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.

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.