As some of you already know, my grandmother, Faye, passed away suddenly a few weeks ago.
I’m having a hard time carrying this grief around. This sadness feels like a fever I have to burn out of my body. I feel like if I could just find the right bottle of medicine it would leave me. But I know that isn’t the case, so I am going to remain in this middle place for a while.
I am doing the things that make me feel good (reading books I’ve been wanting to read, hot showers, good food, blankets and Netflix), while also recognizing that those things won’t fix this, and that this pain won’t subside in a day.
I’ve found a lot of meaning in all of this happening during the Halloween season. It’s the one time during the year where symbols of death are all around us, and the holiday lets me brush up against mortality and recognize it’s place in life.1
It reminds me of one of the beliefs about Samhain, the pagan holiday that inspired Halloween: this time of year is when the veil between this world and what is beyond is at its thinnest.
If it is, I hope my grandmother can hear me.
I’m not interested in communicating with the dead or inviting them into my house, but I do really like this idea of the curtain being thin. It’s as if we could catch a whiff of those we have lost’s hairspray or cologne in the wind just for a fleeting moment. As if they will appear to us in rocking chairs in our dreams. As if we could hear their voice echoing through the hallways of our minds. As if we remember this time of year how their footprints are still evident.
My father was wrapped around my shoulders and my husband around my waist as the pallbearers carried the casket after the service. My dad said tearfully, as I restrained a full-out weep, “Her legacy lives on through us, right?”
All I could do was half nod and keep my eyes shut as hard as I could. My cold eyelashes turned drops into rivers on my cheeks.
If only I could just feel her spirit here for just a little while longer.
There were moments over the weekend when I was walking through the hallway in her house that leads into the kitchen that I paused for a moment. The light from the kitchen was so bright, and I knew if I walked in that she would be there. Her energy still lingered. It felt like she was just in another room the whole time I was there.
As a friend said to me about my father-in-law on a hot Carolina night, “It just feels like I haven’t seen him in a while.”
On my way out the door back to Michigan I actually said, “I have to make sure I say goodbye to Grammy,” purely out of habit as I was hugging everyone else. The words came out as a whisper, hit my heart like thunder.
To some, mentioning Samhain is near blasphemous, but the idea of the veil being thin informs my grief. I need that sense of closeness, of an anniversary, of a time to stop and mourn. I need to know that when they go, they aren’t far from me. And when I go, that I won’t be far either.
What’s surprising to me is that my impulse during these times is not to run away from the spiritual. I’m not clinging to it for pat answers that give me the easy way out of dealing with grief, but I am also not completely avoiding it.
I wanted to go up to all the clergy in collars and pastors that were there for my family in the aftermath and the funeral services. I wanted to run up to them and tell them, Thank you, you are doing this right. You aren’t giving me stupid, mindless answers about tragedy in between tears, you are here for my parents, you aren’t abandoning my family, thank you! But I couldn’t spit up the words past the compulsion. The clergy I encountered were exactly what I need religion and faith to be right now: present, and don’t hurt me.
In not shying away from spirituality, I also found a burning desire for physical practices and rituals I could do during this time. My Baptist background gave me little more than awkward hand-raising during praise songs in the way of tactile practices to anchor my faith, so I’ve had to find my own.
I bought a rosary, and it has an skulls, anchors, and crosses on it and I’m learning to pray with the beads. I am wearing skulls on my wrist and they remind me that it’s okay to sit with my grief. I don’t have to shutter it into a box of Things I’ll Deal with Later. It’s okay as a living person to let loss be with me, and to contain the paradox of life and death inside me. For the moment the skulls are an outward symbol of allowing myself to feel whatever I feel.
I am wearing a ring that was my grandmother’s. It has tiny pearls and robin egg blue beads. When I look on one hand I have a symbol of my marriage, and on the other, a symbol that reminds me of all the people I have lost and how I carry them with me. I read liturgy for words when I have none. I light candles, I read poetry about my ancestors. And lastly, I am listening to Elvis, who she absolutely adored.
The thing I am having the most trouble with is actually not what Emily says in the end of “Our Town” when she whispers, “The living just don’t understand.”
Sometimes when we walk around like invincible humans we don’t understand the gravity of what we have in life. But as I stepped outside the church to leave for the graveside and I heard the weeping of her children and we, her grandchildren, I have no trouble understanding the gravity.
Death eats everyone. And it’s in moments like these when I don’t know how to keep going like everyone I love doesn’t have a ticking clock over their head. I mean, I know we all do have ticking clocks over our head, but I don’t know how to not be paralyzed by that.
I have a hard time when driving on my daily commute not feeling like any minute some car will hit me on the highway and I’ll be out like a light. I have a hard time not wondering when the next phone call will come; or when my family will show up without warning at my place of work to inform me of some fresh tragedy; which upcoming Christmas will be absent of cheer and instead full of hospital rooms.
I didn’t need to see ”Our Town” after going to a funeral. I didn’t need to see that a girl from my university who was barely younger than me died in a six car pileup in an intersection I used to live by. I didn’t need my grandmother a week shy of her 74th birthday — who never did anything halfway and who had more energy than anyone in the room – to die of something active people aren’t supposed to die from. I didn’t need to watch my steadfast and strong father-in-law deteriorate Christmas after Christmas from a cancer that ate him.
This living person gets it.
I just don’t know how to not let that stuff create a permanent installation of fear inside me.
I feel much like I did after my father-in-law’s funeral back in February. The whole family was gathered at my in-law’s house and the lights glowed and hugs abounded. I was curled up in a chair in the corner of the den. I was moving as little as possible to keep down the chest pain that sprung up whenever my heart raced or I breathed too deeply.2
I took small, slow breaths and sipped on steaming coffee. The room was bursting full of people I loved and who loved me. And even though my view into the living room was obstructed, I closed my eyes and listened to my husband and his best friend perform “Ring of Fire” on guitar in the next room. My husband’s uncle picked up a drum for the first time in years and played the rhythm into the night. Those in the room sang, “And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire.”
And so like I was in February, today I am sitting with the pain of my grief, surrounded by love, listening to the sweet notes of the universe that will nurse me out of fear and back into full life.
1. To some friends, this holiday is triggering, and that is okay too. It means something different to everyone, and you have to respect your own health and mourning in your own ways.
2. Everything is okay. It turned out to be pleurisy when I went to the ER later. It was hard to explain at first, because the symptoms showed up during the memorial and I said, “My heart hurts.” A family member replied, “You’re at a funeral! Of course it does.” No, really …
Lead photo credit: Flickr/Jo Naylor