Magic Sneakers

It’s two years post tornado and one year after I promised myself I was done writing about the tornado. But I’m fickle and I promise not to write about it again! (Unless I do …)

A while back I registered the kids for the Joplin Memorial Fun Run. Molly is four, so I envisioned that Emily (8) and David (10) would run out ahead and Keith and I would walk/slow run with the Mollster. Ha.

I hadn’t told Molly those plans.

She’s trained for the run for weeks. This mostly involved sprinting the loop in my home from kitchen, to family room, to living room, and back – again and again and again. A couple days before the run we bought her new sneakers. They instantly became magic sneakers. You remember the type – the ones that made you run faster than ever before.

She was ready.

And it wasn’t a walk with her parents that she was ready for. That girl ran the whole mile with a huge smile on her little face. It was awesome. (But far from leisurely.)

The race wasn’t just about running though. It was a memorial to the people who lost their lives in the tornado two years ago. There was a sign hanging at the beginning of the race and it had the name of each of those 161.  When my exuberant racers arrived, Molly saw the sign and, assuming it was a list of the racers, asked, “Mommy, where’s my name!? Am I on there?”  If she hadn’t been so excited about racing she may have wondered why it took me a moment before answering her.

“No, baby girl, those are the people who died in the tornado and we’re running today to remember them.”

And then my mind swirled with the rest of the answer …

BUT …

Had the rotation been slightly different …

Had the walls twisted a bit more …

Had the ceiling been blown away over that closet …

Then the names on that list could have included my Molly and Emily and Keith. So close; they were so close.

In the past two years we’ve made the decision not to live in the land of “what if’s” because that can be life freezing and maybe even disrespectful to the people who did lose someone they love.  But the sign with the names (and the t-shirts that read “Running in memory of my Granny”) spoke of those whose loved ones couldn’t get into a safe place, whose ceilings collapsed and whose walls fell.  And I grieve with them for their loss with awareness that the happy ending to my tornado story could make their grief more powerful.

Because their loved ones were so close too – so close to safety, to shelter, to survival.

None of us will forget the storm that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011. My family and I may have decided that the storm doesn’t define us but we would be kidding ourselves to say it hasn’t changed us.

Because when I remember, it reverberates once again through my soul – life is precious, time is fleeting, and the people we love are so vulnerable and so fragile.

When faced with the memory of that day, we will do what we’re left here to do.

We will savor.

We will strap on our magic sneakers and run.

God bless the people whose story ended differently. Hopefully they have found some peace.

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Loss, Grief, and an Ant

After the tornado, I was determined to make my kids feel at home in our rental house. I purchased new beds, positioned favorite books on their shelves (some tornado survivors, some recently purchased, some replaced by angelic friends), and set out toys. I wanted things to feel normal. The kids’ arrival at the rental home was a flurry of excitement and chaotic joy. They were home! We were together again! There was a roof over our heads! They were excited and enjoying their new rooms and I was basking in the moment of parental success when the tone abruptly changed.

Emily saw an ant.

I responded quickly, wiped up the ant, and flushed it down the toilet. I turned around to see Emily standing there silently with an expression of absolute shock. It didn’t take long for the silence to end.

“NOOOOO!!!! Why did you do that? You KILLED her. You KILLED Anty. I didn’t want you to do that. SHE’S GONE!!!!!”

“Emmy, I’m sorry. I thought you wanted me to get rid of the ant.”

“Why would you kill her? YOU SHOULD DO MORE THINKING BEFORE YOU START KILLING. I never thought you would do that. She was Anty and now she’s GONE …”

 I reacted in the worst possible way. I laughed. I didn’t mean to; I just thought it was funny. It was an ant. I especially couldn’t keep a straight face after “you should do more thinking before you start killing.” Those are definitely words to live by, right?

Then the tears came. Big tears. Heartbreaking tears accompanied with the kind of heaving sobs that end in hiccups. Emily went into her new room and sobbed that she wanted to be alone.

This was not my Emily. She never wants to be left alone. I tried a few times to go in but she was adamant that I leave her sobbing on her bed.

Keith came running into the family room and I tried to explain that we were in some sort of crisis because I thoughtlessly committed ant murder.

Finally Emily emerged, handed me her journal and went back into her room. The journal had pictures of broken hearts, of Emily dancing with Anty, of Anty dead, and of Anty’s tombstone. The pictures were an unsettling mix of hilarious and sad.

Emily's broken heart and a dead ant.

Emily finally let me in to cuddle with her and help her calm down. While holding her sobbing body I recognized this moment for what it was.

This was loss.

This was grief.

Powerful emotions spill out in odd ways. Emily was sobbing about the loss of an ant but she was also grieving the loss of a home, of belongings, of feeling safe. She was sobbing because she now carries the memory of huddling under her father while windows blew in and walls bent around her. She couldn’t express how she felt about those things. They were too powerful, too confusing. So, she grieved an ant.

And so did I.

I love that, even in grief, Emily is dramatic and unique. I still laugh at the picture of her dancing with an ant. There’s something beautiful and healing in finding sorrow and laughter in the same moment. And there’s something cathartic in crying over a dead ant.

Rest in peace, Anty. Your untimely demise served an unexpected purpose.

Can't you envision Emily and Anty running towards each other in a field of flowers?

Just beyond

Life is fine, busy, productive … normal.

Then – with the suddenness of the storm itself – a certain song plays on the radio, you take a wrong turn and drive through missing neighborhoods, or your child has a nightmare and you’re startled with the reminder that something big happened, something life changing, something that can’t be undone.

You’re reminded that powerful emotions belonging to words like grief, fear and helplessness lie just beneath the surface. A rawness still exists. A wound only partially healed.

And once again you fight to get over it, once again you move on, once again you turn your thoughts to other things.

You hug longer, you breathe in deeper, you open your eyes and pay attention. But you move on until the next song, the next unexpected detour, the next dream.

That’s resiliency. That’s life.

Because just beyond
grief, fear, helplessness
we find
joy, bravery, compassion … grace.

Maybe it takes experiencing the first set of words to fully appreciate the second.

Maybe it’s good to stay a little raw. Because without that wound, that tinge of unexpected remembrance, we’d let little moments pass us by without noticing.

We’d forget the clarity that came when the clouds cleared.

My Very Brief Etiquette of Grieving

I’ve been asked several times to write about the etiquette of grief yet have been reluctant to cover this subject.  Even the phrase “etiquette of grief” sounds condescending.  Etiquette is a set of social rules.  The grieving process is one of the most powerful and life-changing experiences a person can encounter.  I’ve taken entire courses in grad school covering the subject of grieving and, even in these classes, we barely scratched the surface.  Grief can’t be made to fit into rules of etiquette.  So, my goal with this post is not to cover this process.  It is to stick with the question I’ve been asked and give suggestions about how to socialize with a grieving person with compassion and sensitivity:

  • Acknowledge the loss  The worst thing you can do is ignore what has happened.  Acknowledgment can be as simple as, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”  It’s better to keep it simple and sincere – grief is not very tolerant of verbal fluff.  Also, send a card.  This is one of those times in life that people need to see tangible signs of  support and love. 
  • Be there  Don’t disappear.  Grief is hard to be around and, unfortunately, sometimes even well-meaning friends scatter to the winds.  You can send an email or make a phone call while still respecting a person’s need for privacy and space.
  • Be sensitive  Grief is fickle.  Sometimes people need to talk about their loss; sometimes they need to keep conversations light; sometimes they need to sit alone with their grief.   Be sensitive and follow their lead. 
  • Don’t be sensitive  If there was ever a time to ignore social slights, this is it.  Forgive and forget unanswered calls, abrupt statements, or unaccepted invitations. 
  • Be the same person  If you were a best friend and confidant before the loss, continue to be those things.  If you were an acquaintance or coworker, don’t try to become a best friend or confidant. 

  I hope both that these tips are helpful to you and also that you have no need to use them.