We do reap What we sew So Silence and Isolation beget Silence and Isolation As Scrooge discovered But When Silence and Isolation live side-by-side with Compassion with Introspection When Silence and Isolation are born not of Disdain not of Prejudice When Silence and Isolation arise from Fear from Doubt Then Is it truly Miserly? When the greed is not for More but for Less Then What is truly Sown? What is truly Reaped? I see her so clearly this morning. I see her sitting. Silent. Alone in her chair. Her life reduced to so few things. To so few people. Chair. Television. Water mug. Me. And I write, On these cold mornings, I miss her most. But That is Un True There is no Most There is only Always Always Always Always.
It is a day she would have loved — grey, cloudy, overcast, cool for July. She would have loved it.
She loved darkness. She loved storms and wind, and the colour black. She loved heavy things — fat furniture, big cars, chunky jewelry. Substantial, formidable things. Things Built to Last. Like she was.
By the end, one year ago today, she was none of the above. By the 29th of July, 2015, she was small, broken, bruised. One year ago today, she lay silent and immobile. Had done for almost a week. During that week, her smooth, pale skin had grown even more luminous, as though the light of her being was pressing against it from within, making its way out, pushing its way to freedom.
The last time she opened her eyes to me, they were clear, cloudless, grey points of glistening light. I gave her water which I, of course, managed to spill on her. I was crying so hard I couldn’t see what I was doing. The water was icy cold, just the way she liked it, and yet she responded very little when it hit her skin. She only weakly motioned toward the spill with a crooked finger.
Then she realized I was crying. And everything changed.
I watched her call herself back from wherever she had been, from wherever she was going, call herself back to the present, this present, my present, the present in which one of her children was crying.
“Don’t cry, baby,” she mouthed, voiceless. “Please don’t cry.”
How was it that I didn’t realize she was dying?
I, who have been watching people die for most of my life. How did I not see that my mother was dying?
Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it
For most of this year, I, like so much of the world, have been obsessed with Hamilton, an American Musical. The past two weeks have been filled with the song Wait for It on continuous loop in my head even when it’s not playing. Only today, listening to this particular verse have I understood just why.
I spent the last decade of my life with my mother. Nine years living with and caring for her, one year trying to figure out how to live without her here in the form I knew so well, the form I miss so much.
It’s not that I spent that decade waiting for anything. I wasn’t waiting for it to get easier nor for it to be done, over, finished, in some way. I wasn’t waiting for my life to begin once hers was ended. In fact, those ten years were some of the richest most fulfilling years of my life, professionally and personally, beyond and including the healing time spent with my mother.
And it was healing.
Of her four children, I was the one least likely to be chosen as Primary Caregiver in her final years. To say that our relationship for most of my life was “challenging” is the greatest of understatements. And yet the last nine years of her life allowed us to build the kind of relationship I would never have dreamed possible.
For that, I am forever grateful.
So, no, I did not spend all those years waiting. But, today, I realize that, in some ways, I have been waiting, waiting for Something during this past year since her death.
I just don’t know what it is.
I know from what my hospice patients and their families have taught me that following the death of a loved one after a lengthy illness, the Primary Caregiver is often left without an identity, with a nameless emptiness where the Caregiver identity stood for so long.
I just never expected it would happen to me.
Who am I now that I am no longer my mother’s keeper?
Who am I now that I am, officially, an orphan?
I don’t know.
Sitting here writing this as the sun sets, as I approach the actual moment 365 days after her death, I realize there is so much I do not know.
I also realize that’s ok.
Real problems never stem from not knowing. Real problems always result from thinking we know it all.
And I so do not Know It All.
Still, there are a few things I do know.
I know that, orphan though I am, I am still my mother’s daughter. Nothing can ever change that. It is its own “legacy to protect”.
And, I know they never really leave us.
Earlier today, I went for a bottle of wine. When I opened the car door to step out, this awaited me:
As some of you know, my sister, Debbie, collected pennies. This is a penny covered in something that has embedded it into the parking lot pavement and allowed a white feather to attach itself to it. Since she died in 2007, Debbie has sent me pennies at the most difficult times of my life. Today, my mother added an angel feather. And Deb out did herself, scattering pennies all around the feathered one:
No, they never really leave us. Not after the first year, not after 100 years.
…if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it.
And I will do my best to remember I’m not waiting alone.
Unsure of the date, I know only that it is Saturday, the Saturday before my first Mother’s Day without you.
How I miss you.
The world is busy with mothers and the mothered preparing for tomorrow’s festivities. I find I cannot remember ours last year, our last one together.
It had to have been in that horrible place, the one we both hated, the one which you overcame with a grace I did not and will never have. So much of that place I have forgotten. I hope it never comes back to me.
Still, I wish I could remember more clearly our last Mother’s Day together. You refused to go out. You always refused to go out. So, I brought you in something good to eat (a cherry cheesecake?) and a gift sack filled with the little trinkets, the little nothings that you loved. Those memories are clear — your silver head bent low into a bag, your beautiful face rising up with a glow, clutching a Walgreen’s nothing as though it were a Tiffany treasure.
We had little more than two months left together.
Would you still be alive if I had kept you at home? If I had let you stay there alone ten hours a day, you and your dogs, in your old chair with your television? How many more times would you have fallen without telling me, calling the paramedics to come get you up before I got home? How many more times would the smell of something burning have awoken you to remember you’d put something on the stove before the old house burned down around you three?
Would that have been better than that last year as it was, where it was?
I do not know.
There is so much I do not know.
I know only that I miss you. With a magnitude, to a depth, I could not have imagined while you were still with me.
“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
You said that so often. And always, I gave the same reply.
“Yes, I will.”
But, I did not know.
How could I?
Most likely you did.
Not just because you knew everything — in your last years, you simply exhaled wisdom so that even your silences were schooling — but, not only that. You knew because you had lost your own mother. Because you had lived most of my life without her — years and years and decades without her, and so you knew just how fathomless the pain would be, just how total, how all-encompassing, the solitude of being Motherless would be.
“You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
Yes, I do.
The wind you loved blows hard across me out here. I brave it only for the sunlight you despised, the sunlight without which this child of yours cannot survive. Still, it is strong, your wind, and soon it will win over the sun and I will step back inside, grateful that its sound, at least, may follow me.
But now, just for now, let me sit in my sunshine, as your wind blows, carrying with it the memory of your crooked fingers scratching my back, the sweetness of your smile when I walked into the room, the mother-only tenderness of your voice calling me, “Momma’s old sweet baby”.
Thank you for giving me this life. It is such a blessing, such a beauty, such a wonder.
But right now, I would give it all and all and over again, for just one moment’s glimpse of you.
My mother loved clothes. She kept them well. She wore them well. In the years after we all left home, in the years after my father’s death, she began allowing herself to buy more and more clothing. Never anything too expensive or extravagant. She didn’t need that. She could turn Walmart into couture simply by putting it on. She loved crisp, clean lines. She loved blazers and starched button downs and pairs of what she called “good shoes”. She loved silk scarves and the wide, shiny rings she called “bling” in her later years.
All she ever wanted to do was to die at home, sitting in her old chair, surrounded by the things she loved. That was what I wanted so to be able to give her. Instead, during the last two years of her life, my mother had to move four times, each time culling through her things, winnowing out the closets full of clothes she loved so much until the last of her belongings fit into three large bags and a couple of boxes brought from the shared room in the nursing home where she died.
Yesterday, almost five months to the day after her death, I went through those bags and boxes. It seemed the proper way to end the last year of her life.
As a grief counselor, I have heard many stories about the sorting of things. Some good, some not so much. I once saw two brothers come to physical blows over their father’s ancient, ragged, and urine-filled recliner. Things are so much more than things when they are all that is left.
Often I’m asked about the “proper time” to keep things, the “proper time” to let things go. Of course, there is no “proper time”. Textbooks say that leaving a dead loved one’s room untouched past the first anniversary of her death may be a symptom of “complicated grief”. They say the same thing about getting rid of belongings within the first month. I don’t believe either of those things. Not professionally, not personally.
Something happens when we sort through the last tangible vestiges of the dead. Something sad and painful and comforting and beautiful. It is more than the memories called up by their things; it is deeper, more visceral than that. It is something that rises and falls in its own rhythm, a rhythm not bound by time passing on a clock or a calendar. For some, it happens with furious speed, within weeks or even days after the death. For others, it is a slow hum of years, a largo of waiting and touching, picking up and replacing, diving in then avoiding for weeks or months or years at a time.
For me, it was yesterday. The last afternoon of the last year of my mother’s life. I spent it with her. With her things. With the clothes that no longer smelled like her no matter how I longed for them to. With the pieces of bling and silk scarves and fuzzy socks and yellowing books of prayer she had not already dispersed to those she loved. I touched and held and petted and stroked. I cried. I talked to her. I thanked her. I held her. And she held me in each of those last shining bits that reflected so much of who she was. Of who she will always be. A strong and beautiful woman. Gracious. Classy. With a wicked sharp tongue and a wit to match. My mother. Momma. Mommy.
I miss you so much. I love you so much. Happy New Year.
So often this time of year, clients say to me, “I just want to go to sleep and not wake up until it’s next year”.
Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can empathize with this feeling as the holiday whirlwind approaches. This is especially true if you are in the midst of “The Firsts” — First Thanksgiving, First Christmas, First Hanukkah, First Ramadan, First any Special Occasion without your loved one.
This year, in the wake of my mother’s death, I personally find the idea of hibernation incredibly appealing. I can so easily see myself climbing into bed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and not climbing out until after Valentine’s Day. Because who wants to be awake through the bleakness of January anyway?
Even without the added strain of grief, the holidays can be one of the most chaotic and stressful times of the year. The need, fed by retail businesses and the media, to buy the perfect gift, create the perfect day, and be the perfect person, is impossible to meet during the best of times. Add in the sadness, anxiety, fear, and exhaustion of grief, and these unrealistic expectations take on monstrous proportions, with sometimes disastrous results.
I’ve offered many tips for holiday survival through the years, but when it came time to compile them for this post, I was overwhelmed. What good are “Fifty Ways to Take Care of Yourself During the Holidays” when I can barely manage to dress myself in the morning? (Remind me to tell you about the day a few weeks after my mother died, when I managed to put on a blouse, but failed to actually button it up until I was walking across the parking lot into my office…) So, I began culling and cutting the Fifty Ways and wound up with the following four. Four is a number I can manage. At least most days. I hope you can, too.
#1 — Be Your Own Caregiver. Many of us who are grieving have been caregivers. And caregivers are notoriously bad at taking care of themselves. Try imagining what you would do for or say to your dead loved one if he were alive and in your place. Chances are you would tell them that the holidays are not about how much you buy, cook, or do, but about the quality of time you spend with those you love.
S L O W D O W N. My mother often said to me (especially during the holidays), “Stop goin’ at it like you’re killin’ snakes!” Which meant, “Slow down! Just stop, sit down, spend time with me.” Slow down physically, emotionally, financially. Set limits and budgets not just for money, but for the more important things like time, energy, and emotion.
Learn to say “No”. Without apologies, without excuses, just, “No”, simply because No is what’s best for you. In grief, there are days when it takes all we have just to get out of bed. When those days come, reward yourself for simply getting up. Have a quiet cup of tea, take a hot bath, go for a leisurely walk, play — really PLAY — with a child or a pet. And if there’s a day when it is simply impossible to get out of bed, then don’t. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make a meal, a party, or a shopping trip. Everyone’s holidays will not be ruined if you fail to make ANY meals, parties, or shopping trips. Be gentle with yourself. Be as gentle with yourself as you would be with your loved one were he in your place.
#2 — Allow Yourself to Feel What You Feel. Be in the moment, whatever that moment is. I just spent an amazing weekend with my best friend of 37 years. During the 48 hours we were together, we were totally and completely present. We had no agenda, no script, no idea of what we were going to “do” beyond just Being Together and yet somehow we did more, saw more, said more, and felt more than we could possibly have done with even the best constructed plan. It was incredibly healing. A true holiday.
So, if you’re tired, rest. If you can’t face the shopping mall, don’t go. If you want to talk, find someone who will truly listen. If you need time alone, take it. If you’re happy, laugh. If you feel guilty about being happy, acknowledge the guilt, then let it go. If you feel like crying, cry. You won’t “bring everyone down”. In fact, your ability to express your own grief may well give others (especially children) the permission to do the same.
#3 — Re-think Your Holiday Traditions. Take each tradition and ask these question about it:
Where did it come from?
What does it mean?
What is its purpose in our family?
Why do we continue to do it?
What is its True Cost — in money, time, people, energy?
Is this a tradition we really want to keep?
If the True Cost of a must-keep tradition is prohibitive, look at keeping it in a different way, adapt it, or delegate part of its responsibility/costs to others. Teach a younger family member the secret Christmas Cake recipe, then supervise while they do the work. If you don’t want to give up a tradition entirely, then ask for — and allow — others to help you with it. Consider eating out, or buying pre-made dinners or desserts. If the idea of mall shopping while traditional carols blare all around you is more than you can bear, shop online at home while listening to your favorite non-traditional music. Be sure to include your family in these traditions discussions. You may find that a tradition you assumed was priceless really doesn’t mean that much to the family as a whole. What’s more, you may find that together you create brand new traditions.
The first Thanksgiving after my sister died, when my mother and I learned we were going to be alone for the holiday, I asked her if she would be alright with only a turkey breast since it was just the two of us.
“You know, I hate turkey,” she answered.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I knew that…”
“Well, I do.” She made an awful face.
“Um, well, Ok…” I said. “We could do a small ham, maybe?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want any of that kinda stuff.”
“You don’t want any dressing?” I asked. “You don’t want my sweet potatoes?”
“Well, ok, Momma. What do you want then?”
“Enchilladas,” she said, not missing a beat. “I want those enchilladas you make with all that cheese.”
I was incredulous. The woman made herself sick on my sweet potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas. But she insisted, and so a new tradition was born. We had an Enchillada Thanksgiving Dinner each year for the rest of her life, whether we were alone or not. This year, my first without her, I’m making them in her honour for my co-workers.
The best traditions mirror the families from which they come, families that evolve and change from year to year. Death is one of the greatest changes your family will experience. Don’t be afraid to allow your holiday traditions to reflect that change.
#4 — Include the Elephant. Oftentimes, the death of a loved one sits in the room like the proverbial elephant that everyone sees but no one wants to acknowledge. This is especially true during the holidays.
One of the many blessings of my friend’s weekend visit was that I never felt as though I couldn’t or shouldn’t talk about my mother’s death. I never felt I had to, nor that I was expected to, either. I only knew that her death would be a welcome subject should I need it to be. And sometimes I did. Actually, that’s not quite true. It was more that my mother’s memory arose of its own accord throughout our conversations. A time or two, it was about her death, her actual death or funeral, but mostly it was about her life. It was as though my mother knew she was welcome in our weekend and so she made herself known in funny stories, in music, in shared remembrances that flowed seamlessly in and out of those hours we spent together.
So, don’t worry that you “might make everyone feel bad” — most likely, they already do, just as you do, and recognition of your shared pain can be a great relief. Set a place for your loved one at the holiday table, drink a toast to them, include their favourite food. Encourage everyone to tell their best holiday story about the dead, play the music they loved most, write them a letter or a poem and share it. Take the money you would have spent on their holiday gifts and make a memorial donation to their special charity. Volunteer time to help others in their name. The important thing is to acknowledge their absence. In so doing, you acknowledge your on-going love for them — and theirs for you — and that is how you carry them forward with you into this and every future holiday season.
In honour of Children’s Grief Awareness day, I offer the following remembrance from my first participation in a grief camp for children. Children are all too often “overlooked grievers”. When they are remembered at all, their grief is often misunderstood and poorly addressed. Grief camps provide children with a valuable opportunity to share with and learn from those who most truly understand how they feel — other children.
Reading this now, more than eight years later, I find myself wondering about “my boys”, imagining the young men they are now, hoping they remember this longest night of that year. I hope that somehow they know the difference they made in my life and the difference their story continues to make in the lives of others.
The Longest Day of the Year*
“It’s not dark enough yet.” I could just make out the silhouette of her kind face as her whisper rode the night breeze beside me. “We have to wait until it’s completely DARK.”
Jean was tired. I had seen it as we readied for The Water Ceremony. The lines in her face were deeper and she had trouble walking. My own knees were feeling the stress of the miles of hills we had climbed since our arrival at Sun Camp the day before and even the children were showing signs of strain.
Sun Camp is a three-day Grief Camp for children ages seven to seventeen who have experienced the loss of a loved one, usually within the last twelve to eighteen months. Jean and her co-workers started the camp fifteen years ago with a few dollars, some tents, and the genuine desire to help those who are most often the “overlooked grievers”: children. Sun Camp is now an annual tradition, open to children in the twenty-six counties of the Texas Panhandle (an area larger than most U.S. states) and this year hosted ninety-six children, their adult “buddies”, counselors and staff.
The camp itself is no longer exactly “roughing it”. The cabins are large, dormitory-style rooms, bright and (most importantly in June) air-conditioned, with almost-comfortable bunkbeds and relatively clean showers. It is, however, still housed at the bottom of a canyon, which makes even walking to meals a work-out and provides the perfect terrain for children who need physical challenges to match the jumble of emotions left in their hearts and minds by the deaths of loved ones.
This night, as Jean and I sat waiting for the dark, was the end of Sun Camp’s busiest day. A day that began at 7:30 and was filled with hikes and swimming and obstacle courses and, of course, group counseling sessions which are usually far more taxing than anything physical. My own group had faced a particularly tough couple of sessions that day and I hoped that tonight’s Water Ceremony might not prove too much for them.
“My boys”, as I called them, were five ten-year-olds and their two twenty-year-old “buddies”. The younger boys were attending Sun Camp due to the death of a grandfather, two fathers, a mother, and a brother who, at seventeen, had hung himself in his closet and was found by the youngest child in the family, my boy. Their buddies, Nolan and Steve, were Sun Camp alumni, Nolan having attended the first camp fifteen years earlier following the death of his younger brother and Steve only three years prior after losing his beloved grandfather. Without these two, I would have been a far less effective counselor; the buddies provide amazing support and usually create deep bonds with their charges. Both Nolan and Steve had expressed some concern about our group’s ability to cope with the deep emotions that often arise as a result of The Water Ceremony.
The Water Ceremony is one of the highlights of Sun Camp. And the most beautiful. At sunset, the children and their buddies gather at the campfire where they sing and eat S’mores while the counselors and staff prepare the pool area for the ceremony. All lights are turned off and the counselors line the pathway from campfire to pool, holding tapers to light the way for the children as their buddies lead them to the water. The effect is sacred — just as ritual should be. But, it does require the complete darkness of night.
“When is the longest day of the year?” asked a voice from the other side of Jean.
“I don’t know,” answered another.
“I always miss it,” I whispered, thinking of the line from Gatsby. Which is true — I do always miss it, even though each summer I promise myself that I will not. Each summer on my birthday, I make sure that I know which day later in the month will be the longest day of the year, so that I can savour each moment and still, I miss it.
“Well,” said Jean. “It looks like it’s tonight.”
Looking up, I had to agree with her. Only the North Star was visible and it was faint. Even from the bottom of the canyon, the sky was purple with light, though it was already 9:45.
“Let’s wait,” she said. “I want it to be perfect for them.”
So did I. “My boys deserve it,” I thought.
LaMont, “Big L”, full of wit and charm, already aware of both and yet fighting the anger that raged inside him following the death of his mother. At thirty-one, she died of a congenital heart disease that LaMont feared might kill him as well. Bound by my oath of truth, I could not tell him that he was wrong to fear, I could only try to introduce him to the tools to deal with whatever might arise.
Anthony — whose response to finding his revered older brother hanging in a closet was to laugh and eat. And laugh and eat. And laugh and eat. When asked what his brother meant to him, Anthony responded, “He was my everything.”
Harry — a Norman Rockwell painting come to life — all freckles and red hair and bright blue eyes. Never knowing a father, Harry’s grandfather had been his only man. Without him, Harry was quiet and withdrawn, his drawings full of swords and knives and barbed wire.
William and Colton — both now fatherless. Will whose dark eyes crossed without his glasses. Will whose response to sadness was to sleep, just sleep. Will who spent all afternoon in the pool showing me one underwater trick after another. I felt the sun searing my already raw shoulders but nothing could have moved me from his side. And Colton. Colton whose pain had already chisled his boy’s face into the features of a man that had every little girl in camp swooning over him. Colton who clung to Nolan because “he reminds me of my Dad”.
And Nolan and Steve. Little more than boys themselves. Nolan with his bushy hair and bushy beard, able to drag five laughing boys across the pool on his strong back. Tender Steve who gave me a cut out red heart on which he wrote “Love” after our second, most difficult session.
“This is as dark as I think it’s going to get.” Jean stood slowly, holding to my shoulder for support. “Let’s go.”
In silence, we lit our candles and took our places on the path. Squeals of laughter and song from the campfire died out, replaced by the soft rustle of cottonwood leaves and the crunch on dirt and stone of children making their uncertain way to the pool. The darkness was so complete that the buddies had to watch the children closely and the counselors worked hard to make sure our candles lit as much of the pathway as possible.
Even in the dark, I was able to make out my boys. Nolan led the way with Steve behind the five, his arms extended as though to keep them safe. All of them were too focused on not stumbling to notice anything but the bit of light provided by the candles.
Once every child was inside the gates and gathered around the pool, we counselors joined them, making our way to our groups. My boys were wide-eyed, each clasping the floating candle they’d been given and looking at me with doubt. As I lit each candle, I smiled at them with a nod or wink to say, “It’s ok” and they smiled back bravely, despite their fear.
When all the children’s candles were lit, we counselors extinguished ours and Jean gave a short reading explaining the purpose of the ceremony – how the counselors were there to help light the way for the children as the buddies walked beside them in the dark and how the candles that were to be lowered into the water represented the light of their lost loved ones that would remain with the children forever.
When she finished, lovely music began and the buddies helped the children lower their candles into the water of the pool. Soon, the edges were lit by floating rose shaped lights and the children knelt or squatted or lay flat on their bellies to watch which path their particular candle would take.
By the second song, soft sobs could be heard, mostly from the youngest girls, then slowly from each group around the pool. Buddies who had been standing at attention moved closer, not quite sure if they should join the children on the ground, but wanting them to feel their closeness all the same. After three songs, the music went to instrumental guitar and sobs turned to wails as some of the youngest children began to cry out for their dead Mommy or Daddy. Quietly, counselors stepped in to scoop up these children and hold them close, wordless, just rocking, letting heartbeats offer solace.
I watched my boys.
Nolan and Steve stood silent guard at the edge of our five, Nolan’s face was stoic, his arms crossed over his chest, looking calmly from one boy to the next, while Steve, clearly struggling with his own pain, fought hard to keep back tears. Softly, I touched each of them on the shoulder, nudging them towards the ground where they moved to sit cross-legged behind the boys as I stepped up to stand between them.
LaMont stared into the pool, chewing his bottom lip, clenching his fists inside the weight lifting gloves he insisted upon wearing at all times. Beside him, Colton sat rock-still, his eyes glowing wet with the reflection of the candles. Directly in front of me, Anthony hunched forward, head in hands, silently sobbing, while next to him, Will reached under his glasses over and over to wipe his eyes. At the end lay Harry, on his belly, his tears dropping into the pool as he watched his candle make its way toward the centre of the water.
The music ended and still most of the children stayed where they were. As counselors, we were prepared to stay as long – or as short — a time as the children wanted, though Jean had said it was unusual for them to stay beyond the end of the music. And yet, there we were – the music was over and the children showed no sign of wanting to leave. I glanced at Jean, whose face was beautifully candlelit as she sat watching and I could tell that she was surprised by this as well.
After the music, the only sound was quiet crying and the soft lap of water against the sides of the pool. Each candle began to give off a halo, bouncing colours across the water in ever-widening, ever-shrinking, refractions of light.
I looked down. Anthony was looking up at me, his shoulders shaking, his chubby cheeks wet. The first day of camp, the boys had decided it was easier to call me Cat than Stephanie (except for Colton, who insisted upon calling me “Stephie” once he learned I hated it) and so they could be heard throughout the canyon calling me like a lost pet.
I bent down. “Yes, Anthony?”
He said nothing – just looked at me and I felt a shudder to his right as Colton broke softly against my leg. Silently, I lowered myself to the ground behind them, reaching out to pull the five as close as possible. Rarely have I felt as helpless as I did at that moment, my arms too short to wrap up all five of them, using my legs and feet to touch each of them as best I could. They were sobbing as a unit now, Steve, too, pressed against my back and even my impassive Nolan moved in as close as possible.
Together we huddled, my boys and I, in the watery light of a hundred candles, under the night of a million Texas stars, as the longest day of the year came to a close.
I doubt I will ever miss another one.
*originally published in the 2008 anthology, Root Exposure
Saturday, Nov 21st is National Survivors of Suicide Day. For anyone in the Amarillo area who has been affected by the loss of a loved one to suicide, there will gathering hosted by the Texas Panhandle Suicide Prevention Coalition from 12:30 to 2:30 at the Chase Tower, 9th floor, 600 South Tyler, Amarillo.
I will be there and would love to meet you.
You can register for this free event at: https://afsp.wufoo.com/…/survivor-day-2015-attendee-regist…/
I did a radio interview today for National Hospice Month that will be airing the following days/times:
Mix 94.1 Saturday, Nov 21st, 6am
98.7 Jack FM Saturday, Nov 21st, 8am hour
NewsTalk 940 AM Sunday, Nov 22nd, 9am hour
His name was Eric. He was 14.
His mother had died about three months earlier. I had never met her. She was young, only 35, and by the time she had come onto our hospice service, the GBM (Glioblastoma) that had attacked her brain had changed her into someone her son could not recognize, someone who could not recognize him. During the last days of her life, Eric’s gentle, proper mother had screamed obscenities at him from her death bed, accusing him of being a devil sent to torment her, throwing things at him with a strength that belied her physical condition. In the end, medication and exhaustion sent her into a peaceful sleep that allowed Eric to return to her bedside, but kept him from ever again hearing his mother’s true and loving voice.
By the time his father called me, Eric was experiencing long bouts of insomnia, kept awake by fears of dreams in which his mother’s diseased ravaged voice accused him of killing her; sometimes threatening to kill him. Anxiety and sleeplessness were compounding Eric’s normal grief symptoms of anger and withdrawal to the point that his father was more than a little concerned. Struggling with his own grief, he admitted that he feared for his son’s physical and mental health.
“Every day I’m more afraid of what I might find when I walk in from work,” he told me over the phone. “I don’t know what to do to help him.”
I wasn’t sure I did.
At the time, I was what I now call “A Baby Counselor”. In fact, I wasn’t a Grief Counselor at all. I had been a Bereavement Coordinator with my hospice for only about six months and had only just begun the studies that would lead years later to degrees and certifications. I spent much of those first couple of years terrified that I would do more harm than good to people coming to me for help. This was especially true any time I dealt with children. So, it was with great trepidation that I made Eric’s first appointment for a week from his father’s call.
Adolescents are just amazing. Truly. In so many ways. And this is never more evident that when they are grieving. The ability to sit in stony silence when hormones have your body in constant turmoil is amazing enough, but add to that the anger, fear, and utter confusion that comes with death, especially the death of a parent, and the fact that they can sit in total, unmoving, unwavering S I L E N C E for what may well be eternity, is absolutely astounding. But they can.
And Eric did.
“I’m really glad you agreed to come see me,” I told him after his father left the room.
“Your father is really concerned about you.”
“I know it has to seem a little weird to be expected to come in and talk to a total stranger about personal things.”
Silence. Only this time with the addition of arms crossing his chest and what I thought was an eye roll, though I couldn’t say for sure as his eyes were thickly hooded by the black hair that fell forward from his lowered head.
“Do you have anything you want to ask me?”
“Yeah,” he grunted.
I was elated. “Great! What is it?”
“How long do I have to stay here?” He lifted his head only just enough for me to see the glare in his blue eyes.
I knew that glare. I had seen it many, many times from the eyes of the fourteen year old living in my own house. And while I may not have known much as a grief counselor, I knew enough as a mother to understand that how I answered that question, and that glare, would determine exactly where this relationship was going to go, if it went anywhere at all.
So, I was silent.
For a long time.
I picked up a pen and began writing on some forms. After a moment, I heard Eric shift in his chair. I didn’t look up. Another moment. He cleared his throat. I moved papers, but still didn’t look up. Finally, he said,
“Hmmm?” I asked softly, eyes still glued to the papers.
“So??? How long do I have to stay here???” he almost yelled.
I looked up. Where I had expected to see an angry teenager, was the pinched face of a child very near to tears.
“Well,” I said, glancing at the clock facing me on my desk, “Your dad will be back to pick you up at 4:45. It’s 4:15.”
He slumped forward in his chair as though I had slapped him. I wanted nothing so much as to come around the desk and wrap him up in my arms. Instead, I said, “But you can wait for him outside if you want to,” and went back to my papers.
For a moment, I was afraid he might actually do it, but he continued to sit, staring at his feet, while I scribbled at my papers.
At about 4:25, he stood up. I held my breath. But instead of walking to the door, he walked around my office, going from window to wall, back to window, finally stopping at the bookshelf where he stood staring.
“She yours?” he finally asked, picking up a photograph from a shelf.
“Yes,” I said.
“How old is she?”
“In that picture she was five.”
“Oh.” He replaced the photo, picked up another. “This now?”
“She turned fourteen last month.”
He walked back to the chair, looked straight at me and gave me an, “Ok” that was so much more than just an Ok.
“What time is it now?” he asked.
I looked at the clock, having no idea what had just happened, but knowing something definitely had.
“How often is my Dad gonna make me do this?”
“Well,” I said, “He would like for you to come see me once a week for a while.”
“Ok,” he said again. “I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna ask you a question and if you can answer that question, then I’ll come back next week. But just next week.”
He stretched out his legs in front of him, put his hands behind his head, and suddenly I was dealing with a tycoon instead of child.
It was my turn to say, “Ok…”
“Alright — here goes. Here’s my question.” He sat up, looked straight into my eyes, took a deep breath, and said, “Why?”
I waited, our eyes still locked. Finally, I said, “Why….?”
My mind was racing. I desperately wanted to say anything except the only thing I could think of to say, which was also exactly what I knew he expected me to say, which was, Why what???
So, instead I made one of the worst and most common counseling mistakes I could have made — I assumed.
I assumed he was asking, Why did my mother have to die? and I began babbling the worst possible response, a response full of just about every possible platitude from It Was Her Time to She Was In So Much Pain.
More than a decade later, I still cringe thinking about it.
Fortunately for us both, Eric cut me off.
“No, no, no,” he said with righteous disgust. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I know all that junk. That’s not what I’m talkin’ about.”
“Then what are you talking about?” I said, finally asking the question I should have from the start.
“I’m talking about THIS!” he exclaimed, slapping himself full on the chest.
“This! This! This!” he yelled, hitting himself so hard I thought about stopping him. “T H I S!!! All this pain! Why THIS??? All this fucking pain! Why does it have to hurt so fucking much all the fucking time?!? What’s the fucking point????”
I said nothing. I stared.
“Because, I’m tellin’ ya, if you can’t answer that, if you can’t give me some reason, and I mean some really good, GOOD reason, for why I have to feel like this, then I’m not comin’ back here. I don’t care what my dad says. I’m not ever comin’ back here again!”
He fell back in the chair, breathing hard, tears running down his cheeks, but his eyes still locked on mine.
I don’t know how long we sat like that, staring in silence, until I heard myself say,
“I don’t know.”
My voice was weak. I remember wondering if I’d even said it out loud or if it was just the echo of what was rolling around in my head.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No, Eric,” I said a little louder. “I don’t know.”
His flushed face was a mixture of triumph and disappointment. He looked back down at his feet.
“But, I’ll make you a deal now,” I offered. “No, actually, I’ll make you a promise.”
He looked up.
“If you’ll come back, we’ll figure it out. If you’ll keep coming back, we’ll find an answer. We find an answer together.”
He stared hard at me.
“You promise?” he asked.
So, he came back. Every week for about 4 months, he came back. Every week, I dreaded him asking me The Question again. Dreaded, because I still had no answer. Even though I read and studied and researched and prayed and meditated, I still had no Answer. I had answers, I had other people’s answers, I had grief research theories and theses, but I had no Answer. At least none that I knew would meet with anything but a cry of, “Bullshit!” from Eric.
And from myself.
Until one day driving to work, it hit me. It was simple. It was so simple I couldn’t believe it had taken me months to figure it out.
“I think I’ve got it,” I told him during our next session.
“Got what?” he asked.
“The Answer”, I said.
“The answer to your question,” I said. “Your Big Question — from that first day you came here — remember?” .
“Ohhhhhhhhhh!” he said, hanging his head sheepishly. “That. Well. That’s ok. I wasn’t gonna mention it again. I figured you’d just forgotten.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Forgotten? How could I forget that?”
Eric’s smile was big and genuine.
“Alright,” he said, sitting back in his chair. “Ok. Let’s hear it.”
Suddenly, I was wary. When the answer finally came to me, it seemed so obvious, so true in its simplicity, that I had never stopped to think that Eric might not agree. What if he didn’t buy it? But, there was nothing for it now. I knew in my gut that it was The Answer, besides, it was all that I had to give him.
“Ok,” I began. “But first, I need to ask you something. Do you know what “compassion” means?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I guess so…”
“What do you think it means?”
“Well, it’s like… like feeling sorry for somebody, isn’t it? Like really, really sorry for somebody?”
“Not really,” I said. “At least, not completely. What you’re talking about is more like sympathy — like looking at someone who is hurting and feeling sorry for them.”
“Like when I see a guy get slammed to the mat on WWF and I think, ‘Oh man, that musta hurt!’ — that’s sympathy?”
I stifled a laugh.
“Yes, well, pretty much — yes, that’s sympathy. And that’s a good thing to have — having sympathy is a good thing. But it’s not necessarily compassion. To have compassion for someone requires something more, something deeper. Something called ’empathy'”.
“Empathy?” he asked. “Sounds like the same word as sympathy.”
“I know it does, but it isn’t.”
I could feel I was on the verge of losing him to confusion and boredom, so I decided to stick with his own analogy.
“Say you see that same WWF guy get slammed, only this time say that you yourself have been slammed that exact same way…”
“Oh, man — no way!”
“I know, but let’s just say that you have — that something happened to you sometime — an accident or a car wreck — just something that caused you to be thrown down hard and have all the wind knocked out of you like is happening to him.”
“Say that happened to you one time and then you see this WWF guy get slammed onto the mat and he’s lying there and having trouble breathing and can’t get up, only this time when you see him, you remember what it felt like when YOU got slammed. You remember what it felt like when YOU were down and couldn’t breathe and couldn’t get up. And seeing him slammed down there like that now makes you feel again all the same things you felt when it happened to you — Isn’t that a different feeling that just being sorry for the guy?
“Yeah, I guess so…”
“It’s different because you know exactly how he feels because you’ve felt it yourself. It’s deeper, you feel it in a deeper place, you can actually feel it in your body because you HAVE felt it before yourself.”
I could tell by the look on his face that he was beginning to follow.
“So now you’re not just sorry for the guy because it LOOKS like it hurts, you’re actually FEELING what he feels because you’ve been through it yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said enthusiastically. “Ok, yeah — yeah, I see — it’s sort of like re-living it, huh? Yeah, that really does make it different.”
“Yes, it does,” I nodded gratefully. “And that difference is called EMPATHY. Empathy and not just sympathy. It takes empathy to make compassion. And compassion is so much more than just feeling sorry for someone you see hurting or in trouble. Compassion is what makes you want to actually help them.”
We were quiet. I watched him thinking, hoping that I’d made any sense at all. After a bit he spoke.
“Ok, I think I get it. There’s feeling sorry for somebody — that’s SYMpathy. Then there’s that other thing — the thing where you know what it is they’re really going though because you’ve gone through it yourself– that’s the EMpathy thing. Then when you feel the EMpathy thing, and it makes you wanna help somebody, that’s the compassion thing. Is that it?”
I smiled at him, nodding. I was exhausted.
Suddenly, he laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I was just thinkin’ — I don’t think those WWF guys need the compassion thing — I mean, you know that’s all fake doncha?”
It was my turn to laugh.
“Ok,” he said with a grin. “But, so, what’s all that stuff got to do with my question?”
I took a deep breath. I’d been so grateful to get through the WWF analogy, I had almost forgotten The Question.
“It has everything to do with it,” I said. “Because it IS the answer.”
“Compassion,” I said.
“Huh???” His face was all confusion.
“Your question was, ‘Why?’ — right? ‘Why all this pain? What is the point of all this pain?'”
“What is the FUCKING point of all this pain…”
I raised an eyebrow at him.
“Yes, well, that was the question, right?”
He smiled and nodded.
“And that one word is my answer. Compassion. Compassion is the point. Compassion is the point of all your pain.”
He stared at me.
I started to elaborate, but decided to wait and see where he might wind up on his own. After a bit, he shook his head.
“I don’t get it… I mean, yeah, I think I kinda do get it, I mean, I think I kinda see sort of…” He shook his head again. “But, no, not really…”
I smiled at him. I was so proud of this boy, this young man. In the four months since he’d first walked into my office, he had grown so much. He had been through so much, was still going through so much. He was working so hard to make sense of it all and yet still somehow have a “normal” life. I wanted so much to give him an answer, a real answer, a truthful answer, an answer that he could hang onto and build on for the rest of his life.
“Ok,” I began. “At some point in your life, in your future, you’re going to meet a child whose mother or father has died. That may happen to you next week. Or, it may not happen until you’re an old man yourself. But at some time in your future, it’s going to happen. And when it does, you are going to know — and I mean really KNOW — how that child feels. You’re going to not just remember, but to feel again, exactly what you felt the day your mother died, exactly how you feel right now. And out of that feeling, out of that knowing, will rise compassion — a strong desire to help that child. Not because you feel sorry for him, but because you know how, exactly how, he’s hurting. And here’s where the real answer to the question comes — you will be able to act on that feeling of compassion, you will be able to help that child exactly — and ONLY — because you have experienced all the pain you are experiencing right now. Without that pain, you might be able to feel sorry for him, but you won’t be able to really help him. It’s the pain that will make it possible for you to really help others in pain.”
Eric looked at me in silence, then, he lowered his head into his hands and sat like that for a long while. Finally, he sat back up, rubbed his eyes, and leaning back in his chair said,
“Yeah. Ok. Fair enough. I’ll take that. I’ll take that for an answer.”
I have seen this marked increase in despair related morbidity and mortality in the families I work with, especially over the past 5 to 7 years. I believe it correlates directly not only to the circumstances mentioned here, but also to a lack of understanding of the grief associated with these circumstances. Loss of income, job, security, home, health creates cumulative grief that can easily lead to great despair. The hopeful news is that there are grief coping skills and tools that can be taught, learned, and applied to great effect.