Grieving from the Inside Out

“Grief is universal, but every person’s grief is unique,”  says grief counselor David Kessler.

This duality is potent, especially in recent days. The collective grief that surrounds us now is overwhelming—the weight of mounting COVID casualties, the ongoing horror of senseless police violence, and the alarming escalation of gun massacres in this country. Along with the enormity of these disturbing realities, so many of us also carry the achingly personal losses that seem to cling to us like cobwebs in a dank, gloomy basement.

Grief is an ambient constant.

Having lost my oldest son, Elliot, and many family members over the past decade, my experience of grief is always changing, deepening, expanding, and contracting, but it is always there. It morphs and shifts into different flavors of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and despair, but gradually, I am becoming more aware of my most salient triggers. Slowly but surely, I am integrating effective self-management techniques—like grounding, breathing, meditation, mindfulness, and counseling. Still, grief is inextricably attached to my being—insistent, obnoxious and endlessly dogmatic. There is no escape, no place to hide, no satisfying its demands. Not even in sleep. There is no pill nor spirit.

Grief is relentless and narcissistic.

Grief both shrouds and accentuates the stubborn presence of loss. Grief is everywhere and in everything, like the trauma bond of an abusive relationship. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. Grief changes all of your relationships—at times isolating you from your friends, family, and the community you need to heal. You are a different person in a toxic relationship and in the dance of grief. You often find yourself reassuring others you are OK—when you are not. You may even try to run away or distract yourself, but grief is persistent and undaunted. Wherever you go, there you are. And the dark truth is that part of you does not want to let go, because at least, the pain is connection.

Grief is not just something inside that you have to work through.

Grief is also on the outside, always next to you. It’s beside you, behind you, in front of you, over you, under you—hovering like a long shadow, even in the dark. Some say losing a child is like losing a limb. You can survive it, but you must relearn how to do everything. However, I think it’s also like gaining a limb you don’t want—an extra arm or leg you must constantly contend with, manage, or even hide. And it’s always in your way, awkward, and obstructive. You must relearn everything, but you still cannot escape it.

Do you acknowledge it immediately when meeting someone? Or do you pretend it’s not there, which can draw even more unspoken attention to it? How do you live with such an abnormality? There are no easy answers, and it’s a confusing question in a culture that minimizes and compartmentalizes grief to avoid its discomfort. So, how do you find meaning in life? Do mundane tasks even matter at all when the worst has already happened? But that’s where compassion is essential—individually and collectively. Things like meeting a deadline at work of separating out the recycling may not seem to matter much in a universe tainted by unbearable loss, but we must keep going.

And more important, we must be intentional about caring for each other, showing up, and creating a space for mattering. For me, regardless of how I conceptualize it, the gravity of grief informs every interaction, every experience, every conversation. Hopefully, over time, I will become more accustomed to its presence. I know I must find a way to accommodate grief if I am going to function in the world.

Yes, I am different now, and I work every day to accept this journey.

Grief will always be part of me, just as my love for my son Elliot will be. And grief will always be a layer between me and everything else. Whether a thin, hyaline veil or an imposing brick wall, at times it’s murky black and at others, sparklingly light. The light is the precious part, the awful glimmer of grief. That’s what illuminates the gold, the gleaming memories of a lifetime that will never die.

Together we can do our best to soften the fear, the anxiety, the alienation, and the pain—inside and out.

Shirt, Shakuhachi and Saxophone

Easter is a complicated and befuddling holiday—so many meanings, layers, beliefs, rituals and memories, but one stands out for me. Easter will always remind me of Elliot. In 2014, Easter Sunday just happened to merge with his spectacular fourth-year saxophone recital at the University of Toronto. His precise, riveting and affecting command of the instrument mesmerized and stunned his rapt audience of devote fans. I remember feeling there could not possibly be enough room in my heart to contain the flood of joy, love and pride I experienced in those remarkable moments.

On Easter, I do my best to stay steeped in the beauty of that sacred space seven years ago—which feels like both a lifetime and a heartbeat. As I honor this rare and extraordinary human, forever missed, I endeavor to embrace the grace and joy of this glorious memory—and the notion that love never dies.

So, here are two poems.

One is Elliot’s and the other is mine. I was inspired to write “Saxophone” in a recent poetry class with Megan Adler. We dissected “Shirt” by brilliant musician/poet Robert Pinsky, and I felt a flash of Elliot’s mercurial presence. I paired it with one of Elliot’s most haunting poems, “Shakuhachi,” which describes his love for another eccentric instrument. This piece evokes his unbridled passion for life’s music—and words.

SHAKUHACHI
by Elliot Wright

Someone should not-
ify the authorities—
This can’t belong to me.

I shouldn’t be
allowed to touch it when in
every Japanese

restaurant I’ve been
in they hasten to me with
a fork,

this mendicant ghost’s
pneumatic bamboo carapace,
this severed bundle

of lacquered vacuoles.
Hollowed stock, red bore tender
as a ribbon of

his throat—he who is
surely ululating to-
ward me from the Pure

Land in futile rage.
It came to me woven in
the raft of my

grandfather’s trinkets,
that gregarious poacher,
anxious collector,

lover of things and
strangers—those stop-gap measures
against that vacuum

the mind so abhors.
No wonder, then, that he should
have parted with this

chime-hammer of the
void, this attendant to the
court of nothingness—

this contradiction
given me

SAXOPHONE
by Elaine Gantz Wright

The reeds. The ligature. The body. The bell.
The saxophone’s bourbon-soaked wail lingers—
longing for another coda or infinite reprise

The keys. The mouthpiece. The bow. The crook.
Where is your rarified air, your circular breath—
that was snatched, silent in eternity’s niche?

The tenor. The alto. The soprano. The bari.
Fingers on fire made your practice perfect,
such mania that muted all but your memory

Coltane, Parker, Getz and Halladay—mentors,
brethren, your trenchant troubadours of note—
persistent signs of life and bittersweet balm

Shakuhachi and Linux. Yamaha and Proust—
virtuoso with far too many talents to be
soaring into forever on a regular Sunday

I want one more song on the saxophone,
redux to recall a melody long gone—again
to fill this abyss with your timeless refrain.

I Am

A week or so before snowmageddon stymied Texas, my dear friend and writing pal Sue recommended a book called “When Women Were Birds,” by Terry Tempest Williams. I’m endlessly grateful, as it provided a warm and poignant embrace during the powerless hours. If Anne Lamott says it’s “brilliant, meditative, and full of surprises, wisdom, and wonder,” you can bet it’s a winner. As I sat on my big purple couch in the frigid darkness, swaddled in three blankets with a flashlight precariously perched on one knee, I devoured Williams’ evocative, lyrical prose and was instantly inspired to scribble this poem — just before the electricity sizzled back on for another brief round:

I Am

I am worn out.
I am scared.
I am alone.
I am freezing.
I can almost see my breath.

I am a balloon that is slowly deflating.
I am an opaque mosaic of dusty shards
that don’t quite fit.
I am the map of another country.
I am overwhelmed.
I am underemployed.
I am seeking.
I am hiding.
I am not knowing . . .
I am fried.

I am filled with emptiness.
I am hollow with grief.
I am here but not present.
I am shallow but deep.

I am aching to be seen, but I don’t want to be noticed.
I am yearning to connect but no energy to speak.
I am salt in the wound.
I am salve on the sore.
I am dented but still running.
Where is the door?

I am shadow.
I am moonlight.
I am desire.
I am disdain.
I am letting go.
I am holding on.
I am selfish.
I am shame.

I am kind.
I am cold.
I am love.
I am lost.

I am waiting in the wings.
I am milling in the mezzanine.
I am loitering in the lobby.
Where is the stage?
I am scripts unwritten.
I am books unread.
I am the Rock of Gibraltar.
I am the tools in the shed.
I am a frothy, white jet trail.
I am blood-orange sunshine.
I am Purple Rain.
I am Auld Lang Syne

I am select soccer and team tennis.
I am saxophone lessons and art classes.
I am ear infections and root canals.
I am a pair of new dark glasses.
I am fistfights in the kitchen.
I am boxes in the hall.
I am lullabies in the nursery.
I am drawings on the wall.

I am sighing
I am sobbing
I am wailing
I am praying
I am allowing
I am inviting
I am chuckling
I am fraying

I am a sutra unraveled, but
I am whole.

I am a cotton shirt, not pressed.
I am a pair of jeans, too tight.
I am a child without a mother.
I am a mother full of fright.
I am the tears in a handkerchief.
I am the words on the page.
I am a candle in the window.
I am a flashlight in the dark.
I am a sip of black tea.
I am a broken heart.

I am an imposter and an expert —
respected and dismayed.
I am confident and confused —
anxious and praised.

I am stardust.
I am golden.
I am taking.
I am giving.
I am releasing
Now
Forever
And for you, I am living.

Pieces of Me

The other night, I watched a new film on Netflix called “Pieces of a Woman.” It burrowed into my soul like the vaccination needle into your arm. Yet surprisingly, the subtle and deftly poignant images packed the most potent punch.

This provocative film takes us on the horrifying journey of a home birth gone tragically wrong, but that’s just the first half of the story. (Spoiler alert.) Though the cataclysmic event is harrowing and devasting, some of the most profound and affecting moments come after it.  Perhaps, I experienced the narrative in this way, because this heartbroken mother’s journey is similar to my own. Though the particular circumstances are different, the gravity of losing a child at any age carries its own unique, untenable weight.

“Elaine, why would you subject yourself to such a sad, triggering film?” one might ask, and one would be justified in posing that question.

But the answer might be just as confounding. As I walk this unbearable path, I find that connecting to others around our shared,  unrelenting pain—often through art, helps me feel less alone and even witnessed in a misery-loves-company sort of way. Being seen is a momentary salve on the gaping, unhealable wound.  And frankly, it takes the focus off me for a brief instant and gives me another way to contextualize what still feels impossible to believe.

Not every moment in “Pieces of a Woman” works, but this kind of story signifies a gradual shift in the way we are acknowledging grief in our culture. In the second half of the film, we come face-to-face with a woman’s unvarnished grief journey and emotional fallout—exposed, raw and unapologetic.  Martha’s grief takes center stage, often colliding with her husband’s incongruent mode of coping—ignited by rage and alcohol. Her pain is there for all those around her to see—in all its awkwardness and messiness.  Most people I encounter want someone who has suffered a tragic loss to get over it quickly and be “OK,” because they don’t want to face their own looming mortality. But Martha bears all.

Ellen Burstyn is brilliant and riveting as Martha’s mother—mounting a hostile resistance against her daughter’s unfathomable pain that also prevents her from providing the compassion and care her daughter aches for. In Burstyn’s mordant revulsion to her daughter’s festering sorrow, we sense her character’s own inability to process difficult feelings. This is at the same time fiercely intimate and unflinchingly universal.

 “You’ve got to fight and seek revenge,” she barks. “That’s the only way you can move on.”

The grim reality is you never move on. You don’t “get over” the love of your child. You just find a way to carry the pain.

In fact, Martha vehemently protests the concept of revenge. In one of the most searing moments in the film, Martha finds a beautiful photo her husband snapped on that bittersweet day, just after she delivered her baby. As she views image, we see Martha’s hardened heart soften like molten lava. She begins to replace some of the hard darkness with light, some of the fierce anguish with love. I felt that so deeply. She actually begins to forgive—her midwife, her husband, her mother, and perhaps, even herself.

The other gorgeous detail that brings me to tears is Martha’s meticulous collection of apple seeds, nurturing them carefully in cotton pads or tiny blankets in the refrigerator. She mentions at one point that her newborn smelled like apples, and we often see her eating apples—unconsciously drawn to them in the grocery store, as well.  But when she opens the refrigerator one day to check on them, she discovers they’ve begun to sprout and bud, and she is awestruck by the persistence of nature and the miracle of life before her eyes. This becomes its own solace, its own comfort. This stunning nuance seeped into every cell as I empathized with every tear she shed; every wail she unleashed. The sensitivity of this storytelling is breathtaking—and the performances, masterful, as devastating as it is glorious. This shattered mother is able to find a glimpse of grace and a moment of infinite connection—an uncharted path back inside her own shattered heart.

Today, I noticed a similar miracle in my own living room. The delicate orchid plant a friend gave me for my birthday about six months ago had lost all its blooms. Since the leaves remained green,  I continued to water it as my late Aunt Virginia, the orchid whisperer, had instructed. She used a turkey baster to gently inject two squeezes per week. Carefully infusing every Saturday, I have been watching the tiny green pouches with anticipation, and to my surprise, one opened this morning—a fragile, tiny orchid saying, “Hello world.” 

Like Martha when she lifted the carefully arranged cotton pouches from her refrigerator, tears welled. There is something magical and comforting about witnessing life  . . . its brazen persistence, the continuity of creation, the divine order of things. I must allow this to sink in, to feel it down to my marrow. Another day . . . another glimpse of grace.

Love in the Time of Corona

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty,” said Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers. “Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” I feel this speaks to our journey in the world today — as well as my journey through the dark persistence of grief. Today, I am grateful for even the most minuscule flecks of glitter.

Trying to make sense of this messy miasma, “love in the time of Corona,” as I’ve termed it, I had an epiphany. I realized I have been living in isolation for months — quarantining myself emotionally, spiritually and physically in a dank and dreary cave called grief. For the past year and a half, I have been hibernating, encased in a dimly lit reality not of my choosing. In fact, it’s a confederacy of losses that looms in every moment — my amazing son Elliot, both my parents, my treasured mentor, an exhausting 8-year relationship, several battles for justice, and the list goes on. Sinking under the weight of it all, I finally landed in the inertia pit.

Since Aug. 5, 2018, when Elliot left the earth so suddenly and violently,  my intersections with humanity have been infrequent, and alas, when I have engaged, it has required every ounce of energy I could muster. Still. Sad. Stymied. And yet, as much as I have resisted them, I am certain that these occasional human connections have kept me alive. A heartfelt ping from a sweet greeting card or a Facebook message from a faraway friend have rescued me from the deepest abysses of numbness. I have subsisted in a dystopian environment for months. I rearranged my life to work from home by taking a job with a company based in Atlanta. As the firm implodes into its own maelstrom of bankruptcy and confusion, my interactions there have been limited, as well. However, though I am practiced at this kind of separation, I am profoundly unsettled.

The dire predictions and mounting closures feel like a pall of doom folding into the gaps of our lives, slowly and steadily suffocating us. It’s not fear of catching the disease that troubles me most. It’s the fear of our fraying social fabric. In recent days, I have become keenly aware that my brittle inner being is now mirrored by the precariousness of the world surrounding me. There is certain terror in that. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to feel safe. Life, all of it, is so very fragile. Perhaps, that’s the essential lesson. Stability is an illusion, as much as it is manipulated, orchestrated, packaged and spun. Who can you trust? Why weren’t we better prepared? Who knew what and when? Was there biohazard release from a research lab in Wuhan? Was it on purpose or an accident? With fake news, Trump’s arrogant incompetence, the Russian agenda, data mining, Big Pharma, The Family, Fox News, CNN, and even MSNBC, where do we turn for truth?

Likewise, as I grapple with my internal grief, every effort to find answers to the questions around Elliot’s death and life delivers parallel rabbit holes and partial veracity. Why did Amazon Web Services (AWS) delete every trace of his business account when their customer service people strung me along for five months assuring me that the appropriate legal documentation would grant me access as his heir? Infuriating. Why is the Human Resources Department at Global Payments, Elliot’s employer, still giving me the administrative runaround about accessing his 401K? Why did the only witnesses to Elliot’s accident refuse to provide their contact information — and the police did not investigate? Why did the Texas Attorney General deny my private investigator’s request for photos of cars driving on that deadly ramp where Elliot lost his precious life?

Is it time to stop asking why?

Maybe.

I am just so damn tired, and it’s hard to imagine how I will ever process and internalize all of this — ever. Mostly, I feel alone. My reclusive son, Ian, Elliot’s younger brother, is here with me, but he is not truly present —  perpetually cloistered, as well, in his room and virtual computer universe. I wish I could be his rock, but I feel more like his handful of sand. My grief seems to well up in the void of isolation. It feels different now — so ubiquitous and inescapable. Social distance and virtual interaction — they have become de rigeur.

For the next couple of weeks, I have decided to just be —  no expectations, no questions. I will cherish the surprising moments, the shiny flickers of glitter dancing in the sunlight, when and if they come — paying a visit to an elderly neighbor; lingering for an hour on the phone with a friend I have not spoken with since Elliot’s death; losing myself in a particularly delightful episode of Schitt’s Creek; “Zooming” with my soul sisters, or taking in the healing wisdom of my cherished online writing group. Though these moments feel somehow incongruous within the rest of life, they are the treasures.

The times are overwhelming. There is no exit. Nothing is certain, and I struggle daily with the fundamental concepts of faith. So, I must try to make peace with uncertainty and notice every glimmer of the light . . . that’s returning.

That’s all we can do.

 

 

Terms of Debridement: Living into Grief

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(Henry VI, Part III, Act II, Scene I, Line 85)

I have learned something important about grief from wound care.

Last summer, before my days shifted into darkness and just before everything I have ever been sure of in my world dissolved, I wrote an essay about the curious medical language of wound care.

In May and June of 2018, I accompanied my then 94-year-old aunt Virginia on her weekly visits to the Presbyterian Hospital Dallas wound clinic to treat the stubborn, angry wound she suffered from somehow hitting the outside of right ankle on her wheelchair. It simply refused to heal. The folks at Presbyterian Village North, her assisted living home, had run out of options.

At that time, little did I know that in a matter of weeks, my precious son Elliot would soar over the miserably inadequate barrier on the LBJ TEXpress entrance ramp – while riding his beloved motorcycle.

Little did I know that my brilliant firstborn son, a truly astonishing human, would take his last shallow breath in just over a month at that same hospital – where he also took his first breath 26 years prior. It’s all too much to process and handle for this bereaved mom. To tell you the truth, it takes every ounce of my depleted energy to barely function every day – still, over a year later. Don’t know how I ever breathe at all? Some days, it takes too much effort, and in some ways, it’s getting more difficult with each passing moment.

One of the reasons is this peculiar and uncomfortable statute of limitations on grief we perpetuate in American culture. Our “get over it, because it makes me uncomfortable” vibe is like living every day with a sheet of Saran wrap on your face. And no one seems to notice you can’t breathe.

I know it’s unpleasant.

I know people mean well. But death sucks. It’s unavoidable. I know they don’t know what to say, but we all need to figure it out – and do a better job seeing each other and caring for each other emotionally. It’s not weakness. We need to stop ranting at each other about all the “big, bad -isms” – and start paying attention to ourselves as individuals with open hearts and tender souls. Being present for each other is what matters – life and death matters. The loss of a child is an emotional wound beyond measure – one you will never get over. You must learn a new way to live. My soul sister Patty says, “If the loss of child were a physical wound, we’d be in the ER.” I’m not saying we all need psychology degrees. It’s about intentional acknowledgement – recognizing the profound wounds of loss – physical and emotional – early and often.

The fact is that we need to talk about the loss to move ahead. I treasure the friends most who say Elliot’s name and ask me to talk about him. His friends Chase, Brian and Alec – they are angels on earth. Overwhelming loss is the deepest, the most insidious kind of wound.

Grief needs air to heal.

We can’t just let it scab over and ignore the tissues below. And, like my aunt’s deep, festering physical wound, an emotional wound often needs debridement. That’s one of the wound words that truly resonates. You may think talking about Elliot will upset me, but that’s exacting what I need. It triggers the pain, but the tears are a tonic. The pain never goes away, anyway. Not ever. And, pain plays a role – signaling that something is horribly wrong, rallying the body’s resources – calling in the Navy Seals of the heart!

Technically, debridement is the term for the medical procedure that deliberately aggravates the wound in order to help it heal. With grief, we must do that – revisit the pain that makes us physically wince. It’s a necessary cringe, but we must not linger there. Telling and retelling our stories – that is our task. Finding situations and people who will listen, allow and support us unconditionally is essential – people who give us the space to remember the losses in our past and foreshadow what they mean for our futures. These people are rare and cherished. Without their divine grace, we will never emerge from this murky miasma (one of Elliot’s favorite words).

With debridement, we remove the unhealthy tissue and promote the healing – exposing a new day. The body is designed to heal, but the muck is heavy. The wound can become senescent or old when the cells are still alive and metabolically active but not able to divide and thrive. They are merely surviving, not thriving . . . senescent.

We can’t let that state persist – with unattended wounds scabbing over, harboring our deepest traumas.