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.”

The Power of Vulnerability

There is risk in vulnerability. In letting ourselves acknowledge and feel our wounds and imperfections, and then, in letting others see them. To be vulnerable – to let ourselves be seen as we really are – is to open ourselves to the possibility of rejection. The risk is one of connectedness. Will this vulnerability of mine bring us closer or push us apart? In my grief, if I show you my devastation, will you run?

I highly recommend this moving, informative, and humorous 20-minute talk by researcher Brené Brown. In it, she speaks to the power of vulnerability, the cultural avoidance of it, and the necessity of embracing it, if we are to be “whole-hearted” people. What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.