A ramble…
Grief is universal.
We all experience the suffocating moments that change lives. There are no bromides that actually move the process along. Cultures build the box and most times grief lives in that box.

In our home we joked about the John Wayne School of Communication, the stoicism that pushed grief down and never let it heal in the light of other humans. Prayer is a common crutch offering the illusion that something helpful is happening. Moments of gasping for breath as the sobbing overtakes are inescapable.

Keening isn’t often part of our culture. The sound is animal like. Men and women give over to being consumed, lost in the grief. Maybe keening is a hedge against depression of unresolved grief, of grief swallowed not sounded, of self medication to bearable.

Men and women lose a job, a home, a life time of expectations. They, as they knew themselves, are gone, emptied out of all they found dependable. Nothing works, no boot strap pull matters.

A person hears the partner’s declaration that the union is over, the love simply isn’t. A maze of hurt, insecure and confused, marks the lives within the ripple.

The devastation of illness is a grief played over and over, every day a family tears in the grip. Long range plans dissolve. Hope in a different future becomes one-foot-in-front-of-the other. Joy shuts down and pretend takes over.

Maybe we do keen, but not in a way that helps. Too much silence, too much John Wayne and not enough bellow against the pain. Too much stiff upper lip and not enough rage.

Last evening, a conversation about healing from cancer ended after an hour but the thoughts continued most of the night. A compassionate doctor told the patient that some of the most difficult times were the days, weeks and months when other people pronounced healing over, but it was not. Times when fear, loneliness or depression still shadowed every day, but other people felt enough was enough. Time to move on…stop dwelling on fear. Get over the grief compelling acceptance of a new life, a life of threat. Keening seems so very much in order.

Know what matters? What helps? What heals?

The touch of family/friendship, understanding of new ways that seem to mock what was once a life. The touch of family/friendship that is the knowledge that someone hears the silent keening, someone reads fake words and finds the truth, someone would respond…even when it feels impossible to ask. Someone is willing to give all the time needed. Talk about wonderful creatures!


I Believe

Alan Stark wrote I Believe.

On page 128, Stark wrote:
“I believe the definition of a friend is someone you call when you have really great news or really sad news.”

On page 111, Stark wrote: “I believe couples should hold hands at least three minutes every day.”

On page 156, Stark wrote: “I believe that memories are treasures worth more than gold.”

Three is that good number, the one that can mesh the unrelated and find a new truth. So I have an addendum to Alan’s beliefs, my big three for today.

I check myself off the definition of a friend. Today has been one of the saddest days of the last 11 months. There is no one I will phone to share the sadness. There is no one with whom I have that kind of comfort. There is no one to whom I could even begin that conversation, share that deep and penetrating loss.

Holding hands is vital, an intimacy to be cherished. Going out alone today, I did a virtual hand holding via four area wide garage sale events. Bob loved them. We trudged up the driveways as he searched for his bargain of the day and until he was too worn to continue. I bought three things just so the experience would be true, a book, a light switch, a leather purse. Three dollars ventured and a memory gained.

That brings me to those memories worth more than gold. My brain is odd. My memories are rarely specific in detail but definitely specific in feelings. Bob and I had two love stories, one in youth and the second in middle age and onto his last years. Between those chapters, I had another love story with a good man, the father of my children.

Today is not really an empty day. It is a day of far too many memories, far too much emotion, far too heavy with a sadness I cannot shake. I feel ashamed, weak, to be as I am today. Wonder why the amazing goodness that is so much a part of my life cannot handle the overflow of memories?

I believe that time as healer is a ruse. What really happens is that we get really good at covering over, pretending and doing make-believe. Today is my birthday and I want what I cannot have. I miss him.

Private, Inescapable, Ubiquitous

Grief. Sorrow. Sadness. Loss.
Every life tastes the bitter; serious health threats, death, loss, feeling trapped by circumstance.

Every life stumbles on the communication that might heal with understanding. Every life must find the safest way to dismantle anger.

One of the worst days is the day when awareness folds down, enveloping the belief that wholeness can ever happen, the belief that time has any power to heal. The trap suffocates.

Grief festers contaminated, cluttered with wrong assumptions, with feeling ripped raw, with a loneliness that diminishes light, leaves physical and emotional exhaustion.

Experience allows no deception–people don’t like tears. Some dismiss the need for memories, discount the search for the comfort of answers when there are none. Friends hurry past tossing out a caring pretense, choosing to ignore, wondering at the weakness that takes so long to heal. They tire of the unraveling. They tire quickly.

Those who might have shared worship question the depth of sorrow and loneliness. Some want to patch with platitude and scoff at sorrow that reduces platitudes to emptiness.

A few professional mourners constantly play one-up-man-ship, as in “My life’s sadder than your life…let me pour it out”. Their lives scorched, locked on hold, never able to give.

Getting over grief is not the point, not even a possibility.

Getting though grief is the only way round, the only way to understanding. Time cannot be the measure. Touchstones are the measure.

Touchstones, many so brief that the power comes later, are the only measure.

Sons are a Touchstone, phoning when there is little to say but much to communicate…checking in, making contact, holding a long distance hand. Sons who come to work, and stay to comfort. Sons who tiptoe away from judgment yet always respond to any request. Sons are responsible for most of the good days.

Grandchildren who smile, who comfort with their youth, who let me love them as they are, stand firm as Touchstones.

There are friends who do not let you down. Old friends who offer a rare Thursday off to do whatever, who give perfect gifts of time and thoughtfulness are Touchstones. Friends who understand depression and know when to step in and when to stay on hold are Touchstones. Friends who phone or email, so the thread is unbroken, are Touchstones. Friends who share exclusive time and attention are a rare gift in a multi-tasking world.

Neighbors who mean every nuance of “Let me know if there is anything we can do” are Touchstones.

Healing, surviving, is a private process and becoming one’s personal Touchstone is required. Be easy. Offer the care you need, for body, emotional and spiritual. You are the only one capable of doing it exactly right. You are the one person who understands. Ask for what you need. Give way your anger and helplessness. Find your Touchstones.


A Conversation

On Thursday, July 7, my letter referencing abuse of children appeared in the Kansas City Star. Rain-soaked, my copy was too soggy to open so a late afternoon phone call was an interesting surprise.

A former high school classmate took me to task, politely and sincerely, but with conviction. Line by line he let me know how distant I was from the truth, how difficult it was for him to understand how I strayed from the church that nourished my school years.

Peter (for this blog) gave me directions to his church where Vatican II had no place and where all the traditions of the Catholic Church were thriving: Latin Mass, busy confessionals, altar turned away from the people, servers of the right sex. Of our entire high school class, only Peter and one other classmate attended this church. Repeatedly, Peter wondered how that could be, how only two out of so many could be with the truth. Peter read his carefully written response to my letter, though he said it was not for publication but rather to inform me.

Vetting, he said, was the problem in today’s church. Candidates for the seminary are not vetted as they were in the ’40’s, ’50’s and early ’60’s. Nuns, he said, knew everything about every kid and ‘deviants’ were not allowed to study for the priesthood. That, of course, led to his position on abortion, homosexuality, the role of women, gluttony, the fall of civilizations, legal questions and his truth that life was simply a time of hardship and tears.

In high school, I knew and liked this man. During our time on the phone I reminded myself how often I had lamented the loss of civil discourse during disagreement. I reminded myself that most anger is a defense designed to shut down any fair and open discussion. Peter was sincere and I had no illusion that his mind was open to change.

Still, I tried. When I pointed out that abuse by the clergy goes well into those years when vetting plucked the weeds, Peter dismissed that as a minor problem and too long ago to actually be relevant.

I defended my position that civil authorities are denied access to records of abuse and that legal procedures should be enacted against priest’s who abused children. Peter, with disdain, dismissed lawsuits as a way to open justice.

Peter cares and defends his church. He brought his arguments without anger even though he found my thoughts difficult to comprehend. Peter phoned fifty-five years after high school graduation to express his belief that healing happens inside his version of being Catholic.

With all due respect, I don’t live there anymore.

Her Journal

About a year before Bob died, an acquaintance experienced the death of her husband. Because we shared an ongoing activity we also shared many conversations about her grief. She told me that she started a journal in which she wrote about every aspect of passage.

For this blog, her name is Karita. She is in her seventies, has grown children, attends church, is a constant volunteer and reaches out with open friendship. Her husband, Ray, with no advance warning symptoms, died at home.

When Bob died, Karita opened her journal. The writing is harsh, angry, filled with pain. Her attempts to excuse what she perceived as abandonment by friends does fail her even as she tries to understand with compassion. There are even pages of self blame as she wrote about her failure to adequately express her needs.

As expected the early journal entries poured grief and loneliness onto the page. Fear and uncertainty overshadowed everything but most days ended with comfort, a list of names offering “Whatever you need, just ask. You are in our prayers.”

“But I don’t know what to ask…I am too lost to figure out what I need…help me…do something…do anything but do something…don’t pray for me…help me…give me your friendship, your time…damn the words you give me about time and tears and triumph…I gag at your audacity telling me that I will find a new normal while you do nothing to take me there…don’t speak to me about anything except about what actions you are doing to show me that my pain is important to you…cram the cheerful stuff…I need help.”

Karita never told her friends how she felt. She told her journal holding little back as she learned to understand that friends spoke the words, did not rally but moved back…moved away from her emotional needs.

Karita took my hand, blinked back her tears and spoke with a softness that only pain can produce.
“You are alone”, she said. “Your old friends won’t speak it, but they have no room for you now. You have become casual to them. You have family and maybe some neighbors, but your old friends are old now…gone except to use platitudes and then pretend like you don’t exist. Don’t believe? Count. Count what you have experienced as you hoped for their help.”

Karita invited me to a grief support group. I went once. Last Tuesday. Tonight should have been the second time, but I am here. Not there. Not in a room full of strangers gathered to talk about an unavoidable human commonality…death. I cannot build on death.

When Anybody Is Working….

When anybody works, everybody works: Mostly unspoken but never ignored rule from a 1940’s/1950’s family life. Probably Mom’s rule as Dad was great with a dedicated elbow on the fireplace, bourbon and ice in hand, and focused on a radio news report. Those ingrained rules of life shadow well into retirement insuring that down-time nags like a pounce of righteous lurking nearby.

Last evening as I shuffled the stack of bills, envelopes and stamps I heard the sound–the sound of approaching work. Everyone knows that desk work is not real work, the physical labor kind of work that fills Mom’s requirement. As ridiculous as it sounds, the rule is alive and nagging so I left the kitchen table to find physical work.

My neighbors are amazing…generous, kind hearts and often pretending that they are charging me the going rate for the help that is always just across the north field. Last night’s call to work was Steve’s uni-loader with clam shell coming to move several years of accumulated storm debris stacked in various wood piles. These piles have morphed into condos for invading wildlife: mice, snakes, ground hogs, raccoons and creatures unnamed. (I just spent close to $400.00 to have a mouse apartment removed from the engine compartment of my six month old car.) Wildlife is not my friend when it comes to renovation of unwelcome living space.

I digress.
Steve was working. It was early evening, long after his scheduled work day. What would have been really great would be to just watch like a pedestrian at a construction site. sigh. When anybody is working, everybody works. Right, Mom? So I did.

Granted Steve worked with finesse and I just smeared the streaks on the patio room windows. Granted he raked and cleaned as he went and I just wrapped the paint brush in a wet cloth rather than do a thorough cleaning. Granted, he amazingly improved the look of the place and I sort of added to this mornings to-do list.

Funny how that all works out. This place is greatly improved by Steve’s work. Mom’s rule obeyed and honored, though a bit on the shoddy side from my end. And not wanting to forget Dad’s contribution, the ice hitting the glass made the closing sound as I locked down for the night.

With Permission, A Retelling:Threads of Love

  • The group’s original mission was to make baby gowns, caps and blankets for burial.

    Now it also provides families with cloth “memory envelopes” in cotton or satin, a place to slip mementos of a brief life: a lock of hair, a specially worded sympathy card, a photograph.

    The group also makes items for babies in the hospital. Among them:

    Small bean-bag pillows, covered in soft fleece, that nurses use to position sick or premature babies safely in their bassinets

    • Cloth dolls for babies in ICU that carry the scent of their parents

    • “Sleepy vests” for preemies, made with Velcro fasteners so they’re easy to slip on and off.

Between them, Sally Gripkey and Rose Anne Livingston — grandmothers and longtime friends — launched an organization that has helped hundreds of Midlands families cope with miscarriage, stillbirth or the death of a newborn.

The women in their group, Threads of Love, make delicate white gowns, caps and blankets used as burial shrouds.

“Nobody goes to the hospital expecting to go home without a baby,” Livingston said, “so most people aren’t prepared for burials.”

The clothing has taken the place of blue, plastic bed pads that, before, wrapped the remains given to grieving mothers.

“They are babies. They aren’t just things, you know?” said Gripkey, 73, a retired respiratory therapist who knows her way around hospitals. The volunteers rarely meet the people who receive their handmade gifts. Still, they can comprehend the cruel pain.

“We can’t keep up,” said Livingston, 75, a retired real estate broker who became an adept volunteer as an Army wife, moving from post to post. Gripkey first read about Threads of Love, which began in Louisiana, in a sewing magazine. For a couple of years, she made gowns on her own.

Early on, Threads of Love got a $350 donation from the church. Since then, it has been self-sustaining, with occasional donations from families touched by their kindness. “We’ve never had to have a fundraiser,” Livingston said.

She buys fabric on sale. A group from Myrtle Beach donates lace. Invariably, the seamstresses spend their own money on supplies, making what Livingston estimated is 2,500 baby items a year.

The largest burial gown they make is 24 inches long. The smallest is 5 inches; it can lie flat in a sandwich bag.

Posted, The State South Carolina’s Homepage, Mar. 15, 2011   by Dawn Hinshaw;  photos KimKim Foster-Tobin.

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