Tag Archives: death of a child

Saying Goodbye to Our Best Friend

There’s a lot of empty, silent space in our house these days. Nobody’s sitting at the front window, guarding the perimeter from potential intruders. There’s no greeting as we return home and open the front door, no heralded announcement that guests we have not yet heard coming, are in fact arriving.  As friends and I I sit on high stools at the kitchen counter, no one begs to be lifted up so they too can become part of our conversation. And sitting on the sofa to watch some television after dinner, no furry ball jumps onto our laps and sits between us, behaving as if he too is watching the screen. 

watchdog Clancy has been an important member of our family and constant companion for nine and a half years. Yet I must admit, things didn’t start out particularly well. Besides the usual challenges in house training a puppy, this one had a propensity for chewing the edges of the dining room rug and, his specialty – chewing through each and every electric lamp chord in our house.

 Our daughter was very ill at the time, and I traveled often to be with her and assist with my three grandchildren. This situation may have contributed to my lack of patience with my incorrigible new charge, but we did start thinking it might be necessary to find a different permanent home for Clancy. We were rescued by one of my dear friends who offered to become his temporary “foster mother.” She had four older small dogs of her own and in a few weeks she, with the help of her dogs, civilized Clancy. We always gave her full credit for what a special companion he became.

tinyclancy Several years ago, Clancy developed a problem with his liver. As his body began retaining fluids we were told that he might not have more than a couple of months. Some adjustments were made in his medication and he rallied. He continued to have symptoms repeatedly, receive treatment, and return to his peppy, happy self. No one ever had any real understanding of why or how this kept occurring. This phase of our life together was difficult at times but, as happened in going through serious illnesses with our children, it caused us to appreciate most every moment we had with him.

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 When the end came, it was a surprise. And it wasn’t. I’d taken Clancy to the vet in our neighborhood for one of his treatments and when he came out he seemed his usual peppy self, but he was shaking. By evening he was not doing well. He didn’t eat and lost control of his bowels several times. Suspecting this might be the end, we took him back to the clinic the following morning and left him for observation. We got the call at 10 am. His kidneys were failing. It was time to say goodbye. 

The Family Carries On

As our plane finally lifts from the ground in Palm Springs CA. we’re offered a panoramic view of the mountains and red tile rooftops on the valley floor. “Goodbye palm trees. Goodbye warm swimming pools and even warmer hot tubs. Goodbye dear family, till the next time we can arrange to be together from across the continent.” 

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It’s said we don’t remember days or years, only moments. The moments that stand out from this year’s family Christmas vacation are:

– the clicking sounds of cue balls, hopefully hitting other balls into the side pockets, mixed with laughter and the lilt of college boys and adult men’s teasing challenges,

–       the sight of ten family members seated in a circle on the front patio, obeying  the unwrapping gift ritual of my long deceased father’s family – carefully opening one gift at a time in rotation from youngest (16) to eldest (85).

–       The stomping feet of sixteen-month-old Krya Joy as she turns her head from side to side saying an emphatic “no” up and down to say ‘yes’, followed by the show of smiling deep dimples when she gets her way.

Kyra.KevinThis was our tenth holiday season without her. Family’s carry on without a pivotal loved one, and we have done that. The first year we met at a water park in Kansas City. It was strange to be swimming indoors in the middle of winter, stranger yet doing it without their mother, his wife, our daughter. The first spring, we met in Fort Worth to take in the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, something promised before she died. Last year, we met in Colorado for a ski vacation. Some years in between we’ve missed getting everyone together during the holidays but most thanksgivings were spent at my son-in-law’s dinner table in Nebraska with his family; father, brothers, nieces, and cousins.

One summer we hosted the family at our house in Pittsburgh, (the U.S. Open Golf Tournament was being held nearby.) Another summer, the year the golf tournament was in Washington D.C. my brother-in-law hosted us in his home as the tournament was held at his home course. Some springs we’ve gathered to celebrate high school graduations, and soon, we’ll meet for a college one.

family2The photographs will show how the kids have grown into fine young adults, how parents, uncles and grandparents have been aging, the joy of new additions, and how fortunate we’ve been to be able to share such fun times together.

 What the images won’t show is what’s been missing at every family gathering throughout the years. There’s always a moment when I’m reminded, and this year’s moment came when we began passing out the ice cream for dessert. Sixteen-year-old granddaughter, Tori said, “What kind of ice cream is this? It says it’s whipped. Does that mean it’s less calories?” She doesn’t know that particular ice cream was selected because it was her mother’s favorite. She doesn’t know it’s her grandparents’ way of remembering.

Resting In Peace

 Last Saturday morning, while visiting the Bay Area, my husband and I were walking in a seaside park dedicated to the memory of the farm labor organizer, Cesar Chavez. As we walked the weather gave a clear demonstration of the micro-climates of the bay area; one moment we’re bundling up our jackets against the sea breezes and the next, as we round the bend inland, we unbutton our jackets, and think about taking them off entirely to wrap them around our waists.

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Walking alongside the bay, I began stopping at benches placed every dozen feet or so, in order to read the inscriptions on small rectangular plaques fastened to the back of each of them. The benches are a great gift to the community, providing a welcomed opportunity for people to view the water as they rest or meditate, or hold a conversation with a friend. As I learned from my reading, each bench was given in memory of someone; a neighbor, a councilman, a family member or friend. I noted that many, perhaps most, of the birth dates were later than my own.

I guess it was the plaques and memorials that got me thinking about the grieving process, a process that my family and I have been engaged in quite frequently the last fifteen years or so. As we walked, and stopped to notice and ask about the dogs running in the free dog zone, without their leashes, I thought about the legacy lessons that each of our families left to us. What did they demonstrated when faced with the loss of a loved one? And how has that influenced our own processes, for good or ill?

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I had two rather opposite role models in my family. My mother’s reaction to her youngest son, (my brother’s) disappearance and the eventual confirmation of his death at age 26, was devastation. She did not survive well or long, having a heart attack six months after his funeral. Years of ill health followed until she died of pancreatic cancer at age 70. After my brother’s death, my father, who had been orphaned at the age of 5, became determined to not waste a moment of whatever life he would be given moving forward. He lived a full and vital life until he died at 87.

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Rich’s family had trouble accepting death as a part of life. His mother would tease about what a lousy system it was.  “You’re born, you work hard, you get sick, and then you die.” His father told and retold the story of being 21 years old when his father died of complications from an elective surgery. “When I walked out of that hospital after learning of my father’s death I saw a bum on the street and I thought, ‘What kind of God would take my father, who had everything to live for, and let this bum, you has nothing to live for, live. “ He never found the answer to this question. Perhaps if he’d donated a bench to a park in memory of his father, he would have had a way to honor him and a way for the sea breezes to comfort him in his grief. 

Journey to a Shrinking Frontier

A trip to the Alaskan Glaciers is on many peoples’ bucket list of things to do before they die, and Rich and I were among that group. In 2009 we had a cruise to Alaska all planned and nearly paid for as a way to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. But 2009 was the year of the global economic meltdown and Rich, along with many other people, was downsized out of the job that had taken us across the country five years before. In spite of whatever concerns we had about global warming shrinking the glaciers we were hoping to see, we canceled our trip, and hit the ground running to re-imagine our work lives.

image.glacierI read somewhere during that time, “the loss of a job is similar to the death of a close family member.” The impact on us of this particular meltdown seemed particularly overwhelming as we had only recently arrived at some sense of equilibrium after the illness and death of our 42 year-old daughter, Corinne.

Now four years later, we stand on the balcony of our cabin in front of a tidewater glacier, observing its irregularly sculptured peaks and crevices, listening to the snaps, creaks, and pops of this gigantic frozen river of ice, in its constant movement towards the sea.  Yes, most of the glaciers are receding, and as Alaska warms more severe colder weather events come to the lower 48 states and Europe. As the permafrost melts huge amounts of methane are released, further fueling the rate of climate change.

imageforest.515We learn that after the meltdown, the land left bare beneath begins anew. Moss and lichen populate and create a covering that adds nitrogen, preparing soil for wildflowers and scrubby bushes, and finally, deciduous and evergreen trees join the dance, creating a forest.

Through all these changes, sea and land animals change their habitats, following their food, just as we humans relocate to find work and an environment where we, and our offspring can prosper and grow.   

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Dancing With Death

Death, grief and the end of life, have been major themes in my life recently. Last week a 23 year-old man collapsed at the Pittsburgh Marathon and became its first casualty. Friends and family were shocked, there had been no personal or family history to indicate his risk, and the story became international news. “Such a young man, such a terrible tragedy,” people chanted to one another.  Afterwards doctors discovered an undetected heart defect, most likely present from birth, but with no warning signs, the man had no reason to suspect his vulnerability.

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A few days later I received an email from a former high school boyfriend’s wife that after successful back surgery he had collapsed in his hospital room and medical personnel were unable to revive him. We had recently reconnected through the Internet and exchanged a series of emails. A couple of days before his wife’s email, I had received an envelope in the mail from him with a photo of the two of us, fifty years ago, formally dressed for a school dance. His comment, “Where did all those years go?”   

Yesterday, a friend left a message on my cell phone. A mutual acquaintance, probably younger then either of us, is in her last hours. She had been fighting cancer but the call was a request for prayers to help her cross peacefully. I could respond to that request. As a mother of two adult children who have predeceased me, I have had the honor of being present at this ceremonial time, and I know it to be holy. In fact, when death comes too swiftly, it can be hard to not have the time to say goodbye.

bell2.imagesWe don’t admit it often out loud, but death is one of life’s few certainties. It’s lessons include an encouragement to savior life, every beautiful, terrible moment of it, and to learn to dance with the uncertainty of when, as John Donne suggested, the bell will begin tolling for thee. 

A Healing Ritual at Serpent Mound

It was a trek, as all spiritual journeys are, with five of us traveling six hours from Pittsburgh in my SUV. The Serpent Mound is in southern Ohio, not far from Cincinnati and my friend Vikki Hanchin’s recent book, The Seer and the Sayer http://www.amazon.com/The-Seer-Sayer-Revelations-Earth/dp/1452557276 told of her experiences there. So twenty or so of us set out to see for ourselves this jewel of Midwestern archeology. A world-class expert on the 5 to 6 thousand year-old effigy mound, Ross Hamilton, would be meeting us there.Serpent-Mound-panohttp://www.ohiohistory.org/museums-and-historic-sites/museum–historic-sites-by-name/serpent-mound

After the final hour’s roller coaster-like approach over hill and dale, on serpentine curves through fields and farms, Vikki’s stomach was talking to her, but not in a good way. Once we arrived, another passenger, a Reiki practitioner, began working on Vikki but each time she relaxed into the process she began to cry. It became clear she was tuning in to a sorrow beyond her own skin. When she told Mr. Hamilton of this, he shared that a few minutes before, he and his wife had learned of a dear friend’s daughter having been killed the previous night, crossing the highway near the Mound. A few minutes later when we began preparing for our Serpent Mound ceremony Vikki suggested, “We can help this family with our prayers,” and this death of a child shaped the ritual we were to do at the site.

imagestwowomengrief One of the participants, a Mohawk grandmother and friend of the family, taught us the chant her people sing to assist someone in their crossing. We began chanting to the young girl whose life had ended, suddenly and prematurely, the previous night.  As the ritual progressed, I began thinking of the girl’s mother and grandmother, and, having lost two of my own adult children, I felt called to do something for them. I brought to the group my need to call the names of these women, now in the midst of their unbearable loss.

I thought of what had helped me to heal and I taught the group a dance and chant developed by my Texas women’s spirituality group.  The movements begin as a spiraling of the hips, rocking back and forth as women do when comforting a child on their hips. “We are women, we grow out of the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”  The movements in the second verse repeat but the words change, as they did when I accompanied my friend Rose at her crossing. “We are women, we go back to the earth; beautiful, powerful and wise.”

After completing the chant and dance I felt a strong reassurance in my body that my book, currently in press, Warrior Mother, Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss and Rituals That Heal would be helpful to other families dealing with grief and loss.    

The Path of a Warrior Mother

In looking at images for the cover of my book, Warrior Mother, I discovered early on that pictures of a skinny woman, dressed in battle gear, brandishing a sword were totally irrelevant. I found in Native American folklore, references to the path of the spiritual warrior, which was more what I had in mind. A spiritual warrior lives everyday, closely aware of his or her own death. And since death is guaranteed to happen to each one of us, no exceptions, spiritual warriors face that possibility every day.

Warrior Mother is the story of my journey as a mother, through the diagnosis, illness, and deaths of two of my three adult children. Looking back, as soon as my 20s something son Ken was diagnosed with AIDS, he was staring death in the face, and so was I. I become a warrior mother because I didn’t want him spending his then waning energy having to take care of me. As a model for him, I felt I needed to be brave and positive. As Dr. Bernie Siegel, who worked with those exceptional patients that defied the odds, said, “In the absence of certainty, there’s nothing the matter with hope.” http://berniesiegelmd.com/

In my readings I discovered the notion that what makes something sacred is sacrifice, not a popular concept in today’s world.  But when my 40-year old daughter called me, five years after her brother’s death, to say she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, I did whatever I could to help her. It wasn’t want I’d planned for that time in my life, but when the mother of my three grandchildren said, “I want my mom,” that became my sacred assignment.

From all that we learned as a family from these experiences, lessons I hadn’t read about in other places, it seemed I needed to write about them. And since no family will escape having members become ill and die, it is my fondest hope that these stories might be helpful to others facing their own life and death situations. As Peggy Andreas writes, “This relationship with her Death calls the Sacred Warrior to be who she truly is, to live her life fully and completely, to use the power-from-within.” http://dreamflesh.com/essays/warriorpath/