Tag Archives: family

A mother’s son

venezuela-prison-fire

I work as a hospital chaplain and yesterday we were involved in the tragic death of a young African American man in police custody, just a block away.  The young man was brought to us, and large numbers of police and family and friends followed him to our ED. The death was a Coroner’s case so there was a certain protocol in operation whereby the family could not be in the room with the deceased.  Outside the hospital tempers flared and emotions were raw. Those gathered distrusted the police and anyone in uniform, including police chaplains and our own security guards. They screamed, “They killed him.” It was bad.

The mother had apparently come to the ED and been turned away and told she couldn’t see her son. So she left. I spoke to a family member and had her call the mother to come back: we would make sure she got to see her son. Somehow.  I knew how important this was. My son’s death had been a coroner’s case. My desire to see him was so intense it felt like I couldn’t possibly survive it.  I didn’t want that for her. At least she could see him even if she couldn’t touch him.

The mother arrived back on the scene. She was, of course, devastated; she begged to see her son one last time.  She felt that the authorities were trying to cover up the details of the death. We (the other staff chaplain and myself) assured her that we were there for her, and we took her and her son’s Godmother inside the ED to a waiting room.  Outside the crowd was given water and apparently calmed down some once they saw the mother was being shown respect and care.

The other staff chaplain and myself advocated with the coroner’s representative on the mother’s behalf, and eventually they agreed to let her see her son through the glass door of the ED room.  She was in a wheelchair, as she had difficulty walking for physical and emotional reasons, so I wheeled her to his room. She just needed a minute or so, then motioned them to close the curtain.  I wheeled her out of the hospital to join her family. It was then that her emotions overwhelmed her and crying and keening ensued from her and all those around her.

In white America we have learnt in good Anglo-Protestant fashion, to suppress and control our outward expressions of grief. We weep silently into tissues, and later take our grief to a doctor to be medicated, or to a counselor to be talked through.  We track our progress according to rationally identified and researched “stages.” It is considered inappropriate, even distasteful, to noisily cry and moan at deaths, wakes or funerals. Instead we medicate our unpleasant emotions. Anger, sadness, grief…take a pill. Take two.

“Stiff upper lip.”  “Be a man!”  “Don’t embarrass me in public.”  “Hold it in.”

55277fbf-c850-4ee7-8c40-69ef717e1b13

But African Americans often grieve differently. In my experience in ICUs they are often very vocal and physical in their grief. They sometimes physically “fall out,”   in ways that Anglo-American nurses find disturbing, even disrespectful, and label as a form of exhibitionism. But this is not the case. The people are grieving. Explaining this to our hospital superiors outside the ED was important: we should not be trying to restrain and contain their expressions of grief, we should not be considering arresting them for disturbing the peace outside the hospital, we should be tending to them, giving them space, offering them water and chairs. And so that is what the staff did.

The deceased’s mother and her family members were expressing their grief in culturally acceptable and, from a psychological perspective, probably healthier ways. But the hospital onlookers were uncomfortable and, sensing that, the family shepherded the mother into a waiting car. The gathering then quickly dispersed to return to their neighborhood, continue their grieving, and tend to the family.

I used the word “keening” above. Keening is a form of very vocal crying and moaning that was part of many cultures’ response to grief in the past. In my Irish background culture it was normal to have keeners at wakes and in the funeral procession to the grave.  In a sense, they had the job of giving voice to the pain and grief being held inside by the stoic family.

images

To the mother and her family and community gathered at the hospital, keening was not a conscious choice but a visceral reaction. This was how they showed each other and the world their pain. To do any less would probably have been emotionally and physically impossible and, within their community, to do any less might have seemed disrespectful and unfeeling.

In our ever more melting pot of a society we need to learn about the ways of expressing grief that our neighbors are likely to have. And as an adopted Anglo American myself I need to overcome my Catholic and cultural discomfort with showing physical emotion and making noise to accompany my grief.  So far I have managed to scream and cry while alone in the car – not while driving.  I have yet to do it in front of anybody else.

 

Advertisements

Memories – Beautiful and Painful

I recently discovered the work of a local artist who had an exhibition where I work. One painting struck me to the core: it was Malcolm! Or at least it could have been. Same build.  And the cap. And he is fishing – and Malcolm loved to fish. I had to have a copy. So I contacted the artist and now I have a print hanging in the dining area.

herb willey's malcolmArtist: Herb Willey                                                                                                                              https://www.facebook.com/herb.willey

 

The painting was a beautiful reminder of Malcolm. Another reminder at work recently was completely devastating. A young man jumped off the parking garage to his death. I was at work when it happened and it plunged me into a depression. I should have been able to save him. Why hadn’t he waited, maybe I could have talked him down?  Magical thinking, of course. I didn’t even know him and had no way of knowing what he planned to do. But reason had nothing to do with my reaction.

A few weeks passed. The anniversary of Malcolm’s death loomed. And then the daughter of one of the patient’s on my floor committed suicide and they asked me to come and support her brother – he felt guilty. The mother was in a coma, and would probably never know. So he was actually losing both of them. I couldn’t do it. I had nothing to offer; I felt empty.

I walked out. I told my boss I needed a few days off.  A few days turned into a few weeks and now I am heading back to work tomorrow. (Positive thoughts and prayers would be welcome.)

What have I learned from this? Life is full of reminders, positive and negative. I cannot ever be free from them. However much we might try to insulate ourselves emotionally from the effects of our loss, there will be days when we are stabbed in the heart once again. There are suicide attempts in the hundreds every year in my city and some of them will end up in the hospital where I work.  It is inevitable. I have to find a way of keeping myself emotionally protected while being able to offer support and empathy. A difficult dance. But March 19 comes around every year, so I have no choice, I have to find a way – or give up my job as a hospital chaplain. And May 14 comes around every year, too – his birthday. I don’t want to miss the positive reminders so I will have to accept the painful ones, too. The painful and the beautiful memories – every year.

Holiday Blues

candle

The following is part of a presentation I gave on grief. This part deals specifically with the holidays.

67  ADDENDUM:    HOLIDAY BLUES

The problem with “Firsts”

We are in October, there are already Thanksgiving decorations on sale; soon there will be Christmas ones. If this is the first year after a loss these events will be difficult, just like other celebrations – birthdays etc. But these holidays are not private they are celebrated publically and everybody wants to wish you joy. Some years ago a tradition developed to hold a prayer service on the longest night of the year for those who had lost loved ones. It’s called a Blue Christmas and is described as a service of remembrance and hope. You might look for one this year.

” The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  John 1:5

68   THE NEW NORMAL FOR HOLIDAYS

Let yourself off the hook – don’t try to recreate past holidays

Let go of Guilt – you’re hurting, you’re sad, give yourself a break! You don’t have to keep taking care of everyone else

Make some decisions for self-care –

  • make a restaurant reservation way ahead of time
  • don’t decorate the house, or do so minimally like a potted            rosemary tree instead of a full Christmas tree
  • Order out
  • Divide the duties

If you are having people over, order a pre-cooked dinner, or turkey, and /or           have  everybody bring something specific on the menu, including paper
products (you don’t need to get out the silver and the china), soft
drinks, and a table decoration.

69  New Normal continued

  • If you can afford it, get a maid service to come and clean
  • Get away for a few days with someone who knows and cares
  • Choose a new venue
  • Make new memories
  • Start new traditions
  • If you used to go to a special church and a special restaurant then this year choose new ones
  • Have a white elephant activity or some other fun activity on Christmas Day
  • Get some people together to go caroling in the neighborhood or at a local nursing home or hospital
  • Spend the morning feeding people at a shelter

Doing something for other people really can help us get out of our head

70   DON’T

  • DON’T show old family movies – you might be ready but everyone else might not
  • DON’T try to make everything seem as if it’s all the same as it was
  • DON’T ignore your feelings
  • DON’T ignore your Loss – or the absence of your loved one – have a special toast or add a special prayer for the one who is not there
  • DON’T drink too much – alcohol is a depressant

71   INSTEAD

  • Remind yourself of your good but imperfect past holidays – it wasn’t perfect before so it doesn’t have to be perfect this year
  • Nurture yourself – Have a private memento or picture in your pocket that you can touch when you need to so you don’t feel you are leaving them out, so that they are “coming with you.”
  • Take time outs if and when you need to for a quick weep.
  • Remember that other people around you are grieving, too, and everyone grieves differently an on a different schedule – denial, avoidance, anger, bargaining, sadness, depression, acceptance – and around and around again. You can’t fix them, but you can be patient with them, whatever stage they are in.

72  Some books and Quotes

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times

“When we protect ourselves so we won’t feel pain, that protection becomes like armor, like armor that imprisons the softness of the heart.” ​ 

​“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” ​

“We can use our personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” ​

73 

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, http://www.ekrfoundation.org/quotes/​

“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”​

Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning​

“Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.” ​

 74      Resources online

75

76

 

77    Resources for your phone

  • Daily 7 second meditations on your phone from http://www.7secondmeditation.com/
  • “Insight Timer” APP for your phone – for hundreds of meditations. Some just music, some nature sounds, some guided meditations.

This is a sad song but listen ’til the end.

For grieving mothers as we approach Mother’s Day.

breastfeeeding_mother_holding_baby

Every day with your child was mother’s day. Every day you held them, fed them, scolded them, sang them to sleep, wiped their tears, changed their diapers, washed their clothes, agonized with them about their break-ups, celebrated their victories, supported their achievements, gave solace in their disappointments. Every day. And now no day is mother’s day. There is nothing more you can do for them, say to them, give them. No more hugs or advice. No more forgiveness for short-tempered outbursts, no more apologies for ill-thought-out judgments. Nothing. Mother’s Day is social convention. Mother’s Day is a lie. The emptiness is every day not just once a year.

I weep with you; I mourn with you. There are no useful words. Just a gentle suggestion: don’t stay by yourself on Mother’s Day. Allow someone else to share your pain. And if you can’t find someone to do that, then find a way of celebrating someone else’s day. Just don’t be alone with your sadness and loss.

Remember: You were a mother, even for a little while. You had the miracle of life in your body, in your arms, in your daily life. That was a great gift, a grace, undeserved. A hand was placed on your chest and that touch entered your heart as no other touch can. A child knew you as his or her mother. Knew that safety, that acceptance, that bountiful love. You did that. You gave that. That was precious. And those years, or months or even moments are yours to remember and treasure.

 

I am struggling

mother hug

These past few weeks it feels as if the tsnumai is winning. Each day I feel as if it is pulling me down and I am struggling more and more for breath. I thought it would get easier after his anniversary passed, but then we moved towards his birthday and I realised it is on Mother’s Day this year: May 14th. I can’t seem to get past this. I want to write something for mothers who have lost children and who are facing mother’s day with that pain. Maybe that will help.

Christmas time is here again

snow on christmas

Christmas, a time when we find ourselves asking,

Were our boys happy? Did we have good Christmases?

And we give each other encouragement:

Yes, Love, they were happy. They had good memories of Christmas. We did that right.

And we decorate the tree and avoid the special decorations they made as children, or any with their picture on. We don’t want to be reminded of whose face we will not see, of who will not be opening presents this year.

I know it doesn’t hurt as much as those first few years, but it still hurts. We have created different traditions and we love Christmas Eve with our youngest son. But underneath are the memories of what we used to do, and the places we went and the traditions we once celebrated. And we sleep in Christmas morning so as to avoid the sadness of our memories: the two happy, giggling boys, the grouchy, slouchy adolescents, the compliant young adults, waiting at the doorway to the den. 

Aw, mom, really? You’re going to make us wait at the door?

Well, dad has to get the camera ready.

And he did. We have a great camera record of many Christmas mornings. We even transferred them to DVD a couple of years ago. But they were tough to watch, especially for our youngest son, so we put them away for a while.

This year our youngest son is recovering from the end of a relationship. So there is another loss for him to deal with. It will take even more effort to focus on the moment at hand, on the mass at the Cathedral and the Christmas songs, on the dinner with mom and dad. But he needs to, we all need to. This Christmas is what is real, this moment is where we live. Let’s not miss out on anything that is happening now. Today contains tomorrow’s memories, and may they all be bright.

missing you

Malcolm is gone
Malcolm is cold
Malc cannot laugh
Malc cannot smile

Malcolm is forever silent
in the world
But in my head Malcolm laughs
And says ” ‘ello Mum”
And giggles, probably high on weed
Little did we guess how often, how much
But there is nothing to forgive there

Malc we don’t care about your bong
But we miss the songs you would have sung
with TJ at Flint Creek
And the jokes
And the smelly fish you would have caught
We miss the friends you would have brought to meet us
And the stories of their exploits

We miss the graduation we would have celebrated
And your struggle to find
Your bliss behind a camera or a pen
we miss your smells and your noises
your moods and your fears
we miss the comfort we might have offered
Or the support we might have shared
We miss our growing old and feeble around you
And knowing you would always care
we miss your eyes your nose your hair
– you, we just miss you.

Dreams of Malcolm

Malcolm visits me at night,

a character in my dream-stories.

One night he cried,

because he was dead,

too scared to live.

Can I do it over, mom? He wept.

No, my sweet, it’s done.

The First Christmas Without My Mother

It goes without saying: to love is to lose; to live is to die. Life is just that – love and loss.  If we dare to love, we will feel like dying when we lose our beloved. The only question about love and death is: Who will go first? I joke with my husband: If you go first I’ll kill you!

When my mother died a few weeks ago I didn’t seem to feel much. I’m catching up now! But it’s a confusion of feelings: sadness as intense as anger. Yesterday I learned how to scream. I have read about scream therapy and been advised about anger work. I have been encouraged to hit or throw or pummel something other than myself. But I have never managed to do any of this with much energy, so it felt pointless. And my attempts to scream, while driving my car and thus insulated from the hearing world, were always throaty, soprano screeches. Not so yesterday. Yesterday I tensed my chest and my throat and made an ugly, forceful, deep grrr sound. It felt good so I did it again…louder and throatier. And then I cried the rest of the way home. A barrier had been breached.

I am not sure which is worse –  having sweet, loving, memories of affection and tenderness, concern and affirmation, and being overcome with grief at her passing, or having no such memories.  I tell myself that my good memories are being held hostage by the bad ones I cannot recall; that perhaps as I face the bad memories the good ones will surface, too. That’s what I tell myself.

I do know that my mother cared for me in the ways in which she was capable. My mother taught herself to cook and parent as best she could. The child of upper-middle class parents, she was raised in a private boarding school from the age of about 4, and parented by nannies during vacations at home. Entering nursing school at 18, she was completely unprepared for independent living, but she could dress with taste, recite all the Catholic prayers, crochet and sew, and – of course – play tennis. She could also play piano well enough to have possibly pursued a career in music. But a high school trauma she would never explain caused her to refuse to ever touch the keys again. My mother was a woman of private pain.

My mother loved her children through her coffee cakes, butterfly scones, horseshoe biscuits. She loved them through her hand-washed laundry, not owning a washing machine until she was in her 70’s. She loved her children through her scrubbed carpets and wallpapered rooms – doing all the decorating herself. My mother loved her children by remaining faithful and committed to her husband, a loyalty that cost her the support of her own large family of 8 siblings, none of whom were represented at her funeral. None.

Now I am wondering, did I ever tell her thank you? Or did I just spend my life waiting for the signs of love that 50’s TV shows and James Stewart Christmas movies held out as tantalizing fantasy?  Did she know that I noticed her care and was grateful, even though I wished there had been hugs and soft words?  I have lost the opportunity to get over my childish, self-centered resentments and be an adult in relation to her. I left home at 18, too.  Maybe if I had learned to be angry and to scream 38 years ago I could have had an emotional confrontation and begun an adult relationship with my mother.

29

Today Malcolm would have been 29. Actually yesterday, as it is now 1:00am. I was just re-reading some of my posts and looking for words of hope … hope in something, hope in something more than nothing, hope in the future or just the now.  Then I think of my son, James, and I think of Flint Creek,  and I think of my wonderful, crazy family celebrating at the Bulldog just a few hours ago, and I smile. Tonight, that’s enough.