As time flows

12 weeks, and they have flown by, since I’ve posted here, Kissie. I’ve traced these months with memories so fragile and distinct; so immense and complex that I feel I’m standing at the sea waiting for the words to rush in and write me. So I go to my pen and paper and scratch out my feelings there, or on my walks in the early light, I speak to you, out loud.  I say your name, and talk as if you are walking beside me, as we used to. I don’t ever want to stop saying your name — in fact, all your names: formal, informal, married, single, and best of all, your nickname. The name I gave you as a child when I couldn’t say Chrissy.

As time flows, no matter the measure, this blog remains close to my heart. It’s one of my ways to love you now.

Also as time flows, I find that I want more ways to grieve you and remember your life, not less. I notice I get angry and frustrated and impatient when I find these outlets lacking, and people unwilling to mourn and revisit the past. So I seek them out, people unafraid of their own grieving, and those weaving their memories into something worth keeping. Those who did not lose their loved ones but who had to, nonetheless, say goodbye and see them down. When I can’t write, or spend time in the company of these fully alive souls, I find that I must cry it out. It’s cathartic for me, and as honest as it gets when words are of no use.

This resonant piece Death and families: when ‘normal’ grief can last a lifetime – by a bereaved sibling has some excellent observations on the passage of time and the pervasiveness of death phobia.

 

 

 

Every day an anniversary

Much has been written about the “anniversary effect” and its relationship to grief and trauma survival. As much as death is a certainty, in a death phobic culture it’s reasonable to see how it could be considered traumatic. I see this regularly, even when the very elderly die. We are not prepared emotionally because we don’t even like to use the word death. We say the person “passed away.” Intellectually, we tell ourselves that we accept the inevitability of death, but that’s where we stop. It’s not our fault – we are, to a great degree, the products of our prevailing culture – but we must wrest with this emotional death phobia, I believe, if we are to grieve well, or even at all.

As January 5th approached this year, I started mentally preparing myself for the anniversary effect. Even with forethought, starting right before Christmas, I was hit hard. I was unprepared for the degree to which this fourth anniversary of her death would affect me emotionally. Her “deathday.” We don’t use that expression. Even I don’t. We say the “anniversary of her death.” So why not deathday, like birthday?

Now that it’s March, I can see some of the reasons this year was particularly difficult: I delayed my annual trip to be with the family on her deathday, it’s been a colder, snowier winter this year, I had a really miserable upper respiratory virus, 2017 brought substantial and stressful changes to my life, etc. These considerations have helped me weather the anniversary effect, and so has this thought: every day is an anniversary.

Quite literally, very few days in a year go by without some important recollection, seasonal memory, tradition, or commemoration of our lives together. More frequently, it’s the small, yet significant reminiscences that populate my every day life. Things like gifts she gave me, recipes, songs from our youth, art and poetry mutually loved, TV shows from decades past, cards and email correspondence, videos, photographs, clothing, and ephemera from half a century of living this amazing life in each others’ orbits.

At least once a week, or so, I say something like this to my husband, Eric:  “Today was the day Kissie and I went to…” or “Six years ago this month, we all got together for…” or “Every time I hear that music, I remember how she loved…” He listens, and usually remarks how ever-present our shared experiences remain, be they commonplace or extraordinary.  It’s no surprise, then, that our interwoven lives and the cultural and familial backdrop of the last fifty years, make it virtually impossible not to stop and recall – even if it’s just in the midst of a hectic afternoon –  some aspect of our pivotal relationship every single day.

Every day, an anniversary.

Oh Wistful Season

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Here we are again at your signature time of year, Kissie. The fourth autumn since your death. Your favored season for all its customs, merriments, and breathtaking transitions, and of course, the soulful wonder of it all.

That last October brought so many unexpected gifts — a rare, laugh-filled overnight with brother Joe, a chance to try my hand at homemade Runzas to tempt your waning appetite, and though I didn’t know it then, the last time I would find myself alone with you in your beautiful desert home. Just us, whiling away those three precious, glittering days in Arizona.  We were so contemplative and nostalgic, wistful and compassionate in our remembering. We talked about Midwestern autumns, Halloweens of yore, the people we’d become — somehow, our greatest accomplishment.

Eric reminds me that I miss you year-round, and regularly reference seasonal markers and cultural touchstones spanning fifty years. All true, but fall is different. Family and friends alike can’t help but recall how you came alive when the night air cooled, and your annual jaunts to Omaha to gallivant the boulevards, kicking up mounds of maple leaves with little Peony by your side.  Oh, how I miss your pure, unencumbered exuberance.

Thank you Nana, Mom, and Dad for encouraging us as children to embrace this season’s pageantry, mystery, and connection — with each other and our beloved relatives gone before us. Thank you, Kissie, for showing me how to do it with panache.

What if Grief is a Skill?

“What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding.”
– Stephen Jenkinson


These questions from Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, continue to challenge my beliefs about the nature of grief each time I read them. If grief is a skill – and I’m ever more certain it is – then what am I doing to learn it more comprehensively? I’ve definitely been on the “receiving end” with not only the physical deaths of those I love, but with endings and transitions in relationships, livelihood, health, dreams – the countless and sundry goodbyes that are part and parcel of living.

How can grief and the love of life not be twins? They’re inseparable, and yet we continue to polarize them. We badmouth grief and hold it apart from the love of life like an island we’re banished to when things get really bad, and if we dwell there too long, we’re in trouble. Maybe we don’t feel worthy of grief at all considering the ways we attempt to avoid it? And if that’s true, then how can we feel worthy of love?

I am worthy of my grief for Kissie because I was worthy of her love, and she of mine. I don’t believe they could exist without each other. I love life anyway. Intensely so. I “practice” my grief by experiencing it, writing about it, talking about it, and questioning the ways in which our culture hinders its acceptance and expression.  How do you practice?

Grief as an Act of Protest

“Grief undermines the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and the sanctioned behaviours of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life force… It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated… It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.”
-Francis Weller


In his resonant and challenging description of grief, psychotherapist and author Francis Weller declares that grief is “necessary to the vitality of the soul” because it is “untamed and cannot be domesticated.” I think that’s why grief scares us so much, and why we create “rules” for its expression, and diagnoses for when we think it has run amok. In acknowledging the predominant and unspoken agreement to be emotionally restrained, even numb, when it comes to mourning, Weller asserts that embracing our grief openly is tantamount to cultural rebellion! It certainly feels that way to me, and continuing to grieve for Kissie past some socially approved expiration date, is not only my act of personal protest, but truly a kind of sustenance for my psyche that is, as Weller put it, “suffused with life force.”  I’ve never heard anyone refer to grief as a life-giving emotion, and what a relief to know I’m not alone in this experience. In shunning our grief, we are inadvertently thwarting our essential capacities for passion, vigor, and the love of life.