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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
Rabbi Dr. Earl Grollman is a past chairman of the National Center for Death Education, and a renowned bereavement author, speaker, crisis intervention specialist, and grief counselor.
“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 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.”
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.
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.
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.