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When we let go of the emotional investment we’re putting in outcomes, we often get pleasantly surprised by what happens without striving and effort.
I’m referring today to a personal surprise, however, this applies to our grief journey as well. If we let grief process unfold, and never mind the end point, we’ll experience healing faster.
Drum Roll Please
First, my announcement. I’m in another book. I’m not crowing. Well, okay, I am maybe just a wee little bit, but really, I want you to know there’s another resource for us to use in our journey.
It’s called Buckets of Hope: Recovery from Grief and Loss. Kat Crawford, aka Kat the Lionhearted, published the book after assembling essays from 26 authors, including from me.
I’m also a contributor in Grief Dialogues: The Book. It came out in November and is available on Amazon here.
What’s really neat about Buckets of Hope is each story begins with a Bible verse and each ends with a reflection. I found God to be the greatest element of comfort and healing after the deaths of my parents, and so I’m delighted to be a part of a publication that includes Christian faith as essential to the grief journey.
In Buckets of Hope, my contribution is called The Last Closet. It starts on page 102. I published a similar but not identical version of this story on my blog in October 2017 called 3 Tips to Clean Out a Loved One’s Closet.
While the blog version is a mixture of personal story and how-to, the book version is about the difficulty I had cleaning out the contents of the last closet with my parents’ things in it, and the revelation I had that allowed me to do so finally with gusto. Buckets of Hope is available on Amazon here
I submitted The Last Closet in February 2018. You see the math? That was 18 months ago.
I remember the shock of the World Trade Center coming down, and I remember the unifying comfort of shared, national grief.
We huddled in front of television news broadcasts together. We lighted candles together. We stuck magnetic America flags and troop support ribbons on our cars. A sea of grief expression.
This week, 18 years later, social media is abuzz with the collectively remembered anniversary of the sudden, dramatic, deliberate slaughter that invaded our shores. Not like an army but like a bug, creeping into our safe place and then striking us with horror.
We don’t grieve like this a lot. Publicly. Visually. But in the 1800s, grief was out in the open. This month, in the Victorian Village Historic District of Memphis, the Mallory-Neely House is decked out in mourning clothes and educating people about the way we used to grieve.
I grabbed an ear of fresh corn. Hovering over an open garbage can, I began to peel the husks off to reveal the sweet yellow gold inside.
At that moment, my mind flashed to the image of my dad standing beside a little-girl me as we shucked ears of corn in the kitchen of my childhood home.
The pain of having lost my dad to a heart attack wasn’t on my radar that hour until the ambush. That’s what a grief trigger is. An ambush. We do not expect that dagger to come at us from the bushes. Defenseless, we collapse. Especially if the loss is new.
Innocently at a grocery store one afternoon years ago, I spotted a can of Campbell’s bean with bacon soup, one of the few foods Mom would eat in her last days. I felt like I’d been punched. I carried my sadness through the store and into the parking lot that day.
My loss was fresh then. Now it’s been more than a decade since my parents died. I feel the loss, but it’s easier to embrace happy memories triggered by something I hear or see, and I’m in the habit of processing any new pieces of grief that pop up.
After years of slow but progressive work on grieving my parents, I see four ways that helped me move to a happier place, giving me the ability to accept grief as a part of life rather than as an interruption that jumps out at me from the bushes.
Have you ever suffered? A silly question, right? Haven’t we all suffered in some form? Perhaps not as much as others, but we have suffered.
I found a poem years ago, and I want to share it with you today. It’s called A Creed For Those Who Have Suffered. I found a copy of it in my father’s bedroom the week he died. I understood immediately why my father had it, for he had suffered.
He suffered from the painful spine curvature of scoliosis. And from Parkinson’s. His shaky hands could not button his shirt. He died of a heart attack at age 67 without ever getting to enjoy his retirement.
We had the Creed read at Dad’s funeral. I do not know, but I do hope that my father found a perspective in the poem that enabled his mind and spirit to transcend the despicable fate of his body – while still trapped inside of it.
We need something to give us solace at such times because sometimes we cannot shake suffering. Its choke hold is absolute. There is no fix. No prescription. No therapy. No cure. But there is space to rise above suffering. Not all of us can attain it. Or maintain it. But it exists.
As our body betrays us, we shift our focus onto the soul. That is the key, and that is obviously what the Creed author did. I don’t believe Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella authored the poem but he supposedly read it publicly in 1959 after a car accident and spinal injury paralyzed him, ending his career.
My dad, by the way, was a Dodgers fan. I do not think, though, that he knew how much the poem had touched Campanella. I cannot know what comfort it might have offered my father, but I can pass it on to you in hopes that it will encourage you now or on another day.
I wait in line at the post office until James calls me forward. He offers a restrained greeting despite our connection. He knows who I am, but he’s in work mode. All business.
I step up to the clerk’s counter that he’s stooped over. We make eye contact as his gnarled but muscular hands await a petition. A little space of warmth ignites in my belly on this hot, late July afternoon. Being here during this month, in this place, seeing James, is full of meaning. Of specialness.
I announce, “I’ve come for two things.” I wonder if one of my requests will trigger a transformation of our encounter.
First, stamps. James’ slim, dark frame twists to open a drawer, and I select the transcontinental train anniversary sheet. But I’ve only asked for stamps out of convenience. I’m really at the post to renew my box, or really, my dead parents’ box. Their address. One of my connections to them. (Go to Seeking Connection Thru Objects of the Dead to hear more about the deceased person’s possessions and attempts to feel connected to them.)
This article is different from ones that reflect on how grief evolves years after the death of a loved one. I’ll share what changed my grief – what got me on the other side of tremendous pain.
I howled as I stood beside my mother’s bed 10 years ago this week. After taking her pulse, I realized she was dead. I buried my face in my husband’s chest. I howled again when the hospice nurse arrived, put a stethoscope on her chest and shook her head “no.”
Mom’s house became my mourning place as I cleaned out hers and Dad’s belongings over an eight year period. Not that I didn’t mourn her elsewhere. But it was an operation room of sorts. It’s where I exposed all my insides to the full force of grief’s scalpel.
Last year, I sold their house. Despite all the years that had passed, I hated letting go of the place where I felt their presence the most. However, I definitely saw a change in me. My grief was not the same. How did that happen? Was it simply passage of time? I can confidently say no.
How long will grief last? When will the pain subside? I see social media posts from people who say the grief still feels fresh years later. They fear that sorrow will never subside. While each of us will follow a unique timeline with our grief, I sometimes wonder what might be happening that keeps a sense of healing out of reach. I want to connect, offer a hug, and help.
As I reflect on my grief, I see not only a different sorrow 10 years later, but I see things I did and things that occurred to help me experience a measure of healing. I’ve identified eight that I share below.
What if you could hear your deceased parent tell a story you’ve never heard?
What if you could discover thoughts they’d never expressed?
What if you could get perspective they never gave you in life?
If a parent or another loved one left behind a diary or journal – or even letters or tales of events in story form – you’ve got a gold mine.
I also realize our perception of someone may be shattered by what is written in a raw moment of honesty, guilt or bereavement. We also may learn intimate details we don’t want to know.
Early in the project to clean out my parents’ home, I found a batch of their love letters I’d never known existed. I hesitated reading them. I feared the equivalent of walking into a bedroom and discovering my parents naked.
I decided this past weekend to declare a mid-year reset. Lots of events may force resets. Loss and death. Job changes. New homes. New cities. New phases of life. These are resets forced upon us.
And then there are those we choose. We draw a line in the sand. July 1st is my line in the sand.
“Perfect,” I thought. “The first day of the second half of the year. And a Monday. The beginning of the work week.”
I needed a reset. Saddled with bouts of depression this year, I’d languished in loss and in uncertainty about life and about myself. I’d surface for a while only to be pulled under again.