Your hair

…was an indescribable color. Red-head just doesn’t come close. Besides, red always makes me think of tomatoes. Like a fire agate, it was unmatched and heterogenic in its hues, or like burnished copper, resplendent in its patina. Sometimes, over the years, it was like the deep siennas of Sedona’s red rocks or bleached by the sun like a bright new penny.

As a child it was much lighter—strawberry blonde they called it—and it turned heads from the outset. You lightened it from time to time as a young adult, and cancer treatment changed its saturation for a time, too, but you came to embrace its natural iridescence as you did your own, with effortless grace and gratitude.

It never failed to tickle me when we were out and about and a stranger’s eyes would flash on the sight of you, marveling at your unexpected beauty. “In your dreams,” I’d think.

Acts of commemoration

It’s January again and our last family hours together, as we were, are what I think about most intently in the quiet moments from Christmas to January 5th, the day you died. The sun has broken through the dense and days long winter clouds as I write this — one of my special ways of knowing you are thinking of me, too.

The morning you died was bright and warm, and you had woken early, as you liked to, and asked Jeff to get you a cookie while on his coffee run. We marvel about that now, it’s one of our stories. How your nonexistent appetite suddenly turned and you wanted, of all things, a cookie! It’s a funny sort of comfort, to know about that little conversation in the kitchen with Jeff and your request. That you had the strength to get out of bed and share a little moment when the time was nigh. Then, shortly after 9:00 a.m., the cookie unprocured, you died, with us gathered around your bed.

I like to mark these days, the 4th and 5th especially, with little commemorations and rituals in your memory. Like a birthday’s welcome and hello, a deathday’s goodbye and thank you. 2020 is the sixth anniversary of your death, and also a Sunday, which it was when you died. And, significantly, it is Mom’s birthday — hello and goodbye, celebration and gratitude — always together now.

I also relish knowing what other family members and friends are doing in remembrance and celebration of you, when we can’t be together. These are a few of the ways I’m commemorating this year:

  • a votive candle by your photo
  • this blog post
  • writing about this time in my journal
  • asking family who were there to share a memory with me of the last day of your life
  • conversing with family and friends who want to reminisce
  • watching the video Jeff made for your memorial
  • attending Epiphany mass, as we did on January 5, 2014
  • going for a meditative walk, weather permitting
  • drinking tea in a china teacup
  • watching one of your favorite movies
  • eating oranges, as we did the day you died
  • burning a fire in the hearth and reading your handwritten words.

Eyes Wide Open

Many of my wonderings about grief lately have been bound up with the idea of full experience and its effects. It’s a very different concept from “moving on” or “moving past” that we generally hear in one form or another after someone’s death. What does it mean to become a grief practitioner? Sounds a bit frightening at first. Will I be sad all the time? My observations of grievers vary widely and for some it’s not possible or even advisable to go all in, especially at first. Yet for those who do endeavor and have the capacity to enter the experience with eyes open, to grieve like there’s nothing “wrong” with it and breath it in like the air, is there some kind of transformation that gradually takes place?

Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life…is death.

I was introduced to the countercultural notion that being a “practitioner of grief” is the pathway to the love of life. My somewhat obscure instructor, Stephen Jenkinson, is the author of Die Wise (a book I reviewed for the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support) and the former director of palliative care counseling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. His distilled and revolutionary proclamation about a grief practice is this: ‘Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your love of life…is death.’  He not only believes it’s possible to have an inner life whose joy is rooted in “knowing well” that it will end, but that it may be the antidote to much of the fear and anxiety the dying have about what will become of them and what we will do with them after they die. Will we be able to live as if they never lived? He posits that grief in action is the ‘willingness to remember great sorrow, unsuspected loss, blank pages in the story of who we are.’

Nothing since Kissie’s death has been more real, more equal to the prospect of the rest of my life with her physical absence, than this lived and felt attitude about my grief — that death has always been the cord of connection to my love of life. And that my practice of grief is my continuing cord of connection with her. 

“Grief is a way of loving. Love is a way of grieving.” – Stephen Jenkinson

 

The Thing Is

A wise friend who understands that grief is cyclical—that it dives down deep and appears to disappear, then comes up gulping—shared this poem with me.

That’s what its been like for me these past months. Going beneath, sifting through the shipwreck of my sorrow. A trove is there, lying quietly, waiting for me.

The Thing Is | Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

For the anniversary of my death

I didn’t know this poem by W. S. Merwin until recently. On first read it felt so somber, and tonight on New Year’s eve, not the usual fare for ringing in the coming year. Yet, somehow it seems appropriate now, and I hear the gratitude in it. The bowing to the unanticipated and commonplace gifts of the passing year.

The anniversary of your death approaches, Kissie. I think of all the years before when we passed “the day” without knowing it. And when finally, by grace, we saw that unbidden day approaching (an experience I will ever try to somehow articulate) it was indeed a strange garment and still surprising, and the morning birds, somehow, sang.

For the Anniversary of My Death | W.S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day   
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Each grief a reflection of relationship

My elderly mother-in-law died seven weeks ago. It was a long decline spanning the last 18 months and punctuated by numerous and increasing health issues, notably dementia and cancer. The end of her life brought a level of care-giving and involvement for which neither my husband nor I were adequately prepared. For me, taking on such huge, additional responsibilities, though shared, was overwhelming, especially while grieving my sister.

What has stuck me most in these intervening weeks since her death, is the nature of my husband’s grief and how intrinsically their distinct relationship has determined the character and nuance of it. This has, in turn, brought my own grief into sharper relief. Each grief for someone is so very personal. It is marked by all that we were and meant to each other, how we interacted, what was shared and withheld, and how — over time — we grew emotionally closer, or apart, and how we therefore arrived at the time of parting. It all comes to bear at last on how and why we grieve, and how we will face our own deaths.

We also bring these very personal experiences to our expressions of condolence and sympathy. So much is framed by our unique relationships and circumstances, that drawing too much on assumed similarities can, at the very least, render the expression less meaningful. I’ve noticed how my condolences to others reflect my own grief and relationships. Though there are many parallels to be drawn and unities to be embraced as I contemplate death and mourning, my awareness of others’ discrete relationships gives me a richer understanding of my own grief, and hopefully, a more mindful appreciation of theirs.

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.