Betty Jo’s Daughter

It has been eighteen months.  Almost to the day.

Eighteen months of loss — living with loss, working with loss, experiencing and re-experiencing loss after loss after loss.

Loss to death, yes.  Professionally, every day in the work that I love and know I am meant to do.  Personally, when, in the first fifteen months of life without my mother, I had to put down three precious pets, including her own Border Collie, the beloved BelleRogers.

But other losses as well.  Less obvious, more insidious losses.  Betrayals and desertions.  Broken promises.  Misplaced trust.  The falling away of people and things and circumstances I had expected to carry me through the rest of my life.  The loss of home and health and strength and stamina and peace.  The loss of dreams.  The loss of hope.

“Ambiguous losses”, “Secondary losses”.

The pain and confusion of which has been neither ambiguous nor secondary.

The eighteen hardest months of my life.

Harder than being young and broke and hungry in every way there is to be hungry.  Harder than the aftermath of three miscarriages.  Harder than the disintegration of a decade-long career.  Harder than the dissolution of a twenty year marriage.  Harder than the death of my father.  Harder than the death of my sister.  Harder, even, than the death of my mother itself.

Harder, because through all those other circumstances, all those other experiences and lessons, I still had her.  She was with me.  Even when I was not with her.

Which was much of the time.

Ours was a difficult relationship.  She was not an easy mother.  I was not an easy child.  I think we often made it look easy, at least far easier than it was.  Much of that was due to her ability to be one person outside our home and a completely different one inside it.  Much of it was due to my luck in simply not getting caught at the many things I did just to get away and stay away from her — physically, emotionally, mentally Away.

Still, no matter what, no matter when, I always knew she was “there” — whether I wanted her to be or not.  I think I spent much, too much, of my life, resenting rather than being grateful for that.  Years when I clung too ferociously to memories of bloody lips and even bloodier words, refusing to allow myself the full benefit of the truly unconditional love that was hers, and hers alone, for me.

I thought I had let go all that during the last ten years of her life, those years we spent together.  And I did let go much of it.  But, I think, not all.  Perhaps it is not possible to let go all. Perhaps, even, we are not meant to.  Perhaps we are meant, instead, to use it to rise, to evolve into something better, into someone more.

The title of this blog is Embracing Your Grief.  Looking back over these eighteen months, I can see that, despite my best efforts, I have failed to do that.

It’s not so much that I have denied my grief.  Certainly I have not insisted upon some “alternative fact” to my mother’s death and its subsequent losses.  And there have most definitely been times in these eighteen months when I have forced myself to take my own advice and “lean into” the pain of her loss.  Those times, those nights of literal Crying Out to and for her, those days of Sitting With the literal inability to breathe in a world in which she no longer does, have, without doubt, saved what sanity I have left.

But it does not mean that I have embraced my grief.

At least not fully.

Because that requires purpose.

And for the past eighteen months, I have had very little purpose beyond just getting through one day, one moment, to the next.

For months now, I have tried to write of the grief I have felt since the night of November 8th, as I watched my greatest fears realized one Electoral College vote after another.  I have tried so many times to write of this latest loss, but I have yet to get further than a sentence or two, and, most times, not even that.

It is a national grief, at least for many of us. And it goes far beyond the failure of a particular candidate to be elected to office.

Personally, Hillary Clinton was never “my candidate”.  Bernie Sanders was my candidate.  Elizabeth Warren could have been my candidate.  Not Hillary.  However, she was, and is, imminently more qualified than any of the sixteen possible opponents she faced and certainly far more able than the one who was ultimately enthroned by our outmoded, outdated Electoral College system.

But, no, I do not grieve the particular loss of Hillary Clinton as POTUS.

The losses I grieve, the losses I believe so much of the nation joins me in grieving, are much greater, much deeper, much more visceral than that.

I grieve the loss of national compassion.  Of tolerance.  Of empathy.  I grieve the proliferation of national racism.  Of greed.  Of misogyny.  I grieve the fact that intelligence and liberality and open-mindedness have become sins.  I grieve the blow to my belief that people are basically, inherently good.  That, given opportunity and information, they will make choices that reflect that inherent goodness, not only for their own best interests, but for the Common Good, for the Greater Good.

That is tremendous grief.

And it, like the grief of my mother’s death, has been more than I have been able to embrace.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday, scrolling through photographs of peaceful protests across not just my country, but the world, by women and the men who are strong enough to support them, I realized that the blow to my belief in the basic goodness of humanity has not been a fatal one.

Not by a long shot.

Yesterday, I saw my mother in the faces of those women.  I heard my mother’s voice telling me as it had done from infancy that I could do, could be, anything and anyone I chose, telling me that I did not need a man to give me permission or make it possible for me to do so. I heard my mother telling me that women are the strongest creatures in the world.

Yesterday, I heard my mother remind me of my purpose.

I bear within me the same Cherokee native/Irish immigrant blood that carried her through almost nine decades of a life filled with far greater challenges than any I have ever faced.  There is strength and hope in that blood.  Great strength.  Boundless hope.

The kind of strength and hope that allowed an uneducated 25 year old mother of a severely disabled child to look at doctors and say, “Oh, no, my child will not die.  I don’t care what you say — my child will not die.”  The kind of strength and hope that fought for that child’s highest quality of life for 58 years, then managed to help that life end with grace and dignity and peace.

The kind of strength and hope on which this entire nation has been built.

Yesterday, my mother reminded me of all that.  Yesterday, my mother reminded me that I am her daughter.

No matter what, no matter who, no matter the loss, the heartbreak, the disappointment, the abandonment, the rejection, the fear that has occurred in the last eighteen months, and that no doubt lies ahead,  I am Stephanie Dawn Monica Rogers, Betty Jo’s daughter.

Betty Jo’s purposeful daughter.

And she has given me the strength to embrace anything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ornamental

 

 

invitation-page-001I brought it with me over ten years ago from East Texas.  Four hundred miles and more than one lifetime from where I am now.

I call it, “The Memory Tree Service” — a way to honour the dead during a time when their absence is most deeply felt, but seldom marked.

It has been a part of my life for so long now that the memory of its creation is a bit hazy, as though there’s never really been a holiday season that didn’t include a Memory Tree Service, just as it seems as though there’s never been a time when I wasn’t “a death professional”.

But there was.

That first service came at the end of my first year as a Grief Counselor.  It had been a year of personal loss in all ways but death.  The end of a ten year career and a twenty year marriage set in motion a series of losses that left me feeling empty, excited, and not a little frightened.  Everything about grief counseling was new to me, new and yet so familiar.  I had never been so certain that I was doing what I was meant to do.

I still am.

But that first year, the holidays found me faced with the task of helping people make sense of a season that was, for me, no more than a sad reminder of times past or never been; a season full of emotional, temporal, and financial burdens I had no idea how to meet.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to help myself, much less anyone else.

Writing this, five short months after my mother’s death, I realize that I feel much the same today.

In 2004, however, I had far fewer resources than I do today.  Then, when faced with task of how to create a memorial service, I did the only thing I knew to do — I consulted The Oracle.  In other words, I Googled.

First I Googled “memorial services”.  Mistake.  Then I tried, “holiday services”.  Even bigger mistake.  I was sent to site after site full of trite symbolism and bad music.  Occasionally, a truly beautiful, honest tribute to an individual would pop up, but I was at a loss as to how to translate what had been shared there into something accessible to many, for many, of any faith, (including the faith of non-faith), of any culture, age, or income.  How was I to create an environment in which it was safe for people to openly mourn when all the world was screaming Ho!Ho!Ho! at them?

The only thing I knew for sure was that I needed a ritual.

I am a huge believer in ritual.  Ritual speaks to us on a visceral level.  It begins with the human animal, and through its power, through its link to ancestors, it connects us to all other human animals in the world, transforming us into Mankind.  But we, especially we in the West, have basically done away with ritual.  We have disregarded its efficacy as we have done that of the Shaman and the Medicine Woman, replacing them with Science and Technology.  The pros and cons of this exchange are for another post, but, as Joseph Campbell said, “If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any rituals, read the New York Times.”

I was determined to give the grieving a ritual to help them transcend not only their pain, but the tinsel and holly and price-tags as well.  From that determination was born The Memory Tree Service.

It is a very simple service that I have staged in all kinds of locations, from auditorium-like churches to tiny chapels, from institutional dining rooms to drafty foyers.  So long as there is room for a tree and a gathering of people who want, who need, to Remember, any location will do.

What is far more important than location, or even the tree (which doesn’t necessarily even have to be a traditional Christmas tree), is the music.

Each year I make a new Memory Tree Service Mix.  Knowing that in the community I currently serve, the attendees will be widely older and conservative, I include pieces that will be familiar to them, but I also try to use interpretations by people they have most likely never heard, interspersed with new pieces not usually associated with loss or even with memory.  This year’s mix includes music by Christine Kane, Diana Krall, The Beatles, Vince Gill, Steven Curtis Chapman, Billie Holiday, Damien Rice,  kd Lang and Coldplay, among others.

Here’s what will happen Saturday, Dec 5th, at this year’s Memory Tree Service:

The venue this year is very small, a cozy space with overstuffed furniture and lots of natural light.  There are two lit pre-lit trees,  one filled with ornaments from past services, one standing bare, awaiting this year’s remembrances.  Music will play as people enter, then our Hospice Chaplain will offer a welcome and light the central of five pillar candles, officially beginning the service.

The Hospice Director will then introduce each of the Hospice disciplines:  nursing, home health aides, social work, spiritual care, and volunteers.  The remaining four candles will be lit by representatives of those disciplines while the Director reads of Grief, Courage, Memory, and Love.

Then will come the placing of the ornaments.

Each family, staff member, and business partner in our community has been invited to bring an ornament representing the loved one/s they have lost.  It does not matter whether or not the person was a hospice patient.  What matters is only that they have been loved, have died, and someone wants them to be remembered.

The ornaments we get are amazing.  Some are hand made, some very expensive; some are personalized, some anonymous, each one representing a very personal aspect of the life of a dead loved one.  If someone realizes at the service that there are others they want to remember, we have simple ornaments available for personalization.

We ask only that the ornament be something you are willing to leave behind as a perpetual memorial to your loved one.  After the first year, the Memory Tree is never again bare.  All ornaments are placed year after year, expanding to additional trees as necessary.  Over the years, decorating the trees before the service becomes a ritual in itself.

Placing of the Ornaments is followed by a short Litany of Remembrance then the closing prayer.  Afterwards, we invite you to join us for cider and cookies and the opportunity to see again the hospice care team that was with you during your loved one’s illness.  During this time many attendees take photographs and videos of their ornaments on the tree.  We also encourage them to return throughout the holiday season, especially if there are visiting family and friends who might like to see the trees.

The 2015 Memory Tree Service is Saturday, December 5th at 1:00 p.m. at the Amarillo Hospice of the Plains Business Office.  If you would like to attend, or would like more information, please let me know.

May your holidays be blessed with peace.