How to Cope with the Cycle, Not Stages, of Grief

I was invited to write about grief for a popular website, so I have been thinking about it, and what I might write. So many have written and sung and drawn their experiences of grief and loss. What could I add to that canon?

I found myself thinking of something my friend Reuben mentioned so many years ago after his dad died–that the sight of a dapper older man walking down the street with a hat tipped a certain way could start his  grief all over again.

For me today, it is this blizzard. In February 1994, I was a single mom of three under the age of 5. My granny, who had bought the house next door to mine so that she could stay near to help with Conor, my first baby, had fallen and broken a hip.

That summer, my uncle had built a back step to the deck off my kitchen–low rise, long run– so that she could come straight across the yard and in the backdoor, bypassing the steep stairs out front.

When she came home to recuperate from the broken hip, my job was to get over in the morning, to check on her and get her set up for the day.  Alyson, my youngest daughter, was a month old, so I would strap her in a Snugglie under my maternity coat, and bundle up Conor and Meredith, ages 4 and 2, in snow clothes.

Someone would inevitably need to go potty the minute I had them all dressed. But eventually, we would tromp across the ice and snow to my Grandmother’s house. I would pray not to fall with the baby strapped on.

The deep snow today reminds me of that winter, and a year in which I lost my marriage and my grandmother. I was  thinking about how much I still miss her, and also how I did not know to appreciate her more. I expected her to live forever, even though I was old enough to know better.

When Conor was a newborn, I would get  irritated with my two grandmothers–who only ever loved and helped me–because they had so much advice for me about what to do with that colicky baby.

They wanted to hold him all the time, take him from me and urge me to rest, or shower, or work on a freelance job. My Grandmom Hourihan (Graom) would arrive every weekday morning around 8 to take him to the living room so that I could get some sleep. My Grandmom Lynch (Meme) would come every Tuesday and sit in a chair with me and sing The Tennessee Waltz.

Before our move to the exurbs, my mother, Mary, and my great aunt, Anna, who both worked nearby, would come by for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I was lucky to be surrounded by their decades of experience, but too foolish to know it.

Now that I am a grandmother, too, I know it. I understand what my grannies were about, beyond helping me with adjust to motherhood.

Holding a baby is a brief touch on the future; the old know that our time for holding babies is limited, and that we will become invisible before we become nothing. I know that my times of holding babies is long gone, save the few times a week that my grandbaby allows me to carry her.

An artist friend died earlier this month–alone and unexpectedly at the age of 73. Luckily he was a writer, so I am able to hear his voice through his blog, Waterfall Road. A friend of his posted this from TJ’s blog, 2014:

I don’t believe this is the path of my enlightenment in one lifetime. I see it a cycle through this lifetime in self-awareness, saying in signs I’ve done well not to get side-tracked, passing through opportunities for distraction, indulging some and letting them go, returning to the flow, allowing the flow, trusting the flow that just keeps rolling along. 

More than ever, I feel myself in that flow, as TJ said. It will just keep flowing along, always forward, never back. How I wish I could flow back to 1994–not the bad times–so my grannies could once again give me their accumulated love and wisdom and heart. I would make a pot of coffee with plenty of cream, and we would admire my beautiful babies.

“Doll,” my Grandmom Hourihan would say, as I fretted over some milestone or misbehavior or worry, “Slow down. It’s over before you know it.”

Or as Iman posted  on Instagram about  David Bowie  dying, “sometimes you will never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

 

Keywords: grieving process, grieving loss of relationship, grieving for celebrities, grieving process for friends

Bowie Tribute on The Health Care Blog

Thanks to the editors at www.thcb.org for featuring my tribute to David Bowie and one of my favorite songs, Ground Control to Major Tom.  I’ve contributed to THCB in the past, but always about health policy. I’m glad to have found a kindred spirit there, who can appreciate that we do, in fact, mourn our icons and celebrities and public figures, who come to represent and even become a part of a time and space in our own lives.

I have since colored the image and hope others will find it mysterious, joyful, with a bit of longing for a time when life seemed that it truly might last forever.

Bowie in the stars

And just in case you’d like a clean copy of your own to color, feel free to try this version–but be sure to share what you come up with!

The stars look very different today

The stars look very different today

Race, memory, and the present: Washingtonian, October 2014

I grew up in a racially polarized time and place. I thought my Dad was Atticus Finch and Clarence Darrow. His first murder trial involved defending a black man accused of first-degree murder in the shooting death of a white police officer. This is my memory–and what it means in today’s racially polarized America.

 

Shattered House, Washingtonian, Oct 2014

 

Key words: race, Ferguson, murder, biracial

Trace fossils

I have evidence of a woman
who loved me so completely,
traces of her linger in cells
that line my cheek and ear.
All the years together
we traveled, miles ribboning
behind us as if we might
outlast it all.

The whole weight of her
footprints has gone to dust,
a vessel of memory
scattered to the wind.
Boxes of letters wilt
in the attic heat.
Memory has the words.

Here is my proof,
set in a heart no one
else can ever see:

For a while we roamed
this life, one proud creature.
She fell away
I could not stay.

In the still part of night
though
I feel her breathe.

BeFunky_grandmom.jpg

Frozen

I no longer remember why I hated
My mother, such strong words
For pass-a-day disputes. She was a girl
Herself, and I, hers. What she knew
Of love and safety, to me, a long list
Of should-nots built on her mistakes.

On the coldest days, in snow,
She would wrap my hands and feet
In baggies under mittens,
Hoping to keep me dry with what she had.
We made do, so long,
Frozen in joy, snowflakes on our tongues.

I could not wear go-go boots
Or make up, and she warned me
About boys. I believed nothing
Of what she said, so learned
It on my own, she held
My broken heart, and stood me up
My own two feet all any woman
Needed, or could trust.

Now we are both old women.
The numbered years slip by,
like ice on plastic-wrapped hands.

It sears you, then melts.
You try to grab things,
Change them or just hold tight…
And they are gone.

 

key words: mother-daughter relationships, love, childhood, memory, regret, aging

Christmas, reel-to-reel

We travel with ghosts.
That reel-to-reel tape player
You hid beneath tinsel and bows
Was going to let you last forever.

I could have your voice
To carry, no matter what the years
Stripped away. I interviewed you
Saturday mornings, after Bingo
And Fresca and trinkets I won
From your jewelry box.

Nothing stayed. I can almost bear
The sight of your writing
On old letters in the attic.
But I cannot stand to read
The stories we once shared.

All time comes no more.
I am as old as you were then
And every day, heaven comes closer.
Your voice nearly whispers
In my ear. Crazy is a place
That could keep me from you.

 

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Memory, 9-11

You cannot touch years
Though memory bears their weight
I sip my coffee

 

As ever on this day, I have flashes of memories–7 months pregnant about to board a flight at BWI. When the men screamed run, for fear of bombs, I ran from the terminal and jumped in the first car I saw. I am grateful for that driver’s kindness, for he drove me home to Annapolis as fast as he could. I could only think to get to my children. But as Meredith, then 9, told me when I said, “You’re safe, I’m here”–“I will never be safe again.”

Even so, we try for security, and work toward it. As Helen Keller said, “Security is mostly an illusion.” In any case, in addition to my own small memories of that day and the ensuring years, my heart goes out to all who lost lives, loved ones, and illusions, who continue to live in fear and war.