Mourning (is not) Routine

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It has become a sort of routine, a tradition… every year on October 10th, I pick the kids up from school and we begin the drive.

We stop for flowers at the same Trader Joe’s along our route, where they each pick out the bouquet they want to give their grandma. My daughter always picks red roses because I told her years ago they were my mom’s favorite; but my son likes to pick a unique colorful bouquet each year.

We usually arrive at the cemetery with about a half hour to spend before they close for the night. We unearth the hidden vases that flank her headstone from beneath the grass and dirt, pour in water and flower food, trim the stems, and insert the bouquets. I say a few words to my mom on behalf of all of us, while my son waits impatiently to unleash the energy that has built up inside him during the hour long drive there.

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When I give him the okay to take off, he and his sister flit around the park, running down the grassy hills, chasing each other, and exploring the rows of flowers, pinwheels and flags left in memoriam by hundreds of other daughters and grandchildren. While they are gone, I take a few moments to myself under the tree near my mom’s grave, sometimes sitting quietly and watching them play together, sometimes saying a few private words to my mom, and sometimes shedding a few tears as I think of how much I miss her.

I then summon the kids back when it’s time to go, they hop in the car, and we wind our way through the park, reaching the exit a minute or two late, with the guard there waiting for us to leave so he can close and lock the gate.

Short, sweet, simple, familiar.

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Yet this year, for the first time during one of these annual visits, my now almost thirteen-year-old daughter asked if she could have a few minutes alone at the gravesite. My son and I got in the car and closed the doors and windows to give her some privacy; and she sat down to talk to her grandma, sharing her thoughts and feelings without us listening. 

Not to be outdone, my son then asked for his own time alone. So they switched places, and my nine-year-old boy kneeled in the grass next to the flowers he brought and said a few words. I couldn’t hear what either of them said on their turns; but I saw their lips moving and their faces solemn with reverence and honor. I smiled in silence as I watched each of them claim their own personal and separate relationships with the grandmother they never met… the grandma to whom they have brought flowers since they can remember.

As for me, something was different this year too. A lightness. A level of peace and acceptance I have not felt before. On this 13th anniversary of my mother’s death, I felt more grounded than ever before while gazing down at her grave marker. I felt a resolute acceptance of life being full of disappointments, heartbreaks, losses, and sadness, while simultaneously being full of joy, love, hope and possibility.

I feel a varied amount of grief as time passes, but it’s not a linear progression. It hasn’t gotten successionally easier or hurt less with each passing year. Whatever I have experienced during any given year or the state of mind and heart I am in on that day of my visit can determine how I approach it, what I am feeling, and how I move forward after the visit. Some years have been easier than another year that has followed, when the void my mom has left felt more expansive to me than the previous year.

This year, November 2018 until the present, brought so much change to other areas of my life… so much devastation, upheaval, and discomfort… from wildfires, evacuations, physical injuries, power outages, mudslides, and illnesses. Coming out from the other side of all that turmoil made this day easier to approach, our peaceful ritual counterpointed by what we had endured.

Ironically, the Santa Ana winds were sweeping through the valley in force that afternoon (and sadly more wildfires broke out that very night), so the trees were rustling loudly and the air was crisp and Fall-like. The rocky mountains surrounding the memorial park were comforting in their familiarity, as part of the backdrop of my childhood. Here in my hometown, this distinct scenery and the characteristic windy weather harkened back to the years I was growing up, in the city I was raised, by the mother who was now laid to rest there.

I spoke to my mom lovingly, telling her I wished she was here with us. I said happy birthday, as it would have been her 73rd the day before on October 9th. And in the brief moment I had to myself, I felt a sense of gratitude for the health of my family, for the freedom my life affords me to make this trip and keep this tradition up each year, and for the beauty of the park which accommodates my mother’s final resting place.

I addressed my aunt as well, for this was our first visit there since we laid her ashes alongside my mom’s in the ground below us just a few months ago. The new split headstone that will mark the shared grave of the two sisters is on order and will be installed next month; so this will have been the last time we see the original stone we created for my mom 13 years ago.

Since my aunt passed away this year, this was also the first time she wasn’t here to visit my mom’s grave on this day. With cleaning supplies in hand, she lovingly cared for this stone, coming here often to wash it along with my grandparent’s shared stone located right above my mom’s. Soon there will be a new stone in place that will adorn my aunt’s name next to my mom’s, and we will inherit the task of cleaning and maintaining both stones for all four of them in her absence.

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But for now, my mom was given a precious gift by my children that day. Aside from the annual flowers, they shared a part of themselves with her directly, without my assistance or prodding, showing a respect and love that transcends the earthly relationship they weren’t able to have with her.

They have only seen her face in photographs, and have only witnessed her as an animate being in our wedding video, in which her smile, voice, and lovely aura was frozen in time a year and half before she died. My aunt’s wedding gift to us was hiring the videographer to document the day, so we have her to thank for those precious images of my mom captured on video.

These phases of life, death and mourning will continue to end and begin again. As much routine as you may fall into while mourning the loss of loved ones, the actual rituals you maintain may be the only constant. There is nothing routine about grief or the emotional aspect of mourning itself. It is a non-linear, wholly organic process that will take you by surprise, comfort you, temporarily break you, empower you, galvanize your intentions, and fill you with so many different feelings that you never know what will come next.

Life is unpredictable, and death is part of life. We all are touched by it, and we all are better for the process of going through these phases. Going through it and being affected by loss means we have loved; and there is nothing greater for our souls than that.