When my neighbor from Moab called to tell me her husband had passed away, I was heartbroken. I was so sad. I hate regret and feeling like I had lost something valuable, but that is precisely how I felt. I had lost my chance to say thank you for allowing me to borrow every tool in your shed. Thank you for always climbing up on the roof with me to see if my swamp cooler was working. Thank you for playing cards with Savannah and me until the wee hours and showing her the things that I couldn’t–that marriages can be long and happy, and sometimes you cheat at cards when it is funny and sometimes you are grumpy. But, love can last through all that.

My last visit was too short. I was making a wedding cake (no, I really don’t know how- a topic for another post) and I needed some clear vanilla. Mary and Larry loved quick trips across the border to bring back treasures for family and friends. They always have large bottles of dark, clear, or amber vanilla. I drove to their house without calling first–that is the kind of friends we are; stop by, even if you haven’t been back home in several months or a year. There would always be a meal offered or a bed. I loved that I could surprise them with a visit, but because of the cake that Youtube made look easier than it actually was, I had to hurry off with a quick visit, hugs, and a short conversation about what had kept us busy the past few months. Larry gave me the new, unopened bottle, even when I insisted that a shot glass of vanilla would do. I usually use vanilla with reckless abandon, but now I see 34 ounces of love in that bottle and use it accordingly.

After Mary called, I went to the cupboard and opened the bottle and took a whiff of the love that was still there. A couple of days after Mary called to tell me about Larry, she called again to tell me about the arrangements. After giving me the details, she asked hopefully, “Will you come?”

“Yes. I will be there. I will do anything for you, Mary. Is there anything I can do?”

“Yes, there is. I would like you to sing “Daddy’s Hands” at the funeral.”

“Mary I haven’t ever done that before. Are you sure?” I think she thought I meant I haven’t sung at a funeral before. That is true. But I meant that I had never sung a song in public, except in a church choir that was filled with enough talent to allow a few people with passion to slip in and participate.

“Oh, yes. You are the perfect person to sing it.”

And so I said yes. I said yes because Larry always said yes.

Can I borrow a drill?

Yes.

Can you build me a bookcase?

Yes.

Can I come over and play cards?

Yes.

The problem with yes is that even with all the love and devotion in the world there is no way to take a mediocre and somewhat scratchy voice and make it into something that is not cringeworthy and regrettable. But I said yes.

What is grief?

Grief is the emotional and physiological response to loss. We are often mistaken in thinking that our loss has to be from death, but any loss can trigger these responses, such as divorce, moving to a different location, and any time you feel a significant change and the change will incur a loss. The stages of grief can come and go over a period of time, and they do not follow any set order or sequence. That is the part of grieving that most of us have trouble understanding. We think after a certain amount of time our lives should “go back to normal”. Loss in our lives always changes us. The secret is to understand that change can be positive, even after a devastating loss.

The Stages of Grief

The stages of grief are Denial; Anger; Depression; Bargaining; Acceptance, and I always add Guilt/Regret. They are never on a timeline and each person experiences them to varying degrees. You can’t will yourself out of a stage or force yourself to have the emotions when it is convenient. My greatest loss to date was not a death. It was the day my son was arrested for attempted homicide. In my mind, our lives, our innocence, and our joy were over. I didn’t realize I was grieving and going through the grief stages until the anger hit. I say hit because that term fits the experience.

I am not an angry person. Aside from social injustice and abuses against children, I am reasonable, sarcastic, silly, and calm. I woke with such a wave of seething anger that morning that I could almost taste it. I was angry at myself. I was angry at my spouse. I was angry at the court system, medical system, and traffic lights. Every big and small inconvenience settled on me like a weight. When the day was almost over and the list of things weighing on my patience was long and ugly, my anger bubbled over to include my son, his victim, and their family. I burst into shameful tears and berated myself for being insensitive and unkind. The anger felt like a heavy, oversized winter coat in the middle of summer. It didn’t fit, felt all wrong and I wanted to stop feeling that way–but it stayed. I went for a walk. It was there. I called my mom. It was there. I apologized and tried to end the conversation before I did any damage to our relationship when my mom stopped me.

“Charlotte, give yourself a break. You are grieving. You will get through this. This is not you. Feel the feelings and know that they will pass. They are not necessarily valid–but they are real to you right now.”

That was my best piece of advice. Feel the feelings and know they will pass. I was so ashamed that I was angry at people who were suffering more than me and my family. I tried to make sure when those feelings bubbled over to stay away from people who would jump on the bus with me. When you are grieving, it is wonderful to be around people who will let you rant, rave, cry, and laugh without judging you or encouraging you to stay in the grief by feeding the anger, depression, guilt, or denial.

How grief can hijack your life:

So, I said yes to Mary. I would sing at Larry’s funeral. I called my daughter, Savannah, who has a lovely voice, and asked her to sing with me. Every practice I felt there were at least four times when even Savannah wished I had said no. I can’t read music. I can’t count out a beat. What had possessed me to say yes?

I knew Savannah could do this song alone and it would be wonderful. But I couldn’t let her. I made her practice with me dozens of times. I practiced on my own a dozen more. I had nightmares about the look on Mary’s face when she realized I ruined the funeral. I wasn’t sure if it would end in hysterical laughing or horrified silence, but I knew the end would be awful. Yet, I could not make myself call Mary and withdraw my consent to sing. My friends even offered to call her and let her know she had made a mistake asking me. I was completely irrational. Even as the funeral approached, I was set in my determination.

That is when I made bargains with God. I prayed as someone prays for a miracle, begging God to get me out of this mess, but completely unwilling to get myself out of it. The day of the funeral arrived and I was a mess of nervous energy and sadness and fear. I walked into the church and Mary gave me a hug. She said, “Thank you so much for doing this.” And then I knew. It was going to be ok. What ever the song sounded like to everyone else, it would sound like angels to Mary because she knew that I loved her and would do anything for her. And to be honest with you, I think there were angels helping because I have never been so close to sounding normal while singing, than I did that day.

Understanding Grief

Grief can revisit your life and feel fresh and raw even after a month, a year, or many years have passed. Holidays, birthdays, and special occassions like weddings and graduations can trigger waves of grief in varying degrees. Things that help me navigate through my grief are most importantly, my belief that there is a Higher Power. I believe in God. My spiritual beliefs are my anchor. The belief that I will someday understand all the pain in this life gives me the strength to believe that there is purpose and power in love and connections. Our love is what sets us up for the loss. I rely on my spiritual beliefs through the dark days.

I also have a very strong belief in the power of gratitude. Naming people, places and memories that are beautiful in our lives is powerful medicine for healing broken hearts. The act of naming and counting our blessings helps us remember them.  

I know from my own battles with grief, that I rely on the act of reaching beyond myself to survive the pain. Doing acts of kindness and service lightens my load exponentially. Consciously choosing to turn your back for a moment from your grief and reach out to someone else, strengthens your heart and increases the love you have in your life. We can never replace what was lost. But we also don’t want to get stuck in the void by bitterness, blame, shame, and pain. The website justserve.org has a large number of service opportunities wherever you may live. Reaching out to others helps to fill some of the empty spaces in your heart. One of my favorite places to find projects to fill up the broken parts of my heart is https://www.justserve.org/projects

Living with Loss

When my mother passed away at age 88 from Alzheimer’s I was so sad, but I quickly realized I had been grieving her loss for years. I grieved the lovely brilliant woman who was pure love and kindness. I grieved for the friend that she always was for me. Then the new, fragile, scared, and child-like friend she became won my heart.  Now I grieve both of the women: my mother was who shaped my life–the one who taught me how to love and the one I was able to love unconditionally. Every day there is a reminder of my mom in myself, a reminder of the woman she always hoped I would be. I love who I am. I love how open and broken my heart can be. It is the lesson I learned from her. 

The grief is different with my mom, than with my son’s arrest. I relied on my faith and gratitude in both instances. The one that brought me to my knees is the grief that has given me the empathy and compassion for others who grieve. My grief for my mom is manifested in my love for others. The grief from my son is evident in how I live my life, to try and undersand others. 

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