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.

 

Immersion

Here is a poem I’ve come to love, followed by my reflections. It’s by Barbara Crooker from her collection “Gold.”

Grief
is a river you wade in until you get to the other side.
But I am here, stuck in the middle, water parting
around my ankles, moving downstream
over the flat rocks. I’m not able to lift a foot,
move on. Instead, I’m going to stay here
in the shallows with my sorrow, nurture it
like a cranky baby, rock it in my arms.
I don’t want it to grow up, go to school, get married.
It’s mine. Yes, the October sunlight wraps me
in its yellow shawl, and the air is sweet
as a golden Tokay. On the other side,
there are apples, grapes, walnuts,
and the rocks are warm from the sun.
But I’m going to stand here,
growing colder, until every inch
of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.
Then you really will be gone.

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She doesn’t say she won’t cross over, but that she can’t. In this, the poet recognizes the seismic impact of a significant death. For me, it also speaks to grief’s import in my personal growth and relationships. Moreover, to force the passage of my grief, to “move on” too quickly, feels unnatural. Particularly the phrase, “nurture it like a cranky baby, rock it in my arms,” suggests an instinctive cleaving to grief, and the acceptance of a mourning time – a time like childhood, to be cherished and gleaned for its truths. Like childhood and water, it is moving, and will inevitably change. The insights and ongoing connection to Kissie that grief has offered me are personal (“It’s mine”), and though they will likely (hopefully) be long-lasting, they are not static.

Significantly, this poem counsels me to respect where I am in grief, to resist turning away from my individual mourning as chronos time (like “water parting around my ankles”) marches on, and cultural dictates urge me to put it, and therefore Kissie, behind me. My mourning and my love cannot be separated.

The poet also acknowledges that even in grief life remains beautiful (“Yes, the October sunlight wraps me in its yellow shawl, and the air is sweet as a golden Tokay”), but that to fully sever it, is to orphan ourselves.

To Yearn for You

Is it okay to yearn, to long for, to pine? And for how long? Some grief research has characterized prolonged yearning as “complicated grief,” which is imbued with negative connotations for social and psychological functioning.  I can’t fathom not yearning for Kissie. I do it everyday, and expect to for the rest of my life. My yearning is a mixed emotional bag, and the extent of it varies from day to day, month to month, season to season. Sometimes my longing for her is a vast and wordless comfort, and, sometimes, it’s a huddled ball of second thoughts and bone-tiredness. My yearning has taken me on hours-long email reading expeditions as I devour our mundane and exultant exchanges, and fueled excavations of long-forgotten photos and the hoped for, glistening memories. My longing for her is part of my ongoing connection to her. And just as I hunger for the company of those I love who live far away, I ache for those who have died, knowing full well that our time as it once was has ended. I find it nourishing to openly acknowledge my longing, and to feel its many facets as fully and honestly as I can.

Is love itself not yearning? Grief, you are all the love I’ve yearned for, and found, and yearn for still.

 

 

Grief and Social Media: At time of death

A topic for which one post will undoubtedly not suffice, the age of social media is rife with considerations we might do well to address sooner rather than later. Social media was the furthest thing from my mind during the last precious days of Christine’s life. As we gathered to share those final transformational hours as a family, time was seemingly suspended, never to be the same again.

In the immediate aftermath of her death – that initial, fragile, devastating time – we held on to each other, and as we could, began placing initial calls to our nearest and dearest who were solemnly waiting for word. The next circle of family and close friends would follow as soon as we could muster the strength. Some would be asked to be personal messengers to others as our emotional strength gave out. Not a half day had passed (she died in the morning) before we began to hear that people were learning of her death via Facebook. Among them, some we hadn’t yet had a chance to contact.

I was called by a dear friend of ours I’d wanted to phone myself, a historical friend who knew our lives and relationship, someone I could sob and be overwhelmed with. But she had already been contacted by a mutual friend who’d read it on Facebook. I was instantly furious, and then, crestfallen. She had to calm me down and tell me it was alright that she didn’t hear it from me personally. It felt as if our undiluted, first opportunity to mourn together was stolen. It wasn’t until much later that we really cried together. My anger wasn’t about who had received word first, or from whom, but how.

Only scant hours after Christine’s death, social media posts felt intrusive – as if our profoundly personal and meaningful passage had been co-opted as just one more bit of “news,” and precisely when we most needed to share our thoughts and emotions first-hand.  Our life-altering experience felt reduced – reported in others’ “news feeds” with their interpretations and motivations. It felt insulting and painful to my mind, heart, and emotions. How could it be that the time we needed in our most vulnerable state, was underestimated, misunderstood, not considered? A few hours was too soon.

In contemplating this relatively recent phenomenon, I’ve realized how little exists in the way of guidance when it comes to the use of social media around death and grief. Some people possess an approach that’s basically parallel to their offline social behavior: if they wouldn’t do something offline, they wouldn’t do it online either. Others, by contrast, seem at a loss to know how to align their online behavior with what they would customarily do in person. The disconnect, at least in part, seems be related to a number of readily observable phenomenon. One being the immediacy of social media communication and the sense of urgency it engenders. I can feel it almost instantly on any number of social sites as soon as I log on. The urge to post something new, exciting, and attention-getting is part and parcel of the experience. This compulsion to create content can, and sometimes does, override better judgement. Another is a kind of “personal insulation” – a sense of detachment from consequences and considerations one would make in person, but that online, one may rightfully renounce.

I have no intention of deriding the respectful and responsible use of social media for sharing the experience and impact of a death, and to inform wider circles who may not have been personally close to the deceased, but who nonetheless care and want to support their grieving loved ones and friends. Quite the contrary, as these are legitimate uses. However, much more care and consideration can be taken to keep the grief-stricken foremost in mind and heart, beginning in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death. To slow down, to patiently pause, to consider the magnitude of death, of its unalterable consequences, is to move toward real empathy, and then to act accordingly.

Time, and time again

The passage of time, the marking of it, has never been stranger than since you died. Dates, seasons and their associated import and memory, seem to be tattooed just under my skin – out of sight, but exerting themselves effortlessly into consciousness (or semi-consciousness) at the appointed time. Anniversaries of all sorts – doctor appointments, hospital stays, trips we took, last times we did this or that – especially that last year, are sentinels of significance that I appreciate and long for, even if they’re painful. When I look at the actual calendar and my record of events for confirmation, I think, “ah yes, no wonder I feel this way.”

As I mentally and emotionally move through the chronology of 2013, the turning over and remembering of its defining moments, I’m negotiating, as I must, the present-moment. It seems to me a kind of slipstream time, the present. A time oddly hidden from itself. More like a shadowed or cocooned time. Time that is pulled somehow, largely invisible, and without a sense of perceptible movement, but definitely evolving. A waiting, suspended kind of time the clock-driven world is impatient with, and sometimes I feel like I’m a step behind (or ahead) even while all appears to be moving at the expected and customary pace.

Because time has felt so surreal since your death, it helps me to think about the ancient Greek understanding of time. They defined time as either chronos – sequential, chronological time – or kairos – “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action.” In short, kairos being a more conditional or subjective understanding of time, and chronos more objective and measurable.  These past three years, this slipstream of time, feels more indeterminate and evolving, more kairos than chronos, even though intellectually I understand it is both. I feel less anxious when I consider the time I’m experiencing now as kairos time. It has a liminality I try to embrace, and it feels especially crucial. Most of all, you seem to exist here. We exist here.

If I Were a Bird

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“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.