Category Archives: Grief

Mourning

I was at two funerals yesterday.

It was a long day. The two services were different, and they were the same. Both men will be missed terribly.

I think sometimes it can be confusing to be on the periphery of grief. Mostly if you’re in the center, you know your role. Your role is to grieve, whatever that looks like to you. It is to eat some of the food that people put in front of you, if you can manage to. It is to show up at the funeral home and the church, and to decide which songs will be in the service. After all of that is over, it is learn to go on with a gaping hole in your heart. None of that is easy. But it’s pretty clear.

But what if you are just a friend of the bereaved? What if you are just a coworker? A cousin? There’s the food bit. There’s showing up to the calling hours. After that, it can get a little hazy. What can you do?

Because we are do-ers, most of us. We want to show up with a gift in our hands; we want evidence that we have done something. It is hard to decide what to do.

This is even harder, I think. Because I think what we need to do for our friends and our neighbors and our cousins that are grieving is to show up.

We want to avoid suffering, all of us. We take medicine to avoid physical pain. For emotional pain, we choose avoidance. It is hard to watch people suffer. It makes us suffer a little ourselves. It’s easier to stay away. To bring a meal and get out of the kitchen and away from the suffocating sadness as quickly as we can.

We need to pause instead. To ask, “How are you right now?” and then — this is the hardest part — to shut up and listen. Maybe for a minute. Maybe for a long time. Whatever they need.

More than anything, we need to stop running away from pain. We need to show up. To mourn with those who mourn.

Oh, That Again

For a person who spends a fair amount of time examining the workings of her own brain and then posting them on the internet, I am sometimes not very self-aware. Over the past week, I have been sleeping fitfully, trying to keep myself from eating everything in sight, and maintaining a tenuous grip on my temper, usually over things that wouldn’t bother me on a normal day. (Whatever that is.) More times than I’d like to admit, I have thought, “What is wrong with me?”

This morning I woke up early to go the gym. I grouched my way through the weights. Everything was heavy. I didn’t feel right. But I finished, and on the way home, I sat in the idling car waiting for a train, and I thought, “I wish I could go to the cemetery before I go home.” Er, what? I’m not a big cemetery visitor. Paul goes a lot more than I do, even to visit the graves on my side of the family. I batted the thought away. Even if I’d been inclined to pay attention, there really wasn’t time. The train passed. I drove on.

And burst into tears, going down a back road past fresh shoots in fields on both sides, and not much else. There was definitely no visible reason for me to be crying as I drove home at 7:30 in the morning.

Seriously, I thought, what is wrong with me?

At that moment, I realized that we are entering the teens of June.

Ah.

I have discovered this before, the creeping up of grief while I am unaware. I have even written about it before. But I am a slow learner.

I was going to say that what is wrong with me is that I am grieving, but that’s not true. The truth is there’s nothing wrong with me. Grief is not wrong. It’s hard, though. It’s a lot of work, and it continues to be work after you think you’re all done. So here we are again, in June, and I feel cranky and exhausted and, yes, a little bit like a motherless child. But now at least I know what’s going on.

I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately. I know a lot of people who are grieving. If you are, especially if it’s fresh, I’d like to give you something my mother gave to me. I was sitting at her kitchen table on the worst night of my life, so weighed down I could not lift my head, and I said, “I feel like I’m never going to be happy again. Will I always feel like this?”

This is the answer she gave me: Yes. And no. There will always be times in your life when you remember this and feel this way. Right now it’s all the time. After a while, it’ll only be some of the time. After a long while, it’ll only be occasionally. Yes. This will always hurt this much. But it won’t always hurt this much all the time.

She was right. I have come to think of grief as coming like waves in the ocean. At first it’s like being taken down in rough surf; you can’t even find your feet. You might have a moment or two when you think you never will, that you’ll go under and never come up. After a while, the waves are a more measured. You can stand up. You might get knocked silly by a bad one, but you’re up again before the next one hits. After a long time, they’re mostly lapping around your toes. Maybe a big one gets you right at the knees. Say, when an anniversary approaches and you haven’t been paying attention.

This feels like a knee wave. Unlikely to take me down, now that I’m looking right at it.

So I’ll remember, this week, what my mother taught me about grief, and I’ll miss the way she looked right after she laughed.

And then the anniversary will be over, until next time.

Of Goodness

My cousin Larry died last night. This is in no way a shock; he had been in a nursing home for years. Larry was 70 years old, I think. For 63 of those years, he was in a wheelchair. Larry contracted polio when he was seven, in the early 50s, right before the first vaccine came on the scene. He lived, but he never walked again.

A few years later, he watched helplessly as his father went into a grain silo to help a neighbor who had succumbed to gas and couldn’t come out on his own. His father didn’t come out, either. His brother Michael was there, and he didn’t go in, because Larry told him not to.

larrycrop

Many years later, post-polio syndrome reared its hideous head, and Larry slowly lost the use of the muscles over which he’d retained control. When I was a girl in the early 80s, I remember him in a motorized wheelchair that he could control with a joystick. His good hand was awkward, but it still worked. Over time, even that went away. When my sister visited him some months ago, he could still control his breath, just a bit, and blow into a tube near his mouth to get the attention of a nurse. And he could whisper a little.

Larry went to school and became a licensed social worker. He was, by all accounts, beloved by his clients and coworkers alike. Sometimes a client in crisis called him, and his sisters held a phone to his ear for hours while he talked, and listened.

None of these things is, I think, the most remarkable thing about Larry. The most remarkable thing was his goodness. He was patient and funny and kind and compassionate. His compassion was so great that it swelled up and oozed out and covered the sorrows of people who had far, far less to complain about than he did. He was always like this, as far as I remember, and it was easy to think that he was just made differently than the rest of us. Nicer, with a better soul.

My mother believed this a little. My sister drove her out to see Larry a year or so before she died, when it was clear that she was sliding into dementia. She was frustrated and angry and frightened at the loss of control, and she told Larry she envied him his positive attitude. She just couldn’t seem to find one. Larry gathered his strength for a few sentences of audible speech and said, “Well, Lucy … it isn’t easy. You have to choose it.”

It isn’t easy. You have to choose it. Words for the ages, from a man who had to choose his words with care, because he didn’t have so many left.

You may read this and want to reply that you are sorry for my loss. Save it. I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course. This is not my loss. This is everyone’s loss. Everyone but Larry. He is released at last from a body that, at the end, prevented him from doing anything but praying, which he did all day long.

If I grieve, it is not for Larry. It is because I am not more like him.

Remembrance

I’m not always great with dates. I’ve mentioned before that anniversaries sometimes sneak up on me. I am convinced that this is not an actual decline in cognitive ability, but the fact that I am trying to remember roughly 1000 things at any given time. (Just nod and smile.)

So last night when I slid into bed, already far too late, and Paul sleepily asked me what was wrong I said, “I don’t know.” And I didn’t, but that didn’t stop me from lying awake under a cloud of nebulous anxiety.

This morning, Paul posted a link to this piece I wrote a few years ago, on the twentieth anniversary of my dad’s death, which means that today it’s twenty-three years.

Oh. Right.

This is the oddest thing to me, that I don’t see it coming but my body does. My conscious mind is busy getting the children to school and driving to work and making food Elias will refuse to eat, and my body is tensing against the approach of remembered grief.

This is in no way unique to me. I was talking with a group of other adoptive moms recently. Some of their children were adopted before they could possibly remember food scarcity, and yet they hide food in their rooms. They worry about whether they’ll have enough to eat, despite the fact they haven’t truly been hungry since they can remember. One boy struggles without visible external reason for a few weeks every year around the time when he was surrendered by his birthmother.

It is as if pain and fear and grief seep into our very cells and lie there dormant. Waiting.

I read somewhere that grief is the price we pay for love, and I believe it’s true. You love someone, you’re going to break your heart over them somehow, someday. But that isn’t the end of the story.

That boy I talked about? His story goes on with his mother knowing about his hard time coming and preparing and planning and lying on the bed with him when he cries and when he doesn’t, and loving him so hard and so there while he grieves for the mother he lost. Those kids who are worried they won’t have enough to eat even though they don’t know why? Their stories go on with their mamas, breaking their hearts that their babies ever suffered and breaking their brains to think up ways to help.

And even me. When I am busy not paying attention, I have someone who remembers for me, and people that tell me stories I never heard about my father. He woke up in a recovery room once, and the first thing he wanted to do was comfort a baby he heard crying. I didn’t know that story until today, and I’m a little richer for it now.

We all bear scars – if you don’t, maybe brace yourself – and it does no good to pretend that remembered pain doesn’t hurt. But I am convinced that it’s no match for present love.

Goodbyes

You guys, December is winning.

This is my Uncle Everett, back in 1944, when he was ten years old. He died in the wee hours this morning.

1944-everett-stoller-10-yrs

A couple of people have asked me today if we were close, and I’m not sure how to answer that. The answer is likely no, at least in the way that they’re asking. We didn’t spend a lot of time together. I had seven uncles just in my mother’s family, and that doesn’t take into account the aunts and aunts-in-law and all the relations on my father’s side. There were a lot of them, and then they had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the numbers spun out of control.

But he was an immutable part of my childhood. When I realized one day that parents could die, I asked Mom what would happen to me if she and Dad were both gone, and her answer was that Uncle Everett and Aunt Marge would take care of me. I breathed in a sigh of relief. And there he was, for the rest of my years until I turned 18 and considered myself grown up. Somewhere in the background of my life, not flashy, but always there in case the very worst happened.

This is the trouble with big families. You love a lot of people. You say a lot of goodbyes.

I am for real a grownup now, although no one told me that being a grownup would feel quite so much like groping along in a dark hallway hoping you get hold of the right door handle. Or that no matter how old you are, when both your parents are gone, you feel just a little bit lost. Or that the goodbyes accumulate, each one recalling the ones that came before.

It is December, and that means I am a certified hot mess, so maybe I’m maudlin. I know this is life, and this is what happens, and it will be fine. I will be fine. But if you stop to ask me, I will also tell you that I am tired.

And I am tired of goodbyes.

Holding the Baby

Our friends Matt and Katie have a new baby. I was sitting here looking at his picture and blissing out on his cheeks – Is there anything better than fresh baby cheeks? – and I got to thinking about the last time they had a new baby. It was in the spring of 2014 and I remember this because right then, things was rough.

I was stressed out on all fronts and I was really, really looking forward to my trip to the East Coast in a few weeks, when I was going to be in a friend’s wedding and hang out and see some other friends for awhile. I remember saying at one point that for a week, the only bottom I’d have to wipe would be my own. (Potty training is a difficult time and may result in inappropriate poop comments from all parties involved.)

Mostly, it was getting harder and harder to watch the slow decline of my mom’s mind. I was just so sad all the time, and angry almost as often. Except I had this little reprieve once a week when we would go into our Sunday School classroom and either Matt or Katie would hand me the baby, and I would sit there and smile at him, or stand and sway if he wanted the motion, and pat his perfect, padded little behind.

baby

Not actual baby. Free stock photo, because I don’t have permission to plaster their kid on the internet and I’m not texting to ask because they just had a baby and I am socially awkward but I do understand some things.

You guys, he was the bestest baby. They’re all the best baby, I know, but truly he was. Just this tiny unblemished warm bundle of humanity, content to snuffle against my chest for an hour. Paul, who is the most unrepentant baby hog I have ever met, never took that kid from me one time. I asked him why once and he said, “I just can’t. You look so happy.”

So I went on the trip and tooled around Cape Cod in the summer time in my rented convertible and I had a pretty good time until my sister called and said they had found my mom lying on the sidewalk between our houses. I went home. Instead of being in a wedding, I helped plan a funeral.

When we went back to church after, I was feeling pretty raw and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to Sunday School where there were fewer people and they might expect things from me like actual responses to polite conversation. But Paul convinced me, or something, and I went in and sat down, and somebody handed me the baby.

I am certain I did not hear one word that was said in class that day. I sat there and held the baby and bawled. Paul put his arm around me, and Matt and Katie sat beside me quietly and somebody handed me a Kleenex and everybody shut up and let me be.

Sometimes I hear people say that they are afraid to go to a funeral because they don’t know what to say to the grieving, and I kind of understand this, but mostly I think it’s balderdash. It matters very little what you say (unless it is something like, “Well, of course he got cancer after he smoked all that time,” or “Buck up, camper!” in which case the bereaved would be entirely justified in punching you in the face). Just show up.

Show up, sit down, hand over a hanky. It isn’t complicated (although that doesn’t make it easy). Grieving people don’t need you to say something profound. They need you to be there, and to love them while they suffer. The loving them bit almost always looks less like a perfectly crafted statement of sympathy and more like action. Maybe bring a casserole. Maybe bring them a hug. Maybe hand them the baby. You’re smart; you’ll figure it out. And even if you don’t, it will matter most that in your glorious, awkward, fragile humanness, you just showed up.

Anniversaries

 

 

 

Anniversaries are funny. Some of them are lovely and come with cake, but some of them sneak up on you while you are going along minding your own business and whack you over the head.

On Sunday, it will be two years since my mother died. There won’t be cake.

It wasn’t until my neck muscles all released last night that I realized I must have been walking around for a week with my shoulders up around my ears. No wonder I’ve been tetchy. It’s hard to allocate resources to patience and forbearance when your brain is fully occupied with denial. Nothing to see here. Everything’s fine. No, I don’t know why you’re developing an ulcer. It’s a mystery.

I told my friend Annie I seem to be veering into an emotional ditch, and she said (more or less) well, ditch out then. Are you going to write about it?

Turns out I am.

The morning my mother died, I sat at my kitchen table with my sister. “I was supposed to be in a wedding today,” I said, and put my head down on the table and cried.

That was Annie’s wedding. We’ve known each other since we were 18 years old and lay in a strange dorm room, uncertain of the stranger lying wordlessly across the room. If you had asked me if I would ever in this world miss Annie’s wedding, I would have said never. That would never happen. I would fly across the world if I had to. I would’ve, but the way things turned out I was flying the other way.

It’s a shame, Annie said yesterday, that my wedding will always be associated with this for you.

It is, and it isn’t. The thing about death is that for a little while, everything in your orbit comes to a screeching halt. Work stops, people watch your children, and your fridge fills up with food you didn’t purchase or prepare. It would be luxurious if it weren’t all so devastating. But in a few days, you’re running an errand and you look up, and the people in line in front of you are just going about their business like the world hasn’t ended. It’s disorienting. It helps to have anchors thrown out; reminders that things go on.

Children are great for this. And weddings are, too. People die, and they grieve. But people also hope, and they laugh, and they love.

So if a wedding is all wrapped up in my mind with a funeral, well, I’m okay with that. There are thorns on the rose, it’s true.

But there’s a rose.