Category Archives: grief

On Hiatus

“Yet It Will Come” is on hiatus while I finish my memoir Mother of Rebellion. In the next few months, this website will also be redesigned to accommodate the book. I’ll post links to my published writing, events, and other resources on Twitter.

You can find my recent work in Minerva Rising (Issue 15 Fall 2018), Bellingham Review (Issue 76), and Solstice Literary Magazine, where my essay “The Gleaming Miraculous” was a finalist and Editors’ Pick in the Summer 2018 Contest judged by Phillip Lopate. You can also read my 2018 Pushcart Prize-nominated essay “To Punctuate” at Full Grown People. Many thanks to editor Jennifer Niesslein for nominating my work — and I recommend Jennifer’s brilliant essay “Politics in Prose” in Issue 68 of Creative Nonfiction

For more about Mother of Rebellion and my most recent thoughts on writing about love and loss, check out this interview with me published on the Bellingham Review blog in September 2018.

Thank you for following my writing. More soon. I promise.

xoxo,

Magin

 

A Course in Healing

1. No one wants to be here, and here we are. Exactly where we’re required to be. So welcome to an experience you never asked for. Welcome to an experience you did not choose. Welcome to “A Course in Healing.” I’m glad you’re here.

2. By the way, the word “glad” (above) is an example of the feigned positivity that will become a norm of your grief experience. Get excited. That was example No. 2.

3. There are no clear learning outcomes for this course, although learning will soon be projected onto your experience. “What have you learned?” People will ask in clipped, expectant tones.

4. “Misfortune is a great teacher,” they will say, and you will learn how to nod wordlessly.

5. It is considered bad form to respond, “I have learned that in the face of my discomfort, I am expected to comfort other people.”

6. It is equally bad form to say, “I have learned that when people ask me how I’m doing, I must say something like okay or fine because those are the only acceptable responses.

7. Do not say, “Sometimes I sit in a dark garage and weep.” Do not say, “I configure my day around ‘Growing Pains’ reruns.”

8. In short, during “A Course in Healing” you will learn how to be a good faker. Some people will even say faking is a key ingredient to your healing. We will cover this dynamic during our unit on Erasure.

9. It’s okay to wonder why the expression of vulnerability upsets the relationship non-grieving people have with permanence and/or the performance of happiness.

10. You may have figured out by now that “A Course in Healing,” should be renamed as “A Course in Lying.” I have brought this suggestion to the Curriculum Committee, and its chair reminds me that “lying” doesn’t resonate, but “healing” has cache. Healing is rainbows and holidays and sparkly love magic. Grief is blech.

11. Now you might be wondering: “Will there be any tests?”

12. Each moment of your life is a test, and there are no grades. Only choices and questions. You pass no matter what choices you make. You pass even if you choose to eat potato chips for every meal, even if you listen to that one Jeff Buckley song until the CD player skips.

13. There is no extra credit. At the end of this course, you will not be a better person. You will be a different person. You might be a person who can tangle with competing truths. You might be better at letting go of appearances, other people’s expectations, your own miscalculated dreams.

14. If I do my job well, I will impress upon you that there is no bright side where your pain fizzles out forever. There are black holes of sorrow. There is dark matter we live inside of and between. There are moments when we wish to disappear forever, if only to stop the pain.

15. There are the people we would have been without our losses, and there are the people we become because of everything we have lost.

16. There are the futures we claim.

17. There are the dreams we rewrite.

18. Take me as a case study: Before my mother died I kept a diary. My college roommate gave it to me one Hanukah. She wrote a quote from Oscar Wilde inside the front cover. “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

19. And that is what I thought life was back then –– sensation for the taking. A nonstop adventure romp. The long weekend between adolescence and middle age.

20. I was twenty and twenty-one in the last years of my mother’s life, and I wrote sad poetry in that journal. And I wrote about boys I thought I loved, who maybe loved me, who didn’t love me as much as I wanted them to love me.

21. And I wasted my time with these boys. Wasted my worrying. And then my mother died, and I lost interest in boys. I ignored them, avoided them, until I fell hard for a man I never expected to meet. He lived an ocean away. But I wrote to him every day the way I’d once written to my mother. And he wrote back to me.

22. “Hi Sweetie,” his e-mails began. It was the same cheerful salutation my mother had used daily with me. In my first year without her, this man was sunshine pouring down after a night where I believed I’d never see light again.

23. He was the first proxy I made for my dead mother, and he would not be the last.

24. Even though it was not his job, he championed me the way my mother had. He made a big deal of my birthdays. He said, “I love you” without choking. He mailed me mix CDs with heart wrenching songs I’d never heard.

25. He knew where I was at night and in the morning.

26. When we were together, he held me until I fell asleep, the same way my mother had held me long ago.

27. But –– but –– a lover and a mother are not the same thing. A lover cannot be a mother. Such a burden will crush the most sincere loves.

28. One night we both cried, and I boarded a plane alone. I can still hear the sound of my suitcase scraping the pavement on the way to the airport. I thought I was leaving him temporarily. But it turned out that my leaving was permanent. I just didn’t know how to say that yet.

29. I didn’t want to leave this man, and I had to leave this man.

30. I’d never find my mother in another person. If I wasn’t careful, my search for her would destroy every chance at love that came my way.

31. I could never save her.

32. I could only save myself.

33. When I walked away from a man I loved, I walked toward a life I couldn’t imagine, a life he could not walk for me no matter how much he wanted to. I had to walk alone, toward a motherless future awaiting me.

34. My mother taught me there are no escapes.

35. My mother taught me I could withstand being sucked back into the long, lightless night.

36. Her wisdom lived beyond her, lived:

  • in the cat I rescued a few months later, a stray I didn’t want but took, lived
  • in the man I married, and a home where I made my own light, lived
  • in the stairwell of a college, where I sat one afternoon with a student who told me about a man who hurt her.

37. When the student finished her story, I told her a story about my mother.

38. I told her courage means walking toward our worst fears, walking toward the truths we don’t want to say.

39. Then we both walked toward the counseling center.

40. Each time I listen to another person’s hard story, each time I tell my own hard story, I carve another notch on the shrine I built for my mother, a shrine called memory, a shrine called love.

41. Healing is a word I avoid. I’d rather be changed, remade, reborn.

42. I’d rather hold a broken heart in my upturned palm, marvel at a heart that beats in spite of its cracks.

43. In this course, we will be who we are. We will be everything we are afraid to say. We will be the whole story of our pain.

 

Sixty Five

Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.

The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”

I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.

I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.

You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.

A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.

____

Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?

Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.

And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.

You remember denial is a life preserver.

Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.

____

Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.

____

You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.

At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.

Okay.

So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?

Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?

____

You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.

And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?

You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.

Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.

A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.

One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.

You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.

Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.

____

You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.

You graduate college on your second Mother’s Day without her.

You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.

You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.

And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.

As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.

Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”

She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.

When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.

She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.

She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.

You watch, wait, listen.

On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.

You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.

Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.

You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

A Gift, a Burden

I bought my mother a journal with a bird on the cover. We were in an Urban Outfitters near The Ohio State University, and my mother was threatening to buy penis-shaped pasta to serve the next time I or my sister had a male friend over for dinner. And I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Inside, I left an inscription. I encouraged her to write down all her dreams, her hopes. When she died four years later, I found the journal under a pile of sweaters. She’d never written a single word.

_____________

The morning my mother died, I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I reached up and pulled my journal off the coffee table. I opened up to a blank page, wrote the date in a top corner, then scrawled one giant word on the page. WHY?

I’m embarrassed that my first response to my mother’s death was this question, a half formed “Why me?” At the moment I lost her, my head spun with a thousand questions, and the most persistent one rose to the top.

 Why? I asked as if I could find an answer.

Why? I asked and knew I’d never find an answer.

_____________

I have lived for nearly seventeen years without a mother. I was 17 when I bought her the journal with a bird on the cover. Every year, my relationship to her life changes. My relationship to her death changes. Grief changes. Sometimes grief is a bundle that weighs me down so hard I can barely walk. Other times it’s smaller than a speck of dust, something I can almost brush aside, let drift away. I close my eyes and remember what it was like to have a mother. This memory is a dream that escapes me. If I graze the surface of this dream, it shatters.

_____________

 

Grief, from the Old French grever means “burden.” The word grever derives from the Latin gravar, “to make heavy,” a root of the word gravity.

_____________

My mother was my gravity, my ground, my root. Without her, I am rootless.

_____________

 Grief can be an experience of rootlessness, just as grief can be an experience of being weighed down.

_____________

Two contradictory things are true at the same time. That is grief.

_____________

Why didn’t my mother write in the journal with a bird on the cover? What was she afraid of? Or did she not care? Or was she saving the journal for me, because she saw me as the writer?

_____________

 A year after she died, I went to Greek island of Crete. I took her journal. I slept in a room that looked out on the sea. I filled the pages she left blank. I am still filling those pages. I will fill the pages for as long as I am able, which is to say until I die.

_____________

Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” There it is again. That word. Burden.

_____________

 My mother’s legacy is a burden, and it also a gift. Neither of these ideas – burden, gift –erase the other. They exist side-by-side, like twins, like my sister and me.

_____________

 My mother’s death did not make me a writer, and I could not make her a writer. I responded to her death with a question because death is a question. I can never know why she refused to write in the pale blue journal with a blue bird on the cover, or why I even bought her the journal in the first place.  Now the pale blue cover strikes me as an important detail. Blue. The color of sky and water. The color of expansion. The color of dreams I cannot touch.

_____________

Birds mediate heaven and earth. I love that word. Between. My mother lives in my memories, my dreams. She inhabits the in-between of her life and her death. She lives in that sentence, in the conjunction and, a bridge between two words, two worlds. Once I had a mother. Once I bought her a pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. Once I wanted to capture her hope in a book emblazoned with a quintessential image of hope.

But she left all her pages blank. She left all her pages for me to fill.

_____________

Do you hear the suggestion of the word “grave” in that sentence, an echo of gravar? I do. I can’t stop myself. Her burial, her resurrection live together on the page, where I recreate her and say goodbye, make her into a memory, a ghost.

I can see her now, standing in the Urban Outfitters aisle, sunlight glittering on the edge of her chin. She holds up the pale blue journal with a bird on the cover. She smiles, as if she knows something I do not yet know.

 

How to Survive the Holidays as a Grieving Person


1. Our dead are gone, and they are everywhere. They are absent, ever-present, the way some people talk about God.

2. Our dead come back. Again and again. When we least expect them, they shout, “Surprise!” For example, I lost all my mother’s recipes after she died. Barely 21, I couldn’t imagine living without her, much less becoming a person with her own kitchen and recipes one day. And yet, this year, I found a Taste of Home recipe that replicates a chocolate pizza my mother served at our Hanukkah Party each year. Melted down chocolate chips form the pizza’s crust. Cheese comes from dried flaked coconut. Melted maraschino cherries serve as pepperoni. I’ve decided to serve this dessert during my family’s Hanukkah celebration this year. When I place my own chocolate pizza on the dining room table, I suspect I’ll feel like my mother has returned to me once more, a most welcome and unexpected guest.

3. Headphones. I don’t know what I would have done without them the summer after my mother died, when I moved abroad to work at a newspaper in a country I barely knew. Each day, I’d walk from the flat where I stayed in Dennistoun, to the newspaper in the Glasgow City Centre, where I worked. The Cure sang me forward. I believed every song on one particularly tortured album was written just for me. With headphones on, I tuned into myself and a pain that might instruct me, if I learned how to listen.

4. Now I use headphones to tune out the nonstop Christmas anthems that play everywhere this time of year. I cannot bear the public performance of joy. There is no right way to be happy, just as there is no right way to be sad. Our memories bring comfort, and they bring knee-deep sorrow. Headphones help me tune out the less helpful noises of this season, help me quiet the expectation that happiness comes easily to us all, that happiness isn’t the battlefield of my life.

5. A path lit by joy and sorrow runs down the center of my heart. How bright, how beautiful. How lucky I have been.

6. When I am feeling at my worst, I remember I dared to love after I lost the person I loved most in the world. I do not believe in god or heaven or clear categories of afterlife. But I believe in salvation. I believe love saved me, just as love will save you.

7. Get out of town, if you can. Take a road trip, a flight, a ride on a boat. Make new memories, memories that are yours alone to cherish. After my mother died, a friend told me, “Life goes on.” She wasn’t trying to silence my grief. And she meant what she said. My life would continue beyond the point where my mother’s life stopped. I had to stand up and walk toward her death, walk past my grief, and understand there would never be a point where I surpassed my grief. But I could walk along side this unbearable loss, make grief my companion on a journey I barely understood, a journey that is mine alone to understand.

8. I chose to travel because I was young and could sleep in a closet and live on potato chips and candy bars. So I left my mother’s house. I left my country. I met my life for the first time. I cried every day, and I ate a lot of potato chips and candy bars. I gained ten pounds. I fell in love. I grew big with wonder and joy. I started to live the life my mother wanted for herself, which became the life I chose, and the life she wanted for me.

9. I am not religious anymore. But my favorite prayer is the V’ahavta. It literally means, “and you shall love.” When I was a little girl, I used to wait for this prayer during the Shabbat service. We sang those words over and over again, “and you shall love.” They are the only commandment I’ve kept from Judaism, the only prayer I remember and return to. These ancient words remind me that loss hurts in direct proportion to how greatly we have loved.

10. Even after I gave away all her clothes and scattered her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, my mother’s love refused to leave me. The longer I live without her, the more powerfully I feel her love. It’s there when I wake up each morning and kiss my husband. It’s there when I write, when I listen to a friend in the midst of a struggle. It’s there when I refuse to lose my shit at my horribly behaved dog or a student who needs a second chance. And you shall love. My mother’s voice rises up in my memory, as fervent as the prayer I once chanted. Dead, she is everywhere, an ineffable god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What We Carry

“Behind the story I tell is the one I don’t. Behind the story you hear is the one I wish I could make you hear.” — Dorothy Allison, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure

For years, I taught Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” My veteran students sat up straighter when we read from this story. Their voices rang out more sharply in class discussion.  These students understood the to-the-bone uncertainty of war. They knew how a pleasantry once taken for granted could become a refuge. They understood how love conflates with hope, and how both feed our will to survive. They knew grief as a burden we never set down, no matter what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has written.

I loved teaching O’Brien’s story. I loved seeing how people who did not think of themselves as readers dove deep into a text and met themselves for the first time, saw their yet untold stories shimmering back at them through art. I don’t believe in healing as an aspiration. I don’t believe in closure or happily ever after. I believe in integration. I believe sorrow has something important to say. I believe we wear our losses the same way we wear our scars. Sometimes out in the open. Sometimes hidden. Sometimes the burden of what we carry is only visible to us. Sometimes we need to hear: I see you. You are not alone.

 O’Brien’s writing acknowledges life altering experiences so many learn to hide in order to fit in, to keep the peace, to pass. He tells stories we learn not to tell. Stories about grief, shame, vulnerability, and failure. If I only do one thing right in my job, it is to affirm people who believe they do not have a story worth telling. It is to help them find words to tell that story, to say I see you. You are not alone.

The first book that ever said, “I see you. You are no alone,” to me is Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, which my first MFA mentor assigned during my first semester in a non-traditional MFA program. I entered that program unsure I had a story worth telling, only sure I did not want to be a traditional academic. I had recently completed an M.A. in literature program that felt toxic to me, particularly in how male academics related to power, related to women, related to anyone whose ideas threatened their sense of power.

My MFA mentor founded a women’s studies program at a state university. She left her traditional academic path to build her life as an artist. She gave me Allison’s writing, which told me “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama’s death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.” Before I encountered those words, I actually thought no one would care about the story I wanted to tell, a story about a mother and a daughter, a story about what love looks like before and after loss, a story about what happens after the worst thing happens.

I am still writing that story. Today that story looks closer to a book than it has ever looked. It will become a book, and I hope you’ll read it! Lately, my book is being shaped by new ideas about how trauma and loss influence who we become, how we relate to ourselves, to others. I have been thinking of Allison’s words, “two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that if we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form.” I am beyond fortunate to have found beauty in so many unexpected places. I work at a community college where people are so frequently beautiful to each other that I am daily moved to tears.

Recently, a colleague in another department shared Adverse Childhood Experiences research and articles with me. I read them at night, before I fall asleep. This might not be the best practice, because I find myself waking more frequently in the middle of the night, and going back to the research, which does not help my sleep. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this research, but I know it is feeding something nascent in me right now. I am hungering for what my students hungered for when they read O’Brien. Perhaps I want to understand my own experience against the experiences of others. I want to know if there’s more to thriving than simple luck.

My ACE scores are high. So too are my resilience scores. Even so, I have been diagnosed with PTSD, and my responses to perceived threats are probably similar to those of my veteran students. In traditional academia, I experienced profound silencing of people (and particularly women) who survived abuse. I experienced a culture that privileges thinking over feeling, a culture of negativity and hyper criticism and perfectionism. Now, I have learned how to recognize how beauty coexists with toxicity, how two or three opposing things can be true at the same time.

I have learned how to set boundaries, how to say no, and how to resist pressures to carry what is not mine to carry. And yet, I am still learning how to hold on, how to let go, how to find beauty in the grasping and the release.

Why Silence Is the Wrong Response

We had a neighbor who never said anything after my mother died. I kept waiting for her to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sad your mother died.” Each time I ran into her, I expected her to offer a condolence. But she never said a word.

This woman was not a distant neighbor. She lived a few houses down. As a girl, I played with her children. She fed me at her dining room table. She told me stories about her own childhood.

Now, when I think about her, I do not remember the nice things she did. I remember her silence. I remember how her silence hurt me.

When she failed to acknowledge my mother’s death, my neighbor also failed to acknowledge my mother’s life. Her silence angered me. Her silence amplified my fear that my mother would not be remembered.

You see, the word remember means to reconstruct, to put back together. Remember is the opposite of dismember.

When a person remembered my mother, that person reconstructed the part of my mother that mattered. That person revealed the impact of my mother’s spirit in a world where her body would be forever absent. But silence erased her completely.

Silence is how the dead die twice.

A few weeks ago, I shared my post “How to Comfort the Bereaved” on Facebook. A few people commented that silence was the best response to bereavement. They reasoned that when we are silent in the face of another’s loss, we are safe. We do not risk saying the wrong thing.

I liked these responses because I understood their intent. I believed people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by staying silent.

But I need to say now that I believe silence is the wrong response. I interpret silence as erasure. I interpret silence as cowardly. I interpret silence as taking the easy way out. Even well intended silence can have this effect.

We are not to blame for our silences. Modern society does not teach us how to speak openly about death or how to comfort the bereaved in meaningful ways. So we must teach ourselves.

In that spirit, here are a five things people have done or said that brought me comfort during a time of grief.

1. Say the word died. Do not say “passed away” or “met her maker” or anything else that belongs in a children’s book or cartoon. When you say died or any of its variants (death, dead, die) you reverse the spell of cultural denial that hangs over death for many Westerners. When you say died, you make the the subject of death less taboo, less shameful. You make it easier to talk about this normal bodily process that happens to everyone. You make grief and death less confusing

2. Be present. Invite a grieving person to lunch, to take a walk, or to another low key, low stakes one-on-one social event. After my mother died, lunch dates with family and friends saved me. Sometimes, I cried at the table but I also remembered what my life looked like before my loss. I remembered I used to be a girl who did normal things like eat pizza and laugh. I also glimpsed a little of my future: I could again be a girl who laughed and ate pizza. I could reconstruct my life around my loss.

3. Tell a story. If you knew the person who has died, share a story about what that person meant to you. At my mother’s shiva, my close friends told stories about my mother, stories I’d never heard until that day. From these stories, I learned my mother had relationships with my friends. They trusted and valued her. These stories affirmed something I needed to hear, that my mother would live beyond my own memories. She’d live in theirs too.

4. Send a card. If you do not know what to say, let the card speak for you and sign your name at the bottom. When you send a card, you let a grieving person know that the loss has not gone unnoticed by you. You relieve a grieving person from the burden of having to tell you about the loss. My sister saved a stack of all the sympathy cards we received after our mother died. I keep them in my attic now. Once a year, I look through each card and remember how many lives my mother touched. I realize the full impact of her legacy will never be known.

5. Say “I’m sad.”  The more common expression “I’m sorry for your loss” is not a terrible thing to say, yet it can feel like pity. But saying “I’m so sad X died,” extends compassion. Did you know compassion literally means “to suffer with?” Compassion is not supposed to be easy. Culture tells us to deny suffering and sadness, but grief lets us reclaim them. When we say, “I’m sad,” we turn away from pity. We turn toward empathy.

How to Comfort the Bereaved

1. Do not say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just don’t. Okay? No matter how many times someone has said this sentence to you, recognize its words as vacuous substitutes for real words that actually have something meaningful to say. What reason are children taken too soon from their mothers, or mothers from their children? What reason does your child get to live and another has to die? Luck? Chance? Probability? Suffering is random, indiscriminate. Not personal. When you personalize suffering, you are not offering comfort. You are saying, “You deserved this.”

2. Do not say, “It was meant to be.” See above.

3. Do not say, “This was God’s plan.” I don’t know what kind of god or God or G-d you believe in, but these words make your god/God/G-d sound like a calculating psychopath. Do you really mean that? A glimmer of my own god, which I call goodness, tells me such putrid malevolence can’t possibly exist. Or if it does, it’s called evil.

4. Do not ask, “What can I do?” You might be short on ideas. This is normal. Grief is overwhelming for everyone involved. But now is not the time to give a grieving person one more thing to do –– i.e. authoring your “To-Do” list. Figure out what you can do, and then do it. For example, you do not need to ask permission to leave a meal on a porch. Not a good cook? Leave a bag of potato chips. Anonymous potato chips can be a great comfort. Better yet, start a meal train and/or order takeout.

5. Do not ask “What happened?” You know the answer already, i.e. something horrific. So why are you really asking? Are you afraid this horrible something might happen to you? That’s not surprising. Another person’s loss can force us to confront our own deepest fears, ones we’ve buried so far down we can barely see them. Do not turn away. Call each of your fears by name until they rise up from the deepest part of you. Understand their power. Understand projection.

6. Do not ask, “How are you?” When a rabbi asked me this question at my mother’s shiva, my heart shriveled into a piece of coal, and I said something sarcastic that he well deserved: How do you think I’m doing?

Let me rephrase that now: How do you think a grieving person is doing?

Not so good. Right? So instead of asking this question, offer a hug, a hand, a potato chip. Offer yourself as a person others do not need to perform happiness around.

7. Do not ask, “How can I help?” See number 4.

8. Do not say “Time heals all wounds.” I wish this expression were true. But, in my own experience, time has not been a great healer because, in this world, we have something called “triggers.” Maybe you’ve heard this word. Maybe you’ve even joked “trigger warning!” before you’ve said something that freaked out a lot of people? Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me explain. Triggers are like giant arrows that rip through time and take us right back to our worst traumas. Sometimes you know what will trigger you, and sometimes you don’t.

For example, the morning I began to miscarry my first pregnancy, I fell to the floor and wept the same way I did when I lost my mother fifteen years before. In that moment, two losses swam inside of me. Mother. Baby. Both gone, forever. And there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was me, the 36-year-old, with a cute house & beyond amazing husband & a horribly behaved dog. And I was the 21-year-old who could not even stand up, because the ground – or what she thought of as ground –– had disappeared.

At best, time can offer perspective. But it’s not a magic suture.

It is okay to be broken open by our losses, to be cracked into a thousand unknowable pieces by them. As Leonard Cohen once sung, “That’s how the light gets in.”

9. Do not say “It’s time to move on.This, by far, is the absolute worst thing to say. A loss can live inside a person forever, and a person can live inside a loss, around it, through it, and on into a life s/he never possibly imagined, a life fundamentally shaped by what has been lost.

Respect the awesome, holy, transfiguring power of loss. Honor it. Build an altar in your heart for it. There is no other way to proceed.

 

 

 

 

Turning Toward Our Pain

 

The night before Hurricane Katrina happened, I journaled in Carl’s bedroom with the door closed. He sat in the other room, likely watching “West Wing” or some other show we were into at the time.

Earlier in the day, I’d seen news of the storm broadcast on television. Images of people lined up outside the Superdome haunted me. People of color filled those lines. Although I had witnessed some racism in the South, I had never before seen such a powerful symbol of inequity. I know I sound naïve right now. But the 24-year-old I was knew little of the systems that supported and perpetuated racism. These images nauseated me. I wrote to relieve myself.  I wrote in a fever.

I turned off the lights. I lit a candle because I had a sense that this moment was a liminal one. I needed to ritualize it. This was one of the few times in my life that I’ve written without being aware of myself writing. My hand moved a pen across paper. Words came. I have no memory of conceptualizing them.

I wrote about a scale of destruction rarely seen in modern memory. I wrote about an unimaginable loss of life. I wrote about the evisceration of land. When I finished writing, sobs rolled through me. I opened the door and walked into the room where Carl sat watching TV, and I wept.

I am not psychic. But that night I opened a space inside myself where I could touch my own grief. I was writing about other people, and my worst fears. I was also writing about myself. I was writing about a place I had been.

After my mother died, I lost the only homes I ever knew. I lost my first home, my mother.

I lost the home where she raised me.

Touching my own grief made it possible for me to touch the grief that was coming, the grief I knew countless people would soon experience. I could no longer deny my sorrow or theirs. I had to see sorrow as an unavoidable, necessary condition of our humanity.

________

When Katrina happened, I worked as a religion reporter in northern Louisiana, in a city whose homes, churches, and shelters quickly filled with evacuees. It felt like every reporter at the newspaper worked overtime after Katrina.

I visited multiple shelters, including a makeshift one in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I visited a hospital, where two women who went into labor during the evacuation gave birth. One woman, white, told me her house hadn’t flooded and that her family was fortunate. They would be okay, she said, noting the safety nets of her own race and education privilege.

The other, a woman of color, lost everything, including all the gifts she had received for a baby shower the week before. She looked dazed. Like she had just landed on another planet.

Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita happened. I worked during the hurricane, which could be felt in northern Louisiana.

As the storm made landfall, I drove limb-strewn roads to visit a church full of bikers who’d evacuated. I wrote about them. I did my best to stay dry.

August and September 2005 were the most traumatic months of my career. But I can remember little about that time, just as I can remember little about the immediate weeks following my mother’s death.

Sometimes I want to remember. Sometimes I want to forget.

________

The Presbytère in New Orleans has an exhibit right now called “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.” I visited last week.

If you are in New Orleans right now, or are going to be in the near future, you must visit this exhibit. It is among the most powerful museum experiences I have ever had, on par with the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but on a much smaller scale.

As I walked the exhibit’s rooms, watched footage of the storm surge, felt wind from fans blowing on my face, and looked at a mud-caked Teddy bear retrieved from a flooded home, tears welled. There was so much I did not remember. By retrieving and documenting collective memory, the museum brought me back to the emotional state I had worked so hard to forget.

By witnessing the pain of others, I returned to my own.

________

The story culture tells about grief often ends with redemption. A life restored. A city rebuilt on a pile of ashes.

I like to pretend I rebuilt my life after my mother died. I even used that word –– rebuilt –– in my last post.

The truth is that this story erases pain by creating a false narrative that goes like this: something lost, something gained. This story implies a gain cancels out a loss.

The truth is that I have lived two different lives. I have the life with a mother. I have the life without her. The after life does not replace the before life. It is not a substitute. It is a life I am grateful for and one I would trade in heartbeat if she could sit here next to me.

The New Orleans of 2017 is not the New Orleans of 2005. Yes, real estate prices have soared in the city. Yes, there are more restaurants now. Yes, people are vacationing there. I’m living proof of that phenomenon.

But the poverty is extreme, and we were panhandled more on this trip than we’ve ever been in all our time in New Orleans.

I gave $10 to a woman on the street even though every inch of my body suspected she would use that money for drugs. When she looked into my eyes and told me she was starving, I could not say “no.” I did something I almost never do. I opened my purse, then my wallet, and I handled her my crumpled bills. This seemed like the most honest thing I could do, to choose not to turn away.

Sometimes I can still be naive as the 24-year-old who moved to the Louisiana delta with two suitcases and a used Toyota. I can also be wiser than her, more self aware.

I know now that when I turn toward another’s pain, I am turning toward myself. I am recovering something of what I’ve lost.