Friday’s Child

Around 4:30 on the first afternoon of any June in our last years together, she would say, “This time _______ years ago,” and I would stop whatever I was doing to sit and listen to the story of my birth.

It was never a long story.  Not full of how much pain she had withstood or how hard it had been to bring me into the world.  In fact, the only real complaint she ever made was, “It was so HOT!”

“I had been to the store and it was SO hot.  I had just put down the last bag and was thinking how hot it already was and it just barely June when the first pains hit.  I called your daddy and told him it was time, then I put up the groceries.  It was so HOT!”

I once asked her if I’d given her a lot of trouble, if it had been a hard labour.

“Not really.  None of you were really all that hard.  Your daddy got home, we went to the hospital.  I was in labor through the night, then there you were.”

I was born at 8:03 the next morning, June 2nd.  It was a Friday.

Like today.

Today is my second birthday without her.

I don’t remember the first.

There is much I have forgotten  — about all my life — but that first loss-filled year after her death is particularly full of holes and vagaries.  And while I am not an advocate of recovering lost memories, (I believe The Universe has swallowed certain things for our own protection), I do rather wish I could remember some of The First Year more clearly than I do, if only to learn more from its pain.

The pain itself I remember vividly.  Though to call it a “memory” is a mistake, for it lives with me still.  Still and always.

And on my birthday most of all.

I woke in the middle of the night one night last week in sheer terror at the sudden realization that when my last cell phone died not long after she, it took with it her voice mails that I had saved.  The only recordings of her voice that I had.  This happened months ago, yet I was only just now realizing the loss.  I got up, went to the computer, searched every file, every cloud, thinking that surely, surely, I wouldn’t have been so careless as to have saved them only on that phone.

But I was that careless.  That thoughtless.  That lost.

I climbed back into bed and cried for a long time, amazed — again — at the immediacy and overwhelming power of grief.  A power that only gives the illusion of abating over time.  A power that in many ways actually never stops growing.

***

This birthday finds me 1600 miles or more away from my mother’s physical remains.

The last thing I did before driving away from my home town one last time was stop at the cemetery.  I stood a long while looking down at the three headstones of my family, agonizing over the fact that I’d forgotten to bring anything with which to clean the Texas Panhandle dust and dirt from the crevices.

Something else forgotten.

Finally, hearing my mother say, “It doesn’t matter, baby,” I sat down on the spiky winter grass and remembered the now decades long process of filling these three plots, of setting these three stones.

I remembered making the arrangements for my father’s Veteran’s marker.  The multiple telephone calls and forms, the trip from frighteningly foreign to familiar each time I had to say aloud, “my father just died”, each time I ticked the box for “Deceased”.

I had been so young.

I remembered bringing my mother to the cemetery office to choose my sister’s.  The surreality of sitting with her as she designed, piece by piece, her daughter’s headstone.  So grateful for the knowledge and kindness of the owner who helped us.  Grateful for it again eight years later as he led me alone through the same process for my mother.

It was even harder than I had imagined it would be.

We had discussed her headstone as we had discussed her funeral, many times.  My mother didn’t care for flowers, her favourite colour was black, she preferred simple, classic lines to any sort of flourish, so, I knew the cross was perfect the moment I saw it.

She had been a devout Catholic from the time she converted in order to marry my father, and yet, in the last years of her life she seemed to withdraw from Catholicism, especially in the years following my sister’s death.  In the end, she did not want a priest, no funeral mass, nothing but a rosary and a graveside service that was presided over by the hospice chaplain she had come to “love like the son I never had”.  So, I felt this cross, with its straight line strength and grace so reflective of her, was a better choice than a Catholic crucifix.

“Beloved wife and mother” was out — she had made that clear.  It bothered her that “that’s on everyone’s.  just put my name and the dates on mine”.  Yet, somehow, I couldn’t manage to leave it at just that.  It just wasn’t enough.

More than once in those last years she had said to me, “No one can ever know what all we’ve been through together.  We’re the only ones who can ever really know that.”

I realized that I wanted her headstone to reflect that, to reflect us, if only a little.  I wanted one last and final time to say, “It’s me, Mommy.  I’m here.”

My mother loved almost all things British.  I don’t think many people knew that about her.  She loved British history, British television — documentaries about the Royals, PBS historical dramas and to my great and happy surprise, she loved to watch Shakespeare performances with me.  So, when I went looking for a way to leave a special mark on her headstone, I went, of course, to Shakespeare.

“And all my mother came into mine eyes.
And gave me up to tears.”

It’s a quote from Henry V, Act IV, Scene vi.  It isn’t a quote about mothers nor about the loss of a mother.  It is spoken from a battlefield by Exeter to King Henry, describing the deaths of the Dukes of York and Suffolk.  Exeter refers, ashamedly, of his inability to hold back tears upon witnessing these deaths.

But, to me, it says everything about the loss of my mother.  For me, they are the perfect words to mark my forever goodbye to her.  So often, she comes into my eyes.  And when she does, I am always given up to tears.

Sitting here writing this, so far away from where I lived with her, from where she gave birth to me, from where her physical form lies marked with those words, I realize that I am, in these almost two years following her death, being re-born.

The labour is intense.  Long.  Complicated.  Painful.

And still not complete.

But she is with me, as she was the first time.  Working with me and for me, labouring to give me New Life.

That realization comforts me, in a way, on a level, I could not have expected and cannot quite put into words.

I know only that she is here.  Still and always.  Just like the pain of her loss, in the pain of her loss, carrying me forward into the season in which I was first born, into the heat and light that I love and she hated.

She is here and she is saying, “Momma’s got you, baby.  Everything’s gonna be alright.”

 

 

 

 

The Phone of the Wind

There is a phone booth.  A beautiful structure of white wood and glass simplicity, it stands atop a hill in the northeastern Japanese town of Otsuchi.  Inside the booth, a small shelf holds a thin spiral notebook, a ballpoint pen, and a rotary dial telephone, its black worn to a smooth shine from the clutch of countless hands, its cord curled up behind, connected to nowhere, reaching everywhere.  It is called, “The Phone of the Wind”.

Since the 2011 tsunami of the Great East Japan Earthquake, survivors have come to The Phone of the Wind to call their dead loved ones.  For some, it is a one-time pilgrimage of many miles and many hours to stand inside the booth and say what was unsaid before the wave overtook the town.  For others, visiting the booth has become an almost habitual ritual, a place to come when even, “words are not enough”, a place to cling to the belief that their loved ones do hear them, that they may, even, make a response.

For years, I have encouraged the bereaved to speak to their dead loved ones, to talk to them, aloud and fearlessly, to call them by name, to ask for their help.  The Phone of the Wind is one of the most beautiful, most literal examples of doing just that.

I encourage you to take 49 minutes to watch this documentary:  The Phone of the Wind:  Whispers to Lost Families.

We are more alike than we are different.  And so often it is grief that binds us

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One Year Ago Right Now

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.

Never.

Earlier today, I went for a bottle of wine. When I opened the car door to step out, this awaited me:

DebMomma

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:

scatter 1

scatter 2

No, they never really leave us.  Not after the first year, not after 100 years.

So…

…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.

 

A Mother’s Day Letter

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?

Did you?

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.

 

Things

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not Quite Sleeping Until Next 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?

Blissful idea.

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?”
“Noooo!”
“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.

Children’s Grief Awareness Day

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.

My boys.

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.

My boys.

“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.

“Cat?”

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

 

National Survivors of Suicide Day

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…/