Grief’s Fault: Finding Hope on the Other Side

I am honored to be assisting my dear mentor, friend, and spiritual sage in spreading the word about her powerful and practical grief primer, The Spirituality of Grief: Ten Practices for Those Who Remain. This association is a rich win-win on so many levels — as I get to spend time with Rev. Dr. Fran Shelton and soak in her sacred wisdom along the way. I also am deeply moved she included some of my musings on grief within her profound pages — in her chapter on lectio divina, no less.

So, here is that piece. As a caveat, I wrote this essay in the thick of the COVID lockdown, so the context is potent. But no matter the timeframe, I can’t think of anything more meaningful than allowing my words to provide even a morsel of comfort to a healing heart, also negotiating this rocky path. The good news is the intensity has somewhat softened since I wrote these words. Today is different from yesterday and unlike tomorrow. Grief is a journey that is far from linear, but there is hope in the glimmers that light the way. My heart is with yours. Here is the essay:


The problem with the wilderness is the confusion — compounded with disconnection from people, places and purpose. Grief clouds your mind’s eye and scuttles your sense of possibility. Nothing feels right. So many directions, but no place to go. It’s visceral bewilderment — figurative and physical, together and apart, curious and terrifying.

How could this possibly have happened?

Historically, ambiguity has never bothered me too much, but now, waist-deep in this primordial stew of the time after Elliot, I’m finding it profoundly difficult to figure out where I am in the wilderness. This is no ordinary time. And there is no denying this line in the sand. I call it grief’s San Andreas Fault — forever dividing the time before Elliot’s death from the time after, but it also contains the seething stress inherent in such tectonic tension.  It’s like you have two separate lives, two completely different identities — joined by a precarious fracture. And three years into my “afterlife,” I’m still brittle, directionless and detached from most everything, except this unrelenting pain. Thankfully, the piercing icepick quality has morphed into a constant, dull ache.

The anguish of grief never goes away. It just mutates, kind of like the Coronavirus. But I have to believe both will subside in time.

Maybe it’s the conflation of COVID, the loss of my first-born son, and turning 60, but I feel like I am existing in some sort of meantime or Twilight Zone, between the before and the next, the shadow and the light. I find the ambiguity of the meantime difficult to navigate. Erratic directives from the Centers for Disease Control, my surviving son Ian’s bout with COVID, and the continuing chaos of sequestering, masking, and isolating (particularly in the non-compliant state of Texas) is overwhelming. Plus, I can’t help but grimace when I think of my year of working dangerously, actually two years — volatile hybrid work experiences in fraught environments, ranging from boastful bankruptcy to debilitating dysfunction.

The other problem is that the edges of my life have shrunk into the circumference of a tiny private island — and not the good kind. I recently read somewhere that a typical physical manifestation of grief across cultures is the expansion of the amygdala, the miniscule part of the brain that regulates emotions. Apparently, it grows and disrupts the frontal cortex, which is responsible for logical decision-making. I figure my amygdala must be the size of a cantaloupe. Though I am fully vaccinated and boosted, I just can’t seem to get beyond the pandemic mindset and chronic anxiety.

My greatest sense of accomplishment typically comes from successfully completing a trip to Target. Thriving has become irrelevant. It’s all about survival under a shroud of grief that eclipses my light and thwarts my resolve. So, what now? How do I make sense of this predicament in this phase of life — and somehow straddle the fault between Elliot’s passing and my future?

Caring pastors have advised, “Be gentle with yourself.”

That has always been a challenge for me, even in the best of times — but strangely, I am noticing that grief is teaching me to take better care of myself in the worst of times. Reparenting Elaine in a way. So, this I know — for Elliot’s death, for Ian’s life, and for my fragile soul, I want to find hope — to live and to love.

May Day Memory

It’s May Day, and I’m remembering my father, Everett Ellis Gantz, Jr. His human trek ended seven years ago today, not quite two years after the death of his charismatic artist-wife, Ann Cushing Gantz, my mother. After nearly 89 years on this earth, my father was full of wisdom but still an enigma—especially to me and to his only grandchildren, Elliot and Ian. Few truly knew the man behind the stoic, tacit Midwestern façade. The quintessential Greatest Generation engineer, my dad did long division in his head for fun. But he also clutched a lifetime of secrets in his shadows—some I have only recently exposed.

At the time of his gentle passing from dementia and heart failure in 2014, I was a struggling single mom of two precocious and complicated young men—smack dab in the middle of the caregiver “sandwich generation.” Though I tried to put my oxygen mask on first, my “sandwich-making” expertise in this stressful context was, well, uneven—always getting tangled up in the roughage. So, as I reflect on those difficult and devastating years, I recognize now that the vitriol and extreme stubbornness I often encountered on both sides of the figurative bun were clear indicators of a family unhinged. Adapting Bohn and Conrad, I’ll just say, ”The road to heartbreak is paved with good intentions.”

So, as another Mother’s Day approaches, along with the launch of another new normal, I have revisited and tweaked something I wrote at the time of my mom’s extended paralysis and aphasia after her stroke. I suspect it’s applicable to the full spectrum of grief—and hope.

Letting go.

No need to give to receive any-
more than her spirit shines,
without veneer,
without thoughts,
without words,
her true essence, now real—
her soul apparent.
Awareness without will,
cognition, gone—
she looks at me
and now she sees?

Me letting go—
With her, content to be.
Helpless though,
in her wheeled prison.
Her body not knowing how
to bridge this chasm.

In fear, he clings,
together alone.
Refusing to accept—
or ever go home.
To let go
of control
when his seizures defy
the years
and the secrets—
he only knows why.

The anger.
The loss.
The stories,
hiding in the dark,
the stone walls—
deep in his heart.
Oh, let love live on,
forever in peace
and letting go
but never release.

House of Comfort

I am honored to be included in this beautiful collection of art, poetry, and essays. “House of Comfort” is part of a series compiled by Gretchen Martens for The Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas. It’s a deeply moving journey—poignant yet powerful, intimate yet universal. Here is a taste:

The Gap

Everything feels out of whack,
out of sync—
Uncomfortable in my own skin.
Is there a place between the yin and the yang?
Where nothing and everything meet?
The push and the pull.
The yes and the no
Bitter and sweet
To and fro
Black and white
Pleasure and pain
Progress and regress
Abel and Kane
Now and forever
You and me
Off and on
Captive and free
Stuck there. I am
Like Scylla and Charybdis
the space in between
but filled with emptiness.
What should I do?
[My favorite FAQ.]
Nowhere feels right.
Says the voice in my head,
“Wherever you go, there you are,”
Who is it? Can’t shake it. So bizarre.
Since I lost so much.
Since I lost my baby boy,
Since I lost
My bearings. My heart. My joy.
The thread I hang by.
“Get over it. Buck up.”
[Programming reverb.
Doesn’t it suck?]
How I’ve tried to retool and rewire.
All the trauma and the pain.
Yet tears fall fast in the blink of my eye
“Isn’t it just such a shame?”
A wisp, faint susurrus—Elliot’s breath?
To feel. To embrace. No regret.
To listen. To wonder. To hold. To know.
But where? How? Where did he go?
And where is he now?
“I am here, mom,” he said.
But not really at all.
Mysterious. Dead.
As in life. So prickly
on the other side.
But it’s not right.
Out of joint.
Out of order.
Out of my mind.
I just can’t think.
So many questions.
Nary an answer caught in my sigh.
To how? To what if? And still to why?
Without parent nor child.
Both gone in between.
Mostly alone, half-mother unseen.
A daughter, a sister, a cousin,
a niece, a granddaughter—
not. Rest but no peace.
Together. Alone.
By myself.
There, I go the darkest place,
my miasma in tow.
“You’re fine. Buck up,” she says with a grin.
Not until I feel. [Who said that?]
“Oh, just take it on the chin.”
Those voices are real.
But what I did not expect—
I am here by grace—
to forgive, not forget.

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:

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

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

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

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

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

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