Tuesday, January 16, 2018


With each of my clients I sit down across a wide conference table and I complete an assessment.  

There's only a few rules, I tell them.  

The first rule is that I want you to tell the truth.  Even if at home or at school or at work you get in trouble for telling the truth.  I want you to tell me whatever you think the truth is, whenever you're ready to tell it.

The second rule is that if I use a word you don't understand, I want you to tell me and we will pick new words.  

I ask them about home, about transportation, about legal involvement, about medical history, about family composition.  And then I ask them a series of questions, questions that I did not write.  Questions I hate asking.

1. Are you having any trouble with people in your life right now? 
2. Do you have any reason to feel frightened in any of your relationships? 
3. Do you ever have any thoughts of hurting yourself on purpose or thinking you were better off dead?
4. Have you ever had anything horrible happen in your life that was outside of the ordinary?

I have had to ask these questions to clients as old as 18 and as young as 6.  

We also talk about depression.  And we talk about anxiety.  We assess mania and hyperactivity.  

But it never fails.  There's one question, smack in the middle of the assessment.

Have you experienced any loss or grief? 

And unless I have a really emotionally intelligent teenager sitting across the table from me, I watch young brows furrow, watch these children chew on their lip, swivel in the chair.  I pause.  Wait for it.  Let them ask.  

What does grief/mean? 

And so we talk about it.  

Sometimes a parent is sitting with us  and the look on their face when I ask this particular question breaks my heart.  

I don't want to ask it either, I promise.  

So I lean in.  

Is it when someone dies? They always ask this.  Grief happens when someone dies.  

I nod.  

It can be. 

You can feel grief for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes we lose something we thought we could keep.  Sometimes things change that we thought would never change. 

Some of my clients list grandparents who've passed, and you can watch their little minds working to capture a concept so abstract.  So intangible.  This answers my question for me, essentially.  For these clients, the answer is no.

But the others...

Their faces say yes before their mouths do.  

I went to a wedding this weekend.  

They are in their early twenties.  And everyone was so excited for them.  My sweet sister and her husband and their brand new son were in the wedding and when Nolan walked Jeremiah down the aisle as the littlest of ring bearers, I was so proud.  They are my people and I love them.  

Afterward, we were all walking out of the church and Judah spun around on his heels and excitedly said, "I want my mama to get married.  I want someone to love my mama!" 

We went to the reception and I did my best to hold it together.  An ex-boyfriend was the best man, and his new, young fiance was his date.  I watched the newlywed couple dance and I watched my mom tear up as she looked at her husband, my sister and her new family of three, and my other sister with her family of four, soon to be five.  She was proud of them and thankful for them, I could tell.  And eventually, I just couldn't take it anymore.  Judah was tired.  And I was done.

We left before the bouquet tossing.

And I cried all the way home in the backseat of my stepdad's Scion.

It took the rest of the night and the better part of Sunday for the tears to subside.  To be honest, they leaked mercilessly on Monday morning as well.  

And it wasn't until Sunday night that I had a word for what I was experiencing.  

I am an encourager.  This comes second nature to me, just like finding solutions does.  You will rarely hear me tell someone "I am sorry", but rather do whatever I can to tangibly help or uplift.  I only do it if I can be sincere.  But it is an important characteristic of all my close relationships.  This isn't what everyone is looking for, I understand.  

There are very people in my life who are sincerely and genuinely encouragers, however.  And I struggle.  This is a gap in my tribe.  I need verbal affirmation and I didn't realize this until well into adulthood.  I have amazing celebrators.  I have some really great helpers.  I have beautiful people to rest with.  I have a very small but mighty tribe who would light people on fire for me.  But my situation, my story... it's hard to encourage.  There's a gap there.

So while I was experiencing this really difficult wave of emotions, I think I wanted encouragement.

Instead, I got told a myriad of things which hurt more than they helped.  

Including perhaps well intentioned but poorly thought out advice.

If you're a single parent, particularly a single mother, my guess is you've heard it all before.  

"Don't rely on a man for your happiness"

"Don't feel sorry for yourself"

"Just stop looking" (contradictory to the other 50% who tell you to put yourself out there)

"Just give it to Jesus"

My responses to these statements were similar to a runaway rollercoaster.  

It took me two days to wade through it all.  

And the pervasive thought, which kept knocking quietly on the door, scared the hell out of me. 

I didn't want to entertain its company.  An uninvited guest, I knew what she would ask of me.

But I am reminded of Pema Chodron and her advice, "When we are willing to stay even a moment with uncomfortable energy, we gradually learn not to fear it".

Actually, I am reminded of almost everything she says.

But this quote in particular encouraged me to open the door and sit with this discomfort for a while.  

I cried through it.

I was not valiant.  

I was not brave about it.  

On the other side (except who are we kidding, this is not the other side) I feel somewhat stronger for it.

You see, knocking quietly on the door was this realization -- the suggestion -- there are things I want out of this life I may not get.  This uninvited guest of thought whispered about living as a single woman for the rest of my life; about not being able to give Judah the family I believe he deserves.  Murmuring about expectations and hope deferred and all the lies people like to tell. 

And for once I just chose to sit with it.  

Over the weekend I built a life in my mind far different than any I had let myself consider in the past.  

A life of just me and one brown eyed little boy.

Sitting with this sinister visitor, I let the shadows dissipate with every attempt I made to redefine for myself what was a happy life.  

Like every true Disney villain who melts, evaporates beneath her heavy dark cloak... the unwelcomed thoughts eventually collapsed under the weight of all the lies.  And with what was left I hurriedly worked to build something I could touch.  Something I could feel.  

And I gave it a name.

Over the weekend (and deep down in my belly, still) I realized I was grieving.  

We think about grieving when someone dies.  

That's the only kind of grief we talk about -- and even this sort we shudder at.  

But I sat across a wide table from myself and leaned in and asked myself, when the tears wouldn't stop,

Have you experienced any loss or grief?

And I hid behind my hands, words muffled.  What does that mean?

Yes, in the most literal sense.  

But what about today?

And I gently reminded myself that loss and grief look an awful lot like losing something we thought we were going to get to keep.

Like things changing we thought would never change.

Turns out it also looks like letting go of the dream you'd been using as an anchor.

When someone suggested I felt sorry for myself, I dug deep.  

Heels, sinking deep in the sand as the tide washed it all away.

I am certain of nothing, it turns out.  But I know we can be sad about something, we can feel a feeling, and it not be the same as feeling sorry for myself.  

When someone suggested I refused to be happy without a husband... I felt angry.

I have been single most of my adult life.  

And so I sat and took inventory.  Sat with the difficult feelings and the scary thoughts and I asked myself an unprecedented question.

If you never get to get married, Anna, if no one ever chooses you and Judah what will your life look like?  What decisions will you make?  What would change?

It's the miracle question I have been trained to ask clients when we are trying to generate motivation for change.  If you could wake up tomorrow and this problem (anxiety, depression, panic, disordered eating, suicidality) was gone how would you know?  How could you tell?

I asked myself the question.  

And sat, hearing the answer, but surprised by it.  

Turns out, I wouldn't change anything.

Surprisingly, despite the accusations, the decisions I have made for mine and Judah's life have mine and Judah's best interest in mind.  The decisions I have made in the past seven months have been brave and bold and were intended to work for us and to accelerate our narrative.  To create momentum and propel us into a new season.  A new season that uplifts us and supports us, no matter who else joins the story.

When I was willing to sit in the sadness for a moment, I realized with or without a partner I would still want to travel.  I would still want to relocate.  I would still want a job at a children's hospital.  I would still want to experience culture.  I would still pursue health and strength.  I would still want to invest and integrate our lives with in the inner city and with at risk populations.  I would still want more children.

One of the only tangible ways our narrative changes is that without a husband, I would be much more intentional about pursuing positive role models for Judah; particularly men of color.  (He's just now old enough for this to be really significant and I have waited, due to recent loss of the role models we relied on for so long as well our plans to relocate.)  The other way is that I would not conceive and carry a sibling for Judah... but I would adopt (which, ironically, is something I would want to do with or without a husband).

Either way our family grows.  Either way we help others not feel so broken.  Either way we explore this big, beautiful world.  Either way we do the best we can.

I haven't relied on the dream nearly as much as I had thought.  I am so immensely proud of myself for this.

After I sat in my sadness for a while and sifted through the thoughts and the hurt and my dreams... I allowed the sadness to slip away.

The residue sadness leaves is grief.

Have I experienced any loss or grief?


And also yes, because letting go of a dream I've cultivated for my entire life feels not unlike losing a limb. 

I haven't discarded the dream.  It's still there.

I still have a desire to be a grown up someone's favorite person.  To be chosen.  To conceive and carry and deliver more children.  For Judah to have siblings.  For him to have a father figure.  I have that desire.

It's just not the sole definition for happiness.  

I'm allowed to mourn that: the letting go.  

Mourning the loss of something we thought we could keep; the changing of something we thought would stay the same.

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