What grief wants from you

Grief paid me another visit this week.

Millions of people have been grieving losses over the last 6 weeks, due to the coronavirus and its collateral damage. The greatest mourners have lost multiple loved ones. At a minimum, everyone has lost their normal way of life. We are a globe of grievers at one level or another.

My grief feels a bit different this week. It’s an old Grief who’s been traveling abroad for awhile and decided to suddenly pay me another visit. I have been aware that Mother’s Day is approaching, but evidently my subconscious–not my conscious–recognized it as a serious emotional threat. At least, I assume that’s what’s happening because Grief decided to show up and punch me in the gut again, for old times’ sake.

Grief has a long and vivid memory. She keeps record of special days and special moments and feels compelled to point them out. Record-keeping is one of her many virtues and vices. Have you noticed that? Grief can show up at the most random of times and places.

I hesitate to share this. I feel incredibly vulnerable whenever I talk about grief because sharing it makes me acutely self-conscious. I worry that you’ll think I’m trumpeting my own painful moments into the wide universe, compelling everyone to send platitudes back to me. But that’s not at all why I write.

I write because I know you’ll write back about your own grief and your own struggle to endure and overcome the pain of loss. You’ll place brave comments in the comment section. And you’ll heal a little more because you acknowledged it. Just like what I’m doing now. Sharing pain releases it. That’s what I want for myself and for you. And I’m guessing that’s what Grief really wants. It’s why she keeps coming back.

We all experience anger, sadness, longing, loss, jealousy, and bitterness. We all struggle together, even though we feel alone. Jealousy makes you feel guilty. Sadness makes you feel weak. Anger makes you feel helpless. Loss makes you feel lost. These are the emotions that Grief is trying to work out of her system.

So here’s another story of sadness and joy. I share it joyfully because something of value awaits you on the other side of grief.

On Monday of this week, I had a dream about my mom.

We were both visiting in the quaint town of my childhood: Owatonna, Minnesota. Mom and I were back to attend a banquet of some kind for all the college professors she knew during her 15 year-tenure as an English professor at a small college there. The college has been closed for several years now, and most everyone we knew there has long since moved away, but for some reason (because it’s dream), we were all meeting to attend a reunion banquet at the school. Because my mother suffered from dementia, I was accompanying her as her Plus-One.

I had spent my childhood in this Victorian-prairie town, whose square city blocks housed huge oak trees and rows of clapboard homes. Many houses had wrap-around front porches ornamented by latticework, stained glass windows, and a turret if you were one of the lucky residents. Newer houses were plain split-levels, ranches, or Mission-styled bungalows with square porches and big front windows. Shade covered everything, and the summer air held the scent of cut grass.

My dream smelled like home.

Mom and I were walking along the sidewalk near the college, looking for a local vendor to buy the tickets from. (Not logical for real life but perfectly logical for a dream to a non-existent college.) Mom spotted a vendor under a big tree and got into line. (Who would be lining up for this? And why did we not recognize any other people?)

Unrealistically, I wandered away from her, lost in the ambience of being back in Owatonna and looking forward to seeing so many people from our past.

When I turned back to get Mom, and I couldn’t find her. I panicked, berating myself for my negligence. How could I disregard her dementia–that she cannot be alone, much less buy tickets by herself? I ran along the sidewalk, calling for her. (Even as I ran, I told myself, This is a dream; it’s okay. But I kept running.)

I found Mom sitting on someone’s front steps, content and waiting. I don’t think she knew that she was waiting for me because she smiled, pleasantly surprised, when she saw me run up to her. “Oh, Susan!”

It was the voice and expression she used in her later life whenever I would leave the room and return. Because of her dementia, her face would light up in surprise every time I walked back into the room.

“Did you get the tickets?” I asked.

“Yes, but they were expensive! $30 a piece.” Mom was never one to spend money on eating out.

“I’ll buy them,” I said. “I’m honored to go as your guest.” (Then why didn’t I just buy them myself? Another weird dream thing.)

“Oh, no, I don’t want you to do that.” My mother was eternally generous with me and everyone else. Generous with her time, her resources, her talents.

And now comes the part that made the dream real, that tricked my subconscious into living and feeling the moment.

I said, “Mom, what do you want to do for the rest of the day, before the banquet? We can do anything or go anywhere. The world is your oyster.”

The world is your oyster.

That was Mom’s expression whenever she noticed someone truly happy, whenever life felt limitless.

Mom’s laugh rippled out of her mouth like silk and floated in the air around me. While she laughed, she tucked her head slightly to the right, her chin down and her eyelids closed. A smile tugged at her mouth. She was so pleased to hear me repeat her words back to her.

Mom was sheer effervescence. The person I have missed for what feels like eternity.

The world is your oyster.

I enveloped her into an embrace. She reacted in her usual way: she hugged a bit stiffly at first, then patted me on my back, then hugged me back. I felt her warmth, her presence, and her love.

At first, I felt her feeble old-person frame, leaning against me. Then she melted into the mother of my childhood–a strong, healthy, confident woman with a lot of love. A woman who didn’t back down from anything or anybody.

I leaned into her, shifting my weight from supporting her to being supported by her.

“I’ve missed you so much!” I sobbed. It was happening. I could feel her. All the moments I remembered and the connection I’ve missed for 3 eternal years. She was real again.

My shoulders began shaking. My sobs took voice. Then my heaving woke me up.

And the emptiness returned.

She was gone again. The embrace was gone. The reality was gone. Home was gone.

This is grief. It’s not empty toilet paper bins or wearing a mask in a store. It’s true loss, a loss that needs something.

What does grief want from you?

Connection, most of all. But it will also settle for exploration. Invitation. Receptivity. Resilience. Grief wants permission for daily remembrances and occasional bursts of painful memories. It wants a response from the soul, an acknowledgment of presence and importance. And then it wants you to move on and live, fully alive so it can rest peacefully.

Grief reminds us that the world is our oyster. A pearl lies buried inside our painful moments, if only we have the courage to risk prying the shell open and snatching the pearl.

Even in tragic or difficult circumstances, always look for the pearl. Live every moment while you have it, with the people you love. And when they’re gone, remember them with more gratefulness than longing.

The pearl is love, and love is always worth the heartache that comes with it.

Monday afternoon, my husband took me for a walk. We ended up at the memorial bench I dedicated to my mom in a local park. When my boys were little, she and I used to take my boys here to feed ducks. Since she’s buried in another state, this bench is the closest I can get to a memorial. (Aside from the million things I have in my house that used to belong to her!)

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