I sat next to R. at a community sing the other night. Her mother died several months ago and she is still in the raw grief of it all. Many of the songs called forth her tears and she looked a bit worn. It brought back memories from my own journeys with grief….
My father died in 1991 after a short and intense illness with pancreatic cancer. I was with him when he took his last breath and sent him off with words of love. It was the first time I’d been with someone as they died and it changed my life in ways I am still discovering these many years later.
In the months that followed, I experienced the roller coaster of grief. I’d wake up in the morning having forgotten that he was gone. The realization would land like a stone in my heart every day. Then there were the series of firsts without Dad – holidays and birthdays and seasonal rituals. There were stories on the radio I wanted to tell him about. Weaving through those first weeks and months, I was exhausted from contending with such a huge loss.
It occurred to me since that time that a death has its own life cycle (death cycle?). Like a baby, it’s born into your life on its own schedule and brings undeniable changes along with it. The first months living with a death is much like living with a newborn. Sleep cycles are interrupted. Every little and big thing is different, often in unexpected ways. It feels like it will never end at times. And there’s lots of weeping and a fair amount of shit that needs cleaning up. Paperwork, too.
Eventually things even out and the death requires less daily attention. It starts “maturing.” The feelings are less raw. The anniversaries and celebrations become less wrenching.
Even with those changes, the death – like a child – is with us forever. My 91-year-old mother tells me frequently that I am still her child. “You never stop being a mother” she quips with a smile. It’s why I have to call her to let her know I got home safely after every visit.
Twenty-four years on, my father’s death is now a full grown “adult” in my life. In a way, his death has moved out of my house. I still think of it – and him – every day, but I do so with a kind of pride and distance.
That death – like a child – has changed me and grown me up in many beautiful ways. It helped me understand my capacity for being present in the face of mortality. It unleashed a creative burst of songwriting that is still continuing after seven CD’s. His death also wiped away a big batch of chronic fear from my life. I’ve heard parents talk about similar fearlessness, clarity, and purpose that came upon them after having a child.
A death is born into your life and grows alongside you, offering many gifts and lessons, including the truth of your own death ahead. May we learn to live more gracefully with this generous and relentless companion.