Happy: A Quest for Life After Death

Monday, September 30, 2013

Seeing Thestrals

My kids and I devoted our entire summer this year to Harry Potter. We watched every movie several times and listened to most of the books on CD during car trips (the British version read by Stephen Fry – that’s important).

It was time well spent. I must be secretly nine years old, because I love Harry Potter as much as my kids. I have an adult body, I go to an adult job, but nine must have been my favorite age, because I have never left it. (I also love to do cartwheels and drink milk straight out of the container. My kids have to remind me to keep the car clean. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who the parent is at our house.)

During our summer immersion into Harry Potter, I rediscovered thestrals. Thestrals, you probably know, are magical creatures in Harry Potter's wizarding world. They are about the size of horses, but fleshless, with vast, black, leathery wings. They pull carriages full of students from the train station to Hogwarts at the beginning of each school year, invisible to all but those who have seen death.  

I can see thestrals.

I gained sight after Mat’s passing that I didn’t have before. The understanding of intense loss—the kind that changes survivors’ lives forever—became not just visible, but etched in my soul.

I didn’t want to pay the terrible price it cost me to be able to see thestrals, but unlike Harry I haven’t found the sight of them to be horrible, or evil or sinister. It’s rather beautiful.

This vision connects me to other people who can see thestrals. We understand each other, and we talk about things no one else wants to talk about, we mourn together, and we comfort each other, because comfort can be intolerable from anyone who cannot see thestrals.

And like Harry's friend Luna, we reassure those who are seeing thestrals for the first time that they are just as sane as we are.   

It’s not hard for us to find each other. Topics come up in casual conversation that reveal ourselves to each other. I was at a car dealership last week, and the salesman and I spotted each other very quickly. He told me all about his mother’s passing 20 years before, and he hugged me when I left.

Thestrals eventually provide Harry and his friends with desperately needed passage, and he wonders how he could ever have thought them ugly.

Thestrals also provide me with much-needed passage at times. I like to say that widowhood is a crappy club, but at least the company is good. My connection to these women saves me when I think I’m losing my mind because no one else understands me. It saves me when I just can’t figure out how to live life without Mat, or when I am most desperate for my fatherless children. We are entirely at ease together, speaking a language with each other that’s rare among women our age. 

We also remind each other that when dementors attack and try to suck out our souls, chocolate is the best antidote.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Ah, the joys of summer. Summer means the beach, and lazy days spent lounging around the house, and a slower, more relaxed pace that recharges batteries worn down by a year of school and work.

Or I suppose that's what summer means in some houses.  At our house, it means the living room is often above 80 degrees even with the window A/C unit blasting, driving all over creation to drop off and pick up kids from a different day camp every week, most of which only run from 9-3, and trying to get the rest of a 40 hour work-week in from home while the boys watch endless amounts of TV.

And it means vacation. I'm dreading this summer's trip, as I do almost all family vacations. Dynamics at our house have shifted since Mat passed away, with the balance of power tilting decisively toward the kids and away from me, the remaining parental unit. This plays out in lots of different ways, like at the dinner table, where it seems less and less worth the effort to prepare something only I will eat. Or in many attempted family outings, where I seriously have to consider how much energy I have to fight resistance from the kids who would have a great time if only they would give it a chance, and where a little back-up from another adult would go a long way toward unifying the troops.

I'm getting the hang of coping with my loss of power in some arenas, such as at the dinner table, where I get daily practice. In others, such as vacation, where practice is harder to come by, I am still floundering. And so trips, which involve planning and packing and complaining and logistics and unfamiliar territory, are pretty much a recipe for me coming unglued at least once.

But still we go. We recently returned from a lovely weekend in Vermont, which is a simple, easy trip. It involved minimal effort on my part, but forces still conspired to drive me to temporary insanity at one point. 

This picture is of the Salmon River, in Mat's hometown where we took our last summer trip. Mat's sister brought her family too, and showed us the houses Mat lived in while he was growing up, the high school where he was the star basketball player, and rafted with us down the river where he worked summers as a rafting guide. 

After the trip, my brother asked me, "How was it?"

I considered the question, and weighed the high points against the inevitable very, very low point.

"Well, it was good," I decided. "But Mat wasn't there." 

And he wasn't. Mat wasn't playing basketball in the high school, or skateboarding in the yard at his old house, or perched on a bridge about to dive into the river, or at the town summer festival.

"It was good that you checked," he said.

Yes, it was, temporary insanity and all.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Best Red Sox Game Ever!

The boys and I were at the Red Sox game yesterday. Of course we didn't plan it this way, but it was probably the first big public event in Boston since the end of the lock down on Friday. Emotions were high, tributes were paid, and Big Papi made a memorable and heart-felt, if not very family-friendly, speech, and the Red Sox beat the Royals, 4-3.

To top it all off, Neil Diamond was there to sing live during the 8th inning stretch. I didn't catch very much of it on camera, but feel free to sing the rest of the chorus at home.

Friday, April 19, 2013

At home in the middle of a manhunt

Much of the last two years had has a surreal quality, but today ranks up there near the top. Neighboring towns are essentially closed -- "cities under siege" (Boston Globe words, not mine) -- while 2,000 police officers and other agents search for one of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects. The other one, as everyone knows by now, is already dead.

Photos of Boston show a ghost town, and photos from Watertown look like a war zone. Here, close to but outside of the towns on lockdown, we're staying inside with our doors locked anyway. This is not entirely rational, but there is news to watch compulsively and blogs and news websites to constantly refresh. It feels as though nothing has happened for hours and hours, but something will eventually happen.

At our house, the kids are on school vacation. I was planning to leave the kids with a babysitter and go in to the office, but the office -- located in a city on lockdown -- is closed. I'm trying to work from home with pretty limited success. It's hard to focus. This is only partly related to the ongoing events of the day: the kids' activities -- a birthday party and a church party -- have been cancelled. So the kids are entertaining themselves with friends indoors. It's not helping my concentration.

We spent two days of our school vacation week in New York City, and announced our identity as Boston-area residents with my eight-year-old's Patriots jersey. Several people offered their condolences to us after making the connection between us and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Let me get this straight: New Yorkers offered condolences to us. Talk about surreal.

"Boston has been in the news," one of them said. "I'm sorry."

Or, "It's terrible what happened."

Yes, it is. We were not directly affected by the events of Monday, but  we offer our condolences to those who were. We, with many, many others, will spend the next days and weeks, maybe even months and years, trying to understand why this happened. I suspect there won't be a satisfactory explanation. How can there be?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter

The Mormon church has a lay clergy, so members of the congregation take turns delivering sermons on Sundays. I was asked to speak last Easter, which I did with some difficulty. Here is a short excerpt. Happy Easter.

Christ was crucified on a Friday and on Sunday morning, his tomb was found empty. There is a space between death and the resurrection, and for Christ this was Saturday. We cannot yet follow Christ to the place where he spent that day, to spirit paradise.  Instead, I want to talk about how Christ’s disciples might have spent this day.  It is on this Saturday that death was real and resurrection was only a hope.  It is pretty clear from the scriptures that Christ’s disciples had a limited understanding of the resurrection, probably much like ours, and on Saturday I’m sure they grieved the loss of their Lord and Savior. 

Many – maybe most – of us will spend time during our lives as the disciples did, separated by death from someone we love.  I don’t know why it is, but it seems to be that an important part of our probationary period for many of us will be to spend part of our lives without some of the people we love most.

Saturday – this period of time when death is real and the resurrection is a hope – is hard. This is where it can feel like the resurrection and its glorious promise falls short. When Mat first died, I tried to sell my kids on the promise of the resurrection and it really didn’t work. One night we were trying to have a family home evening, and Colin said, “I want Dad.” I tried to make him feel better by telling him that we’re still a family, and that dad still loves him, and maybe he was even here with us, or could see what we were doing, and he said, “I want dad!” And I tried to talk more about how we’re going to see him someday, and he said “I WANT DAD RIGHT NOW!” And he is right. This is hard, and there is no getting around that.

1 Corinthians 15:55 says: O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

Death has no sting? Actually, I feel pretty stung by death. The scripture quoted by itself is taken out of context. If you read the previous verse, you will notice that there is a qualifier:  “… When this corruptible [body] shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

D&C 42:45 instructs us to feel sad, saying:  “live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die…”

Saturday is long, but eventually it will be Sunday, the day of the glorious resurrection. On that day we will be redeemed. That the resurrection is real is my hope and my testimony.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Heart Attack

I opened the door this morning for Colin to take the garbage out, and saw this.  I'm not sure whether he actually took the garbage out or not -- I was too busy laughing and wiping tears from my eyes to be able to tell. It's hard to feel sorry for myself with friends like this -- dozens of messages from people who love our family and dozens more paper hearts. This has EP written all over it.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Year 2

It's a common perception that the first year after a loved one dies is the hardest.

Let me straighten you out. It's not true.

A widow friend let me in on a secret last March: year two is harder. At the beginning of my second year without Mat on this planet, I was horrified by the idea that the coming year could be worse than the previous one. But she was right.

It's true that the first year is one of, well, firsts: the first Father's Day without dad, the first wedding anniversary without my husband, the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas. (It's enough to make you wonder why there are so many damn holidays and special events.) And Valentine's Day ... well, the days leading up to that were their own special kind of torture. The store decorations, the candy, the local public radio station's fundraiser (long-stemmed roses for your sweetheart) all seemed designed to rub my face in Mat's passing.

But there was also an outpouring of support and love from all corners. There were cards and condolences (sometimes emotionally difficult to receive but also much needed), flowers, food, invitations to dinner, small acts of kindness and generosity, and plenty of slack.

Oddly, there was also energy and a sense of possibility. Not knowing what I was in for, I gave myself a pep talk: "I can survive this! I can help the kids survive this! We will be OK!" Knowing I had God on my side, I expected Him to open possibilities for me that I couldn't have imagined for myself. Thus pepped, I poured myself into trying to solve the knots that repeatedly came up during the year.

By March 2012 I was tired. I had tried literally dozens of different ways to make life function more smoothly and more happily for me and the boys, and felt I had largely failed. God's help was too subtle for my taste. (The recovered diamond was a notable exception.) Friends and family were still kind but mostly back to their usual concerns and routines. And some people lost patience with me: Why was I still struggling? It had been a year -- I was over it, right? The worst was behind me.

And then the permanence of Mat's death and what that meant sank in.

Last year sucked.

But in the last two weeks, I have felt ... hopeful. For the first time since Mat died, I have had a feeling -- more than once even -- that there's a possibility that life will someday be good again. With 13 days until the end of year two, I think it's a sign. Year three will be better.