Grief 3 Ways

As you may have noticed, there is a running theme here lately, about grief.

I didn’t intend to write so much about it, but that’s the thing about writing – you don’t always choose your subjects. Sometimes, they choose you.

When my mom died, she was all I could think about, write about, but I kept it mostly private. This was almost nine years ago, when the blogging and online world was quite different. I wrote – as I’ve always done – to understand. It was more instinct than decision. Now, the journals I filled have become a reference for the work I’m doing now.

I’m almost done writing the content of my grief course which I’ll be facilitating on the site, The Gift of Writing, and it’s been quite a journey. Despite all the time that has passed, I’ve learned things about my mom and myself I didn’t know before. That is one of the hopes I have for the people who join my class. You don’t have to be a writer to sign up, you just have to be willing to write.

If you’re interested in receiving updates about the class, click here to add your name to the wait list and you’ll be notified when registration opens.

In the meantime…

grief 3 ways

I recently wrote a guest post on The Gift of Writing called, Every Grief Counts: How to Honor Your Grieving Experience. I feel strongly about the importance of this post because I think there can be a sense of competitiveness and comparison when it comes to grief.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that grief is extremely personal. But the questions still rise up. How long is it appropriate to grieve? Are some losses “worse” than others? Please take a look at the article if you haven’t seen it already, or pass it along to anyone you think may be interested.

I also wrote an essay about my mother and her caregiver, Lucie, and the different ways both women showed me their love. You can read that here, on the lovely site, Mothers Always Write.

Last, but not remotely least, I am so proud of my friend Anastasia for the second book in her Ordinary Terrible Things series, Death is Stupid, published by Feminist Press.

death is stupid

Using her gift of collage and her deep well of empathy, she has created a wholly original book about death – including all the nonsense (well meaning and otherwise) that people say to children when someone they love dies. I urge you to watch the book trailer, which will give you a glimpse at the magic she makes with words and art.

Just to assure you, despite all my grief-making work, I am not at all depressed. It’s spring, one of my favorite seasons, and I’ve seen enough daffodils and forsythia to prove it. Sure, the chilling temperatures are a bit of a downer (and I’m very sorry to my upstate and New England friends for SNOW, not cool), but sometimes I think we forget the capricious, fickle, and teasing nature of April.

It’s still early spring, nestled up against the cold cusp of winter, and maybe clinging to the old season a little more tightly than usual. I imagine a dozing bear, annoyed at being roused, and yearning for just a little more sleep before it lumbers out into the sunshine.

Here’s hoping it lumbers out sooner than later.

 

 

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We Share Our Losses

My grandmother wasn’t a happy woman, not when I knew her, so this picture I came across the other day is especially striking.

Pauline and Harry

The joy and openness in her eyes, the width of her smile, radiates joy. Beside her is my grandfather, a man I never met, who died when my mom was eight years old. A man who never felt like he belonged to me, in any way.

His ending was a cautionary tale of a congested heart. Three strikes and you’re out. That’s how many heart attacks it took to kill him. A young man, in his mid-forties, he left behind the love of his life and two bereft children. My grandmother never recovered from his death. It left her shattered and bitter, furious at her bad luck. The life she had imagined turned into dust.

I don’t know how my mother recovered. She had been a daddy’s girl.

When I was a kid my mom rarely spoke about her father, though I’m sure she must have explained to us what happened at some point. I remember how she used to light a yahrzeit candle a few weeks before her birthday on the day of his death. Quietly it would sit on the white countertop and burn without ceremony. For the rest of the year it resided in the rarely used kitchen cabinet filled with dusty wine glasses and an assortment of solitary cups and mugs that had lost their companions.

Looking back, I wish I asked more questions, I wish my mom had been able to share her grief with me. But as a cousin reminded me recently, grief wasn’t discussed openly back then. Maybe my mom thought she was protecting us by keeping it to herself, or maybe her memories were too distant to access, but the space it left, in the shape of a father and grandfather, loomed large in my imagination.

My childhood friend Tamra, who I’ve known since third grade, saw the photo when I posted it on Facebook and made a comment that caught me completely off guard.

She wrote, I see the resemblance with you and your mom. I automatically assumed she meant a resemblance to my grandmother, but when I read the rest of her comment, I realized she had been referring to my grandfather. I stared hard at his jovial good-natured face, searching for familiarity: I saw shadows of my mother easily, and then, I almost saw myself.

I stared at him, this man I had never met, barely knew anything about. Despite all that he was mine. He did belong to me. For a brief moment I allowed myself to imagine what life might have been like if he had lived. A grandmother and grandfather coming to visit, living close enough for me to spend the day, the night, to curl up in his big arms and be read to, held, and loved. My grandmother might have smiled more, and maybe, just maybe she would have been a better mother.

Up until this point I had never allowed myself to stake a claim on this man, to miss him, or mourn his absence. To imagine what he might have meant to me. I felt like that would have been selfish. This was my mother’s loss, not mine. But I was wrong. It was both of our losses. Just like her death is not just my loss, but my daughter’s, and my son’s.

It seems so obvious to me now. We don’t have to hide or hoard grief, we don’t have to pretend it’s not ours to mourn. Like love, there is enough to go around.

The spring before my mother died, when she was weak and recovering from a long winter illness, but before we knew she was dying, my uncle came to visit. Her older brother. When his father died, he became “the man” of the house, too heavy a burden for a twelve-year-old to bear. Nevertheless, he bore it out of necessity, and out of love for his little sister, but it left a bitter trace on him, a shadow of his mother’s twisted anger.

We talked about the past that day, which was unusual. Maybe it was me. Maybe I asked about my grandfather, maybe I offered what I had been unable to offer all those years earlier. An acknowledgment of their deep loss. My empathy.

I listened with rapt attention as my uncle recalled that fateful day of the final heart attack. Their father taken away, and then later, the news traveling back to them, my mother running to her room in tears.

“She couldn’t stop crying,” he said, looking awestruck so many years later.

Those four words hit me hard. I looked over at my mother. Her big brown eyes were wide with sadness and memory as she gazed at her brother. In a flash I saw the two of them as children, trying to care for each other.

Before he left that day, my uncle said goodbye in his usual brusque but loving manner. A quick hug for me and a wave to my mom across the room. She said goodbye from her reclining chair where she had sat for nearly a decade since she lost the use of her hands and legs to multiple sclerosis.

“Go and hug her,” I told my uncle in a low voice. He looked at me surprised. This was not his usual way. I don’t know for sure, but I think her handicap made him uncomfortable. Maybe it was too hard for him to look at her in that chair. But that day I didn’t give him a choice. I took his arm and pulled him into the room.

He leaned over her chair and hugged her, maybe for the first time in years, and I heard him say in a voice so tender, “I love you Susii,” her girlhood name. The name her father must have called her. The name my father called her until she became my mother and decided she was no longer a girl, and to please call her Susan.

The next time he saw his sister, she was under hospice care, unconscious, and close to death.

When I got pregnant, shortly after my mom died, I knew right away there was one thing I’d do differently. My children would know their grandmother. I would tell them her name, show them pictures, and talk about her life, her art, and one day, her death.

There are two of them now, grandchildren. A girl and a boy, in the same order my mother had me and my brother. A strange kind of twinning, but not.

They do not wonder about the blank space as I once did because it’s always being filled.  My hope is that she is as vibrant and beautiful in their imagination as she was in life.

mom and Harry

My mom and her dad, my grandpa Harry

Rest in peace, Harry Cooperman, grandpa. I know I would have loved you.

Year’s End, A Noticing

Another year is about to turn. The sky has been thick with mist and clouds, so beautifully moody. As I drove down the country road where we’re staying in upstate New York, I noticed a tree full of noisy blue jays, looking busy and important in their fancy blue suits.

I wanted to stop and take a picture, post it on Instagram, for my fellow noticers, but I knew there was no way to get close enough, no way to capture the moment as it was happening, so I put down my phone and marveled at the beauty, just me. No documentation, no outward approval, just an impression left on my heart.

Everything on my drive to the grocery store struck me as magnificent – notice me, notice me! – the world seemed to shout and I did. I noticed the beauty of the small red barn against the gray knit sky, and the crescent of bare trees arching in the distance. I noticed with delight the snow flakes that fell and stopped in the span of a minute, the bright happy sound of water splashing beneath my tires, the bubbling rush of the stream when I paused on my drive, pulling over and capturing the conflicted sky, this time with my camera. I couldn’t resist.

left of river right of river

There are entire days, weeks, I’m sure, when I don’t notice. When my head is down and I miss dozens, hundreds, of these small magical moments. Right now, in the mid-afternoon sky, a sea of white and gray clouds skim across the top of the mountain peaks outside my window. The sun moving along with it, as if being carried by an invisible current.

How seldom I stop, how seldom I stand still enough to notice the movement of the world around me, not the frantic movement of people, including myself, not the movement across a small lit up screen that sucks me in like a vortex, but the movement in the sky, in a tree full of birds, the softness of my son’s hair pressed against my face, tickling my cheek. My daughter’s eyes, such a vivid blue, the way the cleft in her chin appears more pronounced when she is sleeping, reminding me of her infant face.

Oh, there is so much to notice. There is so much to miss.

On the drive I thought about my mother, another new year without her. This June will be nine years since her death. Then I wondered, maybe I’m wrong? Could it be eight? I actually have to stop and do the math. I used to keep track by weeks, then months, like you do with a baby. Now I am making guesses, second-guessing. It will be nine.

My mom used to joke with me about her MS, saying that at least it would give me good material. I’m sure in the moment I told her to stop, but turns out she was right. I’m still writing about her. I’m still writing her. To find her, understand her, be close to her. As I drove, amid all the beauty of the world, all the noticing, these words came out of my mouth as if she were beside me.

I’d return it in a second to have you back, mom, you jerk.

And then I laughed because calling your dead mom a jerk is kind of funny, but also not funny because in that moment I wanted to call her more names, I wanted to curse and rail at her for being dead, in that moment I was furious with her for leaving me. But in seconds the fury melted to sadness, and then gratitude, for having her as long as I did, and still do, in my heart.

This post wasn’t supposed to go here, but sometimes you have to follow the sparks, the glimmers on the road, and see where it leads you.

I intended to write about my new word of the year, and maybe a little bit about how I slacked on last year’s word, focus. But I don’t think I need to. I’m going to look forward, not back, and this year I’m going to soar.

Happy New Year, and thank you, every one of you dear readers, those I know in real life and those I hope to meet. Knowing you’re out there – in my town, across the country or an ocean – whether you’re reading my words or offering your own, or both, lifts my spirits and keeps me aloft.

Hope to see you, and maybe read you, in 2016.

Life After Loss: Writing Through Grief

Alhough it’s been eight years, my mother’s death remains one of the biggest turning points of my life.

mom and me

Almost immediately afterward, everything became filtered through a new distorted lens. I felt like a book that had been torn in half. There was part 1, all that had occurred before my mom’s death, and part 2, what came after.

I remember feeling so raw and exposed that summer. My heart felt like it had been scooped out of my chest. I dragged myself through the days in a strange kind of stupor. Nothing looked or sounded quite right. People were too loud, too happy, too eager to offer advice about my grief.

One well meaning friend kept insisting I see a blockbuster comedy that opened that summer. It’s so hilarious, she said, it will make you laugh. But what she didn’t understand was I didn’t want to laugh. I wanted to hunker down inside my grief. I wanted to feel every stab of pain and every searing ache. Funny movies and even most fiction felt frivolous and unimportant. I turned to poetry when I couldn’t bear prose. I made scrapbooks and photo albums. I cried, a lot.

Grief was my work, and I stepped into it willingly. Not because I thought it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing I could do.

Recently, my friend Claire over at The Gift of Writing asked me to write a post about grief. I focused on how journaling connected me to my mother and helped serve as a conduit for my pain, both before and after her death.

Writing was the one thing I could do anytime, anywhere. It was where I could be completely honest about how I felt, with no one pitying or judging my process.

Please stop by if the topic resonates. I’d love to know what you think.

gift of writing

 

 

 

It Will Never Be Enough

My writing and blogging friend Dina Relles recently posted a prompt on Literary Mama about something read or spoken that has stayed with you.

At first, I was at a loss. My recall memory is kind of awful, just ask my husband who corrects me every time we have one of those he-said/she-said arguments, but then, suddenly, as though pulled along by an invisible thread, the words arrived.

It will never be enough.

Lucie spoke those words to me in the kitchen of my childhood home. We were huddled close and speaking in low voices about my mother, who was dozing or resting in the nearby family room. There was no worry or concern that she would overhear us because she had lost the use of her legs, and her arms, many years before.

My parents hired Lucie soon after my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Her job was to help with chores around the house, drive me and my brother places, and cook dinner. Basically, do the things my mother would soon be unable to do.

I was fourteen when I met her, and she was about thirty years old, maybe younger. A single mom with two small children, she needed work with flexible hours. I remember so clearly the day she came to us. She had dark eyes and a somber, quiet demeanor. Later, we would know her laugh intimately, her dry wit and her bawdy humor similar to my mother’s. But that day she was a stranger.

I can still see her sitting at our kitchen table, hands on her lap, speaking in a soft, low voice. I don’t remember what she said that day, but seventeen years later, we’d have a conversation that I would never forget.

We stood in the kitchen, our heads touching, in front of the sink with windows looking out at the overgrown back yard, an empty space where the white metal playground used to stand. Lucie’s big brown eyes were soupy with tears.

I thought she was going to die, she whispered to me. We were talking about my mother. I was thirty-one years old and Lucie in her late 40s.

What happened, I asked, and she told me about how my mother had been on a different medication for the last month or so. I think it was killing her, she said. Your father didn’t want to worry you, but I thought, what if she dies and you found out later that we didn’t tell you.

We stood with this possibility hanging in the air, and then embraced. I thanked her for telling me now and asked her to please call me if this happened again.

Is she okay now? I asked, my chin pointing toward the other room.

She’s better than she was, Lucie said, after a moment. But I don’t know Dana, I don’t know.

Her eyes welled up again and I felt a weight drop hard on my chest. I gripped the counter, staring out the window as my mother must have on occasion while watching me and my brother play tag or scramble up the jungle gym.

Do you think she’s going to die? Do you think I should move back home? I asked, my mind wild and panicked at the possibility. I began to wonder about logistics. How could I leave behind my life, but how could I not?

What should I do? I asked, feeling desperate. I wanted her to tell me what to do, to give me permission, to lead the way through this unchartered territory.

That’s when she looked at me square in the eye. Her expression serious and mournful. I can’t answer that, she said, you have to live your life. You have a home, a job, a husband.

I must admit I felt a shiver of relief because as deeply as I loved my mom, oh so deeply, I also felt afraid of living right up against her pain, day in and day out.

But Lucie wasn’t done. She took my hands in hers, she stepped closer, and what she said next will never, ever leave me.

The truth is, she whispered, her eyes dark and wet, it doesn’t matter if you move back home or not, because whatever you do it will never be enough. When she dies, you will always, always want more.

We wept together, Lucie and I, as we would in another kitchen, in another six months, when my mother was dying.

Is it strange to say that despite the panic and fear I felt upon hearing those words, that later they would bring me solace?

Later, in my grief, in the empty space left behind after my mother died, I forgave myself for not moving back home. I felt regret, for that and more, but in the back of my mind, those words rang out, not as a punishment or chastisement, but as a balm, a loving caress across my cheek, those words held me close and told me I had done as much as I could and yet, and yet, it would never be enough.

 

A messy and beautiful moment with my mom in my 20s.

Me and my mom in my 20s.Taken, most likely, by Lucie.

If you write your own version of words that stick, leave it in the comments below. I would love to read it.

I’ve also shared this on Writing Bubble’s, What I’m Writing, weekly link-up.

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Listen to Your Mother

bracelets Driving to my Listen To Your Mother audition last week was like a mini vacation. Driving anywhere, even to the grocery store, without having to dole out Pirate’s Booty and tissues, negotiating radio station wars, and dealing with consecutive bathroom stops, is a treat.

I get to play music of my choice without complaint, and if I end up tearing up when John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” comes on, I have plenty of tissues to hand to myself.

At eight-thirty am, after making pancakes (a mix, please), doing the dishes, and scooping the cat litter – to which my husband, still bleary-eyed, was like, you know you don’t need to do all that, I drove to my audition.

The sky was gray and bright, as if the sun was pressing against the clouds. Snow covered almost everything, but the temperature was rising and rivers of water cut paths into the dirty drifts.

I talked to myself, one of my favorite things to do, giving myself a pep talk for the audition. “Piece of cake,” I said, all bluster and pffft-like. “If I can read my mom’s eulogy, I can read this no problem.” I tried a technique I read about here, that Dani Shapiro used before going on Oprah. “Be curious… Curiosity and self-consciousness can’t occupy the same space.”

Clearly, this wasn’t Oprah or anything remotely close, but I was pretty nervous, so I asked all kind of curious questions about the producers, what they had for breakfast, if their kid helped them put on their make-up like mine had.

Then I thought about the other women coming to audition, anxiously driving, maybe crying to songs on the radio, thinking about what inspired their essay, watching the winter begin to thaw. One car seemed to be following me, and for a few miles before she turned, I wondered if we were heading to the same place.

A warmth spread across my chest and I felt a kinship with every woman on their way to the audition. Each one of us had made it a priority to do something a little bit scary, a little bit brave. As much as I wanted to be part of the cast, to read aloud the essay I wrote about my mother, about her labor toward death, I felt a genuine rush of pride for whoever ended up on that stage.

I wanted to hug every person I might see at the audition and wish them well. I knew I’d be disappointed if I wasn’t selected, that’s a given, but in that moment I felt something like grace and knew whatever happened would be okay.

My good luck charms, a pair of bracelets, and these two jokers, may have helped, because…

my life

“Good luck!” a text and pic from my husband.

I am truly honored, elated, stunned, and grateful to be one of 13 people slated to be on stage for the inaugural Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother Show. I’m in wonderful company, with the three awesome women running the show, their production team, and all of the other readers.

In the car ride home I wept, not to any song in particular, but to the image of my mother, sitting on her reclining chair in my childhood home, beaming at me, her eyes shining with tears, pride and love written all over her beautiful face.

me and my mom

Me and my mom, circa 1977

Mining the Wounds

Last week was a slow one for writing. I’d like to believe this has more to do with the snowy weather than my brain, but probably both were responsible.

Life gets in the way. I don’t know why I seem to forget this.

My life. Love these guys.

My life. Love these guys.

There was a two-hour school delay Wednesday, and then no school for the rest of the week, but somehow I managed to scratch out a few pages of my novel despite hitting another wall (made of brick, rather high) and almost letting it get the best of me.

I’m two-thirds of the way through this draft, and while I have a general sense where I need to end up, how I get there is blurry.

I’m trying to take it one step/scene at a time and not hyperventilate, but there is this nudging voice that says I ought to have a better plan.

That voice says LOTS of jerky stuff and I know I’m supposed to ignore it, and most days I do, but sometimes it gets a little bit loud and makes me cranky. Thank goodness for the bird feeder outside my office window and the gorgeous cardinal that makes frequent appearances. I am so grateful to my husband for what I think is the best Valentine’s present ever.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal's red tail feathers.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal’s red tail feathers.

Another thing that helps get me through winter and novel writing blahs is reading an AWESOME book. The nudgy voice tried to interrupt, of course, insinuating that my book can’t possibly compare, but I squashed it with my boot and kept on reading.

all my puny sorrows

The author writes in an almost manic style, winding these gorgeous and wrenching sentences around and around like an endless skein of yarn, which makes me a bit anxious, but that is, partly, the point.

The book is about sisters, one sane, one less so, and the lengths we go to keep someone we love alive, even when that person would much rather be dead.

But there’s humor in the pathos, which makes it bearable. Which makes life bearable.

In between bouts of novel angst and laugh-crying my way through “All My Puny Sorrows,” I somehow managed to write a draft of a new essay about reading, and writing, my mother’s eulogy.

It started out as a blog post, but as I gained momentum I could feel the roots shooting down, expanding. This was going to be bigger.

It makes sense that my mom’s eulogy was on my mind, because I was also practicing my audition essay for the Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother show (a live performance in 39 cities across the US) which happens to be about her death.

As I was getting “all nerved up,” to use one of my mom’s expressions, I realized with a jolt that the hardest performance of my life had already occurred. Reading my audition essay, as vulnerable as I might feel, could not compare to reading my mom’s eulogy.

The dress I wore to my mom's funeral, and to my audition.

The dress I wore to my mom’s funeral, and to my Listen to Your Mother audition.

This June will be eight years since her death. Despite the passage of time, scars remain. Misshapen ridges mark my heart, a topography of grief. Sometimes they break open and bleed.

But that’s what writing is for, to honor our wounds, to face the joy and pain of life, both real and imagined. To not look away. To scratch at the scars if they warrant another chance to heal.

What have you been writing and reading lately? Do you have any scars itching to be reopened?

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On Tuesday I’ll be joining Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. Check it out and perhaps add your own link. I love hearing what others are up to in their work.