Embracing Sunday: May’s Memories

St. Hedwig's Cemetery, Dearborn, Michigan
St. Hedwig’s Cemetery, Dearborn, Michigan

I never used to think much about the month of May, but over the years the month has turned into one that holds a multitude of meaning. It is at once joyous of life and reflective of death. Celebrations of mothers and wedding anniversaries; remembrances of those we have lost as a nation and individually. Forty-three years ago, on May 7, 1970, my father died of leukemia at the age of 39. I was 14.

Dad and me

May holds a plethora of memories, as do the numbers 4 and 17 — his birthday was April 17.  Over the decades, I find that when I see the dates of April 17 or May 7, I think of my Dad. Whenever I am looking at the clock and it says 4:17, I instinctively think, “Happy Birthday, Dad.”  If I’m reading any of the books of the Bible and come across Chapter 4, Verse 17, I think of him.

Like Anna Quindlen (Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake), “I met mortality up close and personal,” in my youth. Those of us who have endured death’s sting at tender ages could not help but develop deep reservoirs of empathy, compassion, and sympathy for others, far sooner than those who experienced surviving the death of loved ones as adults. We “have felt the weight of knowledge” and, for us, the death of a loved one has “never felt [as if] it was unexpected.”  You won’t find us saying, “I can’t imagine losing (a father, a mother, a son, a daughter…), because — we can. We know ALL loss is equally painful. Death’s reaping and the subsequent feeling of loss, has more to do with the survivor’s relational stake in the deceased person’s life, than it has to do with the survivor and deceased person’s ages when the death occurs.

He would be gone within 18 months of this picture taken in November 1968.
He would be gone within 18 months of this picture taken in November 1968.
My mother-in-law, Bette Heim, passed away in September 2009. My father-in-law, Ernie Heim Sr., passed away in March of this year.
My mother-in-law, Bette Heim, passed away in September 2009. My father-in-law, Ernie Heim Sr., passed away in March of this year.

An adult child grieves no less for a father who dies at a ripe old age, than a child who grieves for a father who dies, as Quindlen states, “very young indeed and [has] been robbed of fully half [his] existence.” A daughter who loses her mother, grieves no less than a mother her loses her daughter. The pain wants us to distinguish our loss, to make it somehow greater than another’s, but it is not. Death’s effect cannot be neatly measured or scored.  As John W. James and Russell Friedman impart, “All loss is experienced at 100 percent. There is no such thing as half grief.” Grief is grief.

Weeping Angel

When you’ve experienced the death of a close family member at a young age, you learn that time doesn’t heal, actions do. “We have been taught to believe that time heals all emotional wounds. The false belief that time heals is probably the single largest impediment to recovery from loss of any kind,” says John W. James (When Children Grieve).  You cannot heal if you have fallen into a constant litany of sorrow, explains Russell Friedman, “the repeated telling of a painful story does not create completion.”

Necessart Losses

Children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling, rarely mention those deaths as adults, unless the occasion or situation call for it. We can recognize, however, when others are stuck and unable to move forward with their lives. While the process of mourning can end in constructive ways, according to Judith Viorst (Necessary Losses), it “will often go awry. For when those we love die we may deal with their death by failing to deal with their death or by remaining ‘stuck’ in the mourning process [and it is] pathological when we cannot, and we will not, let it go.“  Those of us who have gone through the mourning process early in our lives understand that, “If these people knew how to move on, they would. If they knew how to let go, they wouldn’t still be telling the story. They can’t turn over a new leaf because they haven’t finished with the old one,” as James so clearly states.  “Memories,” says Friedman, “can become a dangerous roadblock to recovery.” Even though we understand, it doesn’t make communicating with family members and friends any easier when they are faced with death or adversities.

Consoling angel

Most Grief Recovery groups and websites state the following:

Surrounding ourselves with people who are understanding and supportive reminds us that we’re not alone. Attending grief recovery support groups or workshops allows us to connect with others that are experiencing similar emotions and can provide insight and encouragement. Involvement in the community or in a project geared toward helping others serves to take our attention away from ourselves and our pain and gives us a broader perspective.

When you’ve walked with death long enough, you know that the statement above isn’t as easy as it sounds. While it’s helpful to surround yourself immediately after the death of a loved one with people who can remind you that you are not alone, we know that it can be detrimental to long-term healing if those people are stuck in the same grieving stage that you are. Instead of healing, you become hindered, unable to move past emotional mood swings between sorrow, anger, guilt, idealization and / or depression in a healthy manner. The pain of death is no longer a distinctive and separate loss, it becomes connected and associated with every adversity in your life.

Real recovery only begins when you are willing to accept and value the insight and experience of those who have not only been on the same journey, but have created balance through continued introspection of their lives along the way. And while “Involvement in the community or in a project geared toward helping others,” is suggested to take your “attention away from” yourself and your pain, you will not gain a “broader perspective” if you become involved only with people who see the world and its problems exactly as you do.

Don't let death ruin your life

As the title of Jill Brooke’s book declares, Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life. People who know me know that I have a special fondness for Halloween, that I like scary and frightening horror movies, and that death is not something I hold far from life. Death is as natural for me to embrace as life. How could it not be? I’ve grown up with death. My maternal grandmother’s home was a chain-link fence away from the city cemetery. Even as a young child, I knew that death was a close as reaching out through the fence openings. Movies about death are just that, movies. Halloween can be fun, if held in the proper perspective. Just like September 11, often referred to infamously as 9-11, Halloween is somebody’s birthday somewhere in the world. I am saddened when people connect evil or terror to certain days and cast a shadow over what should be someone’s day of celebration.

Weeping Mother

Contrary to what some may think, when you experience death “up close and personal” as a child, you do not become immune to its effect over time. Everything about death and dying becomes woven into the fabric of your being, right alongside everything about life and living.

We “children raised by death” can become frustrated with people and entities; but frustration over the loss, or potential loss, of material things and the pain associated with the death of a loved one is not the same. At least, it shouldn’t be. While we may take steps to protect our feelings, we refuse to hold grudges. We are mindful not to allow too much time to go by between hiccups and glitches in relationships before beginning the mending process. We find no positive purpose in holding someone else responsible for our emotional state. We work towards bringing people closer to us, not pushing them away. We prefer to extend grace, not to degrade. If you must hold someone accountable for your emotions, let it only be for feelings of joy, happiness, and fulfillment.

Angel

We don’t go through life without fault though. There are many avenues we do not have the blueprints for, so we stumble along and have to learn how to navigate around or through them — death just isn’t one of them. For most of us the lack of those blueprints are evident when we reach the age our parent was when he or she died, especially if they died long before retirement. We struggle with being the parent of adult children, because we have never experienced life as an adult child opposite of own father and / or mother. We struggle with the term retirement, because the blueprint for planning and saving for retirement was never mapped out for us by parents who achieved that milestone. Saving money and the importance placed on taking care of material items, is often a difficult concept for us, let alone a practice, because we know too well how it can be all gone tomorrow. Most of us have struggled to learn and enrich our faiths. We left our faiths, embraced other faiths, accepted all faiths as valuable if they made you a better, not bitter, person, and we’ve returned to our former faith practices. We are aware that we are not perfect — we need Him. We know that God loves us, like a parent, even when we’re angry with Him, because we don’t always understand His ultimate plan for us.

Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. ~ Romans 5: 1-5

As Paul reminds me in today’s Gospel, I have been justified by faith and I have peace of mind, heart, and soul with God through my Lord Jesus Christ. I am never without His grace and, therein, lies my continued hope in the goodness of this world and the greatness of the next.

Calendar and clock

A glance at the clock, a glance at the calendar, the words of a song playing on the radio — any of these moments can instantly take us back.  Quickly followed by a catch of breath, a pinch in our sinuses, and the sting of tears as we fight the urge to be overcome by emotion. We are instantly filled with the burn of loss, the memories of what we had, and the memories we will never accumulate. I will never be able to visualize my father with graying hair. I can only imagine the joy that would have filled him to have known his granddaughters and the immense pride he would have felt to gather his great-grandchildren around him. I can no longer.remember.his.voice. and, perhaps, that is the hugeness of the absence of him over a forty-three year span. As “children raised by death,” we have walked with it a long time, we have held its hand and looked into its face, its essence runs deep, its DNA is imprinted on our every cell.

It is said that, “The Poet Never Forgets.” They have an uncanny way of taking life experiences and giving them their own unique character. One of my favorite poems personifies Death and it’s unexpected arrival, even when we expect it {as in the case of a prolonged illness}:

Weeping Woman

BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH

~ Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

Death be not Proud

As the underlying message implies in John Gunther’s book, Death Be Not Proud, taken from John Donne’s poem of the same title: the only way to bring about “the death of Death,” and its effects on one’s life, is to live life fully in the present. To be long on forgiveness and short on anger. To embrace love “above all things” and turn away from vengeance of any kind. To realize that to “agree to disagree” is better than to be right. To understand that Death will arrive in his horse-drawn carriage and he will not wait for you to be ready.

Weeping women crypt

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