A View of the Summit: A Writing Retreat’s Unexpected Narrative Arc

It felt like kismet when I received the email.

“I’m writing because we just had a cancellation on the St. Paul writing retreat, and you’re number one on the waiting list,” it said.

And there it was — the inciting incident that launched my story.

When everything seemed to fall into place, I felt confident the August retreat would provide a welcome creative escape and a nurturing 60th birthday present to myself. After all, August is the most wicked of months. Since the death of my oldest son, Elliot, in August 2018, conflated with too many profound losses in recent years, I have written to grieve — and frankly, survive. Finding my writing roadmap was my objective for the week, but the universe had its own unique take in that.

Little did I know, this retreat would become the subject of my writing, as opposed to the enabler of it.

Perhaps that’s why the impact has been so seismic. Kind of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was searching for something outside myself to help heal my shattered soul. But what I encountered was the startling real-time reality that said process is — and always will be — an inside job.

I realize now this transformative experience was less about my creative path and more about my grief journey.

Though I thought I had packed light, I arrived with some extra baggage. Turns out grief behaves like a clingy companion who never checks out and never leaves — brazenly taking up residence in every cell of your body. Sometimes, I feel like my son Ian’s lizard, Carlton, except I can’t ever seem to shed my stiffening outer layer of skin.

So, for this grief-ladened former extrovert, jumping into a bubbling broth of bright, witty women — who also happen to be ten perfect strangers — was a little like diving headfirst into 35-degree plunge pool. Game on, sister. Like riding a bicycle, yes, but also a stark reminder that I have become a completely different person since Elliot’s death.

“Be gentle with yourself,” said one of the angel voices in my head.

On paper (or online), this immersive writing experience felt almost magical — the “Oz” of writing retreats but still layered with complexities. At the top of the list was the pandemic. It was my first time on a plane in a year and a half. In her follow-up email, retreat leader Jess Lourey assured me they were following “Minnesota COVID guidelines,” and they had cut the attendance in half. It still felt strange. Then, there was the Twin Cities location — packed with backstory for me, now viewed through the traumatic lens of George Floyd’s tragic murder last year.

On the plus side, there were memories from my salad days as an intern in the mid-1980s at The Guthrie Theatre, including wacky adventures with my college pal Peter, who was a Minnesota native. It was a time when anything felt possible. From Mary Tyler Moore to Prince to friends in the area, it seemed like the ideal destination after an extended period of debilitating grief and isolation. There would be yoga, meditation, healthy food, and a community of brilliant women, peppered with sassy literary insights from Jess, accomplished writer and professor.

As I approached the shadowy Summit Avenue manse on that first day, it dripped with 19th century charm in a Grey Gardens sort of way. Its cluttered elegance felt both inviting and unsettling. Shabbier than chic, the front porch was festooned with overgrown hanging plants and clusters of peeling lounge chairs with faded cushions. Dangling strands of greenery enveloped the tattered lanai like a lacy antique tablecloth draped over my long-deceased grandmother’s dining table.

My room was on the so-called “garden level,” termed euphemistically since the vine-wrapped transom windows, barely peeking above ground level, had probably not been cracked open since 1925. I tried to appreciate the quaint appeal, but I was struggling to sleep and breathe in the dank basement room with no air conditioning. And the fans they dug out of the closet did not help the sullied, stagnate air situation at all. It felt like a blast furnace at night.  

This was not my beautiful retreat, nor the 60th birthday experience I had envisioned. Once again, my yin clobbered my yang. The blessing and the curse;  bitter and sweet; excruciating and transcendent. It was overwhelming, really—a mosaic of epiphanies, fears, tears, laughs, gold nuggets, connections, wine, hugs, more tears,  sleepless nights, perspiration, Kleenex, mucus, chocolate, thick coffee, and abundant charcuterie.

Let’s just say it was complicated.

In particular, a worsening runny nose and cough came into full bloom on day two, and an IM to my doctor to check symptoms resulted in what I feared.

“Yes, Elaine, get a  COVID test,” she instructed. “The variant is causing milder breakthrough symptoms in vaccinated people.”

I shared my concern with Cindy, one of the hosts, and she said, “Oh dear. I’m sorry. We don’t have liability insurance to drive you to get a test.”  

I was stunned, but fortunately, angels on earth do exist because Lea, my retreat compatriot, came my rescue. Survival mode is my natural state, so I did what was hardest for me—asked for help. My therapist would say I was over-functioning, but I needed a ride. Lea had driven from Rochester, Minnesota, my pal Peter’s hometown, so she had a car. We had hit it off on day one. I knew Lyft would not drive me to get a test, and I had no transportation.

Though I was vaccinated, I could not rest until I knew my status. How could I run the risk of infecting the retreat bubble with COVID? What would happen then? No one was masking. After all, I had come for Texas, where hospitalizations were rising. I was feeling my anxiety ramp up. Handling this was distracting and stressful, to say the least. Shattered any Zen vibe that might have been brewing. And a COVID test was definitely in sync with a restorative retreat I imagined. 

After extensive online searching with my dear Lea’s help, we found the only test available that day at a sketchy “emergency” COVID lab located in the industrial outskirts of St. Paul. It required prepayment, but I was game. We hit the road like Lucy and Ethel trying to find William Holden at 21. It was as hysterical as it was annoying. There were even some madcap antics when we could not find the poorly marked entrance behind the thick, uncut grass. We thought it was scam.

Lord, we giggled and gasped our way across the Twin Cities, laughing through our tears. And miraculously, for a couple of hours that afternoon, I felt my crusty lizard-grief skin dissolve into a puddle of silliness. For just a brief moment or two, I felt like me again — me with a cold, that is. Thank you, Lea for that unexpected glimpse of joy and your extreme generosity.

Not surprisingly, more intrigue ensued as I had to follow up when the results did not appear as promised within an hour. Apparently, the technician had stepped out for some wild rice soup, I guess, but they eventually found him, and it was negative. Thank God.

Back to our program in progress, Jess, our charming, brilliant and earthy retreat guru, was deep into her spectacular curriculum. It’s all a little foggy to tell you the truth, but I can tell from my notes that she offered a keen understanding of how to construct a narrative. It was all about finding clarity and giving yourself permission to sink into the power and value of your story. She was a font of practical knowledge, too — all the brass tacks and tricks to get ’er done. Meanwhile, Cindy, her perky and polished partner in crime, orchestrated our delicious moveable feasts and morning yogas with unflappable panache. Exhaling felt good — especially when the congestion cleared a bit.

But the heart connections among the women were the highlight. It’s ironic that words elude me to adequately describe the experience of a writing retreat, of being in the presence of these amazing soul sisters, but that’s probably because it feels as ephemeral as the tiny fuchsia morning glories that bloomed for only an hour or so in the sprawling backyard each day. Finding authentic community is rare — particularly in the brave new pandemic world. There was a little Oz in the mix.

So, in spite of the mayhem, I believe this week was a long overdue investment in my muse and myself. It taught me to go on cherishing the beauty in the tiniest glimmers of grace. I am grateful for the memories, motivation, momentum, and minor mending of my fractured heart. And I could not wait to get home to my air-conditioned bedroom.

Because there’s no place like home.

It’s All Grief to Me: 5 Things Grievers Would Like to Hear

Thankfully, I have found several groups for bereaved parents on Facebook. Yes, they are the yin to Facebook’s otherwise troubling yang, but the shattered hearts convened in them are full and present. They weave together the bitter and sweet, the dark and the light, the loss and the love. Thinking of Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

These sacred conclaves provide safety and warmth in the midst of grief’s pervasive miasma. They have exacting parameters, like “Loss of an Adult Children,” “Sudden Death,” “Parents Who Have Lost Sons,” and “Refuge in Grief.” And their openheartedness is as transformative as it is devastating. In fact, their kind words often keep me functioning on my worst days. It’s a level of knowing no one else possesses. 

Part of the pain of living with the death of a child is the ancillary awkwardness of engaging with other people in the world every day. The tragic reality of losing a child is a stark identity that seeps into every interaction, whether expressed on the outside or fiercely contained on the inside. Every conversation is a reminder, ladened with trenchant decisions about what to say, how to say it or whether to say it at all. It’s like having two or three people arguing inside your head all the time.

A recent question on one of these precious groups sparked a deeper dive into my own lexicon of grief. A member posted, “What do people say that helps you most?” This intrigued me, as I thought taking inventory of what resonates with this group of irreparable hearts might help other humans who stumble around those struggling with grief or who avoid them completely.

Let’s start at the top. This list is full of contractions, but then, so is grief.

  1. Nothing

Say nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, but it makes perfect sense. This is about just being present, just saying you are present. That’s all. In pre-COVID times, it meant hugging, sitting next to you on the couch or just holding a hand silently. I think this is the ultimate comfort in grief—like sitting shiva in Judaism. You don’t have to talk or offer beverages or speak. Just be. Allow the pain without fixing, evangelizing, entertaining, cajoling or minimizing. Human presence is a divine gift and a relief. In writing, it translates as “I have no words, but I am here.” Or “my heart is with you.” The grace is in the spaces between.

2. “I am here.”

“I am here” gives a voice to the above. This response ranked high. As grief guru David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed to be healed.” Strange but true. “I am here.” “I see you.” “I hear you.” “I am here for you.” “I am here anytime, day or night.” “I am here when you need to talk or when you don’t want to talk.” This is the power of presence.

3. Say their names, share their memories

Casual acquaintances frequently shy away from saying my son Elliot’s name, and they sometimes visibly cringe if I do. But I love it when someone asks, “Will you share a favorite memory of Elliot?” Or says, “Let’s talk about Elliot. Remember when he  . . .” or “I want to tell you a story you might not about Elliot.” Saying their names keeps their memories alive—so personally and poignantly. The invitation to share a memory somehow propels his memory into the present moment instantly. He doesn’t feel so gone. For a brief  moment, it’s more sweet than bitter.

4. “I will never comprehend your pain.”

Every grief is different—as unique as every loss. Though we may share commonalities in our stories, the essential pain is our own. Offering acknowledgement of this can be very comforting and healing—like a specially compounded ointment. “I can’t possibly begin to know your pain or how you go on.” “I have no idea what you are going through, but I am here for you in any way I can be.” I suppose this is a riff on “I am here,” adding the shared dimension of incredulity.

5. Speak from your heart

You don’t have to fix. Just feel. “My heart breaks.” “My heart hurts.” “My heart bleeds.”  “My heart is next to yours.” “My heart is with you.” There is something visceral and intimate about these statements. It’s both physical and emotional. Elliot will always live in my heart and in the hearts of all those who adored him—the agony and the joy in one place.

I am in no way suggesting we should script such things. Far from it, but I would like to see us cultivate a greater ease and openness with loss—allowing space for its enormity to expand. It is scary, but we are here on the earth to be in relationship—to be better at being human in the hard times.

But as a grief-averse culture, we simply don’t have the everyday language around life’s most painful events. I find this ironic since the pandemic has made the immediacy of grief as much a part of life as the joy of birth. And yet, the social dialogue is still tense, brittle and detached. So much so, we continue to default to the perfunctory, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” How did this happen? I’m sorry . . . for your loss? It does not even make sense. You don’t need to apologize for my loss. And “sorry” is a flimsy word, like trying to put out a fire with a Dixie cup. Just feels inadequate.

In the ebb and flow of the pandemic, we are in a both/and world—forced to learn a new way to be as we live. There is no new normal. Perhaps, a new tolerable—with the occasional glimmer of joy. I want to learn to carry the loss and the love together, the grief and the grace. Grief will always be a part of who I am down to the marrow—not just something that happened to me I have to get over. The tap dance of OK-ness is utterly exhausting. But the dark pit of despair is no place to exist, either.

So, I’m not going to list the ridiculous clichés. You’ve heard them. You may even say them. (No judgement.) But here are a few other great words worth sharing from the collection:

This totally sucks, but I’ve got you.”

“I want to know everything about Elliot—when you are ready.”

“You will get to a place where the sting of the pain softens a bit. Until then, I will be here for you every step of the way.”

“I love you. You are loved . . . always.”

“It’s OK to not be OK for as long as it takes. Allow yourself to feel and grieve at your own pace.”

“If you want to share your pain, I will catch what I can. I am here to sit or listen, and hold a space for you.”

“I can’t take your pain away, but I do have a shoulder to cry on and ears to listen.”

Megan Devine, another one of my grief gurus says, “Acknowledgement makes things better even when they cannot be made right. It’s a radical act to allow others pain and sit beside them with it.” In the end, grief is love.

Over the Rainbow: On the Edge of August

Maybe it’s the accumulation of almost sixty years of living in this body, but I am feeling the weight of my existence. No, my survival. I feel like I have been in survival mode—consciously or unconsciously for nearly half my life. That takes my breath away. Yet the past three years have eclipsed everything that came before. The loss of my son Elliot three years ago on August 5, 2018, at age 26 is the heaviest of all.

With August just days away, I have been drilling down into my search for a sense of renewed purpose in my life. With my son Ian in the interactive thick of his gaming master’s program at SMU, I have been peeling back the layers of my personal onion lately—asking myself all those daunting and stupefying questions:  How do I find meaning?  Why am I  here? What’s next?  How did I get here? Where do I belong? What should I do? All the usual cocktail party banter. Oh, how festive a good cocktail party used to be . . .

Writing helps. But it can be both an astringent and a salve—like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a wound to make it sizzle with pain, then soothing it with a healing ointment. This is an inescapable reality of living in the ubiquity of grief—a curse and a blessing, pain and gratitude, light and dark—all about finding a way to carry both with grace and aplomb. Ah, but there’s the rub. I seem to be fresh out of aplomb, but that might not be such a terrible thing. Stripping off the hardened layers of figurative varnish, liberally applied over the years to make everything look good on the outside, is probably healthy. Authenticity is definitely less work but more vulnerable. I have found that being present, grounded and real in the moment has its advantages.

Feeling bravely. Letting go. Saying no. Intentionally noticing where I am—to calm my unconsciously triggered nervous system. That’s the work. I can try to override an event intellectually, but my body keeps the score and always wins (referencing a seminal book on the subject by Bessel van der Kolk.) That’s pretty much how I roll now. Simple? Not always.

Process. Trust the  process. But trust the process?

As another August looms, it’s getting harder to breathe, especially since I am about to mark six decades on the planet on the 15th.  I also am remembering my late Aunt Virginia, who would have been 98 on August 6, and my mother, who died on August 22, 2012. Her birthday is August 27, and she would have been 86-ish. I’m a little vague on this, because my mom fudged her date of birth for so many years that she could never authoritatively confirm it. Regardless, August is heavy, and nine years later, my heart breaks for my mother—charming and magnanimous in public, but resentful and insecure in private. And tragically, her devastating stroke snatched her flamboyant life away far too soon—after leaving her paralyzed, brain-damaged and bedridden for nearly two years.

Thinking of Elliot and my mother on the edge of August, I am wondering about the journey of souls and the nature of life. Are Elliot, Mother, Father, Aunt Virginia, Cousin Scott, and my beloved mentor Ann Abbe together in some parallel cosmic dimension watching me try to function? Sometimes, I think so, but I’m not sure. When I interacted with my mother, aphasic after her stroke, she could say only “bah-bah-bah” with no discernible meaning attached. Yes, she was awake and present, but she was not there in a way I recognized. I suppose the mask of her larger-than-life self had dissolved. Being with her toward the end, I learned that souls have nothing to do with speech, thoughts or cognitive function. Her body was a mere vessel, still containing her spirit, but the violent rewiring of her brain’s circuits caused by the vicious stroke had amplified the serenity of her core essence somehow. It’s a strange thing to say, I know, but she seemed blissful, even giddy with childlike innocence. I was grateful for that part and wondered: Was this a glimpse of eternity?

When I was a little girl with my eyes open wide in the middle of the night under the covers, I tried desperately to visualize what heaven would be like. Would God be there? Would we frolic with angels amongst the clouds eating chocolate cake and picking flowers?  Would the streets be paved with gold and diamonds? What exactly was heaven, anyway?

I am still wondering about souls.

While the human being consists of physical matter, the soul is quite literally a piece of God, the Divine. The teachings of the Quran tell us the soul of each individual person is located in the eighth chakra at the top of the head, above the crown chakra. The power is not visible to human eyes, but it’s like the flow of electric current. And New Agers conjecture, “Your soul is your conscience, energy with no form or location that is part of the whole universe. The meaning of life is to evolve your conscience to higher consciousness—the source of all existence.”

Hard to pin down. Even harder to find.

Since Elliot died, I have never reached a point of feeling better— just different, and sometimes surprisingly so. His absence is always present. It never goes away, but maybe I’m learning to accept it—little by little, moment by moment. Not how it could have happened, but the reality that it did. I cherish the moments of forgiveness—for Elliot and for myself.  And then, a wave of grief hijacks me again. Alas, sustainable peace is just beyond my grasp right now, like the elusiveness of a distant rainbow I saw engulfing the morning sky yesterday. For a brief instant, I thought it might be Elliot—gorgeous in its subtle palette but ephemeral in its existence.

Then, I noticed something I never had—the bitter sweetness of a rainbow. Yes, there is beauty in its vivid hues, but it’s contained in a grand arch of sorrow enveloping the sky, the earth in mourning for my Elliot. I stopped in my tracks and wondered if I were the only one transfixed in this moment of poignant beauty. For so many, the rainbow is the ultimate symbol of hope and happiness, the stunning surprise belying the sadness of its form. But this is the way I meet every day and every moment of my life—such an apt metaphor for living with the untimely loss of my flesh and blood, my baby Elliot. The only solace it that he will always be in my heart—and alive in the hearts of so many who adored him.

.

The Nature of Grief: How I Learned to Pray

HELP. THANKS. WOW.

The brilliant  Anne Lamott says these are the only words you need to pray in tough times, and they are resonating with me deeply at the moment. Anne is a wordsmith of the most succinct order. Love this—especially since I have been grappling with the concepts of pray and faith for much of my life—but more so, lately.

As Anne demonstrates, prayer does not have to be complicated, but it can be tricky. I think she and I are on the same page about what it’s not—a wish list for existence or a direct line to the heavenly fulfillment department. In fact, I have intentionally discarded the practice of praying for thingsfor outcomes and events that I want or wish to prevent for myself or others.

Prayer does not work like that. At least, it never has for me. I don’t see God as a short-order cook or a divine delivery service. Wouldn’t that be nice? Order up! But if God functioned like an anthropomorphic Amazon.com, I think we’d have a very different kind of world. Grace delivered—overnight? Imagine . . .

Regardless, I’m thinking the universe’s operating system could use a reboot, as Elliot would always recommend when things got stuck in my cyberworld. Or possibly, a scalable upgrade? Doesn’t a cloud-based solution make perfect sense? Just sayin’. But I digress.

I may sound a little jaded, but I come by it honestly. I have been traveling this bumpy spiritual road for more than half a century, with my tail up over the dashboard, as my dad used to say. So instead, I now pray for alignment with divine order, that is, the radical acceptance of what is—and the strength to live with whatever happens in this world I don’t comprehend, whatever that might be.

After the death of my oldest son, Elliot, forever 26, almost three years ago in a still-unexplained motorcycle accident, I know that praying for anything specific is pretty much pointless. There is some greater agenda far above my paygrade at work. I have even tried praying in present tense: He is safe. We are whole. There are no guns. COVID is eradicated . . . the list goes on. But that’s not it, either, because the vastness of all creation is simply beyond all knowing. Period. 

I have gathered lots of empirical data on this. My conversations with God have been constant and frequent for as long as I can remember—when Elliot was riding those damn motorcycle(s), driving those Hot Wheel-sized Miata roadsters —and indulging in other more ambiguously risky behaviors, of which I have only sketchy knowledge. And when I was  navigating the terminal illnesses and dysfunctions of the rest of my dwindling family.

I think the playwright analogy feels most apropos. Could Hamlet ever ask Shakespeare for a different outcome? “Dear Will, uh, I’ve changed my mind. I really do believe in marriage. Can you forget about what I said about that nunnery thing?” Or could George and Martha prayerfully seek divine guidance and couple’s therapy to disentangle their codependent vitriol in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Nope, not going to happen—impossible. It’s not part of the construct. The two worlds will never directly intersect.

Here’s what I do know.

All we can do is hold others (and ourselves) in our hearts and minds with compassion—wrapped in the fierce energy of love and light. I believe prayer is more about recognizing and summoning God’s universal love to fill our own souls with peace and comfort. People say prayer “works,” but I’m not sure exactly what that means. Yet I do believe in the electricity of prayer—the dancing quarks of psychic energy that ricochet in our hearts and out into the quantum field. That’s the essence of God—in all of us. I have definitely felt that phenomenon—like the waves of love engulfing me on Elliot’s 29th birthday last week. Yes, prayer is real — but not in an “I’ll have fries with that” sort of way. We have no clue what’s driving this massive creation business. None. More questions than answers. A complete mystery. We love in spite of all of it—not because of it all.

I became obsessed with this prayer notion following a profound  Faith and Grief retreat I was invited to attend two weeks ago. The leaders, Mike Shaw and Fran Shelton, brought a gentle, Christian perspective, but the experience was faith agnostic, open and affirming of all spiritual paths. There were no dogmas, no rules. The space was a loving container of inclusiveness, breath and spirit. Nourishing, bittersweet grace.  

We convened to consider the wisdom of the Clifton Strengths, a business-performance coaching tool, in the context of grief. As we identified and unpacked our unique personal strengths, we also were encouraged to expose and sit with the most uncomfortable truths of grief, such as lament, guilt and anger. Feeling our emotions fully is essential to forging the strength to live with devastating loss and find a way to carry grief and gratitude simultaneously. I am deeply grateful for this loving group—and the mystery that has enfolded me through their support.

Mystery is part of grief, death and life, too. It’s ambiguous, ephemeral and vague, but at the same time, it might be the only safe place for my heart right now, still shattered and precarious. There is a sort of cosmic mooring in the acceptance of not knowing. And yet, it’s also so unsettling.

Mystery is my only certainty.

I think that’s why my fascination with nature has intensified so—like being mesmerized by a spiderweb. It’s a potent symbol of the persistence of creation, the unending circle of life, and our microscopic place in the scheme of all things—another concept that is both comforting and overwhelming. I’m reminded of an image from a late-career Eagles song, “Waiting in the Weeds”:

The ebb and dart of a small gray spider spinning in the dark,
In spite of all the times the web is torn apart.

I love these lines  so much, and I am energized by connecting dots. The exercise grounds me somehow, giving me a place in the grand mosaic of things—a sense of value, a way to be, belong and contribute. That’s probably why I am such an avid collector of information and asker of questions—to accumulate more data and fodder for connections. After all, it’s one of my Clifton Strengths—Input. But lately, there are just too many questions with inadequate answers. No answers to so many and many, too heavy to carry.

I am weary.

I’m tired of my own curiosity. So many questions that lead to pain, confusion and despair. Oh, how I want the moment to be enough, free of all the baggage, but I am such a different person now. I can’t get used to it. I want to feel more like the “Possibilities Elaine,” again, more hopeful and content. Perhaps, as I continue to notice nature’s eternal cadence, my heart will feel more at ease. I will cherish my oneness with creation . . . and with the raw mystery of it.

The ironic addendum is that in the wake of questioning prayer at the Faith and Grief retreat, I wrote a prayer. As Hamlet would say, “There’s the rub.”

Source/God:
Help me accept the deep mystery of all creation—
that is beyond, all knowing, as I carry the bitter and
the sweet in peace that is beyond, all understanding
my thanks for the Divine gift of your love everlasting.

Help me harness my unique strengths and talents.
to see, serve and enrich others—enveloping
me as I find meaning in the darkest of hours and
glimmers of grace in the deepest of sorrows.

Help me embrace your infinite comfort and
wisdom in the profound acceptance of what is—
as I encounter each new moment in wonder
and gratitude for this “one wild and precious life.”

Wow, Elaine

What are your thoughts about grief and prayer? I would be honored to connect.

The 3 Cs of Grief

The gravity of grief is exhausting. I am talking about the micro and the macro of it—the micro being the weight of my own personal confederacy of  losses, and the macro, the gestalt of the world in crisis—the pandemic, isolation, climate change, social injustice, QAnon, Texas’ incompetent leadership, gun violence, the pain of lost children at the U.S. border seeking sanctuary, and the list goes on. Lately, I feel like I have hit a wall, a saturation point that has tarnished all my silver linings.

Most days, I find this perpetual state like a heavy weighted blanket, paradoxically as agitating as it is confining. (That might be my CPTSD talking.) But let’s face it—if you are human, you are dealing with crappy stuff. It’s part of the package, and the last year, two or four, have been tough for all of us. Grief is ubiquitous. Grief is insistent. Grief is oppressive. Grief is obstinate. Grief is transformative. It changes who we are because it changes the way we rub against the world. And yet, it is also one of the most potent reminders of our inherent humanness. As so many smart people have posited, we grieve to the degree we love. So, for those of us who suffer most, grief is never going away, but it may morph. And the exact way it morphs is as individual as a snowflake.  

That’s why addressing and processing grief head-on is essential.  I feel like I have a PhD in the subject by now, but that’s why I talk about so much. It’s what I feel called to do. My meaning. David Kessler, a gentle grief guru, says so eloquently:

Grief must be witnessed. Something profound happens when others see and hear and acknowledge our grief. Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Conversely, something goes wrong when it remains unseen.

Profound and true, because the vulnerability of being witnessed authentically is what  restores your sense of wholeness and safety—even if it’s just for a nanosecond. And with a continuous queue of compassionate witnesses, we begin to truly transform and reach a place where we can carry the weight of the  grief burden—and eventually, carry on. We feel carried by the whole, and we realize we need community to heal.

Truly, acknowledging and validating grief is the most gracious gift you can give a broken heart. It opens up a space to breathe and thereby connect. It is the definition of grace, and regardless of your faith proclivities, grace is the place where we encounter the divine. There are no magic words required. You don’t even have to apologize. You really don’t need to say you are sorry for my loss or anything like that. This might be a new catchphrase or hashtag. Grief means never having to say your sorry. Just say you are present, and you cannot begin to comprehend the gravity of my loss. “There are no words. I am here.” That’s it. I consider those who can sit in silence or simply walk alongside me to be my angels on earth.

Still, grief in our culture is tricky because it’s the elephant in room—which translates into instant awkwardness. We don’t have the language for loss. We have never developed the interpersonal grief muscle, but why? Loss is universal, and being seen is the most potent balm. It’s just the closeness, context, and confluence of the loss (or losses) than can tip the scales, adding even more weight. Perhaps these are the three Cs of grief?

Closeness. This is nature or depth of the relationship. Though grief is not a competitive sport, there is particularly devastating wallop losing a child packs. It’s out of order and  life altering—even setting all other aspects aside. No matter how complicated the connection might have been, losing a child is like losing an appendage. You can technically go on living, but you have to relearn how to do everything.  In losing my spectacular and sometimes frustrating Elliot, I find the love and pain often conflate (another C). That intensifies the ache that erupts in these startling moments when I am unable to breathe or stop the sobs. Indeed, context is also a vexing conundrum. (Another C or two.)

Context. This refers to the particulars of your life at the time of the death and after. These factors are inescapable. The context has felt like a tightening vice around my experience. Elliot had found his groove. He had just scratched the surface of his potential. Tragic on so many levels. I just can’t bear it, so I  just keep moving. I try to muster empathy for myself, but it’s a challenge. I am training myself to acknowledge the tough feelings and release them. I’m kind of an emotional nomad—living on the edge and trying not to dwell in the stagnate stew underneath for any length of time. I feel so detached and untethered. Thank God, I have my moments of precious connection with friends but nothing durable. Some days, maintaining the “I’m OK” exterior is so exhausting I just mentally vamp. Tread water. Barely. Put one foot in front of the other. That’s all I can do. Yet something about this bifurcation in the isolation of my silent, compact office in front of three computer screens makes it even more debilitating.          

Confluence.  The pieces of me, the factors that have come together in this life now—after Elliot. As a single mom of a 24-year-old son, I must constantly remind myself to give my Ian the space he needs to forge his own path. That’s both difficult and easy.  Beautiful and desolate. Fulfilling and draining. I feel I am performing over the center ring without a net, flying the airplane without a parachute—when all I really want is a safe place to land. Emphasis on “safe.”

I know I need to find a way to be in the world. Half of me feels like it no longer operates in sync with the rest of me—the definition of yin and yang. Numb, heavy, confused and anxious. Time is sluggish and accelerating—all at the same time. Perhaps it’s the lumbering repetitiveness of COVID existence—sorrow, grief and isolation make an unappetizing cocktail.  I have lost that unconscious optimistic autopilot that helped me know I would be OK; I would figure it out one day. But now, everything is hard, feels off center and precarious in this context of fear and uncertainty  It’s hard to flex the over-functioning muscle that’s always been my default coping mechanism. I guess my grief therapist would say that’s progress, but I say it’s harrowing. Definitely accounts got the vacuousness, the feeling of perpetual flimsiness. And the futility of this awful, new normal existence.

I am constantly aware of the vast, dank abyss I teeter over. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I am a half, maybe even a third of a person now. Am I missing the part that died with Elliot? Will my heart regenerate. Will my soul? I want the comfort and connection others can bring and simultaneously want to be with alone. I have no interest in banter, but it used to be my fuel, my raison d’etre. Still, I am grateful for so much—an extraordinary son, caring friends, my writing, a new job that challenges me, and a lovely roof over my head.

I am different now.

And maybe, there are more than 3 Cs—maybe five, six of seven. They all apply at one time or another, but the most important one is not a C at all. It’s a G—grace. Cherishing those transcendent moments that remind me I am part of something much bigger than my own rumination.

I must keep clearing the space to let in the light.

Quantum Ghosts

I watched another incisive and provocative film as the snow fluttered into my courtyard this weekend — “A Ghost Story.” It’s a beguiling yet disconcerting film about a woman’s loss of her husband, a musician, in a tragic car wreck close to their home. Aside from its unflinching and brazen gaze at the enormity of grief after a sudden loss, the film explores the concept of the cyclicality of time. It’s the notion that time is not linear — and the past, present, and future are infinitely entangled and concurrently unraveling in the universe’s quantum ball of string.

Shrouded in a bedsheet with eyeholes haphazardly snipped like a trick-or-treater, Casey Affleck appears as the deceased husband trapped in some sort of cosmic purgatory, eerily looming in his wife’s space as he watches over her achingly authentic attempts to grapple with grief. Given its lingering pace, excruciating at times, and perplexing narrative arc, I almost expected to see Rod Serling lurking in the corner, too. I’m not sure if it was the macabre whimsy of the strange, costume-cloaked figure — or the shy, poignant presence of his spirit, but it felt like filmmaker David Lowery peered into my soul for a brief instant.

The real twist comes when the bereaved wife moves out of the house they shared, and the bedraggled ghost remains. He is stuck there for decades, seeing residents come and go, but he also finds himself thrust back into the past — until the spiral of time circles back around again to the couples’ most recent time in the house. In one particularly potent scene, we see the mischievous specter make the very same loud bang on the piano that had awoken the couple at the beginning of the film — when they searched to the living room and were not able to find the source of the noise.

The glimpses of overlapping time and space are both unsettling and comforting somehow. On one hand, they reinforce the omnipresence of those we lose and love, but they also remind me of the peculiar events I experienced around my 26-year-old son Elliot’s death. Two days before his mysterious motorcycle accident, I was at home in the afternoon and heard a crash in my office at home. I ran up the stairs, walked in, and saw my treasured porcelain doll on the floor, shattered.

She was the first doll I ever acquired for my small but precious childhood doll collection. I loved her. We had reunited when I found her in an old, tattered box cleaning out my parents’ house after their deaths in 2014. She had been perched on a shelf of books Elliot had left behind after he moved into his own place. The entire bookcase was filled with his scholarly volumes, always reminding me this was his room, as well as my office — another example of his tsunkoku. It shook me to the core at the time —though I was not sure why. I even mentioned it to Ian, Elliot’s brother who was home from the summer from college. There was no reason she should have fallen that day — no vents nearby and the cat was asleep on the couch downstairs.

I will admit that I do tend to look for connections in unusual places. As I have reviewed the events of that devastating year, 2018, and the months following, I have noticed so many unexplainable synchronicities, events and signs. Though I am confident I will never decode all of them while occupying this earthly plane, noticing them has taught me our knowledge of creation, divine wisdom, time, space and the universe is miniscule.

In fact, last year when I was rummaging around on the internet for answers, I discovered the concept of nonlocality, a quantum theory in which two or more particles exist in interrelated or entangled states remain undetermined until a measurement is made of one of them. When the measurement is made, the state of the other article is instantly fixed, no matter where it is. “In space–time as a whole, it is a continuous interaction extending between past and future events,” said Avshalom Elitzur of the Weizmann Institute of Science So, explaining the unexplainable just got even harder in the non-linear context of time and space.

Boggling.

But this I do know — time might be an illusion, but love is not.

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.

The Thing with Feathers

Grief.

It comes in many forms, and its spikey talons dig into your flesh, heart, and soul with varying degrees of force, pressure, and duration.

But there is another layer now, a cacophony of angry, bellicose voices that surround, infiltrate, and pierce us relentlessly—pinging and careening like atomic particles in a supercollider of accelerating chaos. David Brooks said in The New York Times this week, “There are dark specters running through our nation—beasts with shaggy manes and feral teeth.”  The reality is that these events in America continue to weigh on us like a mammoth psychic boulder.

And then, there’s the pandemic—manifesting universal grief, a primordial stew of sorrow,  but there is a rancid ingredient in the pot. In this brave new concoction, so many of us are stirring unresolved pain and anger into the mix, which is hindering our ability to care for each other and ourselves. We are stuck, hardened, and adversarial.

Indeed, this creates a challenging milieu for anyone who is grieving a personal loss. But grief is not a competitive sport, as they say. There are as many flavors of grief as there are types of relationships, but I must admit, losing my first-born 26-year-old son 29 months ago in a sudden and violent motorcycle accident tops my list.

And I know loss.

At this point in my life, I have lost everyone in my immediate family, except my precious 24-year-old son, Ian.

  • My marriage in 2000
  • My only cousin, Scott, at 56 in 2007 from alcoholism
  • My mother, Ann, in 2012 after two strokes and a 32-month debilitating illness
  • My father, Everett, in 2014 after shrouding a lifetime of illness and secrets
  • My only aunt, Virginia, in 2020 in isolation due to COVID
  • My only sister Melissa’s presence after Elliot’s death
  • My kitty of 14 years, Patches, in 2020
  • And my dear first-born son, Elliot, in 2018

These are my stages of grief. This is my confederacy of losses, and recently, their collective impact has been both untenable and inevitable, as I come face to face with my own mortality.

Looking back on these years of struggle, I now recognize why everything else in my life has been messy and difficult, exacerbated by that baseline of trauma and turmoil. So these days, I am learning to be gentler with myself. I’m learning to forgive. I remember being completely flummoxed by Elliot’s wisdom on the day of my father’s funeral in 2014.

He mused, “For such a small family, we certainly have expansive abysses to bridge.”

Poignantly astute. And ironically true.

It’s like living a double life sometimes—one where you have to act like everything is OK, fabulous, and sunny all the time—and one where you are constantly overwhelmed and looking for ways to fill yourself with worthiness, love, and peace. The good things always seem to evaporate—so temporal and insubstantial, like the ribbon of smoke from my mother’s cigarette.

I don’t have the answer—far from it, but writing helps me see . . .  helps me understand the truth of what I think and what I feel. Writing also has helped me recognize that finding glimpses of grace, even the faintest glimmers in the middle of the ickiest muck, is not only surprising—it’s necessary. It’s what I need to live, the way I can put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Especially now.  

I also am strengthened by savoring the moments of awe, surprise, and connection more intentionally. Grief is like walking around in quicksand, a strange kind of suspended animation or slow motion that suffocates and separates you from the rest of the world—a bittersweet state that compels you to take a beat, whether it’s in misery or in magic.

And the magic is definitely in the angels, those celestial messengers who just seem to show up—out of thin air. How grateful I am for them, tears welling . . . I’m not sure where I would be without these cherished friends in my life. They appear when I need them most, and they are present in ways I never could have imagined. The mysterious grace of those who just know—they see me, acknowledge my profound pain—and stay anyway. They keep me going. I am writing this because of them. I dedicate this to them.

I only hope I can give other shattered, grieving hearts the same salve, the same presence . . . and in the words of Emily Dickinson, the thing with feathers. That is my meaning. That is my hope. That is my purpose.

Time for Haikus

Last night, I caught the very last story on “60 Minutes.” It highlighted the rare and timeless rituals of Kabuki, still thriving in Japan today. Though this took me back to my days studying theatre at Northwestern, I was reminded of the Japanese word for Kabuki. It means “off-kilter.” Apropos of everything.

Instantly, I also felt Elliot’s presence in the stylized whimsy of this ancient theatrical spectacle. What bittersweet synchronicity that I happened to turn on the television at this very moment on the last dreary Sunday evening of 2020. And since then, I have felt El’s unmistakable zeitgeist all around.

Japanophile was just one of his many monikers—son, brother, nephew, grandson, friend, housemate, boyfriend, wordsmith, poet, alumnus, brilliant iconoclast, IT savant, musician, saxophonist, shakuhachi flutist, composer, music critic, artist, philosopher, pinball wizard, raconteur, Global Payments engineer, volunteer, mission tripper, teacher, journalist, book devourer, bitcoin purveyor, witty conversationalist, “whitish-hat” hacker, tilde.towner, fellow traveler, cool cat, hip nerd, aviation ace, computer game whizz, old soul, restless heart, disarming intellect, insatiable student, reluctant soccer goalie, skeptical theologian, Japanese car aficionado, Japanese motorcycle fanatic, skateboarder, origami master, loose tea connoisseur, and world citizen.

Oh, I know I’ve left out something . . . so much to so many in one wild and precious life.

“That’s OK,” my wise and spiritual friend Sue reassures me, her heart also irreparably torn apart by the loss of her adult son, “As mothers, we cannot ever possibly know the totality of our sons’ existence, the edges of the lives they led,” she muses. “And somehow, that’s strangely healing. They have and always will exist far beyond us.”

Yes, I think that notion is powerful. I take a breath.

And perhaps, it’s grace.

Right now, it’s Elliot’s Japanese thread that dances before me, so it’s no surprise to me that 2020 was my “year of the haiku.” They seemed to flow from me like a gentle mountain stream. I dedicate them now to Mr. Elliot. They greeted me as I walked, as I sat quietly in my office, and often, as I washed my hands—over and over . . .

With these words, I hold you—and all who have struggled and lost so much in this year like no other, as will I for El forever:

Heart
Make it stop—this now
sacred, unquenchable ache,
because you took flight.

Time
In a susurrus,
what is done, always will be—
dissolving the now.

Apart
Life in a bubble—
Hermetic under its veil.
Together alone.

Grave
No other reason.
A grave erratum must be—
Buried on his page.

Lament
Grief’s ambient tears,
Permeating my membranes
inside tomorrow.

Swann
Passed is my future
So now In Search of Lost Time
Still—breaking my heart.

The Only Thing I Had Time to Write

The holidays are tough; they just are, this year in particular. Even in years without global pandemics and the strife of 2020, they serve up a bittersweet concoction of complicated family dynamics, mixed with tidbits of joy, the overwhelming presence of loss—and deeply cherished memories of celebrations past. This is my third Christmas without my son Elliot.

For me, the holidays are something to endure, to get through. But for my dear son Ian’s sake, my priority is to create new traditions for us, fresh memories for him, for me and for us. Easier said than done this year, but being together will be my greatest gift.   

There are plenty of new experiences now. Last weekend, I participated in a deeply moving ritual – the 24th Annual Worldwide Candle Lighting, sponsored by Compassionate Friends, virtual this year. The event honors and remembers children gone too soon. My dear friends Patty and Ken, along with First Unitarian Church, hosted a beautiful Zoom ceremony with profound and intimate meaning for those who struggle every day to pick up the sharp fragments of their shattered hearts.

Whether two days or 20 years, the pain never goes away. It just changes, but still inextricably intertwined with every moment and every breath. What a sacred time this was for those who understand, who know without saying a word, to honor the names and memories of our precious children, sorely missed but never, ever forgotten.

In thinking about how I would honor my extraordinary Elliot, on this day I thought of his poetry. He spoke from the depth of his soul, and I felt compelled to share his inimitable words that continue to resonate and inspire me in my writing each day. I recall with gratitude when Elliot’s University of Toronto poetry professor contacted me via this very blog. Thank you, Ricardo Sternberg, for sharing your admiration for Elliot and his exquisite words, a welcome glimpse of eternity. I read this as his candle burned:

THE ONLY THING I HAD TIME TO WRITE

By Elliot Wright

This cut in my bone
is the cut in yours,
a home for bad infinity;
Cantor’s blade is teething there,
mythic sword in stump.

Time, kindling for consciousness,
julienned, burns like straw,
and pallid smoke smears memory
as sheets of stratus smear the sun.

The clock unspools a fibril
a slender invisible line
for stringing my images along
like a Chinese line of cash–

It’s hard to tell–they’re shaved so thin–
which image here is
derived from the last.

It’s hard to adequately express my gratitude for the First Unitarian community—thoughtful, caring, authentic, and present. Thank you, thank you. Sending love and light to all who suffer in this unbearable darkness. I am with you. My heart is with you.