Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the people around me

recently, i decided to tap into the incredible wealth of thoughts, insights and experiences
of the people around me. i wrote to a buncha different people asking for their insights
on different subjects. i hope to be posting one of their responses each wednesday.
this is our third offering in the series. it comes from my friend and mentor, pamela jones.
i just call her ‘po.’ and po, from the bottom of my heart, i thank you for this offering.
it screams of exactly why i love you so. what an honor to share you here.
What are friends for?
When my dear friend, terri, asked if I would be a part of a project where she offered us questions and we responded with our views, I thought it sounded like fun. Along with some other amazing people (if they are terri’s friends, they must be amazing), I would get to share a viewpoint and also enjoy reading what those other folks had to say. What would my topic be? World Peace? Kindness? Creativity? No such luck. Instead, her email read:
“are you okay if i go to the loss of your son? …and what i’d like to ask is what are some of the insights that you gained thru all of that?”
What are friends for?
Real friends are for encouraging us to be our complete selves in the midst of all the events that make up our lives. Real friends are for opening us to the opportunity to take stock and sort out the experiences that have made us who we are – and who we are becoming. With that in mind, I will do my best to answer in less than a thousand pages what insights I have gained through the loss of a child. If anyone is reading this who is in the midst of such a loss, I want to say up front that it has taken years for these insights to develop and a great deal of time for the rawness of grief to give way to peace. I remember being alternately angry at words like those I will share here and feeling inadequate that I could not put my grief, my anger, and my sorrow aside to feel such resolution. This is where I am now, not where I was then; and I will share with you the words a friend spoke to me at that worst time: “Someday, when you have finished grieving, you will use this experience to help someone else who is going through the same thing.” I can’t begin to tell you how angry that made me and how true it was, when the time came that I was ready. Do not judge yourself for anything while you are grieving. Grief has no rules. Take your time. Feel your sorrow, and just keep breathing until the world sets itself upright again. And it will.
Our lives are made up of days and months and years when one day seems pretty much like the other. We meander through a friendly world and enjoy the time we spend exploring what it means to be human. But there are days that set themselves apart from the others. They are the days that mark events that alter the way we view the universe, for better or worse, and sometimes divide our time into “before and after.” The birth of a child, the loss of a parent, a move from one location to another, times of great joy and times of great sorrow, and times of great insight. My life will forever have two segments called “Before Brett died” and “After Brett died,” because his arrival, his short stay, and his departure have changed me irrevocably.
I come from a family with great longevity. I grew up in a household with a great-aunt who began talking to me about death when she was in her seventies. She wanted me to know that she would not live forever; and although I protested with many tears, she insisted that I listen. “Don’t cry at my funeral,” she would tell me. “Promise me. And I want you to sing my favorite hymn.” I was eleven years old when she extracted this promise and twenty-nine when I delivered. She died on my birthday in 1979. At the time, I thought it was kind of crappy that she chose that day to move on; but in the time after my son died, I found comfort in that simple coincidence. One year later, in February of 1980, my boys went out to play Olympics with their friends. Brett was six years old at the time and looking forward to his seventh birthday on March 11. As they crossed the quiet street in front of our house, everyone saw the car that came slowly down the hill – everyone but Brett. The car that hit him was going 20 miles per hour. The driver was not impaired. It was an accident, pure and simple; and it changed my life in an instant. That instant set in motion a series of unfolding insights that continue to appear to this day.
Here they are:
1. I had studied Physics and learned that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Now I learned that when one object was a small boy and one was a large car, the car wins.
This may seem harsh and without any maternal love, but it was important, with my world turned upside down, to know that the universe does not alter its order to suit the individual. I needed my world right-side-up, and I needed to understand that I wasn’t singled out.
2. I learned that life is not linear. It spirals and loops and turns all over the place, but usually those loops are so subtle that we don’t even notice them. Now I learned that the linear view – we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die – was not always accurate.
I had to consider, for the first time, that life was not so simple; and this expanded view has helped me time and time again. When we place people in the constraints of a linear timeline, we set ourselves up to judge. I have grown in compassion as I have seen others whose loops and spirals have taken them to sad places. I can relate.
3. I have learned that some loops and spirals are surprisingly sorrowful and others are surprisingly wonderful. Now that I recognize them, I experience joy at times I might have overlooked before.
Imagine my surprise, when I married my sweetheart, to learn that his son – MY son – had been born the day Brett was buried. And he was just turning six. Sometimes the universe sees a boy who needs a mom and a mom who needs a son. Loop, spiral, joy!
4. I have learned not to fear death.
Now I suppose this one has morphed from one form to another to fifty more over time. In the early days of my grief, I stopped fearing death, because I didn’t see why it mattered if I continued to live. Fortunately, this stage of anguish lasted a very short but intense time. Thankfully, I had good friends who propped me up and helped me go through the motions of living until I began to feel alive again.
One morning, several weeks after Brett died, I had a dream that seemed so real that I was right there in it. I suppose my subconscious had picked up the sounds of my surviving children playing in the early morning, and I found myself in the boys’ bedroom. Brett was there, playing with his little sister. “Oh! You’re here!” I said in surprise. As I moved toward him and tried to give him a hug, he backed away, smiling all the time until he disappeared into the mist in the corner of the room. There was something in that smile that said, “I am okay. You can’t touch me, but I am here.” If I close my eyes, I still can go to that dream; and it has brought me great comfort.
I have come to believe that losing my great-aunt Essie on my own birthday was another looping spiral that calls me to remember her – and her wisdom – every time I turn the calendar for another year.
5. I have learned that grief, in all its raw truth, tells us lies.
If you are grieving right now, remember that you cannot judge the remainder of your life based on the anguish you feel right now. I told myself many lies during those days. I could not go on without my son – and here I am, more than thirty years later. I could never risk loving another child, because the pain of losing him was so great – and I have added five more children to my family since that time. I was a terrible mother, because I had let one of my children die before me – but I am a world-class mom who has brought her children back from the edge and made it possible for all of us to cherish the memory of their brother.
6. I have learned that grief is love, turned inside out.
We cannot grieve deeply unless we have loved deeply. Every tear I cried, every moment of raw pain, every memory of times that never could be again expressed how deeply and passionately I had loved my little boy while I had him here. In time, I figured out that he wanted me to go on being happy and being the sort of mom to the rest of my kids that I had been to him. I learned to turn my grief inside out and live each day as a tribute to the depth of love we had shared. This changed my life.
7. I have realized that every single day there are mothers burying children.
I have a heart and compassion for every one of them that my linear view had blocked before Brett died. It never really entered my awareness that a mother whose child dies in the poorest slum in Calcutta feels the same pain that I felt – that life circumstances which might make it a more frequent occurrence really do not matter to the heart of a mother. And I pray every day for mothers and children who stand at the edge of the abyss.
8. I have learned how important it is to get the message out to people about death not being a monster that chooses you and attacks and robs you of life. Instead, it is a part of the continuum of living.
By learning to embrace all of life, including the fact that it is finite, I have been able to stand by people who are near the end. This gives me, and I hope them, great peace.
I hope there is something here that resonates with someone who needs to hear it today. When my son died, my view of the world was radically altered. I raged and grieved for a time; but the day finally came when I had to admit that it would be a difficult choice to make if I were offered to have him back and give up all I had learned or to lose what had become myself and know that I could not touch him just one more time. I suppose the decision to embrace all his death had taught me was an easy one to make, because the universe does not allow such choices.
9. In the end, we must choose whether to live our days stuck in sorrow or to be fully alive and grab hold of all that life puts before us.
Thirty years ago, I never could have imagined
  • That a year later I would be there for my best friend’s mother when her son died at age 32
  • That I would go on to love five more children
  • That I would walk with each of them, at their request, to visit the cemetery
(when they were just about Brett’s age) and tell them about their brother.
  • That people who were nearing the end of their lives would show up, again and again, and share with me the grace and wisdom they learned along the way and allow me to be there when they reached the end.
  • That all of this would prepare me for my father’s last days, and that I would be able to reassure him as he prepared to leave this world for the next.
10. I leave you with the greatest realization, the one that encompasses all the rest. Love never dies. When the dust settles and the wind blows our grief away, it is the love that remains. If you are missing someone you have cherished, honor their memory by loving fiercely, wherever you go. A dear old friend, in her 90’s at the time, told me “the most important thing is to be remembered.” Live, love, and remember. Very close by, beyond a thin veil, the people we love are watching. And smiling.