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.

He, She, It, They

On my 10th birthday I received the #1 toy on my wish list – a remote control dune buggy.  I recall the rapture of childhood as I steered the car around my house, watching it flip when it hit a wall.  I was in heaven….until an aunt walked in and saw me playing with it.

“What are you, a BOY?” she asked in a trill voice with an unmistakably judgmental tone.

My elation turned to deflation.  That single question bore into my core with the essence of my wrongness – the wrongness of my desires, the wrongness of surrendering to utter happiness, the wrongness of ME.  I had exposed myself without any forewarning and I suffered a painful blow in consequence.  It was no longer safe to be vulnerable.

The sting of this injury to my self-esteem guided me years later when I became a mother.  Determined to do right by my own children, I subscribed to gender-neutral philosophy.  Bedrooms were painted in greens and whites, and toys were chosen for merit – not gender appeal.  A part of me wanted my first-born daughter to like ‘boy toys’ so that I could unabashedly support her in the way that I would have appreciated when I was a child.  But my darling little girl had other ideas.

One of Principessa’s early nicknames was Girly.  This photo might explain why.

Girly expressed her passion for all things pink and glittery in over-the-top style.  One almost got the impression that she had been assaulted by her dress-up box. When given the choice between a toy car or a doll carriage, she opted for the carriage and bedazzled it.

As she grew, Girly continued to live her life mostly within societal expectations for her gender.   Nonetheless, I paraded through parenting carrying a torch I adopted from 1970s feminist, Marlo Thomas. The “Free to Be You and Me” movement saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one’s identity.  I adore this concept and the way in which it was conveyed – through entertainment.  It was a friendly and palatable invitation to broaden limited thinking.

The same may be said about the modern movement to blur gender phraseology – except for the ‘friendly and palatable’ part.  The suggestion, or growing demand, that we alter the use of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ to ‘they’ or ‘it’, is an attack on long-held grammatical rules. As one linguist said, pronouns are like hardware and not so easily changed as nouns which are more like software.

When one is trying to convey a point, especially one as complex as gender identity, one must make the information user-friendly.  If the audience can’t understand the language, the message is lost.  Such was the case of the student who received an acceptance letter from Brown University that referred to her as they. The girl and her family were understandably confused and off-put.

One can sympathize with those who identify with alternative gender context.  They want to be referred to in a way that feels authentic to them.  If someone called me Sir, I’d take offense because I identify as woman.  We crave self-identification but we loathe labels, especially ones that feel incorrect or offensive.  

It’s clear that binary concepts of gender are outdated, but language structure is not.  Altering language to avoid offending, may be, in theory, a righteous thing to do.  But when it meddles with comprehension and clarity, it looks more like a stunt or a passing fad.

I once knew a man who taught his dog obedience with nonsense words.  The command SIT was KETCHUP.  He had great fun with this, and his dog didn’t care because the intention was understood and unchanging.  But no one else could instruct the dog unless they had first learned the language. 

Words are just a bunch of letters thrown together for the purpose of communication.  They have no meaning except that which we assign to them.  The problem is that humans don’t always agree on meaning. We can get very emotional about words.  

Freedom, evolution, and expansion of the mind change how we think about things so we feel the need to change what we call those things.  But if we cannot agree on language, communication suffers.  If communication deteriorates, society follows suit.  The poet Margaret Atwood said, “War is what happens when language fails.”

Sometimes in war we arrive at the question, “What are we fighting for?”  Is it tolerance we’re seeking by changing the language people use to describe us?  Do we become more tolerant as a result of the language we use?  Or is it the opposite – is respectful language a result of tolerance?

This conundrum is not easily solved.  But one thing is certain, if we communicate with closed fists, we’re bound to propagate the very problem we’re trying to alter – intolerance.  Perhaps, if we focus less on words and more on intention, we will preserve not only our ability to comprehend each other, but our civility as well.

Pills, Pot, Profanity and Parenting

As I was leaving a parenting presentation at the local school on the topic of ‘Drugs, Alcohol, and the Teenage Brain,’ I caught up with a fellow mother of a teen boy.  We commiserated in hushed whispers about the pessimistic message of the presenter, fearing that an unintended ear would hear our true confessions. We know that our boys use substances that are frowned upon by social standards, aka laws, and we have learned to tolerate it – somewhat.

Call it self-preservation – or something more judgmental and harsh if you wish.  But don’t mistake it for ignorance, negligence, or lack of caring.  Countless conversations, teaching moments, threats, punishments and bribes have been employed at our discretion over 18 years.  And still, here we are, facing the dilemma of how to keep our kids on the straight and narrow.

When we begin the parenting journey in blissful naivete, we actually believe that we have control over how our kids turn out.  As if children ‘turn out’ – like a soufflé.  With thoughtful intention and unproven parenting prowess, we create a recipe for ourselves, certain that if we follow every instruction carefully, our result will be perfect, or at least predictable.  Plans shmams.

The illusion begins to deconstruct as early as the first tantrum when our little cherub learns to express his discontent.  It progresses to backtalk, profanity, sneaky behavior, lying….any rebellion that helps a child begin the natural separation from parent.  ‘Psychological differentiation’ they call it – an academic way to describe the tug of war between parent and evolving child.  If kids aren’t testing their boundaries, they’re not growing.

A professional colleague had a son who was delinquent and derelict by all accounts.  The mother, an educated and compassionate soul, endured a years-long struggle to set him straight.    Certain that she had failed as a mother, she all but gave up hope of him ever pulling himself together. The boy, a late bloomer you might say, transformed his life in his 30s and went on to study law enforcement.  He is now a judge.  I’ll bet he’s a cracker-jack judge, having had all that experience on the other side of the law.  I also bet that prior to his current career, there was plenty of gossip about how the boy ‘turned out’.  And lots of judgment about his parents, too.

Another friend has a brother who started smoking pot at the age of 14.  He wouldn’t quit until he decided that becoming a pilot was more important.  The point is this: the lives of our children are not about what we want for them.  It’s about what they want, when they want it. 

This is a hard pill to swallow for a conscientious parent. Parents are under pressure to produce a product that will pass quality control.  But to some degree, our real motivation is to satisfy our own need to have a child who makes us proud, or at the very least, doesn’t shame us. We want the ease of not  having to worry about the stability, safety, or success of our children.  We don’t want to be reminded that they are their own beings who have every right to make choices – good ones and bad ones. 

Long ago my son refused GPS tracking, aka Parent Stalking.  Thank goodness.  It has forced me to trust or to worry blindly – just like my parents did without the benefit (or curse) of constant contact.  When I feel the need to check in, I text the one question that summarizes my intent:  “Are you happy and safe?”  That’s really what I want to know.  More importantly, that’s what I want my son to ask himself.  I want him to check in with his own heart and mind.  If the answer to either of those questions is ‘no’, ADJUST COURSE.  I’ve found that the asking is enough to let him know that he is loved and that I’m here for him.

My threshold for alarm is raised quite high since the early days when I worried about kids not eating vegetables to the the present concerns of kids making choices about risky behavior.  Case in point, when teen son opened the pantry cabinet and found an array of delicious and very un-nutritious snack food, he turned to me in shock, grinning from ear to ear.  “You’ve given up, haven’t you?” he asked with delight.  “That deserves a hug!”  I accepted the hug with the same level of gleeful appreciation with which my son cracked open his bag of chips.

Sometimes our parenting doctrine gets in the way of our evolution.  It becomes a god we worship ritualistically without question.  At some point we must loosen the reigns simply because they become too hard to hold on to.  Which usually means that it’s exactly the right time to let go. 

This year I accompanied my son to the voting polls for the first time, where he cast his own vote based on his own thought process.  He was also called for jury duty and could be part of determining another person’s fate.  In the eyes of the law, he is mostly his own young man.  He knows his current mind, and his thoughts are valid, if not in line with my own.  He is experiencing his expanding heart.  He is living with his raging hormones.  And none of it begs me to interfere or to impose outdated restrictions.  It asks for freedom to live.

Wise adults tell children that they were placed on earth to shine their own light.  What if your child’s light is less like a lighthouse and more like a bonfire?  What if the very purpose of his life, the hope he gives, comes so far down the road that you can’t see it?  Maybe it’s in a form that you don’t yet recognize.  Maybe he is shining his light already but you can’t see past your disapproval of personality or behavior.

After all these years I have less certainty than I did before I became a parent.  Much of what I thought I knew was best for my children was misguided because it was based on my own ideas from my own life.  It turns out that ‘best’ is a nebulous and evasive concept.

We simply cannot know what is best for anyone but ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we don’t try to impart our wisdom or enforce rules that make our lives sane.  But we must remember that parenting is part of a bigger dance – one in which every child has the right to be his or her unique self, whether we like it or not.

Fighting With Teens

gun fightThey say you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight. But if you don’t realize that teen son is packing heat, you arrive unprepared and end up getting shot.

I knew that Beagle wouldn’t welcome the punishment I was prepared to dole out, despite the fact that he was undeniably guilty. I expected recoil. But I upped the ante when, moments before our showdown, I unveiled an unrelated infraction for which I decided to deliver a stern lecture. Tacking this layer onto my agenda was a bad idea.

My carefully prepared speech went out the window with my civility and before I knew it, shots were fired. Accusations and judgments were flying back and forth with escalated voices. It was a verbal brawl of mammoth proportions – the kind in which things are said that have never surfaced before. Unspoken judgments on another’s essential character and personality, that when revealed, can cause irreparable damage.

Somewhere between “you’re the worst mother ever” and “I can’t do anything to please you” Beagle drew his weapon and shot me directly in the chest. “I HATE YOU!!!!!” he declared. My body recoiled from the impact. I might have slumped to the ground had I not been leaning against a table. The fire in my beloved son’s eyes, the stone-cold look on his face….he meant it. And it hurt. Really bad.

Fighting back tears with dwindling resolve, I squeaked out one last explanation. “Parents yell when they’re afraid. Im afraid for you. That’s all it is.”

I’m afraid that my son will become an addict. I’m afraid that he’ll die in a car accident, impregnate a girl, flunk out of school, or, heaven forbid, forget to say please and thank you. Seriously, the scope of my parental concerns is deep. Mostly, the fear is wrapped up neatly in a rationale mind. But when unleashed, it runs wild, creating a storm of discontent for everyone.

Husband tried patching my wound with positive affirmations and a reminder that rebelling is part of the natural course when a child pulls away from the family. Agreed, but do they have to shoot you to make sure you don’t follow?

Early the next morning I drove to a yoga class where I fantasized that I’d find the Buddha himself handing out peace on a platter. Instead I found Joe, a fellow yogi, who happened to be waxing on about the wonderful relationship he had with his grown son. I muttered something about my own sad state of affairs, expecting him not to understand. He must be one of those lucky parents who got a rare unicorn in the form of a trouble-less child.

Dearest Joe rolled his eyes and groaned as he recalled his own experience of parenting teens. “There was a LOT of screaming.” this mild-mannered man revealed. “It was hell.”

Hope coursed through me. Joe and his son were living proof that the wounds inflicted from teendom can heal.

I’d be the first to tell the mother of a rambunctious toddler, “Don’t worry. It’s all a phase. Ride the waves.” But in this tsunami of teen parenting, I can’t even find my surf board most of the time, never mind ‘ride the wave.’

Beagle and I are recovering from our assault on each other. There’s lots of tiptoeing around and polite exchange of pleasantries. Soon, I expect, we will overcompensate with kindness in the way of apology. Eventually the wounds will close but they will, no doubt, leave a scar. How can they not? Silly, hurtful humans.

Friend reminds me of a time in the recent past when Beagle headed off to a sketchy situation with some knowledge of the inherent danger. He ran out the door with his back to my well-wishes and cautionary words. Ten seconds later he reappeared through half-opened door to say, “Mom, if I die today I just want you to know – you did a good job.” And then he was gone.

I will take that little gem now and hold it to my heart. Evidence that love is real. No matter how ugly we get on the outside, we still cherish each other on the inside – where it matters most.

The Grace of Parenting

mother_child_4Bringing my daughter to tears on the first day of Middle School was not one of my shining moments. More

The New You

brand-new-you1

image credit purefunfit.com

Dearest Daughter,

I love that you so clearly wrote your feelings in response to my spontaneous comment about not liking the New You.  I am equally unhappy that your email was written at 1:00 a.m.!  Why? Because that is very late and I worry, as mothers do.

I try hard not to share my worries because I want to project confidence for you.  Deep down, I believe that you’ll be fine, even when you make poor choices or even good choices that I don’t like.  I believe in fate and God and the goodness of Life.  But my human-ness and my mom-ness continue to plague me with what-if scenarios.

When you were a clumsy toddler, I watched with fear as you climbed a playground structure.  My hands were never far from your body, waiting – expecting – to have to catch you.  My mothering instinct is to protect.  Over the years, I’ve learned to subdue the urge to rescue you, even when you begged me.  Case in point: making you call the orthodontist to let him know that, again, you need to replace your retainer.  And that you will be paying for it.

While punishing me as a child, my mother told me, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”  I didn’t believe her.  I do now.  It hurts me to see you struggle, even when I know it will result in your favor.

As the first-born you bear the task of paving roads.  All along the way, my parental inexperience has been your guide.  You are my first child to leave the nest and I am learning how to reconcile my heartbreak with my pride.  Both emotions are strong and are battling for victory.

Last night, you captured a heartfelt but selfish comment from me.  When I said that I don’t like the new you, I misspoke.  I love all versions of you.  What I dislike is the feeling that my world is changing so drastically and so quickly.  You are living life your way, not my way, as it should be.  I envision myself grasping for the rope that tethers your boat to the dock.  But your ship is ready to sail.

You are branching out toward unfamiliar experiences, taking advantage of the bounty of youth, and it’s difficult for me to watch.  But my skepticism is not an indication of the rightness or wrongness of your choices.  As you pointed out in defense, you are consciously taking risks and risks are essential to growth.

Principessa, I trust in your core values.  I believe your intentions are pure.  You don’t disappoint me.  And I could never think less of you.

Thank you for pointing out that it’s also hard for you to see yourself changing.  We know that change is essential and beneficial but it’s often scary.  Now that we’ve exposed our mutual fear and shined a light on it, it looks less daunting.  Let’s agree that we won’t let fear get the best of us.

You worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.  It’s true that you’ll stray from the person you’ve been, but you can’t lose yourself.  There is a part in each of us that is connected to our source. It cannot be severed. You are, and always will be, uniquely you by divine design.

If you forget who you are, how special and precious, just ask me.  I will pour my love into your heart and remind you of your value. As always, I will be here, with arms outstretched, ready to catch you if you fall.

Loving you more than you can imagine,

Mom

dr seuss you

The Cheating Scandal

confirmationI may be going to hell.

Before I divulge the reason, I wish to make a statement on my own behalf. The following is an account of an isolated incident which has no bearing on my core standards as a parent.

Beagle missed the appointed Religious Education class during which he was meant to take an exam in preparation for receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation. So he had a make-up exam on his own time, in a private room, in which I joined him due to lack of waiting space.

Prior to the test date, I tried in vain to get Beagle to study. In a show of teenage defiance he staunchly refused. So of course he didn’t know the material. Beagle is a good student, unaccustomed to, and uncomfortable with, failing. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his leg started tapping nervously.

In my hand was the study guide that had been provided. It asked for lists: 10 commandments, 5 precepts, 7 sacraments….on and on. As I looked over the questions, I realized that I, a lifelong Catholic with a parochial school education, would struggle with this test. On the spot I made a radical decision to slip the answers to Beagle.

Pause for gasps and harsh judgment.

Did she just admit to helping her son cheat on a religious exam?!

Indeed I did.

Husband and I decided long ago that we would raise well-informed, well-rounded little people. This included a plan to study and practice religion within the parameters of our faith. We also agreed that it is foolhardy to expect them to embrace it any more than they embrace quadratic equations. Both are full of unknown variables and require a level of understanding that taxes the brain.

Beagle has been struggling in his faith. He likes to provoke me by claiming atheism.

“How can you quit on God when you’ve barely met Him?” I ask.

Despite his resistance, Beagle decided to go through with Confirmation. He took the name of St. Thomas because Thomas was a doubter, too.

The bishop started his homily with words of encouragement to all the parents, grandparents and godparents in attendance. He said, “You will not be judged by your child’s adherence – (or lack thereof) – to his faith…..You have done what you could. Now it’s up to him.”

I could be wrong, but I think the bishop looked directly at me and bestowed an absolution for my collusion in the cheating scandal.

When all was said and done, I quizzed Beagle. I needed one last attempt to affirm that he had learned something about religion in the past 16 years. “Just tell me, in your own words, what the Church wants you to know about being a good person.”

Beagle replied, “Don’t diss your parents. Don’t smack talk your neighbor. Don’t cheat on your wife or your god if you have one. Don’t kill, steal or do other things you know are wrong. And go to church every once in a while.”

I think he got the gist of it.

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