Ash Wednesday : Spirit

Passages from the Common Lectionary :

Psalm 103, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Isaiah 58:1-12, 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

My yearly journey of reflection through Lent continues for the third year in a row. I think last year I fell off the wagon.. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. Faith has proved to be a hard road to travel in recent years.

Lent will always and forever be an even more somber time than it usually is. Two years ago I was in the middle of Lent when my grandmother died. I really learned what ‘from dust you were created; to dust you shall return. Conversely, I also saw through new eyes what it meant to be resurrected in Jesus. My grandmother’s faith became more real to me in her death.

Today’s word is spirit. Tonight I’m thinking about what is said in yoga, that our spirit is our breath and vice versa. I like that thought, especially when we talk about death. When the breath is gone, so is the spirit. There cannot be spirit without breath. God created man and breathed into him, and so man was incomplete and unalive until that moment.

Rejecting platitudes and accepting the pain of grief

I couldn’t hear one more platitude as I shared my story. I couldn’t stomach one more look of pity, or even worse, blank space behind the eyes. It was just too painful.

I became exhausted listening to all the things people said to me. And I say me specifically because for some reason the man’s role in reproducing just isn’t on many people’s radars. And for some reason the questions about kids – whether we had them, why we didn’t have them – were directed towards me.

Thanks.

It seems that the ‘thing’ these days is instead of being present with people as they’re rocked by the waves of grief, we try to fix the pain. We’re uncomfortable as a society to see people in pain. And it needs to stop.

I experienced this with the death of my grandmother, Jane, who I absolutely adored and loved. I found myself justifying my grief at what to our whole family came largely as a surprise – how ridiculous is that?

“My grandmother passed away, but she lived a long life.

“My grandmother died last month, but now she no longer suffers.

“My grandmother died suddenly, but she’s with Jesus now.

These are things I said, and I so longed to just allow the discomfort of the heart-wrenching loss and let people join me in my grief.

We look at the other side as greener. It’s the American way, right?

“We can’t have kids, but now we can travel and do whatever we want!”

“We could have gone through IUI or IVF, but it just would have had a horrible impact on my mental state.”

These “but….” phrases are dangerous. Not only do they not satisfy us and make us feel better, but they allow us to completely drive by the very real grief a person is going through. I don’t owe anybody an explanation or a platitude to make them feel better, for God’s sake. When we’re grieving, we have a horrible propensity to do unnecessary emotional labor for others.

I was (am) desperate to just say, “We couldn’t have kids.” and allow that truth, however uncomfortable, to settle in. I wanted to say for once, “I lost my grandmother and we were very close.”

I had to do this on my own. Even my church community seemed to be at a loss, more about the intangible loss of parenthood than about losing a person who was lucky enough to live 87 years.

There is a lot of work to be done in the area of grief, death, dying, and trauma in this society. But those of us who have been afflicted can’t stay silent. We need to be willing to compassionately educate others – to have the difficult conversations,

To let the uncomfortable truth of loss fall where it may. To allow space for discomfort. To reject platitudes. To accept our grief. It is only in this acceptance and space that we as a society can get closer to the hard things and be okay with it. And from there, we can better comfort those in need and in grief.

Contemplating mortality

“In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.

Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”

Mumford & Sons

I’ve been on a slight hiatus as far as blogging is concerned. I’ve been struggling lately with how public to make certain events in my life, and some days I just want to keep to myself. But inevitably on my runs (especially the ones lately with no music) I find myself writing titles and lines in this blog.

I have reiterated this before, but I write this blog for my own personal reasons.. mostly to reflect on my life and how I felt about certain things. If someone comes across it and can relate to what I’m going through (see posts about infertility here), then that’s a bonus. But I hate writing out long drawn out posts on Facebook or Instagram and prefer to keep things there to the point, and few and far between (at least on Facebook).

So how’s life? What’s been going on? How are you doing?

Thanks for asking. Life’s been a roller coaster, like always, but since my grandmother died in March it’s been tough. I’ve been wrangling two sets of grief, one for the explained and tangible, one for the unexplained and ethereal.

I miss my grandma so much. Grammie. In fact, today is four months since she passed. Something people may not realize is that grief doesn’t end with the casket being lowered into the ground. It hasn’t even begun. Somehow the living who are left have to find a way to live with a gigantic hole in their lives. Since her death, I’ve been on a crusade to find out as much as I can about death, dying, and what actually happens from when a person dies to when you see them at the funeral home. I’ve been contemplating my own mortality quite a bit, and the mortality of those I love. I’ve been planning on what I would do in (his)(her) absence.

It’s sobering, learning and realizing what actually happens when we die. I have been afraid of death, dying, and the dead since I was a child. My uncle suddenly died when I was only 10. He was working on a car and it fell on him. My aunt found him. It was a horrible tragedy for my whole family, and being only 10, I understood the physics and mechanics of death but could not deal with it emotionally.

I have been afraid of mummies, zombies, anything that resembles the dead. I was afraid of pictures, stories, actually seeing them in a museum. In sixth grade, my dad (who’s always a favorite among my friends) accompanied our class trip to Chicago. We went to the Field Museum, and I remember asking him if he could look into some of the displays and let me know if there was a mummy. If there was, I didn’t move closer.

My family got a subscription to National Geographic for a long time. I never read the articles but I always looked at the pictures. I remember seeing Iceman. For years afterward I was convinced that he was chasing me up the stairs at night. I ran to my bed, jumped in, and tucked the covers around me tight.

With this fear, or phobia, came fascination. I watched the movie My Girl with both feelings as Veda chased a basketball into the basement of her own house, where her father prepared the dead for viewing. I was traumatized when her best childhood friend died from anaphylactic shock. But I loved that move and watched it over and over again.

This fear and fascination didn’t come from my parents neglecting to teach me about death. After all, I witnessed the funerals of my second-grade teacher, uncle, great-grandmother, and grandfather between the ages of 10 and 19. My mom told me that their body was just a shell. Which explained a lot when I viewed my relatives and it just did not look like them.

My other grandfather died in 2012, and my grandmother followed this past March. The moment of first seeing them still scared me as I approached the casket. My heart raced, my palms sweated. The latter was a problem since I was also a pall bearer for both. Even though I’d been through something similar before, the clarity at age 29 is much different than the clarity at age 10. I’d been fearing the loss of my grandparents for years. One of my worst fears had come true.

I reacted unexpectedly to my grandmother’s death. I approached the casket and I was disappointed. I hadn’t seen her since December, but had just put together a slideshow the night before. Her face just didn’t look like her. I said this out loud, and I apologize if the funeral director heard it. I know they painstakingly do their best to make the deceased look as they did in life.

I saw my cousin who had flown in from North Carolina walk into the church. He’s a couple years younger than me and now taller than I am. We hugged and I said, “This is bullshit.” If my Grammie had heard me swear at her funeral held in her church, she would be upset. My best friend came through the receiving line, and I hugged her and told her the same thing in a low and angry voice. She just hugged tighter.

Because it was bullshit. But it also made sense. It was bullshit because it was unexpected. I had been hem-hawing around about calling Grammie and never got around to it. Grandpa had just died what seemed like yesterday and now we had lost her, too. That’s not fair. My dad needs his mom. I need my grandma. There’s so much we haven’t talked about, that I haven’t asked about. But Grammie was 87. She’d lived a long, fulfilled, faithful life, and her time above ground was done. She also had an aortic aneurysm, which we knew could burst at any time.

In the time since the funeral, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve thought about what I want done with my body after I die. I’ve talked to my husband about what his wishes are. We put better life insurance policies in place. I have plans for what I want, but I might change them. The thing is, I’m thinking about these things without having a total meltdown. I’m able to have conversations about death and dying without throwing an internal fit.

I’ve done a lot of reading about this. I’m mostly a fan of nonfiction because I’m a forever-nerd and love to learn even when doing something recreational. I’ve been reading more now than I have in the last several years combined. I’m overcoming my fear of death, dying, and the dead and it feels freeing. Below is a list of books that I’ve read so far and would recommend all of them.

In the Slender Margin: The Intimate Strangeness of Death and Dying (Eve Joseph)

Does This Mean You’ll See Me Naked?: A Funeral Director Reflects on 30 Years of Serving the Living and the Deceased (Robert D. Webster)

The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America (Ann Neumann)

Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Teaches Us About Life and Living (Brandy Shillace)

…and the book that started it all… I happened to see this on the ‘New’ shelf at the library…

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory (Caitlin Doughty, who also has a website and YouTube channel and promotes education about death)