A few months after my mother’s death, my minister, Kate Walker, approached me and asked if I would be interested in helping her put together a curriculum on death and dying. The timing was serendipitous, and I enthusiastically joined her in this endeavor. I, too, feel that a church community needs to openly face death to fully live life. The following is my journey through grief. Although your experience with grief may be different, in the end, I believe the lessons we learn from our losses are universal. For me, facing death helped me to find meaning in life.
My mother died of breast cancer on December 14, 2004. I was 32 years old. I think I was in survival mode during those first weeks after her death. I simply completed tasks one by one to get through each day: empty the dishwasher, wash the clothes, fold the clothes, bathe the kids, feed the husband, breathe, swallow. Social situations were extremely difficult. I had this feeling of being separate from the group. I was on the outside looking in. I was completely numb. Soon, though, the invisible blanket of detachment would be ripped away, leaving me naked and vulnerable.
My emotions soon set in. Deep surges of sadness and uncontrollable crying washed over me, usually at night. I gave myself up to it—totally helpless and out of control. At other times I experienced intense feelings of anger. Many times I thought I was going crazy. I felt as if all my nerves were growing on the outside of my body; the slightest touch could produce excruciating pain. I can understand now why in times past people wore black when they were in mourning. It signaled to others to tread softly around them, to treat them more kindly and gently. The hardest part for me at this time was shopping at Walmart. I don’t know what it was about that place, but every time I went shopping there, it was inevitable that I would become an emotional basket case and leave the store crying and feeling the stares of other customers.
Looking back I think Walmart represented my inability to deal with the trivialities of life. A new shirt? A fishing pole? Motor oil? Cosmetics? Vacuum cleaner? Who cares! My mother is dead. Death has a way of bringing into focus the truly important things in life. I couldn’t deal with the meaningless stuff in Walmart, and I couldn’t deal with the people concerned about the meaningless stuff. I began to pull away from others. In March, a few months after my mom’s death, I stayed at home and slept. I’m sorry to say that my children watched a lot of television that month. I literally could not lift my body from the couch.
I awoke as if from a trance and began to walk around again. The nights of uncontrollable crying were lessening, and I was afraid of that. Losing the intense emotions made me afraid that I would lose her in some way. At this stage I went into the woods. I found comfort in the predictable patterns of nature: the movement of the sun, the waves on the water, the markings on the bark. I felt comforted sitting in this natural peace and feeling the rhythmic pulses of life. No surprises here, just a steady roll of continuing cycles. I took my children and dog with me. They were also my security and my comfort. But always, always, this deep sadness in the pit of my stomach.
The theological questions began to surface. Where is she? Will I ever see her again? Will she give me some sign that she’s okay? Where is God in all this? I listened for answers. Silence. Nothing.
Slowly, my mother did return to me. She slipped into conversations, she appeared within the bloom of a flower, she smiled at me through my children.
One evening my husband and I took our kids to the drive-in movie theater. Suddenly I started laughing, and my kids asked me what I was laughing about. I told them about the time when my mom was a young girl, and she wanted to go to the drive-in movie theater, but she couldn’t find anyone to go with her. So she put her cat in a paper bag and took him with her to watch the movie. The kids laughed and laughed and asked me to tell them another story about her. So I told them about the time when she trimmed her hair and accidentally shaved off her left eyebrow. She didn’t know it until someone told her at work. They took pictures. Her stories are their stories now. She is alive in our family still.
Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, wrote, “Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.” Grief has taught me that. Life just is. The question is not what is the meaning of life? but rather what are we going to do with this life to create meaning?
Slowly I began to find footholds in the side of the mountain. I began to pull myself up and create meaning from the pain. I have discovered that my grief has been a gift to me. My grief has given me heightened appreciation for everyday life, not to take for granted the little pleasures: the sunrise, a morning good-bye kiss to my husband, lunch with a friend, fresh strawberries, an evening walk, the sunset, a bedtime story with my children. Grief has taught me not to sweat the small stuff and to be less materialistic. Grief has made me examine who I really am inside and has awakened creative passions. Grief has taught me to be more sensitive to others. But most important, grief has taught me about the power of love. Yes, indeed, love does endure for all eternity.