Category Archives: grief

‘Beauty and the Beast’ & Other Tales We Tell

A savior complex is at the heart of most fairytales. Usually, it’s the woman who needs to be saved. But sometimes, it’s the woman who both needs to be saved and who has to do the saving. This is what happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” which in full confession I know only from film.

I saw the 1991 version when it opened in theaters. This was one of the first films I was allowed to see at the movie theater with friends, without my mother. I remember sitting in the theater with 10 of my closest friends, and watching the candlestick try to make out with the feather duster, and thinking, “This is weird.” But the songs were catchy. (Be our guest. BE OUR GUEST!) For better or worse, the lyrics and story have stayed with me.

I watched the 1991 film last Thursday in preparation to see Disney’s remake during opening weekend, which sold out in my city. I’d forgotten that the beast is a scary, shouty, beating-on-doors beast dude. I had also forgotten that the word “consent” is not part of Gaston’s limited vocabulary.

I found myself holding my breath during tense moments between Gaston and Belle, when he appeared close to assaulting her. Rape is the subtext of these scenes, and I certainly didn’t see that in 1991. Nor did anyone point it out to me. In our family, Disney was not questioned. Its myths were pure.

Still, I found the remake stunning. Emma Watson as Belle conveys a human, no bullshit, no fear female power that a cartoon Belle could never accomplish. When it comes time to save the beast from Gaston, Watson subverts the Prince Charming trope by riding a white horse into the castle. That is one cool detail, even if Belle is tasked with saving the beast. (He’s already saved her from wolves, so this makes them even.)

Their romance is complicated by the pursuer/pursued dynamic and caretaking, with Belle being the prime caretaker.

During one caretaking scene where Belle nurses the beast after the wolf attack, we learn that his rage stems from Mommy and Daddy issues. This backstory was left out of the 1991 film: After the beast’s mother died, there was no one to protect him from his wrathful father. So he became wrathful like his father, and only a woman’s love can change him back to his best self. This is a dangerous myth. Yet we all are meant to celebrate the myth. The film’s final dance scene gives us a sense of order restored, the tragic turned comic. We can all leave relieved. Everything works out in the end.

Except the few curses that can’t be reversed, or the dead who will not come back to life, no matter how fervently they are wished for or loved.

Belle’s dead mother is absent from the dance, from the whole story. Her absence is an unacknowledged detail in the 1991 film, but the remake delves into backstory. Thanks to a magic mirror and the beast being in a good mood, Belle learns her mother died from Plague. The loss has been her life’s unspeakable secret, a secretly actively cultivated by her father.

Maternal loss binds her to the beast. It is the bond that seals their fate, the first magic to erode the witch’s curse long before the last petal falls from the rose.

“Beauty and the Beast” is not unusual in this sense. Mothers are absent from many fairytales. But they are often present too, either working magic from beyond the grave or being invoked through the caretaking roles their daughters assume.

Fairytales testify to the influence mothers enact in children’s lives across time and history and culture. The dead mother has incredible power. Her death is the root of deep transformation. Her love defies death, propels magic.

I am still obsessed with these tales, even “Beauty and the Beast,” despite its flaws. Not because I believe in magic or Prince Charming or happily ever after, but because I believe in my mother’s love.

I need to believe her love survives her.

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My mother told me my first fairytales. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. She read them over and over, rented their cartoon film adaptations from the library, took me to see them staged at a children’s theater near our apartment. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at ages three, or four, or five, I would have said “princess,” even though I knew the stories were make believe. I wanted them to be true, as in factually true. I wanted to believe in magic.

In fairytales, everything works out in the end. The comatose princess awakens. The abused, neglected child finds true love. The hovel becomes a castle. The wicked are punished.

As a girl, I knew my mother was sick. I knew her health was imperiled. But we never said the word dying, despite our close calls. My sister and I never acknowledged how we lived our own bleak fairytale, saving our mother from death in the nick of time, year after year, day after day. Until the the day we couldn’t.

After our mother died, my sister and I faced the merciless task of placing her clothing and personal items in giant trash bags bound for Goodwill. But I saved one book from the trash bag heap –– her worn copy of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales published by Nelson Doubleday in 1960, when my mother was eight.

I’d taken this book for my own as a girl, coloring on its pages and then highlighting lines from my favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.”

“The Juniper Tree” has typical Grimm gore, but I read the story obsessively. The plot goes like this: a wicked stepmother beheads her stepson. She boils his body and feeds it to her husband, the boy’s father. The boy’s sister, who has been tricked into believing she killed her brother, buries the bones beneath an enchanted juniper tree. This act allows the boy to become a bird, who then flies around singing the truth of his murder. Ultimately, everyone but the stepmother lives happily ever after: the bird becomes a boy; the father never finds out that he ate his son; the stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head; father, son, and sister return home to eat dinner, likely not human remains.

This morning, I reread the story and realized one root of my obsession. “The Juniper Tree” acknowledges grief –– the boy’s sister cries nonstop until the bird (her dead brother) gives her a pair of red shoes –– and the story makes death impermanent, if only in the case of the boy. Both his mother and stepmother remain dead through the last line, which actually includes the words “and they felt very happy and content, and went indoors, and sat at the table, and had their dinner.”

If only real life could work this way. If only we knew the spell to bring our dead back to life.

I will mark the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death in two weeks. Sometimes, I still wish she could come back. I still wish I knew the magic words to save her.

A Little Bit Lost in Washington, D.C.

When my mother died, I lived two blocks from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro stop. I turned 21 in that apartment, which I shared with two other women who were interning with me at Scripps Howard.

They did not like me. I didn’t know why. I learned not to care.

That winter, I had one real friend in my internship program, a Chilean student who had roommate troubles too. In our own ways, we were both “other,” and I think that sealed our bond.

At night we met for dinner at a Chipotle between our apartments. We hung out together on the weekends too. The Newseum had just opened, and we went there once. He took a funny photo of me outside the main entrance. My arms are outstretched, like I’m trying to hug the sky. I found the photo a few months ago, and it made me laugh because I remember the last few months of my mother’s life as deeply unhappy. I’d forgotten tiny moments of joy that seeped through my sadness.

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I threw my friend a birthday party when he turned 20. My mother met him that night. But it’s been so long, I can only remember what she wore, a red vest and blue jeans. I can’t remember if she liked him, or if even he liked her.

In retrospect, it seems odd that this boy and I did not date. We spent so much time together. But I was on the verge of losing my mother. I had no capacity to date. I froze him out when he got too close, which I regret to this day. I couldn’t handle another person needing me. I couldn’t be available to his need.

Still, he met me on the stairs when I went back to the apartment a week after my mother died. He held a box full of my notebooks and the last Jimi Hendrix CD I’d listened to at work.

He’d cleaned out my desk for me. He’d carefully packed my possessions. He did not know I’d soon throw the box away because I could not bear to look at its contents. He did not know I could not even stand to look at a newspaper. Grief turned me upside down, inside out, unraveled all the threads that had once tied me together.

He kissed my cheek, then turned away. I never saw him again.

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I’d only come to the apartment to retrieve a few things. I’d go back once more, and then never again. Then I’d leave for Scotland, then Syracuse, then Scotland again, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.

I had a few brief trips to D.C. in between all the years I lived away from Maryland, but I could never stay for more than a few days. I could never live there again.

When I walked the pavement or negotiated traffic, I’d feel like the person I’d been before my mother died. Dread tightened my chest, turned my skin to ice. I’d feel like I was grasping for something I desperately wanted, something just out of my reach. Yet, I also felt certain in my steps, like the person I was before she got sick.

Each time I came to D.C., these two selves collided. I was both the person I’d been when my mother was healthy, and the person I became when she got sick. The question of who’d I have been if she hadn’t died haunted me.

I fled from facing the person I became because she died, the person I am now.

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I’m in D.C. this week for the AWP Conference. Each night, I’ve walked the streets near my old internship office.

These are the streets I walked everyday when my mother was dying. These streets are the last places where I ever heard my mother’s voice. I used to walk them when I couldn’t concentrate in the small office space I shared with other interns.

The last time I walked these streets, I didn’t know it was the last time. I left my internship on a Friday afternoon. I went home for the weekend thinking I’d be back on Monday, ready to file a story I’d worked on all semester and was ready to publish in a national newspaper. But my mother died on a Sunday. So I never went back to that office. I never filed the story I’d worked on for three months.

The other night, as I walked, I realized I no longer recognized this place. All the buildings look different, more antiseptic and cold. I felt disoriented, the same way I felt after my mother died. Like I had no sense of forward or backward, no east or west.

I realized I needed to go back to the internship office. I needed to see it in the light of day.

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Today I walked in circles initially. I couldn’t orient myself. But as I neared the internship office, my right ear ached, and I knew I was getting close.

I thought I’d feel something when I stood in the doorway, peered into the sterile lobby. But the force of self protection is powerful. I just felt numb, like this building could have been any building, insignificant and anonymous.

Only when I reached McPherson Square Park did something break open. My knees wobbled. A wave of dizziness sailed over me. I had to sit down on a bench.

This park was where I most often talked to my mother. She spoke to me from her living room sofa, from hospital beds, from dialysis breaks. We talked about my articles, about my Chilean friend, about the interns who didn’t like me. We did not talk about her death. We never even said the word.

Against the clamor of cars on K Street, I strained to remember the sound of her voice. Was it nasal? Was it high pitched? Did she elongate her Os in the standard Baltimore fashion?

But I could barely remember the answers to these questions.

Now her voice is not even a whisper. It’s an echo at the edge of fading, the sound a leaf makes when it falls to the ground.

Two tears slid down my face at the exact same time. I cried for what it was to be barely 21 and motherless, and what it is to be almost 36 and unable to recall the most primal sound of my life, the voice that called me to this world, the one that assured me I was safe. I was loved.

In the Desert

When I visited the Sonoran Desert for the first time in September 2006, the landscape left me speechless. I felt like I was underwater, experiencing an ecosystem that was entirely “other” to what I always knew growing up on the East Coast.

Carl took this photo of me on our first hike in the Sonoran, a month before he asked me to marry him.

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This was our first hike together, and I was not prepared. But my smile is genuine, even though I’m wearing fashion sneakers that slid all over the pebbly sand. I did not become athletic or even outdoorsy until a few years into our marriage. This trip was a turning point because it showed me what I could do.

Now I am drawn to the Sonoran Desert because of the constant interplay between life and death. While this interplay exists in all ecosystems, it’s most apparent to me here.

We live in a culture that tries to erase death at every turn. Instead of died, we say passed away. Instead of funeral, we say Celebration of Life. But death cannot be erased in the desert. Death defies erasure. The desert is the most necessary memento mori that exists.

Leaving always breaks my heart.

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From what I’m told, my paternal grandmother loved the desert too. She’s buried there now, in the shade of a Creosote.

She lived in a neighborhood studded by prickly pears and Palo Verdes. But she planted shamrocks in her backyard, made them bloom beneath her kitchen window.

The first time I stood in what was once my grandmother’s backyard, my aunt pointed out her shamrocks. I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark. I couldn’t capture their essence. As I stood in the spot where her hands once plunged into rocky earth, I could feel my grandmother’s faith. Her spunk. I could sense her capacity for imagination.

The great sadness of my life is that I didn’t know this grandmother. She moved to Phoenix before I was born. My parents separated a year after my birth. Their divorce was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf messy. But the aftermath is what I remember, and I think it was worse. With the exception of my father’s father, I was cut off from the rest of the family.

Until the day she died, my grandmother carried my photo in her wallet. She wore my name on a charm around her wrist. She never stopped loving me. But I have no memory of her.

Still, I always think of her when I walk the desert. I conjure the story of who she was, and who we could have been together.

Last weekend, when I hiked Saguaro National Park with Carl, tears pooled in my eyes. “I should have seen this with my grandmother,” I told him, then blew my nose.

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Grief is not linear. It’s more like a wave that rolls right back out to sea once it hits the shore. There’s no end point. No exit.

The first time I visited my grandmother’s grave, I wept as I wept when my own mother died. I did not expect the crush of sadness I felt. I placed my hand on her grave, as if I could touch her. This motion staunched my tears. I resolved to know her as best I could.

This year, when I touched her grave, I breathed Creosote and said the metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at ease.

My grandmother died not knowing that I loved her. There is nothing I can do to rectify that fact. On Sunday, I placed a rock I collected from the Chesapeake Bay on her grave. This rock came from the same beach where I scattered my mother’s ashes five years ago. Before I left the gravesite, I picked up a pink pebble and tucked it into my purse.

I wanted to carry a small part of this place away with me, as if I could merge with the desert, with my grandmother, as if such a thing could be.

January 2017

My mother got sick in January. A week after New Year’s Eve, she laid down on our living room floor and couldn’t move. She thought she had the flu. In truth, her transplanted kidney was rejecting, seven years after her experimental transplant.

That New Year’s Eve, I’d gone to a club in Baltimore with friends. I wore a silk top and sparkly earrings. When I went downstairs to kiss my mother goodbye, she said, You are so beautiful.

 Since she died, no one has ever said those exact words to me.

Her last January wasn’t cold. My mother bought me a black pea coat at an Annie Sez on Reisterstown Road. I wore it all winter, through April, when she died. I wore it to her funeral, to the pool the first time I left the house after the funeral, to the grief counselor I saw in those early weeks when I thought grief was something I could work through, then overcome with enough effort. Like turning a C- in Algebra into an A. I wanted an A+ in grief management.

I still have the pea coat. I can’t remember the last time I wore it.

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Twelve years after my mother died, I posted her photo on Facebook.

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It’s a photo that startles some people. We look so much alike.

I wrote, “My beautiful mother died twelve years ago today. She left me her courage, her hope, and her heart.”

A woman I don’t know well wrote that I’d made my mother proud. Then she wrote that I needed to move on.

“There is no moving on,” I wrote back. “There is memory. There is grief. There is love.” But she didn’t respond.

A woman I worked with at the time told me she thought I’d handled the comment well. I agreed.

I didn’t tell her how sad I’d felt when I’d read the woman’s words. How they hit me like icy rain. How I felt like I was getting an F in grief.

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This week, I was walking the windy alley between my garage and house, and I had this thought: In April, my mother will have been dead 15 years. Then I had this thought: By the time I have a baby, she could be dead for 16 years. Or 17.

I have these thoughts even though I meditate, practice Yoga, have a job I love, a house in a great neighborhood, a husband who is devoted to me. I am not ashamed of these thoughts. My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I think of her each day.

She has never seen my college diploma. She has never met my husband. She has never held her grandchildren or known me as professional woman.

I have held all of her grandchildren within hours of their births.

My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I have not moved on.

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I had a cold this week. On New Year’s Eve, I crammed onto our couch with Carl, our two rescue dogs, and my mother-in-law. One dog rested on my lap, the other nuzzled my shoulder. My mother-in-law cross-stitched, while Carl and I watched “Bunheads.” I texted with my friend Anne, then went to bed a little after 9 p.m. I am still not feeling well.

Each morning, Carl asks if I’m feeling better. I have felt pressured to feel better, even when I’m feeling pretty awful. So I say, “Yes,” because I don’t like disappointing people. Also, I want to be optimistic.

I say, “Yes” even though I spent all of Thursday in bed and keep waking at 4 a.m. because my throat hurts and I can’t lay still any longer.

Still, I rallied on Friday. I washed my hands for two minutes. Then I made carrot-ginger soup, and latkes from scratch. I made crab cakes for my mother-in-law. We had a beautiful dinner. So far, no one else has gotten sick.

My mother taught me how to get out of bed, no matter what. She taught me how to get dressed, put on makeup, and go out, even if I felt unwell.

She wore mascara each day of her life. Even on her last day. She never left the house without blush or lipstick.

I wore mascara when I made latkes on Friday. No lipstick.

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I will spend part of January in Arizona. I will visit the Sonoran Desert, one of my favorite places on earth. I will visit my grandmother’s grave. I will wear a red dress I bought in New Orleans and dance at a wedding.

I first visited the Sonoran Desert in 2006. I stayed at a monastery. It was the first time I’d ever seen saguaros, and I photographed them obsessively.

I only stayed a few days. I was not a good monastic. I broke rules. I snuck Carl into my room, then junk food and fashion magazines. I wanted to be outside, in the desert, not silenced by prayer.

In my room, staring out at saguaros, I wrote in a journal I’d given my mother. She’d never written a single word.

I minored in creative writing in college, and used to write short stories. I wrote one short story the year after my mother died, then stopped. I’d begin another short story, but could never finish. It was as if all the words that lived inside of me died with her.

Yet, in the desert, the words came back. And I kept writing after I came home. I filled composition journals, spiral notebooks, and steno pads. I wrote on napkins and index cards. Only this time, I wasn’t writing fiction. I was writing about her and me. I couldn’t stop. Why would I? When I wrote about my mother, I brought her back to life.

My New Year’s resolution in 2016 was to write every day, and I did. I published more essays about my mother, and I started this blog on Mother’s Day.

I plan to keep writing every day in 2017. It’s the only way I can fully honor my mother’s legacy and all she gave me. Thank you for reading.

Meeting the Dead in Dreamland

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung

I woke up at 3 a.m. from a nightmare that my sister’s infant son had gone missing. It was a terrifying dream, full of caves, masked men, and all consuming darkness. In the dream, we never found the baby, but I searched for him until I awoke to heart palpitations. Then I couldn’t go back to sleep. My mind wandered to the worst, worst case scenarios I could imagine, to the kinds of unfathomable losses that no one ever wants to think about. The kind that I cannot even bring myself to write.

You see, I’m afraid if I write them down, I will make them real.

The thing about surviving an earth shattering loss is that it opens you up to the probability of future earth shattering losses. Nothing is safe. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever. Death traces a shadow across every good thing. Even happiness feels false. You learn to distrust joy. You learn to distrust peace. Life can feel like a never ending production of “Hamlet,” which (big surprise) is the play that formed the basis of my master’s thesis.

Before I did my MFA, I immersed myself in what is arguably the most depressing literary text ever written, a tragedy centering on two children maddened by grief. I was obsessed with Ophelia –– motherless, fatherless, suicidal Ophelia. I, too, was a little mad at this time. I was afraid of everything. Driving at night. Rain. Walking from my car to our house. Most of all, I was afraid of Carl’s death. I thought about it all the time. What would I do if he died? How would I cope?

I needed the answers to these questions because I needed to know I could survive beyond him. I read “Hamlet” and wrote about Ophelia for hours each week. Still, I wasn’t soothed. If Carl was late coming home, I convinced myself he’d been in a car accident. I’d call him repeatedly until he answered the phone –– perplexed, but patient. Sometimes, I’d awaken in the middle of the night just to check that he was still breathing. Sometimes I still do.

But, at a certain point, it’s reckless to allow fear to pollute the present. At a certain point we have to live our lives. At a certain point, “Hamlet” stops being fun and starts being a depressing tragedy that the students I now teach don’t want to read. So I started writing about my own grief, and about my mother.

On the page, I found I could resurrect her. I could bring us both back to life. I found a therapist who taught me how to recognize intrusive thoughts, and how to distinguish catastrophic thinking from reality. I recommitted myself to the meditation practice that has sustained me for the past decade. I found my way into an MFA program and kept writing my way back to my mother, which ultimately saved me.

Yet, death still haunts my dreams.

Last night’s dream was the second baby dream I’ve had in a week. The first dream goes like this: Carl and I awaken to cries coming from a back bedroom of our house. We find a boy –– presumably our son –– standing in a dark room. He’s wailing and holding tiny hooks in his hands, the kinds of hooks that we use to hang our Christmas tree ornaments. Given that we’re currently childless, I’m astounded to see this beautiful, blonde boy in our home. But removing the hooks from the boy’s hands feels like a life-or-death situation. I’m terrified he’ll swallow a hook. I’m only a mother for five seconds, and already I’m afraid of losing our son. Already, I’m thinking of all the seemingly innocuous things that can kill him.

In the dream, panic swept over me. It wasn’t an omygod I’m-not-ready-to-be-a-mother! kind of panic. It was an ohmygod my house is a death trap! kind of panic. And now I’ve had a second child loss dream.

Carl spent years studying Jungian dream work. He’s meditating right now, but If I interrupted him, he’d probably tell me that the lost child –– or the almost dead child –– stand for a hidden aspect of myself. Some buried subconscious fragment is breaking through to the surface. He’d say the panic connects with the difficult emotional work of knowing ourselves, of being truthful about who we are and what we want in life. There are no answers in dream work, only questions. But I think he’d also tell me that darkness cannot be separated from light, that facing the darkness is what makes us truly conscious.

I interpret the dreams from the edge of mother loss. A mother who loses a child never stops being a mother, but that implication is unavoidable, and it complicates the grief that mothers who lose children feel.

My grandmother lost two children. The first loss was her firstborn infant son, who died at four months. The second loss was my mother. She died on April 7. Three years later, my grandmother fell into a coma on that same day. She took her last breath on April 8.

I was with her when she died. I spent the entire day holding her hand, reading Rumi to her because his words felt like the only appropriate response. Watching her die made me less afraid of death, more open to the beauty that can arise from our most feared moments.

I read to her from “Say I Am You”: I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy, / the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, / and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t. The poem’s images focus on interconnection, on how we are all dust and sunlight and stars, on how everything that is alive comes from what is also dead.

One of the greatest gifts of my sister’s children is how they bring the dead back to life. My mother is dead, but she continues to live through this genealogy. My sister and I both resemble her, but I can’t see her features in us the same way I can see them in her grandchildren. My eldest nephew has her smile and sense of humor. My niece has her courage and strength. My dream child had her eyes. Even in the darkness, I could see them clear as day.

The Darkest Time of Year

I never liked Thanksgiving. One year when I was home from college, my mother humored my holiday angst. She made salmon and lentil soup because I didn’t eat red meat or poultry. Then she let me stay home from a family gathering. I told her I hated celebrating the European colonization of the United States, that it felt like celebrating Hitler’s election to chancellor. When I shared this information with her, she sat us both down on the white couch in her living room. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “The holidays are about family and for being grateful for what you have.”

A year later, we celebrated her last Thanksgiving, although we didn’t know it at the time. This was the first and only time I ever cooked with her during a holiday. I don’t remember everything we made, just how comforted I felt to be with her in the kitchen. How safe and peaceful I felt beside her. I wish I could say I savored the moment, that I felt grateful. But, I didn’t know she was dying then. I was only 20. I thought assembling a salad from a bag mix, then adding raisins and chopped apples, was a high culinary achievement. The moments that passed between us are only special in retrospect.

Since her death, I have wanted to avoid Thanksgiving altogether. I have spent it abroad. I have spent it alone. I have spent it playing Monopoly and eating Thai food with my husband. I have spent it hiking in Shenandoah National Park with our two dogs. In this way, I may be dishonoring my mother’s legacy, since I often choose to retreat from family and tradition. But family gatherings stress me out because I focus on what is missing, on her absence. It’s easier for me to do my own thing, then to embrace other people’s expectations of what the holidays should be. I’m happier this way. I am more honest about myself.

This year was harder than I expected. I agreed to participate in a traditional gathering at my aunt’s house because I am grateful for her. She’s had a rough year. I wanted to support her. I texted my father on Thanksgiving to wish him a happy holiday. He called me a few seconds later and talked at length about everything going wrong in his life. He never asked, “How are you?” He never asked, “What must it be like for you to celebrate holidays without your mother?”

My mother raised me. After she left him, he beat her in front of my sister and me. For many years, she was my only parent. Despite our past, I love my father dearly, primally. Relationships are complex webs. He has worked hard on himself. He is not the person he used to be. I know these past few weeks have been horrible for him. But I have felt triggered by my father during this election. He supported Donald Trump, which makes me feel unsafe, and brings back memories of past abuse. On Thursday, I also felt abandoned and irritated by his lack of empathy. I talked to my husband about it, then I made mushrooms and polenta and drove to my aunt’s house. I spent most of Thanksgiving holed up in a bedroom with my sister, who needed to nurse her infant son, also known as My Precious. Still, my bad mood lingered over the weekend. I do not begrudge anyone their holiday cheer. Right now, I’m focusing on getting through the holidays.

That said, I seek comfort during this darkest time of my year by remembering my mother’s emphasis on gratitude. This is how I lift myself out of sadness. This is how I honor her. I have tried keeping gratitude journals, but I always forget to write in them. (There is still a gratitude journal from 2009 sitting on my night table). So I pause each day to consider something for which I feel grateful. Some days, I have to dig deep. On these days, I am grateful for working radiators and leftovers in the fridge. Other days, I am grateful to live within driving distance of my sister and best friend, who have seen me through the worst of my grief. This weekend, I felt grateful for Carl. We spent all of Friday watching “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” and he knows the show better than any of my friends’ husbands. He even predicted the ending, which I didn’t like. Still, I am grateful for a husband who can spend 20 minutes discussing why my dream ending is more feminist than the actual ending.

I am also grateful to have found a doctor who identified the underlying hormonal imbalances causing my Hashimoto’s. I’m grateful for his hope that I will be able to conceive and sustain a pregnancy after one year of treatment. Always, I am grateful for my niece and nephews, who continue my mother’s legacy in ways she never imagined. Most of all, I’m grateful to have been her daughter.

Grief Observed: Lessons from Binge-Watching “Six Feet Under”

Carl and I started watching Six Feet Under this summer. This is my first time watching. When the pilot aired in 2001, I knew my mother’s death was inevitable, but neither of us could face that truth. We pretended she’d recover, that kidney failure in a type-one diabetic was just a temporary thing. I, along with much of the nation, had also watched the twin towers collapse on live television. Death hung over everything that year, but I thought Six Feet was weird and morbid. I wanted nothing to do with it.

Carl, who lived across the country from me, was starting seminary. He loved the show, all its rituals and questions about life and death and truth. He watched weekly with his friends. At the time, we didn’t know each other. But back in 2001, one of my good friends was a Six Feet fan, and I’d hear about the show’s weekly episodes from her. She loved Six Feet because her father worked as an undertaker in central Pennsylvania. Funerals were their family’s business, and it had been that way for generations. When my mother died in April 2002, this friend was studying abroad. But that didn’t stop her from reaching out.

The day she learned of my mother’s death, she sent me yellow roses and a card. In the subsequent weeks, she left me thoughtful voicemails. She responded to my e-mails without missing a beat. Never once did she attempt to comfort me with irritating platitudes or vague offers of prayer. She understood there was no reason why my mother had to suffer, or why I had to face the rest of my life without a mother to guide me.

What I needed was to get through each moment, each day. Through it all, this friend stood by me. We didn’t know the term holding space back then, but that is what she did for me. She held space for my grief, and she didn’t flee, like many others did. I don’t blame them. Grief is terrifying, especially to twenty-one year-olds, many of whom have never even lost a pet. My mother’s death, and my own grief, reminded others of what they stood to lose, and many could not bear to look.

One of the reasons why I think Carl and I are drawn to Six Feet now– we binge-watched half of season four yesterday –– is because death feels like our family business, too. We both lost parents young. As adolescents and young adults, we saw our parents lose control of their bodies and hope. We stood at their funerals. We received diplomas and awards without them watching. Any child we have will grow up never knowing two essential grandparents. We will mourn our parents again and again. There is no finish line for grief.

Had I watched Six Feet back in 2001, I’d know how grief “comes and goes,” as Nate says in season four. I’d know grief feels more like an ocean than a highway. I’d know how unexpressed grief leads to greater pain, and that numbing through sex or drugs or alcohol does not lessen our suffering, but only ushers in greater despair. I’d know death stops for no one, but it is also not contagious.

I hope I’d understand that, at 21, I could not bring my mother’s body back, no matter how long and deeply I mourned. But I could return to her essence through my work as a writer and teacher and friend. Now I feel my mother’s spirit –– not her ghost, but the core of who she was –– when I hold space for others. When I make room for another person’s grief, I make room for my mother. In this way, I honor her death and her life. Rather than confining her to a grave or a memory, I make her expansive, like my own heart, which is one half hers, still beating, still alive, in the world.