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We wear internal labels like name tags on our chest. Mother. Daughter. Wife. Winner. Loser. Lazy. Sick. Wealthy. Poor. Sinner. Saint. Do any of those labels sound familiar?
They often come from external voices, from people we admire, or even people we don’t. But the loudest voice we hear is the one that comes from within. Our internal voice.
I started thinking about identity this week after an editor called me an “accomplished journalist.” I liked the label, but it came as sort of a surprise. That’s because my inner voice often tells me I don’t measure up. I wear the name tag “Inadequate,” despite all the bylines that Google reveals, or all the job offers I get. I’ve struggled with that label all my life.
One of the other name tags I wore for a long time was “Daughter,” and another was “Caregiver.” Even after I became “Wife,” I focused on the other two labels, and then my mother died, and I was lost. I was an identity in search of a cause. I poured myself into the project of taking care of what my parents left behind. Cleaning out their home. “Dutiful Daughter,” I was.
I found the lists after he died and wished I’d been more attentive to and thankful for who my father was. He’d put check marks beside the names and addresses on the list. They signified thank you notes he’d sent to each of the people who’d given him a gift.
My father was a mail carrier, or postman, and each Christmas Eve he arrived home with a bin of goodies plucked from mailboxes. It’s my understanding that mail carriers aren’t supposed to accept gifts, but apparently his office was lenient because everyone accepted the treats.
Dad shared. I tasted shortbread cookies in round tins, homemade fudge wrapped in cellophane and candies in rectangular boxes. But I didn’t grow up enjoying these Christmas treats.
What does an unfinished life look like? One way is a half-empty container of Coke.
That’s the first encounter I had with an unfinished life. My father had been dead only a few hours. I walked into the kitchen and there was the rest of his Coca-Cola in a sippy cup.
It wasn’t the last evidence I’d find of a life interrupted.
The “Crime Scene”
I found Mom’s half-done crossword puzzles. Her hand-drawn plans for a circular driveway that was never poured. Dad’s paint-by-number pictures. A harmonica he’d hoped to learn to play.
All this time, I thought I’d given the funeral home the wrong lipstick color.
I never was much of one to wear makeup, though I’d grown up seeing my mother paste it on before the rare occasions she’d leave the house. So I didn’t pay attention to her lip shade.
Itty bitty nonessential details gain new importance after a death. If you are like me, any morsel of new information is precious. My parents can’t tell me things anymore, but I long to know the things I’ve forgotten and to learn the things I didn’t know.
It’s been 8½ years since I dug in my mother’s train case – boxy luggage that sat on a lady’s lap and contained the makeup she may use on a train. I selected a lipstick. It looked too orange. Too bright. Surely this wasn’t her color.
Beginnings are full of promise, aren’t they? Filled with anticipation and hope, we launch into a new career, a new home, a new relationship or, as now, a new year.
But death and grief are about endings. We mourn what was. We’re sucked into a vortex, unwilling at first to believe we’ll be happy again. But I assure you, there’s hope ahead.
It’s been said that every ending is a new beginning, and I’ve found that to be true. We often focus on the ending, though. On what was lost. On what will never be again. And that is grief.
We must mourn unhappy endings to get past them. Of course, we have the choice not to fully grieve and to distract ourselves instead. But if we hope to achieve joy equal to our sorrow, we must grasp grief’s hand and cry. For as long as it takes.
I got married three months before my mother died. She was terminally ill and unable to come to the wedding. After the reception, my husband and I visited her at her home. I wanted her to see me in my wedding dress. I wish I’d insisted on a photo, but she didn’t like her photograph taken. She’d always made herself up, but now she didn’t have the strength.
I want to pause to thank all my readers for their support in 2017 and recognize that excitement over a new year might escape us as grievers, especially if our loss is fresh.
The country stands at the precipice of 2018, glancing behind and gazing ahead, but as grievers we likely have been doing that all along, since the day death took the person we love.
We rehearse the memories, good and bad, and tiptoe into a future we didn’t predict. We stand between past, where our loved one lived, and the future, an existence without their touch.
But life isn’t without hope. In fact, life is pregnant with hope. As in all pregnancies, we must wait for hope to come to full term in our lives. In recent posts, I’ve shared how hope is being realized in my life and how grief and death don’t have the last word in our lives.
There’s a lot of talk about peace at Christmastime, but how do we capture peace? It seems so elusive in a world fraught with terrorism, murder, mayhem, sickness and broken relationships.
Despite my relationship with Jesus – called the Prince of Peace – I struggled with possessing consistent sense of peace for much of my life. I had peace with God. At age 12, I’d trusted Jesus’ death as payment for my sins and invited him into my life. But I didn’t have the peace of God.
I wrestled with peace after my parents’ died, and even years later, ached with grief as I worked to clean out their home. On the fifth summer of my mother’s death and the eighth of my father’s, I started to bring things of theirs to my home to use instead of packing them away. I brought over a Corning wear baking dish, a slotted spoon and a hand towel I’d found in my father’s bowling bag. A sad face was monogrammed on the terrycloth. “Dry your tears on me,” it read.
Was I less of a Christian because I grieved so sorely? I wasn’t at peace. Not with their deaths. Not with a lot of things.
Do you ever feel like a dead loved one is near? I realized a distinct intensity to the feeling this Christmastime. It was without explanation, and then in less than 24 hours, I understood why.
I don’t believe in visitations from the dead, nor should we seek them out. On the other hand, I believe loved ones in heaven may occasionally see what is going on down here. They see us.
Obviously, we don’t see them, but we try to keep them alive and present in this world. This is never more evident than at Christmas.
We make their recipes – “like grandma used to make” – we follow traditions in their memory, wear their clothes or their jewelry, linger in spaces they occupied, and tell stories about them.