Weathering Grief

by Cheryl Jones

Archive for the tag “illness”

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.

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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.

Graduate level grief


IMG_2067I made a commitment to writing regularly in my blog. I really committed. I thought about what I would say each week over the months, how I would say it, what was meaningful to me, what would be meaningful to the people who read my blog. I made lists, plans, created visions. I was all set… except then I didn’t do it.

Yes, I’m very busy with my radio show, Good Grief, with my family and my work as a grief counselor. Yes, I’m still absolutely committed to time when I’m not working; to singing, creating, and just plain goofing off. But I didn’t think any of that explained why I wasn’t writing. All those things have failed to prevent me from doing many other things these past few months that I didn’t seem to have time for.

I lived with the question for a solid week or two. Why am I not writing my blog? What is in the way? Then I ticked off possible explanations. “I’m procrastinating.” Hmmm… Unlike many other periods in my life, procrastination hardly even qualifies as a part of my personality right now. “I’m uninspired.” Definitely not. I’m inspired beyond my wildest dreams by amazing people I get to meet and talk with every day, by the guests on the radio show and the meaningful conversations I get to have, and by my community and family. “I don’t want to write.” Wrong! I love to write and I’m writing other things all the time with great relish.

When the answer hit me over the head, I almost laughed out loud. I was not writing my grief blog because I was experiencing that time after a new loss when I just don’t want to share. I need time to absorb the new reality, to adjust to the changing picture of what I imagined the future to be. I need time to (wait for it) process.

I had not really written since I found out my mother has pancreatic cancer.

When it finally dawned on me that I was simply practicing what I preach and listening to what my own heart told me I needed, I relaxed. And then, respecting that my mother is busy adjusting too, I asked her if she would be ok with me writing about this newest wrinkle in the fabric of my life. “Everyone knows anyway,” she said, bestowing a blessing on whatever I might say about it. (Thanks mom).

So here’s what I want to say. Cancer stinks. I hate the endless doctors appointments and project management, getting all the pieces to work together. I hate waiting in endless waiting rooms with other people who also don’t have the energy to wait for anything. I hate anticipating losing my mother, who I love, in the very foreseeable future. I hate unexpectedly crying in public when there is nothing at all sad going on. I hate that I know how to do all this so well because I’ve done it before for years at a time without a prayer of changing the eventual outcome. I hate that no one has cured cancer yet, including my brilliant son-in-law, a cancer researcher who I honestly think has a chance of it.

But all of this is really so very small. What I love, even now, is so much bigger. I love my mother, who was clear right away that if they offer her 6 months of chemo for 6 months of time, it’s not worth it. I love the conversations we’re having in which we can share our love for one another in a way that is more immediate, and deeper than it was six months ago. I love that the doctors who are caring for my mother ask her about herself as a person before they talk about treatment and, when they run late for her appointment, apologize. (Thank you, Dr. Tempero and her staff). I love that I have all that experience to offer my mother, to ease her burden and help her feel supported and nourished. I love all the hearts on her Caring Bridge page. I love being so deeply in touch, every day, with my love for her and for everyone else in my life, knowing that having them at all is, at best, fleeting. I love pictures of her with my grandsons. I love that there is nothing in me that wants to shy away from the whole experience.

So, I guess we could call this Continuing Education, having taken what sometimes feels like the graduate level course in grief. Lifelong learning for the griever. Showing up for class. Taking notes. Putting one foot in front of the other and stepping into love, because even the hurt tells me how very much I love. How very very much.

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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.

Pray

Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Ruby Bridges by Norman Rockwell

Last night my choir, the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, performed a benefit concert for the Ruby Bridges School in Alameda, California. We’ve done that for the past few years and it’s always great. I love our service concerts; prisons, schools, homeless shelters, nursing homes. I sound altruistic, but really, I admit, it’s a little selfish. It feels good when the music touches people down deep and that’s always true when we give it as a pure gift!

Anyway, I was up there in the alto section, robed and ready. The curtain opened and suddenly my heart put two and two together. This “bunch of misfits” (as the director Terrance Kelly likes to call us) would not have been possible, let alone flourishing, without people like Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., my dad (he would be so embarrassed to be in the same sentence that way). People showed up, they risked, they walked into enemy territory with no weapon, they went to jail or school or lunch counters and the main point was that we humans needed to be together, not separate.

That’s what Ruby Bridges said last night. Some day, when we are in trouble (and we will be) we will not care what the person looks like who helps us.

That made me think back a few years. My mother was in the intensive care unit for a bleeding ulcer when she hemorrhaged. Blood coming out of everywhere and, through the tiny window in the hall, my wife and I saw person after person rush to her bed. It seemed like the whole staff of the ICU was crowded around that tiny bed (that was very close to the truth, as it turned out). I had just arrived at the hospital and before my wife spoke, I knew things weren’t good. “It’s bad, honey,” she said and moments later, they rushed her out, literally running to the OR. Her nurse, the one we liked the best, came out and gave us the details, betraying his lack of confidence in her chances for survival.

It’s funny what you do at a time like that. I called the section leader from the choir to let her know I wouldn’t be at rehearsal (!) She said, “I can’t believe you’re calling me,” or something like that, and I said, almost as an afterthought, “ask people to pray, please.”

I pray, but in a pretty “equal opportunity” way. “God, whatever you are, whatever is true, please walk with me to the best outcome. Please support me (or whoever I’m praying for) for the greater good.” Stuff like that. Having tried on Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Native American practices, and many others ways of looking at the Mystery, I find they all lead to the same place in me, so I don’t discriminate. I knew already that when you ask an interfaith gospel choir to pray, well, you are going to get nearly every kind of prayer known to humankind and that’s part of what I love about the choir. I was immediately glad I had thought to ask.

The days passed and somehow, she lived. Medical personnel found it hard to believe and dropped by her room just to confirm she was still kicking (that was definitely a figure of speech at that point). One told her that he didn’t expect to ever see again in his career someone who lived through what she did. The doctor told us right after surgery that things were a mess and he didn’t even know exactly whether he had succeeded but then, several days in, told her, “well, I guess you’re going to make it.”

All of this was coming back to me up on that stage. I was looking across at Ruby Bridges, who walked, alone, into a river of white kids, the first child, at six, to integrate that southern school and she was surrounded by a sea of at least 50 children, every color, clamoring around the stage and high-fiving our director as they looked up at us, every religion and spiritual tradition, every color too, and a diversity of sexual orientations, reflecting what Ruby Bridge’s courage had helped create.

“Pray for my mom.”

I called the section leader back a few days later to tell her it looked like my mom was going to make it. I told her it was a miracle (I could think of no other word). Then out of my mouth came, “It looks like when we all pray for the same thing, God says, ‘All my people are together; I guess we should give them what they want.’”

Cheryl Jones has been working with people facing loss in their lives for thirty years. Most recently, she has launched a radio show called Good Grief, talking with people who have created something transformative from their experiences of loss. You can learn more about her at her website, http://www.weatheringgrief.com.

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