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.

.

I Am

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

I Am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am a sutra unraveled, but
I am whole.

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

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

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

Grieving Power: Finding Your Way in the Dark

Life is precarious.

Texas and the universe demonstrated this truth with debilitating intensity last week. Indeed, we are living in a time of radical transformation, a period without predictability or security. Socioeconomic upheaval, geopolitical unrest, erupting racial tensions, escalating cybersecurity threats, and climate change are all coming to a head. And oh, and this is all happening in the midst of a global pandemic.

I will admit I am hypersensitive as I navigate the agony of my own grief, but the world is becoming increasingly fragile and complicated. Control is an illusion. Sure, we can decide whether we turn on a flashlight or light a candle in a blackout, but how do we manage our lives with any kind of certainty? So many directions, but nowhere to go.

When most all the infrastructure services that are designed to support and protect us in arctic temperatures fail catastrophically, our trust evaporates. And we panic. Plus, we’re back to ground zero on Maslow’s famed hierarchy of needs. Forget self-actualization — I’ll settle for flushing my toilet.

And amplifying the precariousness is the capriciousness of it all. Some people are still without any power in Texas; some are boiling every sip of water they drink; others are recovering from extended rolling blackouts (like us), and others had no disruption at all. Then, there are the food supply-chain disruptions happening now and broken pipes everywhere you turn.

Yet through all the chaos, I have been grateful. I have appreciated my 24-year-old son Ian’s calm, grounded presence, as well as the kind texts from friends across the country who checked on us — though I could not always read them in real-time, because our cell service was toast, too. I was grateful for the vigilance of our building management and our dedicated maintenance team. They worked tirelessly to repair broken pipes, open locked-down security doors, and silence errant fire alarms. I may say everything reminds me of “The Twilight Zone,” but the building seemed to have a will of its own at times — like it was mischievously misbehaving.

As the days oozed into nights without power, heat, internet, or cell service, I also remembered the “Twilight Zone” episode called “Midnight Sun.” Lois Nettleton played an artist who was suffering in stifling summer heat, painting abstract canvasses dripping with pigment. Alas, the earth had fallen out of its orbit and was moving closer to its central star. The obligatory twist occurs (spoiler alert) when the opposite is true. In actuality, artist Lois has been nursing a raging fever. When it breaks, we discover the earth has been plunged into sub-zero temps as it is jettisoned from the sun’s orbit. A potent metaphor.

“Twilight Zone” or not, I was scared.

I still am, but I’m aware my fear is exacerbated by the trauma and shock associated with losing my precious 26-year-old son Elliot in a flash of indifferent tragedy 30 months ago. His untimely, out-of-order death continues to rattle me to the core, each and every day — so sudden, senseless and shocking. C.S. Lewis said, “Grief is like fear, but you are not afraid.”  Well, in this case, you are. It’s apropos of everything these days — this feeling of utter, urgent precariousness and instability. The kind of complicated grief traps you like a hostage in a boundless fog of disconnection and anguish. I am always balancing on a precipice – looking for a way to hold on and live in a world that is forever changed.

Dr. Todd Miller, our wise and wonderful eye doctor, had a rare simpatico with Elliot. They would banter incessantly about music and technology. Dr. Miller also was enamored with motorcycles in his youth. I deeply appreciate his perspective and that he allows me to talk of Elliot and my grief whenever I see him.

“The appeal of riding is like finding the ‘sweet spot’ between pleasure and fear,” Dr. Miller said. “It’s a balance, a kind of calculated risk.”  But what kind of formula do you use to calculate such a risk?

I cannot dwell on these questions, though they continue to haunt me. Still, I have come to realize that fear is a common part of grief. And precariousness is woven into the fabric of our existence — more salient now than ever. Life is ephemeral. Fleeting. Then, gone. Combine that with the ambient grief we share for a confederacy of losses in the pandemic, summarily splashed across social media. It feels like we are slogging through some kind of mind-bending Truman Show.

I am coming to accept that all life is precarious — a temporary gift we must respect and nurture as best we can. Our souls are all on different journeys, and that includes our children.  A spiritual medium once said to me, “Our children are not ours. They just come through us.”  

As the snowmageddon crisis in Texas has taught us, we are not in control — even when we think we are and even when are just sitting on the couch.

Turns out, we are just along for the ride.

My Precarious Boy

I need to find a crack to breathe in
this stolid suspended chasm.
Empty moments dissolve into heavy hours —
to make bearable being awake.
Persistent memory.
Present absence.
Precarious life
now that
saline tears debride the unhealable
wound forever —
a faint shadow,
cast in the light of his darkness.
So raw and exposed but not seen.

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.

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.

Thanksgiving Looms

Still, I cannot escape the presence of his absence.

As Thanksgiving approaches for the third time since my precious 26-year-old son Elliot left this earth but not my heart, the pain is just as debilitating. Yet it has changed. Now, it’s more of a dull, unrelenting throb or ache—strangely different from the blinding sharpness that took my breath away in those earliest days. This also will be the Thanksgiving that marks the passing of an entire generation in my family with the death of my 96-year-old aunt Virginia in April. And I mourn the passing of Patches, my spirit cat of 15 years, as well.

I am reminded of the revelatory words of a new therapist I have been seeing. She is almost supernatural in her ability to discern the enormity and uniquity of my grief, all its cracks and crevasses. That is its own balm in Gilead. Though she wears one of those plexiglass face shields that makes her look like a part-time astronaut and sits six feet away from me and my crimson damask mask, there is something profoundly healing about the unseen energetic connection between two people that transcends the Brady Bunch squares of a Zoom session. I’ll call her Jackie, and I am exceedingly grateful I found her.

She sees me, the me I am right now in this moment—in all my complicated dysfunction, still struggling to figure out who I am from one moment to the next. And Jackie can definitely identify with the morphing messiness of grief, as she lost her beloved husband about two years ago.

“I think you may have discovered a thin ribbon of space in carrying this heaviness,“ she observes. ”Think of it like the thin layer of air just above the floor’s surface in fire. If you can just find that sliver of oxygen in the room, you can breathe, even if for only a moment.”

I let the profound truth of this statement sink into every pore, cell and membrane. It feels poignantly true, but also elusive and temporal, kind of like my brilliant Elliot was in life. The idea is that this space . . . where the grace happens will eventually expand.

Hmmm, a glimmer of hope, I whisper to myself.

Since that horrible day in August 2018, my life has changed irreparably. But it’s more than that. I have changed—my core being has changed. That might be the most surprising thing about grief. I am not the same person. My soul is different, marred by an opaque, murky stain that no tonic will ever remove. Even my emotional anxieties, which were front and center but healing before he died, have changed. They are much more demanding.

My relationship with everything and everyone has shifted, off kilter and flailing. I’m a Calder mobile that has lost one of its perfectly calibrated arms. I am upside down and inside out. At least, I can say his name without tearing up now. The mornings are the worst, though.  I wake up every morning thinking I am stuck in some sort of lingering nightmare. 

I also find my patience for trivialities and random histrionics is non-existent. Life is simply too short to put up with such foolishness, but at the same time, everything triggers my fear. I am anxious about walking out the front door or speaking to a neighbor who is not wearing a mask. The world has become mostly an antagonistic place—in here and out there, exacerbated by the social, political and health realities that weigh on all of us. That said, I would gladly endure 100 2020s to reverse 2018.  

My ardent quest now, my only option as I see it, is to find some sort of meaning—not in Elliot’s death but in my life. As I have painfully discovered in the last few months, the more I search for answers to the whys of Elliot’s accident, the more dead ends I encounter. No satisfaction. No relief. Just more angst, more questions and more agony.

So, purpose is my focus, and I feel called in my heart to pursue this through sharing my story, through exposing my beaten heart, raw and damaged as it is, as I strive to pick up the jagged pieces I can bear to touch to help me go on—to honor Elliot’s memory and empower his precious brother, Ian.

Until then, I will walk this dark path looking for the glimmers of light and grace—such as a lone egret landing on a fragile tree branch protruding through the creek’s serene loden-green surface like a needle puncturing smooth Asian silk. I will look for the reminders that we are part of a greater whole and the grand mosaic of creation.

There, will be a glimpse of gratitude.