheless, I’m glad she will be on her way. I’m not sure she will actually make it before he dies, but I will be relieved to have her there with me.

And now the waiting begins. The next couple of days are a blur. I consider what should be done before Howard dies and call his sister Ann and his three sons, not simply to alert them to the fact that he is close to death, but to give them a chance to say whatever they want to say to him. He is beyond words now, so he won’t be able to talk to them, but I can hold the telephone up to his ear and they can talk to him.

They all want to do this.

With each, I hold the telephone to Howard’s ear and tell him that he need do nothing, just listen. I’m fairly certain that he can still hear, even if he cannot talk, and I want to give him permission to just listen and not struggle to even try to get words out. But he does try to get words out with each of them. He’s unsuccessful at this except with his oldest son, Jim.

Jim makes his peace with his father and it brings me to tears as I hear what he says over the extension. Then, quite miraculously, really, Howard gathers the strength to say what Jim and I later agree is, “Okay.”

Once his closest family have had a chance to speak to him, there is really nothing more for me to do but try to administer his medication and wait. He hasn’t lost the ability to swallow yet, so I am able to give him his liquid medication. I do my best to make him comfortable and wait. I’m restless.

I talk to Antonio on the 28th and he tells me he’s coming over to do ceremony. He and his wife, Helena, come. I welcome their calm strength. Even though I’m a strong woman myself, I can stand outside myself just long enough to realize that the one leg I always have in the other realms, as the shaman I am, has actually pulled more of me into those realms than the part of me that is on this side. I’m unbalanced, too much in an altered state and too little grounded. Ceremony is actually the best thing for me, whether or not it is something Howard would want if he were lucid enough to state his preferences.

The death ceremony we do is so magical and so what is needed that I’m less restless afterwards, more at peace. [The details of this ceremony can be found in my March 28, 2011 post, titled “Death Ceremony.”]

No more than a couple of hours after they leave, my sister arrives. I make dinner for us and, not long after we sit down to eat, I hear something coming from Howard that I’ve never heard before—a gurgling, gasping frustration. I tear into his room with Maureen on my heels. We get there just in time for me to hold his body up as black ooze issues from his mouth. One eye stares at me and the other has rolled back. He has entered a coma.

Maureen and I clean him up, which takes no small effort. The sheets must be changed, all of his clothes must be swapped out, and his adult diaper must be changed. Mo (the diminutive I’ve long used instead of my sister’s full first name, Maureen) has just arrived to be swept into the most difficult kind of help to provide. I had told her, before she came, that she would have to be tough to manage this. She hasn’t even had dinner before she’s put to the test.

We have to cut off some of his clothes because the combined strength of the two of us is not enough to effectively move him. And I’m not about to call hospice. This is sacred duty; I need to perform it and Mo is willing to join me in it. His clothing is insignificant at this point because he won’t be wearing it again and getting him clean and comfortable is what is needed.

Mo and I struggle so much to get the job done. We take sides on either side of the hospital bed and try to manhandle the sheets and clothes without doing harm to my poor dying husband. Eventually, I look up at her, start to laugh, and tell her we’re like the Keystone Cops. We’re clumsy and incompetent, moving about with too little purpose and using too much effort, but we manage.

When we’ve finished and return to the table, Gretchen Minney calls. She’s just returned from spending time with family out of town and I can hear in her voice that she is jet lagged and weary. She wants to know how Howard is doing and when I tell her, she insists on coming over, even though she’s barely put doen her luggage.

Dinner shifts, becoming almost a celebration. It’s an odd celebration, but it does seem like one. I’ve opened a bottle of champagne. I’ve made a good meal. Gretchen, Mo, and I seem aligned in knowing that Howard is about to break the bonds of human form, step out of his body, and step into the mystery. And that is a very good thing.

Finally, Gretchen leaves and I settle Mo in my bed. The only other option is the bed in the guest room and I’m the only person who should be in that room on death watch. She retires, as do I. I lie awake for a time, listening to Howard’s death rattle. The hospice nurse had prescribed drops that sometime eliminate the sound, which she has told me can be quite disconcerting. The drops have worked until now. And I now understand what she means. I’m too weary and too relieved that the end is near for a mere death rattle to rattle me much. I fall to sleep and sleep like the dead until I awake with a start at around 1:35 a.m.

I look at the clock and realize I’ve missed giving Howard his morphine and Adavan on schedule. Then I realize that the death rattle is gone. I leap from bed, go over to him, and can hear that he is still breathing—softly, gently. I give him a small dose of morphine, thinking that it is probably unnecessary, and I pull up a chair and sit next to him, rooting under his covers to take his hand. It won’t be long now. His breaths are so infrequent that I think he is gone more than once, only to hear him take another breath. His sleep apnea over the preceding several years has, thankfully, prepared me well, and I am not jarred by the sporadic breathing.

I have a headache and after some minutes, I get up to take something for it. The combination of stress and champagne have left me with a head that doesn’t quite feel like my own and it is distracting. I want to be clearly focused.

When I return to the room and wait for the next breath, there isn’t one. He’s gone. I look at the clock and see that it is ten minutes of two and I’m startled by the knowing that he’d awakened me so I wouldn’t miss this moment. He knew I wanted to be there and he woke me up so I could be. What a blessing! I thank him, even though I know he’s not actually there any longer. In fact, he has mostly been gone for days. And the death ceremony had helped the rest of him go.

I think about something he’d said, sometime over the last month. “I don’t think we told each other we love each other enough.”

He was probably right, but we had told one another often enough and we’d shown one another in many ways. And he’d given me this last gift of love—waking me so I wouldn’t miss his death. What is enough when it comes to love? There is never enough when it comes to feeling the love, murmuring the words, acting in love. But I’d come to the knowing, years earlier, that any instant of love is not lost, but reverberates on in the universe—onward, outward, past the farthest reaches.

And I feel it, right then.

And I continue to feel it.

Copyright 2011 by Melanie Mulhall