How to be both angry and sad at the same time

For the past 17 months and six days, people have said that I am handling suddenly being widowed with grace. Being furious and raging wasn’t going to unwind the fact that a careless driver killed my husband while he was riding his bike. I have limited reserves of energy, and I knew that walking around being angry wasn’t going to get me very far.

Last Thursday I was both angry and sad. If David Cummings was alive, I would have put down whatever work project had my attention in Atlanta just before 2:00, gotten in my car, and driven back to Sandersville, Georgia to celebrate with him. As I have told friends before, it was David who helped me connect the dots not too long after the boondoggle Plant Washington was announced.

I didn’t know much about energy production before the end of January 2008 when Dean Alford was presented to the business leaders of Washington County in an invitation only presentation at the Washington EMC. As I learned more, I became very concerned. It’s handy to be married to a geologist who can explain the water tables and such when a coal plant is going to draw down 16Million gallons of water per day, and your household water source about eight miles from the plant site is also drawn from a well in that same geologic plain.

FACE Board members and earliest supporters with certificates of recognition from President Obama

I’ve always credited David for helping me find my way on responding to Plant Washington. On one of the first beautiful spring days in 2008, the kind that makes you want to find any reason to go outside, I told David I wished there was someone who lived near the proposed plant site that I could talk to, because surely they would be concerned about the threats of coal ash emissions, access to water, safety, and property values. He casually said that long-time family friends Randy and Cathy Mayberry had a cabin adjacent to the site, that maybe I should talk to them.

That sunny afternoon I went out to walk, and after about an hour, sweaty and kind of worn looking, I knocked on the Mayberry’s front door. Cathy answered, and while I told her I didn’t want to interrupt their day, and I surely wasn’t fit to sit down with anyone to talk, maybe sometime we could have a conversation about the risks posed by Plant Washington. From the living room Randy called out, “Come on in.”

From there Cathy and I met on someone’s porch with Lyle Lansdell, Pat, and Sonny Daniel, Paula and John Swint. Jennette Gayer came drove down from Atlanta. Seth Gunning, a student at Valdosta State who was light years ahead of the rest of us about energy and the environment, drove up for a meeting. Larry Warthen, whose church was founded after the Civil War, where unmarked graves of enslaved and free people are just yards from the plant site perimeter, stepped up to help lead in the work. The lawyers and partner organizations came to us to teach us, guide us, and become champions for our community too.

David was a certified stream monitor for the Ogeechee Rverkeeper. Our grandchildren Chase and Ella went with him one afternoon to learn about stream monitoring.

David didn’t go to those early meetings, but he listened to me, counseled me when I thought my head would explode as I learned more about the convoluted way coal plants are developed, permitted, and financed. He signed the petitions and went to the hearings. He phone banked when volunteers across the state came together to help return Cobb EMC to the rightful control of the member-owners. He used a few vacation days to attend court proceedings and EPA public comment sessions. Later he agreed to serve on the board of the small grassroots organization, the Fall-Line Alliance for a Clean Environment (FACE), that came together after the first few community meetings. Because he grew up fishing, canoeing, and swimming at our family’s farm on the Ogeechee River, he became a certified stream monitor.

Summer vacation in Maine, 2010, as I was beginning to realize fighting Plant Washington was the work I needed to do full-time

In the summer of 2010, when I knew to my core that quitting a job as a rural health advocate, where I excelled, instead of working nights, weekends, and burning through vacation days to fight Plant Washington, was my true calling, David supported me. When I worked 12 hours a day, he walked the dogs and cooked dinner. When I had cancer and was exhausted from radiation treatments, and the work required to fight Plant Washington totaled at least one thousand hours each week among our partners, he supported me. When Plant Washington’s funders backed out, and the truth in what FACE and our partners had said all along became clearer and clearer, David celebrated with me. And when the work of fighting Plant Washington wasn’t a full-time job any longer, because winning meant I would work my way out of a job, David supported me while I looked for work that would tap all the passion and experience I had garnered since 2008. He was always there.

Thursday evening I had plans to meet Atlanta friends who don’t know me as coal-plant fighting activist. One of them said she wanted to hear the story of my work as we began walking through the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. I told her I couldn’t compress it well at the moment, as it began in 2008 and changed me forever.

So we toasted a long-awaited victory, one they know matters to the health of the small rural community where my husband and children grew up, where some of my grandchildren live now, the community that helped FACE leaders become the best and truest versions of ourselves.  We toasted to doing work that matters and benefits everyone on this one planet, and to those whose bodies have been returned to it.

 

Expressing sympathy isn’t rocket science

After the death of my infant grandson in December 2016, my husband’s tragic death on April 30th of this year, followed seven weeks later by my mother’s death, my family has been the recipient of both kind and what are really thoughtless comments from people who are trying to express their sympathies. My friends shared some of the best, and worst, things said to them during times of grief, and several have asked me to compile them. This doesn’t begin to include everything that we, or others grieving, have heard. I’ve tried to categorize them.

Comments based on faith

  • God needed another angel
  • S/he is in a better place
  • God has a plan
  • You should have prayed more (said by a minister to the widow)

These comments dismiss the tremendous grief being experienced with a simple solution of faith. It also assumes that all people involved share the same set of beliefs. Don’t ever assume identical beliefs, even if the grieving person sits next to you in your place of worship. As for the angel comment, if your children/spouse/friends are all safely at home at the end of the day, who are you to say any deity needed their loved person as another angel?

To grieving parents

  • You are young enough to have more children
  • At least you didn’t have her/him so long that you were strongly attached (said to parents of recently adopted children)
  • At least you have other children

    To grieving spouses
  • You are reasonably attractive and can get married again (said by a mother-in-law to the widow)
  • You’ll meet someone else
  • You have plenty of time to marry again

Death related to an illness

  • Did s/he smoke? When did they quit?
  • S/he should have gone to a different doctor
  • Why didn’t s/he go to the doctor sooner?
  • They should have exercised, eaten better, etc.

Death due to a tragic accident

  • People shouldn’t ride bikes there
  • Did s/he suffer?
  • May be if they had been with you instead of……

This list could go on forever because there seems to be no limit on thoughtless things people let come out of their mouths.

There are things to say (and do) that are helpful.

  • I am so very sorry. Expressing sympathy doesn’t require rocket science or an advanced degree. This simple statement is fine.
  • I don’t know what you are feeling but I want to support you
  • Would it help if I sleep on the sofa in case you need someone to talk to during the night?
  • I will miss spending time with ______. I’d like to share some stories with you when you are ready (and then follow up, accepting responses of “Not now but later” and then checking again).
  • Can I walk the dog? Cut the grass? Pick up things at the drug store? Go to the cleaners? Get your car serviced? Are there foods your family would like to have right now? Write thank you notes? Make calls? Return books to the library?
  • Say the person’s name.  Don’t be afraid to mention a lost loved one when you speak to someone grieving.  Share or listen to a thought or story about his or her lost loved one.  Take the time to really engage.

After the immediacy of the services have passed, check-in with the grieving. Ask about birthday and special family anniversaries so you can offer support or an invitation. Send a postcard or note with a simple message saying you are thinking about them. Take them a meal. Only offer to do things if you can follow up-really. And those offers don’t have to be huge-coffee, lunch, a movie. Did the grieving person go to plays, concerts, art shows, etc. with the person who has died? Find those events and invite them because you know they did those things together.

As we mark the year’s last holidays, there will be many hard firsts for my family, and hard moments (or days and weeks) for those whose grief is not immediate but still real. A college friend called and left me a message saying that she was thinking about me as we approach these firsts, and she wanted to let me know.

Her message was beautiful in its simplicity and sincerity. And it was just what I needed.