Living Your Own Life After Loss

Banksy - Follow your dreamsSo it’s not just me…

As I have heard people share their stories with me I have started to see a theme. Something that, when I first experienced it, I attributed to my “helping” (okay, downright people-pleasing) personality. Though being a helper-type may intensify the experience, what I’ve heard all kinds of people say is:

“I can’t… because they.”

It is usually something along the lines of, “I can’t live my life, because they need me.”

As reasonable as it is to care for those around us in the hard times, taking care of people isn’t always synonymous with supporting people. Mostly semantics, I know. But, as I see it, “support” involves an even distribution of care between individuals, whereas “taking care of” can describe one person pouring all their fuel into other people’s tanks. When you lose somebody, you’re going to need your tank as full as possible.

When we cross the line from supporter to care-taker, we risk entering a place that can leave us living indefinitely for another person (please keep in mind I am referring to emotional care-taking here). We risk developing the inability to move away from family to follow a life-long dream; giving up other relationships to be a parent’s main companion; keeping feelings and personal struggles hidden for the sake of protecting family members… Raise your hand if you have, like me, ever experienced the belief that your pain is not as important as the pain of another. It’s not true.

My advice to self and others is not necessarily to toss our loved one a Kleenex and run for the hills, but it is to be aware of the levels of our giving and our living. To give up our life for others in the way of emotional dependency means that, in a sense, our life is over too.

Though it may not feel like your life right now, you still own it. Here’s to your very valuable journey, that deserves to be lived.

It Lives in the Little Things

Today I read a letter from a daughter to her mother who had passed away of breast cancer. You can read it all here, but I wanted to share one paragraph in particular with you. Anyone who has ridden this roller coaster may relate to these words:

“I wish I had paid closer attention. The things that really matter you gave me early on—a way of being and loving and imagining. It’s the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging. I step unsure into a world of rules and etiquette, not knowing what is expected in many situations. I am lacking a certain kind of confidence. Decisions and departures are difficult. As are dinner parties. Celebrations and ceremony. Any kind of change.”

The size of my sadness doesn’t always correlate with the seeming size of the hardship. Yes, the big things are difficult – it’s heartbreaking to miss the intensity of her love; I miss her aura; I miss normal life. But at the same time, these are the things I had 26 years to take in. I know them well, I can still feel them when I close my eyes.

“It’s the stuff of daily life that is often more challenging”.

This is why the battle seems unrelenting some days. Because grief lives in the little things. And everyday there is a new little thing to face. New things to know, new decisions to make, new things to experience, without her.

To understand this is to realize that it will never be over. And this is not to bring hopelessness, but hope, and grace. It means realizing that you are a champion right now, when you make it through a day of little things. It means knowing that you will become more and more skilled at facing these daily moments, and after awhile these accomplishments will bring a depth to your life that you wouldn’t have otherwise experienced. Grief lives in the little things, but life has it’s home in the little things too.

To my fellow residents in the Afterwards, love yourself, right now, right where you are. This is my pledge to myself today. I will be proud of myself for making it through all the new that today threw at me. And I will consciously seek to notice the little things of today which presented sparks of life.

When the closet must be cleaned

My mom was a bit of a conundrum. She was not a princess, but she loved wearing a heavy diamond on her finger (I should say, on most of her fingers). She was not a fashion queen, but the woman had a closet bigger than most people’s bedrooms. Really, it had a TV and chaise lounge. It’s something that used to make us all laugh but, when she left us, that place became sacred, and painful.

I slept in her closet for days following her death – it was like we were still together; her smell and her aura clung to the room. I hugged her sweaters in disbelief and they convinced me that she wasn’t really gone. She had just worn that outfit a few days ago… her laundry was still fresh in the bin.

Everyone has their thing – their hardest thing; their I don’t want to go there thing. Mine was her closet. I am not usually one who deals with things by avoidance, but I stamped a big fat “A” on that one; I didn’t want to think about empty shelves or cold walls replacing her warm, familiar things. I envisioned her being scattered like ashes as her stuff was dispersed – I would have no control over where she’d end up.

But it had to happen, and it happened sooner than later. I will tell you, however, that it was easier to move on afterwards than it was to anticipate it happening – I learned a lot about letting go of the things I most tightly clench in my hand. The lessons were this:

  1. An object is not a person.  Lucky for me, I used to watch a lot of Clean Sweep on TLC… They were forever reminding people that memories are stored in our minds, not in things. It’s true, objects can remind us, but we hold the memories. In fact, I’ve found that some items that I’ve kept have even been devalued by my keeping them – memories associated with these objects change from what they were when she was here to what they are now in my own house; they have returned to their pure state of “thingness” and lost their warmth.
  2. What I expected to comfort me often became a burden. I assumed that as long as I held on to her stuff I wouldn’t have to deal with the emptiness – it would fill the void and free me from the loss. In reality, some of these things actually weighed me down… I can’t get rid of this or she will be gone! If this item disappears I will forget everything! It was burdensome and produced fear. In reality, letting go of physical objects, without holding them responsible for my okayness, is what actually freed me.
  3. It had to be in stages. Some things are impossible to give up at first, and that’s okay – our minds and bodies only let us handle bits at a time. My “mom collection” gets smaller as time goes on; I no longer have the same emotional ties to the things which I could not let go of in the beginning. Letting it happen naturally over time has significantly reduced the pain of the process.
  4. Letting go had to be creative. Pulling all of her things out of the closet, stuffing them in bags and shipping them off to a thrift store would have made the situation cold and unbearable. Of course, some of that happened, but to be creative about it made things even almost enjoyable at times… almost. For example, thinking about who my mom would want to help with a clothing donation, or asking her friends to pick out their favorite items of hers. It took away the mystery and the lack of control about where her things would go.
  5. Holding on had to be creative too. When it came to keeping things, I knew I would never wear her clothes, and I didn’t like the thought of them hanging in my closet for the rest of my life because I couldn’t let go. How could I keep things in a way that they would acutally be loved and used? I took some time to think about how this could be done outside of the box. One thing I came up with was to pick out some memorable pieces of clothing and save them to make a blanket for my future kids – I can’t wait for them to get their first Nana hug with it. Her clothes would have eventually lost their meaning hanging in my closet, but the blanket will hold her aura and pass her spirit on to others. This and similar ideas have helped me to focus on keeping what will create more memories, and letting go of things that will get lost on the shelf.

There is so much else that could be said about this process, but each of us has our own experience and we gain our own understandings as we travel through it. I invite you to leave your own words of wisdom for us here. Thank you all for sharing the journey.

The Times We Say Goodbye

You can take as long as you’d like to plan a wedding. Funerals on the other hand, require you to plan within the span of a few days what can be a huge event (in numbers and emotion), bringing the most honour to the entire lifetime of somebody you love dearly, while you, at the time, float in a cloud of shock and unreality, forgetting how to answer the phone or put food in your mouth. Funerals are crazy.

I have sporadic memories surrounding the planning: Writing an obituary, touching petals in a flower shop, a plate of food put in front of me, someone answering the phone, someone telling us what else had to be accomplished, digging piles of pictures out of photo albums, sending someone to buy paper… The hundreds of tiny moments wove themselves together like a high-speed video, and then came to a record-scratching halt as we found ourselves staring down that long aisle, waiting for our cue to enter the service.

We walked in to a lovely song called Come and Listen (I’ve attached it here if you want to listen while you read). It made me smile as much as feel hot tears behind my eyes – it was a statement that as many good things had happened as bad. It was also exactly what we were there for, to come and listen; to hear about a soul that touched so many people’s lives. The huge number of faces that surrounded us in that moment were there for one lady; they were there to take her in one last time, to dwell in how beautiful she was. For me, this made the funeral one of the easiest parts of losing her. In a way, I wanted to stay there forever. As long as we sat there, she was with us. As long as we didn’t leave, she wouldn’t leave. I knew it would all “begin” after the funeral.

Sitting in a pew where you have seen other families sit at similar occasions is of course surreal. The whole room looked different from that row. Seeing her face on the giant screen in front of us didn’t make sense – photos of mom belonged in albums and on Mother’s Day cards, not there. What do you do during a funeral? Nobody gives you lessons. Should I let myself cry? Let myself not cry? Laugh? Are hundreds of people looking at us right now? Should I look at anybody? Is everyone wondering what it’s like to be us?

Funerals are like any other major event that carries with it expectations or preconceptions. Moments just happen, you try to grasp on to what you can, and you piece it together down the road to form a congruous event in your mind.

A year after the funeral, we put mom’s ashes in the ground. There were only a few of us there, it was full of love and quiet support. It was the closure I needed before moving cities the following week to start school.

Another year later, her headstone has gone up. I haven’t been to see it yet. I’m used to visiting her graveside when I travel home, it’s peaceful, however when I drove by the cemetery last time I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Maybe due to years of watching A Christmas Carol, a headstone makes everything so final. I’m not quite ready to see my mom’s name etched in granite. I will be one day. All’s felt when it needs to be.

The goodbyes come in stages. Looking back, what have I learned about these experiences?

First of all, on a practical note, the more prepared one is, the easier it is for those who remain. It no longer seems grim or wrong to talk about what a loved one’s wishes would be if God-forbid something happened. Some decisions (organ donation) were difficult because we had to choose for mom. Others (music at the funeral) were special because we knew we were honouring what she wanted. Perhaps this is something we should all be keen on thinking about at some point, especially in financial or legal matters.

Second, and I will probably mention this over and over, emotions are not on a timer. The funeral for me was one of the easiest days in terms of loss. I enjoyed revelling in the spirit of my mom. It gave me energy. I smiled, I laughed. Watching the DVD of the event at a later time was impossibly difficult though. All’s felt when it needs to be.

The last thing that stands out was the need to be firm with my boundaries, including planning “escapes” when I needed a moment alone or a break from people and sympathies. I didn’t do this well enough. The outpouring of love from people can be the most life-giving or draining thing one will experience during loss. Most people have beautiful hearts that are breaking for you, but some people have less intuition about their own boundaries and can leave you exhausted. I remember after visiting for hours at the funeral, going home to a house full of people. A person I hadn’t met before cornered me to discuss such things as Christian Science and education – for a long time. My mind went into a mode of fuzzy confusion, the room seemed to spin around me and the hardwood under my sore feet was causing tears to brim up in my eyes. I was trapped. It was one of the deepest lows I’ve experienced. When he walked away for a moment to get something I literally ran away and hid. I called a friend, I jumped in my car, and I left. Parts of me fought guilt for leaving my Dad, but I realized that his spirit was being fed by the people there and that I would be of no use if I had a major meltdown. Escape, escape, escape when you need to.

The times we say goodbye can be scary. Then again, sometimes fear is what we are afraid of. A truth that has arisen over and over is that it’s best to let things play out as they will without trying to fit you or your experiences into a box. You just need to get through it; you will have time to pick it apart and sort it out later. All you can do is keep breathing and show up, the rest will follow.

Today my family says goodbye to our grandma, who passed away not long before her 95th birthday. You were fiesty till the end Grandma, just like your daughter. I wish you a beautiful reunion. XO

Losing Her

I’ve wondered if I would be able to put the memory of losing my mom into words that are meaningful – not just a rehash of events. But I think it’s helpful for context and important for me in the healing process to try. It feels good sometimes to let yourself get close to the experience again. It can allow you to feel something after what are often temporary bouts of numbness. Tears are a treasure in some moments (I often have to convince my husband of this as I water the couch with my overflowing eyes and he desperately searches for hilarious cat videos to show me on YouTube).

These are the memories that I have. Each of my family members has their own special account of last moments and words and feelings, as true as my own.

I had been traveling India for two months with a best friend in the summer of 2009. We were both, shall we say, riding the wake of romantic trauma, and both feeling equally alive as we moved through one of the most beautiful, overwhelming, countries in the world. Life was good – really, really good. At the end of our trip, some plans changed (for no really good reason except fate perhaps) and we decided to head back to Canada a week early. I thank God for the extra week I had to spend with my mom.

As I passed through the doors of the airport, there she was – already crying of course (she used to say that she wore turtle necks because they collect tears better) – and the moment that I hugged her and she told me I looked beautiful is one that I will hold dearly to my heart forever. It’s the picture of what I hope will happen again someday.

Two weeks later, in the unfortunate setting of a closest-friend’s bridal shower, my mom gave a toast to the bride and then quietly walked away, not wanting to cause a stir. She was always stubborn in terms of going to the doctor or letting people know when something was wrong. I found her sitting in the hallway with her friend, a nurse, and I knew something wasn’t right. She had a headache that progressively grew worse, and as we were about to gather her things and take her to the clinic, it seemed as though somebody clicked a fast forward button. Her condition deteriorated quickly and she began to pass through a series of painful symptoms. The ambulance was coming. I held Mom’s face and instructed her repeatedly to look at me – she was losing focus. It felt like an eternity. By the time the paramedics arrived I simply sat beside her and held her to my side, as she had given in to closed eyes.

They told me in the ambulance it could be a stroke. That was hopeful, I thought, because people get better from strokes all the time.

They pushed her into emergency and left us for a few seconds while they processed things. Mom I said into her ear, I’m right here beside you. It caught me off guard that her eyelids opened a crack and a soft moan escaped her lips. She heard.

I sat in “The Room”, that some of you may be familiar with – the one that looks so nice, you know things are bad. Should I tell my family to come?   I asked. I had no idea who was on their way. That may be a good idea…  They’ll probably want to be here, the nurse told me. The doctor came in and said it looked like there may be some bleeding in the brain. An aneurysm. It doesn’t look good… He said in a gentle but matter-of-fact tone. Where is my family? They don’t know that things aren’t looking good! I didn’t particularly want to see them find out.

Family and then close friends began to file in, the room was so full of love when they told us that she wouldn’t be waking up again. What a strange concept… Why can’t she just wake up?! If she’s breathing, how can she be gone? Seeing my family members stand around her bed is something that probably won’t ever feel real to me. And that’s okay. Our bodies know when to administer small doses of numbness when we need them. As a trusted friend of mine advised me, your body only lets you feel things in pieces (thank goodness).

We took our time to say goodbye, at least fifty people came and went from her bedside through the night and the following day. Then, with a final rub of her foot and kiss on her eyebrow, I said goodbye. Oh to let yourself drive away by choice from somebody you love…

In the midst of everything, I experienced a level of human love from people that you only really get to know when you are in such a situation. There are many people in my life that deserve a rack full of medals up in Heaven.

The good news is the story is not over. Life is so gracious – I have laughed hundreds of times in the past two years; I have felt a warm heart; I have watched funny movies and wondered at beautiful things. Life is not over, it is just different. I have so much to learn and so far to grow. This is only the beginning.