Grief’s apprentice


Tales of RetirementTales of Retirement

Linda Schnabel, PCC
Principal, CareerWorks

 

The sun had just set over a hot August evening in 2006 when I officially became a widow. Earlier that month, my husband and I had celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary, still praying for a miracle that would give us the chance to tear a few more commemorative pages from the calendar.

But the universe had other plans for us and now, 10 years later, I reflect on a decade that has been a miraculous time of healing, hope, and new dreams. I can barely recognize the 50-year old woman who stood by her husband’s bedside the night of his passing. She was frightened, overwhelmed, and consumed with grief that, at the time, seemed hopelessly impossible to traverse – a thick wall of fog that would last forever. Or so I thought…

I dedicate this article to my deceased husband, Armin – a man as strong as iron, yet as soft as cotton wool. He was loyal, consistent, and fiercely determined to do the right thing. Even when diagnosed with terminal cancer, he was steadfast in his resolve to support our journey through the fire in a way that was dignified and serene.

The summer of 2006 will always, in my memory, be one of the most poignant of our lives. We walked a tightrope over a wide chasm that separated hope from despair. On days when I teetered toward despair, Armin would pull me upright with his encouraging smile or a story from his childhood in Bavaria. On days when he wobbled, I would massage his feet to the sweet sound of Mozart’s Adagio. We were at peace during those moments, seeing all too clearly that time and circumstance are mysterious bedfellows and we, like all humans, were not immune to their notice.

The summer of 2016 is now in full swing as August turns up the mercury – just as it did almost 3,650 days ago. When I reflect on the passage of time and the pathway of grief I was called upon to negotiate, I now recognize several miraculous teachers whose guidance have made this trek one of personal and spiritual growth. I did not seek them out; they found me when I was ready to accept their tutelage.

 

Open Heart & Breath

For a long time after Armin’s passing, I felt like an elephant was perched upon my chest. My breath was shallow and the pain in my heart was relentless; I was convinced that Old Man Grief had taken up residence for good. However, ever so gradually, my heart began to unfurl and I could take long, luscious breaths again. With expanding heart and breath, I found myself capable of deep sleep and pleasant dreams – things I believed were no longer within my grasp. I also began to make a meaningful contribution to my profession again; in fact, during year two of my journey, I landed an assignment to help implement a change management initiative within a palliative care facility. This venue provided added incentive for open heart and breath and I felt privileged to be in the midst of those who were bravely moving toward life’s end.

Recently, in 2015, this desire for ever-expanding heart and breath took me to Bali, Indonesia where I completed my certification as a yoga instructor. I now use this skill to teach women of my vintage how to open their hearts wide as they breathe from the depths of their beings.

I’ve come to realize that when things look darkest, I can connect with my breath and heart. When there is nothing more I can do to control or change a situation, I can always come home to myself for solace. It’s a resting place that provides time for reflection, lingering, and renewed hope.

 

Love

This teacher constantly brushed up against me, but at the early part of the journey I couldn’t see her – too trapped in my own loss and longing to even feel her breath on my neck. But when I began to emerge from the pit of despair, she was there at my side. With her, she brought a green-eyed, silver-haired gentleman who ever so gently taught me that love can cohabit gracefully with loss; they are not mutually exclusive.

So George and I began to thread our lives together – baby steps toward intimacy. George is playful, full of light, and charismatic. In his wake, he brings a large, fun-loving family who have embraced me like their own. Out of nowhere, a new clan has emerged with more love to share than I am ever likely to consume. I would not have dared to even hope for such a blessing in the early days, but it came along when I was least expecting it – like a butterfly landing on the stillness that grief had imposed.

I discovered that Love is always accessible even when we feel impossibly unloving and unloved. Her biggest lesson for me has been this: death does not erase the love I felt (and still feel) for Armin. Rather, it provides the rich fertile soil into which new seeds of love can flourish – if just given a chance.

 

Dreams

When Armin died, so did our plans for the future. But the teacher named Dreams encouraged me to expand my vision, open my arms to other possibilities. In heeding my teacher’s gentle admonition, I have taken delight in creating new dreams with George and other important people in my life. Professional growth, travel, hobbies, and new friendships are like jigsaw puzzle pieces that are creating a new dream landscape, a piece at a time.

Three years ago, George and I ‘dreamed up’ and built a new home together. This project – a step along the grief path – helped me to appreciate that home can be anywhere as long as mutual dreams and love move in as well, unpack their gear and settle in to the comfy seats.

From the ground up, we watched our abode take shape. Picking fixtures, paint colours, and floor coverings was a wonderfully creative and therapeutic activity for me. We moved our furniture into the new house on a mid-March afternoon. A bit of snow lay in patches on the ground, but the sky made a solemn promise that spring was not far off.

We affectionately named our home Windrush Terrace; little did we know that this would be the most apt name for a house that regularly feels the impact of strong gusts that convene between Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe.

George and I now entertain our friends and family within the confines of these walls. It’s a welcoming place with lots of light, warm earth tones, and simple perennial gardens. William Wallace, our Persian cat, is the king of the castle and it would seem that we three souls have formed a family unit.

 

Memories

With the passage of time, I feared that I would forget Armin’s voice, the outline of his face, the mannerisms that I’d seen a million times – like the way he’d take his black nylon comb, pull its teeth through his strawberry blond hair, replace the comb to his back jean pocket, and with his right hand perform a little up-and-back movement to ensure coiffure exactitude.

But, the teacher called Memories showed me that my experiences are embedded in my soul and have become part of the foundation upon which I continue to build an ongoing life. Armin is in the joy I express, the tears I cry, the songs I sing. He is a part of my essence – who I have become as a professional, a friend, a lover, and a woman crossing over the threshold from the ‘old age of youth’ to the ‘youth of old age.’  Memories, I realize now, don’t leave us. They are the pillars of support that help us rebuild at a time when we can barely clutch a hammer and when we are plagued with doubts that any potential for renewal exists beyond a void of darkness.

In fact, it was this teacher who lit the path when it was time for me to sell Armin’s family home in Germany – that big stone façade that bumps up against the Bavarian forest and houses 400 years of ancestral history. When I handed over the keys to its new owners, Memories whispered in my ear, “A big part of you and Armin was made here and all of that remains yours to keep forever. It’s the bricks and mortar that now have new custodians.”

When I visited the old family house a couple of years ago, the new owners were providing it with much more love that I ever could have from this side of the ocean.

 

Wisdom

Let’s not forget this exquisite teacher! Wisdom arrived a little later in my journey – once the storm subsided and the fog lifted. She bestowed beautiful gifts of insight, vision, perspective, understanding, equanimity, and tolerance – a bit at a time, like seasoning for the soul.

I remember feeling like an Olympian runner – legs unsteady and muscles sore, but somehow, I knew wisdom would only accrue by passing straight through grief instead of skirting around it. Painful as it is, grief is like a refining fire and, out of the ashes, the wisdom tends to emerge.

A side benefit to Wisdom’s gifts is that they multiply and can be given away freely. It’s only after having stood in the ‘fire’ at some length that I could comfort and support friends and clients who were new to running marathons.

For example, a few years after Armin had passed, a dear friend arrived at my door; her husband had, after 30 years of marriage, decided to call it quits. She was inconsolable until, together, we cobbled together a strategy for her survival, making a bit of sense out of her loss, and applying a healing balm to her open wounds.

There is no denying: Open Heart & Breath, Love, Dreams, Memories, and Wisdom have been teachers to my apprenticeship, fortifying me to take risks, lean into new experiences, make tough decisions, and continue building a joyful life.

Today is August 8th, 2016. Armin would have turned 67 today. We likely would have allowed the day to pass with little fanfare because Armin was a quiet soul who required little to be content. I would have prepared a dinner to remind him of his German roots – maybe schnitzel with potato salad – and we would have toasted his life with a glass of fine wine, reminisced about the year that had just slipped by, and planned for earth’s next trip around the sun. We would have sat on the deck at our beloved bungalow and waited for the sun to set below the tree line while the chirping of crickets announced the end of a special day. We would have ended our celebration with a warm embrace and then fallen asleep to the hum of the air conditioner.

Instead, today I will remember Armin in a way that yet again evokes my cherished teachers. I will invite them for a longer than normal visit today. We will remember a life that ended too soon and utter a prayer of thanks for the gifts that came from a story shared. Then, like a reverent offering, we will send our energy and thoughts heavenward in the hope that my dear Armin may hear and receive this special tribute.

As for tomorrow, it is unknown and unpredictable. Yet I am confident in my teachers as well as my ability to be a diligent apprentice. I have faith that my willing companions – Open Heart & Breath, Love, Dreams, Memories, and Wisdom – are ready to escort me through uncharted waters, no matter how unprepared I might feel. They will buoy me up through the storms of life’s inevitable losses and, when I feel I can no longer negotiate the onslaught of the open sea, they will lead me to a safe harbour.

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