Category Archives: loss

It’s complicated

My relationship with my dad was complicated at best. When he died 10 years ago, our relationship became frozen at an awkward stage—full of frustration and confusion. Today, when I think about my dad, I seesaw between anger, pity, sadness, and empathy.

This Father’s Day, I’m sad that I will never be able to know his full story, and that I will never get to know him better as a person. So many unanswered questions I wish I could ask. So many stories I wish I could hear. So many hurts I wish we could mend together.

  • Sorry for not being more fully present for you, especially during that last year of your life.
  • Sorry for not knowing how to talk to you.
  • Sorry for never being on your side.

In the spirit of focusing on the positives, I decided to practice gratitude today and to meditate on what he gave us through his life, example, and genes.

  • Thank you for showing us how to use our voices and for always being so loud. Thank you for being a natural-born storyteller. It taught us how to speak up and be heard.
  • Thank you for showing us how to be friendly, gregarious, and outgoing in a room full of friends or strangers. You taught us how to be inclusive. You taught us how to laugh.
  • Thank you for your faith, and in your commitment to your faith.
  • Thank you for dreaming big and trying new things, even in the face of your family’s criticism and doubts. You showed us how to never settle.
  • Thank you for doing what was right in the end. Heaven knows it wasn’t easy for any of us. But you showed up and stuck around when it mattered most, and that’s what counts.
  • Thank you for being proud of us and for loving us in your own way.

We were all just doing the best that we could. We were all just doing the best that we knew how. That’s my mantra these days, as I navigate these murky waters. There’s nothing that could have been done differently. I can’t rewrite the past.

We were all just doing the best that we could. We were all just doing the best that we knew how. It brings a kind of solace for now.

Inspiration: Moving On

This beautiful video will pull at your heartstrings and just might unravel you — especially if you’ve lost someone. Forgive the puns. Otherwise, ugh, it’s just a straight suckerpunch to the gut. Worth it, though…

[Edit: Or you can just look at it as a great extended metaphor for creativity, and how you have to let go of some ideas to make way for new ones!]

New memories of a person you never got to know

An experiment! A short story inspired by Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlife by David Eagleman and by recent conversation at a Dinner Party table.

IN THIS LIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of the fragility of our physical lives. Talking about the sad stuff makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy stuff makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: cat videos, making fun of hipsters, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you’ve lost your mother, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details about how she passed. Sometimes they’ll ask about your grief, and you’ll tell them of your sabbatical. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to one of your mom’s old co-workers, who invites you over for tea.

This colleague’s retired now.
(Would mom still be working?)
She lives alone in a big house in Houston, with two guest rooms.
(Would mom have downsized to a condo?)
She shows you photos from a recent trip to Peru with a church group.
(Would mom have become more adventurous or more of a homebody over time?)
She tells you stories about Mattie, sweet Mattie, witty Mattie who always who had a great sense of humor.

No one else calls her Mattie. You drink it in and hold your breath for fear she’ll stop. Your fingers itch to press record or take notes. Your heart is a bittersweet jumble of emotion, mostly joy.

You reach backwards in time for new memories of this other person you barely knew.

+++

IN THE AFTERLIFE, EVERYONE IS AFRAID of remaining tethered to our physical world. Talking about the sad memories makes people uncomfortable; talking about the truly happy ones makes people even moreso. Safe topics include: philosophy, transit schedules, the weather, and dreams.

When someone learns that you left behind a daughter just entering college, they’ll say how sorry they are to hear that. Sometimes they’ll want to know the details of your last days with her. Sometimes they’ll ask about your process of letting go, and you’ll tell them of your meditation practice. Most people will change the subject.

Once in a very blue moon, you’ll be given the chance to leap frog over this topic of loss into the type of story you crave most. An impulse will have you reaching out to a newly-arrived soul—the grandmother of a young man your daughter used to date. She invites you over for tea.

This grandma is a retired teacher.
(Which career path did your daughter choose?)
She had a handful of grandchildren and even got to be a great-grandmother before she passed.
(How close is your daughter to being married and having babies?)
Once a year, her family would go to a cabin in the woods.
(Did she ever break out of her shell?)
She tells you stories about Christina, sweet Christina, creative Christina who was always taking pictures.

No one else has said her name to you in years, and you drink it in. You can tell this person loved your daughter, and your heart aches with jealousy before overflowing with gratitude and pride. Your fingers itch to take notes, and you hold your breath for fear she’ll stop.

You reach forwards in time for new memories of this person you never got the chance to know.

Mother’s Day Truths

Mother’s Day was never a big deal in our household — low-key when we were growing up, and merely a nuisance after mom passed. But this year, it’s been on my mind a lot more because of The Dinner Party in my feeds and dinner partiers in my life.

And I find myself collecting articles and quotes, and nodding my head.

…about how the expectations of Mother’s Day feels off

American culture reminds us to remember them on Mother’s Day, mostly through celebratory sales and elaborate floral arrangements. But we don’t need the reminders, because we keep them with us, always.

…and how a cancer surgeon moved through his wife’s diagnosis and passing

The waves and spikes don’t arrive predictably in time or severity. It’s not an anniversary that brings the loss to mind, or someone else’s reminiscences, nor being in a restaurant where you once were together. It’s in the grocery aisle passing the romaine lettuce and recalling how your spouse learned to make Caesar salad, with garlic-soaked croutons, because it was the only salad you’d agree to eat…Or on the rise of a full moon, because your wife, from the day you met her, used to quote from The Sheltering Sky about how few you actually see in your entire life. It’s not sobbing, collapsing, moaning grief. It’s phantom-limb pain. It aches, it throbs, there’s nothing there, and yet you never want it to go away.

…and this article, this article (via Frank Chimero) that I would post whole-sale if I thought it would make you read it. So much of it hits close to home — from the writer’s delayed grief to her looking at others’ stories to help her define her own to her language of “unmothered” instead of motherless. We always had moms; we have them still.

When I returned to New York in late October, only two days after the Shiva, I threw myself right back into school as though nothing had happened…What I kept hearing from friends during that time was that I looked “good” and “strong.” That I seemed “fine.” I didn’t feel fine, but I also had no idea what to do except carry on. “I don’t know how you manage,” an old friend told me. “If it had been my mother, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.” She thought she was paying me a compliment, not realizing that that’s about the worst thing you can say to someone in mourning—as though by merely starting my days I was betraying my mother. Am I? I started to panic. But then I came across Roland Barthes’s “Mourning Diary,” which he kept immediately following the death of his mother. In it, he writes, “No sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.” I remember reading this and experiencing a physical spasm of recognition. He adds, “I seem to have a kind of ease of control that makes other people think I’m suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.”

Yes, I remember thinking. Yes, yes, yes. This wasn’t delayed grief, after all. It was simply this: grief keeps odd hours, the most painful moment at the most abstract moment.

And I wonder whether it’s good or bad that these articles keep crossing my path, dropping hard emotions into my daily life when everything else is going along pretty rosily. Do I protect the joy in my life, or do I honor the loss? Should I avoid the feeds, or should I embrace them? Can I do both at the same time? After all, there’s no selective numbing of emotions; numb one, numb ’em all.

Something I’ve learned this past year is that grief means holding multiple emotional truths at the same time within the same body. Here are some of the truths I’m holding right now, oxymorons all:

  • I am already 10 years into my loss (by the calendar). I am only 3 years into experiencing my grief (starting with my sabbatical).
  • I’ve already survived the hardest parts. I’m still (literally) holding my breath in anticipation of worse to come.
  • I am deeply grateful that the loss has taught me how to feel and love more deeply. I am overwhelmed by and afraid of the power of that kind of love.
  • There is a version of my (higher) self that exists without any titles or narratives. Our stories define who we are, and the story of my parents is foundational to who I am today.
  • I want to move on and not have it define me. Moving on means it will always define me.

For me, when the little mines happen throughout the year, my default reaction will always be to pull in, draw back, go inward, hold my breath, and wait it out. But that is how emotions get stuck, stop moving, and grow to become more challenging. Better to breathe deeply, reach out, stay open, take care of self, take care of others, develop rituals, and let it move.

Each “little mine” becomes an opportunity to practice the joy part (harder because it leaves us more vulnerable) as much as it is to honor the loss.

I thought I was done with the surprises. I will never be done trying to stay open in the face of them.

I hate that. And I love it.

Inspiration: An Undertaking

This is beyond touching. And pretty much fits my mood today.

“You can’t hear about this project and not think ‘death’ immediately to some degree. But it is about life because this entire process is happening during her life. This casket is only brought us together — my grandmother and I. The doing of it is all about our relationship. Which maybe is the strongest takeaway of looking your death in the face is having the comfort to have more life.”

Love that this is as much — even moreso — a story about love and life as it is about death.

“I’d like to think my grandmother will remember me as a worthy diplomat of her DNA, I guess, you know.”

I do want to get better at capturing and writing about the sparkling, effervescent, joyful moments in life as much as I write about the heavy soft spots. But isn’t it interesting that these are the things that spur me to post? Maybe this is the story I still need to tell, right now?

[via Dark Rye]

My Top Read’s of 2013

Have you ever come out of a film thinking, “everyone must see this”? Every once in a blue moon, a book will leave me with the urge to proselytize.

Admittedly, it’s a dubious urge. Just because something is MY FAVORITE BOOK EVER doesn’t mean it will strike the same chord with someone else. It may even fall victim to becoming overhyped by my own praise. I came to the following two books with few expectations myself. I plucked them from other “Best of” lists and added them to my reading queue. Obviously, the books had struck a chord with other readers. That is one of the things they have in common — their writing capture the truth and messiness and hilarious details of larger emotional journeys.

These books were:

To round out the list (3’s always a nice number, isn’t it?) I would probably add a book I read a few years back. I found this book (or it found me) during my 2011 sabbatical, when I was reading every book I could get my hands on that were explicitly about death and dying — including Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s 5 Stages, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its 5 Stages and the New Science of Loss (better than the 5 Stages, IMHO), Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Motherless Daughters, and a couple unfinished sociology tomes on how different cultures treat death and dying. None of these books that I pulled for my “research” were ever as powerful as the  stories that fell into my lap when I wasn’t looking.

I wasn’t expecting a book about loss when I started reading Wild. Or The Fault in Our Stars. And I knew An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination was about a mother’s loss, but I didn’t expect it to resonate so deeply with my own.

While Joan Didion’s writing never “landed” with me, Elizabeth McCracken’s did. Parts of her story have stuck with me more powerfully than the social-science storytelling of Motherless Daughters — even though those losses directly paralleled mine. Grief is universal after all, and it’s no surprise that I find solace in the specificity of how an individual (not unlike myself) grieves a loss very different than my own. It’s the power of authentic storytelling over how-to’s and data and patterns.

I should also mention that these three “must-read books” are all very FUNNY books. That is what makes them human and heartbreaking and uplifting, which is why I want to sing them from the rooftops.

When I finished reading them, I had the uncontrollable urge to tell you that you should read them too. (I also had the uncontrollable urge to start re-reading immediately. I’ve now read Wild thrice, TFIOS twice, and have referred to certain sections of An Exact Replica as reference for my comics.) I wanted to Tweet-Facebook-Instagram-Tumble-Blog about them. I felt like Wild and TFIOS should be required reading for everyone in the world! Then I realized, it’s not just because I think you will like them (though I think you will), and it’s not just because I think they will touch you (though I know they will).

I realized that I want you to read these books because these books reflect my story, and I want you to know — to really know — my story. I want you to understand my experiences with loss. Not the sadness, but the laughter. Not the shock, but the absurdity. Not the tears, but the rage. Not the tears, but the hate. Not the tears, but the joy. Not the dying, but the living. Not the difficulties of grief, but the all-encompassing love that makes the world a bigger, brighter place.

Any old “5 stages” article will tell you about the valleys I imagine you imagine when I tell you I’ve lost my parents. But these books will take you on the journey that I have journeyed to the glorious mountaintops on the other side of all that. And until I muster the gusto to write down my story…you should read these books.

“What I learned when you went away”

Watch the video for Simone White’s “Flowers in May”. As NPR Music says, it’s an “achingly beautiful tribute to the memory of a friend who passed away.”

“The feeling I was trying to convey in the song had to do with the way I felt so strangely alive after she died,” says White. “…Every moment seemed precious. The banal little details of the day were magnified and became beautiful and important. There seemed to be a constant presence reminding me that I was alive and it felt like a tremendous gift. And I had to feel every moment, because she could not.”

Really resonates with me today because I have been creating stories out of the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned from the deaths in my family. (As Neil Gaiman says, when bad stuff happens, make good art!) I’m hesitant to share because some of it can seem pretty depressing on the surface. But there’s nothing wrong with sadness–one of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way is the beauty of deep emotion and how to handle real emotions in a healthy way instead of suppressing or running away from them (which a lot of systems in our society inherently help us to do). And I hope the series as a whole taken in its larger context can be suffused with hope and beauty and love…which requires both volume and depth.

So I should get back to ‘work’. ;)

[via NPR’s All Songs Considered]