Death took you away
leaving me alone, bereft.
I feel untethered.
Death took you away
leaving me alone, bereft.
I feel untethered.
“I want to live until I die,” my friend Jim said when he understood that an incurable brain cancer would soon end his life. He did not want to be kept alive by artificial means; he also did not want to live or die in a hospital.
My mother felt the same. When the doctor offered her a pacemaker after her first heart attack three years ago, she said, “No.” He explained that her heart would probably give out while she was sleeping and she would just not wake up one day. “That would be a blessing,” she said.
At the time of that first heart attack, my mom was ninety-two, still driving, going to card parties every week, living in her own home and enjoying life.
After that heart attack, she began to slow down a bit and cut back on some of her activities, but she continued to live on her own and to cook, clean and do her laundry. She was very independent.
Over the past three years, she has had several medical issues that landed her in the hospital for a week at a time, and each time, she returned to her home determined to live as fully as possible.
After an internal bleeding incident in January, her doc took her off heart medicine, and she went on hospice. Then we knew it was only a matter of time until her heart gave out.
When she started falling a few weeks ago, we knew she was getting weaker every day.
Her consistent wish was to live and die in her home.
With some help, my sisters and I were able to make that happen. The past three weeks, someone was with my mom 24/7.
Giving up was not an option for my mom. She had known people who did just that—they stopped doing what they had always done and just waited for death. She would say they stopped living before they died. That was not my mom’s way.
Just last week, she looked at a silk flower arrangement on top of a cabinet and asked me to bring it down. “I want to wash the flowers and rearrange them,” she said. I brought down the basket and helped my mom get to the kitchen sink where she washed the flowers. It was exhausting for her; it was also her way of living her life.
Last Wednesday evening, she ate her last supper. On Thursday, she was too weak to get out of bed and too weak to swallow. We made her as comfortable as possible and kept vigil over the next two days.
Hospice nurses came every day, and each one said some version of, “You girls are doing a great job with your mother.” We are not medical people, and their affirmations were appreciated.
After only two days in bed, my mother died peacefully on Saturday morning, surrounded by family. She truly lived until she died—a role model for living a full life.
The mundane tasks of everyday living
create a sense of tranquility
that stretches out like a
placid lake reaching for the horizon,
each day the same as the one before
and the one to come.
The monotony of routine and habit
can lull me into believing that the future
will be made up of days like these.
I can sometimes tire of the monotony,
almost wishing for an interruption in the predictable—
until one inevitably comes along,
jolting me out of languid days and tossing me about
like a small boat caught in a storm.
And then I crave the sameness that had been,
the predictability of a daily routine.
I long to return to those times
when I could anticipate how each day would unfold,
when there were no surprises and
I could spend hours daydreaming about future travel or
gathering with friends.
I cannot stop or wish away these unwelcome interruptions.
I can only take comfort in knowing
that the turbulence will end and
calm will return.
The other morning, I awoke with the words from the Beatles song Let it Be running through my mind.
I find myself singing that song and asking if I am, in fact, letting it be? Am I letting go?
I imagine that I am not—or, at least, not as much as I could be, or those words would not have come to mind.
Letting go in everyday life can be a challenge; letting go during a pandemic is a challenge on a whole other level.
By its nature, a pandemic is a great reminder of how little control we really have. And this pandemic is insidious because it spreads silently, without symptoms. I could have it right now and not even know. It is a fearful, dreadful thing.
How do I let that be?
In the face of this pandemic, as with other disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, etc.) we can only do so much and then we are powerless to do more.
We can isolate, wash our hands, etc., but the virus could still manage to creep into our lives.
On my morning walk one sunny day this week, I was transported back to another sunny morning when I was in New York City—September 11, 2001. After the Twin Towers had collapsed, and I couldn’t stand to watch any more television news, I went for a walk down Second Avenue.
Cell phones were not working that day, but there were pay phones along the street, and each phone had a long line of people.
The phone calls were short, in consideration for all the others waiting, but the messages were similar. Callers reported, “I’m ok” or “I’m fine.” They meant that they were alive and not injured (although most were covered in white dust from the Twin Towers).
But none of us was ok or fine; we were in shock, and we were frightened. Our illusions of safety and control had been shattered. We felt vulnerable, and we did not know if there would be more attacks. We were stuck on an island with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Anxiety ran high that day.
As I thought back to that day almost twenty years ago, I realized how similar my feelings are about the current pandemic. I don’t feel safe or in control. I feel anxious, vulnerable and frightened. I find myself being emotional—crying easily at anything the least bit sentimental, or getting impatient with people who are not taking the pandemic seriously.
When friends ask me how I am doing, I say, “I’m fine,” and I mean that I have no symptoms of the coronavirus. But I know I am not fine or even ok.
I am scared, and I am mourning the loss of my everyday life—going to work or the grocery store or church. I miss gathering with family and friends and all the other social activities that make up my life.
I admit it—I am struggling to let it be.
Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.
One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.
Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.
I prayed for insight.
Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.
Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.
I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.Understanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.
In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.
When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.
Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.
I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.
As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.
Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.
Upon hearing that Saul and Jonathan had died, David lamented:
Alas, the glory of Israel, Saul, slain upon your heights; how can the warriors have fallen! Saul and Jonathan, beloved and cherished….how can the warriors have fallen…I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother…. (2 Samuel 1:19-27)
Reading David’s words, hearing the grief pouring out of him, reminds me of the importance of giving voice to our sorrows.
But after my friend Jim died, I could hardly put two words together, let alone compose a lament as David had done. Then, one day a few months after Jim’s death, a voice on my car radio sang the words that released the floodgates of my grief:
Oh I swear to you
I’ll be there for you
This is not a drive by…
(Train, “Oh I swear to you”)
A drive by—that is what it felt like. Where I had thought Jim would be around forever (or, at least another twenty years), that was not to be. He was gone—no longer there for me—and all the swearing in the world would not change that. It did not matter what either of us might have wanted, I was left to deal with the reality that he was no longer with me.
I pulled over to the side of the road and sobbed.
Those three little lines tapped into my grief and expressed a sense of betrayal I did not even know I was feeling.Every time I hear this song, I still sing along on the refrain, my voice loud and full of emotion. It still feels like a drive by and this refrain helps me to give voice to my grief.
In 1984, my friend Gerry was diagnosed with leukemia; without a bone marrow transplant, he knew his death was imminent. He chose two songs to be played at his funeral, and although thirty-one years have passed since his death, I still think of him whenever I hear these songs:
Sometimes in our lives we all have pain, we all have sorrow.
But if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.
Lean on me, when you’re not strong and I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on….
(Bill Withers, “Lean on Me”)
What did you think I would do at this moment
when you’re standing before me with tears in your eyes….
I’d fall down on my knees
Kiss the ground that you walk on
If I could just hold you again….
(Billy Vera & The Beaters, “At This Moment”)David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan seems raw and immediate, but perhaps he took some time to process his grief before he wrote.
Giving expression to our sorrows can open us to a different perspective; sadness can sit side-by-side with gratitude and hope.
Grief was not something we talked about when I was growing up. We were more of a “suck it up” and “move on” kind of family.
But at my grandmother’s funeral, when I was eleven years old, I watched my father grieve his mother’s passing. It was my first funeral and the first time I had seen my dad cry. I remember being shocked and confused. There was my dad showing emotion; he was sad, weeping, grieving.
After the funeral, we didn’t speak about it—not my grandmother’s death nor my father’s feelings about it. The message was clear: even if we feel something, we don’t talk about it. We get over it; we move on.
In my work at a cancer support center, loss and grief are common topics of discussion.
Recently, I was talking with a woman who is in treatment for cancer. She said she is very emotional and is easily moved to tears. We talked about the losses she has experienced because of the cancer and how she is processing her grief.
I told her I had learned about using ritual to process grief—from an unexpected source.
When my friend Jim was sick, his dog Detroit was by his side throughout his illness, and she was with him when he died. While his body was being taken from the house, I took her for a walk. When we got home, she ran to his room and just sat at the foot of his bed. She was grieving.
The next morning, she went into his room and again sat at the foot of his bed. She looked up at the bed and then at me, as if she was asking, “Where is he?” It broke my heart to have to tell her he was gone. Her sad eyes mirrored my own.
Every morning for the next few weeks, Detroit started her day by going into Jim’s room and sitting at the foot of his bed. She would look up at the bed and then at me. I would do my part for her ritual and tell her that Jim was gone.
Then one day when she entered his room, she did not stop at the foot of the bed, but walked the length of the room, turned around and walked out. “Just checking?” I asked, and I knew she had moved to a different place in her grief. This new ritual—entering the room, walking the length, turning and walking out—continued for months.
And then one day she walked to the doorway of his room, paused, and then moved on. Her grieving period was over.
She still occasionally entered his room at random times, but the ritual had accomplished its purpose—she had mourned and now she was getting on with her life.
During those months, I watched in wonder at how Detroit instinctively honored her grief by creating a ritual and then adapting the ritual to fit her changing needs. I was in awe of how she mourned and processed her grief.