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.

Away with Words

It all started with a susurrus.

The first time I saw this whisper of a word dancing in Elliot’s prose, I required a dictionary—not an uncommon occurrence when reading anything he wrote. He used the term to describe a chorus in the program notes for his saxophone recital—as poetic as they were precise. A susurrus is a murmuring or rustling sound. Such a visceral, expressive metaphor—complete with a hint of onomatopoeia.  

This is where it gets interesting.

A couple of months ago, I noticed a new notification in my venerable yahoo.com email box. I’ve had it for ions—since the boys were young, but it’s still functioning reliably. In fact, I’m grateful for my inconsistent email hygiene over the years—as I am relishing the treasure trove of memories and conversations buried deep in its archives.

The subject line of this particular email was: “Word of the Day: Susurrus” from mail@wordgenius.com. I don’t remember signing up for this alert, but I was game. Of all the words in the world, how could they pick this “Elliot word”? My heart jumped. He was the wordsmith’s wordsmith—the inimitable “word genius.” How many people do know who received a perfect score on the verbal SAT—not missing one question?! Could this be a wink from Mr. E? After all, we were both inveterate word nerds, and the Wrights are peppered with writers. Why not? I mused as I felt a giant grin, so unfamiliar of late, stretch across my tear-stained face.

Elliot was an exquisite and erudite writer. Following his graduation from the University of Toronto, where he majored in classical saxophone, he reviewed contemporary classical recordings for a respected music publication in Toronto called The Whole Note. In Dallas, he reviewed local concerts of all genres for The Dallas Observer. And he crafted provocative think pieces for Central Track.

Yet he soon abandoned the glamorous writing life to pursue another one of his extraordinary talents as an IT savant at Global Payments. Clearly, he could write compelling stories in almost any language and any context. Here is an excerpt from his brilliant program notes from his fourth-year saxophone recital on March 31, 2015, at UofT—as captivating as the music. Elliot wrote these evocative words about a piece he played spectacularly:

Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano | Edison Vasilievich  Denisov  (1929 — 1996)

DENISOV – Though his place of birth is a full 900km deeper into Siberia than the penal colony where Dostoevsky was transformed at the end of a mocking rifle barrel, Denisov suffers from neither the anguish of mysticism (as was the case of his contemporary, Gubaidalina) nor subarctic austerity. In fact, at its core, Denisov’s music is all lyricism and ardent expression, refracted through the crystal lattice of his mathematical mind.

Commissioned by Jean-Marie Londeix in 1970, the Sonata for Alto Saxophone allows saxophonists to have their cake and eat it, too: it is at once a sophisticated serialist composition and an unbridled jazz freak-out. The first movement is a kind of shambling waltz, the left leg of the waltzer filed down by the machine-gun 32nd notes exchanged between the saxophone and piano. The second movement is a saxophone soliloquy, a lyrical murmur glinting through the Siberian ice which entombs it. All this melts seamlessly into the final movement, a dodecaphonic jazz burnout inflected with an almost hysterical irony: the big—band “shout” chorus which appears midway through the piece becomes more of a “susurrus” chorus, and of course it is just as the music approaches a full-blown pseudo‐free jazz eschaton that Denisov is most meticulous with his musical orthography. Condemned by the Soviets as a “formalist” and reared in the harshest regions of Russia, Denisov’s music expresses a wryness in the face of all the improbability of being.

I was so enchanted with the susurrus that I used it in a haiku that felt directly channeled through Elliot’s consciousness. It reflected his passion for Japanese culture, his love of poetry, and his voluminous vocabulary:

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

And it turns out that susurrus was just the overture for me. There have been other words since then from the same email that have snatched my breath away.

The next was camber, a word I did not even recognize.

As I read the definition, I gulped. It refers to the slightly convex shape of a road or other horizontal surface. Coming from Middle English, its roots track back to the Ancient Greek word “chambre” (arched room or burial chamber) and the Latin word “camurus” (curved inwards). I instantly thought of the treacherous curved ramp where Elliot apparently lost control of his motorcycle. Could this be another piece of the accident’s puzzle—something that hindered his ability maneuver safely on that hideous day in August? There are still so many unanswered questions that torment me, and I would not put it past my mischievous rascal of a son to communicate in such a perplexing and obtuse way.

Upon further research, I discovered the term “negative camber,” which specifically refers to a road condition that scuttles motorcyclists. This curve of the road’s surface requires the rider to recalibrate the angle of the lean and velocity of the turn on the fly—a factor I had not uncovered in my extensive research. But it feels plausible. I wondered . . . could this word be administering a glimpse a grace? Could this be an explanation that might help soothe my unsettled soul? These random glimmers and glimpses always seem to appear just when I need them most. But oh, the possibilities continue to swirl around in my head like an agitated hornet’s nest.

Are these questions keeping me mired in the gravity of gone? Is this why I feel so stuck in the muck—overwhelmed and anxious, enmeshed in the trauma of those fragments of the puzzle that may never be solved? It does feel like the road to nowhere.

Elliot, is it time to let go of needing to know?

Especially when there are so many potent words to ponder, like the group of Japanese words that popped up just yesterday. One was tsundoku. Quintessential Elliot, it refers to the habit of acquiring too many books to ever read and letting the pile grow indefinitely — one of his favorite words and activities.  (However, I think he actually read every one.)

Made me smile.

Another was wabi-sabi. That’s embracing the transience and imperfection of nature—and the eventual end of everything.

Still working on that one.

So, the journey continues . . . one moment and one word at a time. Keep them coming, Mr. E. I love you.

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.

Changing Your Light

Changing Your Light

This has been a particularly exhausting week—juggling multiple layers of chaos and confusion at work, in our nation, and on my heart. But today, I received a profound gift. I spoke with dear woman named Cindy Hartner about her grief journey and our lifetime of almost-intersections. It’s amazing how many glimmers of healing and grace we can offer each other—if we just pay attention. Thank you, dear Uncle Duck, for orchestrating this sacred connection. I am looking forward to reading Cindy’s book, “You Don’t Get a Map, You Get a Compass.”

As we chatted about our experiences with overwhelming grief, she mentioned how she often makes unspoken deals with herself in her head, like “If I roll a particular number on the dice or draw a specific card, I will be OK.” Maybe it was synchronicity, but her revelation echoed some of my own recent musings . . .

I’ve done it all my life.

It’s one of those compulsive ruminations that’s stuck on auto play in my head, probably related to my need for control. I call it the “if/then game.” It goes like this: If the light stays green, and I make it through the intersection, then . . . fill in the blank. I’ll get the job I applied for, or that pain in my lower back will go away, or I’ll get sleep tonight. Or even bigger things, like Elliot, my late son, will walk through the door today and say, “Fooled you, didn’t I, Mom?” Or America will somehow awaken and heal from this algorithm-infected, dystopian nightmare. The result can be anything—large or small, but it rarely has anything to do with the “if” statement. A random association.

Some might call this magical thinking or even insanity, but still, I do it—even though I know it’s ridiculous fantasy. Maybe somewhere down deep, I hope it’s true in some woo-woo sphere of influence—that when I send a thought out into the time/space continuum, the atomic particles align in my favor, and all will be well.

“That’s silly!” my dismissive inner COO snaps.

True enough, I admit. This practice is not logical, but it aligns with my core belief in a cosmic causality we don’t quite understand—even if it’s just a desperate attempt to make sense of this quagmire of dysfunction we are drowning in. Yes, the universe is intricately intertwined in tangled threads of connection and coincidence that we do not fully comprehend, but I’m relatively certain Einstein’s interest would be minimal in this juxtaposition of events. Even if you dive into dark matter, string theory and parallel universes, you are not going to find much evidence to support the veracity of these syllogisms. I know this intellectually, but I so want to believe there is a greater meaning in all this chaos.

“And what about when that light turns red?” my inner COO chirps. “What happens then, huh?”

You stop the car; I smirk to myself.

“Ha, ha . . . Very funny. Seriously, if the light turns red, and let’s say Trump instantly concedes with humility and grace, anyway, is that the exception that proves the rule? Or maybe I just made a specious association? Hmm . . . ‘tis a conundrum.

“So,  how’s this workin’ for you?” asks that sassy COO.

Well, I’m not sure. I think I need to do a deep dive into the data. To date, it’s just an in-the-moment kind of deal—a mini-boost, a serotonin hit, similar to a “like” on my Facebook post. It’s like I’m tricking my brain into anticipating that something good might actually happen, somehow, some way, for some strange reason. So, is there any control?

Somewhere between predestination and free will, I think there’s gentle control. We find it in our own choices and in how we respond to people and events. That’s our only durable control. I guess everything else is a roll of the dice. Makes me think of the serenity prayer. It’s about knowing the difference between the things I can change and the things I can’t. There’s the rub, especially when one of those things is the eviscerating death of my beloved first-born adult son, Elliot. That’s where I struggle most and where I probably will always struggle. It’s also where my guilt, despair and fury at the universe often obscure my better angels. Indeed, knowing the difference is the hard part, but I think that is my real work in this life and ultimately, my real peace . . . but only if that light stays green.

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.

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)