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Blog

Filtering by Tag: grief

Returning

Joanna Campbell

Dennis and Mike My brother-in-law died on Thanksgiving. His death took him away from a suffering that began, in truth, the day his wife died suddenly nine years ago. His wife’s death did not mark a tragic beginning. It was a bookend holding up decades pressed against the day his father drowned trying to save his life in the Spring River.

The news about Mike stunned me for a moment, and then I breathed a little easier. Mike was free. The cancer didn’t get him. That was our biggest fear. Pneumonia eased him into a greater life unburdened by softball-sized tumors and excruciating pain. If vices exist in heaven, he can now drink without becoming an alcoholic. He can smoke without getting cancer. He is made whole. This is what I am to believe as a Christian. That’s good news in my tradition.

Here’s the problem. Now that he’s been relieved of his pain and angst, I’d like him returned back to us, whole and renewed. He’s been dead for over a week. That’s plenty of time to rest. In my book, he’s had a decent break from this messed up world and his broken body.

I never knew Mike before his wife died. I’m told he was a pillar of his community. I don’t need him to be a pillar. I wouldn’t mind if he returned in a cloud of cigarette smoke. I just want to see him restored, free of pain long buried in a riverbed. I need his stories, his expressions, his laughter, and music. I need him to be a brother to my husband and a father to my niece and an uncle to my husband’s children.

When my husband was fighting for his own life in a Seattle hospital a few years ago, I talked Mike out of driving 2,200 miles to break his brother out of ICU. I don’t doubt Mike’s conviction that his little brother was better off in his hands. Now my husband and I are released from our worries. We will no longer wonder about Mike’s mental and physical health. This trade-off feels like a bum deal.

The shape of my husband’s family is made by the endings of family members gone too soon.

I’ve known about death in the pot since I was little. My parents never shielded it from me. Mike’s death is different. It’s uncomfortably fresh. I feel such relief that he is no longer afflicted that I forget he’s dead. And then I remember. And it’s stunning.

A sharp December wind strikes my face as I walk to church on this second Sunday in Advent. I am supposed to be preparing, literally and spiritually. I put my Advent wreath out a week late, and the center candle is missing. I can’t find it anywhere. I should be writing about snow globes and, instead, all I can think of is this ridiculous arrangement I’m forced to consent to. Mike is dead and will not return.

Each year, I celebrate the birth of Jesus without fail. I try, with little success, to block the holiday ads and treacle songs. I try to focus on the raw story of Mary and Joseph and a messy birth in a barn. I imagine what it must have been like to be part of such wonder. It’s hard for me to focus on newborn Jesus right now. I light two candles of my incomplete wreath. At least it has some greenery, I think. I feel selfish. I’m more focused on Mike and his body and spirit made whole so far from our reach.

I know this is magical thinking, wanting Mike to come back as if he’s been away at a cosmic rehab center. But it’s Advent. This is the time of waiting for the unexpected, the miraculous. I am trying my best to prepare, but I can’t even find the dang center candle on Amazon.com. Logic dictates Mike is not returning. This means we will never go fishing on his beloved St. Francis River, nor will he and my husband drink a tallboy in a backwater bar.

Maybe I don’t want what I’ve been taught, at least not right now. He is in a better place. True. That doesn’t change the gaping hole left in our family. It doesn’t alter the fact that my husband lost his only sibling. I don’t want tidy expressions of grief. They are too much like the holiday ads. I need the freedom to be messy in our tangled loss. I’ve got no choice but to wait in the muck and long for impossible things until the longing becomes part of an unforeseeable making. I need permission to want Mike back. He was my husband’s brother.

I find a broken white taper at the bottom of a moving box. It’ll do.

Blue Ruin

Abby Jarvis

  Mandolin Orange performs live for Folk Alley.

On May 1, we settled into our chairs at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina, waiting for Mandolin Orange to take the stage. Mandolin Orange, a folk duo comprised of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, is well known for their introspective, often sad, songs and precise harmonies. We, like our fellow concert-goers, were sipping beers and chattering lightheartedly, expecting our fair share of sad songs—the duo has plenty of those—but not anticipating the grief of their newest song, “Blue Ruin.”

Frantz introduced the song, saying, “We’re going to take you to a dark place… but I promise we’ll bring you back again.” She told us that Andrew wrote the song after the tragedy of the Newtown shooting in 2012, and that they were unsure that they’d ever play the song live. The crowd immediately went silent, and the whole atmosphere of the room changed. I’ve never heard such silence in a concert hall—the couple’s music went uninterrupted even by a sneeze.

“If Jesus had been born just eleven days before, would the world have stopped to see—at least those on the street headed for Newtown?” sang Marlin. “And of all those on their way, could the miracle have made one lay his guns down?” The song covered heady ground in just a few minutes—anger, sadness, and society’s role in the tragedy, among other things—and included the heartbreaking question, “Well for now, who’d like to tell me that, on that morning when 27 fell, how any lesson and count could ever, ever amount to watching them fall? And why, worst of all, come Christmas morning, they’ll still be gone?”

A stunned silence followed the song until, sure enough, the pair led us into a happier place with their next song. But the gravity of “Blue Ruin” stuck with me, and I think it’s an especially important song now. On Mandolin Orange’s website, Marlin explains the purpose of the song:

I was thinking about all those kids who wouldn’t be there on Christmas morning. People can get so heated and so serious about change and addressing gun violence when something that traumatic happens, but a month or two afterwards, they've all cooled down and it's not in the forefront of their thoughts anymore. But two years later, those kids still aren't around on Christmas morning and their parents are still dealing with that.

It’s an important reminder, especially now that there are so many other tragedies in the public eye. Police brutality, shootings, murders, bombings, civil wars, and other tragedies of every scope imaginable dominate the headlines and 24-hour news channels. It’s easy to get caught up in placing blame, passing legislature, and hotly debating nearly every aspect of each calamity. I catch myself doing it, too. It’s hard to remember that the events we’re discussing affected real people—that they still affect real people—and that responding to those events with animosity instead of compassion won’t fix the issues.

By all means, please discuss the tragedies happening all over the world. Think of ways to help. Think of ways to prevent those tragedies ever from happening again. Keep them in mind as you prepare for the change in leadership here in the States that is coming next year. But do it earnestly, do it compassionately, do it with the human victims of each and every disaster at the forefront of your mind. Discussion and legislature and opinions are important, but it’s easy for us to forget that those victims are real people who are still dealing with the aftermath of each tragedy in a very personal way. Don’t forget.

He Is Not Here

Callie Feyen

14 woman running It is Holy Week, Maundy Thursday to be exact, and I am standing in line at Target waiting to pay for Sulfamethoxazole. I have some sort of infection that started in my nose, spread to my sinuses, and, worst, has manifested itself on my hands: little round bumps that itch and fester. They’re disgusting. I’m disgusting. I’m certain that if this were medieval times, I’d be put to death due to my condition.

I have no plan to take my medicine. I’m going to tell you it’s because of the side effects. I’m going to tell you that after reading every word of the document attached to the red pill container, I have decided I will surely die if I swallow these pills. It’s what I tell my husband, Jesse, while I’m waiting to pay for the medicine I have no intention of taking.

“I got it,” I text him, “but there’s no way I’m taking it.”

“Callie,” he begins and I can see from the little moving bubbles on my phone there’s more coming but I cut him off.

“You wanna know what I could die from? Diarrhea! I’m not dying from diarrhea!!!”

He doesn’t text back. He knows I’ll pay for the medicine. He knows I’ll bring it home, unfold the side effects document, flatten it on our bathroom counter, and place the corresponding pills on top. He knows I’ll be frantic. He knows that I will be so afraid that I’ll go for a run.

Jesse knows that I am grieving, or that I don’t know how to grieve. Maybe it’s that I refuse to grieve. He knows my pills are a scapegoat for a deeper fear, an unquenchable sorrow, a gaping loss. Almost eight years ago, my Aunt Lucy died. She went to the doctor thinking she needed gall bladder surgery and it turned out that she had pancreatic cancer. She was dead two months after that; about ten days before my daughter Harper was born.

I think I probably worshipped Lucy. I know that since I was a kid I wanted to be like her. She was fierce and she was fancy. Once, I saw her kick a garbage can over in a spaghetti strapped silk midnight blue gown and I thought, “I want to be exactly like that.”

I loved her style. I loved how she decorated. I loved her laugh. I loved that she blasted Jim Croce throughout her home so that my cousin Tara and I rocked our baby dolls to, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim.” Lucy was Superman. Lucy was the Lone Ranger. Lucy was Jim. You didn’t mess with Lucy.

***

On Easter Sunday, I learn that Mary Magdalene and Mary ran, too. They came to the tomb and an angel told them He was gone. “Trembling and bewildered…the women left because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8)

I still haven’t taken my medicine and I have Band-Aids around my fingers to cover up my marks. I’m pretty sure I have a fever. The sinuses under my eyes are throbbing. But when I get home, I will run. I will take off my heels, and unzip my blue dress that my older daughter Hadley gave me for Christmas. I will pull on shorts, and a tank top. I will lace up my shoes—carefully because I don’t want to hurt my fingers. I will put on my Calvin baseball cap and pull the bill low. I will run until I cry. It will take about twenty-five minutes.

On Easter, I imagine myself running with the Marys, and I imagine Jesus and Lucy watching us. I begin a conversation with these women:

“Hey, Mary and Mary, Jesus and Aunt Lucy want us to be still and know.”

“Yeah,” says Mary Magdelene, “forget that.”

“I’ve been still. I know too much,” the other Mary says.

“So let’s keep running,” I say.

I round the corner towards home but decide to go further; me and my imaginary friends. We run and we cry because we lost somebody we love and we don’t know what to do now.

***

On Easter Monday, in the middle of the night, pain from my right index finger wakes me up. The infection has gone underneath my nail bed, swelling my finger to the width of a hot dog.

“Jesse,” I whisper frantically. He rolls over.

“My finger,” I say and he puts his hand over his eyes for a second, then pulls himself to a sitting position. He takes my hand and turns it over, examining it. He gets out of bed, and walks to the bathroom. I hear him filling a glass of water and then opening the medicine cabinet. I hear the pills shake in their red bottle.

Jesse walks back to bed, hands me the water, opens the bottle and spills a pill onto his palm. He gives me the pill and I take it.

“I don’t want to die,” I say and begin to cry.

“I know,” he says.

“I don’t want Lucy to be dead,” I whimper after I’ve swallowed the pill.

“I know,” Jesse says, and walks to his side of the bed while I drink the rest of my water.

I lay down and begin to position myself as I usually sleep, arms folded and clenched to my side, hands in fists. But I can’t bend my right index finger, so I turn over onto my back and open my palm so it’s facing the ceiling. I hate just lying here. I hate being still. I begin to move my right foot from side to side.

Jesse takes my hand. “It’s okay to live. It’s okay to see what happens.” I fold my three working fingers around his.

“Sometimes I’m afraid to see what happens,” I tell him.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

It is the last thing he says before we fall back to sleep.

The Poetry of Loss and Resurrection

Jill Reid

Robert Freidus Sometimes, especially when I’m most in need of meeting myself—the actual Jill long lost within the daily, rigid busyness of life—I hunt for myself in the files on my computer.

I look for me between the lines of what I have managed to write down, in words and images that, over time, come together in patterns and threads and whispers. And I try to understand what I believe I have been trying to tell myself. I have discovered that the Jill who has been writing these past few months is one who can’t stop talking about the past, about memory, about loss.

A few months ago, I stood in the cold corner of a funeral home with a twenty-one year-old college student whom I have come to love and admire very much over four years of teaching her. Just a day earlier, she was taking notes in her English literature class. Now, she was standing near the casket of her mother, killed on impact in a tragic car crash. And just like that, the month became not her first month as a college senior, but the month in which her mother died, the month she would forever associate with brutal and unexpected loss.

I know that grief and loss almost always find us when we aren’t looking. And even when we are looking, our God-given human instinct to exist, to expect others to continue to exist along with us still baffles our ability to navigate what we somehow feel was never meant to be—this road of vanishing faces, this road of vanishing moments. We feel we are made to last. We feel those we love were made to last. And yet, like pencil etchings on a growth chart, our human lives can feel so measured by the losses we endure, the grief we live with.

A few weeks after the funeral, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller that stunned me in all the aching and haunting ways the best poems do:

“When I Am Asked” by Lisel Mueller

When I am asked how I began writing poems, I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died, a brilliant June day, everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench in a lovingly planted garden, but the day lilies were as deaf as the ears of drunken sleepers and the roses curved inward. Nothing was black or broken and not a leaf fell and the sun blared endless commercials for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench ringed with the ingenue faces of pink and white impatiens and placed my grief in the mouth of language, the only thing that would grieve with me.

I think the poem haunted me because of how powerfully Mueller’s images portray a collision of experience—that relatable and agonizing experience of being alone in a cheery, bright world with your own dark grief. The placement of a hard “stone bench” in both the middle of her poem and the middle of a garden communicates something of the hardness and ruttedness one faces in the middle of loss. The flowers bloom beautifully and unsparingly, advertising their wholeness in a season where “nothing is black or broken” except the mourner, sitting on a gray bench, stuck between bloom and loss.

Mueller’s poem helps me understand the self I have discovered in the files of my computer. I think I write about loss and memory and the past because those things never really are lost or past. I think we write poems and read poems because, among other things, poetry becomes the landscape of resurrection. When Mueller finds that language, that poetry will “grieve” with her, she not only resurrects the memory of her mother, but she also raises up her own grief and gives it a safe space to unfold, to exist. In our busy lives, it does seem that there is little room to negotiate loss. But in the world of the poem, there is space, not only for those we mourn but also for those who mourn.

(Photo by Robert Friedus)