death of a child
The great Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “Hear blessings drop their blossoms around you.” In the past few days I’ve been hearing blossoms all around. Ironically, it’s happening as I am trying to de-clutter my home office. Never easy, because I’m finding treasured letters, notes, emails…often kept for years. Such kindness comes from friends, family, even strangers I’ve met on book tours…clearly soul gifts. So, I stop and reread these blossoms.
One that stunned me again with its beauty came from Lynn Liebert Caruso, a marvelous poet and published author, who wrote “From Pieces.” The daughter of a close family friend, she grew up with Krista, and saw our hearts shattered at Krista’s death while volunteering in Bolivia. She knew of our trip to Bolivia with Aaron (Krista’s husband) to help him close their one room adobe home in a remote village, and the healing we have found in creating gardens and the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship.
She drew on the image of the ceramic cups that ancient Japanese monks kept as one of their few possessions. It has been told that, centuries later when one of these cups was dropped-shattering to the floor, it was not discarded. Instead, it was repaired with gold solder. The repair made the break more prominent, but also gave the cup a new beauty. Her sensitive gifts with language offer blessings to many.
When the call came that your daughter had died.
That the bus left the road and fell to the valley floor
below. That her husband searched the Bolivian hillside
to find her in the black night. Then walked on alone.
Your cup slipped. Shattered.
When you buried her beside a statue of St. Francis,
beneath stories of love and life lived richly.
When you mourned the daughter you had known
in your womb and feel, again, those first kicks.
When the dogwood bloomed that spring
and you realized great loss lives in the same
house as great love.
You knelt to gather the pieces.
When you traveled to her home in that mountain village,
and hiked to the ravine where she died. When you set
flowers on the scar–carved deep into the earth
by the falling bus and knew this would be a wound
that would always show.
When you knelt where her body
might have lain and wondered what she last saw–
the sky of stars, her husband’s wild eyes, black night?
You worked to match the shards.
When you met the old woman who took your place
to dress your daughter’s broken body.
When you sprayed her mud home for scorpions
and the villagers came weaving their stories of your
daughter’s love for the cooperative,
for the children, for the God of tarantulas.
When you knew that she would choose to live on.
You warmed the gold solder and poured it in the open places.
When you returned home to find the grief was so
deep it held you to your bed and your keen rang on.
When you finally stood and said,
then filled the hillside behind your house with peonies
and cherry trees and found that with your hands
you could make things live.
You held the pieces till the solder cooled.
When you started a library, and a foundation that
sent out others in her name. When you learned that burrowing
into the grief that buried you, there was a spring called love.
And it was deep. And it would never dry up.
And drinking of it gave you life.
You rose and passed the cup.
Poet, Lynn Liebert Caruso
Lynn so beautifully captures the essence of the deep spring of love that lives forever in a parent’s heart.
Thinking of you and hope that Rumi’s image will give you pause to hear all of the blessings given each day whenever you see blossoms fall.
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 men and women grieve differently?
Soon after Jim and I were engaged following just a three-month courtship, I mentioned to him that someday I wanted to go to Africa. The next day he took me out to lunch and expressed his alarm. “You have to understand, Linda, that I’m a poor graduate student.” Moreover, since he was immersed in doctoral studies at the University of Washington, he added, “and I probably will be for several years.”
At the time I found his concern for clarity endearing, and I assured him my idea of “someday” could mean years away. But it gave me a glimpse into the life-long effort married couples need to make to understand one another just on the small things. Maybe some glimmers of truth hover within the cliche that”Women are from Venus; Men are from Mars.”
A few weeks later, he announced seriously, “I’m in this for the ‘long haul.'” Mesmerized with being ‘in love’ and far more interested in giving focus to the daily joys of our romance and upcoming wedding, his declaration of our future ‘long haul’ had a dreary and decidedly unromantic sound! Who is this man I’ve just agreed to marry? “That annoys me,” I responded. One more communication gap. At that time, I didn’t know how his beliefs about commitment had been significantly shaped by watching his father’s faithfulness during his mother’s two-year bout with mental illness. A hysterectomy left her with a serious hormone imbalance that disrupted their family life in painful ways, even leading to her temporary institutionalization. His dad stuck with her and her eventual return to health gave them years more of satisfying marriage, and a model their three sons respected.
GENDER DIFFERENCES in GRIEVING?
Partners in a relationship when a child dies face far more profound communication differences. Shortly after Krista died, while canoeing with a father who lost his son, he mentioned, “Be aware that almost 90% of marriages end after the death of a child.” Since he was a scientist, at first I took his statistics at face value. Great, I thought. Am I now at risk of losing a husband I love as well as a cherished daughter? Later, my own research instincts kicked in and I learned that Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost children, conducted research and discovered that only 16% of couples divorce after such a devastating death, far different than this popular urban myth perpetuates. Also far lower than the national divorce rate.
Yet, it didn’t explore how satisfied couples were with their level of communication. Many men and women have spoken to me of their differences while living the pilgrimage through loss. In a book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin explore these communication styles that often trouble relationships. Doka’s observations began thirty-nine years ago as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital when couples often mentioned the differences in how they grieved their losses. With the added reality of divorces, blended families, stepparents, and absent parents, there are often multiple layers to a family’s dynamic.
He observed two distinct grieving styles. He believes men tend to grieve in an “instrumental” style; they prefer actions, working through the pain by doing and thinking. He observed that women are typically “intuitive” grievers, more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion and much verbalizing. When couples differ, it becomes too easy to be judgmental of the other wondering “Why does she cry so much and always need to talk?” or “Why won’t he express what he’s feeling, or is he not really in grief?” Although these general patterns may prevail, Doka cautions that these styles are not restricted to gender and simply may vary by one’s temperament and the relationship with the child.
I agree. Instead, I value Isabel Allende’s words that say “sorrow is a solitary road.” I have found myself alternating between both these descriptions at various times.
For a more complete description of their work, please see my earlier blog post When Men & Women Grieve.
Do you feel Doka’s descriptions ring true for what you’ve observed about yourself or another? Where might it differ?
Jim was right…it took over 30 years before we finally visited Africa! Thankfully, I’ve come to a deep appreciation of Jim’s commitment to the long haul as the intensity of our grieving alternated between us in the following years. Now we are off to the enchanting Wallowa Lake in Oregon where we’re meeting friends to hike and share a little cabin for a few days. This should be an ideal wilderness area to continue preparing for our upcoming Healing and Nature workshop at the national Compassionate Friends conference in Chicago in July. Hope you are enjoying some days of sunshine too!
How does one find inner strength? My husband and I have been enjoying a thoughtful book The Day was Made for Walking: An Aussie’s Search for Meaning on the Camino de Santiago. It’s the true story of Noel Braun, a 77-year-old Australian, shattered by the death of his wife of 42 years who committed suicide following years of struggling with depression. Six years later, still suffering from anguish, Braun decided to walk the ancient pilgrim’s route as a means of facing his suffering head on.
Since Jim and I visited there (no, not walking!) with our daughter Krista, our rich memories are intertwining with his adventures. In fact, we still hang the symbolic scallop sea shells given to Krista, Jim and me in our home. They include personal messages written to us when we met Jacque, a deeply spiritual host, whose family’s hostel has been feeding and housing pilgrims for three generations! Tragically, this historic hostel had recently burned down, but with the help of others they had begun rebuilding.
Some of you may be familiar with this popular European pilgrimage if you saw The Way. This film stars Martin Sheen as the doctor father who chooses to walk ‘The Way of St. James’ to cope with the death of his son (Emelio Estevez) and honor his son’s desire to finish the journey.
This 1521 kilometer rugged trail that begins in France and ends at the St. James Cathedral in Galicia, Spain offers a daunting challenge to anyone, let alone a grieving husband almost 80-years-old.
DRAWING FROM HIS QUIET POOL OF STRENGTH
After failing to carefully observe route markers on his first day, he becomes lost and needs to walk an extra 14 kilometers before he arrives exhausted, sore, and discouraged to the ‘gite’, the pilgrim’s equivalent of hostels along the trail. He writes,”Inside, I was racing. Yesterday’s failure had stirred something deep. Within us there’s a quiet clear pool of strength, often hidden in the tangle of day-to-day activity, that we’re not aware of it until we’re challenged. I drank from the pool.”
He muses about why on earth was he involved in such a caper, trekking across the French countryside with an overweight backpack? “Why didn’t I act my age and go on cruises and pass the time shuffling deck chairs?” But he was determined to keep going and to learn the lessons that the Camino has been teaching pilgrims for a thousand years.
Then he elaborates in his chapter “I Advance Slowly but Surely.” Determined that no setback was going to stop him, he muses, “Hadn’t I drawn on the same pool of strength and coped with the greatest of catastrophes when I lost Maris? Nothing worse could happen to me. I was vulnerable, at the mercy of the Camino and my own foolishness, but on my side, I had tenacity, Maris’s spirit and an undefinable presence which I like to call God. I felt stirrings in my internal journey.”
His book is a moving love story and a tale of resilience as he discovers the pilgrimage adds meaning to his life and breathes a “new vitality into my body and spirit.” Rather than closing off to life in the midst of his pain, devastation, and guilt that suicide survivors often experience, he keeps his heart and soul…and definitely his aging body…open to growth. With the warmth of healing companionship he experiences while on his pilgrimage and his strong interest in social justice, he especially likes the words from “The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard.
We are pilgrims on the journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
OUR OWN QUIET POOL OF STRENGTH
When we lose someone we love dearly, it inevitably means we have to draw on internal strength to embrace life again with hope. Most of us don’t have the time or energy for a 1500 kilometer journey, but need to find our own quiet ways to heal. For me, the garden often gives this gift; for Jim, it’s often been music or poetry. What has been helpful for you?