An Expert In My Own Grief

Expert was the word that made me laugh in her email.

I do not feel like an expert in anything. I’ve rather owned that pastors are the last generalists. We dabble in this and that. We have a lot of theological thoughts (hopefully) and some leadership skills. We know a little of this and a little of that. Even when members of our congregation or community assumes we have wisdom in all things, we are more often than not stumbling over the answers like everyone else.

Expert was the word that she used. It was experts that she sought out for her congregation to share in conversation about important topics, like grief. I replied to her email assuring her that I really was not an expert.

She assured me that I was. I am an expert of my own grief. It is an experience that I have had that no one else has had. No one has walked the particular shadow of death I have known. There may be similarities. We may have tripped over the same paths and wandered through the same heartbreak, but no one else can tell me exactly what it was like. It is my experience alone. I am an expert.artworks-000481291728-wv34tk-t500x500

What was even more laughable about her email was the invitation was to appear as a guest on a parenting podcast. Parenting is something I do all day every day, but it is new to me. My peers have teenagers whereas I have a toddler and an infant. I’m looking for experts. I don’t imagine myself as one.

Still, Amelia Richardson Dress was adamant. Amelia is one of the pastors of United Church of Christ Longmont in Colorado and host of this wonderful digital ministry. She’d read something on my blog that led her to believe my wisdom was needed on her congregation’s podcast In Other Words. It is described on the church website in this manner:

Parenting is full of important, funny and sometimes downright awkward conversations. Each week, Amelia Richardson Dress talks with experts about the things that matter when it comes to raising kids. If you’ve ever had a question about sex, race, death or peer pressure sprung on you before your morning coffee, this podcast is for you.

I am most honored to be a part of a ministry that is just so dang innovative. I love the idea of a podcast for adult education whether the topic is parenting or something else. I think this is just brilliant and I hope that sharing a bit of my story helped to spark some important conversations for how we talk about death with children. You can find the episode entitled Grief, Parenting and the Failure of Quick Fixes below.

I’d love to know what you think and how you are attempting to become an expert in your own story. It seems to me that is no easy task.

Insistent Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.

I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.

It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.

But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.

Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?

I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.

I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.

Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.

In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.

It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.

Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.

I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.

Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.

 

Grief and Parenting, Part 5678

I didn’t take my daughters to my mother’s grave. 

I meant to. It was something that I intended to do while we were in the area for my sister’s wedding. My brother had even asked if we could go together. That was something we hadn’t done since he and I were small children, but it didn’t happen. We didn’t go. 

We had the opportunity but we didn’t go. My girls don’t know the difference, of course. At three months and nearly two years, it wouldn’t occur to them that Mommy had missed this opportunity. They barely know that Mommy had a Mommy, not just in the usual way that children can’t fathom relationships beyond themselves but in the fact that Mommy had a Mommy that died. Mommy had a Mommy that they will never know. 

Last time I was so close to my mother’s grave, I took my daughter. It was just the two of us and it felt important. It felt like something I had to do to introduce my then ten-month old daughter to her grandmother. So why didn’t I feel that way again with my second daughter? Or why didn’t it feel just as important to bring my eldest daughter back? Surely she doesn’t remember the last time. Repetition is kinda important at this age but I didn’t do it. 

We didn’t go and it’s only now that I’m wondering why. On Thursday, I’ll have the opportunity to be interviewed for In Other Words which is a ministry of United Church of Christ Longmont. That’s right. This lovely church in Colorado hosts a podcast that focuses on the unique issues parents face. I am amazed by the brilliance of this idea and so honored to be among its guests. The host and pastor found me through my blog. She actually found me through this post and suggested that I was an expert on parenting with grief. I laughed when I read this in my email. I’ve only been a parent for two years whereas my grief has consumed thirty-two years of my life. 

I was back East away from the Texas heat for a big family event and it was wonderful. It was wonderful to be together because there is something truly magical about placing your child in the arms of a cousin or aunt or grandparent, but then it was my sister’s wedding, my sister who is the only child of my step-mother. I don’t see much value in pointing out that Mary is my half sister  or even that Jana is my step-mother. They are family and I love them fiercely, but I do wonder how to best explain this to my girls. How do I tell them about Mommy’s Other Mommy without it tarnishing their love of the grandmother they know? How do I share my sadness with them? Or maybe the better question is when? 

I’ll wait because they’re not quite old enough but if I’m honest, it feels dishonest to wait. It feels just like it did when I was eight years old and laughed at something silly when I should have been sad because my mother had died. Gosh, I wish that feeling would go away. It has been long enough but it persists. It hasn’t yet gone away. I still don’t know how to overcome it. Until I do, there will be a picture of my mother cradling me in my girls’ room. It doesn’t feel like enough but its all I know to do right now.

I don’t yet have words to explain how it feels to have my mother in the background. Since I became a parent, she’s more present than she was. There are memories I didn’t know I had and instincts that have startled me. My mom is here as much as she’s not here. 

Maybe that’s why I didn’t feel like I needed to go to her grave this time. Grief has taught me in this new season that there’s nowhere I need to go to find her. She’s always with me. 

Grief in the Midst of Joy

In just four days, it’ll be thirty-two years since she died.

It will be thirty-two years since my mother died. I have to pull out a calculator every year to subtract from the current year. Surely, it hasn’t been that long. It hasn’t been this many years without her. It seems impossible to believe amid so much joy.

My sassy little girl started walking this weekend. She’d taken a few hesitant steps about a week ago but we went to a birthday party on Saturday full of four year olds and she wasn’t going to be left in the dust. She toddled across the room. She sat at the big kid’s table. She had chicken nuggets for the very first time and her smile was just so big.

Though she has no interest in my growing belly, I’ve started talking to her about her baby sister. She won’t be the baby anymore. She’ll have a baby sister. Of course, this doesn’t register at all but she will retrieve her baby doll from across the room and shove a bottle in its mouth with great force. Every time, she looks up with this great big smile.

I don’t remember how it was last year.

I don’t remember if grief consumed my entire January in a blizzard of tears, as it once did. I don’t remember if the change in climate made the days before Groundhog Day feel less heavy. Or if I was too tired from a newborn baby waking up to the world in new ways to notice that it was even that time of year again.

There has only been one Groundhog Day since I became a mother. Only that one, and I don’t remember how it was.

I only remember how my husband and I ordered Chinese for dinner because, as a New Yorker, this is my preferred comfort food. I remember the excitement of finding any restaurant that would deliver to our rural address only to be horrified by what was in that delivery bag. Jalapenos should not ever be in Chinese food. It was only this unsettled feeling that this is not how this day should be that remains.

There is that sense about this day for me. Somehow, the day my mother died should be set apart. It should be different. I want it to be different so that heaven might mingle with my ordinary world. It’s something I’ve felt in the days before. As the new year dawns, a sadness emerges. A sense of loss comes close. I’m more aware of what is missing than what might be just beginning and so I’ve allowed myself this one day to feel all of that grief but that’s harder to do with a giggling ball of energy always at my side.

She’s not old enough yet to understand what happened thirty-two years ago. It’ll be a few years yet before she has any real understanding of death, but she’s started to look more like me. When she smiles now, it’s my grin. She tilts her head like I do. She makes the same silly faces that my mom probably made with me. I don’t know how I’ll ever tell her that she looks like her grandmother. I guess that’ll be how grief feels for this season.

It’ll be caught up in this wonder and delight that I don’t get to share with my mom. It is that absence that I grieve every year. She’s not here to play on the floor with her granddaughter. She won’t be here when her second grandchild will be born. There will be a lot of love around these two little girls. They have three full sets of grandparents. They have a great grandmother and a military community that will always be there. There will be churches that will love them and watch them grow. There will be lots and lots of love, but it’ll be my job to tell both my girls about the grandmother they never met. It’ll be hard because I don’t remember her that well.

It’s something I’m struggling with every afternoon as my daughter naps. I sit down again and try to write about where my grief started. There are things I remember, snapshots mostly of doctor appointments and strange things that grownups said to me. There are a few memories where cancer didn’t overshadow, but I mostly remember her as being sick. I remember her dying.

I don’t remember what she loved and what made her giggle. Those are the things I want to share with my girls, but what I do remember is what we did after she was gone. I remember what it felt like to do fun things after my mom died. I still have that guilt. It’s what hangs on tight thirty-two years later. It’s why I’d rather hide and quitely mourn by myself, but I can’t. This year, my sweet girl and I will be in my favorite city before my sister tries on wedding dresses for the first time. There will be a lot of joy surrounding us as I try to figure out how to grieve in the midst of it all.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

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They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable here. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.

Tell the Children

I sat there with my daughter in my lap turning the pages. Matt de la Pena’s book Love was sent to me by my cousin. She said it reminded her of me. So my heart was already in my throat reading this beautiful poem to my daughter.

And then, I turned the page and saw the family gathered around the television. Some were sitting on the couch. Others had their mouths gaping open. They couldn’t sit. They could only stare.

I sobbed. I couldn’t help it.

I couldn’t hold it back.

I remember when it was the bombing in Oklahoma City on that TV screen. I remember looking into the eyes of my parents as we watched rescue workers try to save the little children. I remember watching bombs explode in bright colors when war began in Afghanistan and I argued with another college student about the costs of war. He thought it was just. It was right. They deserved it. I wondered who was caught in the wake of such arrogance. And, of course, I remember this day.

I remember seventeen years ago when it was my boss and family friend that called me in the middle of the afternoon to tell me to turn on the TV. He couldn’t say anything more. He just told me to turn on the TV.

Alone, in his London home where I was that summer dog-sitting for these family friends, I watched the towers fall. I watched dark angels leap from buildings in the city that will always be my home.

There was no one to embrace. No one else to offer words. No small human that I had to then explain what we were seeing upon that screen. Then, I only needed to make sense of it in my own mind and even that is impossible.

It still feels impossible but I remember. I remember going back to New York City only one week later. I remember taking the train into the city and going downtown to infuse Lower Manhattan with love even if all we were doing was going to dinner. I remember the dust that still hung in the air and the heaps of flowers and candles on the sidewalk outside every single fire station. I remember the smiling faces posted on subway walls and chain link faces with the words MISSING hanging above their heads.

And I remember when those deaths were slowly confirmed. They were my friend’s parents. They were not strangers, they were friends.

It has been said enough that this day changed the world. I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to be that what we say to each other about this day, but I want us to talk about it.

This morning, I was with a group of moms who are mostly much younger than I am. I had just graduated from college. They were in elementary school and so we remember this day very differently. I was newly ordained and leading one of my first Confirmation classes when I first realized that there are young people that don’t remember this day. They can’t say where they were. They can’t say much about it at all because their parents thought they were too young.

It was better to protect them.

It was better not to say anything about this thing that changed everything.

That was what I was told when September 11 fell on a Sunday. I wasn’t supposed to say anything. I was to say anything else but I wasn’t to breathe a word to our children about what happened this day. It was explained to me that they might not know. Their parents might not have told them.

It was a silence that I knew. I have known. It’s one that I’ve been struggling to write about as I try to remember what was said to me after my mother died. They thought it was better not to talk about this terrible thing that had changed everything. It was better not to talk about the thing that was on all our minds, they thought, but it’s not true.

It’s not better. It’s just easier.

It’s easier not to talk about the hard things that make us hide under pianos. That’s the illustration on the following page. I knew that kid. I would have been him if I could have it under our piano. I hid in other places. I cried where grownups couldn’t see. I kept my heartbreak all to myself because Mommy would want me to smile. That’s what they said. That’s what they told me. She’d want me to be happy.

It would be easier for the publisher to cut that page because it’s too much. It’s too much for everyone but that child that is actually hiding under the piano because the grownups can’t see his pain. Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they can’t, but that doesn’t make it any easier for that kid.

It’s why Matt de la Pena wrote Love and it is why I’m spending hours during nap time trying to write down my story. He says it so well in a recent essay in Time:

There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

There is a power to being seen in words and pictures. There is a power to those stories being told because they changed us. Because everything changed in that moment and it needs to be said out loud. It needs to be said loud enough for our children to hear.

How to Pray Before Giving Birth

This afternoon, after church was over, I finished Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s international bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It might seem like an odd book to pick off the shelf for a woman who is expecting to deliver a healthy baby girl any day now. I should perhaps be exuding more of the joy we heard in the epistle we heard this morning. Again, along with Paul, I should rejoice.

Maybe, but I’ll leave the rejoicing for you to do. Rejoice for me that there is new life when the world feels so broken. Rejoice for me that our bodies can do amazing things because at this very moment, I have some doubts. I have lots of doubts.

In fact, this book found its way into my hands because I found a journal of my mother’s from when she was hospitalized at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A friend brought it to her, though I don’t know which one. It was these words she read when her body was failing and as I’ve been trying to commit my heart and mind to this project of writing about my own experience of grief and loss, I wondered what she found in these words. So I cracked the spine to be close to her.

It was meant to inspire my writing, but it has again touched upon my grief.

As I get closer and closer to the arrival of my baby girl, there are so many things I want to ask my mom. So many things that only she would know.

Just a few nights ago, my husband and I met with our doula for the last time before labor begins. Anticipating the pain ahead, she asked what comforts me. Would massage help? Do I prefer the lights dim? Do I light candles and ease into a warm bath? I couldn’t answer her questions.

I still don’t have real answers to her questions. It’s not that I don’t know what I usually do to relax and unwind, but that the kind of comfort I’m really wanting and needing is prayer. And I’m not sure how to pray right now.

Rabbi Kushner reminds me,

“Prayer, when it is offered in the right way, redeems people from isolation. It assures them that they need not feel alone and abandoned. It lets them know that they are part of a greater reality, with more depth, more hope, more courage, and more of a future than any individual could have by himself.”

It is not a matter of praying for outcomes even if I have a lot of those petitions heavy upon my heart, but prayer is a movement toward others so that we can be “in touch with other people, people who share the same concerns, values, dreams and pains we do.” I’m trying to wrap my head around how many people that is.

I’m trying to let go of that very human impulse to ask God for particular comforts and assurances that made Rabbi Kushner write this book after the death of his young son, but it’s not that easy. Even if the good rabbi assures me that God doesn’t need to be all-powerful to be all-loving, it’d really be nice. I would find comfort in that, lots and lots of comfort. But, there is no such promise that God can alter the laws of nature. What prayer does, instead, is bring God’s people into closer together so that no one feels alone or abandoned.

Perhaps that is the comfort I need in my grief, but it reaches beyond me to include every parent that grieves the loss of their unborn child. Those women who have felt a fluttering in their gut and felt their body change, but then all of the signs of life disappeared as quickly as they had come. Before this pregnancy, I was one of those women. I may be again. There is no way to know how this chaos befalls us and the good rabbi knows better than to provide an answer for tragedy.

Instead, Rabbi Kushner claims that what religion can do is call it a tragedy. It’s something only the voices of the faithful can do. Without offering any justification or defense, the faithful come close. They dare to say that no one is alone.

So, then, how do I pray in these hours or days before giving birth? Do I pray for the best possible birth experience? Do I pray for the doctors and the nurses that will care for me? Do I pray for my husband and doula that they can withstand whatever curve ball I might throw at them in the middle of a contraction? Do I pray that my little girl be healthy and strong or do I reject all of those possible outcomes knowing that God cannot alter the laws of nature? Do I instead, then, put my faith and trust in the hope that I am not alone? Could it be as simple as that?

It’s what I can’t wrap my head around because there are so many people that know my grief. We are quiet about it. We don’t talk about it much but there are a lot of us. We don’t want to burden you with our pain, because we know that you don’t really understand. You haven’t felt this thing that we’ve felt whether it was a child or a parent or some other dear departed soul that we lost. We’re still trying to figure out how we will live after tragedy struck, and there are times that we aren’t sure that we will make it.

This isn’t one of those times for me. It may have been for my mom. She died within a year of reading this book and so I’m not sure what it may have meant to her to receive the invitation to consider what would she do next. It implies that there was something after the cancer and maybe there was. Maybe it made her feel less alone. Maybe it encouraged her to pray to be redeemed from the isolation of her diagnosis. Maybe.

I know she grieved that she would miss out on so much. She wouldn’t be there to see her children marry or to watch us become parents. She wouldn’t even get us walk across the stage moving that silly tassel from one side to the other to mark the occasion that we had just become high school graduates. She’d miss everything. She cried about it to my grandmother, I was told. And now, I miss her in everything. I missed her in the days leading up to my wedding and the early days of my pregnancy as much as I miss her now when I’m about to become a mother. There is nothing that stops me wanting her to be by my side telling me to breathe and reminding me what I was like when I was a little baby.

I can only pray that somehow that comfort will come. Somehow, she’ll be there when I need her most.

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.