When my father died ten years ago, my mother was incredibly intentional about her grief process. They met in their first year of university and had been deeply in love for 62 years. In my teenage years, I observed how intentional they were about caring for their own relationship, even as they loved, nurtured, and supported our larger family unit. Later in life, they were very intentional in their support of one another as they navigated my father’s 16-year walk with cancer. When the cancer finally took him, I witnessed the incredibly intentional ways my mother went about creating a healing path through grief and loss.
As I find my way through these first weeks since my mother’s passing, I look back and wonder if she realized then that she was teaching me how to mourn. She was fully committed to walking towards the hurt and sense of loss rather than walking away from it. She was clear that this was not a path to be found—it was a path to be created.
What I learned from her about how to create that path
Don’t try to avoid my sadness and sense of loss.
Be intentional in choices and decisions.
Walk into each next moment that I now experience without her.
Be present with her spirit and memories every day.
Celebrate who she was in her full and generous life and allow myself to continue discovering what our new relationship can be.
It’s all about creating a healing path, not passively waiting for the healing to happen.
In some moments, it hurts. Yet not nearly as much as it hurts to try to avoid the sorrow.
The healing path started before she died
The healing began long before she died. In some ways, it felt like I had been preparing for years. Yet then suddenly the moment came when preparation was over. We had arrived at the crossing.
I sat beside her bed through her last six days. I was there when she took her last breath, holding her hand and telling her I loved her. Just as she and I did together with my father. I sat with her body for a while after she was gone and felt the incredible lightness of her spirit fill the room, yet be so conspicuously absent from her body.
I stood witness as the undertakers came for her body and took it away, just as my mother had insisted on doing with my father ten years before. My sister and I had tried to protect her from witnessing that moment, yet she was defiant. “No, I have to see this,” she cried out. It was perhaps her first step towards creating her own healing path.
The big little things
Through the next year, my mother walked intentionally into every kind of situation or experience that she had always shared with my father. There were the big little things, like going to church without my father, or learning how to handle the finances, or eating alone. There was her first plane flight without my father to visit Johnathon and me in our home—a home that my parents had helped us settle into three years before. There was a week at Chautauqua, our life-long summer holiday spot where she and my father had spent part of every summer for 40 years.
At 80 years old, my mother now had to learn to do everything on her own. And she did. Not by shying away from what at times must have felt unbearable, but by taking a deep breath and walking in. Being with her new reality. Not pushing—just being with. Allowing herself the time she needed, yet still remaining committed to her proactive healing process.
For ten years after my father died, she celebrated his birthday and their wedding anniversary by looking at photo albums, cherishing letters from him, reading tributes written about him, and reliving their life together. There were always tears—she never stopped missing him—yet year after year, she nurtured a new relationship with him.
Step by step, creating my own healing path
When we closed my mother’s tiny apartment, I took only a few things—my father’s retirement portrait, some family photographs, and a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry.
Last week, I hung my father’s portrait in my office. I had been saving a place for it near my desk beside my maternal grandfather’s portrait.
Then I created a remembrance shelf of photos of my parents and a few beautiful things that they had collected from their travels to far corners of the world. My mother loved simple but beautiful jewelry, and my father and I delighted in adding to her collection over the years. Those pieces are now in a cutglass crystal dish on that shelf.
I also brought back photo albums and meticulously cared for scrapbooks chronicling our family history and celebrations that my mother and grandmother had created over many years. I look forward to spending time with those memory books during the upcoming holidays.
Writing about my experiences, feelings, and discoveries is another way I am creating my healing path. For me, writing is an outlet for my heart to express its longing and my soul to express its knowing.
The Year of Firsts
A friend reminded me that in the Jewish tradition, the period of mourning for a parent is one year—a year of firsts—the first times you do something without them.
We’ve already had our first big “first,” celebrating Thanksgiving without my mother. Even though it was just Johnathon and me, we honored my mother by setting a beautiful table with her wedding china, crystal, and silver, and drinking a toast to her. It was a day of tears and laughter and stories and love and sweet sadness.
I’ve also spent this holiday weekend planning a virtual Service of Thanksgiving for her life. Hosting a memorial service on Zoom actually brings its own blessings—the chance to share beautiful classic church music by great choirs via video, and the opportunity for dear friends and colleagues from far and near to offer tributes. Another first—orchestrating and preparing to host my mother’s memorial service.
None of what I am sharing with you is new awareness for me, nor may it be for you. Yet what I welcome is a renewed practice of staying present to each moment, even when my heart hurts. A renewed intentionality around creating my own healing path through grief and loss. Indeed, a renewed commitment to intentional living.
Three practices to help you create your own healing path
This year of 2020 has left countless numbers of people reeling from unexpected losses and uncertainty about how to move forward. I can’t tell anyone else how to mourn, grieve, or accept new realities in life. We each have to create our own path. Yet I offer three practices that can make a difference.
First, be intentional in your choices.
Second, resist the temptation to run away from feelings of grief and loss. Walk into them, heart wide open and feet firmly planted on the ground.
Third, look your pain and grief in the eye and give yourself time to be with what is happening. There is nothing to fix. Grief has its own time. It’s not about “getting over it.” It’s about learning how to walk with it. It’s about creating your own way forward. Our losses are woven into the fabric of our lives just as are our joys and celebrations. They become a part of who we are. We can choose to let them help us grow into our own authentic beauty and elegant strength.
Grief will sometimes catch you by surprise. Just when you feel like you are doing pretty well, there comes a moment when suddenly you aren’t. That’s normal. It’s just how it works.
I’ve walked this journey of grief before. I know how it goes—sort of. Yet the fact is, each time, the journey is different. Whatever it is that we are grieving now is touching something different inside of us than the last loss we grieved. We are beautifully complex beings with some pretty simple needs—to love and be loved, to accept and be accepted, to touch and be touched. Keep your focus on taking care of the simple, and the complex will work itself out.
Embrace the unexpected synchronicities
As I complete the first draft of this article, I realize that three weeks ago today at this exact hour, my mother took her last breath. I didn’t plan this timing, yet it is a beautiful synchronicity. My heart is warm and full. I feel calm and peaceful and sad and full of love for the amazing woman who gave me birth. In this moment, there are no tears—just full presence with her spirit, a huge empty space in my heart, and a flood of memories. And enormous gratitude for the life I got to share with her.
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