What Grief Has Taught Me

what grief has taught me

It’s January 6th again, the day that I dread. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t dread this day, and I think I will continue to dread it as long as my memory is intact. I’ve been dreading it more than usual this year, because January 6, 2016 is kind of a big deal.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death from breast cancer. I don’t know why this number seems so significant. There is something about a quarter of a century that feels substantial.

And I don’t know why measuring the time that has passed is so important to me. It’s something I just do, automatically. I can say with certainty, though, that these 25 years have changed me. Looking back to 1991 from 2016 feels like looking from one world to another. To me, it is a different world. I’ve grown up.

I’ve grown up, and I’ve grown in understanding. The roles that cancer and loss have played in my life have never been far from my mind. I’m a thinker (and an over-thinker), and I’ve never stopped thinking about the parts of my life that have so fundamentally shaped the person I’ve become.

So, small though my pool of knowledge might be, I do know this:

Cancer is a family disease.

I’ve never had cancer, but cancer is a part of me.

My mother was first diagnosed when I was four. I was young, but I was very aware of the fear gripping my family. I used to have this nightmare, over and over and over, so often that 32 years later I can still remember it in near-perfect detail. I was in my parents’ bedroom – pale blue walls, bed covered with a white, tufted chenille bedspread. My mother was standing at the foot of the bed packing a suitcase. My father was in the corner of the room crying. I was squeezed between the bed and the wall, watching, hidden. Behind my mother a bear hovered — it wanted to take her away. I knew my mother was scared but didn’t want to show it, and I knew that my father was crying because he was helpless.  This scene would repeat itself in a loop, and it scared me stiff.

Chronic illness — when it carries with it the potential of a death sentence — is terrifying for the person fighting it. It is also terrifying for those who love and need that person. During the long seven years of my mother’s illness, in my heart I was fighting alongside her. The time that has passed since her death has done nothing to diminish my sense of having battled and lost to cancer.

Sharing death with someone is an intimate, profoundly affecting act and everyone should do it once.

My mother died at Christmas. Technically, she died on the last day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. But really, her death began on the 26th when she fell into a coma that only broke when her pain became uncontrollable.

I was there the whole time. I was with her when she lost consciousness. I heard her when she emerged only to moan in pain. I learned what dying breaths sound like and I stood beside her as those breaths ebbed to a stop. I could almost see her soul depart her body.

Four years ago, when I was nearly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I sat in another room with another person I loved as cancer took his life away too. This time, it was my uncle – one of the best humans I’ve ever known – who was making his surrender. With my aunt and my cousins, I held his hand through a death that was not peaceful.

The memories of my mother and my uncle dying are among my most painful. But I also treasure them. There was an inexplicable beauty in those moments, a sense of connectedness and love. I’m better because of them.

Grief grows as one body.

When you first experience grief – not just great sadness, grief – it creates a sort of nerve in you with the cause of your grief at its core. And once that nerve exists within you, you can’t experience loss without it being touched.

Shortly after my mother died, my grandfather died, also of cancer. I grieved my grandfather, whom I loved deeply, but his death renewed my grief for my mother. As death took more of the people I loved, an uncle, my grandmothers, an uncle again, I grieved each individually and all of them together.

When my second uncle died four years ago, I felt the loss of everyone who had gone before him. But oddly enough, the grief I felt was also a kind of resurrection. Grieving them together somehow brought them back to me individually. For a time they were all with me again.

People die, but grief doesn’t.

Grief is a gut punch like no other. It shatters you absolutely. People tell you that it goes away with time, but it doesn’t.

And as much as you wish in the early days that it will go away, that it will release you and let you go back to being the person you were before it took over your life, you end up not wanting it to go away.

Time makes living with your grief more bearable, but it also takes you further away from the person you have lost. Eventually, grief becomes the strongest connection you have with them.

In 25 years, the world has changed. I’ve changed. And with every year that passes, it’s as though time has taken my mother further away from me. I don’t feel her presence anymore. The memories I have of her are pitifully few. I take them out like treasures now, cherishing them, guarding them, but lacking a sense of their relevance in my daily life.

And now that the grief of missing her in every moment has lessened, a new grief has taken its place – the grief of not missing her in every moment. It’s a quieter grief — and more bearable — but it’s grief all the same.

After 25 years, what I know above all things is that grief never dies.

Mom

 

 

What Are 24 Years?

For the last 23 years, on January 6th, I have written. I’ve written journal entries, poems (some good, some terrible), letters, and, more recently, posts on social media.

I started writing when I passed that most challenging of milestones, the first anniversary of my mother’s death. Writing has always been my way of processing emotions that are bigger than I am, and back then, it was the only resource I had to absorb the excesses of my grief.

So I am writing again today, because I have to.  I’m not about to break a tradition that I have kept up for more than two-thirds of my lifetime. But also, even after 24 years, the grief of losing my mother is still bigger than I am, and I still struggle to process the meaning of what I lost so long ago.

* * *

When you lose someone you love early in life, you grow up measuring your time on earth based on how far removed you are from the loss of that person. In my early 20’s, I reached the point where I had spent half of my life without my mother. Two years ago, it was two-thirds of my life. And in 10 years, three-quarters of my life with have been lived without my mom.

And yet, after all this time, with so many more years under my belt without her than with her, I still miss her. I still miss her so much that it can be hard to understand how it is possible to long for someone who has been gone from your life several times longer than she was a part of it. It can be hard to understand how you can miss the presence of a person whose presence you barely remember.

But I do miss her. I do wish she was still a part of my life. My mom was amazing in so many ways. She loved generously, she fought bravely, and she was always there — even when she was hurting, even when she was dying. She never let cancer steal the life she was determined to provide for her family. Even in the end, when it was so clear that her body was ready to rest, she still held on until she just couldn’t hold on any longer.

She didn’t deserve to die, and we didn’t deserve to lose her. It breaks my heart that with every passing year I grow farther away from the time when I had her. It breaks my heart to think about how much I have forgotten and what I will never have.

Losing a parent at a very young age means that you spend the majority of your life as a person who has lost a part of herself. You become motherless — or fatherless, or sisterless, or brotherless — in your very definition of yourself. And the child that you were when you lost  that person becomes a permanent segment of your soul as well. It’s impossible to let go of the part of you that once had what you so deeply miss.

That’s not to say that you don’t grow up, or mature, or come to grips with your grief. It doesn’t mean you don’t experience or appreciate the joys and the richness your life brings you. You do grow up. I have grown up, and my life so far has been good. Really, really good.

But the 11-year-old girl who lost more than she thought she could ever regain is still with me. And the adult who has lived without for so long still grieves the emptiness.

Twenty-four years is everything and it is nothing.

* * *

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Mom loved giraffes.

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

She hated birds. (You would too if a seagull had once pooped on your head.)

And she adored her children.

And she adored her children.

The Red Bottle of Perfume: A Christmas Story

On Christmas day 1990 my mother was released from the hospital. Not because she was healed, but because there was nothing left to do. Her long battle against cancer had been fought. She was dying.

That day was the last full one we had with her – on December 26, she said her final goodbyes and allowed herself to lapse into a coma. Her body kept itself going for 11 more days, but she was no longer with us. On January 6 – the Feast of the Epiphany – shortly after our family had returned from Mass, she quietly passed away.

There is a picture from that last Christmas we had with her. It’s one that I can hardly bear to look at because it always makes me cry.  Partly because of how sick she looks in it – and she was so sick – but also because in this picture, she is holding a bright red bottle of cheap drugstore perfume. It was my present to her that year.

I still remember buying it from the drugstore down the road from my house. I picked it because I liked how shiny the bottle was; it had smoothly curved lines and looked, to an 11-year-old, very sophisticated.

On some level, I must have known it was the last gift I would ever give my mother. It was clear that she was ill beyond the point recovery. But I don’t remember ever thinking that way. In my mind, I was buying her a Christmas gift that she would get the chance to use.

In a sense, this is one of the most heart-breaking memories of my life, thinking about how incapable I was of understanding the fact that she was dying. It is painful to relive the disbelief – shock, almost– that you feel in the moment of the death of a loved one. It seems like death, even when you have watched it slowly approach, is rarely easy to accept. Certainly, at 11 going on 12, I couldn’t accept it. I held on to hope all the way through to the very last moment.

***

On the other hand, what a miracle. What a miracle that spark of hope was.

This ability to hang on to hope, to grasp tightly to our chests the belief that all will be well, through even the most hopeless of situations is one of the best aspects of our humanity.

It’s also part of what makes the celebration of Christmas so enduring, and so endearing. The human spirit gravitates toward hope, and hope is what was born on what we remember as Christmas night.

In our modern Christian dialogue, we refer to Christmas as the birth of a Savior. But that isn’t what we see in the nativity as we know it. In our nativity story, a baby is born in the lowliest of circumstances to a homeless couple with no political, economic, or social standing. This baby has come to us through miraculous means, but he enters the world as powerless as a person can possibly be.

And yet, in this baby, a latent potential is already recognized. In him, the stories tell us, the hope of a nation rests. In him, the prospect of salvation lives.

***

Hope is the essence of our Christmas story. It is what allows us to believe that in a helpless

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Hasta la Vista, Tio Bobbo

Three years ago today, when I was exactly 37 weeks pregnant with my second daughter, I stood together with my cousins and my aunt, and we held my uncle’s hand as he slowly passed away.

Maybe one day I will be able to describe what it feels like to help someone you love dearly to leave this world when you are on the cusp of ushering another soul into it. It’s been three years since it happened to me, and I still can’t find the words I need. All I can say is that, before the moment of my uncle’s death, I had both seen life end and brought life forth and neither of those experiences touched me as profoundly, as radically, as that moment did.

It was cancer that killed my uncle. It seems like it’s always cancer in my family. Before it took my uncle, it had already taken my mother, my grandfather, and my other uncle. Cancer stalked and killed four-fifths of my mother’s family. That may sound melodramatic, but it feels true. Cancer took my husband’s mother too, and his uncle and a grandmother as well. It has been such a huge part of my life, that sometimes I forget I am not a survivor of the disease myself.

Or maybe I am? I am a survivor of those who have fought the battle and been overcome by a disease that seems never to pull its punches. Really, so is anyone who has lived through even one day of the fear and the pain; the chemo and the radiation; the treatments that are even worse than the disease, whether they won or lost that final battle. My whole family, then, both the living and the dead, are cancer survivors.

So this post is for them all, because I love them. But mostly it’s for my Uncle Bob, the best uncle a girl could hope for and one of the finest humans I have ever known.

Hasta La Vista, Tio Bobbo

Hasta La Vista, Tio Bobbo

 

They Love Us Too

Last week, a dear friend of mine shared a beautiful tribute to her father, who passed away several months after her wedding, shortly after she became pregnant with her first child. She wrote:

“Today, on what would have been my dad’s 74th birthday, I remember the song I picked for the father/daughter dance at my wedding: Forever Young, by Bob Dylan.  I shared the song with my dad a couple of months before the wedding, and when he heard it for the first time, he teared up.  He understood why I chose it – not only is it a wish from him for me, but also from me for him.  We practiced dancing a little bit that day in my parents’ living room, and looking back I’m so very happy that we did.  By the time the wedding day rolled around, cancer radiation treatment had left my dad unable to stand without support.  Dad and I didn’t get to dance at my wedding, and a little part of me is sad when I think about that, but more so I am grateful that he was able to be there at all.
So, Dad, this one’s for you. 

I thought her post was profoundly touching, and not just because I knew her father — who was a good, kind, immensely intelligent man — or because I know how it feels to regret what you could not do with a beloved parent who has been beaten down by cancer.

What moved me the most was what she said about the song she chose for her father/daughter wedding dance — that the words of Forever Young were not just a wish from him to her, but also from her to him.

Bob Dylan’s Forever Young is a song whose lyrics can bring even the most unsentimental parent to tears. The first stanza alone has everything you need to feel both heart-swellingly hopeful about your child’s future and crushingly nostalgic about the childhood she will inevitably leave behind:

May God bless and keep you always.
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others,
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars,
And climb on every rung. May you stay forever young.

Of course these are the things every parent wants for her children.  We want them to follow their dreams, and to be righteous and brave. We want them to be loved, and to know truth, and to find joy. We want them to be young, forever. We want them to have everything in the world that is good.

But my friend took this point further and reminded me that these are the same things our children want for us, their parents.

I have written before that the best thing we can do for our children is to be there, beside them, as they walk through life. But it is also important, for us and for them, to remember that —  behind the tantrums and the defiance and the smug know-it-all-ism of their early years — they both want and need their parents to be content and fulfilled. They want us to be strong, and healthy, and as young as they remember us to be. They want good things for us, too.

Our children, particularly when they are young, don’t often show us that our welfare matters to them. I’m pretty sure that if you asked my three-year-old, she would say that her greatest hope for me is that I forever provide her with goldfish crackers. Or that I forget the word “nap.”  My five-year-old would like me to concede with prejudice that I am not, in fact, the boss of her. I feel certain they would neither acknowledge nor express any lofty aspirations for me. But I think our children feel a need for our happiness nevertheless.

* * *

For the last few months, I have been battling one rough winter illness after another. I had antibiotic resistant strep throat for four weeks back in December, which led me to discover some minor, though temporarily worrisome, heart problems. Then in January, I picked up the norovirus at Chuck E. Cheese, which knocked me out for eight solid days. I am currently winding up another course of antibiotics for a sinus/ear infection and bronchitis. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I haven’t been my usual self.

While all this was going on, I noticed that my five-year-old’s behavior at home had been getting increasingly worse. She was being contrary, oppositional, and having massive meltdowns at the least provocation. I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t figure out why she had picked the time when I was at my weakest to bring out her worst behavior.

But eventually it dawned on me. She was reacting to my illnesses. It was because I was at my weakest that her behavior was it its worst. I wasn’t well and she was worried about me. I wouldn’t have argued if she had shown her concern in a less challenging way, but that’s how my girl rolls — when life pushes her over her limits, she pushes right back at life.

* * *

Our kids love us and need us to be there for them. They also want, and need, for us to be well and happy*. Our wellbeing affects them — but it also matters to them. They can’t find their own contentment if we haven’t found ours.

And if we do our job right, one day, our children will want everything for us that we want for them. That is a big and beautiful thought, and I am so thankful to my friend for reminding me that the love and concern we parents feel for our children is reciprocated, and powerfully so.

This one’s for you, CHW. And yes, Dad, this is my way of saying I love you, too.

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

From the Forever Young Book, by Bob Dylan and Paul Rogers

*Read more about our right to be well and happy at These Walls Blog, by my friend Julie.

A Tale in Eight Words

There is a legend about Ernest Hemingway, in which the author bets a group of his fellow writers that he can compose an entire short story in six words. No one believes him, so he ups the ante to $10 from everyone who says he can’t. And then he writes the following words on a napkin:

“For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

We can assume that Hemingway won his bet. In the context of the time period, these words — by this particular writer — require only a fragment of imagination to put together an emotionally charged story of hopeful anticipation, heartbreaking loss, and the moving forward of the human spirit. The words are simple; the tale they evoke is profound.

Over the past week, another simple sentence has been in my mind:

“A gunman opened fire in a crowded mall.” 

In just eight words, within the context of our own culture, we have another story that is chillingly complete. We don’t need any imagination at all to know that terror and violence followed. That people were hurt in body and in mind and lives were lost. That there were heroes there too, and that strangers helped one another to survive. 

Those eight words are enough to tell us that a community was changed, forever. And they have been in my mind because this time, it was my community that was changed. 

Ten days ago, a disturbed young man came to the Mall in Columbia, less than two miles from my own home. He carried with him a bag that contained a gun, ammunition, and crude explosive devices. He opened fire in one of the most crowded areas of the mall, during one of the busiest times of the week. He killed two people, and caused injury to several others, before shooting himself. And all of this happened in front of hundreds of people — children, teens, and adults — who were living out their daily lives in a location that could reasonably be considered safe.

It’s hard to express how surreal it is to see your own neighborhood on national news as the scene of what appears to be yet another mass shooting. It is surreal, but not entirely shocking — I’m realistic (and anxiety-ridden) enough to know that a gunman shooting in a crowd can happen anywhere. Part of me was waiting for something like this to happen somewhere close by. Our mall is the ideal location for this kind of violence. But way you feel when you actually witness a shooting event unfold in your own community — with the knowledge that your own friends and neighbors are among those caught in the fray — is inexplicable.

Compared to other similar shootings, we got lucky — “only” two lives were lost. From what I have read in the news, it seems like our shooter intended to kill more people, but for some reason we will never know, he chose to stop the madness and kill himself instead. I’d like to think that he saw the horror he had caused, and just couldn’t cause any more. I’d like to think — and I do — that he felt remorse.

In the aftermath of a tragedy like the one that happened here we are faced with a sea of questions that come crashing in like waves. The most insistent of these questions is also the most contentious: How do we stop this from happening again? I wish I could answer this. Or, perhaps more accurately, I wish that we as a society could come together to answer this question. Because I do have my own answers, and I feel strongly about them. But for every person who agrees with me, there is another person who passionately disagrees with me. And it feels like none of us wants to listen to anyone else, with the result that instead of stopping the hatred and violence, we are fueling it instead.

But there is another, much smaller question, that faces my own community. And this question is: Do the events of January 25, 2014 define who we are?

I think they do.

People often use the word “overcome” to describe struggling successfully through adversity. But I won’t. Because when I think of someone overcoming something,  I envision an obstacle being climbed and left behind. We overcome the bumps in the road that try to stop our progress: injuries, illnesses, setbacks in our careers.

We don’t overcome hardship: we toil through it, absorbing it as we go, until it becomes a part of us. We weather it and survive it. Survival sounds like a pathetic goal, but it isn’t. Surviving is the most powerful kind of living. And when we survive adversity, we can never leave that adversity behind — because as we were mucking through, we were shaping our spirit. We are changed, forever, and I would argue, for the better.

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My lovely little city is an idyllic place to live. Our schools are excellent. We have hundreds of miles of woodland pathways that are trailed by rivers and streams. From my own home, I can run to three different lakes, where I can see deer and blue heron and geese and ducks and tiny little turtles and frogs. In the summertime, there are musicians, and dance instructions, and family movies at the large lake behind the mall. There are free concerts at one of our several truly beautiful local parks. I chose to live here because I didn’t want to live anywhere else. I love my life here.

But we are now a lovely little city where a gunman opened fire in a crowded mall. Those eight words have changed us forever. A tragedy of this magnitude must leave its scar. The lives of two young people were taken from us; we can never be the same again.

We are changed forever in another way, too. Because the events of that day brought out a part of our community that we had never seen before — a part that was always there, but whose fine edges were etched deeper through survival.

We  now know that we are a community that comes together in a crisis. We know that we can trust our emergency system — from the dispatchers to the first responders to the crime scene investigators — to do its job and to do it well.

 Our police arrived within two minutes of the first call. Dispatchers calmly talked people through their fear and advised them on what to do to stay safe. Stories from those who were in the mall at the time of  the shooting show acts of heroism and compassion from everyone who was there. Shoppers helped and comforted one another. Mall employees almost universally jumped in to help bring people to safety. They provided shelter and shared their food and helped entertain the children.

And we were taking care of those of us who weren’t there too. Within minutes of the first 911 call to the mall, I received a message from a dispatcher friend telling me to stay away. Seconds later, a friend who was at the mall with her young daughter posted the same message on Facebook. And within a half an hour, I saw more posts, e-mails, and text messages from people checking in on me and others than I could count. I have never been more proud to be a part of any community than I was that day.

We could have heard a story about mass chaos, about patrons crushing each other to get to safety and employees abandoning their posts to barricade themselves in the offices or backrooms of their businesses. We could have heard about inefficiencies in our emergency system or inadequacy among the officers who responded. But that’s not what happened. People shone.

A tale can be told in eight simple words. Lives can be lost, hearts can be broken, and a community can be permanently changed. But  of course we know that there is more to the story, more than can ever be put into words. My community has lived this story, and we will continue to live this story for as long as people can remember it. We won’t overcome it, but we will survive it. We will shine even more brightly because of the scars.

I still don’t want to live anywhere else in the world.

* * *

These photos were taken of an impromptu memorial at the Zumiez store where the events on January 25 occurred.

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Brianna Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and Darion Aguilar: I pray that your souls may find peace and that your loved ones may find solace as they survive your loss.

We Are All They Need

Today is Janurary 6, my mother’s day. It became “my” mother’s day 23 years ago when my own mother, after a nearly eight-year battle, lost her life to breast cancer and when I became aware of how vitally important a mother’s presence is in the lives of her children.

For many years, whenever January 6th arrived, I thought about my own losses. A first, I missed her with every nerve; I felt flayed and exposed to a host of things that were beyond my understanding. Gradually, my piercing grief was replaced by a longing that was no less intense, because it contained the realization that with each passing year I was separated even further from her.

But now that I have children of my own, when January 6th rolls around I find myself thinking less about my own losses and more about what my mother lost when she died.

She was so beautiful.

She was so beautiful.

Parenthood is a future-thinking endeavor. When we first breathe in the newness of our just-born child, we look forward, far forward, to decades of moments with that brand-new baby. Yes, we marvel at their smallness, their freshness, their perfection. We revel in the tiny yet immense gift we have been given. But we also envision what that baby will be like as a child, and as a teenager, and as an adult. We see them on birthdays, on holidays, at graduations and weddings. We see their children.

We plan to be with them until they are grown, and to experience life with them after they have reached their potential as adults. We don’t plan for our relationship with them to end when they are children.

When my mom died, she didn’t just lose her own life. She lost her life with her children. For her, my life and my brother’s life, intertwined as they were with her own, ended when we were eleven and six.

I can’t even imagine how painful it must have been for her, when she finally accepted that the end was near, to know that she was about to lose her future with us. That she would miss all of the moments of our lives, big and small, for the rest of our lives. That she would never know us as adults, or meet the people who would become important to us as we matured. That she would never, ever, hold a grandchild in her arms.

As her daughter, and as the mother of my own children, it breaks my heart to know that this face…

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…and this face

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…are wholly unknown to her.

When she knew that she was dying, she also had to know that she was letting go of a million moments with her children. That the past was all she would ever have with us. She must have experienced the kind of pain that pray I never have to face.

***

This is not going to turn into one of those “enjoy every moment with your child because you never know how many you have” posts. I could go there, but I’m not a hypocrite. I would wager large sums of money that, when my children are grown and gone, I absolutely will not be longing to re-experience the prickly-hot feeling of panic spiked with shame that comes over you when your five-year-old is publicly behaving like a spoiled toddler, while your toddler is running in circles like an untrained dog smelling distinctly of eau de poo. There are many moments that I won’t miss.

I’m not even saying that we moms (and dads!) should be doing anything differently. If anything, I am saying we should all do less, or at least that we should worry less about what we should be doing. Because if I have learned one thing after 23 years of being without my mother, I can tell you that what I missed, what I craved, was her. Her presence. The knowledge that the world contained her.

I didn’t need any extras. I didn’t need perfection. I would have preferred to have had her healthy, but to have had her at all was a blessing and, as I have learned, a luxury. To have had her, just as she was, was enough.

And if just having her was enough, then it follows that just having us, their parents, is enough for our own children. The fact that we are in their lives, that we are actively loving them, is enough. Our flaws and imperfections and mistakes do nothing to lessen the impact of our mere presence. Isn’t that a freeing thought?

What I am saying is that the sum of moments that we have with our children is probably the best thing that we, or they, will ever have. And that if we are able to look forward to a future of these moments, when we and they are all present together in this world, then we are damned lucky.