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.”

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Why?

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.

Silence.

“Your father is really concerned about you.”

Silence.

“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,

“So??”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“How old?”

“She turned fourteen last month.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Cool.”

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.

“It’s 4:37.”

“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….?”

“Yup.”

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 what?”

“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.

“I promise.”

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.

“What answer?”

“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.”

“Oh, ok…”

“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.”

“What is??”

“Compassion,” I said.

“Huh???”  His face was all confusion.

I smiled.

“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.”

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.