By Chaplain (Col.) Kenneth Revell, Command Chaplain, 94th Army Air and Missile Defense CommandAugust 4, 2016
JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR - HICKAM, Hawaii- "That which does not kill me will make me stronger."
This was the attitude I took when facing the shock and awe of my beloved wife's death. For the first couple of months, I was numbed, perhaps living in a zombie-like existence. All was surreal. Oh, I was in touch with reality. I found a way, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to function while in the midst of pain. I was a shell of a man. If you observed me from the outside, all looked normal. But if you looked inside, you would see that the lights were on but no one was home. I was vacant, empty. Anna, the woman I loved with all of my heart and who was so much a part of me, had left the building.
The death (or as I prefer to call it, the home-going) of my beloved wife of 28 years, in August 2014, left a gaping hole in my heart. I was among the walking wounded. And I knew that no matter how long I lived on the earth, I would always walk with a limp. The scar tissue of this loss was here to stay.
The feelings were and remain disorienting, overwhelming and all-consuming, I can barely express them. Piercing loss, mental anguish, and suffocating sadness from Anna's conspicuous absence are immeasurable. The spiritual groaning and moaning of my soul and the constant adjustment to all the "new normals" created a daunting task. I had preached funerals, memorialized Soldiers, and assisted with death notifications of fallen Soldiers. But all of this would fade in comparison to personally dealing with the death of my own sweetheart. Nothing in life prepares you for such a sobering gut-wrenching event.
Although excruciatingly painful and immensely personal, Anna's death did not mean that life would slow down or that I would have the luxury of taking a leave-of-absence. This is not because my unit was not willing to grant me leave. Nor, was there a lack of compassion on their part. The pressing issue that commanded my full, immediate, and unwavering attention was that I now had the awesome responsibility of single handedly parenting my 13-year-old grandson.
The purpose of this article is to provide you, the reader, with some of the lessons I learned (and re-learned) as I tunneled my way through this period of darkness and challenge. I am an optimist by nature. But being an optimist and a chaplain does not give me diplomatic immunity from the aches, quakes and shakes of life.
My walk through the valley and the shadow of grief and loss was not a cadence (structured) walk. I did not always color inside the line. There were times I did not know where the lines were. To use military lingo, I did a lot of round stepping, wobbling, stumbling and even sometimes low crawling. With grit, grace, prayer, and the support of many shoulders to lean on, I learned to put one foot in front of the other.
As I continue to walk through the grief and reflect on the lessons I learned, my prayer is that what I have experienced can impart some comfort to you as you begin or continue your own journey. I pray that the lessons I learned and now share below will shepherd you through some of the tough terrains of life. May God turn your scars into stars.
1. Attitude Is Everything: I came to the conviction that attitude is everything. The attitude I adopted as I dealt with the grief and loss, coupled with fulfilling the demands of being a single parent and a full time Soldier, is "that which does not kill me will make me stronger." Strength comes through positive struggle. I have a choice and I am choosing to be bigger than what has happened to me.
2. Focus On Things You Can Control: I focused on the things I could control rather than focusing on things that I could not control. I knew that if I tried to control everything (which is, in and of itself, fundamentally impossible), I was putting myself at risk of being frustrated and burnt out. Hence, I choose to pick my fights and battles. A wise person so aptly said, "There are two things in life you should never worry about: things that you can do something about and things you can't. If there be a solution, seek until you find it. If there be none, never mind it." I was also mindful of the Serenity Pray as I sought discernment in identifying things I could control and things I could not.
3. Living Out Of The Will: I had to learn to live out of my will not my emotions. Feelings and emotions have too many 'bad hair days' and are not reliable guides for living effectively through the storms of life. It has well been said that it is easier to act our way into right feelings than to feel our way into right actions. While cognitive thoughts and feelings often take us down different roads, it is critical that feelings and emotions do not drive the train.
4. Embracing The New Normals: I courageously learned to embrace all the new normals. One of my new normals was the caretaking of our then-13-year-old grandson, Brandon. While assuming sole caretaking responsibility was a daunting task, I am quick to say this mission saved my life. This mission saved me from the sabotaging behaviors of self-pity, self-absorption and the naval-gazing syndrome. Navel-gazing literally means engaging in self-absorbed behavior, often to the point of being narcissistic. Needless to say, I feel a deeper love for Brandon, reaffirming that I was doing something right. The capacity to focus on someone else meant I was not focusing on my own loss and pain. Rather, focusing outward, helped me to see that while pain in life is inevitable, misery is always optional.
5. Journaling Is A Must: For me, journaling was a curative outlet for all the emotions that wanted to overwhelm me. I learned to journal like crazy. I journaled about me, about Anna, about Brandon, about pain, about joy, about fear, about God. Putting feelings on paper was cathartic. Journaling helped me in the long run to objectify the pain, to put it in a new light and to see it from a different perspective. If you can name your pain, then that pain, in the long run, can become an ally and not a liability. I strongly believe that if you can objectify the pain, it loses much of its power over your life.
6. Choose Your Healers and Counselors Carefully: I found learning whom I could talk to about my pain and whom I could not was both an art and a science. Everybody has their limits. When it comes to counselors, there is no one size that fits all. You have to find a counselor who you connect with and share your feelings. If you discover that you no longer can share with your counselor then it is time to find a new one.
7. Keeping My Spiritual Life Hot: I had to work hard to keep my spiritual walk with the Lord hot. When it came to my relationship with Jesus, I put all of me on His altar, including my anger, pride, hurt, stubbornness, ego, and temptations. Nothing was off limits. While confession may be bad for your reputation, it is good for the soul. Since I believe that God knew everything about me and loved me anyway, I really had nothing to lose and everything to gain. While I still hurt in fundamental ways, I am proof positive that God is able to turn scars into stars.
8. Turn Up The Music: I have found contemporary Christian music to be very powerful when it comes to the healing of deep sadness. Nothing can touch the soul like music. When my thoughts start going negative and I am stewing over my sorrow, the right music has a way of turning my thoughts around. Find music, whatever the type that helps you and embrace that it can lift your spirits.
9. Do Physical Fitness, Go To Work, Do Your Job: I found it important and therapeutic to work hard, even when I felt I was moving through life like a zombie. I would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and run 4-6 miles almost every day. I hate running. I discovered that if you do not work hard to take care of yourself, the centripetal (inward) and centrifugal (outward) forces can take over your life. I am not advocating that you become a workaholic. However, it is imperative to have routines, objectives, vision, parameters, expectations, responsibility and accountability.
10. Pace Yourself: The grieving process is generally characterized by five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The process is not a sprint. It is usually a marathon. When you lose a spouse, this is especially true. There is no leaping over tall buildings or moving faster than a speeding bullet. In real life, which is quite unlike Superman movies, there are no bullet-proof people. The grieving process is rarely characterized by leaping over stages or moving smoothly from one step to the next. It sometime entails going three steps forward and then two steps back. Before reaching the acceptance stage, many people get stuck for inordinate amounts of time (months, years) on a step that seems insurmountable. I constantly had to remind myself that God does his best work in the crucibles of life. And that, at the end of the day, God will never squander my pain.
As I ponder my life after losing Anna, I am reminded of a poem by Robert Browning Hamilton:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne'er a word said she;
But oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.
Finally, because I do not believe we suffer in vain, I have asked the Lord to take Anna's home-going and to use the pain to make me a more caring, empathetic, compassionate, authentic, sage, and grateful person.