By Guest Blogger Tracy Mohr
Mrs. T’s note to my Aunt Barbara arrived in our mailbox this summer, addressed in shaky handwriting on a bright teal envelope. I anticipated the “I’ve missed you” on the front of the card, but wasn’t expecting the note inside. It hit hard.
On autopilot, I immediately sat down at my desk to write a response.
“Dear Mrs. T.,
I received your letter to my Aunt Barbara last month. I am so sad to share the news that Barbara passed away from a very aggressive brain tumor three summers ago, July 14, 2012. “
I checked the calendar on my computer. July 14. It was the third anniversary of her death. Barbara was an epic Aunt, every girl should have an aunt just like her. Her larger than-life presence filled the lives of those who knew her with so much love and laughter and joy. I absolutely adored her.
The picture from her wedding day (above) as she is smiling as she bends to kiss four-year-old me, is one of my favorites. I am gazing up at her in wonder and admiration, reaching for her hand. She made me feel special. I suspect she made everyone she knew feel special, because to her, they were.
In the note to my aunt, Mrs. T. was re-connecting after losing touch. She had not seen Barbara in years, but that didn’t seem to lessen the bond and affection she felt for her dear friend.
In the note, Mrs. T. shared her ongoing struggle with the recent death of her mother and only brother. Losing two close family members in a short span of time had been very difficult. She felt alone, and knew my aunt would understand her grief. My stomach flipped. Oh, sweet Jesus, have mercy. This hurting woman’s dear, old friend was gone, and I had to tell her.
The hardest part of her note, the part that knocked me down, came from the revelation that she “couldn’t seem to find her way back to the normal rhythm of life.” She “never imagined it would be so hard.” Of course not, I thought. I didn’t, either.
There’s no escaping the waves of sorrow and pain from loss. I put the pen down, unable to continue, slowly slipping down the rabbit hole of grief. It’s hard to describe or define grief. Grief is hard to talk about, as it can manifest in so many different ways, depending on the situation. Grief can seem endless, meandering and dark, with unexpected twists and turns. “The Rabbit Hole” was the title of a play that eventually became a movie about a couple’s grief after the loss of their young son. I saw the movie and the metaphor resonated with me. But no one metaphor or example can encapsulate the experience of grief. Grief can rise and fall, hence the waves reference so often used. Grief feels heavy, like a weighty blanket on one’s shoulders. Grief sounds like white noise, with a low, droning vibration-like frequency, muffling everything and everyone. Periods of intense grief are exhausting, but sometimes lead to insights, even growth. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve learned to surrender to the feelings grief brings. I tend to find my way out of the darkness a little sooner than had I fought or denied the discomfort and pain.
I know the search for equilibrium after loss. In April 2011, my son, Sam, was killed in a horrific car wreck. I miss my son every minute of every day. I would give anything to have him back. Anything. That spring of unimaginable pain, shock and numb devastation somehow merged into summer, and my seemingly healthy mother was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. She died four weeks later.
In the months that followed, I was trapped in an alternate universe, trying to absorb what had happened to my family. Off-balance and clumsy, I went through the motions of each day, baffled that life somehow continued around me. The sun still rose; it always set. My three daughters went back to school. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas still held space in life, even our lives. I put on a brave face. People thought I was strong. I wasn’t.
The following spring, right after the first anniversary of Sam’s death, my Aunt Barbara was diagnosed with brain cancer, and my father suffered his first heart attack. Dad passed away in June, my aunt the following month. Fifteen months. My son. My mom. My dad. My aunt. Gone. I miss all my people, all the time.
The world I had known shifted, hit by an earthquake of loss, leaving jagged cracks and deep, dark canyons that would never, could never be filled. Again, amid the rubble, life somehow continued. I continued.
Mrs. T was still experiencing aftershocks from the earthquake that hit her life. I knew they would continue for a while.
“If you’re caught in an unnatural disaster, find a way to get through it.” That’s what my mom would have said. It’s in my nature to figure things out, or at least to try. But grief isn’t something you figure out. It’s not a problem to solve, and there certainly isn’t a map to lead you out of the rabbit hole. There are no downloadable blueprints on how to rebuild. I know. I’ve spent a lot of time looking. As April 2011 slips farther away with each new day, I have come to understand I will always be figuring out a way to live without Sam. There will be no end point in my grief over his death. Of course there won’t.
Yet, I believe life can be lived well, even with great loss. I do. How, exactly? Grace. That one’s hard to explain, too, much like grief. Grace is just….grace. Learning to embrace the mystery of grace transforms, I’m told. I’m working on the embracing part all the time.
“There is joy in each and every day, if we choose to see it,” I wrote in thank you notes to dear, caring friends after Sam died. I was out of my mind with raw, confused grief, not fully grasping what had happened. Yet I think I knew, somehow, even in that state, I could choose to see light in dark times. It is a hard choice, one that demands intention and practice. Grace helped open my eyes to the light. Grace allows me to incorporate the reality and enormity of loss into a life full of love, laughter and honest-to-goodness joy. I’ve learned that all the good in life—and there is so much good— can live and even thrive, alongside the sorrow.
It is inevitable adult children will say goodbye to their parents. I once told someone that, while we know deep down we will lose our parents, somehow we don’t fully grasp it will actually happen to us one day. And when it does, no one is prepared for how hard it will be. I will continue to work on incorporating the loss of my parents and aunt into my life, a just consequence of loving them so much.
In everything, I try to stay close to God and see His hand in the good that surrounds me. I try to show up every day, even when I don’t want to. I count my blessings, which are many. I stay close to my husband, daughters, family and friends, all sources of love and joy. I try to practice gratitude, kindness, and compassion, and look for opportunities to lift up and serve others. I trip up often, but keep at it because there’s grace in the trying. The encouragement I’ve received along the way, that’s life-giving grace.
No one is prepared for how difficult, how unbelievably hard it is to lose someone they love. Mrs. T’s card brought that home.
My memories of my loved ones helped me break through the dark and out of the rabbit hole. Mrs. T will find her way through, too.
How to tell my aunt’s friend about this grief work? The news of Barbara’s death would add to her pain. Living well with grief doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, not for one second. But that’s the truth I’ve struggled to learn. I’m still struggling to learn. This may be hard for Mrs. T. to understand, hard for me to explain.
With all my experiences with death, I still held onto an idea of “managing” grief, as though something could make it better, like a Band Aid. Maybe I needed to imagine it manageable. Maybe we all play head games with ourselves to make hard and painful things a little less so, if only for a little while.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. Truth.
Life as I knew it ended the day Sam died. God knows I didn’t want any of it, but it happened, and I have had no choice but to accept that reality. A different life, still mine, began.
The events of April, 2011 through July, 2012 are forever part of my story. I have a choice in how the story continues. The grief work is hard, a price paid for loving Sam, Mom, Dad and Barb so much. Love is everything, I believe. Love and grace are the foundation on which to live life well after loss. This love is very much alive in me, and God willing, will always be epic.
I shared this with Mrs. T. It seemed a good place to start.