Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Lesson in Grieving and a Letter to My Grandmother

One of the realities of living in a broken world is that we often experience tragedies before we have the emotional and spiritual resources to process them. To some degree, this characterized my adolescence. My father's battle with cancer and subsequent death four years later was one I did not know how to survive, let alone make sense of. I remember crying in the bathroom in 7th grade one day and stopping to ask myself, "Why am I crying?" I didn't know how to connect the pain I was feeling to the crisis I was experiencing. 

This confusion led to other non-verbal outlets that grew increasingly destructive: by age 12, I had learned to express pain by inflicting it on myself. Thankfully, some adults in my life loved me enough to rebuke my behavior but also to teach me how to speak the truth ("I'm hurting") in healthier ways. One of the greatest gifts they ever gave me was permission to grieve loss. Now as an adult myself, I'm surprised at how often I still need to be reminded of this great gift: that loss is real, that my pain matters to God, and that living with faithfulness means staying alive to that pain and expressing it. 

Two weeks ago, my grandmother died. After a few days of "pushing through" my tears and getting on with my to-do list, I found myself alone with her memory and my sadness on an airplane. And I was reminded that the knot in my throat was not to be swallowed or ignored, but honored; that taking the time to feel what I was feeling was not a sign of weakness or defeat but one of reality; and that though my grandmother's passing could be considered normal or even something to be celebrated (to live to an old age is a great gift!), I still have permission to grieve. 

The memories of a little girl and her grandmother aren't earth-shattering or foreign-policy changing announcements. They're not particularly important for others to know about, they aren't about anyone famous, and they're not even necessarily unique to me. But I am going to share them because they are real, they matter to God, and they are just a few of the tiny threads that remind us what it is to be human. My hope is that if you choose to read them, you will feel a bit more permission to grieve your own losses, and to know that your little memories matter, too. 

Dear Mama Suzy,

How do I begin a letter I know you can’t read? Words were so meaningful to you; I want to use them well even though I know they’re for my own sake right now. The truth is, in the past few days I’ve begun to realize the extent to which words have been a bond between us. It was you who first awed me with their beauty, mesmerizing me with the power of recitation. Your endless supply of poems to share in any occasion comforted and moved me, even before I understood their meaning. It was you who taught me to love the look of words on a page; I remember asking you to teach me how to write in cursive the way you did. My hand never moved quite as skillfully as yours, but you encouraged my efforts nonetheless. You told me stories while I practiced, stories about your mother’s and grandmother’s families, and how you loved the sound of their names. And so it was you who awakened and named for me my own passion for words: spoken, written, sung. 

You shared my love of music, and exampled for me the depth of emotion and meaning that song conveys. Your own life was a song, tragic and beautiful. Tragic, because you lost more than most people can imagine; and beautiful, because you sang through the pain with a hope and a joy that surprised all who heard. I’ve never met anyone who has suffered as peacefully as you have. Even when I heard of your passing, I had no doubt that you died with a smile and a blessing.  It is those of us who are left here without you who now struggle to do the same. 

There is so much to celebrate about your life and yet so much to grieve in our loss of it. You’ve given me an immeasurable gift; the gift of yourself. Your stories, your passions, your time, your love. But even as I treasure them, they pierce me with the pain of your passing. I’m reading a book that you gave me and cherishing the kinship with you; knowing you once read it, knowing it brought you pleasure, knowing it is something I can still share with you. And yet as I read it, I’m saddened that I can’t thank you for the gift. I can’t call you to tell you how much I enjoyed the characters or the story or the break from schoolbooks. I can’t share the love of words with you ever again, in fact. Never again will you read a poem of mine, or recite one for me. Never again will you jot down your beautiful thoughts with your beautiful hand on a note for me. Never again will you even read an email or say a prayer for me that I can hear. Never will I be blessed by your sweet voice or soft touch, never will I get to hold your hand— your hand, which is in fact my earliest memory of you.

It was my first time enjoying the dignifying privilege of being the front-seat passenger in your car and being captivated, not by the moving world outside the windows, but by your hands. They were quite mysterious to a five year old: large, spotted, veiny. Unabashedly, I asked you why they looked so different from mine. You responded, “These hands have washed lots of dishes. They’ve changed lots of diapers and held lots of children. They are worn from use.” You introduced me to the wonder of time— that there is something special about a person who has been around for that long.

Mama Suzy, there was something special about you. Now that you’re gone, I feel that reality with pain; a pain that is a new companion to loss. See, when I lost my dad, I had time to prepare. We all knew the time was short, and we got to say goodbye. Your death was sudden, and I feel robbed. Robbed of conversations I thought we’d have one day, robbed of time to spend listening to your voice and stroking your hair. I feel robbed of your opportunity to hold my first child and love the sound of his name. I feel that I robbed you, too, by not calling you enough, not telling you how much I love you, how much you’ve made me who I am. Can you ever forgive me? Can you somehow now be assured of how much you meant to me, how much you still mean to me? I’m so sorry.

On Saturday, I’ll be at a wedding during your funeral. What a strange paradox. I’m torn inside about it, but I know you’re not. I know I’m doing what you would want me to do, and I know it pleases you that I’ll be celebrating life even while mourning your death. I never imagined it would end this way, but I do imagine that you’re happy about it. Will you help me to honor your memory on Saturday? Will you help me to feel the peace you enjoyed throughout your life—the peace that sustained you through the loss of two sons and two husbands? I want to walk as you walked. I want to be like you, even though you’re gone.

I want my words, my song, my hands, to be like yours one day.

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