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Archive for the ‘grief’ Category

By Linda Campanella

Today I brought two yellow roses to my father. Two days from now, my late mother would be turning 80. Yellow roses were “their” roses ever since their romance began in 1956. Mom lived just long enough to celebrate their 52nd anniversary before succumbing to cancer in the fall of 2009, one year and a day from her terminal diagnosis.

The flower shop is less than a mile away from my dad’s house. While driving the short distance, en route to one of my more or less weekly “lunch and laundry” dates with him, I realized I had started to cry. It still surprises me that the tears can come so quickly when I indulge memories of my mother and find myself yearning for her to not be gone.

I don’t often ask my father how much he yearns for her to be with him again. I’m reticent largely because I don’t want him to be sad. My mother’s dying wish – her instructions to him, I suppose – were “Don’t be sad.”

When I handed him the roses, he didn’t say “thank you”; instead he said, “I know.”

“What do you know?” I asked, without needing to. “I know,” he said again. “It’s coming up.”

He has bought yellow flowers himself in the past. I remember being deeply moved when I discovered a big bouquet of yellow roses on his kitchen counter while visiting a few days after February 14, 2010. They were roses for Mom on her first Valentine’s Day without him.

My parents’ love for each other was never more in evidence than during their love story’s final chapter.  I’m often asked how my dad is doing, especially by people who’ve read my memoir of Mom’s final year and therefore experienced vicariously Dad’s wrenching heartache and anticipatory grief. When asked, my response is – and the truth is – that he is doing really great. I desperately hope that wherever and in whatever form she is now, my mother bears witness to her sweetie pie’s strength and resilience.

He’s become a much more social creature, which would surprise her. Soon after her death, eight or so of their cul-de-sac neighbors started a monthly get-together, with hosting duties rotating among them month to month. To my surprise, he accepted the invitation to attend the inaugural gathering. Maybe he said yes because he knew how much my mother would have loved this kind of thing. (And it’s quite possible he would have sent her off without him if they’d been invited as a couple!) I went to visit him that afternoon and prepared an appetizer for him to bring. As he was leaving, he told me I might as well stay put in his house, because he’d only stay a half hour or so at the party and we could play another round of rummy upon his return. An hour and a half later, he called to tell me I might as well go home; he was having a good time – though his actual and understated report had been “It’s not bad.” Five years later he’s still going – and hosts when it’s his turn. My offers of assistance were declined ages ago.

Though long past retirement age, he’s still working on average three days a week as a radiologist. In April, I took care of his dog for five days so he could take a course at Harvard and earn continuing ed credits. Last month, he renewed his medical license for another two years. He is much in demand by the radiology department he chaired in his younger days, highly esteemed by his physician colleagues and the young residents whom he teaches, and genuinely loved by the technicians who work with and occasionally flirt with him. He’s always been a real charmer.

He arrives well before 6AM to get a jump on reading films left from the prior day. Two weeks ago, he turned 83 on what happened to be a scheduled work day for him. Since I thought it was a big deal to be turning 83, I called the radiology department mid-morning, just to give folks a heads-up in the hope they might wish Dad a happy birthday. I hated to imagine no one would acknowledge his special day.

“Honey, we are way ahead of you!” was the surprising response. Apparently he was welcomed that morning with balloons, posters, pastry, and a string of requests from female colleagues wanting to be photographed with him. The tech on the phone told me that each time he accommodated a request to pose for a photo, he said to the woman next to him, “Be careful; Nan is watching!”

“Nan is so happy you have all of us to love you!” was the rejoinder. How perfect – and perfectly true! My siblings and I also are so happy about this. We believe work has given our dad a reason – and the courage – to keep living. And we know the sense of being needed and also loved has been balm for a heart broken when the person who needed and loved him most left him alone.

I marvel at many things about him, including his stamina and legendary work ethic, but most of all I marvel at my father’s mind. While my own gives hints of growing dimmer as I grow older, his mind seems sharper than ever. English is his second language, yet I venture to guess that his vocabulary is exponentially larger and his grammar far better than 99.5% of Americans’.  Don’t challenge him to Scrabble, Boggle, or any other word game and expect to win! With a steel trap for a memory, he has an especially uncanny ability to remember details of history, and he can correctly identify just about any piece of classical music after hearing only the first few measures played; then he’ll recite the life story of the composer and provide a brief lesson in the history of the period or place in which he lived.

Last month I took a three-hour trip with Dad to visit my sister in New Jersey, and because he has never been a conversationalist, I decided to break the silence and pass some time by playing an old car game; “Let’s pick a letter and name all the places that start with it,” I suggested.  He jumped at the challenge, of course expecting to destroy me. We started with “A.” As we progressed through the alphabet, I managed to keep up with him pretty well, but I failed miserably when he digressed occasionally to ask me a question related to a place one of us had just named.

We spent a lot of time on the letter “D,” I recall. “What do you mean you don’t know what happened in the Dardanelles?” he asked in disbelief. (I had already confessed to not even knowing where the hell the Dardanelles are located on a map!) An urgent geography lesson evolved quickly into a riveting history lesson about the Ottoman Empire, the Gallipoli campaign and World War I. And although I earned a point for naming Dunkirk while we were thinking of places beginning with “D,” I didn’t remember enough as I should have about the famous battle there, and another lesson replete with astounding detail ensued. By the time we got to “G” I was feeling both much smarter and totally humiliated by my relative ignorance.  He, always a great teacher, was in his element.

I felt like one of the luckiest girls alive on that father-daughter trip to the Jersey Shore.

How lucky I am that my dad is still in my life and that his life is still so full. What a relief that his broken heart has mended, that his mind is still so brilliant, and that his body remains so sound. He is a little more stooped over, his hair is a little thinner, and he eats too many frozen meals and not enough fruit; but other than that, he is doing just fine. Five years a widower, he is healthy and he is happy; he is needed and he is loved.

What better present could we possibly give my mother for her 80th birthday than that?

Linda Campanella is the author of a Nautilus Award-winning and life-affirming memoir about her joy-filled last year with her terminally ill mother. WHEN ALL THAT’S LEFT OF ME IS LOVE: A DAUGHTER’S STORY OF LETTING GO is about love and loss, family and faith, hope and hospice, grief and gratitude.  Since her experience and her book’s publication, Campanella has become a passionate advocate for compassionate end-of-life care. More information about the author and her book can be found at www.lindacampanella.tateauthor.com.

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From my perspective, one of the wisest and most beautiful observations made about change and transformation was that of Rita Ghatourey who wrote, “The most sacred place dwells within our heart, where dreams are born and secrets sleep, a mystical refuge of darkness and light, fear and conquest, adventure and discovery, challenge and transformation. Our heart speaks for our soul every moment while we are alive. Listen… as the whispering beat repeats: be…gin, be…gin, be…gin. It’s really that simple. Just begin… again.”

And for those of us whose lives are quaking, and those whose hearts are being urged to begin again, here’s an interesting, informative, and even comforting talk.

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Then my world exploded.  Kristen shared a terrible secret that she’d been baring the weight of alone for far too long.  When she was a child, a family member had sexually and emotionally abused her repeatedly over a period of years.

As a therapist who had witnessed the unfathomable devastation of child abuse far too many times, I’d been determined to keep my child safe.  I’d carefully screened the few people who had access to her when she wasn’t in my presence, we had completed the coloring book that described red light/green light touches when she was four, and had read and discussed a children’s book developed to provide children with tools that would serve to protect them from sexual abuse.  We rehearsed what she should do if someone touched her inappropriately or frightened her, and had talked about the importance of never keeping secrets that made her feel “yucky.”

And now I knew throughout my body and soul what I had only known intellectually – no child is ever truly safe.  I had failed to protect my innocent little girl.  In fact, we had welcomed the devil into our family.  And now I was careening into a terrible darkness, on fire with rage, repeatedly tortured by images of my precious child’s abuse, and brutalized by the utterly overwhelming twins of grief and guilt.

In November of 2012 my mother died at 4:20 on a Sunday morning.  The two days preceding her death had been excruciating, and I am thankful that I was stroking her face and singing her a love song when she finally sighed deeply and slipped away.

My heart was far too full of grief, love and regret to make room for my brain to fully absorb her death at first.  In fact, I’m still in the process of coming to terms with the painful truth that she is never, ever coming back to me.  And although I was no stranger to the heaviness of loss and grief, for days following her death I was struck almost mute by the weight of a heart that was so swollen and bruised, I was absolutely exhausted from carrying it around.

In Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places, James Hollis points out that the word for grief originates from the latin term, “gravis,” which translates as “to bear,” and observes, “To experience grief is not only to bear the heaviness of the condition but, again, to testify to its depth as well.”  The gravity of my grief lead me down into the depths of both my longing and my love.  One moment I was strong.  I was the comforter and the matriarch.  And the next, I was weeping without warning — a motherless child, a guilt stricken mother, a woman underwater clamoring for breath.

Three months after losing my mother, I unexpectedly lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…

I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning lightly against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and sweet pixie face, my eight year old self quickly concluded that here standing right before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!

At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend.  I’m not sure when she became my sister and a vital part of me, but she did.

Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic.  As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the death of his twin. Her only consolation was that she had been with him when he heaved his last breath.  Next, not long after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he perished from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years (and my first love) went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone while battling the fierceness of anxiety and depression.

This past February as the abominable storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had been admitted into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.

The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages was and is completely incomprehensible to me, and the urge to bellow up at the heavens, “why!! why!!!!  Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sat wound tightly in my chest for weeks, threatening to explode and scatter shards of my shattered self everywhere. In fact, the urge rises up even now from the center of my chest as I write these words and something terrible and dense comes to occupy the space around my lungs and heart.

For the last three springs of her life I had  told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and yet had found myself apologizing each autumn when my plans to visit fell through.  I believed that we’d have many more summers, plenty of time.

She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she understood that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting and available to me when I was ready to talk. She emailed me before Christmas and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her, promising that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact.  I ache still with the knowledge that there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, and no more summer adventures to plan.  I have lost my soul sister, and along with her I have lost a piece of myself.  I love and long for her fiercely now.

I’m unspeakably grateful for my years as a therapist, and for the fifteen years that I spent researching trauma and transformation in earnest before my own life spiraled so out of control.  I can’t imagine how I would have possibly moved through the pain, fear, and chaos that has occupied so much of my life during these past few years without having witnessed time and time again the tremendous strength and resilience of my clients, and the stubborn albeit shaky faith that I would be able to emerge deepened and refined by the excruciating yoga of despair that I’d gotten lost in.

And now at 12:01 on Wednesday, January the first, 2014, I am thinking about two questions Dawna Markova posed in her book, I Will Not Die an Unlived Life and that I have asked myself repeatedly during these past three years, “what if the moments of the greatest wounding in your life were also places where the divine crossed your path, and the unquenchable dream of your life was born?…what do you love that is bigger than this wound?”   While my answer to the second question has remained steadfast, it is only recently that I have been able to fully recognize where the divine had indeed penetrated my  darkness.  I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are surrounded by new life even in the midst of death, and that poet, Mark Neppo spoke the truth when he pointed out that “each cocoon must break so the next butterfly can be.  And it is our curse and blessing to die and be born so many times.  So many sheddings.  So many wings.”

When sunlight greets this first day of the New Year, I will welcome it with a heart that now holds as much gratitude as it does pain, and with a life that contains a love that is far greater than its wounds.

 

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Each Day is a Gift

Photographer: Kristen Fowles

The following is the first of three related blog posts.

On this, the last day of  2013,  I am reflecting on the past three years — years that have  proven to be the most painful and challenging of my adult life — my very own dark ages.  These have been years that have both tested and shattered me.  Years that I have needed every bit of wisdom and skill accumulated over a life time to pick up the pieces of my broken self.  Years that broke my heart and beat me down.  Years that I would never ever want to face again, years that had I been forewarned about, I would have run from screaming.

Why am I about to share such a huge part of my personal life here in this blog?  Because of an email that a young woman sent me.  An email that contained so much despair that it kept me tossing and turning last night until the wee hours of this morning.  She ended her email by writing that while she appreciated my wisdom and compassion, she knew that I couldn’t possibly understand, and though I had worked hard and deserved all of the wonderful gifts that my life contained, I had not had to face anything like what she was confronting now.   She concluded that some things that happen to us simply demolish us, leaving us without hope and in total darkness.

I wrote back to her explaining that I know all too well about fumbling hopelessly in the dark along an uncharted path which offered inadequate shelter and no exits.  During these past three years I’ve  endured pain so heavy and dense that even now it can literally take my breath away, have suffered so intensely that my body has still not recovered, and have fought to control a rage so consuming that I sometimes fear it will  burn me alive if I fail to break completely free of it.  Living has hurt, hurt desperately.  And much of what I have lost can never, ever be recovered.

I will share some of what these past three years have contained in my next two blog posts, as I am only now beginning to truly fathom how they have shattered, tested, taught and transformed me.  I am sharing this painful part of my life in order to connect with, reassure, and honor all of those who have lived through or are suffering through their own period of pain and darkness.  They are my sisters and brothers and I am holding them close in my heart as I write…

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earth connected

As we approach 2014 I wanted to share our five most viewed posts in 2013.  Here they are (drum roll)

 

Poem for a New Beginning  (perfect for a new year)

The Secret Life of Bees and the Black Madonna (ultimately about love, hope and the transformative power of grief)

Therapy Worksheets (points to some wonderful resources for therapy clients)

David Whyte, Brother David Steindl-Rast , and the Antidote to Exhaustion (a story that helps locate the way forward)

I Love Your Story Still…. (an open letter to someone who needed desperately to know about the beauty of his story)

If you have a favorite, I’d love to hear about it.

Warmly,

Tammie

 

 

 

 

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I’ve been neglecting this blog as I continue to work on my book, “Dancing in the Dark: Lessons from our Darkest Nights.” And because I still can’t seem to manage to create a new entry today, I want to share a piece that I wrote several years ago.  Although it isn’t new, I feel it flowing after all of these years still straight through my heart.

You sit before me now, head down, while your face seeks shelter in your hands. “I failed,” you confess, sounding hollow and broken. I attempt to comfort and reassure you. When you finally look up at me, I’m not seen, and not heard. You’re so lost inside of your pain and disappointment that my words can’t find you. I can’t find you. And so we sit silently beside one another for a time, both feeling inadequate. You’re hurting so much right now, feeling lost and more than a little sick inside. In my silence, I try to communicate to you that you’re not alone. I’m here. Right beside you. And I still believe in you.

Later, I decide to write you a letter – one you can carry in your pocket to remind you of my caring. A note to read when you’re more open to my message. I know it won’t take your pain away or magically transform your beliefs, but maybe it can hold a seed, one that might eventually emerge from the rich and fertile ground in which I so lovingly planted it.

And so you failed. And this failure wounds you so profoundly that its penetrated deep into your psyche.  It may have even become an integral part of who you believe yourself to be today.

Today, you look into your mirror and see a failure. I look into your eyes and see the wisdom born of pain. And it hurts, this learning. I know. I know. I’ve felt its sting before. I’ve been thoroughly haunted by my own mistakes, miscalculations, and self-judgement. I’ve fallen too. Again and yet again.

Just like you, I forget during those moments when my folly is first discovered – what I know. What we both know. Defeat isn’t the theme of our unique stories, it isn’t what defines who we are, where we’ll go or who we’ll become. It only reminds us that we’re not alone. That we share the legacy of all human-kind, that we all will fail from time to time. Each of us stumbles and gets wounded in the fall. Failure, my dear, dear, friend, is a natural offshoot of growth. We churn in it, learn from it, and we become stronger as we struggle to recover from it.

In a commencement address delivered at Moorpark College in 1989, James D. Griffen remembered John Kennedy O’Toole, a young writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Imagine what it would have felt like to him to achieve this coveted award. How successful, how triumphant, how wonderful he would have felt. I say “would of” because we’ll never know how he might have felt. He’ll never know. We can only imagine on his behalf, because he never lived to claim his prize. After being rejected by seventeen publishers, he committed suicide. What a strange term, “to commit” suicide, when the act is above all else, a lack of commitment.

We must all hold fast in the darkness, for regardless of the blackness which may surround us – light always eventually illuminates our path. Always…

Experience fully the pain of your failure. You must, bless you. I know you must. But when your body and soul grows weary of the sadness, the recriminations, the “what ifs” (and they will), accept the compensations, (however modest) that accompany your misfortune. Learn the lessons that follow behind them. They’ll serve you well. You’ll be wiser, stronger, and more prepared for the rest of your journey if you take them with you. Rest now if you need to. Grieve if you must. And when you’re ready to collect them, let me know. I’ll gladly help you gather them up.

So what’s the moral of this story? Your story? It’s not a story about loss, deficiency, and flaws. It’s a story about lessons learned, overcoming, moving forward and onward, and most importantly – it is a story about hope.

Some of my most cherished tales have touched my heart and at the same time they have made me weep. And though I’m sad for you right now, I want you to know my weary friend, that I love your story still…

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This is a dark and dismal season of grief for me. Three months ago I lost my mother, and within this last week I have lost my oldest childhood friend, my anam cara – my soul sister…

I still remember the first moment that I saw her. She was a tiny little waif, leaning against my grandmother and laughing at something that had just been said. I was a lover of fairy tales and with her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and pixie face, my eight year old self imagined that here standing before me, in my very own kitchen, was Goldilocks!

At eight she enchanted me, by ten she was fully integrated into my family, and by twelve she was my confidant and best friend. I’m not sure when she became my sister and an essential part of me, but she did.

Her maiden name was Joy, which was both fitting and ironic. As a young child she and her younger brothers had been removed from her parents and placed into foster care. As a very young woman, one of her brothers was diagnosed with schizophrenia, followed by the sudden death of his twin. Next, soon after she and her estranged father began building a relationship, he died from lung cancer. And then, eight years ago, her husband of nineteen years went to work one morning and never came home. He died instantly, leaving her to finish raising three of their four children alone.

Yesterday, as the great storm Nemo surged towards them, those same beautiful children bravely and graciously greeted friends and family who had come to honor their mother’s life. She had gone into the hospital with pneumonia and died there.

The amount of pain and suffering she and her children have faced at such tender ages is completely incomprehensible to me. The temptation to scream up at the heavens, “why!!!!!!!! why!!!!!!!!!! Why!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” sits wound tightly in my chest, threatening to explode, scattering pieces of my shattered self everywhere.

Her maiden name was Joy. And even as she struggled on a daily basis with the fallout of a heart broken way too young and far too often, she embraced her life and held it and those within its orbit close and tenderly. She created countless special memories for her husband and children, faced her fears, followed her heart, and sweetly coaxed me to join her from time to time. For the past three springs I told her that I thought I could manage a visit during the summer, and apologized each autumn when my plans to visit fell through.

She called me right after my mother died and left a message explaining that she knew that I might not have the energy to call back right away, (I didn’t) and that she would simply be waiting patiently when I was ready to talk. She emailed me at Christmas time and warned me that the holidays would be brutal, but that I’d get through them. I emailed her back and thanked her and promised that I’d call her soon. That was our final contact. Now there will be no more phone calls, no more heart to heart talks, no more promises, no more summers…

Shortly after losing her husband, she lamented that in working so long and hard in preparation for retirement, he had missed so many tiny inconsequential and yet precious moments. She had made a promise to herself at his funeral that she wouldn’t postpone pleasure in the interest of a tomorrow that might never come. She kept that promise.

Stephanie Ericsson wrote:

“Grief is a tidal wave that over takes you
smashes down upon you with unimaginable force,
sweeps you up into its darkness,
where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces,
only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped…

Grief will make a new person out of you,
if it doesn’t kill you in the making.”

It’s not my grief that threatens to mortally wound me, it’s my love. And it’s not my love that has proven to be my greatest teacher, it’s my grief.

Thirty five years ago four teenagers sat late into the night talking about life and death and making predictions about how their lives would turn out. Before separating in the wee hours of the morning, they made a pact that when they were fifty they would come back together and see whose predictions came true. They never kept that oath. Not because they got too busy, or forgot their promise along the way, but because the only one who lived to see her fiftieth birthday was me.

I grieved deeply each time I lost one of them, and yet failed repeatedly to fully grasp the profound lesson contained within each death. It’s a lesson that we learn over and over again without fully comprehending, one that we pay lip service to but seldom turn our lives around to meet. Those we love will die. WE WILL DIE. And so, we must make of our love a sacred practice, allowing it to flow through our lives like a mighty river. We must invite ourselves to fall in love with life over and over again, allowing life and love to become inseparable.

Both my mother and Missie, my golden girl, are gone now, and this is more loss than I can face today. But there’s something that I’ve learned through the terrible pain of earlier losses which sustains me. The intensity of this grief will fade even as its lesson comes more clearly into focus. Life is a gift of unknown duration – the only certainty is that it ends, and so we must learn to hold it lovingly and closely, like Missie did.

Her maiden name was Joy….

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