Yes, I quoted Oprah. So sue me. A tree lover’s guide to cancer and the woods.

What I know for sure regarding grief and nature.

Yes, I did it. I quoted Oprah. I’m not proud of it but the line came to me and I’m going to own it.

This weekend I was reminded of a few things I know for sure.   I escaped this weekend. Broke the chains of laundry. Tore off the shackles of dishes and vacuuming. Late on Friday night—in a moment of spontaneous decision-making—I hopped online, booked a hotel room and packed a bag. Then, like a kid who’s just gotten away with something, I smiled, crawled into bed and set my alarm to make an early ferry.

I had to.

Maybe it was the residue of the previous weekend.   I’d spent the evening with a 25-year old friend who is knee-deep in the trenches of pancreatic cancer. Not good.

Not just not good. Bad.

I am so tired of cancer. I am tired of its systematic and relentless pursuit of people I love. I resent the way it takes who it wants regardless of circumstance, character or age. So you can appreciate why I didn’t give a damn about my dishes or the fact that there are three Amazon Prime boxes sitting in my living room with their contents strewn about. All of this warranted ACTION on my part.

Get the hell out of town. Run for the woods. Head to the Hoh Rain Forest.

It needed to be a little inconvenient. The ferry ride, the 3+ hour drive. You see, the inconvenience underlined the significance of leaving. I needed to be away, tucked beneath Sitka Spruce and Douglas Firs well over 200 feet. Moss blankets everything from boulders to every inch of branches that reach out like fuzzy fingers. I needed the serenade of the Hoh River, its conversation, a loud party full of light chitchat. I longed for the solitude of a trail where I go at my pace and stop when I want to take pictures (even if I already stopped a minute ago.) I want the freedom to jump when thunder booms above me and to leave my hood down when the downpour comes. I want to take the untouched side trail—the soggy ferns soaking my shorts as my thighs pushed them back with each step—up to the waterfall to get a better photo and to stand there and close my eyes.

Normally, whenever I return to the trailhead, to the comfort of my car and whatever snacks I’ve left behind, there is a sense of pride. An I did it. This time I felt that, but it was different. Something about the forest opens me.

I text a video of the waterfall to my 25 year old friend.

Me: I sent you a waterfall. Early birthday present.

My friend: Thank you!!!!!!!

Me: I mentally took you on the hike. I hope you aren’t sore.

My friend: It was like I was physically there!! My legs are killing me! How many miles was that again?

Me: Just shy of 6. I have to tell you, you weren’t very helpful when we found ourselves on the trail with a big elk about 30 ft. ahead and another one about 30 ft. behind (with their family peering in from the bushes.) Otherwise, you were a trooper.

My friend: Oh my gosh!!! I bet I was useless. “Oh look, large and dangerous mammals. LET’S PLAY WITH THEM!!!”

Me: I thought when I had to tell you to stop trying to pet them was the real low point.

My friend: That was the low point. Even their antlers are furry!

Somewhere during the texting conversation the tears started. Tears of loss, of pent up energy, of fatigue. These were tears of relief. Relief that we could still play. Relief that we could pretend we had hiked and faced down some elk together. Tears that sometimes the best way to connect is to talk about what you wish you did rather than what you have to do.

Hoh waterfall Hoh River

Funeral Survival Guide…let’s just call it what it is.

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Funerals are minefields.  That’s right, I said it.  One wrong step and—wait for it—BOOM, there goes your favorite arm.  They should be.  Everyone is doing the best they can, trying to limp their way through a haze of grief and say goodbye to someone who has only been gone a few days, but it is a minefield.  Pack up your field armor and take a deep breath—minefield.

The number of things that can stress out even the most socially confident person are baffling at a funeral.  Get together a bunch of people—many of who don’t even know each other—and then try to tackle the soul sucking experience of saying goodbye to a loved one.

I’ve collected a few notes that make funerals especially daunting in the midst of your grief.  These are the things that can trigger the explosion, derail the train, snowball out of control (pick whatever metaphor revs your engine.)

*The Ugly Cry.

If you loved the person, chances are you are concerned about the ugly cry.  This is no sniff sniff, dab dab of the Kleenex, this is the Turn the faucet on waterworks.  It is the This snot won’t stop running down my lip onslaught.  Enter bright red cheeks, puffy eyes.   Most significant about the ugly cry is that it came on without your permission and it won’t stop until it is GOSH DARN READY TO STOP.

*The Who Will Be There? Factor. 

Not only are you trying to emotionally wrap your head around the fact that you will not see this person again, no more texts, no more banter, no more visits, you have to think of the Who else is going to show up that I might not be emotionally prepped to see factor.  A funeral I went to yesterday involved this.  I went with a friend of mine—let’s call her Cindy—and told her, “Person X may show up. I’m not sure.  We haven’t talked in ages.  Nothing bad, but if person X shows up and I say to you, “Hey Cindy, this is person X,” know that that is a CODE BLUE.  (or red…whatever code means DO NOT LEAVE while I adjust.)

*The What Do I Say? 

If words could cause paralysis, it would happen at a funeral.  Talk about pressure.   A person has just lost a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend and you have to come up with the words—the right words, nay, the perfect words—that both celebrate the person, offer compassion and support and are neither too depressing or too lighthearted.  At the funeral I was at yesterday (parents who had lost their 23 year old daughter to cancer) I heard them saying over and over again, “Thank you so much for coming.”  I bet they didn’t know what to say either.

*What The Departed Would Have Wanted torment.  This is when you hear the dreaded phrases of

“She wouldn’t have wanted us to be sad.”

“She would want us to remember good things about her and not cry.”

Suddenly I’m annoyed.  Now I have what is known in funeral circles as Guilt Mourning.  I have to mourn the way the departed would have wanted.  To be honest, I’m not even sure that the departed would have felt that way.  But some person—trying to show how well they know her by issuing an edict of What she wanted—is  now telling me that, if I feel like a big o’l hot mess, that I am not mourning correctly.  That I have somehow let them down.

Guess what?  I don’t buy it.

My friend—let’s call her Ruth—said yesterday to me, “When I die.  I HOPE somebody is sad.   I don’t want them to fall into a deep depression over me.  I don’t want them to stop living their life.  But YEAH, I want them to be sad I’m gone.”

Guess what Ruth?  I can do that.  No problem.

Because I honestly think I can celebrate the departed’s life while mourning my loss at the same time.  The other night Cindy and I drank Kool-Aid (the departed’s drink of choice) while toasting her with tears in our eyes at the same time.

So what is a person to do when faced with a funeral?

Have a game plan and remember a couple of things.

1) Be prepared.

Have something you want to say to the loved one’s family before you go up to them.  Pee first before the service—you’re likely to be anxious facing this and it will be hard to focus on your loved one with a full bladder.  Have Kleenex and waterproof mascara.

2) Say goodbye how you need to, not how anyone else needs you to.

If that means going to the beach, going to the service, going shopping and getting some retail therapy or bawling on your couch, do it.  Kool-Aid helps.

3) Running into people you haven’t seen in ages is sometimes a good thing. 

I ran into an old friend yesterday and, even though we had grown apart, when we saw each other at the service, nodded and smiled, both of our eyes filled with tears.  Connection is connection.

4) This will not be the only time you say goodbye to this person.

Goodbyes with the ones that are close to us happen a thousand times and they still hang around.  You didn’t get to know the person in an hour and you aren’t going to let them go in an hour either.

5)  Don’t be afraid of the Ugly Cry.

Think of it as validation that you loved this person, that they impacted you and that you will miss them.  The more snot the better.

That’s the way they would want it.