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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

Embrace This

 

Embrace This

Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in (understanding) emotions.

Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You:  A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.

I have been captivated by death and dying for as long as I can remember.  Long, long before I became a Grief Counselor.

From the time my beloved grandmother died when I was thirteen, the dying and bereaved have told me their stories and shared with me the even deeper wisdom of their silence. Their gifts have graced my life in untold ways, carrying me forward further and stronger with each passing year.

Then, three months ago, my mother died.

And all those years of experience and learning seem to have dissolved into a life that is barely recognizable as my own.

This is grief.

My mother’s death is, of course, not the first I have experienced since I became a “death professional” in 2004.  Most notably my precious sister, Debbie, died in 2007, and she has been followed by other family members and friends.  But there is something about the loss of a mother.

Just as so many have told me so often.

I have spent the three months since her death in a haze, wandering from one task, one responsibility to the next, in a state I would call somnambulistic were it not so painful.

But, then, who says the sleeping feel no pain?

***

I do a lot of public speaking about death and dying, grief and loss.  No matter the topic, I find that I return over and over again to one key theme:  bringing mindfulness into both the experience and aftermath of death.

There’s quite a bit of talk about mindfulness these days.  I am both grateful for and a bit skeptical about that.  Grateful, because I believe so strongly in the power of true mindfulness, skeptical because even the most well-intentioned practice can be so easily skewed in the fun-house mirrors of media attention.  One of the greatest misconceptions I’ve found is the tendency to use the terms “mindfulness” and “awareness” interchangeably.

Mindfulness and Awareness are not the same thing.  They are especially not the same thing when it comes to grief.

I may be aware, all day, every day, that I am grieving, but that doesn’t mean I am mindful of my grief.  I can be aware of my grief and yet still be un-mindful of it, because what I am basically aware of is my sadness.  Each time I drive down a certain street, open a certain door, hear a certain song, I am deeply, wretchedly aware of my sadness.  So much so that I avoid certain streets, keep certain doors closed, skip certain songs.  This is habitual, albeit painful, awareness, not mindfulness.  Mindfulness is purposeful awareness.

Purposeful.

That’s where “leaning into the sharp points” comes in.

True mindfulness involves disengaging from other thoughts and other actions — including actions of avoidance (certain streets, doors, songs, etc.).  What’s more, true mindfulness means not creating additional thoughts, positive or negative about the experience.  It encourages the non-judgmental observation of whatever we are thinking and feeling.  In this non-judgmental state, we become aware of self-talk that can be and usually is very debilitating.

So, how do we turn habitual awareness of our grief into being mindful of it?

First, we must realize that we have a choice at all.

Grief can be a very chaotic experience.  It is often described as a “storm”, a “whirlwind”; people speak of their lives being “turned upside down”, their worlds being “swallowed by an earthquake”.  It is hard to find any choice in a whirlwind or an earthquake.

But, the choice is there — and it is a simple one:  to either embrace what is happening to us or ignore it, to experience it fully or push it away.

Of course, embracing grief is very much like trying to wrap arms around a cactus — there is no way to do it that won’t hurt, no way that won’t end in tears and bloodshed and pain, with the possibility of major damage and lots of scars.  Just like grief.  However, there is one major difference:  Why?  Why do it at all?

There is very little point in hugging a cactus; very little purpose beyond whatever might be learned from the experience itself.  The same is not true of embracing grief.

Embracing our grief is a transformational experience.  Not motivational, not inspiring, but transformational.

Transformational.

Choosing to mindfully experience our grief, in all its chaos, all its ugliness, with all its pain, not only changes us, it transforms us.

Therein lies the power.

Ignoring the pain, the ugliness, the chaos, robs us of all personal power and adds to the overall helplessness we feel in the midst of grief. Until we look at it, our grief is like an internal bleed whose source is unknown – if the source isn’t located and addressed, we will die.

And many do.

So, I ask you to join me here in the often painful, incredibly uncomfortable exercise of sitting mindfully with our grief.  Stop avoiding the streets, the songs, the rooms.  Instead, try sitting down and introducing your grief to me.  Show me its photographs, tell me its name, what it smells like, what colour it is, how it tastes at 2:00 in the morning.

Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.

I promise it will help.

I can promise that because I have been a blessed witness to many brave souls as they courageously use mindfulness to transform the pain of their grief into the purpose of their lives.

I will if you will.