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.

I Am Here with You

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Every year, I bring the kids to visit you. After school ends, we rush over from Malibu and arrive with only a few minutes to spend before the gates close at five.

They give you their flowers and run around the grass. I try to steal a moment to talk to you, but I often don't let myself get very far into the one-sided conversation. I don’t want the kids to feel the heaviness in my heart while they flit around in their lightness. Sometimes, I just don’t want to acknowledge the heaviness.

So I watch them run around... burning off energy they built up on the car ride over. I tell my son repeatedly not to step on the other headstones and to leave the balloons and pinwheels where they are.

They are comfortable here, playing in their grandma’s yard, the only one of yours they will ever know.

I sit on the blanket and breathe in the peace this place is supposed to bring its visitors. I look around at all the trees and beauty and reflect on the number of years it's been since we laid you to rest. It may be only a year between our visits, but so much happens in the span of each year that sometimes it surprises me how much remains the same here.

Yet it’s a little different today… the light is different. I haven’t been here in the morning since the day of your memorial service twelve years ago, when I had a baby in my belly and an army of mourners walking with me from the chapel to this spot in the grass.

At this time of day, the tree that shades you filters the sunlight from directly above, casting strong shadows of branches down on your headstone and a warm, golden spotlight that bathes me in a natural glow when I lie down next to you.

The ground is a bit moist and uneven, and the smell of soil and cut grass is potent. My blanket is supposed to keep the wetness of the lawn from coming through, but it doesn’t. I hear the whizzing sound of weed trimmers all around, as the groundskeepers’ maintenance is in full swing. Ironically, I came here today to get some peace alone with you while the kids are in school, but it turns out it is a little less peaceful at this time of day then when we usually visit in the evening.

Still, without the kids in tow, there is a different kind of peace. I can sit here alone and say anything I want to you. I can talk and cry, and there is no one to hear me. I also can sit here in silence and feel the intimacy of the moment without words, knowing words don’t actually need to be spoken aloud to be heard.

Intimate words are hard for me to form through my voice. I get overcome with emotion in most instances of speaking intimately, and those strong emotions often muddle what I am trying to verbally communicate to others. For me, words flow more freely when I write; hence, this.

I write here next to you, sitting on this now wet blanket. Wanting to talk to you, but not knowing where to start. Wondering so much, about so much. Thinking of questions I never asked you. Wanting answers I am missing that I had not sought to get when you were alive, because my life had not yet begged their questions.

You feel closer to me here somehow. That doesn’t make logical sense, I know, because the ashes of your body buried beneath me here are not really you, nor is this inanimate slab of concrete next to me embossed with your name. I just refer to it as “you” because it is tangible. It is a symbol, a sign... It’s what I have left of you.

People like to say you are in me, and that you are with me always. They say it to comfort, and they say it with spiritual conviction; but it is not enough for me just to hear that. You are a feeling I have to deliberately elicit… one I have to connect with to believe, or to find comfort in. Just being told by others you are here with me, and that it is so because of how they choose to believe, doesn’t do it for me.

I am here with you. You are here with me. It’s intangible, but it is all we have. I write to you and about you to feel closer to you. I think about you and all that you have given me, and I feel you with me. When I am connected to my true self, I remember that you are part of me.

I have to go now. The kids and I will return in a few hours, with flower bouquets in their hands. They will give their flowers to you, and they will run around the grass, as always. They will hear church bells ring in the distance and take off to meet the source of the chimes. I will watch them go, silent in the calm of the evening stillness, enjoying the last few minutes we have before the gates close at five.

POSTSCRIPT (about the photo above): On that day, the branches of the tree that looms over my mom’s grave had filtered the midday sunlight in such a way that the glow affect on my face was created in the camera of my phone. I did not add any artificial filter to it after the fact, nor did I manipulate the photo in any way. I’m grateful for the beauty of nature’s filter, and for capturing this image.

The Legacy of Grief

And Why It Is So Important to Own Our Pain

My daughter leaving flowers for her grandmother on her birthday yesterday - Now ten years old, she was born three months after my mom died.

My daughter leaving flowers for her grandmother on her birthday yesterday - Now ten years old, she was born three months after my mom died.

I am still thinking about the people who lost their loved ones in the Las Vegas shooting massacre last Sunday night, October 1st.

Yes, still. It has only been a week.

Those left behind to grieve lost loved ones are on my mind because I was them. I know what they are feeling right now. The rest of the world may have moved on, but they are still in the thick of it, possibly paralyzed by sadness, scared about the future, and looking for answers on how they are going to live without their mom, dad, son, daughter, sister, brother, or best friend.

I know their pain. I have felt their pain; as I too lost someone in an unexpected, tragic accident. One day my mom was here, turning 60 years old, and the very next day she wasn’t. That next day changed my life forever... October 10, 2006, eleven years ago today.

The deadly weapon used to kill her was a truck, not a gun; but the person operating the weapon was unwell just the same. The driver was under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the accident, and so her impaired state caused her to drift off the two lane highway she was speeding on. When she swerved back into her lane, she over corrected and plunged her Bronco into oncoming traffic... slamming it head on into the car in which my mom was a passenger and killing her instantly.

My mom died lying on the asphalt of a rural road in Northern California at the hands of a woman not intending to kill her that day but who wasn't in the right state of mind to safely operate a vehicle that became a lethal weapon. There was no news coverage of the accident; and no villains were vilified nor heroes celebrated (although the driver did get sentenced to a year in prison). There were no hashtags prayers. Still, my mom's death changed the lives of her family and friends instantly, just as the deaths of those 59 people in Las Vegas changed the lives of their families and friends instantly, and forever.

In both cases, the irresponsible act of one single, troubled and unwell individual took innocent lives. The Vegas tragedy was just on a much larger scale and in a very public forum; and that act was committed with malicious intent. The added sting of knowing the killer intended to harm and kill people that day is one I was spared when my mom died; yet, the result of both events was the same - people were killed violently and unexpectedly.

Social media was ablaze this past week, with some people praying for Vegas, others demanding gun policy change, and still others protesting those demands by trying to convince the opposition that they should blame the individual, not the weapon. I know this is not true, but it seems like the people in the latter group are stuck in time somehow, like we are all still living in the 19th Century, when guns were shot one bullet at a time and were used primarily for protection from looters, robbers, and carpetbaggers. Their argument frustrates and confuses me, seeming archaic and inaccurate on so many levels. Yet above all the various protests, there were genuine sentiments of grief and many heartfelt pleas for stricter laws and demands to hold our politicians accountable for their failure to implement policies that they believe could have prevented this tragedy.

Now, over a week has passed, and most voices have quieted on all sides, save the various articles still being written and shared to further the debate on the subject of guns, media, and politics. It seems most people have moved on, resuming their normal output and usual consumption of media and going about their regular lives.

As I touched upon in Forever Changed, the only post I shared last week, our society functions on our collective ability to keep the tragedies of each day at arms length, and to prevent them from penetrating the armor we built up to protect us from daily doses of bad news, depressing statistics, and inconsiderate behavior by those around us. The Vegas tragedy was so tragic though that people could not help but let it into their hearts; and so they allowed themselves to feel devastated for a day or two, or three... just as they did when deadly shootings happened in Orlando, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, or Columbine.

But eventually, after a few days, maybe a week, most people expect themselves, and each other, to revert back to their normal routine of disconnect. Be it for self-preservation or simply for keeping their lives operating, they pull themselves up, look ahead and move forward, leaving the devastation behind, along with most of the emotion connected with it. After all, they would argue that they have to get out of bed, go to work, take care of kids, and contribute to society in the way they normally do and are expected to do. They can't afford, neither financially, emotionally or mentally, to curl up under the covers and allow themselves to feel sadness, fear, and powerlessness to the detriment of their careers, families, and self-images.

For about a week, praying for the families of the victims in Vegas or "keeping them in their thoughts" was the extent of what most people would allow themselves to do or feel. This is understandable, as it really is all most of us can do. The sad reality is that a week of prayers won’t give the lost loved ones back to those families, and heartfelt thoughts won't stop future acts of violence, irresponsibility, and loss that are bound to occur in a society full of people in pain that are taught to treat the symptoms instead of the roots of problems.

The people that were demanding stricter gun laws and policy changes may have felt more in control by "taking action" rather than just sending prayers. As admirable and empowering as this feels, it may not have any effect, since deeming something illegal does not mean people will immediately abide by the law and cease seeking out and possessing it. This has proven to be true over and over again by the whiskey and rye drinkers during prohibition, the pot and hash smokers of the sixties and seventies, the cocaine snorters of the eighties and nineties, and the crack, heroin and meth IV drug users of any decade. It is a well known fact that making something “illegal” doesn't make it unattainable; it just makes it trickier and more expensive to attain.

Too many people own guns already, or possess a large enough arsenal to sell them illegally and make a lot of money. So even if stricter policy changes are made, possibly banning bump stock devices that allow semi automatic weapons to perform like automatic ones, someone somewhere will still figure out a way to make, sell, and buy them illegally.

Aside from guns though, add to those illegal drugs listed above the issue of legal drugs - alcohol, prescriptions, and medical marijuana - that are over used and abused daily, and you have a whole other group of citizens that are taking lives via DUI accidents and drug overdoses in record numbers that dwarf the 59 souls lost in Vegas at the hands of one soul with an automatic weapon.

This man’s horrific deed has incited ideological arguments, intense anger, and (more than usual) political dissonance; yet adding to the debate on gun laws, the responsibility of the media, and the political failings of our leaders is not the purpose of my writing this. It is charged subject, with multiple facets and layers that don't add up to one definitive solution. It troubles me, but I am not entirely convinced that what happened in Vegas could have been prevented by stricter gun policies in a culture that, on the whole, glorifies violence, condones separatism, and encourages and enables the denial and numbing away of our emotions.

Instead, I write to share and process my experience of loss these past eleven years, and to grieve the loss of the people killed nine days ago. Their families are just beginning their journey into grief and loss, so I honor them and the difficult road toward acceptance and healing that they have just begun to travel.

Yet I also write to ask questions. To bring up that which most don't and won't talk about. To point out the way in which our society (dis)functions as a whole to the detriment of our collective mental health and emotional intelligence. Among all this discourse about policy and politics, where is the dialogue on the state of our overall wellness as a people, as a society, as a nation?

Wellness is a buzz word these days, as is mindfulness and meditation. But these concepts, and the efforts to implement them, only seem to surface in progressive communities and are often isolated to an individual's personal journey of growth and awareness. Self help - therapeutic, holistic, spiritual or motivational - is seen by the general public as an esoteric ritual reserved for yoga instructors, therapists, fitness and lifestyle coaches and their tribe of followers.

The fact is, there is nothing alternative or obscure about addressing our natural human emotions and our fundamental need for connection and love, or honoring our pain by approaching it with awareness, compassion, empathy, and understanding.

Where is the national agenda promoting true wellness in our society, outside of Western medicine's money making racket of drugging its people up on prescription medications? Where is a national dialogue confronting how to tend to people's mental and emotional well being without the use of drugs or other numbing methods?

There isn't one. There is no national dialogue such as this.

Sure, we have renowned alternative medicine doctors, writers, and self-help gurus, such as the late Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Eckhart Tolle who guide and teach those who seek them out through their books, articles and talks. We also have influential people such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and Brené Brown who do the same with their powerful platforms, working in their own unique ways to show us how vulnerability and emotional intelligence is not something to shame or be ashamed of, but something to strive for, encourage and support within ourselves and our fellow humans.

There are also thousands of therapists and social workers doing their part every day, without the fame and glory of the former teachers and leaders mentioned above, to instill knowledge and awareness, promote courage and healing, and help people face and overcome their adversities without the use of prescription drugs, violence, or the usual numbing tactics coveted and accepted by our society as the norm.

But on a national scale, the need for and goal of true wellness, for the most part, is unaddressed in our society. In its absence, the crises of our culture is the perpetual numbing of pain and discomfort with a host of band-aids... anticipating and celebrating wine-o'-clock, ritualizing Sunday Funday drinking, zoning out on YouTube videos for hours, and binge streaming seven seasons of Game of Thrones in seven days, to name a few.

Numbing and denying our pain, instead of embracing it, leads to isolation and disillusion. Sharing our pain and our struggles in a supportive environment, instead of sweeping it under the rug, is the road to healing and thriving. The "rug" in its many forms - alcohol, TV, drugs, movies, video games, work, social media, sex, gambling, pornography, and retail therapy - has the magical ability to camouflage and cover up a lot of hurt and pain. Yet after the magic wears off, in a matter of days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years, we are still left with the same hurt and pain, now increased exponentially. If left under there, unchecked and unresolved for too long, this pain can rot, decay, fester, and transform into something twisted and toxic, with the potential to erupt in violence; and in last Sunday's case, a shower of bullets.

So where does this leave us? Where does this leave me in writing about my cyclical grief for my mom's death and the empathetic grief I feel for the families that are suffering tremendous loss right now? I don't know. All I know is I will continue to hold the victims of this tragedy close to my heart, next to the memory of mom, for as long as my grief needs me to do so. I am open to feel and accept it all. The grief, the pain, the disappointment, and the loss. I am a living testament to working through grief and pain by embracing and owning it, instead of concealing it away in a dark corner of my soul.

I will grieve, and when I am done this time around, I will remember and cherish my mom even more. I will recall how my kids brought flowers to her grave site on her birthday yesterday... how my son placed his colorful fall bouquet in the ground and uncomfortably yet sweetly wished her a happy birthday as he looked down at her grave marker... how my ten-year-old daughter chose red roses for her because through the years she has learned that they were her favorite... and how she hugged me tight and cried her first tears ever over for the loss of her grandmother whom she never had the chance to meet.

The legacy of grief.

It seems like an unwanted burden to bear, but it is really an invitation to expand our capacity to love.