Wednesday, September 18, 2013

I Hate Coats (and other lessons from grief)

Sorrow makes us all children again. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I recently read Justin Lee's excellent post about grief on his blog, Crumbs from the Communion Table. Like me, Lee lost his mom a few weeks ago. He offered words of wisdom for dealing with those of us in the throes of grief.

His thoughtful advice confirmed what I, too, have learned the last 24 days: grief is a difficult, erratic, unpredictable beast.

For instance, I walked in the park earlier this week as the sun was setting, and I felt perfectly fine. The evening was just cool enough for a long, brisk walk, maybe even a run. My legs felt good and strong, and my pace quickened. Endorphins worked their magic, and I smiled at passersby.

But then the Avett Brothers' song, "Through My Prayers", streamed through my ipod, and I was just as quickly not fine. I had never listened to that particular song, and the heart-twisting lyrics were the poetry of my life. I went from jogging and smiling to stopping cold on the trail from the sudden, crushing blow of grief. I bowed my head to hide my tears from others in the park. I moved off the path and sat on a rock by the pond to weep, question, pray, doubt and hope. Eventually, I wiped my eyes and moved forward again.

This is what you do in the midst of loss. You grieve; you move; you grieve; you move. Life will not pause for you to pause. This is both the beauty and curse of the mourning process.

I finished my walk, at a much slower pace, and I found my favorite tree. I leaned against its curved trunk, and I watched clouds play peek-a-boo with the moon. As I breathed in and out, in and out, the inner storm calmed. Once again, grief s-l-o-w-l-y released its vise.

This fluctuating process is daunting and frustrating, especially for someone like me, who always seeks to be happy, who believes in counting blessings, and who counts on those blessings.

Honestly, I'm not at all sure what to do with this unhappiness. I wear it like an awkward, heavy coat, and I despise coats. I want to toss the damn thing in a closet and be done with it already, but grief is a long, hard winter.

I absolutely did not understand the magnitude of the loss of a parent before I lost my mother. I apologize profusely to my friends who have been on this journey, for failing to understand how incredibly fragile you must have felt - and probably sometimes still feel. As we age, we understand that we will lose our parents eventually. It is the natural order of things. So why does it feel so unnatural when it happens? This is what I never grasped before. Losing a parent is like losing a vital part of your identity. It's an amputation. You suddenly don't know who you are.

Is it strange that I sometimes cry quietly for my "Mama", or have even heard myself whisper "Mommy", though I have not called her anything but "Mom" for decades? In those torrents of grief, which come without warning, I am a lost child frantically searching for my mother. Panic surges when she does not appear. Again and again, I relive that 1:50 a.m. phone call from my dad. Was Mom scared when she died? Was she in pain? Did I suddenly awaken 20 minutes before Dad's call that night because I knew? Was it Mom whispering goodbye that woke me, or just the wind?

My heart pounds-pounds-pounds, as if I am five, not 43.

Three weeks after Mom's death, I still find myself wondering if she and Dad will invite me to lunch, as they periodically did. I realize I am eager to show her my newly decorated family room and imagine her face when she sees it. I want her to come to my son's Saturday football game.

This morning, I reached for my phone to call Mom when I learned my daughter was cast as the lead in the school play.

But I can't call her. I can't go to lunch with her. She will never be in my family room again, and my children won't see her at their school events, graduations, or weddings.

If this is terribly self-indulgent, please understand that I do not think for one second that the world revolves around me and my loss. Oh, goodness no. My mom died of cancer, which claims far too many. Sadly, I am hardly alone on this journey, though grief can make you feel that way.

We all wear the cumbersome coat of grief eventually, and some will bear winters that are harder and longer than mine. Some seasons of grief are downright cruel, and for many of you -- whose losses are confounding, senseless and not the natural order of things -- spring must seem forever away.

I share because writing is my therapy and catharsis -- but also because my heart goes out to anyone who has been on this path, or who loves someone who is on it. Loving someone who is grieving isn't easy, either.

I would be lost without those who love me, especially those who are deeply familiar with my journey the past few years and understand why my grief is amplified and why peace seems elusive. Life does not always wrap itself up in pretty, shiny packages, and death occasionally leaves things undone.

But I loved my mom deeply, and I know she loved me. We had the good sense to tell each other that often, no matter what. The bond between mother and child never breaks completely. Not even death can do that. That will have to be enough for me, though admittedly, there are times it feels like it is not. There are days I am terribly angry and feel cheated in ways I cannot describe. There are things I simply will never understand, and I have to find a way to accept that. So I cling to what I know: faith, hope and family. These will tether me. These will carry me home.

I am forever indebted to those who hold my hand, or gently put a hand on my arm because they understand there is no quick fix to what I feel, no Band-Aid, no magic words.

My husband runs marathons, and he has talked of "hitting the wall." While I'm hardly a distance runner, I think I understand what that feels like now -- how every part of you aches, and it hurts to breathe, but you know the only way to the end of the race is one heavy, tired foot in front of the other. This is the path I am forced to walk, or even crawl, when I desperately want to sprint. I want to cross the finish line; I want to look back and know that I made it.

I do not want to do the work of grief, but I have no choice, because I want to embrace each day and be happy. Life will not tarry. There are children and a husband to love; a job to perform; a house to clean; stories to write.

The following excerpt, from the aforementioned Justin Lee post, gets it just right. I hope he doesn't mind that I share his thoughts here. They spoke to me, and I hope they are helpful to others who are grieving or know someone who is:

"Understand that this is a slow, difficult, often confusing journey. Sometimes, I might seem very inconsistent in what I want. As I write this, I’m feeling fine. That’s no guarantee I’ll be feeling fine ten minutes from now. The day after my mother died, I poured myself into work like nothing was wrong. Today, I’m taking the day off to be alone. Months from now, when you’ve forgotten this post, I may still be grieving and have times when it seems like more than I can bear—but feel awkward bringing it up for fear of being a downer.

Don’t assume everything is fine just because I seem to be my usual cheerful self, and don’t assume I’m not fine if I say I really am. Sometimes, grief comes in waves.

The grieving process is a weird thing. But if you are comfortable enough to let me grieve in my own way, you can make it much easier for me to do what I need to do and keep moving forward. And that is one of the marks of a true friend."


Thank you for your patience and understanding, your hand-holding, your compassion and encouragement.

Yesterday, I found a small sign that I loved, so I bought it for my living room, where it sits near a photo of my young, smiling mother. The sign reads, "Find the good." It is my reminder.

Eventually, spring will come again, and though I will never stop missing my mother, I hopefully will trade this heavy coat of grief  for something lighter.

In the meantime, I continue my journey to peace, through my prayers.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Long Way

I take the long way.


I breathe in the September evening.
I breathe you out into the setting sun.

I pause by the pond
where reflections of trees
shimmer on the surface,
but not there.

I walk past rows of corn
where ears wither on stalks.

I cannot tarry here.

I leave the path for the honeysuckle
that tumbles over the old fence
still lush, still fragrant,
denying fall.

I pluck two blossoms,
inhale their sweetness.

I find myself at this tree
two trees, really,
growing in opposite directions
yet bound by roots.
I touch the earth,
where the two trunks meet.

I breathe you in.

I breathe you out.