The Grief Club: The Secret to Getting
Through All Kinds of Change
by Melody Beattie.
Courtesy of Hazelden Publishing
Wrestling with Change:
Losing Marriage, Career, and Home
It took only the slightest tug on the steering wheel.
The car behind Sarah’s car slammed to a stop on the canyon road. The young couple in it watched Sarah’s car crash through the barrier railing, then plunge down the side of the cliff. “Then it burst into flames halfway down,” the driver said to the sheriff. “It exploded in a ball of fire.”
“Did it look like she lost control of the vehicle?” the sheriff asked. “Was she swerving? Maybe driving drunk?”
“No,” the couple in the car behind Sarah’s agreed. “We were behind her for three or four miles. She was following the speed limit, staying in her lane. Her driving was fine. Suddenly her car just went flying off the cliff.”
Sarah’s car was the second car to drive off the canyon road that week and the fifth car that month. Each accident ended like Sarah’s—all occupants in the cars died. One driver was a mother who left two young children behind. Suicide is suspected in all cases but can’t be proven. Nobody left a note.
“I knew Sarah, but we weren’t close. I don’t think she was close to anyone,” Maggie said. Maggie is one of the nine people who attended Sarah’s memorial service and one of Sarah’s only friends. “No relatives showed up at her service, just some people I rounded up. Sometimes Sarah would stop by the shop where I work and ask me to pray with her. She knew I’d been through hard times and I believed God got me through.
“I could tell she was troubled, but she didn’t say what was wrong. I didn’t know if I should push her to talk. Now I wish I had.” Maggie said. “It’s sad when someone thinks suicide is the only way out. But I understand what that’s like. I spent two years driving around town looking for a building tall enough to jump from, so if I jumped, I’d die and not just be paralyzed the rest of my life.”
Was Sarah’s death accidental or intentional? What about the other four cars that went flying off the road that month? The canyon road leads to a beautiful California beach town that many people call Paradise. But when a person is going through loss and grief, even Paradise can feel like hell.
“You don’t know how many times I’d be driving and think, One flick of my wrists and my pain would be gone. I could drive into a brick wall and nobody would know if it was an accident or not.” This is from a man most people think of as a good-natured guy. His losses aren’t particularly tragic, but over a long-enough time, a series of disappointments has chipped away at his enthusiasm for life.
Wishing we’re dead is one of the least-discussed stages of grief. When we lose someone or something important or when we lose enough smaller things, life can lose meaning. What’s the use? we think. It doesn’t matter what I do. I can do everything right and still lose who and what I love most. I can do everything right and still not create a life I like or bring about change. For life to lose meaning is natural after a loss, says Frank Parkinson in Post-Trauma Stress. On the other hand, we can endure the most devastating loss if we believe there’s a purpose to what we’re going through. That’s the premise of Viktor Frankl’s writings, Man’s Search for Meaning and The Will to Meaning. Frankl survived three years at Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps during World War II. Now a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School, Frankl’s approach to therapy is based on the belief that we need to find meaning in our lives and our losses.
The people I talk to agree. If there’s no purpose to it, loss feels impossible to endure. But if we see some meaning, bring the struggle on. I’d had many losses before my son died. I saw most as challenges to overcome, opportunities to become a stronger, wiser person. Shane’s death wasn’t a challenge. Some falls knock the breath out of us. This loss knocked the heart out of my chest. My desire was to be done.
While others are living life as usual, we find ourselves living in another world, one that doesn’t make sense to our logical minds. Our faith is challenged. The belief that if I do the right things, God will protect and take care of me and the people I love doesn’t fit anymore. The world becomes a confusing, dark place. We feel lost, unsure how to navigate. Our life plan collapsed. Life took us somewhere we didn’t expect to go, and it’s not someplace we want to be.
We’re taught to trust what we know, but when we’re in this dark place, the things we know don’t always work. There’s another way to look at it. It’s something quantum physicists talk about. In Alice in Wonderland it’s called “down the rabbit hole.” Our faith is taking us to a deeper place, showing us new ideas and ideals. It might not feel like we’re blessed anymore, but we are—strange blessings are underneath the grief.
Are you willing to fight your way back? Make an unconditional commitment to life? Trust what you don’t know and can’t see yet? Discover a deeper spirituality, one that says, Wherever I go, God is there too, no matter how dark and mysterious that place is. We can make the tiniest reconnection with life while floundering in the gap. When we do, our souls remember who we are and what we came here to do. We start showing up for life again. Step by step, we fight to change the status quo.
That’s what this story is about. It’s for the people in the I Lost My Place in the World and Had to Fight My Way Back, but When I Did I Found My True Home Club. It’s for people who know that wrestling with angels isn’t a metaphor in Genesis. Whether we’re staving off the demons taunting us with you don’t deserve or arm wrestling with God Himself, we’re in the ring, it’s the tenth round and, yes, it’s happening to us.
Maggie spread her few remaining possessions on the tent floor: a sketchbook of drawings and poems, pencils, pens, some shells and stones she’d picked up at the beach. She had three changes of clothes piled in the corner. The last things she had been hanging on to—a brooch and earrings from her grandmother, brought all the way across the seas when her mother had come to the United States from Eastern Europe years before Maggie was born—had been washed away in last week’s storm. The shells and the sketchbook were all that was left of her life. She had herself, but she wasn’t certain how much of her was left. How does a career woman go from living a decent life in a nice apartment with her husband to being divorced, unemployed, and living on a stranger’s field in a tent?
Thank God she wasn’t living under bridges or sleeping in parks like some street people she knew. Under the bridge there was drinking, drugs, assaults. Many of the homeless people she’d met were like her—ordinary people who fell into the gap. Some were drifters or vets. Some were crazy, dangerous, and mean. The landowner had given her and Miles permission to pitch a tent here. She felt as safe as anyone could living on the streets. She had Miles to thank for that. Dear, sweet Miles. He saved her life. But even with his help, she was getting close to the edge.
Lightning crackled. The air pressed in on her. Was there a pattern to this twist her life had taken? How did she get here? The last thing she remembered, she was married, a solidly booked hair stylist in Santa Barbara. Years later, she would explain it like this: “It wasn’t that I lost my center. I couldn’t find it for a while. There’s a connection we have to ourselves and the world.” When you lose hope and your thinking gets dark, you lose your connection to life.
As a child, then as a young woman, Maggie took it for granted that she would always be blessed. She was. There’s a way of being in the world where things work out for us. If we lose one job, another one appears. If a relationship ends, a better one is around the corner or we’re content being alone. Many minister’s children complain that their minister parent crammed faith down their throats. Maggie never felt like that. Her memories of going to church and listening to her father’s sermons make her happy. Maggie would sit in the pew and listen to her dad preach to a congregation about a God who would never leave them. Her father had so much faith in God, Maggie barely needed any of her own.
“Maggie, your mom and I are getting divorced. We love you more than ever. Your mom and I still love each other. But your mom hears another call. She needs to go off on her own. The best thing is if you stay here with me. Things are changing, but we’ll be fine.” While many children complain about their parents’ divorce, Maggie says her parents divorced with a lot of love. Maggie can’t recall hearing a disagreement. She didn’t even feel that uncomfortable feeling when people aren’t getting along, but they’re not being honest about it or talking about what’s going on. All Maggie remembers feeling was safety and love in her home.
Her wedding had been an incredible celebration. Tables lined with exotic dishes from the old country. Dancing. Beautiful music. Her husband was dashing. Mother and Father were divorced, but they still believed in marriage and were happy for her. Things worked out for Maggie. She took it for granted they always would.
Maggie loved being a stylist. She thought of herself as an artist, not someone who just cuts and colors hair. Maggie enjoyed all her clients—every one. After graduation from beauty college, it was hard building a clientele. She’d stuck with it. She’d been able to make it because the salon owner had taken a percentage instead of a flat fee for rent, a standard practice when a stylist begins. After three years, she was booked solid five days a week. What had been a break for her in the beginning—paying a percentage to lease her space—was no longer a good deal. In most salons, once a stylist is established, the owner lets the stylist pay a set weekly rent. Not here. The owner collected $150 to $300 from the other stylists for rent. Maggie never gave him less than a thousand dollars a week, and most weeks it was more.
Was it money problems that started her downward spiral? Maggie wasn’t that materialistic. She liked to dress with flair. She’d gotten that from her mother, a diva from Eastern Europe. No, her fall from Grace started when her husband lost his job.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “You’ll find something soon. I make enough to pay the bills. It’s not like we’re going to be out on the streets. We’ll just have to watch our spending for a while.” A while turned into a year. Slowly, her husband gave up. He stopped checking the classifieds.
The first time it happened, it caught her off guard. It was Saturday, payday. She stopped by the grocery store on her way home. She carried in the groceries, put them away. Then she counted out one hundred dollars for her husband and put it on the table. “Here’s some pocket money for the week,” she said.
He looked at the money. Then, instead of picking up the cash, he slapped Maggie across the face. “Do you know what that does to me?” he said. “Giving me an allowance like I’m a child? I’m the man. I’m supposed to support you.”
She held her hand on her stinging cheek. “I didn’t mean it that way,” she said. She was stunned and hurt. He’d never hit her before. She walked up to him, tried to hug him. “We’re a team. You’re going to be back on your feet soon. I know it,” she said.
He pushed her away. “Oh yeah?” he said. “When?” He stomped out and didn’t come home until late that night. From then on, he slept on the couch. Their fights became more frequent. Her husband went from a man who never raised his voice to someone who regularly slapped her around. Maggie started weekly sessions with a therapist. She begged her husband to come with her. “Let’s get help,” she said. “I know we can make our marriage work.”
Her therapist didn’t tell Maggie what to do, but Maggie wasn’t entirely honest about the abuse. She described it as arguments. She didn’t mention hitting. She knew if she did, her therapist would tell her what her friends said: leave. Maggie took her vows seriously. She considered herself married for life.
What Maggie didn’t get, didn’t comprehend, and couldn’t believe is how their relationship deteriorated from being a loving marriage to this. Her entire life, things had worked out. She kept believing that somehow this would too. Then she came home one Wednesday evening and found the papers waiting on the kitchen table. For a man who wasn’t working, he’d somehow managed to seek a legal divorce.
“Please sign the papers,” he said. “Without children, divorce is simple.”
“I don’t want it to be over,” she said. “I married you for life.”
“It’s not working,” he said. “I don’t like who I’ve become. I don’t like who I am with you. I don’t feel like a man. I want to go somewhere else. Maybe Colorado, Montana, Wyoming. Anywhere but here.”
Maggie begged him to bring her with, said she would go wherever he wanted. He wanted to go alone. She signed the papers. Then he was gone.
Lightning crackled again. The air felt so heavy. It would be a relief if it rained, even though that always made such a mess in the tent. None of her friends understood how it broke her heart to lose her marriage. Was divorce so common that it didn’t faze people anymore—no bigger deal than trading in a car? Maybe divorce wasn’t a big deal to anyone else, but it was big to her. She didn’t plan on losing her husband. She got so low after he left; her thinking got so black. Before then, Maggie had never thought about suicide. Now she thought about it most of the time.
She drove around town scoping out buildings. Can I get up to the roof? Is it high enough? If I jump, will I die or end up a vegetable in a nursing home? Suicide wasn’t a casual thought. She could feel herself on the edge. Earlier this week, she actually climbed up an outside stairway to the third floor of an office building. She stood looking down and thinking, then went back to her car.
“You can see me for ninety-five cents an hour,” her therapist said. She was still seeing the same therapist she saw when her marriage ended. Her therapist knew she didn’t have any money. She said Maggie had to pay something, otherwise she wouldn’t be investing any of herself in their work. Maggie was begging money for therapy a quarter at a time. She was seeing her therapist once a month, but therapy wasn’t helping. It wasn’t touching this strange, odd place where Maggie lived. Life went on the same way. The only thing changing was Maggie’s thinking. It got darker each day.
When Maggie heard people talk about how bad things come in threes, she used to think they were kidding. Maggie never had one bad thing happen to her before, much less three. But less than a month after her husband left, her landlord showed up at the door. “Sorry to do this, but I’m rehabbing the building. After I fix this place up, I can double the rents,” he said. “You’ve got thirty days to get out.” That pushed Maggie to ask her boss to alter their financial arrangement. She pointed out that she was paying three times as much as anyone else and that usually salon owners changed the agreement to a flat weekly fee once a stylist established a regular clientele. “It’s not fair. It’s not how they do it in other salons. I need that money. I’ve got to come up with first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, and I’ve got to do it by myself,” Maggie said. “This is California. You know I won’t get any of my old deposit back. Please, will you change our agreement? I can’t get another place to live if I’m giving you all my money.”
“A deal is a deal,” her boss said. “You agreed to pay a percentage.”
“That was in the beginning,” Maggie said.
“I gave you a deal then. I get the good deal now. I don’t care what other people do. That’s how it works with me,” he said.
Maggie’s boss wouldn’t budge, so Maggie quit. A dumb move, Maggie thought, looking back. At the time it made sense, but her thinking wasn’t right then. Her thinking hadn’t been right since her divorce. In six weeks, she lost her husband, her home, and then her job. At first she told herself not to worry, when one door closes a better one opens. But this time things were different. Doors closed and none opened. “I lost my whole life,” she said. “My world collapsed. Then I’m supposed to feel blessed when a therapist agrees to see me for ninety-five cents an hour so I can talk about how rotten I feel?
“I see what happened,” Maggie said years later. “I’d been riding on the coattails of my father’s faith. He loved God so much. God wanted me to find faith of my own.”
Maggie counted from the time she saw the lightning until she heard the thunder. The lightning was getting closer. Where was Miles? She was hungry, frightened. She was trapped in a life she hated, and she didn’t know how to get out. Once you lose your place in the world, it’s hard to find it again. Where did she belong? Here? At least she still had her old van. Miles was usually home by now. One of them would come up with the food plan for the day.
It was humiliating at first. She begged for food at restaurants where she used to eat when she worked. At what used to be her favorite restaurant, the owner would let her eat pickles and sunflower seeds from the salad bar for free. Some days that was all Maggie had to eat. She felt grateful for that. Last week her father had stopped by her tent with a big tray of food. Dear, sweet Dad. Where is God? she kept demanding. You said God loved me and would never leave. Where is He? Point Him out so I can see. “God is right there with you,” her dad kept saying. What did that mean?
“It’s easy to take it for granted that you’ll always be blessed and things will work out,” Maggie said. “It’s easy to judge people, to look at them and say if they just did this or did that, their lives would change and get better.” After what Maggie’s been through, she understands that sometimes life twists, and it doesn’t matter what you do. Things don’t work out the way you want, and you can’t do much about it. The only way out is through.
Another lightning bolt lit the sky. Seconds later, thunder rumbled. This was the lowest she’d been since her fall from Grace. She couldn’t pull her thoughts out of that dark place. She couldn’t get her thinking on track. Nothing she did made a difference. She felt a numb, dull ache. Why wasn’t Miles home? Had something happened to him? She had less than a gallon of gas in her car. No money. Well, seven cents. She couldn’t go driving. The last thing she needed was to run out of gas and have the police impound her van.
She couldn’t believe it at first when her husband left, she got her notice to move, lost her job, and couldn’t find another place to live. It was like watching a bad movie, only it was happening to her. She was riding an elevator in her life, and it went lower each day. No hope. No money. Nowhere to go. “You can come home and live with us, honey,” her father said. He was remarried by then. His new wife was okay, but they lived in a tiny one-bedroom home. The last thing they needed was Maggie sleeping on their couch. Besides, Maggie was almost thirty years old. She wasn’t a little girl anymore. She was a grown woman who needed to work this out for herself.
She had couch-hopped among her friends for a while. A few nights here, a few nights there. But those welcome mats wore thin. First and last month’s rent and a security deposit is a lot to come up with when you’re employed. It’s impossible when you’re out of work. It can cost between two and four thousand dollars.
“There’s this gap out there,” Maggie said, “and there’s a bunch of displaced people in it.” Maggie didn’t know about the gap until it became her new home.
A friend introduced her to Miles. She’d been at a friend’s house for five nights in a row. This was the fourth time she’d stayed there, and it was time to leave. She was out of places to go. She’d cycled through her friends’ homes so many times, she couldn’t keep doing it. Things had to change. Then she met Miles. He was a godsend, an angel. He stopped by her friend’s house one night. Maggie hadn’t been in many relationships. She wasn’t the kind of woman to run off into the sunset with someone she just met. But she didn’t think she was the kind of woman who was a homeless street person either. You find yourself doing a lot of things you didn’t think you ever would.
There was something about Miles. She looked into his blue eyes and felt safe with him from the beginning. She moved into his tent with him that night.
There’s an underground culture even in wealthy beach cities. In another time, they might be called nomads. Now they’re homeless people who live on the street. Some are ordinary people like Maggie. A series of bad breaks bumps them out of normal life and pushes them into the gap. Some of the people are dangerous, insane. Some are addicts, alcoholics. Some are veterans. It’s a microcosm of society, its own little world. Most people don’t see the people living in the gap. They’re almost invisible. It bothers some people to see homeless people. It annoys them. Maggie barely noticed them until she became one herself.
Miles was from a well-known, upper-class family. A series of bad breaks knocked Miles out of his life. A wife who drank too much drove once too often with their child in the car. An accident happened, and the child died. His wife left, and Miles fell into the gap. He was intelligent, talented, and had a good heart, but he lost his fighting spirit. He didn’t care enough to get back in the game. He came close to opportunities, but Miles would show up days late and dollars short. He was always sabotaging himself. But Miles showed up for Maggie. He taught her how to get around in this subculture. He made her feel safe. The weeks ran into months. She’d lost track of how long she’d been living in his tent. Some days they sat at the beach or walked around town.
Sometimes they hung out under the bridge. That was scary.
Miles was usually back to the tent by now. Lightning crackled again.
A few months ago, Maggie ran into the owner of one of the larger beauty shops in town. They talked for a minute. Maggie was embarrassed, tried to get away. “Maggie, come work for me. I need you,” the woman said. “I have to go back East and take care of my mother. She’s sick, probably dying. I’ll be gone for maybe six months. I know you’ll take good care of my clients and give them back to me when I return.”
Maggie was flattered by the offer. But when she thought about getting up every day, going into work from the tent, styling the hair of the wealthy women in this town while she was homeless—she couldn’t do it. Besides, something had happened to her. She’d didn’t trust herself to cut hair anymore. Maggie didn’t just lose her home, she lost confidence in herself. She stood there that day wondering how to explain this to the woman. “I’m sorry,” Maggie said. “I appreciate the offer, but I can’t accept it.” The woman didn’t know Maggie was homeless. Except for the obviously homeless—the people pushing shopping carts around—most people don’t know for sure who many of the street people are.
The lightning crackled again. Now it was starting to rain. Maggie put her belongings in a brown paper bag. The note she left for Miles was short and to the point. “I have to make some changes, Miles. If I don’t, I’m afraid of what I might do. Thanks for everything you’ve done. I love you. Maggie.”
Maggie had just enough gas to get to her father’s house. His home was filled with the pungent aroma of his cooking. He was sitting in his recliner, watching TV.
“Dad, is that offer of the couch still open?”
“Welcome home, honey,” he said. Maggie hugged him tightly. Maggie didn’t just grab on to her father. That night she grabbed on to God.
“I filled my head with positive thoughts,” Maggie said. “I got a meditation book from my father’s library. Each morning I read a positive thought.” Maggie had been going to her therapist occasionally. Now, for ninety-five cents a session, she went three times a week. “I prayed all the time,” she said. “Morning, noon, and night I asked for God’s help. Praying is all I did when I was awake. I’d latch onto one positive God thought, and I’d hold it in my mind all day. I’d plaster that thought on top of all the other negative thoughts running through my head.” She didn’t give herself a chance to think dark thoughts because she was thinking God thoughts so much.
Maggie’s therapist said she didn’t think Maggie needed medication. “I would have taken pills if my therapist had told me to,” Maggie said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying. I was doing everything right. Some people think every problem or situation can be fixed. Sometimes we’re supposed to go through an experience because it’s the only way we’ll learn. It’s one thing to think you believe something, to know it in your head. It’s another to integrate that belief, to know something is true because you’ve learned and lived it for yourself. I had to see up close—by living it—what life was showing me.
“Miles found me at my father’s. I told him I couldn’t go back to the tent. He didn’t push me to come back with him. He cared enough to let me go.”
Maggie had been at her dad’s house a couple of months when a friend called, someone from her old life. “I’ve got two tickets for a concert at the amphitheater tonight,” her friend said. “Come with me. It’ll do you good.”
“No,” Maggie said. “I can’t.”
There’s a connection we have to life. “I lost that,” Maggie explained. She didn’t feel like she could socialize. She didn’t feel like she fit in the world.
Maggie’s friend wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
Maggie sat in the amphitheater with hundreds of people. Stars lit the sky. Classical music filled the air. For a moment, the separation between Maggie and everyone else disappeared. “I felt that connection again,” Maggie said. “I felt like part of life. I reconnected with myself.” The holidays are coming, Maggie thought. Stores need more salespeople this time of year. Maybe I can’t cut hair yet, but I bet I could do retail sales even in the shape I’m in.
Under the stars and listening to the music, Maggie got back a tiny bit of confidence. Grace. “Feeling like I could work as a sales clerk doesn’t sound like a big deal to most people,” Maggie said, “but believing that I could work at any job was a miracle to me.”
Call it a blessing, getting healthy, or a miracle. We convince ourselves we’re cut off, separate, different from everything and everyone else. Then for one second, with one fingertip, we touch the universe and we remember it’s our world. Even if we don’t know what it is, we remember that there’s something we came here to do. There’s a part of us—our spirit—that goes beyond jobs and titles and how much money we make and whether we live in a mansion or in a tent on a corner of some guy’s field. That’s the part of us that’s real. That’s what happened to Maggie that night. She remembered who she really is.
Our miracle won’t happen until we get off that fence and stop driving around looking for that building big enough to jump from, or looking for that brick wall we can slam into, or quietly willing ourselves to die. No matter how much our life sucks, the ball isn’t going to start rolling until we decide we’re not going to kill ourselves, no matter how crappy we feel and how bad things are. We need to make an unconditional commitment to life. Then we restore our partnership with life. That’s when the changes begin.
The next day Maggie went job hunting. A major department store hired her that week. She slept on her dad’s couch every night, rolled her bedding up every morning, got dressed, and went to work. When the holiday season ended, her job did too. Maggie got another idea. I bet I could do waitress work, she thought. She still didn’t believe in herself enough to cut hair. “People who haven’t been through it may not understand,” Maggie said. “I lost my home and myself. It took time to find me again.”
Next, Maggie found a job working at a pizza parlor. She started taking small steps to change the status quo. Each step brought her closer to life. Her dad’s house was a safe harbor, but she couldn’t keep sleeping on his couch. She didn’t have enough money to move into an apartment, but she could afford to rent a room at a cheap motel. Some days she made just enough to pay for the room and buy gas to get to and from work. She could eat one meal for free each day at the restaurant. She bought a cheap tent for the days when she ran out of money before she ran out of week. In the lean times, she slept in her tent at the RV park on the edge of town. The campgrounds felt safe. She had electricity, bathrooms, a shower to use. Staying there cost only twelve dollars a night.
“It was hard to stay even, much less get ahead,” Maggie said. “Everything I made went to pay for the costs of that day.”
Maggie kept forging ahead, seeing her therapist, and hanging on to God. She continued to read her daily meditation book. Each day she focused on one uplifting thought. Her thoughts about jumping off a building gradually disappeared. Lighter, more hopeful thinking replaced thoughts of death. “It didn’t come easy,” Maggie said. “It wasn’t like this wonderful change just happened to me. I had to fight not to fall back into that dark hole.”
One day, it was time. Maggie drove to one of the better beauty salons in the city and got out of her van. “God, my dad says you’re with me wherever I am. I want to go back to work as a stylist. I’m going into this shop to ask for a job. I want my life back,” Maggie said. “I’m putting you to the test now, God. You’re either with me or you’re not.”
Maggie walked into the salon. She walked up to the owner, introduced herself, and offered her hand. “I’d love to work here,” she said.
The owner clasped her hand in his. “I know you,” he said. “You used to work at one of the other shops.” He pointed at an empty styling chair. “There’s your chair,” he said. “When can you start?”
Maggie went out to her van. She opened the door and started to climb in. A man she recognized from under the bridge was hiding in her van. He grabbed her and starting choking her. Maggie screamed, fought him. She pulled loose, got away. She ran to a restaurant where she knew the police hung out. She found an officer and told him what happened. He walked back with her to her van. The man who attacked her was gone.
“It was like the last demon I had to fight. Life was throwing the final challenge at me,” Maggie said. “Do you really believe you deserve to be blessed?”
It’s been six years since the day Maggie put God to the test. Maggie has a cute, funky apartment in the artsy part of town. She drives a newer used car. She’s in a relationship she describes as positive and light. If you ask Maggie what she learned from her years of homelessness, the first thing she’ll tell you is that every stinking dirty little thing that happens to us happens for a reason.
She’s not defined by where she works or lives or whether she’s in a relationship. “My identity is that I’m a child of God. I don’t worry about the future,” she says. “I take each day as it comes. After what I’ve been through, I know I’ll have enough Grace for whatever life brings. Just because God is with us doesn’t mean we’ll be spared from painful experiences. But the experience has something to teach us. It’s our job to figure out what that lesson is.”
Sometimes it’s not enough to read about a subject in a book, talk about it in a group, or watch it in a movie. We need to go through the experience ourselves. That’s how we learn. That’s how we become who we really are.
Without any malice, Maggie explains that her ex-husband has been through dark times of his own since their divorce. “He remarried, had a little girl. One day she was playing in back of their house. She wandered into a pond and drowned. My heart breaks for the pain he and his wife are going through.” She ran into Miles recently, when he was passing through town. He’s still homeless, living in the gap. “I’m so grateful I had a chance to spend time with him and thank him for all he did. I’ll always love him. He helped me get through the worst part of my life. I feel so badly for him. He’s still homeless, wandering around without a place to live or a job. I want to do something to help him, do more for him than I know I reasonably can. I wish I could change his life for him. I know he needs help. But some of what Miles has to do, he needs to do for himself.”
On rainy nights, you can see Maggie on the bridge throwing clean pairs of socks and big trash bags for raincoats to the homeless people underneath. On Thanksgiving, she’s likely to show up at one of the free dinners put on by the community. She helps in any way she can, and she gives free haircuts to people who need them. Except for a few people from the old days, most people who know Maggie don’t know what she went through. She’s embarrassed about her past. “They don’t know it, but a lot of people are a few paychecks away from being homeless. Many people are closer than they think. It doesn’t matter what kind of education you have, what kind of family you come from, or what your situation is now. Being homeless can happen to anyone,” Maggie said. “I know because it happened to me.
“I thought I wasn’t being blessed, but when I think about all the things that could have happened and didn’t, I can see that even though it was a nightmare, it could have been worse. Look in the Bible in the book of Genesis. Find the story of Jacob. He was traveling down the road trying to get back home after being gone a long time when he ran into a big man. Jacob stayed up all night wrestling with him. The man was really an angel. The angel asked Jacob to let him go. Jacob said no. When the angel asked what Jacob wanted, Jacob said he wanted to be blessed.
“Wrestle with an angel,” Maggie says. “Grab hold of God. If God isn’t blessing you, demand to be blessed. Hang on and don’t let go until God says yes.”
Of 80 communities surveyed, 80 percent prohibit sleeping or camping in public areas, but 100 percent of these communities lack enough shelter beds to meet the demands.
Fines from $50 to $2,000 are imposed on the poor because they lack housing. Because they also lack money to pay the fine, they go to jail.
As of January 2005, there were approximately 230,000 homeless war veterans in America. This number is expected to grow dramatically over the next three years.
As of December 8, 2004, Iraq veterans were already showing up at homeless shelters.
More than 3 million men, women, and children were homeless in 2005. Of these, 30 percent are homeless chronically.
Five million people in the United States spend more than half their incomes on housing, leaving them on the verge of homelessness. A missed paycheck, illness, or an unpaid bill can push them over the edge and into the gap.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says housing/rent costs shouldn’t exceed 30 percent of income.
Sources: National Coalition for the Homeless, United Press International, and National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty
1. Make an unconditional commitment to life. I was talking to a friend, another bereaved mother, about finding the will to live after a big loss. “That commitment to life has to come first,” I said, “before anything else can happen.” She agreed. “But it’s hard,” she said. “How can we get that commitment to life when life has knocked out our will to live?” That’s a tough question to answer. I can only say what worked for me.
It was about one year after my son’s death. A friend stopped by my house. I was sitting in the kitchen doing a crossword puzzle. (That was my idea of a big day.) “I’m worried about you,” my friend said. “You’ve lost your will to live. You’re dropping out at a deep level. If you don’t do something soon, it’s going to be too late. Melody,” he said, “you’re going to die.” I knew my friend was right. Every night, I was going to bed begging God to let me die in my sleep, then feeling enraged when I woke up alive. For various reasons, I didn’t or wouldn’t allow myself to have suicide as an option. But at a deep level, my soul quit.
When we quit, it’s common for our bodies to follow. Stories of people who die shortly after someone they love dies are common. I remember attending a party at a beautiful mansion years before my son died. That was back in my poverty days, when I was lucky to bring home eight hundred dollars a month. “Wow,” I said to a friend. “These people have it all.”
“Not really,” my friend said. “He’s a successful attorney. But his ten-year-old daughter died a few years ago. Then, not long after, his wife, a young woman, died one night in her sleep.”
“From what?” I asked.
“From a broken heart,” my friend said. “She was a young woman, and she died of a heart attack.”
We can literally will ourselves to die if our will to live is weak enough and our desire to be done is strong. When my friend told me I was on the cusp of death, it scared me. While I didn’t believe in life any longer, I didn’t really want to die. I loved my son, but I loved my daughter too. I was all she had. I wasn’t willing to leave her alone. I knew someday I’d die, but I didn’t want to leave this way—a big quitter. I asked my friend what I could do to reclaim my will to live. He didn’t have any suggestions. I’m a writer, so I did the only thing I knew—I used the power of words. I wrote out an unconditional commitment to life. If you’ve been through a major loss, and you’re on the fence about whether you want to live or die, what you need to do first, before anything else can happen— before this journey begins that will heal your heart—is make a commitment to life. There are two commitments we need to make after loss: We need to make a commitment to life and we need to make a commitment to our grief. In Living Through Mourning, a beautiful book about grieving, author Harriet Sarnoff Schiff writes on page 81, “In the beginning, however, there must be the commitment to life. Without that all efforts will fail.” You can use the following words or write an agreement of your own. The important idea (however you do it) is that you commit.
I hereby commit unconditionally to life. I will live my life fully until its natural end. I claim a strong will to live. This agreement is not conditional upon me getting what I want, having any particular relationship, having any particular amount of money, getting any particular job, owning a home, or feeling a particular way. I will live my life to the best of my ability as long as I’m alive. I’ll show up for whatever each day brings. I’ll show up for my life. I ask God to help me find my highest good path and reveal my destiny. By signing this agreement, I realize I’m entering into partnership with life and I’m demonstrating my choice to live. If any previous negative thoughts have started deterioration in my body, I hereby command my body to stop deteriorating and order and ask it to be healthy and fit. I honor my body and my life, and I hereby turn around any damage I started and begin living life on a healthy, positive note. I forgive life for what it’s done; I forgive God and other people; I forgive myself. I accept the forgiveness God gives me. I release all negative thoughts and acknowledge that I’m enough to live my life for. I promise that I won’t do anything to hurt myself or knowingly or intentionally hurt anyone else. I will live my life in love and I ask for and receive all God’s blessings and help.
After signing and dating your contract, read it aloud. Then put your contract someplace safe and sacred. Few things are more powerful than the written and spoken word.
2. Start taking steps to change the status quo. If you don’t like how things have been going, take action to make changes. Sometimes we can go with the flow and change happens effortlessly. Sometimes change isn’t that easy. Like Maggie, we have to wrestle with an angel to get blessed and to get life moving again. It might feel impossible to get from where we are to where we’re going. The longest journey begins with one step. Sometimes that first step is the hardest. You don’t have to be homeless to feel stuck, trapped, in the gap, and in need of what feels like an impossible change. Things don’t have to stay the same, even if they’ve been the way they are for a long time. Write some goals on paper. Start with easy ones, things you believe you can accomplish. Maggie didn’t believe she could go back to her old career at first. She had to start with something easy. She could only manifest what she believed she could do. Start taking steps to re-create your life. Start at your comfort level, but also be willing to feel a little uncomfortable at first.
3. For local information on housing or resources for the homeless, contact the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Local Homeless Assistance at 800-FED-INFO (800-333-4636), TDD/TTY (800-483-2209), or www.hud.gov/homeless; contact the HUD Vet Resource Center at 800-998-9999; or contact the Homeless Peoples Network at the Arizona State Public Information Network at aspin.asu.edu/hpn/.
4. Make a list of your reasons to live. Suicide wasn’t an option for me for several reasons. One was I didn’t want to abandon my daughter, and another was I didn’t want to leave a quitter. A third was that I wanted to see this painful experience through, stick around until I found some meaning in it. There was also another reason. Just in case the concept of reincarnation is true (the journalist in me doesn’t know because it can’t be proven) I didn’t want to take the chance that I’d have to come back and face these same circumstances again until I got it right. What are some reasons you should stick around and see your life through?
5. Save. Make a commitment to put a percentage of your income away for a rainy day. Then don’t touch your money until it rains. If you have to spend it, get another cushion again as soon as you can.
6. Volunteer time or money to shelters or missions in your city that care for the homeless and poor. Share some of the blessings you’ve been given. Bored? Wondering what to do some weekends or evenings? Feeling alone on a holiday? Look in your newspaper for local organizations that need volunteers on holidays. Also, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty is looking for volunteers. Contact them at 202-638-2535 or www.nlchp.org.
7. Have you ever had an angel in your life (someone like Miles) who came for a while and helped you survive, an escort who helped you get to the next place? Have you recognized and thanked this person for the help he or she gave? Sometimes we get angry or hurt when a person doesn’t stick around or the relationship doesn’t last. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to last; that person was sent to help us only for a while, a reason, a season. Sometimes nobody but us understands what a lifesaver this person was, but we don’t need to let that stop us from being clear on what that person meant to us. It’s easy to disregard these temporary relationships and not give them the honor that’s due—especially if the person wasn’t able to bring about change for him- or herself even though he or she helped us. Say a prayer or do something that corresponds with your spiritual beliefs to honor, recognize, and thank the people who helped you. Then pass it on. Be there for someone else.
8. Review your Master List of Losses. Can you see how any of these (or all of them) changed you in a way that you wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t gone through the experience? Which losses have really made you who you are, shaped who you are (or who you’re becoming)? How? Write in your journal about this. Write a story or poem about this. Or tell someone. Express the importance of the experience so its value becomes real to you.
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