Dear Mom,

It’s been 24 years since the day you left me. That seems like an absurd number, but I know that every year the number gets bigger. Each year, it feels like you’re getting farther away. I lose more memories. I live farther from the people who knew you. Most of the people in my life have never met you. Some of them don’t even know that you’re gone. With each deathiversary, I get more accustomed to explaining where you are.

The closer I get to your age, the more scared I am for myself. Joining a grief group has helped me to realize that this is normal. Most of us who have lost older siblings or parents assume we won’t make it past the age they were when they died, and when we do, we don’t know how to handle it. We never envision ourselves reaching 40, knowing our mom never will, but here I am. I still have some years before I reach 36, but the dread grows the closer I get.

A lot of people mark traumatic experiences, especially deaths, with “before” and “after.” This is how trauma survivors tell time. And while this is how I mark other events in my life, with you there was no “before.” The floaty recollections I have of you feel like another life, a dream, a made up story. My whole life has been “after.” For a while, I wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but recently my trauma therapist explained to me that my trauma isn’t in the fact that you died. I don’t remember it. The trauma of losing you happens over and over again, every time something happens that you should be here for and you’re not here.

I have more pictures of you in my room now to help me remember. I’m doing regressive memory work with my therapist to draw out old feelings and, hopefully, old memories. I mainly remember you taking care of me: scraped knees, bee stings, injuries of childhood. I remember you waking me up to lick the spoon from a batch of brownies. I wonder if you knew then that you didn’t have much time left, and that sweet memory would be more important than my 8pm bedtime.

Next to my bed, I have a tryptic of you, signing to me that you love me. I. Love. You. You smile back at me from a 90s hospital room every night as I go to sleep. And I know that you loved me. There are pictures to prove it. You stared at me with a look of deep adoration. But sometimes I get angry at you. I wish you’d left me more things to remember you by. I wish I had letters for each birthday or a recording of your voice reading me a bedtime story or a video telling me all the things you couldn’t tell a five-year-old. I know it’s not fair to ask for those things because I’m sure you did the best you could. I only ask for them because I miss you.

I’m not sure what I believe about where you are anymore, but I hope wherever it is, it’s peaceful. I hope you are proud of me, but I hope you don’t miss me. People tell me you’d be proud of me, but it doesn’t mean much. Even so, I try to live each day like you’re watching me. I look for you in crowds.

Love you always,

Brenna

Trauma Therapy II: Sitting In It

This is part II of a III part blog. If you haven’t read part I, read it first by clicking here.

After about a week of trauma therapy in PHP, the work finally began. I stopped resisting and started being honest with myself about my experiences. I stopped trying to do everything right and started trying to tell the truth. Through this, I realized that the reasons I thought I’d been hospitalized weren’t really the reasons I’d been hospitalized. The things that I thought had tipped me over the edge were only the topsoil in a deep and messy hole. And the only way out was to sit in the hole and get dirty.

Because I had been in survival mode for so long, actually feeling my emotions was exhausting. I don’t like for people to see me upset and I don’t like to be vulnerable, but trauma therapy was requiring me to do both of those things basically all the time. After a day or two of this, I told my therapist that I felt like there was a gaping wound in the middle of my chest and the only way to feel safe was to curl up in a ball. She said, “What are you afraid is going to happen? You’re safe.” I wasn’t sure what I thought was going to happen if I let go and sat in it. In retrospect, I think it was the actual letting go that I was so afraid of. I had built my life around hanging on in order to survive. I thought I would lose myself. I thought the darkness would take me over. I thought my grief and trauma and shame would eat me alive. But, in reality, it had already tried and I had escaped.

I cried for a week. I cried constantly in group even if I wasn’t the one sharing. I bought frozen and prepackaged meals at the grocery store because I could barely manage to eat, much less cook. I laid in my bed and cried myself to sleep every night, overwhelmed by the amount of emotions I was finally allowing myself to feel. Plus, the loneliness of knowing that no one else can help you with your feelings is probably the most destitute I’ve ever felt. Some days, I felt ok during PHP because I knew others around me felt the same way. It was often when I left that I felt the most overwhelmed. When it was time to go home, what was I supposed to do? The answer was: nothing. I just had to sit there and feel terrible. I felt lonely and sad and overwhelmed, and you just feel it. I felt homesick for something I couldn’t identify and entirely umoored. And when I felt like drinking or hurting myself or ending it all just to make the feelings stop, I called someone to sit with you. And kept feeling.

After about a week of feeling all of this, I remember asking my therapist, “How long do I have to sit it in? How do I know when I’m done?” She looked at me and said, “I’m still sitting in it.” There will always be things I need to sit in and feel. It will probably never be as overwhelming as the second week of trauma therapy because I aim to never get to a point again where I have decades worth of built up trauma to process, but there will always be something. No one else could tell me when I was done sitting in it. I just knew. One night, I looked at a picture of my mom and sobbed for hours. After that I knew I had reached the bottom of the cave and it was time to find my way back out.

To be continued in part III…

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.

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.

We Need Holy Saturday

Good Friday makes us uncomfortable.  The blood and the gore of the crucifixion makes us sick.  The guilt that all of this had to happen because of our own terrible actions in this world is almost too much.  And it is for these reasons that we must sit in this space known as Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Most of us skip straight on through from Palm Sunday to Easter morning.  Those are the fun parts, the happy parts.  We listen to children sing and wave branches and sing Hallelujah.  But these two bookends of Holy Week mean significantly less without what happens in between.  If we consider the rest of Holy Week, Palm Sunday suddenly becomes a little more bittersweet.  While the people rejoice and make a beautiful gesture to Christ by laying down coats and branches, one that had been done before in their history to greet kings, Jesus knew what was coming.  He knew that because of these actions, he was seen as a threat to be exterminated by the Roman government.  He likely knew he was in danger by entering Jerusalem.  He knew the time was coming.  Yet, the people rejoiced and exalted him.

When Thursday comes, we remember the power of Eucharist.  These were the final moments of peace Jesus would have before the excruciating events leading up to his death.  For his disciples, it may have been just another Passover at first.  But then Jesus did some strange things.  He washed their feet.  He told them the bread was more than bread and the wine more than wine.  He tried his best to get the message through to them in these last moments they had together.  Not only was Maundy Thursday the last moments Jesus spent with those who loved him before his death, but it’s also Jesus’ final demonstration of what this whole thing has really been about.  He shows them humility.  He tells them that his body is a sacrifice.  He models the vulnerability of ministry.  And they still don’t quite get it.  But they will.

Then Friday comes.  So many of us don’t participate in Good Friday, especially compared to the droves of people who show up on Sunday.  Maybe it’s because we’re too busy or because we don’t see the point.  But there is no Easter without this terrible day.  If we cannot force ourselves to sit in the sadness and the pain of Friday, what good is Sunday?  If Christ is not dead, how can we celebrate him being alive?  We have to allow ourselves to experience the death to experience the resurrection.  In my tradition, we strip the sanctuary.  We read the painful Passion story and watch as candles get blown out and the adornments of the sanctuary are removed.  The crosses are hidden by black cloth.  There is nothing to celebrate.  Jesus is dead.  All is lost. It is painful.  I feel the weight of it in my chest.  Now, of course, we know what is coming.  But the disciples didn’t know.  They thought it was over.  When Christ declared, “it is finished,” it really was finished for them.  This man they had followed and given their lives to, who had shown them the face of God, was gone.  There is no victory in this day.  There is no hope.

Yesterday, on Good Friday, as I left the sanctuary of my church in silence, I was struck by the silence of all those around me.  We left the sanctuary without a sound and carried the reverence through the hallways of the church, only daring to speak once we had entered the parking lot.  The holiness of the pain and suffering we held space for was staggering.  The weight of Good Friday sunk in during these moments.  I was grateful to worship a God who understand my pain.

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps my favorite liturgical day of the year.  That may seem like a strange statement, but the waiting of Holy Saturday sits true in my life.  In Saturday, there is tension.  Saturday is the day when the disciples began to process what had happened.  The tragedy was over.  The body was buried.  It was a day of sitting around and wondering, “what do we do now?”  It is a day of sitting in darkness.  In the words of Thomas Merton, “when the time comes to enter the darkness in which we are naked and helpless and alone; in which we see the insufficiency of our greatest strength and the hollowness of our strongest virtues; in which we have nothing of our own to rely on, and nothing in our nature to support us, and nothing in the world to guide us or give us light – then we find out whether or not we live by faith.”  It’s in the hours of Holy Saturday that we realize our weakness.  Human power cannot bring Christ back from the grave.  No amount of wailing or pleading done by the disciples could resurrect him.  They must have sat around together, confused, crying, defeated, as anyone does after a tragedy.  I imagine them sitting in a house all together.  No one knows what to say because the pain is too great.  They know they have to follow Christ’s instructions to continue to spread his message of hope, but things do not feel hopeful.  They feel broken and they only have each other.  Life feels like this sometimes.  In fact, for a lot of us, we often feel broken more than we feel resurrected.  And the feeling of Holy Saturday affirms that for me.  We have a God who knows suffering.  It’s ok for us to feel broken and lost and confused.  In fact, to fully open ourselves to these two days of mourning means that, when Sunday comes, we may rejoice more fully.

Right now there is pain.  But resurrection will come.  Be here in this pain, with me, with the disciples, and with Christ, but know that it won’t last forever.