Grief's pain is emptiness. Memories fill the hole. What I first experienced as a jumbled overload of images quieted, the new calm bringing perceptible sensations to my memories. Sparked by a sound, a taste, or perhaps a rustling of fabric, memories send me time-traveling. In the minutiae of a typical day two wires touch and I am "unstuck in time." And I enjoy the journey.
Sometimes I feel her. Not spectral yet just as startling. Not a dream yet just as intangible. It's more like her essence. Palpable. It happened the other night. Up late to read a book, I turned a page and there she was. I gasped, "oh, Mom, you're here!" What word, what thought triggered such a feeling? I'll never know. Just as quickly, she vanished.
I incorporate her. After I lifetime of hearing I favor my father what a surprise to find I resemble my mother. After she died the face I saw looking at me in the mirror was hers. Reaching for my morning coffee with two hands I noted, "that's just the way Mom held her cup." Now even my language duplicates her as I integrate her old sayings into my speech. It's a comfort to celebrate our similarities.
I honor her with family rituals. Today, Memorial Day, is the day we pick mums from the front yard, put them in coffee cans and drive across town to the cemetery. For as long as I can remember we cared for the family plot by trimming overgrown grass and leaving cut flowers at each grave. I still see a vivid picture of my grandmother in her flowered dress and sun hat, kneeling in the grass, tidying headstones with a pair of scissors. Years later, I took my sons along and cried with mother while we tended Grandmother's grave. And today we care for Mom's place.
I see her in the margins. Two Mother's Days, a birthday, the better part of two Memorial Days and an ocean of tears have passed. Instead of fighting an aching loss I've welcomed her back. Instead of grasping at distant memories I see her right here, every day. In a hand-written envelope addressed to her grandchild. In a Post-It Note with her trademark greeting: "Hey Babe, I Love You!" And in my favorite, a worn collection of cookbooks and recipe cards, Mom's notes penned in the margins. My connection to the past that brings a smile to the present.
It's been a long time since I've written. I remember last writing in May, 2010, finishing up my school year tasks and then taking a very long break from the keyboard. Life is always busy. It's easy to get distracted by schedules and deadlines, routines and surprises. Dashing from this errand to that appointment. That's something we all share. Our ability to live on the surface.
Well, deep down we also share the tough stuff. When my mother died in March, I used this forum as a way to examine my feelings. I put my head down and marched through the days and kept writing. Sharing with anonymous listeners seemed to work for me. It was a comfort to express myself creatively. I was able to sit in front of my monitor and write and remember and cry.
After school wrapped I hit the road with my husband. We camped and hiked. Outdoors is such a good place to heal. You can't help but see renewal everywhere. But when opera season started in June and I reconnected with my colleagues I found myself back in the depths of grief. And I didn't like it. I didn't like talking about it; I didn't like publicly crying about it. I couldn't face the vulnerable feelings so I stopped sharing. Oh, it wasn't possible to ignore. I did my best to work through the process privately. I called on a very tiny support group and got myself to a place that felt somewhat sheltered from the pain.
That protection helped me through a fall that was bursting with new tasks. It helped me through a Thanksgiving that was fraught with potent family memories. And it helped me through a December that felt joyless and empty. After the holidays I withdrew from everything. And without realizing it, my shelter became a barrier instead of a safe haven.
Two weeks ago, something changed. Something caught my attention. Encouraging words, a surge of confidence, a dream--who knows? If I knew I'd capture the essence and save it for another time. Whatever it was, I stopped, I looked up, I realized I don't have to carry this inside any more. I can either hang on or let go--it feels like a choice. Now I can reach out.
My hope is by writing this down I can rework some old and outdated wiring inside me. I've been thinking about my reluctance to embrace all of my emotions. When my son called yesterday and asked how I felt the words got stuck in my throat. Even though I know that it really is all right to feel sad or angry, a lot of times I feel afraid to say it. My sense of appropriateness (a word that usually makes me cringe) thinks it might be too much information. As if I'd prefer to present the dressed up, made up, cleaned up, polite and pretty version of myself. The Barbie version. The problem is--she's hollow inside.
Me? I feel full of conflict. What's so wrong with mad and sad? Is this a uniquely female way to deal with the darker side of emotion? Or something I learned a long, long time ago? I tend to gloss over angry or sad emotions with juvenile language--"I feel icky." Or skirt around my feelings, "I feel not so good," or "I feel ok." It seems easier to answer in a cheerful yet robotic voice, "I'm fine. How are you?" Or even worse, sit in silence with a painful lump in my throat.
But then I might miss out. I might miss having a real conversation with a friend. I might miss the closeness that comes from being genuine with my mate. And I would miss sharing honesty with my sons in the face of heartache. I owe it to myself to be truthful with the ones that matter most to me.
What if I trusted that the folks I love want to know the real me? What if expressing emotions came with a request for help? "May I have a hug? I feel so sad today." Or, "I need to vent because I feel so angry." That might make it easier for me to talk. And easier for others to listen.
"Feel and deal." I see this handwritten message on my friend's fridge every time I visit. It's catchy. Even though it sounds simple; it's certainly not easy. The reality seems messy and difficult. That's the challenge--accepting reality. Accepting the day no matter what it brings.
The third Coping Strategy is "Getting Outside". I did my morning journaling outside on the deck today. It was the first time since last fall. Glorious! I spent the late afternoon yesterday sweeping away the dead leaves and the aspen tree caterpillars. Spring cleaning outside. Clearing the withered foliage makes space for new growth.
All the outdoor tasks help to soothe my aching heart. I just passed the one month anniversary of my mother's passing. Now that a month has gone by I feel the loss more deeply. I measure time by reliving every moment I experienced a month ago. As if recalling will somehow reconfigure the past. I long for the numbing effect that comes with startling news.
Getting outside helps a little if I let it. It allows me to feel in a gentle way. Sitting outside listening to the birds and bugs, I attune to all the life buzzing around me. Walking my dogs, I view the world through curious noses and happy tails. Turning the loose soil in the vegetable beds, I anticipate a fruitful summer. The rhythms of life bring me back to the now. And I find my heart's ease in the beauty of the earth.
Only a few minutes after I last posted I realized that my three fears came under the heading of "fear of losing control." Time has passed. No one but me seems to remember that my mom is gone. The night before her funeral service my dear childhood friend eased my terror. "What are you afraid of.....losing it?" Yes, that's it. "Don't worry," she said, "everyone expects you to lose it." Oh yeah, of course it's ok. Well, a month later, I felt afraid again. Until I remembered that it's ok to loosen my grip on control. I don't need that fear any more. And with that realization, the pain in my gut was gone.
It seems that the key to Being Gentle is "being." I felt the need to stick to my schedule. To keep going. Now I remind myself that I'm a human being instead of a human doing. For me gentleness can be expressed by calling friends for support, asking orchestra and studio parents for help and simply letting go of the extra tasks. All I have to do is remind folks that I need them.
I've also spent time the past few of days calling friends for advice. Mostly, they remind me to allow lots of time to heal. They helped put in perspective what things can be delegated, reassigned or even put on the shelf. One friend said, "Now is not the time to excel." Another shared these wise words: "Consider that by simply acknowledging the storm inside, you are being gentle with yourself. Being gentle doesn't have to mean being soft and delicate, it can mean simply understanding and accepting where you are at this moment, and recognizing that where you are is where you need to be."
These days my comfort music, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue
is playing over and over and over. The first track is rainy, melancholy and seems to understand my sorrows, and the title "So What" sums it up for me. What about you? What works when you feel low? Have you thought about ways you can be more gentle with yourself? How can you Be Gentle when times are tough?
I had planned to write about Being Gentle today. It hasn't felt like a gentle day. The harder I try to put together cohesive thoughts, the more fragmented I feel. Shattered.
Grief punched me in the stomach in the middle of the night. It's been in knots ever since. Subconsciously I pushed the heartache down into my belly to avoid the pain. I know the vice grip I feel is really me trying to hold the lid on my feelings. My mind is saying I don't have time for this now. And my body is saying oh yes, you do.
So how do I follow my own advice? How can I Be Gentle when there's a raging storm inside me? How can I cope when I need to keep going? I've tried all kinds of things today--my entire list of Coping Strategies--except Be Gentle. Today I just can't figure out how to Be Gentle and that's the one I need the most.
Logically, I know it would help to let go. Years ago I went to a book signing by the inspirational writer, SARK
. She had us write our worst fear on a piece of paper, fold it up and hand it to the person next to us. Then we all said, "will you throw this away for me? I don't need it anymore." It was a simple, yet powerful demonstration of letti
What am I holding onto? What's keeping me from processing my grief? The fear that I'll cry at the performance tonight? The fear that I won't be prepared for rehearsal tomorrow? The fear that I won't be ready for the youth orchestra concert this weekend? Many questions; many fears. I need your
help. With these keystrokes, I'm putting my fears down on a piece of paper. Will you throw this away for me? I don't need it anymore.