how are you, today?

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Sheryl Sandberg encourages us to ask people in mourning, “How are you, today?” By emphasizing today, we acknowledge the bumpy nature of grief.

Sometimes, I think, asking, “How are you, right now…in this very moment?” may be even more appropriate because one minute you are fine washing the dishes, thinking to yourself about the awkward but funny comment your child made earlier (maybe you should stop referring to private parts by their correct names), and the next, you find yourself in a puddle of your own creation wondering what on earth to do next.

It has been three weeks since my mom died of metastatic breast cancer. Three weeks wrapped up in what feels simultaneously like 24 hours and 3 months. I knew this time would come and often wondered what it would feel like when it did. In the time forever marked as after. That picture was taken after my mom died. That was the kids’ first birthday after we lost her. 

The further I get away from her death, the more I feel like I am leaving the precious and intimately sacred space where time stands still and you are entitled, expected and even encouraged to be all consumed by the enormity of the loss. Friends and family wrap you up in a warm and protective cocoon. Thank God for that cocoon.

But time soldiers on. And eventually, you have to emerge leaving the safe and nourishing shelter as a completely different creature than the the one you were before you started the unwelcome but necessary journey.

You are a changed being now. You will never be the same. You start to acclimate slowly. You return home or the people you love go home. Work, school, plans, and chores resume and sometimes the familiarity is comforting and sometimes it just feels wrong. No, no, no this can’t be, I can’t be laughing and talking about Halloween costumes, my mother just died! In her house! And we were there. And it was intense and beautiful and heartbreaking but beautiful. Sometimes. Sometimes it was and is just plain sad.

I have been creating quiet, restful moments during the day. Grief requires this. And these are the moments when I relish the relationship my mom and I built and revel in the one we are still building.

As Thomas Merton said, “Silence allows many sounds to reach awareness that otherwise would be unheard.”

In this fruitful silence, I notice one palm tree swaying to it’s own breezy music while all of the other trees stand still. I hear the peck on the glass and turn to see a yellow finch trying to fly through the window. I am comforted, soothed.

Sometimes I talk to her out loud. Or I’ll say something to my kids that sounds just like her. Like the other day, as my son played piano in the dark, I walked into the room, flipped on the light switch and said, “A little light on the subject?”  How many times over the years did I hear her utter that expression? I love her expressions with their touch of humor and reliability.

As I feel the presence of my mom, I also feel more and more like her. And I remember the times when she would laugh and say to no one in particular, “I sound just like my mother”. Her mother, my grandmother, Nana, whom I also adored, still adore, and miss.

This week, my oldest turned 11 and my youngest daughter turned two. Our silly and sassy little caboose with brown hair, brown eyes, and a killer grin makes everyone in the room smile. Just like her grandma did.

When my brother said the day after my mom’s service that he knew he would be o.k., my sunny friend Derek enthusiastically said something to the effect of, “Well that is something!” And it is. Because sometimes it is enough to know that we are growing in the right direction. That in this moment, no matter how bumpy and how much we ache for the people we love, we know they are o.k, and ultimately, we will be too.

 

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Touch and Go

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“Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.” Tom Stoppard

Yesterday I celebrated my son’s seventh birthday at his school. I brought cookies to share with the class and as the cookies were almost all passed around, the teacher looked at me with wide eyes and a forced smile and asked, “Did you bring enough cookies for all the friends?” Um, well I thought I did. I turned around to see four faces staring at me with a shocked expression that seemed to say, “This is the worst birthday celebration ever!”

I apologized and made a joke about the kids multiplying like gremlins before my eyes. No one thought it was funny. I wanted to hide and take cover in the cage with the hamsters and their hay.

The kids ended up sharing their cookies and it really wasn’t that big of a deal. However, for a few moments, I felt like a terrible mother, and honestly, the crappy feeling of being inadequate and a bad birthday party planner lingered for the rest of the day. Until I decided to stop allowing this thought to occupy any more space in my brain. There are far worse scenarios going on in the world and at the end of the day, kids don’t need all that sugar anyway.

This experience led me to thinking about letting go of the “big stuff.” How do we let go of the things and people in our lives that we love dearly? I’m not sure exactly, but I know that it is not easy. It’s risky, and it takes faith. The ideas below can help soften our surrender into the act of letting go gracefully. These are the top three that come to mind.

1. Focusing on the breath with a deep inhale and a full exhale. (This helps immensely, but once when I was sick with pneumonia and couldn’t breathe fluidly, the practice of visualizing a peaceful image also brought relaxation.)

2. In order to let something go, we often need to hold, address, or honor it first.

3. Stay optimistic; the other side of letting go is letting in.

Last year I read about the Buddhist teaching of “touch and go.” I had used the expression before but never in this context. My friend, Dwayne, shared with me his understanding of “touch and go” being like a butterfly stopping for a visit at a flower and then fluttering onto the next adventure.

There is something incredibly comforting about this image. While we may not know what lies beyond the other side of letting go, we can have faith that the mystery is beautiful and will provide us with what we need. And when we let go, although we don’t know what’s next, we create an opening and opportunity for the next adventure to take shape.

The idea is to not get too attached to any one feeling, good or bad, since our emotions, thoughts and experiences come and go like passing weather. This allows us the freedom to touch the emotion or thought like sweetness on the tip of our tongue and then allow it to dissolve into the air around us. It also reminds us that we and our problems are not at the center of the universe.

When my now seven-year-old son was a baby, I remember feeling this strange and bittersweet sense that life as a mother was going to be a constant practice of letting go. I envisioned holding onto a kite string and slowly inch by inch letting it go higher and higher into the sky and eventually hoping it would catch the wind and take flight.

I thought of this image as I watched a video of Theresa Schroeder-Sheker, founder of the “Chalice of Repose Project.” The Chalice of Repose is an organization that uses healing music to offer nurturing support to people at the end of their lives. She spoke in her gentle voice about the letting go we do each and every day. In her hopeful way she mentioned how this practice of letting go of the little things is a preparation for the big letting go we do at the end of life.

Letting go takes practice and patience, and with daily practice comes mastery. So we can all take deep breaths, share our cookies, and become masters of letting go, remembering that we’re all in this together. We just let go in different ways at different times.