Thursday, April 25, 2013

Shifting Perspective in Grief

An article ran today in the Huffington Post's Healthy Living section that may be of interest to anyone who is grieving or even who knows someone else who is suffering from grief:

Griever's Gold: Cherished Memories

The advice given in this piece is reiterative of some of what I've written about in this blog, especially the way the author launches into her list by saying, "The following five techniques can help a griever shift perspective."

The insight about the way people who are grieving consistently indicate that they would not trade away memories of their loved one in exchange for having the pain of their loss erased is interesting, I think, a different kind of spin on the idea that, no matter how dire or tragic one's situation seems, it's always a wise perspective to realize that things could be worse.

I also like the way she talks about shift and how it tends to occur in grief over time; it's really quite incredible that way comfort seeps into our lives to help (not to heal, I don't think) with the rawness of the pain thrust upon us when we lose a loved one.

The third item on the author's list, "Share stories with other people," reminds me of the quote that affected me so much when I saw it hanging on the wall of the grief counseling center where I went not long after my dad's death: 

Every grief needs a thousand tellings.

Although this may not be true for everyone or in every situation, I have found the "telling" to be helpful in my own grief process.

And finally, the fifth item, "Give thanks for the gift of this person in your life," which is my favorite on her list because it is totally dependent on one's perspective: instead of feeling only sorrow and anger for the loss of a loved one, one can choose to be grateful and happy for having had him to love at all - and to have experienced the impact of that person AND to have the honor of carrying him forward.

Every time I see this portrait of my dad standing in the redwood forest, I think of the word "IMPACT."

Ashley Davis Bush, who wrote the article for the Huffington Post, is the author of a book about grief that I highly recommend: Transcending Loss - Understanding the Lifelong Impact of Grief and How to Make it Meaningful.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Not Knowing - Grandmom's Story, Part 5

Continued from Grandmom's Story, Part 4

Mourning the loss of my grandmother in between the time that she died and the time of her funeral brought with it many emotions; even in the midst of the series of aftershocks that my family felt as a result of the compounded, extended grief after first my dad's death and then his mother's, I found it hard to believe that she was really gone.  She had been slipping away - and it could even be argued that she had already slipped away in essentially all forms except for the physical - for several years, and we knew her time was near, but not coming together as a family to grieve during those few weeks made it difficult for me to accept.  

I knew that I wanted to be prepared to say something about her life to those who would gather to honor her memory; I spent many nights sitting up, intending to write down what I wanted to say but not being able to, either because the words just wouldn't come or because the tears that flowed kept me from being able to see clearly enough to record my thoughts on paper.  I re-read some of the many letters that Grandmom had written to me over the years, and I looked at lots and lots of photos of her from during her life, many of which had also been taken with my dad by her side.  I created a slideshow of many of the pictures and selected background music to go along with it.  None of it helped me to process things or to come up with what I felt were the right words to say as a tribute, though; I ended up leaving to make the trip to the town where my grandmother had lived for 5 decades and some change - and where my dad had grown up - without a firm idea of the words that I wanted to say during the memorial service.

My husband, my daughters, and I met my mom, my sister Nancy, and her husband David at the hotel where we were staying for the weekend; many of the members of my dad's side of our extended family were staying at that same hotel, and, after not having seen the majority of them since I was a teenager, it was a little surreal to keep running into them a little at a time in different settings, in the hotel elevator, the lobby, the parking lot, and the Waffle House next door to the hotel.  I had to tell myself countless times to hold it together, because, as each layer of the family reunited, the subject of my dad's very unexpected illness and death was naturally piggybacked onto that of my grandmother's passing, a recurrent one-two punch that I didn't think I had near the stamina to withstand.  

I didn't sleep much the night before the funeral; I felt unsettled and almost inconsolable.  I texted back and forth with my sister Jennifer who had not been able to make the trip from California that weekend, and together we came up with a message that I planned to communicate at the service the next day.

It's difficult to organize a funeral from out of town, especially in a town with limited resources and where one has limited connections - and especially in a state of compounded grief.  Not knowing what the best thing to do would be, we planned to have the service at the funeral home and then, at the invitation of the members of my grandmother's church, to have fellowship and food afterwards at the church.  Based on a decision my parents had made before my dad had gotten sick, my grandmother's body had been cremated, and my mom had the task of transporting her remains to the funeral home, allowing my grandmother an opportunity to go home in yet another sense.

                       Click to view the slideshow from my grandmother's funeral

When we arrived at the funeral home, we took a few minutes to set up the video projector and my computer so that the slideshow of photos of Grandmom could be shown on the wall of the chapel before the service, and then we met briefly with the funeral director, at which point it came to light that a burial service was not planned as part of the arrangements for that day.  When that realization hit me, I felt the floor drop out from underneath me; it seemed so utterly disrespectful and as if Grandmom's death - and her life - were being disregarded.  I hadn't known that a ceremony for the burial hadn't been planned, and I felt strongly that as a family we needed to lay her to rest, essentially to take the opportunity to do the last thing that we would ever be able to do for her - and maybe for my dad as well.  In the midst of the back-and-forth banter about if and how the arrangements could be changed, my brother-in-law David saw the look on my face and took the funeral director aside.  I'm not sure what he said to the guy, but a few minutes later David came back over and said, "After the memorial service, immediate family can meet the funeral director at the gravesite for the burial of the ashes; is that ok?"  I felt hot tears of gratitude and grief spring to my eyes, and a minute later we were called to come into the chapel for the service to begin.  

The music was playing and the photos of Grandmom were being projected as planned; again things seemed surreal, and I felt as if I were floating to my seat on the front pew.  My father's brothers were in the aisle behind us; his sister had not been able to attend from out-of-state due to her own poor health.  As the music ended, the minister from my grandmother's church stepped up to the microphone and began the service; my grandmother and this woman had not known each other, but the minister knew of my grandmother and certainly of the decades of service that she had given to the church.  She gave an eloquent sermon, a fitting tribute to a woman who had so loved her church and her community and the people of both.  After she had finished, she invited me to come up and speak on behalf of the family.  I pulled out my scribbled notes, and here is what I said:

I know that my grandmother truly appreciated the love of all of you and that she would want to thank everyone who helped her during her life, just as she helped so many of us with her smile, her openness, and her perspective.  So thank you to everyone who visited her and kept her company over the years and to those who ran errands for her once her vision began to fail, especially those who drove her to her doctor's appointments and to Fairfax Methodist Church, which she loved so much.  She would also definitely want to thank my mom and my dad, who did such an amazing job caring for her, particularly over the past few years.  When my dad was sick, he worried so much about his mother.  My mom promised him that she would be there for Grandmom, just as she and Dad had always been, and she was.  When Grandmom passed, Mom was with her, holding her hand, and, for that and for everything else, Mom, Grandmom would want to thank you, and I do too.  

I finished up by thanking people for coming to honor my grandmother's life, although the exact words that I said to convey that part of the message probably got lost somewhere in the midst of my tears, which had started as soon as I said, "When my dad was sick, ..."   I am not a crier.  I felt somehow that my uncontrollable tear-shedding was something of which Dad and Grandmom would not approve - and possibly even something they wouldn't understand; I could almost hear them telling me from behind the scenes to get it together, but I just couldn't do it.  I looked over at my family and at my dad's brothers as I walked back toward my seat on the pew, and I saw that they were all crying too.  The sadness was palpable in the air; after the family members had walked from the chapel into the lobby, we could still hear one man in particular sobbing.  We later found out that it was one of Grandmom's long-time neighbors; while I felt great sorrow at the man's apparent grief, it was a touching reminder of my grandmother's impact and that she had touched so many people, many of whom we didn't even know.  

After the service, family members congregated in the foyer and thanked people for coming as they filed out in the parking lot.  In a quiet moment, I told my dad's cousins Carl and his sister about the dream I had had about their grandfather; the three of us agreed that we were comforted by the thought that our loved ones who had gone on ahead were together now.

After that, we drove to the cemetery and parked near the place where my grandfather had been buried many years before.  The funeral home director and his assistant met us there with a flowers from the service and a shovel; we stood quietly with the sun beaming down on us as we watched the burial of Grandmom's ashes.  It was a simple ceremony, but yet it felt tender and unabridged. 

I will never forget the meal afterwards at the church where my grandmother had been a member for over 50 years, where she had volunteered as the church librarian, and where a couple of years ago the church library was dedicated to her.  The food, which had been prepared by church members, many of whom had been friends of Grandmom’s for decades and some of whom had known Dad since he was young, nourished more than just our bodies.  We didn’t  know most of them, and most of them didn’t know us; but we knew each other’s hearts because we all knew Grandmom, and she was nothing if not heart and spirit. 

Before we said our goodbyes and left the church, we went upstairs to the library that bore my grandmother's name.  We admired the plaque with the engraved dedication to her for her years of service to the church, and we thumbed through some of the neatly organized books on the shelves in the room.  My sister and I came across several sticky-notes tucked inside books; on the notes were two things that made us smile: the name of Dad's business, letting us know that he had donated some office supplies to the library, and a sampling of Grandmom's unique style of penmanship; she had written notes about each book, possibly to herself or maybe to future readers.  

After we'd gotten back to the hotel, some of our group decided to go antiquing in a few nearby stores; my sister Nancy and I walked to a convenience store and bought some beer, and then we sat in the sun and drank it, still wearing our funeral dresses, on the tailgate of my husband's truck in the parking lot in back of the hotel.  Whether it was the sun or the beer or the company - or a combination of all three, sitting out there felt somewhat curative; we knew it was exactly what Dad would have done had he been there, and somehow knowing that helped a little bit, too.

My grandparents' house, where my dad grew up

The next day, we packed up the car and drove around the little town one last time.  We ended our tour by driving past the old textile mill where both of my grandparents had worked for almost all of their adult lives.  The building was in the midst of being torn down, overseas outsourcing having taken the work that had provided a living for many of the townspeople for so many years.  I watched in the side mirror as the mill got smaller and smaller as we drove away, and I felt unexpectedly sad to know that this would probably be the last time I would ever come to this place, a town that held so much of my grandmother and my dad - and even a little bit of me. 

"The Mill"

Monday, April 22, 2013

Not Knowing: Grandmom's Story, Part 4

One of the things that my dad worried about the most when he was sick and even before then was his mom, who, since the death of my grandfather many years before, had been living alone in a small town in southern Alabama until she suffered a stroke at the age of 87.

My daughters and my dad, with Grandmom, Sept. 2010

For all of my life, I'd thought of my grandmother as one of the most fiercely independent individuals I knew, a person whose goal it was to leave the earth a better place than she'd found it, without asking for much help or (as she put it) "without burdening" others and without using anything as an excuse for not doing her part to help others in need.  Grandmom has perhaps one of the most interesting life stories I've ever heard, with lots of adventures and even more challenges faced along the way.  She pinched pennies, cut corners, and made due for all of her life, but, a deeply religious person, she never failed to tithe or to give of her time when her church or someone in her community needed assistance.  She was well-read, and maybe that was one thing that contributed to her acceptance of people from all walks of life, of all backgrounds and all races, which was not a practice often seen in that time.  From the way I saw things, Grandmom didn't concern herself too much with what a person's income or job title was or with how fancy of a car or house a person had; as long as someone seemed to have a good heart, seemed to be trying to "do right," and seemed to be genuine and kindhearted, Grandmom liked that person, and, like my dad, she extended courtesy and respect to most everyone she met.

Although the level of anxiety and extreme depression that Grandmom had been experiencing seemed to leveled off for the most part over the course of the weeks after she had been told about my dad's illness and subsequent death, her overall health did not improve.  On the afternoon of April 18, 2011, my mom got a call from the nursing home and was told that Grandmom's condition had worsened.  Mom called my sisters and me to update us as she hurried to get to Grandmom's side, where she stayed for the remainder of the day.  With Grandmom's breathing labored and her skin color changed, Mom talked to the nurses and decided to spend the night with Grandmom so she would not be left alone even for a minute.  The staff at the nursing home was kind enough to move Grandmom's roommate to another room so Mom could sit at Grandmom's bedside in privacy.  Throughout the night, Mom read to Grandmom, talked to her, and tried to reassure her that it was ok for her to go on ahead, reminding her that she was so loved and that my dad and my grandfather were waiting for her in heaven.  Grandmom seemed to be at peace, and, as the first light of day could be seen through the big window in the room and with my mom holding her hand, Grandmom took her last breath.

My sister Nancy joined my mom soon afterwards at the nursing home, and together they dealt with the things that needed to done, including calling the funeral home, packing up Grandmom's belongings, and saying their goodbyes.  There were some haunting similarities to what had had to be done after my dad's death just three months earlier, but at the same time this was a different situation for many reasons.  Given all that had happened to impact her quality of life and given her age and overall health, we all knew that Grandmom was prepared to go on ahead and that she very likely welcomed her own passing from this life.  From my perspective, it seemed that she had been leaning into the light for quite some time, dearly missing her husband of 50 years and many others who had gone before her - and feeling that her purpose on this earth had been served.  Personally, I will say that the news of her death hit me hard but that my mourning was much more for my own sake than for hers, and the grief from her passing and from that from my dad's was so enmeshed it was like pouring gas on a fire.  

I found a group email that my dad had sent out just before he'd gotten sick to update people about Grandmom, and I used that set of contact information to communicate the news to many extended family members and friends about Grandmom's passing and to let them know that we had decided to hold a memorial service for Grandmom in her hometown over Memorial Day weekend to give those traveling from out of town time to make the necessary arrangements.  Mom had the obituary run in the newspaper in Grandmom's town and contacted Grandmom's church to let them know as well.  

A couple of weeks later, a violent storm came through the area where I live overnight.  The noise of the thunder actually woke me up in the night, interrupting a dream that I had been having about my grandfather's brother Hilyard, whom I had only seen a few times in my life.  The last couple of times I remember seeing him, he was using a walker to get around; it had been many years since his passing and many more since I had seen him.  In the dream, though, he walked up to me unaided, looking younger than I remembered ever having seen him but so closely resembling my grandfather that it was easy for me to recognize who he was.  He looked at me and said very simply, "Your grandmother and your dad want me to tell you that they are ok," and then, before I could respond, he turned on his heel and strolled away.

When I checked my email early that next morning, I saw that I had a message from my dad's second cousin Carl, Hilyard's grandson, who had heard on the news that the storm had left damage to many homes in my city.  I was touched that Carl was checking in on us; I had not corresponded with him in the past except for the recent message about Grandmom - but I was stunned at the timing of the communication, just about an hour after I had had the dream about his grandfather.  I emailed Carl back and told him that we hadn't sustained any damage in the storm, but, not knowing what he would think if I told him about the dream, I didn't mention it then - but I did a few weeks later at the memorial service for Grandmom.

To be continued ...