Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the tag “grief”

THE BLESSING

IMG_7300Not long before Joanne, my wife, died, she told me she expected me to love again. She said it would “not be right to waste all the lessons we’d learned,” and I was “too young” never to love again. When I replied that I couldn’t imagine any love ever being as good as ours, she replied, “maybe it will be better.”

She was bedridden by then, disabled by multiple myeloma, and we spent most of our time in her room, talking, cuddling, and receiving visitors. This was after I’d taken a leave from my therapy practice so I had lots of time to think, feel and talk. And pay attention to the children, all of us often sprawled out on her bed.

But after they left for school and day care in the morning, the days stretched out, somehow lengthened by the fact they would be few in number. We were preparing, even though we’d agreed that we didn’t have to accept ahead of time. Acceptance would come on its own time table. (Remarkably, it was possible when it was finally needed a few months later.)

Although I didn’t think of it much in the days that followed, I stored our conversation somewhere in the back of my mind. Those words also awaited their perfect moment.

After she died, I gave myself to grief a little like a new love. I cried and laughed and shared stories. I saw my friends and felt their support, but my own idiosyncratic path of mourning got first dibs on my time, just as a new lover would. I listened to what it needed and tried my best to give it. Looking back, I see that I tunneled into grief, boring my way to the center of my own earth. I found the ore hidden in me. There was music, and gardens and tears, but mostly, me.

And then I knew that I was ready to fulfill the promise that Joanne had initiated; that I would love again. But I was terrified. Now I knew what it meant to let love command me. I would one day lose the person most precious to me. As Rilke said, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks… the work for which all other work is but preparation.” I felt I was about to go to graduate school! How would I let myself fall over the cliff when I knew how far down the bottom was? But how could I not, knowing the beauty of that ecstatic  flight?

On the night I met my wife, I had a feeling. I was going to go out salsa dancing. I didn’t actually know how to salsa dance, so I planned to go to the lesson at the beginning. What could hold me back from doing new things? I had already done the biggest thing I could think of. But nerves held me up. Maybe I needed to take a hot bath, to play a little piano, and take myself out for sushi.

By the time I arrived, I was late and my hands were, despite all my effort, still shaking. Everyone was already paired, ready to listen to the instructions the teacher was set to deliver. I didn’t know a single soul in the room. But somehow, the instructor noticed me, probably looking a bit lost. “Did you want to take the lesson.” “Yes, sorry I’m late.”

She took my hand and walked me to a row of chairs, filled with people who already knew how to salsa. And then, to one person in particular. “Will you be her partner?” she said, and put our hands together. At first, my dancing partner looked just a little irritated. But then she gave me a full look and said, “sure.” I fumbled my way through the lesson, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was a great dancer, helping me through the mysterious steps.

I don’t remember how we ended up on two chairs at the edge of the room, sitting close so we could hear each other over the music. I do remember looking at her red shoes as we talked about death, children and spirituality. I left with every number she had.

I had never had a love at first sight experience, but this was it. I knew. She knew. No doubt. It was a matter of months before she joined me in my home, which was still filled with reminders of Joanne. She said she felt entrusted with me and encouraged me to take my time with all the corners filled with Joanne.

Now I felt the nature of my fear. I would wake in the night, her sleeping next to me, and see her face, a death mask next to me. I would have to confirm she was breathing. My youngest child asked her at the dinner table if she was going to die too. My friends were protective and slow to accept that I was giving my heart again. While I had grieved every minute, come through to a new place, they were still not ready.

But all the while, I heard permission in my head, encouraging me, supporting me to feel every wonderful, awful, scared, courageous, unexpected feeling that came along with choosing to love after losing a love. I never doubted that this was my destiny, my path and my greatest pleasure. And I never doubted that I set foot on this (now) twenty-year path with the blessing I most needed.

In the twenty-one years since that time, I have counted that simple conversation as perhaps the most generous gift I have ever received. What did it take to think of my good beyond her own life, to want the best for me beyond the time we would have together? When I heard the words, they bored into me in a permanent spot deep down. Long before I was ready to find that true love again, they gave me hope that life would, somehow, transform itself.

And so now, deeply in love with my wife of nearly twenty years, I count myself most blessed, to have loved deeply not once but twice and to have learned that the heart can grow to fit all that comes to it.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones is a grief counselor and the host of Good Grief radio at VoiceAmerica. During her education as a Marriage and Family Therapist, her first wife was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, which was at the time a uniformly terminal illness with a six month to one year prognosis. In the eight years that followed, Cheryl engaged daily in the work of preparing for her death. She was trained during this period by Stephen and Ondrea Levine (Who Dies and Grieving Into Life and Death) and Richard Olney (founder of Self-Acceptance Training).

After her wife’s death, Cheryl immersed herself in her own multifaceted grief, startled by frequent moments of joy. Along with her private therapy practice, Cheryl is Manager of Professional Education at the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Oakland, CA. She has trained extensively with Erving Polster, leader in the field of gestalt therapy and author of Everybody’s Life is Worth a Novel. Website: http://www.weatheringgrief.com Good Grief host page: http://www.voiceamerica.com/show/2264/good-grief

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Thank you, Stephen Levine

Stephen and Ondrea Levine

Stephen and Ondrea Levine

It was intermission at In The Name of Love, a yearly concert in honor and memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, Living Jazz gathers incredible musicians to offer musical tribute and this year, they were all singing Nina Simone. My choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir always sings and the night has particular meaning to me because my father spent the most vital years of his career as a civil rights worker. He was on the bridge in Selma, he registered voters and, to his great honor, he was near MLK, behind him on the steps, when the I Have a Dream speech was delivered at the March on Washington.

It’s always emotional for me to sing there. Like many people, I feel deeply connected to those times. My parents, both dead now, are intrinsically tied to my experience of the civil rights movement and of the losses we all sustained then. There was John Kennedy, who had given my parents so much hope. Then there was Malcolm X. We lived just a block from the place where he died at the time he was assassinated, in New York for my father to study at Union Theological. Then King, whose death crushed us all and wove itself into my bitterness and anger as a teenager, my sense that things all just needed to be destroyed and we needed to start over. Finally, the grief of my generation deepened (if that were possible) when Robert Kennedy was killed, barely two months after King.

I am always aware of these things when I sing at the event. I press my way backstage, finding a corner to watch the speech they’ve chosen to play, hear the music that is being offered, feel the crowd, the beautiful Oakland crowd, gathered to honor, to remember, to reinforce our commitment to a just and equitable world.

But during the break, the stage doors were closed, and I retreated to the green room. I was feeling unusually quiet and not much into socializing that day, and I sat on a step glancing at my phone, absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook… and then, I saw it, on Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s Facebook page:

Dear Friends,

Stephen passed away at home in his bed this afternoon after a long illness. He was 78 years old. His heart has gone to God. His light is left here with us. Thank you for your blessings and love and friendship. Namaste.                                                    

It only took seconds before I burst into tears, loud sobs heaving my body, completely without my permission (even though I would have given it). I should say here that’s not my usual first reaction to loss. I’ve always envied my oldest child because when bad stuff happens, she purges immediately. It comes right out, full and complete, and then after she has cried her tears, she’s able to go on. Me, it takes awhile. First I get quiet, sit still, go inward and then, only then, do the feelings begin to find their way out of me. I’m also not used to crying in a crowd, although I wouldn’t object to that either. It just doesn’t usually happen. So this was a big surprise event.

Stephen is dead, I thought. It’s unbearable. It made no difference that he had stopped traveling years ago and I had been in touch, but not seen him, or Ondrea, for at least a decade. What did matter was that I was suddenly flooded with everything they had been to me, and all they still are. They had seen me through, and taught me how to handle, my losses. They had been my guides, and that of my first wife, through the horror and the blessings of her long illness. They had taught me how to be with it all, love myself through it, change in ways I needed to, stick up for parts of me I needed to keep that took courage to honor. They had been instrumental in my own transformation through loss, the type of experience I talk about every week on my radio show, Good Grief, and in my blog posts.

All of that was in the background, a forest full of the most beautiful moss and ferns and trees. What was in the foreground was kindness. They were so kind to us. They were so generous. They held our fragile feelings like a loving parent holds a newborn. Their help became so much a part of me that I find myself talking about them often still. As I’ve been asked to be a guest on the shows of others and they ask me what helped me through that time, I am always thinking “Stephen and Ondrea.” And when I begin to describe these things, I hear his poetic and moving and laughing voice. “Let your heart break, and the sooner the better,” “there is no feeling in deep grief we haven’t felt before, it’s just louder,” “forgive yourself” and “underneath all of it is just UNNH, the steady hum that will never die.”

When we adopted a baby, which of course most people thought was completely crazy, they sent a full set of crib bedding, with stars and planets and “Sweet Dreams” embroidered on the corner. When we couldn’t afford to get to a workshop, they let us in at no charge, and several times helped us travel to get there. They held us in their arms, told us what we needed to hear, loved us through.

Eventually, a few of my choir mates timidly approached, “are you ok?” “what’s happened?” and I told them what I could. A deep teacher in my life has died. But that seemed so inadequate. Teacher seems somehow less than what he was to me. Spiritual father or soul healer or guru or… nothing could capture the depth of what he gave us and how that contributed to this beautiful life I live now, the way I love the people I love, the importance I feel in sharing the possibility that, when all seems lost, life sometimes sets a path in front of us. Would I have found my way anyway? Perhaps. But the way I found my way is indelibly etched in all the corners of my being. May he pass to whatever is next the way he imagined it in this poem:

Millennium Blessing

by Stephen Levine

There is a grace approaching
that we shun as much as death,
it is the completion of our birth.

It does not come in time,
but in timelessness
when the mind sinks into the heart
and we remember.

It is an insistent grace that draws us
to the edge and beckons us to surrender
safe territory and enter our enormity.

We know we must pass
beyond knowing
and fear the shedding.

But we are pulled upward
none-the-less
through forgotten ghosts
and unexpected angels,
luminous.

And there is nothing left to say
but we are That.

And that is what we sing about.

 

As I read his words, I make a small contact with that feeling of spacious wonder he so expertly invited me to enter. And I imagine I’m looking in his eyes and saying, thank you, thank you, thank you.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

 

EMERGENCY 2009: A FATHER FALLS

IMG_6224

It’s getting close to dinner time and I’m in the kitchen, ingredients on the counter and a pan heating up. The phone rings. It’s my mother. It’s not a usual time for her to call, but I don’t think much of it.

“Cheryl, something terrible has happened.”

I have that strange feeling you get when you come home to a house that has been burglarized. Something is not right, but what is it? The evidence is in front of me, but it doesn’t add up to any conclusion. I am suddenly alert.

“What’s happened, Mom?”

“Your dad was out for a walk and didn’t come back. I called 911 to see if I could find him.” I think, “She’s so resourceful. It would take me longer to think of that. He’s only been gone an hour. “

“He’s at John Muir emergency. He fell.”

O.K., now my adrenaline kicks in. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go right there.”

In the car, my mind races. Will Deb and I have to call off our anniversary trip? We’ve needed some time alone for a while. Is there any way we’ll still be able to go? Maybe it’s not that bad. Why am I thinking about that? I wonder, but then, just because I’m experienced in these things, the answer tumbles into my mind, “You are not ready to deal with what is happening. You are choosing something smaller.”

After they interrogate me about my relationship with the man back in the ICU, they let me in. Is this my father? I always knew he was a huge 6’4”, but he never felt that way. This body, still and empty, does not even remind me of him, the gentle, loving giant. This could be any big guy former football player, aged out of the game.

When Deb arrives, while my mom answers endless insurance questions, I whisper, “Are we sure this is my Dad?” I’m relieved that she isn’t sure either, but we look in the paper bag containing everything they cut off of him and there they are, his familiar clothes. My mother will later regret that they destroyed his favorite jacket.

When my mom comes in, they tell us they can’t tell us anything. HIPAA. Later, there will be too much information.

The connection between his brain and body are severed.

There is no hope of a return yet he is not brain dead.

He could remain in this state indefinitely, hooked up to machines that breath for him, tubes that feed him.

My mother will say, “He would not want this,” but be curiously unclear whether one of us will object to unplugging him.

We will have a family meeting where no one objects. There will be visits from my parents’ pastor and my best friend the chaplain. We will sing endless songs. There will be tears and sadness and acceptance. We will think of all he was, of all he gave to us and to this world. I will regret that I won’t get the chance to take care of him as he declines, while knowing he would have hated that. It is for me that I feel the loss.

The body, refusing to die right away, will take several hours after everything has been removed. I will be there with my wife and kids, and he will wait to die until I fall asleep with my head slumping over on his leg. Deb will wake me; “it’s happening” and I will see him take his last breath.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

First Christmas Without Mom

December 10, 2014

I’m searching the internet for ways to get through this first festival of lights season without my mother. The articles I read about loss and the holidays offer helpful tips for getting through it. So many helpful suggestions: find meaning in your traditions, ask for help, plan ahead, discover what has most value to you, change it up, keep it the same, leave an empty chair at the table, feel the absence.

This small list hardly scratches the surface. And what I keep thinking is, skip to January!

This is not an option I would actually take, because in some other corner of my being, I want to be with the people I love, I want to watch my grandkids with their eyes lighting up, I want not to lose all the other things I enjoy about celebrating just because I have lost her. I even wish it could be the same as usual, minus my mother, but even in this way, life is not cooperating (and neither is my family). It will be utterly, remarkably and painfully different. There will be no attempt or even option to pretend or assimilate as if she has not died.

How did I manage it when my wife died so many years ago, at almost exactly the same time? I can’t even remember.

So, not knowing exactly what taking care of myself would look like in this moment, I prepare. I ask for everyone’s wish list. I make the house ready and pull the boxes down from the attic (actually, I haven’t done that yet). I try to figure out where we will actually be when. I make lists. And I cry…

Today I pulled up the list from last year, happy for something I don’t have to reinvent, and there, second name from the top, there it was. “Mom.” As it turns out, last year was the last year she will be on my list.

Last year, before her diagnosis, when all she wanted was a family picture. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I drove everyone crazy and begged them to make it happen. There we all are, under the arches at Lake Merritt in our town, Oakland, smiling and happily unaware what the next year would bring.

There are so many things I’m grateful for and I remember them each day. I’m grateful to have a mother I can sincerely mourn. I’m grateful for all the love and support I have in my life, for a wonderful wife, and children, and friends and work I love. But just for today, I’m saying to myself, “Let it stink that your mom died. Don’t make it better. Be grumpy. For one day, don’t try to see the bright side.” Complain a little.

How am I doing?

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

MOURNING MOTHER

November 25, 2014

Exactly a month after my mother’s death, I’ve boarded a plane for Toronto, Canada to train with the cancer center there in their protocol, CALM (Managing Cancer and Living Meaningfully).

It’s hard to leave home right now. I stick close to my wife and become easily overcome by the many details of living. On the other hand, I’m going somewhere that my grief will be, I assume, accepted, and where I will have space to appreciate that my mother died prepared, facing death squarely with her eyes open, just as this program teaches us to facilitate.

What a gift she gave me. I have no worries that she regretted her death or thought I, or anyone including herself, should have done anything different. There was just the simple fact that the end of her life had come. Maybe there was a strange blessing in such a clear diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, and the 9 months we had together after that. So I’m not really struggling with her death.

Grieving a parent, however, has brought me up short, affected me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. When my father died, I devoted myself to caring for my mother and so, in this time of mourning, they are both sitting on my shoulders, ripping apart the seams of my usual calm. I search for words to describe my new orphan identity which, even at 61 years old, feels profoundly new.

There are the ways my parents enveloped me, sometimes in my awareness and sometimes not. But I find it is the parts of me that pushed against them that suddenly make me feel the ground has been removed. It has been in defining my difference from them that I became myself, my own person. It is in coming to an understanding of each other as whole human beings that I discovered my unique gifts and talents. For all the agreement between us, it is in our disagreements that my life took shape.

I see that this was also true of them with their own parents. They ended up miles form where they began, spiritually, politically, personally, in nearly every way. Their faith remained but what defined that faith changed completely. This is the job of each new generation; to define themselves as “other than” their parents, and ultimately, hopefully, to strengthen the parent-child bond through that exploration. This has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, that my parents were willing to transform themselves to meet the person I became.

But now, that is all over. From here on out, I define myself, I change not in relation to them but in relation to my chosen life. I had no idea that I still referenced them until they were both gone. I now take what they gave me, to make what I will of it.

One of my mother’s caregivers dreamt of her, a week after she died. They were sitting together as they used to, with arms reaching out to each other and one caring for the other. My mother, a look of peace on her face, said, “I am so happy, so very happy,” and they shared together a beautiful moment of connection and contentment. The cares of the world are over for my mother. Now, I feel her as a steady, loving force just out of reach, murmuring to me, “go forward, keep going, continue to follow your own dreams.”! !!

It’s up to me to do that, not for her (or against her) but in her honor.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

Wildest Dreams: How We can Learn to Grieve

 September 8, 2014

On the day my wife died, the house was overflowing. In the room with me were our kids, 2 1/2 and 14, and a few friends who had pretty much moved in with us those weeks when we knew it was the end. Out in the living room were people who had supported us through her illness, really supported us! They fed us, took care of our baby and helped our teenager navigate having a parent with life-limiting cancer. They had been there when we cried, and laughed, and napped; even for our difficult conversations. We all learned together to live at death’s door, claiming the word live. My mother would later say that although she had belonged to loving churches all her life, she had never experienced the kind of love she felt in our community of friends.

This was the first remarkable change in me as a result of her cancer and death — after eight years of living next to cancer. I was comfortable conducting my life in front of a crowd. Before cancer, I was shy and, at one point, even agoraphobic. Before cancer I was a one-on-one person, coming to a party when only the host was there and leaving before the guests arrived. Before cancer, I had trouble exposing my deepest feelings. Before cancer, I was anxious and feared abandonment, often fitting myself into what I thought others wanted me to be. Now I was take charge, sure of my own way, telling the truth about myself whether it was popular or not.

That night offers a perfect illustration. About to take a shower when she died, I pulled off my robe afterwards and laid down next to that body that I had loved for so long, holding her in a skin to skin embrace, the first for months that wasn’t inhibited by a fear of hurting her. She was no longer dealing with the pain of broken bones and degenerating nerves and I could bid her farewell with abandon. I realized later I had had no hesitation about nakedness, words of love, songs, whatever I wanted to do to say goodbye to her, disregarding the crush of people in the room, even including (as soon as they could get there) my parents! Where was that shy girl now? Where was my fear of being seen or heard? I had reincarnated somewhere along the way.

This person I had turned into hardly resembled me Before Cancer. I entered grief better able to matter to me. I committed to at least a year of giving myself whatever my grief asked for. Within the boundaries of (now) single parenthood and going back to work, I did that. In the quiet hours when the kids were at school, in between the clients I worked with as a therapist, I played music and dug in the garden and cried and meditated. I ate good food and depended on friends (who were now so much greater in number). Grief, for me, was an extension of the life I had had with her; rich and full and open to possibility. Those eight years of illness had taught me to face, unafraid, whatever I felt in a given moment, to ride the waves of it to my own shore, and to come home to myself in any situation. What could undo that? What could make me truly afraid when I had already lived through her death?

My life today rests on the shoulders of that time. What I discovered then, through deep pain and profound joy, informs everything I do and everything I am. I will never be glad she died, but I will always live in awe of what we learned together; life is a joy, a miracle, and love should not be avoided or wasted. Taking a chance on love is always worth it. I’m grateful for whatever I feel, because emotions remind me, each day, that I am alive.

When I couldn’t imagine how I would live through losing her, I was right. I couldn’t imagine it — not in my wildest dreams.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host ofGood Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website,http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

Care for the Caregiver

I’ve been caring for myPrimary-Caregiver mother, who was diagnosed in January with pancreatic cancer, one of the most lethal cancers I know of. Even so, it wasn’t until the other day that I was struck by the thought, “I’m a caregiver again, to someone with a terminal diagnosis.”

I was flooded with memories of the decade I spent caring for my first wife, including all the beauty and wonder, the struggle and the learning. I’ve been remembering how I learned the importance of taking care of myself in a way I had never known before.

Learning that lesson while caregiving often seemed counter-intuitive. No, I needed to take care of her! And of the kids! But it didn’t take long to realize that if I let myself get past a certain point, if I let myself drop, I would be unable to do anything for them.

A particularly stunning example was when I lifted the wheelchair even though my back had been feeling tender, and laid myself up for two weeks. How clear did it have to get? I remember going away for a weekend or two, leaving friends to take care of everything, so I could hit the reset button. I came back ready, willing AND able, renewed for the care I wanted to be giving. I found that my capacity for caregiving was much higher when I attended to my own balance.

So now, I bring all that to the endless appointments, procedures, tests, talks about how my mother wants to die, finances, closet sorting and names on the bottom of furniture, (she’s a planner). I’m also remembering once again how to live with the phrase “terminal diagnosis.” I’m remembering how the constant awareness of death, since I no longer resist it, leads to an appreciation of the love I have for my mother, for this time with her. I was already preparing for the loss of my mother (she’s 84 and I have a low denial quotient) but now I am living that preparation each moment.

I have a friend with ovarian cancer who doesn’t like that term, “terminal diagnosis.” She says, “everyone has one and who made these doctors gods anyway?” But for me, it is not that I now know any more about the time of my mother’s (or anyone’s) death, but that I walk with the awareness of death keeping me awake. I go forward with the knowledge that accepting death makes life more meaningful. For that I’m thankful.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

 

The Way Dad Died

DadOn the day my father began his full speed run towards death, he left the condo as usual for his daily walk. He headed down towards the spit, past the house boats, to gaze on one of the things that still gave him pleasure despite nearly constant pain, an unobstructed view of the San Francisco bay.

My mother, who never went with him because she preferred swimming, began a large pot of spaghetti as a surprise. My father would have eaten spaghetti every night if my mother hadn’t been intent on feeding him gourmet meals, still enjoying experiments in cuisine at almost 80.

We’ll never know for sure what happened, but a neighbor later told my mother that she saw him walking back home, looking bad. She was almost crying, telling my mother, “I don’t know why I didn’t stop,” and my mother could not understand why the woman told her, since there was no difference for it to make at that point.

My father never came home.

A few hours later, the phone rang. I was in our kitchen cooking dinner myself, enjoying the flurry I created at dinner time, enjoying a regular, quiet, family day.

“Something terrible has happened,” she said, sounding pinched and almost suffocated. She continued, struggling to get the words out. “Your dad has fallen on the street and he’s in the Emergency Room at John Muir.” The body is slow to register information like that, but a moment later springs to action. “Deb will pick you up. I’ll go straight there.”

When I entered Emergency, guided to his little corner of a back room, divided by curtains and impossibly crowded, all I saw was a large man. I could not honestly tell if this was my father. I asked Deb whether we were in the right place and she couldn’t tell for sure either. I guess I took in, right then, that although the frame I had known for my whole life was lying there, the father I loved was gone. I looked in the paper bag where the EMTs had put his destroyed leisure suit jacket and blue jeans. That was when I believed it was him; I knew the clothes. My mother later regretted they had cut off his favorite jacket and she had to take it home in ruins.

It would be a few days of testing to confirm what my instincts told me; we would have to let him go. Of course, they didn’t tell us that. They told us there was no hope, that his brain stem had disconnected from his body and could no longer tell it what to do. As long as he lived, and on life support there was no reason to think his body wouldn’t survive for quite a while, he would be in a vegetative state. My mother, after making sure none of us would be mad at her, told them we wanted to remove the life support. I was stunned that they seemed surprised, maybe even relieved. They had expected a fight and a long process towards accepting the truth. I couldn’t imagine really wanting my father, or wife, or child, or grandfather or anyone I loved to stay alive like this. The stunned “o.k.” of the medical staff told me that our family was a little unusual, that it’s often very hard for people to accept right away when there is no hope.

But we all agreed (my mother insisted we reach consensus, which took under 5 minutes) that he would not want to survive this, and so we sang to him, we stroked his hands, we surrounded him with love in the slightly less crowded ICU room they’d moved him to, then the medical team pulled the plug.

I recently finished reading Katy Butler’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about her own father’s protracted death and the medical establishment’s inability to let him die. It was the first time I felt lucky about the way my father died. Until that point, his 2 day hurtle into death was purely a loss. In my wife’s ten years of dying, I savored caring for her. It affected my grief positively to have been able to do for her (with many helpers) the things she needed. I had, however strange it may seem, looked forward to tending to my father in just the same way. I felt robbed of the chance to sit with him while he slept, or sing him a song or read him a book, as he slipped away, gradually. Now, reading how that had really been for Katy Butler’s father and for her family, I was forced to face how truly nightmarish that would have been for my dad. Generally speaking, he hated being tended, feeling himself a burden no matter what anyone said to him about it. And even more, he was not someone who savored attention, even though his brilliant mind and kind heart often brought it to him anyway. He always got out of the limelight as quickly as he could, diverting the spotlight to the people around him. Still, I only had the words before; “he probably preferred dying like this, even if we all hated it.” After reading Katy’s book, I felt the truth of it, deep down.

Thank you, Katy Butler, for helping me to take another step in absorbing this loss! Or maybe just absorbing how it came. The loss itself was, I well knew all along, inevitable. The blessing is simply in all the years I had him.

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cjones2 pic onlyCheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. She is the host of Good Grief, a weekly radio show on the VoiceAmerica Health and Wellness Channel, about the transformative potential of our losses. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

Grief season

dr_photo_08I was 42 when my first wife died. It was the end of October, 1995, right before Halloween, right before day of the dead.

My two year old went trick or treating with my parents that year, because I was doing my version of sitting shiva, having been moved by the tradition when Jewish friends of mine introduced me to it. Every night for a week we opened the house, sang, told stories, ate food, appreciated all that Joanne had been to us and all we had shared together. That was during what I would soon begin to call the euphoric period. Instead of feeling her absence, I felt her presence everywhere. I could find nowhere she wasn’t. It would be almost 2 months before I would crash into the simple fact that her body had quit, that I would never see her or touch her in this life again.

For the first few years, I defined the grief season as beginning October 24 and ending January 25, her birthday. Soon enough, though, other deaths would blur the lines, punctuating the entire year, and I stopped thinking of things that way. Every day, there is life and there is death, grief and celebration.

I’ve been noticing all of this in a new way, as I listen each week to the moments of grief which led, immediately or over long, long periods of time to profound changes in the lives of the guests on Good Grief, my radio show. 18 years after my own loss, I realize that the changes which came for me then never really stopped, that they continue to evolve and reshape themselves in each new moment. I discover that I can’t really be sorry for any of it.

I wonder how things might have been different if she died suddenly, if I’d been younger, if I didn’t have children and then I laugh at myself. It is, in truth, impossible for me to imagine a different life once it’s been lived. Too much would be lost. Too much would be different.

So I simply acknowledge the startling fact that when I think of all she was to me, all I lost and all I gained, I am overwhelmed by only one feeling. Profound gratitude.

My time with Angelo Merendino

Angelo MerendinoWednesday was a special day for me. I spent an hour talking with Angelo Merendino. (Please go look at his photos at mywifesfightwithcancer.com). I wondered what it would be like talking to a photographer without the benefit of his photographs to look at. He is clearly a visual person, having captured their time with cancer in a deeply revealing, compelling and openhearted way.

My concern was for nothing. His words and heart are reflected in his photos- everything goes together. I was moved and transported by his story, imagining their life together but also remembering my own time with cancer. I have my version of those amazing images, the hairless head, the huge smile, the empty bed. And so he took me back to the joys and the sorrows of living with cancer right next to me. He also reminded me how those times are connected to the way I live now, the ways that my experience of deepest loss wrote itself on my life. It shows in the way I conduct my marriage now, the way I love my children and my friends, the way I work, even the way I talk to checkers in the super market. I cannot find anything in my life that wasn’t deepened by facing up to that most difficult time.

So I am grateful, not for the experience, but what I was able to learn form it. Not for the loss, but what I was able to gain from it.

And I’m grateful to Angelo, for the reminder.

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