For this final installment of this series on my journey with grief, I’d like to focus on two themes. Since Kim passed, I have been aware of and navigating my way through these, but they have not fit into a specific chronological time frame. So here we go.
In the epilogue of my book, Big Breath In, which I rewrote after Kim had passed away, I said that my resiliency was “running low these days.” Well, I admit to you now, that this was, in fact, not entirely true. My resiliency is, in fact, not “running low these days,” it is actually nonexistent (I felt I had to provide some hope at the end of the book).
I have always prided myself on being able to function well under pressure. I’ve always been attracted to areas of leadership in crisis, being able to lead and act in a calm and reassuring way even when the present was in chaos and the future uncertain. It is what attracted me to hospital chaplaincy work and other leadership areas in which I have worked and volunteered.
However, as I mention at the end of my book, after living through the loss of my brother Warren, the effects of respiratory failure due to Cystic Fibrosis, waiting for and receiving a double-lung transplant, walking with and caring for Kim for the past five years, and then, of course, the grief over losing her, I admit that my resiliency has run out. I feel like I have no backing to hold me up so that when any challenge comes my way, I simply fall over. Something as simple as a machinery breakdown on the farm has had me walking away from work and simply going home (my family has become very understanding of my antics). The slightest drop in my daily lung function test has had me canceling appointments, commitments, and work for a week or two. My lack of resiliency has led me to be panicked at the slightest setback or confusion.
Now, there have been moments when I've felt that a fragile wall has been built behind me, something to prop me up so that when a challenge or hardship comes my way, I can feel myself rebounding back a little. However, that doesn’t last long. If any negative pressure or challenging situation is not resolved quickly, it is game over, and I am back to my huddled position at home. It appears that the person who used to thrive in times of crisis, who prided himself on being able to take on burden after burden, is finally burnt out.
I wonder if resiliency is like trust, that once broken, it takes a very long time to build back, and maybe it never truly comes back as strong as it once was. But perhaps resiliency isn’t the key either. If resiliency implies returning to the original shape, I know that is impossible. Maybe it is not resiliency I should focus on, but transformation. I know there is no returning to who I was; there can only be transformation into who is now taking shape in me. I'll have to think about that some more.
Whenever someone is reading my book, and they message me that they found a particular part of it meaningful or funny, I right away go and reread that section (I think this has to do with some sort of insecurity within me or something). I was recently rereading a paragraph about my waiting for transplant, and I was struck by how similar my experience of grief has been to that time of waiting. During my wait for transplant, I was simply waiting. There was nothing I could do to speed the transplant process along; it would take as long as it was going to take. That was it. The same goes for grief. I often feel like I am just waiting for my sorrow to lighten up over time. I am waiting, putting in the time. Grief is going to take its time. It will never entirely pass, but I know the day will come (and I have had glimmers of that already) when it won’t be so paralyzing, when it isn’t so impactful and painful, and when I will begin to feel like myself again, or a new self. But until that naturally begins to unfold and reveal itself to me, I am simply waiting. It will happen when it happens.
In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “I have no explanation. I can do nothing else than endure in the face of this deepest and most painful of mysteries ... My wound is an unanswered question.” I find that word, endure, to be one of the most powerful words I have come across since Kim passed away. ENDURE. There is both a strength and a weakness to it. The “weakness” has to do with an inability to move forward freely. The power to rise is missing. But it is also a word of strength, of standing and looking into the face of the storm, allowing the blows of life to hit and to just try and withstand it. I have this picture in my head of standing still, allowing the sting of the rain and the whipping of the wind to hit me, of not moving forward, but also trying not to allow it to push me back or topple me over; to simply endure.
That, I feel, is what life has become right now. I am in this time of sorrowful waiting, of needing to endure. It is not endurance or perseverance, for me, those words have this idea of running or moving forward––that is not it. Endure––like a rock––to stand and wait against the wind.
My View Today
Getting this final blog post written has been a struggle (I'm not even all that happy with it, I feel it is missing the mark somehow). To use a quote from C.S. Lewis from last week, “all the hells of young grief have opened again.” Over the past week, I have felt a bit of a funk settling in. I’ve been feeling restless. This past tuesday evening, I was lying on the couch watching TV when someone rang my doorbell. I opened the door and recognized one of my neighbours, who also attends the church I’ve started going to since the summer, standing there holding a gift basket. She said that one of the things the church does every Christmas is hand out gift baskets to those in the congregation who have recently gone through a profound loss in their life. Standing at the door, receiving the basket, I felt a lump forming in my throat. As I closed the door and placed the basket on the counter, I lost it. I couldn’t stop crying for about ninety minutes. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Currently, the bombers are back. My wooden leg is kicked out from under me. The shine of the last seven weeks has worn off. “All the hells of young grief have returned.”
I am thankful for the positive season I had this fall. It has allowed me to process a lot of my grief and write this series. But it seems as if on cue, with the closing of this series, so are the curtains closing on the light that was shining in. It feels different than October and not as bad. I have learned things I can do to not return to that place, but grief is unpredictable, and at least right now, it’s not easy.
So, there you have it—my journey with grief over the past eight months. I hope to return to this blog series in the spring to update you on how things are going, but for now, I will begin using this blog for other things. I hope to continue to write here and give updates on my book and more on the world of CF and transplantation. I have some ideas rolling around in my head that could be fun, but those will have to wait for the new year.
Thanks for reading and following along thus far.
SATURDAY DEC 18
Ladner Village Arts and Crafts Shop and Studio
(4907 Chisholm St. Delta)
Bring your own copy or purchase in store
Make a South Delta day of it!
Shopping in Ladner and Tsawwassen, hit up a local Ladner Village coffee shop, go for a walk on the beach or along the river, and get your book signed or just drop in and say hi.
Enter a draw to win:
- Chapters gift card
- Ladner Village Arts and Crafts gift card
- Hard cover copy of Big Breath In
Support local business!
If one thing has understood my grief or best reflected my experience of grief since Kim passed, it has been the Netflix show, After Life. My good friend Leann recommended the show to me about a month after Kim’s passing. The main character, Tony, played by Ricky Gervais, has recently lost his wife to cancer and is now trying to navigate life. The show has some crude language and humour (Ricky Gervais is the writer, after all), but for me, the writing of the show, and Gervais' acting, has resonated so deeply with my own experience.
At the end of the first season, however, I got worried. Tony, the widower, was beginning to show positive signs. He seemed to be emerging out of the darkness and grief that marked the show's first five episodes. I was worried this would be like every other show about grief or loss, and this was going to be the start of a trajectory of recovery and happily ever after. But when I apprehensively began episode one of season two, I was met with a surprise. Tony was once again down in the dumps and had slid back down the snake of grief.
C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia series) wrote a book entitled, A Grief Observed. It is about his experience of grief after losing his wife to cancer. In it, he writes, “Grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it over-head; physical pain is like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment.” Having lived in England for both World Wars, I trust he knows what he is talking about. But this is what grief is like; one moment, the bombers are overhead dropping their bombs, and you don’t know how you will ever survive the barrage of chaos. And the next moment, the sky is clear, and you can come out into the sun. Sometimes the cycle of dread and relief is tight; other times, it is wide.
For me, as the month of October began winding down, the grief-bombing of that month began to let up. A simple event happened that lifted the ceiling on my grief and allowed me room to reflect and remember.
For environmental reasons, dairy farmers are not supposed to spread manure on their fields from November to February here in the Lower Mainland. Therefore, the goal is always to get the pits empty by the end of October. One of my jobs on the farm is spreading manure, and I love it. There is nothing like looking at a field plastered with manure at the end of the day to make you feel like you’ve done something.
As everyone knows, this fall, we have seen a torrential amount of rain, beginning already in September. So, when we had two days of nice weather near the end of October this was the chance we needed to empty the last bit of manure from our pit. And in regards to some of my depression, this was the first light in the darkness--grief is that strange. Spending two days in the tractor, hauling 33 loads of manure (148,500 gallons); the empowerment of feeling the weight of 4500 gallons of shit sloshing around behind me with each load, feeling the horsepower and torque of the tractor under my feet; it was just enough to lift the fog, distract my mind, give me a sense of joy, and get me onto some solid ground. With this crack in the door, other dominos began to fall.
A couple of days after emptying the pit, I was at home rereading one of my favorite book on spirituality, New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. I came across a sentence that I had earlier underlined: “Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift.”
What struck me while reading this quote was not its subject matter. Instead, while reading this sentence, I remembered a conversation that Kim and I had a couple of times. The crux of this discussion, or Kim’s expressed desire in those conversations, was that she did not want me to become depressed or sad after she was gone. What grieved Kim the most in her final months was not so much her own death but what it would do to me and others. She didn’t want me to live in the paralyzing fog and sorrow that I indeed found myself in for much of October.
For some reason, reading that sentence by Thomas Merton woke me up to the fact that Kim would be heartbroken and most likely a bit angry if she knew how I had been doing since her memorial. I realized that this was no way to honor her. By not seeking to come out from under the depressive fog I was lost in, I was, in a sense, re-enacting her death all over again. Now, it wasn’t like this was a miracle-fix or anything, but again, it was something that helped lift the clouds a bit more and made me take another step in trying to find a way through this grief. There was now the incentive to honor Kim with my life going forward.
The next domino fell two days later, on a Sunday afternoon. I went for a short walk along the Nicomekel River in South Surrey. I was contemplating my mood and season of grief, wanting to find a way through. During that thirty minutes in the cold wind, I decided that I needed to get busy. I had to begin filling my time with routine and work (anyone who has read my book will know I like routine).
I also realized I couldn’t hit my grief head-on. I believe there are times when we need to face our grief and sorrow face-to-face. To look it in the eye and feel the total weight of its powerful blow, to let it break us so that we can begin to put the pieces back together. But having done this a couple of times, I also began to see that to survive, I had to start hitting it from an angle. I had attempted several times to catch grief out on the open ice, line it up in the trolley tracks and take it down. Though this worked in the summer while I was in shock, I was now feeling the full pain of these head-on collisions. In taking on my grief from an angle, I could make contact, deal and wrestle with it for a bit (such as writing these blog posts), and then spin off and get busy with something else when I felt the balance of power shifting against me, when it became too much.
Throughout the following couple of weeks, now transitioning into November, I also did some work for my close friend, Garrit, who owns his own contracting business. There is nothing like spending a day shoveling dirt, carrying drywall, or loading a tonne of broken concrete into the back of a trailer to help get those mind-cleansing endorphins going.
I began setting up a schedule for my week, with specific days on the farm and certain days at home, writing or spending time volunteering in the CF community.
Another domino to fall was the release of my book in early November. As I outlined in the previous blog post, the book's release was a cause of pain, but the reception it got in terms of how well it sold was very heartwarming. To see it hit the FriesenPress and Amazon bestseller list on its first weekend was incredible.
I wished so badly that Kim could see it, but I also can’t discount the boost of self-confidence it gave me. And the texts and social media feedback I have received since has been overwhelming.
So, where am I at then today? Well, let me begin to bring this post to a close with another, rather lengthy quote, from C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed:
“Getting over it so soon? The words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off it is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be biped again.
“Still, there’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better', and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. I’ve read about that in books, but I never dreamed I should feel it myself. I am sure [Kim] wouldn’t approve of it. She’d tell me not to be a fool...
"For me at any rate the program is plain. I will turn to her as often as possible in gladness. I will even salute her with a laugh. The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her.
"An admirable program. Unfortunately, it can’t be carried out. Tonight, all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering stomach, the nightmare reality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it...
"The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. They say ‘The coward dies many times’; so does the beloved.”
As I have written in earlier posts, I never realized until Kim was gone how much she propped me up, how much I depended on her for my confidence. She was the support and confidence of my life while we were together, and now, in her expressed desire to see me live a positive life, to not remain in the depth of sadness over her passing, she continues to be my support today. Even in her death, she is propping me up. Each night now, as I get into bed, I take her picture off my bedside table, hold it in my hands, and tell her about my day. It is in turning to her in gladness, and even some nights with humour, that I do feel closer to her. She supports me still.
Like Tony at the end of season 1 in the show After Life, the period I am in right now is a positive one. I have taken some steps and added some awareness of what I need in order to be in a better place emotionally and physically. I know another depressive season will one day hit. I still hear bombers in the distance coming around; I feel the frailness and pain of my "wooden leg," but I feel I am at least holding onto a ladder, ascending one slow rung at a time.
This blog post then brings me up to the present day on my journey with grief. When I made the outline for this series of posts, I thought that my present-day would require a new post, separate from how I had been doing a couple of weeks ago when I started writing, but that is not the case. The positive season is holding for now. I will, however, write one more chapter before I break from this series. It will deal with a couple of themes that have run throughout my journey but haven’t fit within any specific chronological time frame. Thanks for reading and sticking with me thus far.
I have officially finished my book! I have approved the final manuscript, and the book is being sent off to the publisher and printers as I write this. It feels surreal to be done with all the editing and not have any more work to do on the book itself. (I will say, in my final read-through, I did find three grammatical/typo errors, which means if I found three, then there are probably more. Some imperfections are always a good thing though, right? These are the hazards of self-publishing). I still can’t believe the book is only about two weeks away from potentially being in your hands!
I'll admit that I'm not all that happy with the pricing of the book. My publishing specialist and I worked hard on finding a reasonable price, but it ended up being higher than we wanted. Like everything in this time of COVID, book prices have gone up. This has to do with supply chain shortages within the industry. Also, coming in at 294 pages, the book is considered long, which also sets the price higher. I can guarantee you that my royalties for each book are minimal, so this is by no means a cash grab by the author or publisher. I wanted to price the book under $20, but just so you are aware, if you are buying from online retailers, you can expect the book to be listed over $20 (the e-book will obviously be much less expensive). Also, as a disclaimer, it might be listed more than we recommended, as we don’t have control over how much Amazon or others will price it at first, so you may see varying prices in the first couple of weeks.
Where to Buy?
Once I am notified that the book is available, I will let you know! All the online buying options will be listed on my website.
As I’ve mentioned before, the book should be available from all online book retailers. It will most likely first appear on Amazon, then a day or two later on Chapters/Indigo, Barnes and Noble, etc. It will NOT be available in brick-and-mortar stores, other than some small independent stores I might approach in the Lower Mainland.
Another place you can buy it, and where I would encourage you to purchase, is the FriesenPress online bookstore. We can list the book for cheaper on the FriesenPress bookstore, although shipping might be a bit more, and it might take a bit longer to get the book (but what's the rush). Also, in full disclosure, my royalties are higher on these sales as FriesenPress takes very little from each sale (they are an awesome company). Their mission is all about promoting authors. They are a Canadian company based in Victoria. They give indie authors like me a way to get our stories out into the world much easier than the traditional publishing route. So please consider supporting them, and while you are there check out some of the other books/authors that they publish!
For family and friends who live close by, I intend to do a “soft” book launch later in the month. I will pick a Saturday probably in late November where you can come by my garage and pick up a copy of the book.
Lastly, the book is already up on Goodreads, so if you read the book and enjoy it, and if you'd like to leave a review, you can do so there. It would be much appreciated!
Thank you for all of your support thus far. The interest in the book genuinely humbles me. I am getting more excited to have my CF and transplant story out there and for people to learn more about this horrible disease and the complex journey it is to receive an organ transplant.
“What? You wrote a book?!?!?” This is the response I have been hearing lately as I slowly let slip that I have a book coming out this Fall/Winter (release date TBD). It is something I have been working on since March 2020, and it now seems that its publication is imminent!
Big Breath In is a memoir about growing up with Cystic Fibrosis (CF), experiencing respiratory failure, and then waiting for and receiving my double lung transplant. Throughout the book, I reflect on my tendency to minimize the deadly symptoms of CF and the need to accept the new normals that my limited health placed on my life.
So how did this all start? Well, the seeds of this book were planted a long time ago.
Back in 2009, while waiting for my transplant, I was noticing how unique some aspects of my life were. After all, how many people do you know who are breathing with another person’s lungs? Kim and I had to go through such a steep learning curve as we prepared ourselves for transplant, that I figured maybe others would also want to learn about this. But at that time, I really didn’t have the strength or ability to write (I was never into reading or writing; I barely passed English 12). However, during my wait for transplant, I did a lot of journaling. Also, I started a blog to keep family and friends updated on how I was doing (I have included excerpts from that blog in my book).
After my transplant, especially between 2012–2018, I had the opportunity to do many public speaking engagements about CF, organ donation, and the philosophy of person-centered care. After my presentations, I was often approached by people in the audience encouraging to write a book about my health care journey. However, with many other things in life going on, I still didn’t feel the motivation to do so, but I felt that one day I would.
That day finally came in March 2020, as the COVID19 pandemic began taking hold of our world. With not being able to perform some of my duties as a pastor and needing to think of creative ways to keep in touch with my parishioners, I suddenly felt the motivation and creative impetus to begin writing. And so I did.
I set aside two hours every afternoon to write, and all of a sudden, the stories and memories from my childhood and youth began coming back. I took out old day planners from 2008, old journals from 2009, and reread my blog. The memories of those days, being sick in hospital, the lead up to transplant, and just how fragile my life was, all came rushing back.
Each time I would finish a chapter, I asked Kim to read it. Each time she would encourage me to keep writing. After three months of writing, I had a very rough draft of my manuscript. Little did I know, however, that with the manuscript complete, now the real work began.
Over the summer of 2020, I was engaged in editing, editing, and more editing. I hate editing! Kim would reread everything after I had edited it, providing notes and corrections.
In the fall of 2020, Kim and I told our families that I had this manuscript. It was Kim’s sister-in-law, Sonja, who connected me with a local self-publishing company, FriesenPress. After speaking with Sonja’s contact and weighing the pros and cons of going through the traditional stream of publishing vs. self-publishing, I decided to go with FriesenPress and the self-publishing route. This would allow me to maintain control of the project, which was important as this is my own personal story and my family's story.
Going this route has had its ups and downs, especially with the life-altering events of this past year. There have been parts of the publishing journey that were more difficult than I thought they would be, and others that were much easier. But overall, it has been an empowering experience, and it has allowed this publishing dream to actually become a reality!
I have no clue where this project will lead in the future and if it will open unknown doors, but it has been a great ride thus far. I hope that my book can be an inspiration, or at least a companion, to someone on their own journey in life.
I invite you to stay tuned to this blog and my social media feeds for more info on the book's release. In my next blog post, I will detail what I’d like to do with this blog and the kind of content you can hopefully expect to find here going forward.
George Keulen's Blog
Welcome to my blog, where you will find general ponderings about my life: Of living with cystic fibrosis and a double lung transplant, being an advocate for person-centered care, being a widower, and of course, reflections and news about my book, Big Breath In.