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Newlyweds

Newlyweds

Which is ridiculous because I had loving and active parents for many years of my life. They saw me graduate, get married, and have children. They loved their grandchildren and visited me often once I was a grown-up.

Yet some days I just can’t believe they are gone. That all we had together has come and passed long ago. My grandparents lived so long that I never expected the times with my parents would be over before my own kids were barely out of the home for college.

1962 (Don't worry--my dad was a happier person than in this picture, but A. He is a Lange and they look this way in pictures and B. I think my toddler brother is acting his age and frustrating my father!)

1962 (Don’t worry–my dad was a happier person than in this picture, but A. He is a Lange and they look this way in pictures and B. I think my toddler brother is acting his age and frustrating my father!)

Oh, given their illnesses, I would not have asked either of them to live another day. But healthy? Oh, yes, I’d have taken that. And to have extended my days of watching and worrying over their care to a time when I was not in the middle of raising my own kids. Everyone got shortchanged.

I try not to spend much time in regret or anger, especially knowing that others have had losses much earlier, but then there are the days when I just miss them and it still doesn’t feel right.

My dad has been gone for twelve years. How is that even possible? The good news is that when I recently saw pictures of him in his last months, ravaged by cancer, I realized I had almost forgotten how he looked then. My memories have reverted to the way he had looked the rest of the time I knew him—which is such a blessing.

I pray the day comes for me with my mother when I forget all that Alzheimer’s stole from her—and from everyone who loved and relied on her. So though she died just over three years ago, the mother I knew left for good over six years ago. My rational self knows that I am an adult woman of over half a century (!) but sometimes I feel exactly like a motherless child. I suppose that is a feeling many of us experience from time to time for the rest of our days—until we leave our own (adult) children feeling like motherless (or fatherless) children.

1964, Trina

1964, Trina

You don’t have to watch too many television shows or movies or read too many books to find the theme that because we love, we hurt—and conversely, because we have been loved, we also hurt. This is a universal part of the human experience—and if we have been truly blessed, we have been loved well from our very first days.

I am so grateful that some days I do feel like an orphan, not because I was abandoned at a young age, but because I was loved so well—and know exactly what I am missing.

Perhaps it’s Holy Week that brings these emotions to a surface, but, thanks be to Holy Week and its culmination in Easter I know that one day none of us need be orphans any longer.

Dick and Mae, Christmas 1981

Dick and Mae, Christmas 1981

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(c) 2012 Sherman Lambert

Some impressions burn into our memories and never leave. Let me try to describe one of my newest. No doubt words will not be enough to convey what I hold inside, but that’s all I have since none of us in our group had a camera.

But first, let’s start at the beginning: April 19, 1995. For those of us not in Oklahoma City, our initial images came from our TV screens and newspaper pages. Pictures of chaos, rubble, flames, a small body cradled too late. I think our national innocence began to crumble on that day. We finally started to understand terrorism could happen here—and later realized that it could be homegrown by our own, not just by some mysterious “other” who hated us from afar.

Since this event occurred in my brother’s adopted hometown—where he has lived and worked for over 25 years—our family has had the chance to visit the site a few times over the years. My parents arrived for a planned visit during the days following the event when smoke and stunned grief obscured the blue skies of otherwise picture-perfect spring days. Our own family visited while the ground was still just a hole, surrounded by chain-link fences covered with teddy bears, flowers, notes, and the mourning of stunned nation. The finished memorial we observed years later barely covered that hole in the ground—if only in our minds.

There is something about spaces from where so many souls have departed at once or soon after. The ground becomes sacred. As author Madeleine L’Engle stated, “There is nothing so secular that it cannot be sacred, and that is one of the deepest messages of the Incarnation.” This space was not a memorial to evil intentions and actions, but to those who were lost or injured and those who banded together to make good out of what was intended to bring them to their knees. Though they fell to their knees, they also continued to look upward and to one another.

Even though the blood sacrifice alone of those who died consecrated the ground, the Memorial erected on that soil helps to retain a collective sense of hope.

While the Memorial moved me when I visited in the daylight, all I can say is you have to see it on a moonlit spring night, such as the night we visited. For a place built upon such darkness, the space glows with light.

Our group stood on the terrace in front of the Survivor Tree, looking down upon those lighted empty chairs and the reflecting pool which stretched from one end of time—before at 9:01—until another—after, 9:03. What lay in between we’d prefer not to remember.

However, on such a clear night, I easily heard the hooves of horse-drawn carriages rhythmically approaching the street beside the site. If memories have a soundtrack, mine that night was hearing a song from the Bradley Ellingboe “Requiem” my church choir sang at the Good Friday evening service last month. (The song is arranged from a George Herbert poem titled “Evensong” and can be heard in the church archival recording from April 6, 2012 7:00 p.m., starting around the listed times of 77:53 to 83:00.)

The musical arrangement begins with only rhythm—a rhythm that sounds to me like the relentless march of time and/or of death. The hooves that May night in Oklahoma City beat in a similar way and then the sounds stopped.

That’s how Time must have stopped for too many at 9:02 that bright morning—except they heard no warning march of hoofbeats.

None of us knows when those hooves march toward us. The best we can do is look to shine light on our own darkness and live well for those gone before us before our own days are spent.

The moon on a clear night and the sounds of hoofbeats only added to the power of a memorial that expresses so well both the loss of particular people on a particular day as well as the loss of our nation’s belief that ordinary people doing ordinary things could not be targets for some twisted agenda. Yet the site is also a powerful tribute to the resilience of a people who banded together to help one another and believe they could still find beauty in their collective tomorrows. Oh for me, that night’s beauty also shone light on what followed after darkness.

[To read the George Herbert poem, go to The English works of George Herbert: newly arranged and annotated and considered in relation to his life, Volume 3 (Google eBook), p. 391]

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

I have this friend who lost her mom to Alzheimer’s just after Thanksgiving. Because she feels emotionally fragile these days, she doesn’t talk about her loss with many people. She chooses those with whom she shares her loss very carefully.

Since she watched me walk through my mother’s Alzheimer’s, she let me in on her news right away. I hope she sees me as a safe person who understands something of what she is going through. I don’t question her when I see tears in her eyes but let her decide if she wants to explain them.

Last night at church I ran into a woman I met in a grief support group last May. We know each other only because of our losses. She asked me if I had reached my mother’s anniversary date and then I asked about her anniversary, which is coming soon. The truth is I can only understand but a portion of her loss because she did not lose an elderly parent, but a son close in age to me.

Still, there is something about having walked through grief that opens our eyes to others’ pain—sometimes giving us insight into how others’ pain can be even greater than ours—which is something we so often doubt in the early hours of our own dark nights.

These days my bible study group is reading and thinking about the Beatitudes, through James C. Howell’s study, The Beatitudes For Today. This week we are studying “Blessed are those who mourn.” We wrestle with whether or not those words are about mourning deaths in our personal circles or if the mourning Jesus mentions is about grieving our sins or the harshness we see in this world or, who knows what else?

But the part of this lesson that speaks to me at this point in my life is that because I have suffered losses that I still mourn, I am able to see others’ losses. Might I be just another person my friend avoids in her time of loss if I hadn’t already taken the walk to the tomb?

It’s tough to feel blessed when in mourning, but then I look around at all the support I have received on this earth from other people and I know God has not forgotten me. Perhaps it is in my brokenness that I am learning to listen to other people’s stories instead of just telling my own.

I’m not so saintly that I’ll say I’m glad for my losses. However, I am grateful that at least they have grown me into a person who watches out for those who are also blessed in this way they never sought. I was blind, but now I see.

And that is a blessing in itself.

Elda Mae (Ritter) Lange

Dear Mom,

What a year it has been since I last sat by your bed, listening for the subtle changes as your breath weakened, holding your hand when you struggled and all the while knowing you were on your way back to yourself. In that room where our time together both slowed and sped up, I prayed that your final labors would soon lead you to fall asleep to pain and loss and wake to joy, renewal, and reunion.

Somehow I thought that because you were ready and we were ready—and because we had lost you so many years before—that our healing afterwards would go smoothly.

Not so true because it has been such a fight to forget those last years. Try as I can to remember you, round-faced and full-bodied with that smile that lit so many days in my life, I see you angular and receding, all but for your brown eyes that continued to speak when you could not.

That we all decline is no secret, but the extreme changes you and so many others—human and canine—experienced in these last few years—Marge, Uncle Carrell, Dick, and our pups Fordham and Abel—make me want to rage against time.

Yet, perhaps it is just that grief/anger that brought about my own physical decline—my body could not escape the pain in my heart that I would have liked to deny. If I would not sit into my grief, then my grief would sit me down.

And, so I sat.

It is only in these last few weeks in the midst of deepest winter that indeed I can stand again easily and begin, step by step, to run and dance once more. Perhaps, the timing is no coincidence.

Yesterday I saw a black hearse leading a long line of cars on an unseasonably balmy day—someone was going home with all the ceremony that helps us to understand our loss. Yet, we did not say “goodbye” to you in that time-honored way.

I insisted we wait—until the weather might allow a more joyful home-going. After all, so much of you had left so long before your final day—those black hearses had been taking parts of you home for too long. The long goodbye of Alzheimer’s meant I needed to remember you more than remember your physical presence. So I’m glad we had all the brightly-colored clothes, the music, and the orange balloons on a windy, prairie day full of the hope of spring.

Because it’s that hope of spring that gets me through missing you and reminds me that my mother will never again have to be less than she was created to be.

Forever loving you, I return to the dance of life.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

How does anyone know we are mourning in these days when we no longer dress ourselves in black nor drape black crepe over our doorways nor cover our mirrors?

Well, if you visited my house, you’d probably guess that I was either lazy or depressed—or you might realize that I am still in mourning. My house, it seems, is draped in my parents’ possessions—and dust.

First of all, I sorely underestimated how grief might affect my ability to slog through every day chores. Though I was never that good doing those chores in the first place, I’ve amazed myself by how much worse I am at carrying through with my household duties in the aftermath of loss. Turns out I’m not at all the kind who acts out her grief through maintaining a frenetic work level.

Add in the responsibility for sorting through my parents’ lifelong possessions during this low energy period and you get a house that looks like mine does now.

Sometimes when I see the dust on my furniture, I am afraid I will also find Miss Havisham—or at least a somewhat fictional version of a middle-aged woman who has lost her mother and two dogs—staring out from my mirror. I swear I’m not really stuck in the dates of my losses—it’s just that I am respecting the weight of my grief.

In fact, over the past several months I have contributed to an exciting work project, welcomed a puppy and a rescue dog into my home, continued with my social groups and exercise routines, as well as begun new activities. I am moving forward—just not as quickly as I had hoped. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just skip the mourning and get on with the good stuff.

However, whether or not society dictates rituals for mourning, the mourning still must happen, more or less on schedule. Just because I’m creating new connections and routines doesn’t mean I am over missing the old ones yet.

Sometimes in the midst of something as simple as training our new dogs to deal with Trick-or-Treaters, I remember last Halloween when the little old “shark” (dachshund) and the bombastic springer spaniel were still at my side. I sing a spiritual in church and realize how much my mother would have liked to listen from the pews. I open up a box and find a full decanter of Jim Beam my father never drank because he was a scotch man.

One box at a time—sometimes more on a good day—I work on reclaiming my space. Every month a truck picks up some items I have determined someone else can use. I look for good homes for more specific items—last week it was fabric and music boxes. This week it may be pharmaceutical memorabilia or a Celtic drum.

Dust has been the new black around here, but I’m spending the next few weeks moving through what no longer needs to be here with gratitude for what was—and for what will yet be.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

There are many good reasons the Church and the ancients before them picked late October/early November for remembering the departed. As days shorten and nights lengthen at the same time the sun’s rays grow weaker, many of us turn inward. Just a few short thoughts can lead to thinking of those we have lost, as well as our own mortality.

Our family used to own a medical supply business and we always noticed that deaths began to increase around Halloween and continued at a higher level through sometime in the spring, even among clients who appeared relatively stable and healthy. Despite living in relatively comfortable times, it’s just harder to live in the colder months. Maybe the light matters more than we know and not just to those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

This year on All Saints’ Sunday, I listened as my mother’s name was read and a bell tolled in honor of her joining the saints eternal. In my brightest moments I see her conducting one of the heavenly choirs or playing along from the piano or with some percussion instrument. I was glad our choir was singing a spiritual, “Keep Your Lamps,” accompanied by nothing other than a drum’s beat—my mother would have loved the music selected for the year her life was honored.

And yet, she was not sitting in our pews to hear us sing.

I’ll tell you over and again that I didn’t just lose my mother this past January—no, Alzheimer’s took her from us years before she closed her weary eyes. So, in a way, I’ve already grieved who she was, but that doesn’t mean certain milestones don’t remind me of her final walk in her last year. In fact, sometimes I’m shocked to realize I am missing some of the simple things we could do together even when she was no longer “my” mother.

November’s arrival reminds me of the real beginning of the end for her: she started receiving hospice care a week before Thanksgiving. What’s true is that I am still grieving many pieces of that journey—or I wouldn’t still be so angry about how her hospice care did not provide the kind of support for her, us, and her care facility staff that is such a godsend to so many others.

I do my best to turn my memories to the little things that did work and how we learned as we went. After an unsettling Thanksgiving celebration within her larger community, we pulled back for a private celebration during the community’s Christmas dinner and experienced much greater peace and joy for her and for us. Sherman and I learned to enjoy feeding her, hungry as she was to partake of sustenance long after her own hands could not keep up with her appetite. When Intern Jess and I sang to her in German the carols of her childhood, we all had tears in our eyes.

The other images—the uncomfortable and/or painful ones—I try not to dwell on, but their presence tells me that part of letting her go must involve letting go of what happened, good and bad.

I was not the only one whose eyes teared up on All Saints’ Sunday—for some it is missing someone, pure and simple, and for others, there are the added losses that come with witnessing or walking someone towards a hard death.

As much as many of us would prefer to keep our mourning private and maybe even unstirred, it is good to have a day to remember corporally those whom we have loved—and to know that there are others who walk in similar shoes. Together we can walk in light—and through the dark.

(c) 2010 Christiana Lambert

This is not a hilltop time in my life. No, this is a time when I am walking through the valley, despite my understanding that the circle remains unbroken.

When my daughter came home for her grandmother’s first service and discovered her dog was dying, too, she did what many of us do these days—she sent out a primal cry to her online connections on Facebook in the words, “I am surrounded by loss.”

I understood. Despite the positive happenings in our lives, when we lose people and pets we love, the magnitude of their absence can overwhelm whatever is going right. You can’t just say, “Sure I lost Mom and I’m losing my dog, but the sun is shining so it is OK.” Well, you can say it, but it won’t be true.

You have to keep moving through that valley to find the better days—and even when you have reached the next hilltop, you know that your losses remain losses. You just get a little better at accepting that those you have loved are gone from your life.

Suffice it to say I am ready to limit my current losses to Mom and Fordham—most days that is more than enough. Sure, Fordham is still with us, but each day I see the changes and know his time here is short.

My cell phone rang early this morning—surely it could not be good news.

No, our extended family has suffered another loss: Mom’s brother Carrell lost his battle with leukemia yesterday—we were not ready to lose another of our elders. No matter that he fought back death three times from lymphoma. Where there were once five siblings, only two remain. And to lose half of those living in a six week period . . . it is too much.

Yet, it is what it is. It’s official, I’m singing the blues. Sure hate to see them all go . . .

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