Waves of Grief after Waves of Nausea

Grief is my constant companion. It is there every day and every moment even when there is a smile plastered to my face. Sometimes I choose not to acknowledge it. I don’t want it to dominate and there are still other times when it rides along in the sidecar of my whole existence.

For the first three months of my pregnancy, it stayed there. It didn’t hop into the driver seat but stayed somewhere in the background. I noticed it only enough to order a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Mothers, but then the swell of nausea would hit and I would speed down the hall praying that I’d make it to the toilet this time. Waves of nausea is too gentle for what I had been feeling those first few weeks of my pregnancy. I felt sick. I felt so sick that I can’t even consider an apt metaphor.

I could barely pull myself off the couch. I binged on television and hid behind my hands every time food appeared on the screen. The odor of that food would waft through the television screen and my stomach would turn. Back down the hall to the bathroom I would race muttering prayers of disgust.

When I finally started to feel better, it was Mother’s Day and the New York Times published this popular essay on The Birth of a Mother. It was posted and retweeted though all of my friends and family at the same time that I got a sweet text message from my sister wishing me a happy mother’s day for the very first time. It is no secret that I have complicated feelings about this observance. I’ve blogged about it in the past. So it may come to you as no surprise that I couldn’t bring myself to read this poignant essay. It remained an open tab on my browser for weeks, but I never read a word.

I never read a word until today.

I read only the first paragraph before the swells of grief rose in my chest. Tears began to roll down my cheeks not because of the overflow of hormones in my body, but for the fact that I am still a motherless daughter and so as careful as Alexandra Sacks is to include the wide variety of emotions that pregnant women experience, she still left me out. My family dynamics changed long ago when my mother died. Ever since, I have been creating my own style. I’ve borrowed from lots of amazing women — including my beloved stepmother — in parenting myself so that I still quite imagine what will emerge when I first hold my daughter in my arms.

Ambivalence is not the right word for me. Ambivalence doesn’t even describe the years before I met my husband when I knew that I couldn’t be a single parent. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. I didn’t want to raise a child with all of my grief leading the way, but I hoped that there would be someone else to ride that wave with me. I didn’t want to be a parent if it wasn’t a partnership.

Is that my own version of guilt and shame? I don’t know. I do know that when I met my husband and first watched him interact with the little girl who would become my godchild, something inside me shifted. It changed. I could see something that I hadn’t let myself see before. Parenting no longer seemed impossible, at least not with this man by my side.

This is something we talk a lot about these days. It might be the sappy talk that every couple has in the midst of a pregnancy but every time it comes up, it feels revelatory. He chose me to be his partner because he saw that I’d be a great mom. There were other reasons, I’m sure, though those aren’t highlighted quite as often as this particular fact. And even though I tell him the exact same thing, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mother I will be.

My mother did not work. She put all of those moms that worry about being good enough on edge. In my memory, if not in real life, it was what she wanted most. She wanted to be a mom. She relished in every bit of it. I don’t know if I will be like her though I’ll probably spend a lot of time wondering what she would do. Let’s be honest, I’m already doing that because that it is how it is with grief.

Grief raises questions. It makes me wonder about things that I can never know no matter how many times I ask those that knew her. What is left is just a hole where there was once a person. She is gone and all of that wisdom that I might have once gleaned from her is now gone. It is lost. It will never be retrieved and so many of my questions will go unanswered. I’ll never really know if what I’m remembering is a fantasy or some complicated illusion I created to survive her loss. Those that knew her will tell me, but it will always be what they saw or what they wanted to believe. I’ll never really know how she would have chosen to define herself as a mother or as a woman.

It’s these questions that rise from the depths — once again — as I wonder about the kind of mother I will become. I can only hope that my children know how much I love them, for this is what I’ll never forget about my own mother.

 

How Grief Works

Since the news early Wednesday morning, a collective cry has arisen from my fellow Americans. Many have said that it feels like someone they have loved has died. In these first few days after the news hit, they feel numb. They are in shock. They can’t believe that this has happened. It feels just like when their dad died.

When that news hit that Donald Trump would be our next president, they couldn’t believe it. They had been in shock. They were numb and they wondered what the world would look like without him.

It has been a few years since that happened though. The grief they remember has changed. It has become something else. It’s not as overwhelming as it once was. They still miss their dad. Of course, they still miss him but those years without him have made grief different. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.

Whether or not we are able to connect it to that loss before, it is grief that is on everyone’s lips. It was the first thing that arrived in my email on Wednesday. With only a few hours of fitful rest after that acceptance speech at 2 a.m., there was an email telling me to grieve quickly.

Others have joined that chorus echoing that refrain from the Psalmist, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” They do not speak of joy, of course, but of the work that must be done. Still, there is urgency to grieve quickly.

This is not how grief works. It does not come in a flash only to disappear. It does more than linger when it feels like the world has been ripped apart. This is how it feels when your father dies. This is how it feels right now to a whole lot of Americans. I’m told that it has felt that way to others before this election and that this has been ignored by people like you and me. Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times yesterday,

“Many religious people are drawn by the teachings of their tradition to humane values and caring about the oppressed. Yet they often find that liberal culture is hostile to religion of any sort, believing it is irrational and filled with hate. People on the left rarely open themselves to the possibility that there could be a spiritual crisis in society that plays a role in the lives of many who feel misunderstood and denigrated by the fancy intellectuals and radical activists.

The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear.”

That last line arrests me. For it is not just their inner pain and fear that has gone ignored, it is our own.

This is how grief works. Something terrible happens. The worst thing that you ever could have imagined has now happened. You would not have dared to believe it before and now that it has and still you can’t believe it. You are in shock. You are scared. You are not sure how you’ll ever pick up and move on — though you know that you must. Your kids need you. Your friends need you. There are people that are counting on you and so you can’t stay with the pain and fear forever. And you don’t want to. You don’t want to go on feeling like this forever but grief does not allow you to ignore the fact that everything has changed. It won’t let you insist upon joy. It forces you to deal with all of that inner pain and fear.

This, dear friends, is not something that you can do quickly. It is not a momentary blip but the pain and the fear lingers for much more than just a night. It does no good to try to dismiss it or ignore it. It will hurt that much more if we try to move past it too quickly for this is how grief works.

Do not let yourself get overly consumed with why your neighbor or your brother or the person sitting next to you in worship isn’t as deeply grieved. Their grief is their own. Not everyone experiences grief in quite the same way. Try to remember this because while you might not be able to stop crying, not everyone cries on the outside. There is no right way to grieve and no possible way to push another through it, so don’t try. Tend to your own inner pain and fear before you spend too much time worrying about theirs.

I do not intend to wag my finger at you or your pain. In fact, that’s the last thing that I would want to do because I know that it will not work. Grief is what I know best. To borrow a line from Hope Edelman, it is “the most determining, most profound, the most influential event of my life.” My mother died when I was just a little girl and it has forever shaped how I see the world. And so, I know that you cannot shame another into feeling what they do not feel nor can you cannot compel anyone into grief. That’s not how it works. Grief, instead, is paying attention to that inner pain and fear. It’s a practice of noticing what hurts and how it hurts.

It is not so simple as charting through five stages until it is over and done. Grief will seize each of us at different times. Some are feeling it now. It is already real for them while others will need more time. Some will not feel the weight of this news until January when the inauguration when this president-elect will take the oath of office. Some might not even feel it then. Let’s not worry too much about what that might mean but instead let’s try to practice paying attention. Don’t grieve quickly. That’s really bad advice that comes from a culture that believes that the only way to survive is to get over your pain and your fear.

Grief is not something to overcome or achieve, but something to go through. It’s not wise to try to hurdle over it. It’s best to take the risk and allow yourself to mourn. Mourn it all. Mourn every hope and dream that feels dashed. Mourn the idea of America that feels like its dissolved and disappeared. Mourn the safety of your neighbor and yourself. Mourn every bit of it. Pay attention to it. Notice what you are feeling and when you feel it because that will be what teaches you. That will be what leads you to be the change that your kids and your friends need. That will be what allows you to take all of this pain and fear and make it into something beautiful that this country needs. But for now, dear ones, allow the grief to linger. Joy will come soon enough.

 

 

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.

Letters to Heaven

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Every year, as January comes to a close and the calendar turns to February, I start to wonder about what I’ll say to her this year. I wonder about what I would want her to know about this year and who I am right now. Way up there in heaven, I wonder what I’ll tell my mother about my life.

Every year, I’ve written to her in the pages of my journal as if she is sitting beside me. Of course, she isn’t. Today is the anniversary of her death. She died twenty-nine years ago today. Twenty nine years ago, on this very day, I carefully prepared a package of stale marshmallows and the almond cookies we made in school that day to bring to her in the hospital. But, before I could leap off the bus, I could see my dad and I knew something was wrong. So much has happened since then. So much that she hasn’t been around to share with me. And this year, I will get married. I’ll marry a man that she never got to meet and begin to think about becoming a mom myself.

Maybe it’s because of those things that she feels so very far away today. Today it feels like I’ve spent the past twenty-nine years grieving something that never existed. I have photographs and other people’s stories that contradict this fact. They tell me what she was like and how wonderful she was, but I don’t have many of my own memories. When most people grieve, those normal people, they can tell you something about the person that they miss so very much. They can tell you about his laugh or her generosity. I’ve listened to so many of these stories. I love these stories so that I make it my business to seek them out. A glimmer will come into her eyes when I ask about their dearly departed before she tells me the most ridiculous story. A smile will creep across her face and she’ll sigh because that’s what she misses. She misses those little moments.

I don’t have too many of those stories. The only clear memory I have from when she was healthy was from one cold winter morning when we went ice skating on a nearby pond. My brother took off skating with lightning speed. The running joke in my family was that he was born with skates on his little feet. This day, that seemed to be true. I had never been skating on a pond so I wobbled down the wooden plank, fighting against the layers of warmth that encased me, until I hit the ice. I pushed off and made a clear, graceful arc straight into a snowbank. That’s when my mother started laughing. She couldn’t stop laughing even as she tried to pull me back to my feet. I really, really hope that this doesn’t reveal my mother’s character. It doesn’t fit with what I’ve been told but it’s the only memory I have stashed away. If my mom was alive, I’m sure we’d laugh about this. Or I really want to believe that we’d laugh about this ridiculous moment from my childhood. But, I don’t know what would make my mom laugh uncontrollably. I don’t know what would bring tears to her eyes out of sheer delight anymore than I know what would really break her heart. And that’s what makes anniversaries so hard.

My dear friend Teri, who lost her mother ten years ago, is much more frank about it. As she said by text message today, “anniversaries are shitty.” I can’t argue. Anniversaries are the cruel reminder that so many years have passed. Every year, I hope I will feel differently but it always feels the same. It is one of those days where everything feels thin. Just as the ancient Celts imagined it, it feels like the walls between heaven and earth collapse and it feels as if something should happen. Every year, I’m confronted with this terrible indecisiveness about how to spend the day. Sometimes that means spending the days with others whether that’s taking a ferry to a quiet island in the middle of Casco Bay to quietly walk with a friend or building a fairy house in the woods on another island with another friend. I’ve thrown ice cream parties where we heaped mounds of chocolate ice cream into bowls as I told the story of the last time I saw my mom but most years, I don’t know what to do. I feel that I should do something but I struggle with what do with the strange cosmic energy that comes each and every year.

And then, with frustrated tears running down my cheeks, I feel guilty. It happens every single year. I am overwhelmed and overcome by this terrible guilt. This is something I will never understand. I don’t know why I feel guilty but it’s something that Teri tells me happens. She calls it survivor guilt. It’s a real thing, she argues because she knows that I am going to disagree. I don’t want to see myself as survivor. It’s not like I survived a plane crash or the collapse of the twin towers. My mom died from a disease that I have yet to contract. Though I live in that fear, it remains only a possibility. That doesn’t change the fact that I always feel guilty on the anniversary of her death.

I feel as if I should feel something or do something but I can never figure out what that is. I have tried time and time again for twenty-nine years. Still, the guilt hangs out mixed up with this sense of wonder that everything feels thin. All the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. There is a feeling like something might happen. Something could happen. Or maybe I just really want something to happen so that the only constant from year to year is that I sit down  with my journal to write letters to heaven. On the anniversary of the day she died, I take a pen in my hand to try to collapse the walls between heaven and earth.

This year, it doesn’t feel thin. That feeling is still there. I still feel like anything could happen. I really want something to happen but it’s not a thin feeling. It’s a thick feeling that hangs in the air today. Today, I’m aware of the distance between heaven and earth.

I feel the distance in the years that I have lived without her. I feel the distance in the huge events that are about to take place this year that she won’t get to share. I feel the distance that comes from not knowing what would make her laugh or cry. And yet, no matter how far the distance might be, I still want to collapse those walls that separate us. I want to believe she’s right here beside me.

That’s how small I want the distance to be. I want to believe that she is standing beside me. I try to convince myself that she always has been. She’s right here on earth and hasn’t really left my side, except that on this anniversary, on the day that she died, the calendar turns and I can only feel her absence.

It doesn’t feel like she is here. She is anything but here so she must be out there somewhere because she hasn’t been here for so very long. She died twenty-nine years ago and I still can’t quite believe it. She has to be up there in some other realm that I cannot reach, no matter how hard I try. It’s only on this dreadful day that I let myself believe that I have any power to cross the divide and reach toward that place where she dwells. On other days, I don’t believe such things. I remain unconvinced that heaven is somewhere else. I refuse to believe it most of the time. Except that on her anniversary, especially on this anniversary, my faith isn’t quite so resolute because the distance seems so vast and I want nothing more than to bring her close and tell her everything about my life that she needs to know. (She’s still my mom. No matter how much I want this sweet communion, there are still things she doesn’t need to know.)

Part of me believes that she knows it all already. I don’t need to tell her because she’s already seen it. She’s been busy watching me all year long from her cloud just over my head. There’s no need for me to reach through the veil between heaven and earth with my pen and paper because she already knows. She knows it all. She hasn’t missed on anything. She’s done all that she could to be there even if I never knew that she was standing beside me but I can’t quite convince myself of that today. So today, just as I have so many anniversaries before, I’m writing my mom a letter. I’m sending it out to the far reaches of the heavens.

Mom,

There are so many things that I want to ask you. There are so many things that I don’t know about you and so very many things that I want to know. Years ago, I used to ask those that knew you and loved you.

Maybe they were trying to convince themselves that you lived as much as I am trying to do now, because they wanted me to know how human you were. They told me that you were so damn stubborn and that you had a mean streak of anger. They wanted me to know that you were not perfect even when I wanted so much to believe that you were. I never got to be a teenager with you. I never got to rebel and slam doors in your face or whatever it is that teenagers do. Instead, my rebellion took me to church. I plopped down in a pew and wanted the answers to everything that didn’t make sense. Because I didn’t understand — I still don’t understand — why you had to die.

I feel like a child writing that to you, but I”m your child. So I can still be a kid, right? I can tell you that this still doesn’t make sense to me no matter how much I want to make sense of it.

I’ll never understand it just as I’ll never get to know you. It’ll always be someone else’s story or someone else’s anecdote. I won’t get to have those stories with you because you died before we ever got the chance. Just as I won’t have the chance to see you beam with pride and delight on my wedding day in just a few months. You weren’t there to watch me try on my wedding dress and I won’t get to have some frustratingly special moment on that special day where you try to give me advice and I shirk it off, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want those things. I want you to be a part of that special day just as much as I want you to know my beloved and my future children. Oh, it hurts to even imagine that. How can I be a wife and a mom without you? How will I learn my own rhythms without your support?

But I will. I’ll somehow manage this just as I’ve managed every other event without you by my side. You can’t be there. I know, I know. We will never have that but that doesn’t stop me from wanting it. I will always want you to be a part of my life. I will always want to know what you think. I will always want to hear your advice. I will always wonder what you would say to any of the bizarre and wonderful things that this life has already offered me.

Mom, there are so few things that I remember about you. I can’t remember your laugh or the sound of your voice. I don’t have many stories about you. In most of my memories, you were sick. You were as pale as the sheets on your bed. You didn’t say much but you were there and I guess I want you to be here now. I guess I’ll never give up on that hope that I’ll get to know you better… I love you.

Yours, Elsa

 

Hoarse with Prayer

Between spurts of writing my sermon today, I checked Facebook. It seems it is something that every preacher does. When God isn’t speaking clearly, preachers open their browsers to scan posts on Facebook. Today, I kept coming back to the same story of a little boy — just three years old — who was reported missing. I woke up to the helicopters overhead. I read the headlines all day long so that when I got home, my fiancé asked if I had been crying. I was so hoarse. I am hoarse with prayers for this little boy, for his family and for every sad face I saw today.

And so I pray:

O Eternal One, who searches us and knows us,
who knows when we lie down and when we rise up,
You are acquainted with all of our ways
but we cannot and do not understand your way.
Helicopters whirled through my neighborhood this morning
looking for one of your children.
Your searchlights overlooked him.
Your watchdogs couldn’t find him.
The helicopters and the news crews have left and there is nothing left but our sadness. There is nothing but our grief for one of your children has died. We don’t know why or how and we struggle not to fill in the blanks with our worst fears. O God, help us.
Help us not to eye every stranger as perpetrator. Don’t let us get away with such nonsense that refuses to admit that terrible things could happen in our community because you know better. Terrible things happen every day. Your children are abused, berated, starved, shot, raped and killed every single day. O God, help us to see every hurting child in this world.
Make us your watchdogs.
Open our eyes wide enough to be your searchlights.
Remind us again — no matter how little we understand your way — that it takes a village. It always takes a village. It takes pastors and teachers and police officers and counselors and next-door neighbors that are more like grandparents and people who just give a damn. It takes every last one of us to protect your children.
There is work to do. There is enough work for tomorrow.
But tonight, O Eternal One, let there be no doubt of our love for your children. Let our hope not waver as we squeeze the littlest lights in our lives. May our arms not tire from holding your precious children tight so that we might have enough heart and enough strength to reach our arms out even wider to embrace your children with wrinkles and wounds.
Know what is on our hearts, O God. Know what is on my heart so that you can wake me up tomorrow and remind me that there are so many children that need your protection — and it’s work that I must do. It’s work that I can’t help but do. Amen.

My Grief Has A New Name

wedding-322034_1280My grief has a new name and its name is wedding planning.

Way back when in July, I said yes before the fireworks. We had talked about it for so long — or what felt like so, so, so long — that I’d already started to daydream about our wedding. I’d already imagined the guests, the location and the colors. It was fun and exciting, if not a little bit silly.

Now, just a few months later, we have a venue, a caterer, a photographer and a cakemaker. It is real.

It is so real that I keep bumping into my old ball and chain, my grief. It’s how I know this is really happening. It’s not just that friends and family are booking hotel rooms and airline tickets. It’s that I can’t quite shake the overwhelming awareness that my mother won’t be there. Nor will my grandparents given to me by blood. They’ve all died. There isn’t one left before my family tree started new branches. I miss my grandparents and I wish they could be there. I’m pondering taking the dress that my grandmother wore to my father’s second wedding and using it to make bowties for the guys or maybe just wrap around the bouquets. It’s hot pink. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that color even though I love the idea of my grandmother being present on that day. But, it’s not so hard to imagine this day without my grandparents. It’s much harder to imagine this day without my mother.

She wasn’t there when I graduated high school. She didn’t get to see me earn my master’s degree or preach from the pulpit for the very first time. I’ve missed her each and every time. I’ve shed a tear for each family member that whispered in my ear, “your mother would be so proud of you.” But, I never thought that I would miss her as much as when it came time to plan my wedding.

It’s been twenty-eight years since my mother died, but my brain can’t quite process that she won’t go with me to look at dresses or plan brunches or whatever the hell brides do with their mothers. I feel pulled back into the cycles of grief where I’m not quite at anger but surely claiming some of my heart in denial. I can’t believe my mother isn’t here. Hello denial.

It hit me last night while I was running. Because I’m aware of this void and I know that I have do something to create a space for my mother on my wedding day. There are a lot of cheesy ways to do this that I am loathe to include on my wedding day. Running last night, I got to thinking about the details of making this thing I am imagining come to life. There are some things that I need to gather and prepare. I was making that list in my head as I ran until my mind flashed to the actual moment of what it would look like on my wedding day. I imagined the photographers clicking away as this happened until I realized I was sobbing. Fresh, hot tears streaked down my cheeks.

I wish that I could “get over it” as I’ve been advised so many times, but I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know how to detach from this loss because in removing my heart from that pain, it means losing my mom. I don’t want to lose her. I don’t want to give up on loving her which means that my grief has so many different names. It appears each and every time something big and wonderful happens, and the feeling never, ever goes away: I just want to tell my mom about it.

The Things They Carried

Just the other day, I heard a story on National Public Radio about the objects that are being collected and preserved after September 11, 2001.

Though I am a New Yorker, I wasn’t even in the country on that terrible day. I had planned to fly home that day. It was the day that I was supposed to return from my post-college summer dog sitting in London. But, it had dawned on me just a month before that I was in Europe and I should really travel more. So, I extended my stay two more weeks so that I could venture back to Italy where I had spent the previous spring studying aboard. Instead of trying to make my way back to the city I call home, I was gripped in front of the television watching the towers fall in the middle of the afternoon. I spent the next hour trying to find my stepmother who works in the city but the phone lines were all down. I would finally locate her later through my cousin who worked at a big time newspaper in the city. He found her. He told me she was OK. I wouldn’t know that until later that evening. Just before dinner, it was time to walk the dog. I remember walking through that park and noticing every woman in a hijab like I never had before. I remember trying to make eye contact with each of them. Searching their faces and begging with tear-filled eyes, trying to say to these women: Please don’t believe that every American blames you. I don’t. But, it’s not something you can say with your eyes alone.

Two weeks later, I was back in New York City stepping over flowers and candles and teddy bears piled together on the streets. These piles were in front of every fire house and every police station, a constant reminder that this city was in mourning. It’s been so many years and I had forgotten about these sidewalk memorials until I was reminded of them on the radio. In that same story, they talked about how the every day there are objects placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and every day the National Park Service comes along in white gloves to gather up these objects to be catalogued and archived. Each object is part of the memorial. Each object is part of that grief that still lingers in our present.

The story on the radio was about how one man — or maybe it was a team of people — are trying to catalog and archive the objects from when the towers fell.

kidnapping-474027_1280Today, there was another story on The Huffington Post about the objects left behind by the refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the story of these refugees in twelve images as told by the photographer Chris McGonigal. There are the remnants of so many trying to tend to their health. Scattered pill bottles and medicine sleeves seem to be in every picture. Three of these images focus on abandoned toys: a toy airplane, a teddy bear and a doll. Nothing is so chilling as seeing a child’s playthings abandoned. The first image is a discarded flipflop printed with with Germany into its sole which I can only imagine is pointing toward that place that the refugee longs to be.

Tim O’Brien wrote a series of short stories entitled The Things They Carried. They are not stories so much about objects but about ideas and possibilities. The very things that we carry in our hearts and minds: hope, freedom, peace. The things that the refugees are surely carrying with them on the way. As O’Brien puts it: “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

I have been writing a lot recently about the power of grief. (It’s a project I hope to share sometime soon, but not yet.) Grief has its own terrible power. It has the power to cripple you and dismember you as much as any weapon that O’Brien and his fellow soldiers carried. And yet, I want to believe that each and every one of those refugees making their way through Hungary right now aren’t crippled by that kind of power. Instead, that same grief for their war-torn home is giving them courage to take another step, to face another day, to imagine another ending.

This is my prayer.

A word about the picture: I use a free crowdsourced image database for all of my blog images. This image is not part of the photo essay I mention from NPR and is merely further proof that abandoned toys only leave us with questions. May there be answers.

Hang on to Each Other

I can’t quite stop myself from watching this video of the Vice President exposing his grief so tenderly and so honestly. I’ve watched it again and again and again. He’s talking to people who know grief. You can hear it in their laughter when the Vice President talks about those people who say they know how he feels. You can hear it in their attentive silence. They are bonded together in this common experience of grief.

It’s an old speech — from way back in 2012 — but it’s making the rounds again after the news that Beau died. The Vice President’s son has died. After his deployment to Iraq, Beau came home to fight a battle that he couldn’t win. Brain cancer won. So that the Vice President finds himself fighting with his grief again. As a young man, newly elected to office, he got a phone call to say that his wife and daughter had been tragically killed in car accident while they were out Christmas shopping. His boys survived. His wife and daughter did not.

It changed his entire life. It changed his career. It changed his parenting. Those that know grief know this moment. It’s when everything changes and you realize life will never be the same. Someone you love has died and nothing will ever be the same. It doesn’t mean that nothing good will ever happen again. As many times as I’ve preached about grief, it feels like this truth is never quite heard. The world creeps in with its own assumptions and conclusions. The power of the gospel gets squashed by it. There is part of me that will never get over the fact that my mother died when I was seven years old. Because that loss has changed me. Nothing will ever be quite the same because my mother died. But, I will not get over it. I can’t get over it. I can’t go back to being that seven year old little girl. I can’t change what has happened because each and everything that has happened since then has changed who and what I am.

holding-hands-752878_1280My grief is always there. It is a part of who I am. It’s something that I can’t remove or take off. It’s a truth I preached a few months ago only to be prayed over in the prayers. I tried not to wince when a woman in the congregation bowed her head and prayed that I might get over this grief. Maybe it’s just too hard to speak to the depth and length of grief while still saying, as the Vice President says in this speech, “it can and will get better.” I know both of these truths. My grief is always there but it does get better. It doesn’t hurt as much as it did 20 years ago. It is better — but it is still there. It will not disappear.

This is what I love about the church. It’s something that Elaine Pagels observes so well in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. She stumbles out of Central Park after an early morning run away from her grief into the Church of Heavenly Rest. She crossed the threshold to receive the mystery: Here is a family who knows how to face death. It’s a truth I know. It’s one that I have lived. It’s why I am so easily frustrated when someone voices a prayer of the world. The world tells you to get over it. The church offers a different message. Like the Vice President, the church tells us to hang on to each other. It can and it will get better but hang on to each other.

Don’t worry so much about it getting better. Don’t insist upon happiness. That’s the world’s job. Let the gospel have its power. That’s the mystery. That’s all it is. It’s the power of hanging on. We don’t always do it well. Sometimes we totally screw it up. But, sometimes, we really get it. When we let the power of the gospel really stand. Then, then, we can really say to each other: Here is a family who knows how to face death. Here is a group of people that knows how to hang on and never give up. It’s this that makes everything better.

Normal People Don’t Talk about Death So Much

Does anyone really have that many stories about funerals? That’s what I was thinking as she told the third story. Was it really the third funeral story? I tried to retrace the steps of our conversation seated there in the convalescent ward. She’d said something about both her son and her husband. That was one and two. Both were funeral stories.

And now, it seemed she was telling a third.

adult-675338_1280Was it really a third funeral story? Could it be? I shook my head in disbelief as I tried to connect the dots but I was missing something. I hate when this happens. I hate when I’m visiting a sweet old lady and my mind starts to wander so much so that I lose the conversation. And I have. I’ve completely lost it which means that I missed something rather important. What she’s saying now no longer makes sense — and it surely would if I had been paying attention. But, I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking about my own funeral stories.

When my mother died, there were two funeral services in two different churches with two different pastors with two different sets of mourners. I remember sitting in the front pew. I remember how one of those pastors — the one who had been at my mother’s bedside as she died — spoke directly to me. He told me that God loved me. I remember that but not as much as I remember the stuff that those two separate groups of mourners gave me. This is what I learned about death when my mother died. No one knew what to say so they gave gifts. Every day after my mother died, I was given new selection of trinkets from my second grade classmates. They gave me stuffed animals and chocolates and fashion accessories that would make any child of the 80’s proud. If they were really brave, they hugged me and said they were sorry as I imagine their mothers told them to do. I have heard it said that children couldn’t understand death. Maybe so. But, the children in my class didn’t behave any different from the grown up mourners at those two funeral services. They too hugged me and said they were sorry and handed me something that might make the pain go away. For grown ups, that something was always a picture book with black and white photographs illustrating how some kid’s pet died. I didn’t lose a pet. I lost my mother. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why these grown ups didn’t understand the difference any more than I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to see me cry.

The other children looked away when I cried in school while my teacher and the other grown ups tussled my hair into a rat’s nest without saying a word. Rat’s nest is something that my grandmother would say. So many years after she died, I’m still saying silly phrases that I used to hear her say. Yes, there have been a lot of funerals. I have plenty of stories from funeral services I’ve led and those I’ve attended, but this always seemed strange.

Normal people don’t think about death as much as I do. Maybe they have fewer stories than I do or maybe what makes you normal is that you actually overcome grief. I never have. It was expected that I would pull myself off the floor, brush off my hands and my knees and shake it off. But, I never did. I couldn’t get over it. No matter how many times they told me my mom wouldn’t want me to be so sad. I am still sad. I still miss her. And it’s not just my mother but my grandmother, my childhood friend Missy, the beautiful 94-year-old woman that came to Leisurely Lectionary every week in the last church I served and too many others to name. There have been a lot of funerals.

I didn’t reach a certain age — sitting in a convalescent home chatting with my new pastor — when I suddenly had so many funeral stories to tell. I didn’t have grey hair or grow up in a war-torn country but I have plenty of funeral stories to share. But, it wasn’t these stories that began this visit. I didn’t talk about Missy or Charlott or anyone else. This is where she began our conversation. Awkwardly lying in bed propped up on a single pillow, with the blue glow of MSNBC revealing the deep shadows on her face, she had started this visit with not one, not two but three stories about funerals. How did we get here? How had this become the topic of conversation after saying hello?

Or is it always the topic? Are we all just waiting for someone to bring it up? To ask us how it is now? To make us feel like we’re not totally crazy for still lamenting over all of these years? Or is it just me?

Because it’s always on my mind.

My grief is always there. I carry it with me with the memory of every funeral — and there are days that that weight is so heavy that I would just love for someone to ask how it is. There is a moment in the 2014 film St. Vincent. Just after the main character’s wife dies, he’s told what any grieving person has heard so many times: “I’m sorry for your loss.” I hate this phrase. He hates this phrase and he says so. “Why do people always so that?” he asks before he demands, “What about, ‘What was she like?’ or ‘Do you miss her?’ or ‘What are you going to do now?’” But, no one asks those questions. They say that they are sorry for something for which they never had any responsibility. They never ask anything more. The conversation is over because they don’t know what else to say. Perhaps there is nothing to say except that I do still miss these people. And I want to talk about them. As in the movie, I want to share how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now which is why I ended up sitting in the convalescent ward in the first place.

So I ask the question that I would want to be asked. After the third story about funerals, I ask this dear lady if she’s been thinking about funerals lately. Because when someone talks about death that much, it seems like they must be thinking about it a whole lot but they can’t find a way to talk about it. She just needed someone to ask. So I did. I asked her if she’d been thinking a lot about funerals. Her mouth puckered and her brow furrowed. No, she hadn’t. She didn’t want to talk about it. She hadn’t been thinking about it.

It was just me.

The visit ended rather abruptly after that. I had said the wrong thing. I had obviously said the wrong thing. It was time for me to leave. I had to go. I raced out of there so fast that I forgot my sunglasses. In the heat of my car in the parking lot, I debated going back in but I was so mad at myself for assuming her question was my question. But, it wasn’t. It wasn’t what she wanted to talk about even after three stories about funerals. Because normal people don’t talk about death so much.

I don’t know what normal people talk about. The weather, I guess. Or maybe what they did on their summer vacation. Maybe all of those essays we wrote in second grade were simply practice for normal conversation. I should have learned these topics then — but I was busy sharpening the tip of my pencil to such a fine point that whatever came from the tip would finally make sense of what didn’t make sense. Those essays became poems and the poems became sermons. It’s what brought me into faith and what called me into ministry. It’s this conversation I want to keep having. It’s this question that I can’t quite answer. It’s this reality that there have been so many funerals and not enough space to talk about how much I miss these people and what I’m trying to do now.

6 Ways for Congregations to Care for Grieving Families

Last week clergy did all that they could to proclaim the greatest mystery of Christian faith. They preached with all that they had in them. They led beautiful, inspiring liturgies throughout the weekend — some did so all week long. They proclaimed a faith that they might not have been feeling themselves, but they did it anyway. They dared to make the impossible feel possible for their congregations and themselves.

angels-458341_1280This week, after the brunches, egg hunts and brass, they are tired. They are so very tired because it’s hard to practice self care during Holy Week. It’s hard to find that perfect balance where every ordinary detail gets covered as well as the extra demands of Holy Week. And this week is no better. Easter is over but the busyness hasn’t yet subsided. Pastors are tired. So tired. They would like nothing better than to binge watch episodes of Call the Midwife or the last few episodes of Mad Men. They would love to lounge on the couch all afternoon but members of their church are dying. My Facebook feed is full of clergy expressing their grief over the recent deaths in their congregations. There is some dismay in those posts on social media too. Because it isn’t just one member of the congregation that has died. There are two or three.

It’s hard for the church. It’s hard for the pastor. It’s just hard. Recognizing this, here are a few things that congregations can do to support each other when death comes.

1. Recognize that every family has different needs. Every family has a different experience of death and loss. Each person within that family responds different than the next. Some will want to talk about their loved one and their feelings. Others will want to hide. You may or may not think that the family is doing it the “right way” but please do everything you can to recognize that there is no right way. What honors the grief of one family will not work for the next.

2. Get busy in the kitchen. It is only natural after recognizing that each family has different needs to ask what they need. It seems like the right thing to do. But most families haven’t a clue what they need or want — so it’s best not to ask. Instead, get busy in the kitchen making something that can be easily stowed in the freezer for the family to enjoy in the days to come. My last congregation loved to hand deliver lasagna purchased from Costco. It works if you’re short on time — but I still think that there is something special about something homemade. Deliver it to their home, but don’t expect to talk much to the grieving.

If you have a knack for reception style catering or have been blessed with baking skills, call your pastor to inquire about the family’s plans for the reception following the memorial service. Some churches have women’s groups (and rarely men’s groups) that provide this particular hospitality. But, as those groups are disappearing, this very special care for grieving families falls to a local catering company. This is wonderful for supporting local businesses but we can do better. The early Christians were known for how they took care of each other in the most difficult times — and food is one of the best ways to do that. So, get busy making those veggie platters and finger foods. Bake some cookies filled with chocolatey morsels of love. Bring them on the day of the memorial service to the church — and maybe even offer to host. The family will be so moved by the love of your church family by this gesture alone.

3. Comfort the mourning. There was a widow in my last congregation who reminded me nearly every week how much and how long grief lingers. As a child of grief myself, it was something I knew and should have been more conscious of in my ministry. And my own life. But, I wasn’t. It was she that made me realize this because she wasn’t afraid to say that it still hurts. Her husband died two years ago — and for most members of the congregation, it was old news. She had received the message from more than one person that she should “just get over it already.” Of course, no one had ever been so blunt. It was something they said by omission. They had stopped asking how she was. It only took six months for this to happen — and she still isn’t over it. She is still hurting.

When someone dies in your congregation, make a special effort to comfort the mourning. Look around and be aware of those that have lost a spouse, a child or a sibling. Blessed are those who mourn, Jesus tells us. Be part of their comfort by sending a card like one of these or simply saying in coffee hour, “I’ve been thinking about you. How are you?”

4. Proclaim the good news. Christ is risen! You proclaimed this truth on Easter Sunday. Now it’s Friday again and it seems like Barbara Johnson is right: we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. Death has come to your church family so that it seems that it’s just back to normal.

Don’t believe it. When Mary and the disciples went to the tomb, they were told to tell everyone what they had seen. You might not see those signs so clearly — but you have probably seen something amazing in this person that has died. Tell that story. Keep telling that story to everyone in your church and beyond. In this storytelling, Mary and the disciples saw the Risen Lord. They saw what work needed to be continued by their own hearts and hands. They started baptizing and healing. They taught and preached. They made disciples as they allowed themselves to be taught by the stories they told. Proclaim the good news.

5. Pray for your church familySomeone in your family has died. It may not have been someone that you knew very well or it may have been someone that everyone knew because he served on every committee there was. This person was a part of your church family. Offer prayers for his family and friends — but offer prayers especially for your church. Because there is no “right way” to grieve for any one person or a whole community. As it says in the United Church of Christ liturgy,

We humbly acknowledge that death is no stranger to your people, for it comes to us all, the strong and the ill, rich and poor, the proud and the humble. But to us, death may come as an intruder or a welcome friend, leaving us with confused and mixed feelings.

Help us to see in this ending, new beginnings as well, and remind us that you are always bringing light out of our darkness, and new life even out of death.

Only God knows where that beginning will emerge. It’s not for any of us to predict — but as people of the resurrection, as Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe that there will be new life and light. As you wait to see it, pray for your church family’s confused and mixed feelings.

6. Pray for your pastor. My favorite part of ministry is this particular work. I love walking with families through the grief process and writing liturgy for memorial services and funerals, but few pastors love it as much as I do. Your pastor may be carrying her own grief. She may be among the mourning and be struggling to write the liturgy for this memorial service. Or she might just be tired after all of the stuff surrounding Easter. Pray for her strength, her wisdom and her compassion.