Category Archives: Grief

Beauty and Loss All Commingled

Today I spent two hours with my ailing mother instead of the usual four to six.  And as I indulged in the sacredness of time alone, I discovered myself sinking deeper into my “feeling body.”  Once again, I discovered that being too busy is anathema to the soulful existential questions and emotions I need to let bubble to the surface once in a while.

Mom’s health is declining.  It hasn’t been that stellar for quite a few years, but now her body is starting to fail in ways that are no longer remediable.   I found myself wondering how conscious she is of her decline and when is the right time to discuss it all.

My mother has suffered from mood swings and a fair amount of depression these last several years.  Even when she was living in her own home, surrounded by her loving (albeit increasingly demented) husband, excellent and compassionate caregivers, and a regular rotation of visiting children and grandchildren, she frequently found reasons (not always easily discerned by us) to dissolve into tears.  Being in a nursing home the last year and a half has not resolved her feelings of depression.

Fortunately, when I inquired recently of the RN on duty about the possibility of an anti-depressant, it was subsequently approved by the facility physician.  I am not someone who ordinarily believes in indiscriminate pharmaceutical solutions, but her crying jags were disconcerting and I simply wanted her to feel better.  (And Mom was, in no way, open to therapy.)

So the question of the hour is:  do I open the can of worms that end-of-life discussions precipitate?  Or shall I let her “feel good” for a little bit longer?

Unlike Dad, who embraced the idea of heaven and, though he loved life, looked forward to “going home,” Mom has only ever talked about death when she was unhappy with her life.  I find myself hesitating to talk about something that will likely send her back into a downward spiral.

On the other hand, as someone who worked for two different hospices, I know how vitally important it is to have the opportunity to talk about these matters and to work through all the myriad emotions which certainly arise.

And so, I pray for guidance to know when the time is right.

Meanwhile, after leaving the nursing home earlier today and finishing a couple errands, I arrived home and dressed for a walk in the cool October air.   As I ambled down the road, I was struck over and over again by sights so achingly beautiful, I found myself invoking God’s name in whispered awe.

The trees are aflame with color this year—golden yellows, vibrant oranges, corals, and scarlets.  Breathtaking and heart-opening beauty is everywhere.  Even the skeletal remains of Queen Anne’s lace and the dark petal-less heads of black-eyed Susans are beautiful.

In addition to the splendors of autumn, there are lingering roses, hibiscus blooms, and purple clovers—splashes of summer in the midst of dying grasses and fallen leaves.  Life and death are all mixed together in this seasonal transition.

As I walked I found myself feeling the grief of Dad’s absence in my life.  Like me, he loved nature.  We would have had some fine walks together this year had he still been alive.  But I know we are both immersed in beauty and love—he where he is and I where I am.  And Mom, too, though she is not as skilled at recognizing it or appreciating it.  Then again, her childhood was not as special as that of Dad or me and my siblings.  When she was little she was abandoned by those who brought her into the world, and so abandonment is often her default emotional setting (even now, over seventy-five years later.)

Beauty and Pain.  Life and Death.  Love and Loss.  It’s all here.  We are surrounded by it all.

As my wise friend Kristy recently said, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”*

May I carry it all with grace.


Making Peace with Her Dying

Today I received word that a friend has entered that brave lonely path that leads toward death.  She has had several false starts on this road before, but this time her daughter-in-law told me it feels different.  She is now refusing food and drink.  So yes, it seems my friend has chosen her time and it is fast approaching.

When I heard the news I felt heartsick, not necessarily because she would be leaving this earthly plane, for I understand our time here is limited.  I was sad because I am 2000 miles away and the earliest I could possibly get to her would be, at minimum, eight days away.  I am sad because in five short months she and I have become dear friends and because there is love between us and because I want to be there to offer comfort if I can and because I want to say goodbye.

Vera is one of two women I have helped care for over the course of this past year.  Most of the time she didn’t need a lot of support—some assistance bathing, some simple meal preparation, some support walking, or when she was especially weak, transferring her to and from a wheelchair.  In between these tasks and some simple cleaning, we would chat.  We enjoyed one another.  It didn’t matter that we were 35 years apart in age.

One of Vera’s favorite things was when I massaged her feet.  She had never experienced that particular luxury before I came into her life, and without fail, it would make her purr with delight.  I also massaged her hands and eventually even her head.  She was surprised how delicious a good head rub could be.  Of course I had to be especially careful not to ruin her lovely white-curled coiffure.

My favorite memory of Vera is the time I drove her to a diner forty minutes away.  She and I are residents in a little town of approximately 1000 people.  There are three restaurants in town, only one of which I knew was to her particular liking.  So I decided it would be a grand adventure for us to travel to this particular diner instead.

This particular eating establishment was run by a woman, probably in her early 60’s, who knew how to make some decent food, and even better, bake some incredibly delicious breads and desserts.  So Vera and I that day had the pleasure of chatting amiably while driving through the great San Luis Valley of Colorado and then continuing to enjoy one another’s company while sampling some truly tasty soup, toast, French fries, and delicious homemade pie.  She loved it; I loved it.

When I heard the news about Vera’s recent downturn this afternoon, I sat for a while in the car in the driveway and allowed the sadness to fill me up.  While sitting there, I gazed at the branches of the trees against a blue sky and the colorful collection of birds and squirrels munching on birdseed, and I then allowed myself to feel a spark of gladness.  There can be both sadness and gladness all in the course of a few breaths.  Sometimes it’s a choice we make.

When I was ready to come inside, I was greeted by the cacophonous joy of the two dogs in my care who wildly adore me.  It’s hard to be sad amidst all that lovestruck jumping and wagging.  I let the dogs outside and then I sat in a chair in the welcome patch of sun shining through the front door.  I practiced breathing in and out, like a gentle wave rolling up on the beach and then pausing for a moment before sliding back into the sea.  I sat in that lovely sun, which had been hiding for many wintry days, and I knew that whether I was able to be there or not, all would be well.  It was clearly out of my hands.  Vera would leave when she and God decided the time was right.  And Vera would know I loved her whether I was physically present or not.

As ancient mystic Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


Why I’m Having Trouble Letting Go of My Ring

A couple months ago, feeling a financial crunch and knowing the price of gold was quite high, I debated whether or not to sell my old wedding ring – the one from the marriage that “didn’t work.”    To my surprise, when I actually found myself considering this, I noticed tears welling up in me.  This told me there was still grieving, healing, and closure needed for this chapter of my life.

A month later I wondered if perhaps I should offer the ring to my stepson, in the event he might want to offer it to his girlfriend should they ever decide to marry.  And then of course I thought, He might find it tainted.  After all, the marriage didn’t last. 

So again, I felt stymied.  What do I do with this ring?  What do I do with this symbol of a marriage that was very good while it lasted.

The thing is … I like this ring.  It’s not your typical wedding band.  In fact, I’ve never seen another like it.  The jeweler said it was an Egyptian design.  The ring dips down in both the front and back in a V-shape.  It’s unusual and it’s elegant.

But here’s the other thing: I liked the marriage.  I liked the man.

As my mind and heart continued to wrestle with this conundrum of what to do with the ring, I finally realized, much to my surprise, that this month it will be twenty years since Tom and I separated.

Twenty years!  Twenty years later and I still feel sadness.

He and I always got along well.  I don’t know that we ever fought.  We were and are both good people.  We got along well, we raised his son well, we were well liked in our large circle of friends.   We loved each other, appreciated each other, respected one another.  In fact, everyone was shocked when we separated.  No one saw it coming.  We were probably a little stunned ourselves.

So why did we divorce then, you may well ask?  Well, there was another man involved.  Although I hasten to add that I never had an affair; I never committed adultery; I had never even kissed the man.

So what happened?

I had been at a training, one of several during which we were learning the art of body-mind psychotherapy.  At this particular training there was a new man, and I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off him.  He wasn’t necessarily gorgeous, but nevertheless I was riveted.  I felt inexplicably drawn to him.  I was hyper-aware of his presence at all times.

Later, when doing dishes that first night, we would occasionally accidentally bump against each other in the confined space.  We’d both laugh self-consciously and blush.  There was something between us, of that there was no doubt.

That night after I’d gone to retire to my room I told my roommate to “lock me in; I feel like I’m in heat.”  I’d never felt that way before.  Never.  I was thirty-three years old and I’d never felt that way.

As you might expect, I had a great deal of trouble falling asleep that night.  So eventually I got up and went out for a walk in the chilly starlit night.  As fate would have it, Glenn was taking a walk, too.  We saw one another and laughed.  It was a bit cold and so we decided to go to one of the nearby buildings, the place where our trainings had been taking place.

We settled ourselves on the floor and we talked.  We talked for hours.  At one point we both laid down next to one another on the floor, faces turned toward one another, feet pointed in opposite directions, like one long line with a little bump of heads in the middle.  Our bodies were not touching, but we had great eye contact.  It felt intimate but safe.

As that weekend drew to a close, I was feeling great anxiety and guilt about going home to my husband.  I loved my husband, and I didn’t know what to do with these feelings that had arisen.  As it so happened, I handled it by picking a fight.  (Ah, so there was one fight!)

It didn’t last long because I realized what was happening.  I confessed to him that I wasn’t really angry about the house being a mess or the beer bottles scattered all over the kitchen, I was feeling guilty because I’d felt a strong attraction to another man.

He was hurt, of course.  And probably scared.  But being the good man that he was, he didn’t lash out; he listened while I spoke.  But from that moment on, there was a seismic shift in our relationship.

We know longer felt as safe.  He felt threatened by the emotional intimacy I felt with this man.  And I felt guilty and confused.

I knew all along, and I told this to Tom, that I didn’t want to leave him to have a relationship with Glenn.  There was an attraction, yes surely.  But I knew it would never have been a functional happy relationship.  Glenn had some deep, unhealed emotional wounds and a serious issue with depression.  Perhaps I’d felt an attraction because I felt this perverse need to step in to be his savior.  Maybe I felt I could help him in some way.  Whatever it was, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with him for more than a couple of days; he’d drive me crazy.  But this didn’t make Tom feel any better.

We went through several months of agony, Tom and I.  I saw a therapist regularly as part of my training.  And I wrote about this conundrum endlessly, trying to process the feelings, trying to figure out a solution, trying to figure out how to get our marriage back to the way it had been.

At one point, Tom told me he almost wouldn’t have cared if I’d just fucked the man.  I was pissed.  I had been trying so hard to “be good.”  I hadn’t been willing to end the friendship with Glenn, but neither was I ever planning to take it to the next level.  I did respect Tom and our marriage.  I did honor it.  But apparently my husband understood that there was an emotional connection between this man and me and perhaps he felt like he couldn’t compete with that.

He wanted me to terminate all contact with Glenn.  I told him I wasn’t willing to do that.  I said that there was a connection, and I didn’t understand it, but one doesn’t cut someone out of her life when there is a connection like that.  I said that I was willing to negotiate parameters.  I told him I would promise never to see him alone, or to see him only once a month, or to see him for only short periods of time, but not to abandon him.  I wasn’t going to just turn my back on him.

This was the thing we couldn’t get past.   Tom wanted me to cut Glenn completely out of my life and I resolutely refused.

Let me now say that I only saw him very occasionally – for maybe five or ten minutes when I was “kind of in the neighborhood,” or for a bit longer if I sometimes saw him at the interfaith church I attended.  When “kind of in the neighborhood,” I’d knock on the door, we’d hug and grin at each other, and his twenty-year-old daughter would be there shaking her head.  She saw the connection and was mystified that we were not taking it further.

One time during that amazing night in the building in the woods and one other time when we were sitting next to each other in church, this soul-rattling thing happened.  We looked at one another and we… remembered.  Our souls somehow recognized each other.

Later, a dear psychic friend confirmed that we had had a past life together.  We had been part of a native tribe in the Northwest corner of the United States.  There had been a big flood and both Glenn, my then-husband, and our son had been caught in the raging waters.  Only our son was able to be saved.

No wonder.  No wonder the connection was so strong.

And how tragic it felt in this lifetime.  Because of course this didn’t mean I loved Tom any less.  There was nothing in Tom that I didn’t love.  I simply had feelings for this other man, too.

We continued to struggle, Tom and I.  We continued to live together, still loving each other, but with a deep sadness that pervaded everything.  Our lovemaking, always so wonderful and regular before, had dwindled as we lay side by side each feeling our own inner anguish.  We still cuddled; we still wrapped ourselves around one another.

Our love was still there, unequivocally it was there.  And we didn’t know what to do.  We couldn’t seem to find our way.

Meanwhile, Glenn and I struggled, too.  He knew I wasn’t available.  He knew that there was nowhere for us to go with one another.  Like me, he also wrestled with all his multitudinous feelings at regular therapy sessions.  Eventually, he allowed himself to move on and date someone.  Eventually our contact with one another dwindled.  And yet this thing, whatever it was, remained a thorn in the side of my marriage even when the attraction had faded.

Tom had, at one point, suggested we separate.  “NO!” I cried.  I was sure if we separated, we’d never get back together.  And so we struggled on.  We began to see a therapist.

Then one day in my daily meditations I drew an animal card from the deck Medicine Cards, by Jamie Sams and David Carson.  Actually it was two cards.  I’m not even sure at this point which animals were depicted on the cards, but the messages were “In your heart, you know what to do” and “The time for action is now.”

I kind of gulped when I saw those messages.  Did I really know what I was supposed to do?

As fate would have it, that night we had a scheduled session with our therapist.  As always, we arrived and sat closely next to one another, holding hands, not looking at all  like people who wanted to split.  I had planned to talk about another thing that was bothering me in our marriage, but suddenly I knew I needed to talk about those cards.  I somehow knew I wasn’t meant to brush those messages aside.

After I told both Tom and the therapist about the cards, she of course asked, “So what do you think you’re supposed to do?”  I found myself saying, “I think we’re supposed to separate.”

It was sad, unbelievably sad.  But at some level I think it was also a relief.  Doing something, anything, seemed better than the hell of this purgatory we’d been in.  We had been neither totally in the marriage nor totally out of it.  It had been unrelenting agony.  And one we’d been keeping largely to ourselves.

Tom had asked that we not talk about this with our family or friends because he knew it would only set the gossip mill running at full tilt.  I saw the wisdom in this, but it was also very difficult because that’s how most of we women process things.  In addition, it meant that no one was there to lend love and support as we went through all this aching and grieving and pain.

After this therapy session,  when we got home, we sadly went to separate rooms.  Under normal circumstances we would have slept together and held one another and the parting would have felt unimaginable.  This time a part of me sensed I needed to sleep in a separate room or we’d never have the courage to go through with this.

And so, we parted.

Often over the course of the next months and years, I would think that we could have made it work.  We could have gotten through.  We could have avoided divorce.  And I still believe this to be true.  However, over time, and with the perspective that time’s passing brings, I’ve come to also see that I needed to branch into a different life.  I doubt I ever would have met the people I’ve met, had the experiences I’ve had, moved to a place where I belong, or become the person I am today,  had I remained entwined with Tom.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not sad.

And this is why I am reluctant to let go of my wedding ring.

Remembering Dad

In eleven days, it will be the six-month anniversary of Dad’s death.

I don’t necessarily miss him, because except for the last four months of his life, and for sixteen months in 2009 and 2010, I hadn’t been in his physical presence on a daily basis anyway.   And many of the memories from the last four months of his life were fairly painful.  But mostly I don’t necessarily miss him because I don’t necessarily feel that he’s completely gone.

Now saying that last sentence may make you think that I’m a bit gone.  So let me explain.  I don’t feel like he’s a ghost who’s hanging around.  But he kind of feels like a human version of God – someone I can talk to at any time and I know that he’ll hear.  I know he’s around, just not in physical form.

Several times a day, or sometimes now maybe every other day, I’ll think of Dad and I’ll simply say, “Hi Dad.  I love you.”  Sometimes I’ll say “I love you” one or two more times.  That’s it.  I don’t feel the need to say much more.  My love for him is as strong as ever, and I’m sure the reverse is true as well.  I just somehow need him to know that I haven’t forgotten him and that I love him.

Some grieving people seem to feel the need to go to the cemetery where their loved one’s physical body lies in order to feel close to them.  That isn’t true for me at all.   I know he’s wherever my heart is.  Or the heart of my mother, or my sisters and brothers, or his grandchildren.    Whenever we think of him, he lives.  It’s like that sentence on the altar of my childhood church “Do ye this in remembrance of me.”  All I have to do is think of him, remember him, love him, and he feels somehow present.

Losing a parent is, I’m sure, vastly different from losing a spouse or a young child.  With a spouse, you’ve had years and years of intimate physical contact.  The missing of that physical presence must be almost unbearable.  And with a child, oh especially for mothers who have carried that body within their womb and then nursed it and raised it for years and years…. I cannot imagine that pain, I truly cannot.  But with a parent, as sad as it may be, there is often a natural progression.  If one doesn’t fight that natural progression of life, illness, decline, death, there can be an element of peace about the process.

I know I sure am grateful that Dad’s spirit doesn’t have to be confined to a body which was confined to a bed or geri chair.   And I’m glad he’s no longer saddled with a mind which had become increasingly confused and incapable.   There is great freedom for Dad now.  He is no longer in the physical presence of those he loves, but he can be by our side at a moment’s notice.  And for that I am very grateful.

Two days ago I thought of Dad when I was climbing a large hill – The Stations of the Cross shrine in San Luis, CO.  I was looking at the powerful sculptures depicting the last days of Jesus’ journey on Earth.  It was moving to me because I think I was alive then.  I think I knew Jesus in that lifetime.  And the thought came to me, Was Dad there, too?  Did I know Dad then, too?  And a wind picked up and blew around me.  It was the only wind I had felt all day.

So there you have it.  The presence of those we love can be felt in multitudinous ways.

So Dad, this is for you.   Thank you, as always, for being such an amazing father to me and to all my siblings.  Thank you for being a good husband to Mom.  Thank you for being a good man.  You surely made this world a better and happier place.

I love you.

(And now the tears flow.  And it’s all good.)

Goodbye House, Goodbye Dad

A part of me doesn’t want to write this.  I don’t want to revisit my grief.  And, I also want to write this while the memories are still somewhat fresh.

Six weeks ago I temporarily moved into the room I had lived in as a teenager.  It was the family home, although my family no longer lived there.  The kids were all grown and my parents had both recently moved into a nursing home —my father because of the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and my mother because there was no longer money for the caregivers we’d hired to assist her.

My home was in Colorado, but I was back in Pennsylvania to spend time with both of my parents and to sell, sort through, and dispose of all the remaining family possessions so that the bank could take possession of the family home.  No, it wasn’t a case of foreclosure; it was because we’d had to get a reverse mortgage to pay for my parents’ care.  And with them no longer at home, the house had to go to the bank. To say it was a time of great change for the Greb family would be an understatement.

So, I walked in the front door loaded down with my luggage.  And I gazed around in shock.  My siblings had told me about the pipe that had burst about two weeks before.  Apparently the thermostat had been set at about 50 degrees, but one particular bedroom hung over an open porch and I guess the radiator pipes couldn’t hold up to the record cold temperatures.

Large sections of hard wood floor had been pulled up.  Insulation had been ripped out.  Drywall had been torn down.  Rusty looking stains ran down the hall walls.  Wainscoting had been removed.   One closet had been completely ruined.  Furniture and other items had been moved from the damaged areas and stuffed into adjacent rooms.  There was a layer of dust everywhere from the work my brother and the clean-up crew had begun.  Several fans were going and the living room still smelled of mold and mildew.  It was a large house and it looked like a good third of it had been ruined.  And the rest of it was looking none too good either.

Stunned, I went about putting my things away and then I searched for one room of the house that was still clean enough to support an altar for my daily meditations.  I settled on the piano room.  I set up a card table and covered it with a beautiful scarf.  I placed some sacred items upon the cloth, found a candle, pulled up a chair, and lit the candle.

As I sat before the flame, breathing, I became aware of how sad I was.  I felt stunned by the devastation around me. I decided to talk out loud to the house.  What the heck; I was all alone.  Why not?

Within a few minutes my one-sided conversation had turned into a song.  I was singing to the house when a thought popped into my head.  Our house was sad.  It had burst into tears because everyone was suddenly gone and it lay empty.  Its tears had flooded the house.

My song turned into a lament.  I keened and keened, filled with sorrow for this poor house.  This dear house had been so lovingly built by my father’s own hands when his burgeoning family had outgrown the small one-story house we’d grown up in.  This house had once been filled with my parents, my three siblings, and then a fourth sibling—my youngest brother, newly born to my mother when she was forty years old and we had just moved into the house.

It had been the family home for forty years.  It had seen thousands of meals served, scores of holidays celebrated, and parties and picnics hosted.  It had heard the laughter and conversation of friends, relatives, and visitors.  There had been the pitter-patter of a dog, several cats, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. Later, after the last of the children and one foster child had moved out, it had held a rotating roster of boarders, visiting adult children, grandchildren who needed a place to stay, children who were having temporary marital or financial problems, and eventually, caregivers who became an integral and loving part of the family system. So much life!  So much love!  So much laughter!  And suddenly, all of it was gone.

When Mom moved into the nursing home, the house was suddenly empty.  There was no more husband and wife in the home, no more visiting children or grandchildren, no more friends, no more caregivers, no more love and laughter.   And no one had said goodbye to this dear house.  No one had said thank you.  The house no longer had a purpose to serve.  It was still holding possessions, but all the life was gone from it.

I wailed.  No one was home so I could be as loud as I needed to be.  I cried and cried and cried.  I cried for the house that no longer felt like a home.  I cried for all the changes.  I cried that we would no longer have a family home to gather in.  I cried for my mother who was no longer in the home in which she had raised her five children and found her purpose for living.  And I cried especially for my father because I knew he was dying.

My poor father.  He had begged us to keep this home in the family.  He wanted it to be available for the grandchildren or for anyone in the family who would ever need a place to stay.  And now, not only could we not honor his request, but he himself was no longer here in this home.  He was in a bed, in a nursing home, asleep more than awake, barely eating, getting more and more gaunt, speaking less and less, and suffering the indignities of all elders who have to depend on others to take care of their most basic needs.  My poor, dear, wonderful father.

Dad died thirty hours later.

I hadn’t expected him to die then.  I knew he was headed in that direction, but none of us expected him to die that weekend.

Maybe my unexpected outpouring of grief helped me to release him.  Just like the house’s “tears” helped to release my own.

I have had so many blessings in my life it would be difficult to count them all.  Living in that home with a family that  loved one another was certainly a very big one.  Being raised by good parents was a huge one.  Having a father who worked so hard but so willingly, who loved so unabashedly, who laughed and played and prayed with equal abandon, is absolutely a blessing beyond compare.

Goodbye, House.  Goodbye, Dad. I love  you.