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

 

 

Grieving the Almost

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A Facebook friend of mine once shared a post on grieving the almost. It was a beautiful and thoughtful essay on the paradoxical idea that we have the ability to miss something that never really existed, except in our perceptions or in our imaginations.

On the surface, grieving the almost seems impossible. How can you feel the pain of the loss of something that was never yours to lose? It shouldn’t be possible – God knows we have enough grief in this world from the losses of what we can feel with our own five senses. And if reality were just what we can see and touch and hear, it wouldn’t be possible.

But of course it’s possible. Because we all know that just because something happens in our heads, it doesn’t mean it isn’t real. We can grieve the love we thought we felt, but didn’t. We can grieve the marriage that was never really a marriage. We can grieve the job we never got, the dream that was never fulfilled, the potential we never reached. We can grieve the child we never conceived and we can grieve the one we lost but never met.

These days, it’s the grief of that final almost which has been foremost on my mind. I’m posting this in October, the month dedicated to bringing awareness to pregnancy and infant loss – and social media is ensuring that memories of my own loss remain on the edges of my thoughts.

I can say from experience that anyone who has lost a cherished pregnancy, no matter how early, knows what it means to grieve the almost.

A parent is able to love – overwhelmingly – the baby whose proof of life lies only in the faintest of pink lines. A parent can see the child of her heart in the sprout-like form and nubby limbs of an 8-week fetus. A parent can feel the downy hair she never nuzzled; she can know the soft weight that never warmed her chest.

A parent who has lost a pregnancy has grieved – and will always grieve – the almost.

I’m writing this post not so much in the name of awareness, but in remembrance. Because I think the hardest part of pregnancy loss is the knowledge that we (or someone we loved) once carried within her the potential for a life that will not only never be lived, but which will never be known.

And so, this post is for all of the almost babies, the shadow children, who exist in the hearts of so many mothers and fathers.  Your presence is felt in a world you never saw, because you changed those who loved you without ever knowing you. We remember you. We miss you. We grieve for the world that will never know you.

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.

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.

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.

A Christmas Post

This is going to be an unusual post for me: deeply personal, painful, and unedited.

Around this time of year, talking heads on television have a lot to say about what Christmas is, what Christmas should be, and what Christmas is not. Many of them are angry — no, outraged — over how others celebrate their holiday.

Christmas should be about CHRIST, these angry faces argue. Which means that in our words, and in our decorations, and in everything we do outwardly, we should be focusing fully on CHRISTmas. They make definitive assertions about Santa and Jesus and behind everything is an attitude of scathing contempt for people who celebrate Christ’s birth differently from them.

In the midst of this anger are people like me: people for whom Christmas is a season of anxiety, excitement, and bittersweet memories.

I have a hard time at Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday. I have so many treasured memories of the season. And now that I have children of my own, there is even more joy to savor and celebrate. I look forward to it every year.

I also dread it every year. Because Christmas is also the season when my mother, and later my uncle, died of cancer. So along with the memories of happy Christmases past, I have the memory of myself, 11 years old, praying fervently, desperately, that my mom would be out of the hospital to celebrate Christmas with us.

I have the memory of myself a few days later, on Christmas day, in bed with my mother, who had just been released from the hospital, not because she was healthy, but because there was nothing left to do. She was in hospice care.

I have the memory of myself giving her a $5 vial of drugstore perfume, because an 11-year-old has no idea of what impending death really, truly means.

I have the memory of the last time I spoke to my her, the day after that Christmas, but I have no memory of what she said. I remember her coma, her suffering, and her death, which happened on a Sunday, January 6, just after my family returned from the Mass celebrating the Epiphany. My prayers had been answered; she was with us for Christmas, through to its very end. But my grief was nevertheless unfathomable.

It has been 23 years since that last Christmas with my mother and the grief is still there. It has changed and matured and is no longer as incapacitating as it once was. But it lingers, and at times it hits me like a punch in the stomach. I still hide in bathrooms to cry.

So you can imagine how, with all these mixed emotions coursing through my mind, I’m a little on edge at Christmas. Just a little… jumpy, if not actually constantly on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

You can also imagine my feelings when, upon tuning into the Daily Show for some much-needed laughter, I see people who, in the spirit of keeping Christ in Christmas are genuinely, thoroughly infuriated at the idea of a holiday tree in a public square or a tongue-in-cheek Festivus pole near a nativity scene.

Really? You are asking me, as an expression of my true faith in Christ, to be angry about decorations? You want me to be annoyed when people wish me Happy Holidays, and to limit my own greetings to an emphatic Merry Christmas? You want me to call legislators about how they refer to the decorated trees in their cities and you want me to complain when retailers don’t feature life-sized nativity scenes in their Christmas displays? And you want me to do these things because THAT is how we keep Christ in Christmas?

No, thank you. Christmas is hard enough for me. It’s hard enough for many, many other people for whom the holidays are a time that reminds them of their own losses, their failures, their regrets. I’m not going to get angry about how other people celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the birth of a Savior. And I’m not going to get angry at the anger.

Here’s what I am going to do, to keep Christ in Christmas: I am going to ask everyone who reads this to walk away from the anger and the criticism and the so-called culture war over what our Christian faith truly means.  I am going to ask you to remember all of us who are broken or hurting or empty this Christmas. But above all, I am going to breathe through my feelings of joy, anticipation, regret, and pain and I am going to remember that a Child was born and that he was the Prince of Peace.

She was pretty damn special.

She was pretty damn special.

On War and Peace

Over the past week I have been reading about two things: Syria and World War I. The crisis in Syria is everywhere, headlining the news and popping up in church, on social media, and even in overheard conversations at the gym. I couldn’t avoid it if I tried. WWI comes to me by way of an audiobook mystery novel, which has turned out to be a much more worthwhile read than I anticipated when I chose it as this week’s soundtrack for my long-distance training runs.

Because I am a Google addict, all the reading I’ve been doing has had me link-hopping through the last century, from the War to End All Wars, to the war that came after it, to the creation of Israel, to the current conflicts in the Middle East, then back to the Holocaust, and then back again to the invasion of Poland (which, as a former Wujek, is close to my heart) until one night I found myself weeping silently in bed at a 1939 photograph of a young Polish girl kneeling over the body of her sister. The endless internet access given to us by the iPhone can be a great or terrible thing.

It hasn’t been cheerful reading. It hasn’t made me all that proud of my human DNA. It’s hard to keep believing that love wins and that people are essentially decent when it feels like we have spent the last 100 years with the collective fingers of humanity hovering just above the DESTROY button.

In bad times, stories about the helpers — the people that Mr. Rogers tells us about, the people who are, in fact, always there when life is at its worst – usually bring me moments of clarity when I know that goodness overcomes evil. But this week, those stories just haven’t been enough. I can’t stop thinking about the mud of Passchendaele, or the cold of Auschwitz, or the heat of Iraq, or of all our empty repetitions of “never again.”

This is one of those times when the world is too much with me and I feel overwhelmed by the weight of our cruelty toward one another. I feel overwhelmed, but not overcome.

This weekend at Mass, in a ritual as simple as the closing prayer, our priest reminded me that even when it feels like we are just a pebble in a rising tide, and that there is nothing we can do to stop the forces of violence and suffering, we can never be overcome. He ended Mass with the prayer of St. Francis.

He reminded me that I can be an instrument of peace. That where there is hatred, I can sow love. That where there is injury, I can forgive. That where there is discord, I can bring harmony. That where there is doubt, I can inspire faith. That where there is darkness, I can bring light and that where there is sorrow, I can bring joy.

He reminded me that even if these changes happen only in my own heart, I can make them happen.

The prayer of St. Francis may seem on the surface like a submissive prayer, but really it is a prayer of empowerment. It is a prayer in which we open ourselves up to love, so we can use that love to conquer pain and darkness. It is a prayer that gives us a strength that can’t be weakened, not by anything.

***

The Prayer of St. Francis

“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not 
so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”

The prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but was most likely written by a French priest shortly before WWI.