The Cycles of Grief

Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom.  Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died.  I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her.  I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.

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My mom on her wedding day.

For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think  much about grief.  Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy.  I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death.  The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade.  I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it.  I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.

It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me.  I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time.  Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests.  I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade.  It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.

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I see myself in this picture.

Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more.  It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible.  I talk to her and write to her and talk about her.  This doesn’t make it hurt less.  If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me.  And unresolved grief can be a real bitch.  My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm.  So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened.  When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.

I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP).  There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:

OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT

I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death.  One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death.  At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense.  I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to.  Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.

Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her.  I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died.  I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her.  I think about how much she would love my cats.  None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.

Legend

This is a portion of the piece Legend, which is published in full in the collection Georgia’s Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Nonfiction.  The collection can be purchased here or on Amazon.

I am a child, maybe six. Alone, but not lonely. I walk without direction along the suburban street in front of my house. There are railroad ties that my dad put in our yard to prevent drivers from cutting the corner and leaving tire tracks in our grass and a wooden fence, gradually rotting. Bradford pear trees and small cacti neatly circle around the perimeter of the yard. I watch my cat climb the tree right next to the house, hoping she doesn’t get stuck.

I breathe in the magnolia air and run across the yard to a strip of woods that separates our yard from the neighbors’. Rocks the size of cantaloupes line the patch of woods, and I like to hide things under them – pieces of paper with secret messages or tiny toys. My favorite spot is a small tree that grows strangely out to the side, stretching toward the sunlight and making a chair with its trunk. I sit on it and uncover my favorite rock, grey-blue with sharp edges, under which I keep one of my mother’s old lockets.

I look out and survey the world I’ve created for myself. I am safe here with the trees and the rocks and the Southern air. I am safe from the grief that fills our house. I am safe from the stress of my father as he tries to balance raising a daughter and working in an office. I am safe from the emptiness of a house without a mother. In my imaginary world with trees and rocks and railroad ties, the truth is avoidable. In my game, I am a mother, caring for the trees and for the tiny objects under rocks.

In adulthood, learning how to cope with my lack of knowledge about my biological mother has progressed little beyond my childhood games. If anything, I’ve grown further away from being able to remember her. In my consistent efforts over the past 22 years to count my memories of my mother, I can count only five. Other images of her float around, cross-contaminating my memories to form legends of a woman I never really knew. There are the stories that relatives and friends tell decade after decade – the story of my premature birth, the story of how she pulled out a chunk of her hair during chemotherapy and made a quippy joke to her doctors, the time we all went to Disney World when I was two – but none of these are my own memories. They are stories for which I created images after multiple retellings. More importantly, they are not the entire story. They are the high points, the greatest hits, the grain separated from the chaff. No one tells me about the mundane things – how she brushed her teeth, what she ate for breakfast, how she pronounced the word pecan – much less the terrible things. When someone dies, everyone is afraid to mention the moments that they gave up or the times they were frustrated with people they loved. We conveniently forget that they were a whole person with flaws and, instead, create a legend.

These unintended heroes give us the same hope that any legend gives: the story of a martyr who was kind through her suffering, benevolent to a fault, selfless in every circumstance. However, legends are not people; they are ideas. And my mother was not an idea; she was a person, and I cannot know her unless I know all of her stories. So, I will start with the ones I remember…

To read the rest of this piece, visit the Z Publishing website to purchase the collection.

Look for the Helpers

It’s been a difficult week.  Nationally, there is fear about what Justice Kennedy’s retirement will mean for the future of SCOTUS.  ICE continues to separate parents and children.  Personally, I’ve seen some overwhelming and  difficult things, as I do often working in a social service agency.  When I look at these broken parts, all I can see is that we are failing to take care of each other.

Our country claims to be a place with a government that is “for the people, by the people,” but right now that couldn’t seem farther from the truth.  Our government is failing to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.  What’s more, their lack of assistance is touted in the name of Christianity – a religion that espouses care for the poor and marginalized in both Old and New Testaments.  It’s no wonder the Church is dying when its mouthpieces refuse compassion.

On Tuesday of this week, I started the morning by calling EMS for a man who suffers from seizures and was also experiencing alcohol withdrawal.  He spent the night at the hospital and came back the next day to our agency, having received minimal care for his ongoing issues because of his lack of insurance and income.  A few hours later on Tuesday, my coworkers and I bore witness to something terrible.  A man drove a white sedan up the street from our agency, parked it on the side of the road and got out.  He walked across the street, directly in front of our agency to the steps of the Georgia Capitol building.  He doused himself in gasoline and set off rounds of fireworks on his person, causing his whole body to burst into flames.

His name is John Michael Watts and he’s an Air Force veteran from outside of Atlanta.  He was so angry by the lack of care he had received from the VA and was suffering so greatly that he saw no other option but to light himself on fire in front of a government building.  Mr. Watts is still alive, but in the hospital in critical condition with burns of at least 85% of his body.  This is not the image of a nation that cares for its citizens.

States away, children have been taken from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum.  Their countries of origin were so frightening that the best option seemed to be to travel miles with minimal supplies, hoping to be accepted at their destination.  Their children are now alone in a strange country, some of them so young that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.  Some are infants, still being breastfed, who were forcibly taken from their mothers. While our government has promised to reunite these families, the logistics of doing so seem nearly impossible, with hardly any way to know if the right children are being returned to the correct families.  We are failing to care for those who aren’t our citizens yet, but would like to be.

Every day at my job, I see others who experience the constant failures of a system built for their destruction. Lack of healthcare and affordable housing are some of the biggest problems.  Many of them have physical disabilities, injuries, amputations, chronic health issues, and mental health problems that make it impossible for them to hold regular jobs.  Being on the street exacerbates their health problems, and they fall deeper into the hole of homelessness.  What little money they do have access to is in danger of disappearing.  Benefits like food stamps and welfare are being threatened.  We are failing to care for those who have no option but to rely on the assistance of our government to stay alive.

I am tired of bearing witness to these tragedies.  Lately, I’ve often felt hopeless about changing these broken systems.  My heart breaks over and over for people like John Michael Watts, Marco Antonio Munoz, and the faces I see every day at work.

This past weekend, though, I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  Toward the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers cited his famous quote about tragedy , and tears filled my eyes.

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

People took to this quote after 9/11, after recent shootings which are too many to name, and after Hurricane Harvey, among other disasters.  It is associated with so many difficult moments for me, that to hear Mr. Rogers finally say it out loud was breathtaking.  It reminded me that this is why I come to work each day.  I want to be a helper.  I don’t always do it well, but I’m out here trying.

We are the helpers.  Whether we are holding protest signs, soup ladles, or the hands of another, we are the helpers.  Being a helper also means taking care of ourselves, even in the most simple ways.  Mourn.  Grieve.  Feel the heavy pain of it to free yourself to provide hope.  Rest.  Be present in your body.  Clad yourself for the fight ahead.

We are here, and we are many.  Be the helpers.

Sin

On an evening drive,
a vague moving shadow
appears in the street ahead.
I slow my speed
and recognize the shape
of a frantic, injured doe,
likely clipped by an indifferent passing car.
Her head waves around in panic,
her thick neck hinging wildly from side to side.
Another night driver
speeds toward her.

I stop in the road,
covering my gaping mouth with one hand,
bracing for impact.
But he sees her in time
and reveals himself to be
a neighborhood security guard,
turning on his green flashing lights,
neutralizing the threat.

As I drive past the scene,
I look to my left
and see her lying in the road,
resigned in the headlights.
Her head is tucked beneath her hind legs,
the road streaked with her blood.
Sickness wells up in my chest,
and I imagine holding her head in my lap
as the life leaves her body
so that she knows she was cared for.

Shadow of Death

I was floating in a pool, my eyes rising above and then below the water line.  I remember a figure looming over the side of the pool, stooping down to look at me.  Next, I was in an ambulance, being told to keep my eyes open, but wanting more than anything to close them as I squinted against the sun.  I felt tired.  I was two years old and just wanted to go to sleep.  I remember being hooked up to all sorts of monitors in the hospital. My first memory.  Nearly drowning.

For a long time, I thought I wasn’t afraid of death, that it didn’t affect me.  I thought because I had experienced so much loss at such a young age, I was immune to grief.  My mother died when I was five years old, my gradfather when I was six.  Both of my grandmothers died when I was in middle school.  At some point in my coming of age, I began to take pride in my ability to absorb death and keep moving forward.  Funerals did not make me sad.  I was fine.

Simultaneously, though, my fear of my own death ran wild.  I developed nighttime anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep and experienced what I can now identify as panic attacks.  I was convinced that I was going to be murdered.  Any sound in the house startled me.  I developed strange obsessive rituals to protect myself.  I pulled my blankets all the way up to my chin, reasoning that a murderer couldn’t get to me if I was covered up.  I made elaborate plans to hide in my closet or escape out the window if needed.  I also developed a fear of flying.  I first got on an airplane at 8 months old, so air travel wasn’t new to me.  Sometime in my teenage  years, though, I became convinced that the planes I traveled on would fall out of the sky to a firey death.  I was also afraid of swallowing pills – afraid I would choke on them.  I hid the vitamins I was supposed to take in a container in my bathroom so I wouldn’t risk suffocation.

My indifference toward grief was somehow counter-balanced by my obsession with keeping myself alive.  For the past decade or more, I felt shame for these obsessions.  I had never experienced anything life threatening, I thought, so why was I so afraid?  I lived in a safe area.  We had never had a break-in.  I had never so much as been in a bad car accident.  Why was it that I was experiencing such paralyzing fear of scenarios with which I had never come into contact?

Two weeks ago, my grandfather died.  He was sick for a long time and hadn’t been verbal for around a year, so in some ways I had been mourning him for a while.  I was asked to give a eulogy at his service, and I was glad to write and speak about him for my family.  However, as I looked around at my grieving family, I realized I was the only one not overcome with emotion.  Maybe part of it had to do with my need to keep it together in order to speak, but I know it was more than that.  Somehow, I had come to compartmentalize my relationship with death.  I could deal with the loss of others, but I had never learned to reconcile my own mortality.  And how could I, if my first memory is nearly drowning in a pool?

I am still learning to hold these things together.  I feel more sadness about leaving the ones I love behind when I die than I do about losing them.  I’m not sure what to make of that, other than to love them well while I can.  If loss has taught me one thing, it’s that living with secrets only brings about regret.  I am still frightened of my own mortality and pain, but the only way I have managed to release the fear is to know that I have no control.  I can try as hard as I want, but I still won’t always be able to protect myself or the ones I love.  So, all I can do is love them well, so that when I’m gone, they’ll know they were cared for.