Tag Archives: grieving

Hallow’s Eve

The pumpkins are prominently displayed at the grocers, along with the colorful pots of the season’s most celebrated flower, chrysanthemums. Front yards in my urban neighborhood sport dried corn stocks while the nearest farmland is at least a twenty- minute drive away. Homes with resident young children exhibit walkways and front doors decorated with spiders, cobwebs, and life-size white-sheeted ghosts.

Halloween-Home-Decor-Ideas-Cobwebs When visiting the homes of older children you may likely be greeted by a life-size black outfitted, gory, fanged, blood dripping, skeleton. As the costumed trick or treat crowd make their way from house to house on Hallow’s Eve, no one mentions that these playful, sometimes scary provocations of horror, are actually a contemporary version of ancient end-of-harvest ritual that celebrated the spirits of the dead. It was believed that in this transition time between fall and the hibernation of winter, the veil between the worlds was lifted, and spirits who had once walked this earth, might return on this one night.

 For my children Halloween was their favorite holiday, and before the Halloween candy had been sorted, let along eaten, they would begin planning for what they wanted “to be” for the following year. The dressing up as someone or something that they were not, or the opportunity to express a part of themselves in an artistic creative way seems especially satisfy, way beyond other holidays where gifts are exchanged or the turnover of the calendar is marked.

I still remember my youngest son, Ken dressed as a three year old devil, carrying a pitchfork made of cardboard, seven year old Corinne, dressed as a fanged tooth witch, her blond hair hidden by a black wig, and handsome five year old Kevin, outfitted as a swashbuckling pirate, (his dagger was also hand crafted by his parents out of cardboard.)big-scary-halloween-props

During this period of time in my life, my then husband was a radio news broadcaster assigned to the 6 pm and 11 pm news, so for all practical purposes, I was a single Mom on Halloween night. Fortunately I had a sister who came to help dress the children and who stayed at the house to give out the candy while I took the kids on their walk around the neighborhood. The evening  really was a two adult person operation.

One particular year, the scary costumes didn’t keep the evil spirits away from our house. While my sister and I were at our agreed upon posts, someone came around the back of our house and through an open window took our purses that were sitting on the kitchen table. In the aftermath of the celebration, not only were we both out of the money that was in our purses, but it was impossible to get a check cashed or have access to a bank account without our stolen identification.

Now all three of my children are grown and two of them are “on the other side,” as first nation peoples refer to death. As I light a Jack-a Lantern in my front window, I hope the spirits of my relations know that I would welcome a visit from them, in whatever state of dress or undress they might be.

Commencement

It’s a tremendous accomplishment, though I’ve often wondered, whose accomplishment is it? If it takes a village to raise a child, when the eldest child of my eldest child was scheduled to graduate from college a couple of weeks ago, our family determined it would take at least that many relatives and friends to help him celebrate.

 EthanGradThe graduation was to take place in the spring in the center of the country, in a city where none of us lived. Traversing the country from all directions, relatives drove south 10 hours from their home in Nebraska, Auntie Pat flew from Detroit, my husband and I from Pittsburgh, one granddad from Oregon and our grandson’s uncle, wife and 20 month old flew north and east from Palm Springs. His sister Vitoria had to stay home due to a rained out and rescheduled soccer game but she was able to participate via Facetime when her brother’s Iphone was passed around during the family’s celebration dinner.  

 Spring rainstorms across the country turned everyone’s travels into a most challenging saga, testing our stamina, flexibility, endurance, financial solvency, and group problem-solving skills. When flights are cancelled due to weather, airlines bear no responsibility and are held harmless, thus the need for all the above skills. When our nearly 20 month-old granddaughter and her parents were slated to spend the night at an airport on cots, this grandmother had to swing into action to find them real beds nearby.

MeEthanKelly Looking back now was it all worth it, all this effort to mark a family milestone? It wasn’t till I got home that I fully realized why it was all so important to me. I’d worked with my grandson to plan the events. I’d rented a house so everyone would have a place to stay.  His grandfather and I held a reception that included his friends and ours, and we sponsored the family dinner he wanted at one of his favorite restaurants near campus. Ethan’s mothers had died when he was 12, and as her mother, I had to be sure and do for him whatever she would have done, had she had the chance.

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.

sayinggoodby.clancy

 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.” 

family1

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.

Towards a Resilient Grief

Like many people around the world, I watched the bereavement rituals for the beloved Nelson Mandela. In my case, I was looking for clues to answer a question that has been on my mind for years. “Can what is done at the time of a death, and immediately afterwards, help survivors to accept it, and be strengthened by the grief experience?

coffinMandela Mandela of course, was an international hero, an elder statesman and founder of a new nation. The mourners experiencing this loss included not only immediate and extended family members, but citizens of an entire nation, and of the larger world. In looking at this instance of public bereavement, important elements seem relevant to us all.

Celebrating a life

Following the announcement of Mandela’s passing, spontaneous dancing and singing broke out all over South Africa. In the city streets and village squares, and in the stadium before his state funeral, people whistled, sang, and danced with one another.  Having danced at my own son’s funeral I was delighted that people were using song and dance to create a joyful celebration of thanksgiving for Mandela’s life. We know that Mandela would approve since, in a video at age 81, he is seen dancing and he states, “Music and dancing make me at peace with the world…and at peace with myself. (to the audience) But I don’t see much movement happening out there, so let’s join in.”   

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/12/05/watch-this-delightful-video-of-an-81-year-old-nelson-mandela-dancing-on-stage/

womanwithmandelaimage

Expression of Feelings

As the camera panned the crowd it was not hard to spot people crying openly. When a loved one dies, sorrow and tears help us to recognize our loss.  I was grateful that people were able to have their sorrow in the setting of a supportive community. Some people decorated their bodies to express their admiration for Mandela, sporting his image on their shirts, headgear, or ink-stamped upon their faces. People attending his funeral stood in the rain for hours, and when asked about their willingness to do this, they said this was a small inconvenience given the difficulties Mandela had confronted on their behalf. They considered this a way to express their gratitude.

Lessons Learned

During Mandela’s eulogy, world leaders and well-known celebrities, through storytelling and personal reflection, spelled out the lessons of his life. They pointed out events, such as the years of his imprisonment; and lauded him for how he handled his challenges; his ability to forgive and make allies of his former enemies. In President Obama’s comments he asked himself, “How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? “ I’ve noticed that, when friends and family are given the opportunity to share stories with one another, formally as part of a eulogy, or informally at a wake or visitation, a fuller picture of the deceased emerges. It’s as though each person’s life were a puzzle, and each story, a piece. When placed along side one another, the picture becomes complete.  

Relating to what is unfinished in a life

South Africa Mandela Mourning

Mandela lived an unusually long life, yet as his ex-wife Winnie stated it, “Even though he was 95 and had done so much, there was so much that was still undone.” Those of us watching and reading about the rituals of Mandela’s crossing; the full military honors, the 21-gun salute, the 95 candles, one for each year of his life, the slaughter of an ox in his home village, know that the true tribute to his life will consist of what we, the mourners choose to do in the years remaining in our own lives.

Healing Astronomical Grief

The evening started with a family ritual. My husband and I had been invited to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house. I felt honored to be included in what, for this family, is a weekly event. Prayers and blessings were chanted by the hostess, her husband, and her 94 year-old father. I was wishing I understood what the words meant, but the intimacy and celebratory nature of the meal needed no translation. Ritual elements such as the lighted candles, two loaves of challah bread, and the wine communicated the specialness of the occasion.

shabbatt.tableThe hostess’s father was the honored guest, a remarkable man who talked easily of his life in the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and of his journey to freedom after the war. As the meal was ending, our hostess invited us to drive to the Jewish Community Day School where she is the principal, to see the new Holocaust Sculpture on the school grounds. The project has taken over a dozen years, begun when a social studies teacher was searching for a way to communicate to his students the concept of six million Jews dying in the Holocaust. How could they, and we, understand the reality of such a humungous number?

At the teacher’s suggestion, the class began collecting tabs from aluminum cans, and years later, with help from parents and the larger community, the school amassed six million tabs.

closeup tabs

Next the school and its supporters searched for a way to display them in a meaningful way and the memorial, “Keeping Tabs” was created. An artist worked with the children to design the sculpture. The one that was chosen was a fractured Jewish star, laid out in such a way as to create a maze for visitors to walk through. Nine hundred and eighty glass blocks were then filled with the tabs and arranged in towers of varying heights.

Seeing the memorial at night from a distance, the lit structures seemed to me a cityscape of ancestral skyscrapers. Walking up the hill from the parking lot on the curved pathway I felt the expectation that I would soon be visiting a sacred site.

cityscapeancestors

Upon entering, each narrow corridor offered different angles and perspectives and a play of light and shadow. Close up, the individual tabs in each glass window, mostly silver, with an occasional red or green one, brought tears to my eyes as I experienced each tab standing in for a person, a life snuffed out forever due to hatred and the evil of attempted genocide. I thought of the enormity of the world’s grief for these lives and all the lives that would have come from each of them.

keepingtabs.angles

Since single human bodies are not built to hold such overwhelming sorrows, the Sculpture does its sacred duty, helping us to honor those people who were lost and provide comfort to those left behind. The Hebrew saying and its translation over the doorway is a prayer for us all. –Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazekBe Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened.” Strong enough to stick to our resolve to never allow such an atrocity again. 
The Jewish Chronicle – Holocaust sculpture dedication draws large crowd

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.

Pk_Bench3

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?

bench@sea

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.

benchwithgreenery

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. 

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance
Wing & Prayer Book Performance

 

I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.

desertlabyrinth

This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”  

                         

Rituals That Heal

There was dancing in the streets in Pittsburgh, and many other cities around the country last week when the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. Marriage for same sex partners will not soon be available throughout the US, but major bricks in the legal barriers preventing it have been torn down.  DOMA became law in 1996, the year before my then 31-year old gay son died of AIDS. In those days, people like my son were closeted, most to the larger outside world, and many to their own families. Members of the general public often maintained they didn’t know any gay people.

doma-19

Seventeen years later, nine million people in the US identify openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, 3% of our total population. The public celebrations around the country on June 26th demonstrated the increasingly strong support these brave men and women have earned for themselves and their cause. It gets harder and harder to look at LGBT people as being different than the rest of us, as they speak out regarding their desire to love and be loved and to create a life together that can be recognized as a legal marriage.

 But it is the families of gay and lesbian people that have come to the front in this day and time. There have always been parents whose children were gay, (even if the parents didn’t realize it) but now there are children with gay parents. As Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out in his majority opinion, “DOMA humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.
doma.men.-11

I rejoice that this has happened as quickly as it has. But things have not moved swiftly enough for this warrior mother who, in the mid-1990s wanted for her gay son what he wanted for himself – that it be ok that the love of his life was a man, and that he would be able to marry and have children. My son was hopeful and perhaps a prophet when he believed that someday there would be a cure for AIDS and that someday, gay people like himself would be able to marry. Neither of these developments occurred in time for him. But wherever he is now, I like to imagine that he and his fellow compatriots know that our culture is well on its way toward both goals, and they’re dancing in the streets with us.