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.

45482601_10155539101076580_3296693703862648832_n
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.

23167561_10154750351821580_7681026325849367179_n
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.