If I Were a Bird

mnnov-2009

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”
-George Elliot

This quote is so you. When I read it on your party invitation, it took my breath away. And when you tossed those leaves for joy that early November day, no doubt was left, it was your favored season. You must be that bird – the way you’d flit through golden days with all your brilliant gusto – I seem to sense you more intently now. But it could be that I’m the bird, flying about this home of ours, and in every tree and cloud, seeking you.

Rest Area

Lying on the couch
awake since three
in the nursing home
with my dad
and all the other
saints of survival

I watch his skeletal
frame disappearing
into the pitch
dark bedroom.
Each shuffle step
a psalm of frailty.

Eighty-nine year old
bones still moving.
Still holding him up
in this weighted world.

On the drive home
I feel myself fading.
When I realize
that I can’t remember
the last few minutes
I pull off.

In the rest area
I sleep in the front seat
with the windows down.
The sun and wind flow in
along with the smell
of warm sweet grass.
When I wake
I am lost in the world
for a wonderful moment.

I climb out of the car
and slowly walk the perimeter
of the picnic area.
There are no people.
Just a lone semi
parked by the edge
of a corn field.
A driver named Winkle
may have been sleeping
in its cab for fifty years.

I find a curved hiking path
mowed into the waist high
“restored prairie”.
It’s surrounded by wildflowers
and tall, brown grasses.

Fifty yards out
there is a sculpture.
A boat with no skin,
only broken ribs.
A plaque explains that it is
symbolic of the Viking explorers.
It has been surrounded
with a fence so
no one will touch it
or get too close.

I watch the fall bloom
    asters
        hyssop
            golden rod and more
rocking back and forth
on the moist wind
coming up from the south.

Monarchs go tumbling by
diving again and again
into the wind
fighting their way
across North America
on paper wings.

Off in the distance
the windmill giants are
waving their arms at something
beyond the horizon.

The earth is tilting.

I think of my father.
No longer able to kneel and pray.
He lies on his back in bed
and prays for the world.
He sleeps and prays.

He has fought
the wolves of loneliness.
He was wounded but now
they lie quietly by his side.
He lies quietly by their side.

When I am with him
(and even when I am not)
I feel his grace.
It gives welcome weight
to the ballast that’s needed
in this storm of days.

Back in the wild field
an old fence post holds
a twisted strand of wire.
It sings so softly with the wind
that it can hardly be heard.
It sounds like the ghost
of a drowned woman
calling from far
beneath the water.

I am in love
with these quiet things
that have nothing
to do with survival.
I stand in the field
listening to this sad music
and watch as a long
spine of clouds
slowly bends itself
over the ancient world.

– Kevin Lawler
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More poetry by Kevin Lawler can be found at Winding Road.

Channeling Anger

I’ve been asked if I’m angry about your death. I am. I suppose the question came up because the friend who asked hasn’t seen me express it, at least not openly, in it’s unrestrained, torrential state.  I’m glad she asked, though. Since then, I’ve been paying more attention to my occasional outbursts, or the slow-building broody weeks that seem to catch me by surprise, with no seemingly outward catalyst.

Yes, there among the myriad emotions and memories and reflections about your illness and death, and my life in the wake, anger exists. And, like most emotions, it doesn’t hold up well to rationale when I’m feeling it full-force. With a little distance, I’ve been able to get some perspective, and have some empathy toward myself. I love this quote by Harriet Lerner: “Anger is a signal, and one worth listening to.”

I’ve noticed that anger is not a predominant aspect of my grief for you (I don’t feel mad at you for dying, for instance), but I definitely get good and angry when I recall some of the circumstances surrounding your death, and the attendant interpersonal and cultural dynamics then, and since. I’m angry with myself for some of my decisions. I’m angry that you suffered so much. I’m angry that our culture shuns and minimizes grief and grievers, and that we consider death itself so unconscionable that we inadvertently harm those we love who are dying. To name but a few.

I sometimes don’t know what to “do” with my grief-anger. It does, occasionally, come out sideways – a sure sign I have some acknowledging to do. Part of the channeling of my anger is this blog – a place to expend the energy, examine the disappointments and expectations that fuel it, and simply to offer it, in honor and love, for you.

 

 

Echo

‘”What causes an echo?” she once quizzed me. The persistence of sound after the source has stopped. “When can you hear an echo?” When it’s quiet and other sounds are absorbed.’
– Mitch Albom, from For One More Day

These are my favorite lines from a short, sentimental novel the author calls a “family ghost story.” Not long after you died, I mentioned to a musician friend that it was so quiet.  Your “sound” seemed to have left the world – the sound of your exuberance, your laughter, the literal vibration of your life. I could no longer identify it in my audible field. Without realizing it consciously, I started then to listen for an echo of sorts – the persistence of you. And I find I can somehow perceive the “persistence of you” most clearly when it’s quiet, or perhaps more aptly, when I’m quiet inside. But not always! Sometimes, in the noisiest of family gatherings, that echo punctuates the party. Just like you did.

Recently, an old friend of ours, cried with me about how terrible those last months were for you. It was such relief to know she grasped some of the enormity of what you endured, and to share the anguish of that knowledge together meant so much to me. Then, she apologized for bringing it up! I’m not sure she fully understood when I explained that I welcomed it, was grateful beyond words that she had spoken of those life-altering events. I think somehow we quiet the echoes of our deceased loved ones when we avoid painful memories – and even joyous ones – in well-meaning attempts to spare each other more sadness. We also stifle an opportunity for grief to be expressed in community, and the easing of sorrow, however temporary, that it brings.

This week I’ll be reunited with several of our long-time friends. With a few, it will be the first time since your memorial. Your name will be spoken freely, and your photo will be prominently displayed on the mantle. We’ll use some of your serving dishes on the table, and your favorite music will be played. Stories will be told. Echoes will be heard.

 

 

Shelter

Over the many years you were sick, from time to time, I would try to imagine what I would feel, how I would cope, if you died. It wasn’t a question of when, really, unless there was a setback and a new treatment protocol – a storm to weather. Then, that far off time would inch closer, only to retreat again until the next threat. Unfailingly, you lived for the day. More than anyone else, you taught me to seize it, and the people in it, with wholehearted exuberance. We were shelter – each to the other. I couldn’t possibly have imagined how I would feel, or deal. Your death is beyond precedent in my life, despite the deaths of many of our loved ones before it. And because there was, and continues to be, no cultural framework for learning about dying and grieving as skills, I find myself searching for some kind of community engaged in creating one.

Some friends and I were talking recently about the “club.” Like other clubs of similar ilk, the cancer club most notably,  it’s one you never want to join. But there you are, and you gravitate to others who can relate most keenly because of the magnitude of the death they’ve experienced. A death that levels you. Shatters any semblance of life as you knew it. They know what you’re talking about as you all nod your heads about death having its way with you. And what life is like now.

This is the company I seek, and have been fortunate to find, especially when I’ve needed it most. Companions with whom I feel a strange and comfortable refuge and authenticity, even if I don’t know them well. It’s unorganized, impromptu, and feels rather “underground.” It’s balancing, and clarifying, and loving. Like you, it’s shelter.

Future Shock

2016 is kicking my emotional ass – and that’s a massive understatement. A realistic summation of it simply fails me.

It’s nearly 29 months since you died, Kissie. January 5th was two years. It has been unlike any two years of my previous 53, and I have by turns crawled, trudged, sleep-walked, and literally slept, my way through it. I’ve also wept, laughed, raged, hugged, and tried to love my way through it, but my experience of time has irrevocably changed. From the outside it must seem I’m just aimlessly adrift. Acquaintances and friends inquire about my interests and pursuits, which appear to be abandoned. I am not what I once was.

One of the ongoing difficulties is trying to find (or create) the right language to convey what’s happened, and how I’m adjusting (or not). I’m really not adjusting, though I must be adapting to some extent. I keep going – that’s what I do. When I open my eyes, I try to remember to give thanks for another day, and for the ability itself to weep for you.

I sometimes call this time and space I now occupy “future shock,” which is to say it feels neither here, nor there. It’s an in-between, disorienting, ambiguous-feeling time. And something I don’t recall experiencing before, though maybe I was not as conscious of it as I am now. Is it because I’m grieving deliberately? It’s future shock because I’m here two plus years later in a future I never imagined or wanted. It’s a liminal place because it feels transitory and unmoored, but not aimless, to me. It feels necessary.

We just celebrated your birthday for the third time since your death, Kissie.  It’s the happiest day of my life, especially the ones we shared in person. Looking at every single birthday card I ever gave you, each a tiny paper monument to our love, that liminal sweet-sadness wells up, and an old, bones deep longing I’ve always felt whenever we’ve been apart.

Unwelcome Guests

Missing you hurts like hell, Kissie. It’s a fact of my life now. How could it be otherwise? I’m socially conditioned to judge my pain, so I struggle not to. I don’t think it’s productive, it doesn’t change anything, and it feels harmful. I’m convinced that judging my emotional pain also perpetuates the grief phobia I observe and experience regularly. It’s really difficult to stay out of that judgement, needless to say.

Culturally, we’re definitely not of the mind Rumi was when he wrote The Guest House, encouraging hospitality for our darkest emotions: “Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.” How to entertain my darkest emotions? For starters, I’m offering regular, open acknowledgement of my grief, even when it’s uncomfortable for others, as it often is. Grief, disappointment, longing, anger, sorrow, and pain are communally viewed as “unwelcome guests,” and trying to entertain them, as Rumi suggests, is like swimming against a powerful, though often subtle, current. Persisting takes energy, and I’m not high on energy right now. But, I am committed.

When I spend time with others actively embracing their unwelcome guests, or attempting to integrate their “shadow aspects,” as Carl Jung called them, it’s such a relief to my body, mind, and spirit. Maybe more importantly, I feel a sense of burgeoning community. This unorganized, under-the-radar companionship, and the humanity I feel privileged to encounter there, are giving me the strength to resist self-judgement, and to keep “treat[ing] each guest honorably.”

Book Review -Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul

Last spring I was delighted to be asked to review a book by author and teacher Stephen Jenkinson, whose work has had a tremendous impact on me. Though Jenkinson has yet to visit the Twin Cities to discuss his book, I hope my review – recently published by the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support and shared here – will pique the attention of those interested in challenging our prevailing understanding, and addressing the great misunderstandings that have informed the death and grief phobia so prevalent in north American culture today.


Who would expect that a death would alter their way of life forever? Or that a book would show up on the heels of such a harrowing crossroads to offer the only thing close to solace — the idea that perhaps we must finally “make room for dying in [our] way of living?” Certainly not me at 54, and certainly not so soon after my sister Christine’s death at 51 in early 2014.  That first raw and surreal spring, as I was grasping for a language for my grief, a friend shared a link to the 2008 documentary Griefwalker, and in the midst of the most penetrating sorrow I’ve ever known, I clicked that link.

In Griefwalker, I was introduced to Stephen Jenkinson, former director of palliative care counseling at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital (with masters degrees in social work and theology), activist, storyteller, author, and teacher. In conversations with dying people, families, care providers, and the film’s narrater and director, Jenkinson gives voice to the scope and prevalence of death-phobia in our culture, and the unintended and unacknowledged effects on the dying and those who love them. Remarkably, he puts forth the monumental idea of grieving and dying as skills to be cultivated — even held as “prized possessions” — and laments the misunderstanding and isolation that presently underscore dying (and grieving) in our part of the world. With Griefwalker came the profound realization that dying could be done, and done well (or as Jenkinson puts it, extravagantly), expressly for those who would live to see it, and that this was what my sister had desired and — against the odds — achieved with her death.

My grieving heart wanted more. I ordered Jenkinson’s newest book, Die Wise, published this past March, and dove in. I’ve read it twice, and continue to revisit sections of it often, as a workbook of sorts, a way to continue processing the hard-earned wisdom that Jenkinson elaborates on, and that resonates so accurately with all I’ve experienced as absent from my personal, and our collective, experience of death and grief today.

This is a book to turn to for the forthright asking of the weighty and difficult questions — the ones that hang in the air unspoken and lingering when someone is dying, or that wake you up in the middle of the night while you’re in the throes of mourning. He has called this book “a manifesto for sanity and soul,” and that it is — a ponderous opus for those of us who have felt crestfallen and abandoned by the status quo during one of life’s cardinal and perennial passages. It is, in Jenkinson’s words, “for those of you working in the death trade with all kinds of good intent about helping people,” and  “most especially for those of you who have the news of your dying in hand, or who are waiting for the news that seems certain to come in, and for those who love you.” Chapters with titles such as “The Ordeal of a Managed Death,” “Stealing Meaning From Dying,” “The Tyrant Hope,” and “What Dying Asks of Us All” go straight to the heart of what families and dying persons themselves are caught up in, and in them, I learned about Jenkinson himself, personally and professionally, and the experiences that have shaped his philosophy and teaching.

His writing style, much like his speaking, is a provocative mix of reasoned discourse punctuated by the soul-stirring accounts of a master story-teller. My understanding of the text benefitted from having listened to a number of his interviews, videos of talks (many of which can be found at orphanwisdom.com), and from viewing the film, Griefwalker.

Early on he cautions readers to abandon hope for a master plan to fix what’s broken, yet as somber as some realities may be, there is possibility in these pages — a manifesto is both testament and plea. I read the book looking for my cognitive schemas and hard-wired biases to be challenged, and I was not disappointed. More importantly I found humane sustenance and the beginnings of a language for what seemed to be an innate, but unschooled, knowledge around grief. Ultimately, Stephen Jenkinson pleads eloquently with us to bring death (and our own forgotten ancestry) — fully acknowledged — into our daily lives, to our benefit now, and as the last and lasting gift to all we love.

Grief Positive Environments

Sounds rather contradictory, eh? How could grief possibly be positive? Its very mention seems to evoke diminishment and uncertainty. And what would a constructive environment for grief be like? I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about this, especially moving through the holidays, and approaching the second anniversary of Kissie’s death.

A “grief positive” environment (or atmosphere) is where, and with whom, we feel the expression of our grief (mourning) is allowed, welcomed, and valued. Outside of an organized “grief group,” I would venture this is hard to come by for most, and especially in a prevailing cultural and social climate so accustomed to the pursuit of personal mastery, and the silver lining. Very fortunately, I have a grief positive spouse, and home life. I’m also lucky to have in my midst, a number of family members and friends who allow, acknowledge, and even embrace their own grief, and who in turn have the capacity to extend a developing understanding to me and others without constraint or prescription.

To be able to openly express my sorrow, and talk about whatever comes to mind without reproach, is crucial. I can’t imagine how I would fare without these touchstone relationships, and the islands of sanity and mutual understanding they provide in this strenuous time of grieving. Yet, they are not everywhere, and they are certainly not commonplace. My fellow grief practitioners are my ports in a storm of misapprehension about what grief has to teach us, and what will become of us if we learn.

Grief Bursts

In a video on coping with grief during the holidays, I heard the expression “grief bursts,” as used by counselors and others working with the bereaved.  This immediately resonated. You could say I’ve been having a plethora of bursts lately. Apparently, they are also referred to as subsequent temporary upsurges of grief, or STUGs, by grief therapists. These terms are helpful to me – they provide a way to name my experience, and describe it to others.  Both refer to a flare or increase in sadness brought on by a trigger of some kind (sights, sounds, seasonal reminders), or a memory, and they are usually not predictable.

Now there’s quite a bit of reading out there on the predictable upsurge of sadness during the months of November and December, and some of it has solid guidance, even if it is mostly of the Coping in Six Easy Steps variety. And even though I could amply anticipate my increased sadness this past month (and expect it also in December), I still find its intensity and duration catch me off guard. My grief is stronger than I anticipated – having been through my “firsts” already – and acknowledging and embracing that fact helps me move through the upsurges. So does spending time with the “grief positive” people in my life.

Maybe most important is recognizing the personal significance of the season. November held one of my last visits with Kissie, and December was the last full month of her life. My consciousness of this feels essential to weathering these especially intense bursts, and it helps me have compassion for, and patience with, my vulnerability.