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.

Meditations on Grief: Telltale Tears

Tears of grief. Tears of joy. Chemically, they are identical.

And yet, there are essentially three different types: basal, lubricating, protecting and hydrating the cornea; reflex, responding to dust, irritants and allergens, and psychic, triggered by our strongest strong emotions. They are designed to wash away profound sorrow, as well as overwhelming joy. I think this mystical dual chemistry of tears illuminates the journey of grief.

Just as I was sitting down to write a journal entry, Linda, one of my oldest and dearest friends (in length of time, not chronology), texted me a fascinating article about tears in the Smithsonian Magazine — and a wish for me more tears of joy today. Turns out, they are the exact same thing. Since I embrace synchronicity, I clicked.

The microscopic images of all three types of tears peppered the article – depicting an entire lifetime, a complex universe in a single droplet of liquid. Oh, the stories they tell. As the article suggests, all the images look like “aerial views of emotional terrain.” Distant, elegant and provocative. That is so Elliot. Immediately, a rush of memory saturates my heart and then trickles down my cheeks. He adored World War I aircraft from day one – mastering the Red Baron computer game as a toddler and scrutinizing ceiling fans as if they were propellers as an infant.

I suspect Elliot was always meant to fly.

These maps are so dense, intricate and difficult to decipher. They all are a tangle of jagged paths, circuitous routes, and sharp corners . . . ins and outs, dead ends and drop-offs. Ah, this is the true journey of grief, and perhaps, maybe, of joy? That is why everything — even the so-called “happy” memories are as cloyingly bitter as they are sharply sweet — piercing my heart as they sometimes bring fleeting wisps of comfort to my weary soul. They are inextricably intertwined, like a strand of DNA. Is that the new definition of moving through grief — moving with grief? Finding a way to experience both love and excruciating pain at the very same time – as one? Still not so sure about the joy part.

No matter what, this is a brave new world, uncharted terrain and an unknown land. How can I possibly know what it would take to feel safe to live with this pain – when I barely know what I want for lunch? And then I question that decision. I think it’s about being being fully present and mindful. It requires relentless self-compassion and intentional awareness — moment to moment, second to second . . . and heartbeat to heartbeat.

It’s the only way.

For my dear son and my heart — Elliot Everett Wright (5/17/1992 – 8/5/2018)

Letting Go.

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“Faith consists in believing what reason cannot.”  

– Voltaire

On Saturday, we honored the memory of Everett E. Gantz Jr. with a quiet, traditional Episcopal memorial service.  After nearly 89 years on this earth, my father was still an enigma to many— and to me in many ways. Few truly knew the man behind the stoic, Midwestern-chiseled facade— and the charismatic artist/wife of more than 50 years.  Thankfully, my dear sister Melissa gave a lovely, instructive “reflection” that filled gaps and hearts.

The loss is palpable—and beginning with my mother’s devastating stroke in January 2010, the grieving process has been a lingering one.

Plus, as a single, working mother of two growing boys, remembering to “put the oxygen mask on first” is a constant effort—and a daily focus of my mindfulness practice. However, I am certainly no role model for the “sandwich generation,” and I guarantee you that I still get tangled up in the roughage, as it were.  Still, I have come to understand that the frustrating stubbornness and vitriol I have encountered on “both sides of the bun” often mask the poignant vulnerabilities that quite frequently melt my heart.

Mastin Kipp, one of my favorite daily inspirational mentors, says, “When you let go and admit it, accept that you have moments of being a mess, and you share that feeling at times with the rest of us, then you can step into a larger, freer life.”

So, with another Mother’s Day behind us and a new normal dawning, I have revisited something I wrote several years ago for my mom:

Letting go.

No need to give to feel anymore.

Her bare spirit shines — less the veneer.
Without speech, without talk
Now real.

Transcending words.
The essence of her soul.
Awareness without comprehension,
Cognition, no.

She looks at me finally – and actually sees.

Letting go of need.
Content to be.
Helpless though.
Fights her wheeled prison.
Her body knows now
To bridge the chasm.

There between this Scylla and Charybdis.

And yet he still clings.
Together alone.
Denies to suppress — but never go home.

Letting go of control.
But the seizures defy
The years and the secrets
He insists to know why.

Anger. Passion. Pain.

A stone cold wall.
What a loss — so far.
Tear us apart and we fall.

Oh, to let love  . .  .

So, letting go.

–Elaine