Sometimes an almost miraculous moment gives peace to a broken-hearted mother.
When Cathy Bobb learned her beautiful 20-year-old daughter Mary was murdered while closing up the video store where she worked, her heart shattered. Already emotionally vulnerable when she struggled with bouts of depression, this shock in 1993 added to her sense of life’s fragility.
Sometimes, though, in the following years she found serendipity remembrances of her beloved daughter that encouraged her spirit. It happened most while deep cleaning the country home where she lived with her husband Vic. “I might be cleaning out a closet, and discover a little drawing from childhood, or find a bracelet that fell down the couch.” She liked these surprises, almost feeling like they were visits from Mary.
But within a few years, this no longer happened. “I remember having a conversation with God one day and saying, ‘I guess there won’t be any more reminders of Mary. We must have found them all.” This deepened her sadness. “I really cried a lot this day since I missed her so much.”
Cathy and Vic once owned a piano, but when they moved to a small apartment in 1986, they loaned the piano to Lee Ann Chaney, a fellow professor at the university where Vic taught English. Finally, several years after Mary’s death, they told the professor that she could just keep it.
So Lee Ann cleaned out the piano bench, and dropped off a box full of remnants to Vic’s campus office. He stored this in his office closet, and promptly forgot about it. Nor did he mention this to Mary.
A SURPRISE VALENTINE
A few weeks later, shortly after Cathy’s prayer, Vic happened to bring the box home.
“To my unbelievable delight, besides her old piano books, I also discovered a handmade Valentine card that Mary drew for me when she was just 8 years old. This was over 15 years earlier!” recalls Cathy,
In Mary’s handwriting on a paper heart was her poem:
Through all your years
Through all your tears
Here is a kiss.
“Then, Mary had borrowed my lipstick and put a kiss on the card. Under this, she wrote:
P.S. I hope you like this! I recall that when she gave it to me she even thought her poem seemed a little strange and she feared I wouldn’t like it.
I felt badly because this came after one of my bouts of depression when I cried a lot and it troubled me that I caused her worry as a young child.”
But the timing of receiving of this Valentine left Cathy overjoyed. “I hadn’t prayed to God to ‘please let me have just one more thing.’ Even so, what I usually found were just little things, like a drawing. To receive this Valentine with the words of her love was a great gift. It felt like she sent me a hug from heaven, reassuring me that no matter the hard times, know I love you. It healed a lot and this healing has held for me.” A kiss, after years and years of tears.
A Waterfall of Mercy
Her story reminds me of a phrase in Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s daily meditation book Yes, And...where he speaks of our living “under the waterfall of mercy.” Many persons have shared with me some extraordinary moments in ordinary days when they sense the love of the person that has died. Often these happen in nature. What most emerges from these different stories, which they hesitate to tell many others, is how this gives them a growing inner peace and confidence.
Clearly, a waterfall of mercy when our hearts feel parched.
Have you ever experienced such moments?
Do you find that family rituals during holidays often increase joy, but also have the power to accentuate sorrow?
One of my favorite family traditions is the lighting of our five-candle Advent wreath on the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent comes from the word “adventus,” meaning ‘coming’ and the spirit encouraged is ‘expectant waiting.’ It orients us to prepare for the future with a confidence born of trust. The lighting of the 5th candle on Christmas Day offers a tangible act of gratitude celebrating the the birth of Jesus, called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”
But when a family feels immersed in grief, it’s hard to imagine “expectant waiting” to be a positive emotion. Instead, especially during the first few Christmas’s after the loss of a loved one, it’s easier to almost dread times when our culture encourages “a Merry Christmas.” Our memories of past Christmas family times feel shattered by the reality of loss. Similar emotions surround festive days celebrated by families from all faith traditions. We’re all acutely aware of the empty place at the table.
“The last thing I felt like doing was decorating our house after Hunter died,” recalls Diana Graham, whose teenage son died the previous summer. “But I’m grateful my daughter kept mentioning, ‘Mom, let’s get the boxes out and put up our Christmas tree.'” She helped me remember how important such rituals are to other children in the family, perhaps especially during times of loss.”
To this day, over 15 years after our daughter Krista’s death, when we open the box of tree ornaments and hold ones she crafted as a child, or see ones with photographs with her brother and sister, my heart still stops momentarily. Of course, it’s possible to no longer keep these for the tree. But it seems far preferable to have moments of sorrow than ever try to erase her from family memory.
Facing our Fears
It’s intriguing to me that the British author C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, understood how often such anxiety is our companion during loss. He candidly expressed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
But what I also love when reading the Christmas narrative are the first words attributed to angels when speaking with Mary, and with the shepherds. “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”
“Be not afraid” ?
Good news? Great joy? During sorrow, we’re rarely able to think of the future with hope. Instead, our hearts break recalling memories when the one we loved was near.
Such guidance involves an opening of our heart to trusting life again, and a conscious effort to not allow fear and dread to dominate. Instead, the Christmas narrative encourages a spirit of “bold expectant waiting.” Good will come again. Or as one woman who had lost a child years ago assured a newly grieving mother when her only son died, “You won’t always feel this bad.”
A faith (not a feeling) that, in time, if we allow our hearts to continue to trust and receive love, life will again hold much that is meaningful and good. Such a choice carries the power to replace fear.
Many parents have shared rituals that offered comfort in their remembrances, especially in the early hard years. Most are simple acts that nurture their sense of continuing bonds. One father mentioned that every Christmas he goes to his son’s gravesite and brings a small Christmas tree with battery lights. He talks to his son, sharing his everyday life. Since Krista loved all birds and animals, we often bring a peanut-butter infused pine cone with bird seed to place at her grave site.
For Dianna Hartvigsen, it took a conscious effort to reweave their family’s way of celebrating Christmas. For years she lived with shock and nearly overwhelming sorrow after the brutal murder of her 20-year-old daughter Dawnya by a disgruntled former employee at a Burger King restaurant. “I couldn’t imagine going out and buying stuff after this,” she recalls. Instead, she began a new tradition for their four other grieving children in their blended family.
“Dawnya loved literature and writing and won a Washington State poetry contest her senior year in high school,” recalls her mother. “I decided to give each of her brothers and sisters a Christmas book in her memory, something I could imagine Dawnya would want to give. I thoroughly enjoyed looking for just the right book for each sibling.” Some are books with beautiful illustrations, like The Polar Bear Express, The Mitten, Stranger in the Woods, and The Christmas Troll.
Some introduce them to the ways others celebrate, like The Amish Christmas, Christmas Day in the Morning, or The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. “They love the books and look forward to what I might select, so I’ve done this now for twenty years. I always write a short blessing for them in the book too. Now they read them aloud to their own children, and it’s kept the joy in Christmas and a way to remember Dawnya.”
Are there any rituals you’ve found give comfort and strength during these days of celebration?
Do you long for “built-in” ways of remembrance for someone you love? The most common lament I hear from families is frustration over the subtle, and not-so-subtle silencing that emerges after the death of a loved one. “Don’t talk about your sorrow,” counseled a widow in a letter to my mom after the death of my father. “People don’t want to hear it.” Believing her, she privately grieved the end of a sixty-year marriage.
Also, in America’s mourning-avoidant culture, family and friends often hesitate to mention a deceased loved one for fear they will upset us. Yet, most families long to feel more freedom to speak openly about the one they love.
Perhaps that is why I found the new film The Book of Life so enchanting. Drawn from the Hispanic tradition of remembering loved ones during the Day of the Dead celebrations, Mexican director Jorge Gutierrez creates a dazzling animated musical comedy and adventure film. With gorgeous visuals, the plot encourages the importance of “The Land of the Remembered” where spirits live on as long as loved ones preserve their memory. In contrast, great sadness awaits those relegated to the Land of the Forgotten. Through an explosion of color and movement, it shows children growing in understanding that death is a part of life, and that remembering loved ones strengthens family bonds.
DAY OF THE DEAD CELEBRATIONS
I recall the first time I saw the strange sugar skulls, skeletons, and Pan de Muerto bread in bakeries while traveling in Mexico City. “What in the world are these?” I wondered. Then I learned of the Day of the Dead, which originated in Mexico and is now celebrated throughout the world on October 31, and Nov 1 and 2. This tradition gives Hispanics a yearly “built in” cultural ritual to recognize family members and friends who have died. Usually, although these vary by villages and countries, the 1st of November is the Dia de los Inocentes or Dia de los Angelitos. This day is given to remember deceased infants and children, the little angels. This also parallels All Saints Day in the Catholic tradition. November 2 parallels All Souls Day and celebrates adults who are deceased.
FESTIVE RITUALS OF REMEMBRANCE
Families plan far ahead on how to decorate graves and build ofrendas (altars) in preparation for a gathering of family and friends coming to remember and pray for those who have died. Vibrant Mexican marigolds, candles, memorabilia from the deceased, sugar skulls, favorite candies, drinks,photographs and breads all add a festive personal touch. Toys often decorate the children’s graves. It gives families a time to reminisce, picnic, party, tell anecdotes, laugh, and pray. One hope is that the deceased’s spirit will come back to visit and continue the spiritual bond in the family.
I was fascinated to see a big display of colorful Day of the Dead house decor in our local World Market this year as Halloween and Day of the Dead dates merge. My hunch and hope is that the conversations emerging from persons seeing the Book of Life will encourage all Americans to ask, “Don’t we all need more rituals that create ways of remembrance?” Learning from the natural expressions around life and death within Hispanic communities just might break the silence surrounding families that live with loss and love.
Films often shape cultural change; could this be the enduring legacy of the Book of Life?
For a joyful time of exuberant yet thoughtful entertainment, considering going to this kid-friendly film! Then, I’d love to hear your thoughts.