Reflections On Grief and Loss

Sometimes life isn’t what it appears to be.  Sometimes loss is actually gain.

When I was a newlywed, my father-in-law died unexpectedly.  With less than 2 months of marriage under my belt, I felt ill-prepared to play the mature role of wife to the aggrieved.

Husband and I were supposed to be figuring out little things like how to co-exist, compromise, and negotiate whether one should squeeze a toothpaste tube from the middle or roll it up from the bottom.  Instead, we were thrust into decisions and actions that catapulted us past the fun frivolity of young adulthood.

In hindsight, the events of that summer were serendipitous.  Being immersed in grief, Husband and I had no inclination to trifle with each other.  When peers voiced their stage-appropriate struggles and discoveries, I would listen with the ears of an outsider, unable to relate.  From my new perspective, there were much bigger things in life than, life.

The blessings amidst loss are difficult to see.  Even with an open heart and willing mind, clarity may never arrive.  The darkness surrounding grief is thick and impossible to penetrate with the naked eye.  If one has any hope of experiencing the full range of possibilites, one must abandon conventional thinking and principled resistance.

In situations such as school shootings, it’s tempting to stir the pot of grief with anger, regret, and demands for retribution.  We want someone to ‘pay’ for our loss.  When it hurts so badly that it’s too much to bear, we share the pain, hoping it will make us feel better.  And sometimes it does.  There’s no greater love than that from another human who can hold our grief, if even for a fleeting moment.

But healing and transformation will never arrive in the midst of hate.  We can’t hear the wisdom within whilst venom is spewing forth.  Anger is a catalyst to be sure.  It can be helpful to light a fire that will enlighten the world.  But true change needs a safe entry-point.  When our intent is to burn those from whom we need help in order to move mountains, we all lose.

It must follow, if one is to go on living after loss, that we pick up the pieces of a shattered delusion of order and justice and put it back together in a way that suits a new paradigm.  This is true no matter the circumstances of loss.  This is one of the gifts to be garnered.

During my recent experience with grief following the loss of Beagle’s 19 year old friend, I found myself privy to a fresh perspective of sorrow.  It was intense and heart-breaking, as one would expect, but it was also magnificent.

Beagle and company filled up an entire church pew, standing shoulder to shoulder in their dress clothes without space enough to slip a piece of paper between them.  Parents stood behind, watching their sons’ bodies tense and tremble, listening to tears flow, and observing, in warp speed, the transformation from boy to man.

These boys, the embodiment of healthful youth, processed through protocol and were received with enthusiasm by their friend’s family.  They toasted the boy who no one had ever seen in a bad mood. They poked fun at their late friend’s expense, just as they would have if he was there with them, solidifying his lasting place in the brotherhood.

The gifts of grieving unfolded with every ritualized, as well as every unscripted, step.  Never was the congruence of love so evident  as it was in this group coming together, supporting each other in grief the same way they bond with each other in celebration.

Life is never the same after we lose a fellow human.  Each puts a personal stamp on the world that cannot be replaced. And there’s no prescription for how to go on living.  But one thing is certain: allowing yourself to experience loss for all its potential will inevitably lead to grace.

Support For A Child In Grief

I didn’t need to answer the phone to know that something was wrong.  Teen sons, in my experience, don’t just call Mom out of the blue.  A trembling voice confirmed my fear – something terrible had happened.  Beagle’s good friend, one of his posse, has died.

I find myself telling the news to everyone I cross paths with – not for any hope of consolation, but rather to solidify the truth.  Repeating the words moves me toward acceptance.  Beagle doesn’t know why, but he’s doing the same thing.  He didn’t want to talk at length about the tragedy, he just wanted to tell me, then hang up the phone and tell the next person and the next, until he could believe what he was saying.

In the hierarchy of horribleness, the passing of a child trumps the list of losses that one could encounter in a lifetime.  Few things are more cruel and bewildering.  When a life is cut far too short, the facade of relative safety and structure that outlines our typical days explodes, leaving us exposed to the elements of reality.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Life does not belong to us.  If it did, we would get to decide when it ended.

I have been around this block before, of course, and I know my way through grief.  But Beagle does not.  He is barely a man-cub and not yet fully versed in love and loss.  The time has come for Husband and I to teach lessons we had hoped would not arise for many years.

We cannot spare our boy any pain.  We can only hold a space for it, allowing it to express itself in any of its wildly varying forms.  We begin to paint a picture of grief, leading by example with unrestrained tears, voiced regrets, and demonstrations of strength and support.

We show and tell Beagle that no matter how mature you become, you will struggle with death.  The very fact that you have dared to love and connect to others means that you will suffer loss.  Try not to hate love for loss.  Try not to hate life for death.  Keep your heart open.  Don’t construct walls where doors should be.  And promise me you won’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of masculinity.  Real men DO cry.

Beagle, you were meant to cross paths with your friend who left so soon.  The chapter of time with him is done, but the story doesn’t end.  The two of you will eternally be connected.  You will remember him and integrate him into your future with stories and rituals.  You will find ways to honor him.  You will introduce him to people who will never meet him. 

Eventually, happiness will touch your sorrow.  You will smile when you think of your time together instead of feeling drawn into the pit of your belly.  Don’t rush the healing. And don’t prolong it for anyone else’s sake.  Let it evolve in it’s own time.  Trust your heart to guide you. 

We were all lucky to have known this sweet boy.  Thank you, Beagle, for bringing him into our lives.  Know that we are here for you, supporting you as you leave the innocence and carefreeness of your youth behind.  You are now part of a club that no one wants to belong to.  You are far from alone.

How To Stick To A New Year’s Resolution

A woman sat at her desk at 10 a.m. counting the minutes until lunch.  She was staaarrrving, she said, despite the fact that she had eaten breakfast just 2 hours before. Self-deprivation was masquerading as hunger in response to the woman’s decision to give up sugar entirely, thereby prompting her refusal to partake in the customary mid-morning coffee and donut run.

I took a step back in case she decided to take a bite out of my arm.  I’ve seen this level of desperation before.  It follows the January 1st festival of resolution-setting that can create misery amongst otherwise happy, even-tempered humans.

Resolutionists have good intentions to better themselves, but many make the mistake of declaring war instead of transformation and end up embattled with an enemy they can’t defeat.  They decide that they’re somehow failing and they plot a course of action so extreme and unfriendly, they can’t possibly sustain the motivation to pursue lasting positive change.  It’s as if they’re running away from themselves, leaving behind the person they are for the better version they want. 

But we can’t outrun ourselves.  Wherever we go, there we are, judging and shaming and should-ing all over ourselves.  If we fail to prepare properly, we find the journey of self-improvement to be  lonely and impossible.  So we turn back, unable to see it through to the end.  Then, of course, we emerge with a new reason to be disappointed in ourselves.

If we want to create meaningful change, we have to change our personal stories.  Instead of running the script of defeat in which it’s sooooo hard to lose weight, or to break a habit, we begin to introduce compassion. 

In this softer story, we love ourselves enough to change eating habits thoughtfully and gradually; we  resist temptation by showering ourselves with simple comforts and words of encouragement; and we muster up the same patience with ourselves that we would grant to a small child who’s learning a new skill.

The secret to change is love, plain and simple.  (If you snorted bitterly when you read that, take a breath.  It’s truer than true.) When we meet ourselves without anger and resistance, we find compassion instead of contempt.  Via the loving way, we encounter no enemy within, no destructive thought to sabotage our goal.  There is only kindness, pulling us along, picking us up, and making us feel like the better person we want to be.

Change can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be fatal.  Now that January has come to a close, I hope to find all of my friends in good health and spirits – unbeaten by their own austerity, and unintimidated by the smell of a donut.

The Passing Of A Princess


I was 7 years old when I fell in love with the idea of a Princess.  Many years later I met a noble woman, known then as the Birthday Princess, who restored my faith in the fairytale of life.

We met during a time of personal emergence when each of us were fledging writers, sharing our identical secret desire to change the world with a book.  We were fast friends whose kinship sustained and nurtured an unexpected bond, despite the fact that we would never meet in person a second time.

Sacha was a natural cheerleader and coach, unwavering in her support of others.  She spread her special brand of magic like a farmer feeding her chickens – scattering goodness all over with abandon.  The only thing she asked in return was that you love your own self more; that you see in yourself the beauty and potential that she saw in you.

Sometimes in life, if we keep our eyes open, we stumble into people along the way that we don’t deserve.  They are the rare gems that enrich us and invite us to elevate our game. 

Sacha was one of those people whose light shown so bright, from a place of such sincerity and generosity, that one was instantly drawn into it.  My crass, inelegant self wondered how Sacha managed to be so filled with joy.  She was never careless with life or people or words.  She was intentional, tender, and bubbly.

When a royal presence like Sacha is taken suddenly from the world, the sweetness of life suffers a bitter blow. I will miss this friend with an unparalleled level of loss, for I am quite certain there isn’t another of her for me in the world.  But I am privileged and humbled to have been part of her fold.  For those left behind, a calling remains, a challenge really, to embody what we’ve learned from one who had mastered the art of love here on Earth.

I imagine Sacha slipping seamlessly into Heaven, taking her place amongst angels as if she belonged there all along.  No doubt she would be shocked to find herself there, but likely she is delighting in the magnificence that surrounds her and wondering how she can share it with others.

After I post this tribute, I will wait with hopeful expectation for her response.  She would write something poetic in the comments section about how my words danced off the page and filled her heart.  And I would believe her, soaking up the free praise given by my most ardent supporter. 

Eventually, it will hit me that I’ll never again hear her words of encouragement, unless, like a solid Sacha student, I learn to do this for myself.  How proud she would be of me for finding the courage to be without her.  She would tell me not to worry that I’m not there yet.  Just be gentle with yourself and celebrate every step toward reclaiming happiness.

Thank you, Sacha, for gracing this world, and my life, with the gift of you.

Deb

What a Girl Really Wants

mix-tapeA sappy song played in the background while Beagle and I prepped dinner.  “I’m head over boots for you” the singer declared.  In a defeated tone, Beagle said, “I feel like this is how girls want boys to be, but I just don’t talk that way.”

Poor teen boy has entered the realm of romantic relationships and he realizes that his natural boyish M.O. won’t be enough to satisfy the very different desires of his love interests. 

We refer to male and female as the opposite sex for a reason.  Girls can be complicated.  Men, maybe not as much.

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Girl code, or what a girl wants without telling you but expects that you will know and be willing to deliver on a regular and perfectly timed schedule, could take a lifetime of intimate relationships to figure out.  Heck, girls sometimes can’t decipher their own jumble of mind and emotions.

Take heart, my son, you don’t need to speak the fancy words.  Instead of resenting love songs, you can borrow from their poetic wisdom to help you.  Make a playlist for a girl and tell her that the songs remind you of her.  In my day we called them ‘mixed tapes’ and they weren’t nearly as easy to make as picking digital tracks off the internet.   Just be sincere and make sure you know the message of the song.  You wouldn’t want to dedicate a supposed love song like REM’s “The One I Love” which sounds nice but is really about moving on from a girl who is a “simple prop to occupy my time.”

Furthermore, if you can get past your distaste of sappy song lyrics, you might learn a thing or two about girls from the message behind the words.  For example:

I only have eyes for you. 

No one enjoys a wandering eye in a partner.  Don’t look at other girls, talk about other girls, or even contemplate that another girl exists.  Just kidding about that last bit.  But seriously, love the one you’re with or break it off.

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I’ll be a man who will fight for your honor…. I’ll be the hero you’ve been dreaming of. 

Chivalry is not dead, even in an age of feminism.  A girl, like anyone, enjoys knowing that you’ve got her back.  A woman I know met her husband for the first time at a frat party and fell in love with him because when she passed gas he took the blame for it.  It doesn’t take much to be someone’s hero.

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She don’t know she’s beautiful

I’ll go out on a limb and say that there isn’t one living girl who doesn’t like to be told she’s beautiful.  Even if she should know it.  Even if you’ve told her a million times.  Even if you just told her 3 seconds ago.  You get my point.

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Here’s the short of it… every person, male or female, benefits from three common things: attention, affection, and admiration.  The need for fulfillment of these basics doesn’t go away.  Finding unique ways to provide these staples to a loved one is the challenge and the fun in relationships.  Rise up to the challenge, my son, and start studying those love songs, romantic movies, and not-so-subtle hints dropped by girls.

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The Joy of Reunion

reunitedI arrived at the bus station after midnight to collect my college daughter for Thanksgiving break and found myself ensconced in a scene that resembled a Hallmark movie.

Families waiting in street-lit darkness are unable to conceal their excitement as they jump from their parked cars at first sight of the incoming bus that would deliver their babies back home.

Girls hug unsuspecting brothers who are in turn befuddled by the uncharacteristic gesture of affection from a sibling rival. Fathers show vulnerability of emotion. Mothers grin and squeal, beyond ecstatic.

Tears blossom in my own eyes as I watch love unfold in micro-bursts all around me. Generosity of spirit abounds in these reunions. Not a single trace of stress or apathy affects anyone in this moment. It is pure love. Emotional gold.

Principessa and I are alone for the ride home and we chat without pause, catching up in a way that can’t be accomplished in our weekly phone calls. There is touch and expression and presence to satisfy my hungry soul. I soak her up like a thirsty sponge, knowing that I will surrender her to an eager family, dog included, who will launch at her when we walk through the front door.

Sisters reunite with giggles, telling stories into wee hours, long past a rational bedtime. But this mother will never suggest sleep over loving connection. I sit stealthfully at the bottom of the stairs, listening with satisfaction and a full heart.

These are the moments to live for. These are the memories to cherish when babies are grown. We may lament their departure from the nest, but recognize that the space and time between us provides a new gift – the joy of reunion. We aren’t privy to it in the days of constant togetherness.

In days of yore, I would sell my right arm for a moment of solitude. Now, the frequent aloneness stretches me to a point of discomfort. But I remind myself to be flexible, that I will not break. Like the potential energy stored in elastic materials as the result of their stretching – the more stretch, the more stored energy. The more I let go, the more I appreciate the rebound of love.

The thrill of loved ones coming and going is a new joy. A new bounty to be thankful for at this year’s holiday table.

Love, Untethered by Death

grieving-parents-004A man lost his mother to illness and old age. He hated his mother. In childhood she criticized him relentlessly. In adulthood she pestered him mercilessly.

The man wished for his mother to be gone. As she became increasingly dependent, he became intolerant. ‘Why won’t she just die?’ he wondered aloud. Very soon after uttering the words, the man’s mother did die and regret descended upon him. For so long he suffered his mother’s life. Now he would suffer her passing.

Death was not the relief the man expected. It brought forth a jumble of buried emotion that washed over him like flood waters, upending previously conceived notions rooted in anger. Long-standing stories with deeply entrenched beliefs crumbled under the force, like houses and trees that have been knocked flat.

Where once the man saw his mother as a burden, he saw glimpses of blessing.
Where once she was a villain, he saw a martyr.

This confused the man. He wasn’t willing to admit to tenderness and softening toward his mother. Love, untethered in death, floated to the surface. Its appearance was frightening and overwhelming to the unsuspecting mind. The man didn’t want to look love in the eye, but it was there, staring him down, glaring at his ignorance, daring him to ignore it in favor of the need to hate, to be right, to hold onto grievance.

A thorn had been removed from the man’s life and he wanted – expected – relief. But the wound was raw and awash with the sting of struggle. He would disperse his struggle to anyone who would take the time to indulge his need to purge. His loved ones listened with patience and irritation, for they were the ones who had borne the brunt of the man’s conflicted relationship with his mother for years. They tried, as best they could, to follow this new storyline as it unfolded. But it was difficult to string it together. Only the man could do that in time.

The man’s anger, without it’s familiar target, was misdirected toward those who would help. The sadness, which he loathed, was drowned in his work. The wounded archetype of an orphaned child was used to his advantage.

Eventually, the man would spend down his negativity and allow love to work its miracles. Time would open the door for love to slip in and heal his pain, showing him that despite his failure to acknowledge it, love was present all along, in a place where he was certain it could never have existed.

Love, it turned out, was his for the keeping.  It would prove over and over that no matter what we cover it with, nothing can eclipse love’s power.  Especially not death.

hidden-love

 

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