Wednesday, May 22, 2013

I'm grateful for ...Connections

Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

Brene Brown

I came across the above Brene Brown quote the other day and since then have been thinking about all of the little connections we create throughout our lifetimes that help us make meaning of our days.  I realize how grateful I am for each and every one of the connections that make up my life. Some of them are old with deep roots that have only strengthened as the years have passed by.  Some of them are newer, and with that comes the excitement and anticipation when something new is on the horizon and we realize we have a chance to build something meaningful.  

There's an interesting paradox about connections in practice and how they can occur both sporadically, as well as on a more regular basis. Think about old friends who you don't see for years and years and yet you are able to pick up and start right into a conversation as if no time has passed. You see and are seen.  Or think about the person you meet at a party whom you manage to have a deep and meaningful conversation with all evening. You may never see them again, but somehow during that conversation you saw and were seen, and you carry that connection forward. And then of course, there's your partner or circle of close friends you see on a more day-to-day basis whom you derive regular sustenance and strength from.

After Matthew died, my husband and I were amazed at the outpouring of support we received. We felt held and loved at a time when we had been stripped down to our must vulnerable selves. Friends' love and support was essential to helping us walk through those early days, weeks and months and I see now how healing it was. As alone as we felt in our grief, we felt supported from near and far as we made our way through a dark and unwelcome tunnel.  People from our past and present came forward to let us know that we weren't alone. People who would soon become a part of our future lives stepped forward with arms outspread. It was humbling and oh so appreciated.

The lesson I hope I've passed on to my own children is to create real friendships and connections that will sustain you throughout both the good and the difficult times. Value those people who, like Brene Brown says, really see and hear you (and make sure you see and hear them too). My dearest friends are those people with whom I have a two-way friendship. It's a mutual sharing, a reciprocal back and forth. We all know people who are takers. They have an inability to go beyond themselves. Sometimes they can be interesting (especially in the beginning), but for the long haul they just aren't there for you. And one of the nice things about being over 50 is the realization that I don't need to spend time with them anymore. Life is too short to be in one-sided relationships. 
Building relationships that are life affirming and heart-filled are essential to my very existence. I wouldn't be who I am today without all of the amazing people I've connected with and continue to connect with on my journey. These sparks of connection truly help light my path. I'll end with a favorite Marge Piercy poem that was actually one of the readings at Matthew's bar mitzvah. Four close friends read the four different stanzas and I find its words continue to resonate with me.

The Seven of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the lady bugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure:  make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, deep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time:  not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

-Marge Piercy-

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Some Days Are Just Hard (Part 2)

The presence of that absence is everywhere.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

For people who have been reading Grief & Gratitude for a while, this post may sound vaguely familiar. Last August, I wrote a post called Some Days Are Just Hard. Recently I was asked to revamp it for the Compassionate Friends National Magazine, and so here it is in its new form. It's twice as long and (I hope) reads less like a blog post and more like an article. For those of you who don't know, Compassionate Friends is a national organization that supports families who have lost a child. I am honored to have my article run in their magazine We Need Not Walk Alone.

I also want to say that although this article deals specifically with my experience of losing a child, I believe its sentiment is applicable to the many different types of losses we experience in a lifetime.  For reasons that are not always apparent, some days are just hard.

So here is the "revamped" Some Days Are Just Hard

Losing a child is indescribably painful. As any bereaved parent will tell you, the death of a child leaves a huge line running through our lives with “before and after” etched forever in our memories. Days that were previously filled with promise and vitality suddenly seem empty and hopeless. Gradually we come to accept that our lives will never return to what they once were and that some days are just hard.

In October 2010, we lost our previously healthy 21-year-old son Matthew to a form of virulent strep. What initially masked itself as a severe case of pneumonia, was in fact a form of strep that attacked his bi-cuspid aortic heart valve, necessitating valve replacement surgery. But when they actually went in, they found the damage was far more extensive than they thought. And while Matthew survived the surgery (mostly due to his youth), he never regained consciousness. He spent the last week of his life in a coma, before he died on October 22.

Before that ill-fated day in October I don’t think I had ever known such sadness and hurt. As anyone who has lost a child will tell you, the pain is simultaneously acute and chronic. It’s so piercing and constant you can hardly breathe; it’s as if a cement block has been permanently placed on your chest. You don’t think it will ever go away. Grieving becomes a way of coping with the tremendous loss that now makes up our lives. And while the jagged edges of my own grief have begun to smooth out a bit, I also know that it will always be with me and forever define my family.

One thing I’ve come to accept over the past two and a half years is that some days are just hard. During the first year, I came to fully expect that every day was hard. Those early days slogged by at a surreal pace. Grief was ever-present and seemed to hold time at bay. As we approached the first anniversary of Matthew's death in 2011, things shifted a bit, time picked up and the acute days of grieving became less frequent, although the chronic grief remains.

Now I notice that there's no anticipating when grief will sneak up and wash over me like a rogue wave. It just happens. It can be a song, a special place, a type of food or just a memory suddenly slides into your subconscious and all you can think about is the tremendous hole that now fills your life. I can be having coffee with a friend and laughing one minute, and find my eyes filling with tears the next. And that’s okay. In fact, it just brings Matthew closer to me for that moment.

I think for bereaved parents our grief lies just below the surface. Even when I'm laughing or absorbed in a conversation, if you were to scratch me just a little bit, my grief would come bubbling up. I've come to view grief not as the enemy, but rather as an emotion that I now can acknowledge and move into. I know eventually she'll go back under and I'll just carry her around with me, hidden from other’s view, but always there.

In the movie Rabbit Hole, there’s a scene between Nicole Kidman (Becca) and her mother Dianne Weist (Nat) that stayed with me long after the closing credits. Becca and Nat are bereaved parents, and while Becca sees their circumstances as completely different (her four-year-old son was killed in an accident, while her brother died of a drug overdose), she and her mother now share the commonality of being bereaved mothers:

Becca: Does it ever go away?

Nat: No, I don't think it does. Not for me, it hasn't, and that's going on eleven years. It changes, though.

Becca: How?

Nat: I don't know... the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and... carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you... you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and - there it is. Oh right, that. Which could be awful - But not all the time. It's kinda... not that you like it exactly, but it's what you have instead of your son, so you don't wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn't go away, which is...

Becca: What?

Nat: Fine... actually.

This exchange sums up for me, how so many of us carry the grief of our beloved children with us. I bring this up to remind people that for those of us who have lost a child, our grief is present, even if you don’t see it. It doesn't go away, even with the passage of time. It doesn't go away even if we seem "better." With time the intense pain subsides, but our grief, like our love, is always there. And that's okay. The beauty of the human spirit is that we have a remarkable ability to continue on, even in the most adverse of conditions. But we will always mourn our children. We don't want them to be forgotten. Ever. Our memories of them are all we have.

Since Matthew died, I’ve learned that you do begin to put your life back together again, bit-by-bit, piece-by-piece. Its form is different, but it is still a life. It continues to have shape and meaning, and part of that new shape is formed by the memory of our loved ones. That memory is present all the time, looking over your shoulder helping you restructure this new construct. Grief is transformational. My grief has changed me in ways I’m only just beginning to understand. I am more mindful of things, big and small, happy and sad. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve learned to embrace the paradox of unfathomable loss and profound gratitude for living. I continue to feel Matthew’s presence as we all rebuild our lives without his physical body here.

Some days are just hard. Some days grief rises up and reminds me that she’s still there. She reminds me that grieving Matthew will always be a pivotal part of my life.  That’s okay. I also know that I will move through it and feel better soon. I know that life continues on, almost with a renewed sense of purpose. And for that I’m grateful. I’ve come to embrace yet another paradox of life, knowing that our hearts can be both full and broken at the same time.