Monday, May 27, 2013

My journey of grief Part IV Why I posted these blogs about my daughter's death

On May 24 it will be thirteen years since my daughter Christine died.  For several years I considered writing about my reaction to her dying and death.  I resisted because death is a private, painful  matter, too personal to air publicly.   But then I changed my mind and published  these excerpts from journal entries over a year’s time to show what had taken place within me during that period.

Death  and dying needs more openness.

Too  often I hear that a funeral “brings closure” to a loved one's  death, whether from natural causes, accident, or illness.  The assumption is that in a matter of days,  after the official rites have been held, mourners can get back to everyday  living and the huge hole caused by the death will close over. 

I want to shout loudly: Not true!

Grief is a journey, sometimes a long journey.  That death becomes  part of the mourner’s life. It can’t be dispensed with quickly like the wilted flowers after the funeral service is over.  It lingers in the soul,  leaving and returning,  bringing  pleasant memories, but also the hurt in the soul. Death should never disable a person permanently.

In our society death is a taboo subject, except in jest, like “kicking the bucket,”  Some people cannot get themselves to say, “Mother died,” as if  death  is a four-letter word. Instead I hear, “My mother is deceased,”  or “My mother passed on.”  Never “Mother is dead.”

Some mornings I check the  newspaper to find out how the obituaries announce a death: “Mother .... went home to Jesus,” “went to be with the Lord,”  “entered eternal life,” “flew to her eternal home.”  Few people die anymore.  “Passed away” is the most frequently used term and is easier for some to say than “Mother died.”   Death seems so final, so they turn to euphemisms like “my mother is deceased”   to make death seem less certain.

While the language of death is becoming vaguer and more reticent, the language and depiction of sexual relationships is becoming bolder and more detailed. Necklines are plunging deeper and deeper, plumbers’ cracks becoming more visible as are ads with men in bulging briefs or facing a urinal. 

“Breast” and “leg,”  taboo words in Victorian times, brought  into usage vaguer terms like  “chest” and “lower limbs." No vagueness today.  Today we get the full frontal view. It seems urgent to get as naked as possible in public.

In the Victorian age death was an everyday occurrence for a population whose life expectancy was in the early forties.   People expected to die. They knew they would die. They saw it happening all around them. Infectious disease was rampant, medical care mediocre and infrequent.  Death was a daily fact of life.

Today a daily fact of life is nudity.  People bare the skin and lay open to public view what once was considered sacred and private.  Nudity in public is a plot to keep from having to reveal one's soul,  someone has said. Instead of getting rid of qualms and fears, feelings of inadequacy and sinfulness, we rid ourselves of our clothing.Adam's fig leaf has become a joke.

Keeping what is private covered is considered uncool today because sex symbolizes strength and power,  and victory over weakness – good sex seems to erase death – at least temporarily.  Good sex is important. Lots of sex  and talk about sex is even more important to make up for the  meaninglessness that invades people’s lives, while thoughts about death are taboo. I think it is important to talk about death more.

I wrote this blog also because our attitude toward death affects the way we bury the dead.  We dispose of our dead and conduct our funerals according to what we think happens after death.

We buried our Christine according to her wishes in a plain pine casket in a simple funeral without all the extra fake greenery,  funeral vans, and so forth as a reflection of her life and beliefs. She believed in the simple life.

Yes, we also celebrated her life, over tea, the love of her life.   In that regard we followed the modern trend to “celebrate life” at a funeral, in other words eulogize, reminisce, joke about, show PowerPoint clips. 

We did that but also wanted to say that death had come, but it was not the end. Death is defeated by the power of God in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It became a service of worship and praise that God was, is, and will be—a service of hope.  “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory?” 

This Memorial Day Susan and I drove  to the cemetery to place flowers on Christine’s grave.  The sun was shining like it shone  13 years ago. But there was a strong wind blowing, so the meadowlarks  remained hidden in the thicket.  Susan trimmed the grave and placed a beautiful bouquet in the vase at the head. The grave marker reads: Christine R. Wiebe, daughter, sister, friend.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is my portion forever.  Psalm 73:26

My heart is at peace.   Christine  is in God’s hands.I have to go on living.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

My journey of grief at my daughter's death Part IV

July 4 Firecracker Day. Five weeks since Christine died. I sorted some more of her stuff. Will it never end? Worry means we are concerned we can’t get our own way, says Oswald Chambers. Always true?  I am inching back to God. I don’t have all the answers, yet God loves me. I know that.

July 6 Beginnings are easy to determine. Endings are harder to predict. I knew Christine would die young, but not so young. She often said she wanted to grow old and have gray hair and wrinkles like mine. But she knew it would probably not happen. I don’t feel rich inside with peace and joy. I am alone but not lonely. I treasure my solitude while grieving.  Plants grow in the dark of the night, not at noon during the heat of the sun. Maybe I can also.

July 10 My “spiritual” friend phones to tell me to count my blessings. I try to accept her words graciously. A friend comes to spend time with me. After an hour and a half talking about her heavy schedule, her trips, her hobbies, I felt my ear drums had been blasted full of holes.  Maybe she needed to talk more than I needed to tell her about my grief. I was selfish expecting her to comfort me. I sense the goal of much contemporary Christianity is to release people from suffering rather than to have them acknowledge it and let it teach them something.

July 16 The dark night is lifting, the morning twilight beginning. I have felt a return of joy to live, a readiness to get up in the morning, to read, to do something. Yesterday was quiet, but I was not lonely. I met Peter F. in church yesterday. He lost a son in spring. He knows about the wound in the heart that does not heal. We didn’t have to speak words to one another.

July 18 Last night I went to a grief support group of five women and two leaders. I don’t think I’ll go again. These women had all lost a husband. The only support was a gentle murmuring of the leaders that any feeling was all right. 

July 20 Oswald Chambers says it is unnecessary to keep asking, “Lord, lead me.”  He will lead. If our common-sense decisions are not his, he will press through. We must be quiet and wait for new direction. I am waiting, Lord.

July 21 Donna and I have lunch.  I can talk freely about my loss to her. She spent the most time with Christine in the last months.  A recently retired woman in church is dying of cancer. She has decided on no more chemotherapy.  Death had clamped onto Christine and now onto Marilyn.  We live in a world of life and death. Pain and suffering are part of life. To deny suffering is to deny reality.  The point is to keep affirming life. Thank you, Lord, for healing that has started.

Chris was always in a state of waiting for the next siege with her illness, and the next. A crisis seemed preferable to the waiting.  Death beckoned, daring her to let go.

July  25 I feel like an intruder when I sort Christine’s personal files. I don’t belong here, a voice tells me. This is private. Don’t you see the Private sign? But I enter anyway. The files are getting thinner. She saved nearly every piece of paper that entered her world.

July 27 The sunrise this morning was a vast diffusion of gold and pink over the whole city. Something is stirring inside me. I don’t quite know what. I cringe when people defend God to me with great statements of the way he works.  God does not need our defense. God can take care of himself.

July 28 All summer seven-year-old Jennifer has come every Wednesday to learn to sew. Sometimes we go to Botanica to the Butterfly House. Jennie has learned to coax butterflies to rest on her fingers.  One day we saw a luna moth that had just emerged from its cocoon. “I am a happy girl,” she told me as we worked on a small coverlet.  Her willingness to tackle new projects gives me joy. She is in love with life.

August 19 I struggle with guilt and Christine’s indirect condemnation of me when I argued with Joanna about behavior I disagreed with. Chris believed in a perfect world, especially in Christ-believers, and then was disappointed when they revealed they were human. I was often too human for her.

She never fully came to terms with her father’s death as a seven-year-old. His death and her birthday coincided and, consequently, she became the pampered guest at the family funeral  gathering 38 years ago. She complained she didn’t get to see him before he died. Hospital rules didn’t allow children to come in. I was fearful his appearance with a week’s growth of beard, without dentures, cheeks sunken and body wasted, unable to talk, would harm her. I was wrong. I should have taken her to see him.

Christine was angry when friends disappointed her. She was angry that she had to live with me because she could not support herself when she returned to Wichita from Chicago, a city she loved, and where she had a huge community of fun-loving friends. She went into a low-grade depression.

She was angry with me that I wasn’t dancing ecstatically when she didn’t die in 1994, even though we had had hospice in our home for six months. I had braced myself for her death during that time and watched her steady deterioration.  I was planning to go to the funeral home the next day about final arrangements. I had slept on the floor for about six weeks to help with sudden vomiting or bathroom needs.  My own emotions were shredded. I felt exhausted. Death would have been a relief for her – and me.

But she didn’t die, but began a long convalescence. I felt pushed against the wall.  I was the only one on whom she could vent her feelings. I imagine her in heaven exclaiming to me, “Mother, you didn’t manage my death any better than Daddy’s.”

I wish we had talked about death more, about all these feelings, but then we did – somewhat. I still have my notes on what she wanted at her funeral. She often said, “I feel as if I have death perched on my shoulder.” 

My guilt overwhelms me at times. Did I really do enough for her? During the years she lived with me we ate her kind of food, lived according to her schedule, attended functions she enjoyed. But was it enough? Were there enough words of love, focused attention, symbols of caring?

I state firmly to myself Christine died because of her illness, not because I didn’t do enough. I need to say this. I regret not having been present when she died, but she wanted everyone to leave.  Maybe she couldn’t let go of life when we were all around, says Donna. She was too self-reliant. The newspaper had an article this morning on the need to mourn. Two days, two weeks, two months is not enough.

Sept. 13 Three months is not enough. I watched the entire public television series by Bill Moyers on death and dying. Donna tells me that Christine probably processed death so often within herself and with her spiritual director, she was determined to stay alive to the end.

 I am puzzled by the absence of pastoral care after a death.

Oct. 7 Chris, you are still here with me—just gone for a while. I am lonely today for you.  I wonder what great heights you would have risen to had you had a healthy body. You were gifted in all areas –singing, writing, public speaking, spiritual discernment, caring for others. I could extend the list endlessly.

Oct. 9 At a university forum on poetry I told one of Christine’s former professors of her death. She was floored. She sat down to grasp my words.  “Did she die at home? Was it hard?”

Oct. 21 Susan and I went to a hospital memorial service for those who had died in there in recent months. A large crowd filled the chapel, some obviously recently bereaved. It helps to mourn with mourners.

Oct. 31 Three years ago Chris and I visited the kidney dialysis unit. We were given a tour and more information than I wanted. We came home and cried. That path seemed too hard.

Nov. 6 Her congregation held a memorial service for anyone who had experienced death in recent months. I find great comfort to hear Scriptures read and hymns sung related to God’s role in healing.  Yet I felt pain when I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a list of Christine’s medical appointments for one week in May, the last time I wore the coat. She always gave me a weekly schedule so I would know when to pick her up.

Nov. 15 I am waiting for dawn to break through, for someone to tell me boldly that it’s okay that Chris is gone. Some prisoners of war say they learned from their experience—became better persons. Can I become a better person because of my loss? Suffering is an extremely complicated emotion. It was hard to feel strong faith when Chris was dying. I felt an instinctive revolt against death, though submission to God’s will was in the background, by habit, mostly.

Nov. 21 I feel I am moving to something new. I don’t know what. I am in a holding pattern, with openness, waiting for God to reveal himself to me.

Nov. 23 Thanksgiving Day. I am alone. The children went to the in-law sides of the family. What am I thankful for? That Christine’s suffering is over.

Dec. 26 It bothers me that no one talks about Christine.  Must I grieve alone? I have heard others say the same thing. I remember after Walter died mention of his name in conversation cast a pall over the group.

Jan. 5 I wish I had known Chris was going to die in the next few days. Yet if I had known, what would I have done differently?  We would have talked more about dying, I say. I feel bravely certain about that now.  But I know I would have waited for her to introduce the subject. No mother should have to tell her daughter she is dying.  In the hospital I talked to her about the DNR order she had once agreed to. In the hospital I told her she was dying. I think I was telling myself.  I don’t know if she grasped what I was saying. I stumbled trying to explain her critical medical situation to her. I didn’t grasp it myself.  

Jan.  17 Time does not heal all things. Time does not heal all grief. Time heals grief as we work with it. I have worked hard at my grief this summer and fall. I am bothered when people who escape a tornado say, “God was watching over me,” knowing their neighbors’ homes were devastated. Does God pick and choose his favorites for special care? Does he let a tornado destroy some while he holds others close so no harm can come to them? How does God decide?

Jan. 19  I had the strangest dream. I was called to the hospital. Chris was dying. Another family was also there because of death. Then Chris came into the room, smiling radiantly, with long curly hair, not the short wispy stuff she had in recent years. I felt comforted. This morning I read Psalm 65:8: “Where morning dawns and evening fades, you call forth songs of joy.”  The night has passed. The morning twilight is turning to sunlight. My grief journey has not ended, but is moving to another stage. 

[To be continued]

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My journey of grief at my daughter's death Part III

June 10 I feel as if I am playing snakes and ladders. I move up the ladder only to come sliding down a slippery snake. My mood cannot stay high enough to pull me out of my hole.

June 12 I read again Oswald Chambers’ words: “If God has made your cup sweet, drink it with grace. If he has made it bitter, drink it in communion with him.”  My cup is bitter. I cannot accept that Christine is gone. I thought she would live until fall. The ides of March showed up too soon. Christine got really sick the beginning of March with phlebitis, cellulitis, and then a host of ills, descending one by one like an Egyptian plague. I was confused by the mixed signals from the medical profession: “Her tests show her kidneys are stable,” “She is doing well.”  She wasn’t doing well.   A man in church is dying. I am not alone in experiencing death.

I have no one to tell news to. Christine sometimes listened to my news two and three times without criticizing me.

The news that Christine died hasn’t filtered through to everyone. On Sunday I  had to tell some friends she had died.  They were embarrassed, having been busy with their own problems. I recreate memories of her. We went to Botanica twice in April with her in a wheelchair to see the fields of tulips ablaze with color.  A young man helped me push her over a hump in the path that defeated me.

We are nearly finished sorting her things and bringing personal items to my place. I find a long list of her “to-do” things with some items marked off: Put up bathroom curtains, iron table runner upstairs, put dust ruffle on bed.  She was still moving in, making this house her home.  Her list said she still needed to clean her desk, clean the living room chairs, clean her files. Now that is my job.  She was a list-maker. But her lists took a long time to work through because of her low energy. Each stroke through an item meant a slow step forward.

These are my circumstances: a daughter dead too soon, a house larger than I need, an aging body, sometimes a discouraged spirit. I long for routine, steadiness, no middle-of-the-night phone call announcing a death, no interrupted sleep.

June 16 My comforters come. My neighbor, 83, offers his help for anything he can do.  Another neighbor brings banana nut muffins he baked himself. He wants to help with my pain.  People still ask, “How are you?”  I have started saying, “I am grieving and it is hard work.”  Someone says, “It must be pretty empty at your place now.”  Christine had lived with me about five of the last eight years after she became disabled.  Yes, of course. Why remind me of the emptiness? Why are some calls comforting, others disturbing, especially late at night. Every visible reminder of Christine’s life stabs me to the quick. A young woman at church, a former student, turned to me and gave me a quick hug. No words. That helps most. 

The mourning dove is back, weeping with me.

June 20   Susan wrote her postponed medical board exams. “A day in hell,” she said. But she passed well. I continue to sort Christine’s things. How can someone who professed to live the simple life still have so much stuff, especially books and files? It is hard work, very hard work, physically and emotionally. I am less concerned why this is happening to me, a mother, than why it happened to her, a daughter. She had many dreams – to love deeply, to love wholly, to bring beauty to life, to be a reconciler. What mission did she pursue? A sense of the holy.  And the beautiful in life.

Everything reminds me of her—my grocery shelf, my freezer, my frig, my bathroom. I bought groceries that met her needs. I cooked and ate what she could eat—low salt, low fat, low protein, low sugar. Someone said death is like the many strings the Lilliputians used to tie Gulliver down. Each string that attached Christine to life has to be cut—her car insurance, appointments, bank account, mail, her large pill tray. I dump it out.

A friend told me love shows itself in a willingness to use and display the loved one’s things. I wear the agate necklace she loved. I display the ugly tan ceramic angel she picked up in Mexico. The wings are broken, but she cherished it.  Her wings were also broken, but she was not ugly.

I can think more clearly now. I feel like a failure at times. I should have shown more love, more willingness to listen, to let go of my own projects.

June 21 Yesterday I was weepy all morning. At the doctor’s office for a regular checkup I burst into tears. Dr. C. was a sympathetic listener, gentle, offering medication for depression. I resisted that. “Don’t forget God still exists,” she said. It felt good to cry without anyone passing judgment.

Susan and I returned to Christine’s place for final cleanup. Most books are sorted. Before we left, the bathroom ceiling collapsed. My thought was “Now I don’t have to wash that floor.” The pile in the living room gets smaller. It is about time to call the Salvation Army for a pickup. 

The life-threatening moments are the many “How are you doing?” questions.  The life-renewing ones are those when I gain awareness I can make choices about my attitude. Would it help these people who are mostly interested in how I am doing if I responded with a strong “just great”?  I sense it would make them feel better if I did.  There will be life ahead. 

My guilt about Christine’s death is not unusual. Why did she die? Because we live in a flawed world. Sin brought sickness into the world. Sickness is part of life.  But why she had to suffer for many years has no answers, especially with her wealth of creativity, leadership skills, identification with the poor, and friend-making skills. There was grace for yesterday. I got through the day without tears. There will be grace for today.  Lord, help me to hold out my hands to receive it.

June 28 I sense I will again need to make goals for myself after several years of making Christine a priority.  My out-of-town friend is surprised when I talk about restructuring my life now that Christine is no longer around. “I guess I don’t know how to make goals for myself at this point in life,” she says. She is over seventy and has no goals. What is the role of hope in grief work?

I wonder, am puzzled, why Christine’s whole life was saturated with goals to nurture  body and soul, yet they didn’t keep her alive. In the hospital after she died the nurses had rearranged her body from the fetal position to which she moved almost automatically to the classic death pose – eyes shut, hands folded so her uric acid deposits would be least visible. She didn’t look like herself but like my mother. It startled me for a moment.

June 29 Friends continue to call, often in the bright cheer-up style. They have little understanding of my inner turmoil.

July 3 Susan and Roger and I visit Christine’s grave site. It has fallen in. We stand and cry. It is hard to imagine Chris under the ground in her lovely teal blue dress, necklace and earrings, rotting away. I didn’t tell her often enough I loved her, that she was beautiful. I didn’t make vereniki enough, her favorite food.  She tried making some once with phyllo dough, low-fat cottage cheese and nonfat sour cream—a travesty of the real Low German dish.

What can I learn from this experience of dying and death? I have no great statements to make of God carrying me though every pain—at least not yet. I am not yet at the end of my grief journey. I make no apology for my struggle. Some of what I write in this journal is an exploration of my humanity, not my faith. Unanswered questions are not fatal. Our response can be.  End of Part III To Be Continued

My journey of grief at my daughter's death Part II

May 30 The video on preventive medicine at Sunday school was the usual  “eat right, exercise, have a good positive attitude," etc., etc.  One class member protested that the speaker in the video laid too much guilt on people who are ill who do all those things and yet do not recover.  I find myself with sensitive radar looking for little wisps of hope. To blame Christine for her own death because she wasn’t eating right, not exercising, not having  the right attitude, is ridiculous. She devoted her life to staying well--healthful food, yoga, meditation, spiritual direction, bringing beauty into her life through friends. She believed she could affect her own health.

Lord, give me healing of spirit and soul and the strength to dispose of her belongings—car, clothes, household effects. She wanted everything to be given to the poor—no garage sale, no one making money off her stuff. Her spirit had always been with the poor and street people. I can hardly face carrying out of her house what we just carried into it a few months ago.

Chris is safely in the bosom of God. Take good care of her, Lord. She is precious to many people.  We need our Christine and her generous smile that lit up a room.

May 31 Kathy and I went to Christine’s place and sorted everything in the kitchen. The bathroom is empty and the bedroom two-thirds empty.  But the living room is now piled with stuff that has to find a recipient. My knee aches desperately from unaccustomed bending and carrying.

June 1 Life must go on--and on and on. What do you say when someone says they are praying for you? Thank you?  It doesn’t seem right to turn healing for my pain into a business transaction in which prayer is handed over like a casserole.

June 4 Friends drop by.  Sometimes we chuckle at memories of the last days: the plethora of preachers at the hospital—two each from three Mennonite churches, several Catholic religious leaders, hospital chaplain, hospice friends.   I used to tease Christine about her joppa, a Russian word for buttocks. But I cried inwardly because they looked like empty little bags of wrinkled skin hanging on bony structures.

Kathy sang an old children’s hymn at the funeral: “Children of the heavenly father, safely in his bosom gather. Such a refuge ne’er was given.” Chris  is now safe in her heavenly Father’s bosom.

June 5 The days are quiet and long, interrupted by trips to her place to do more sorting. Will I ever forget what she looked like at the end or will it always be that last memory of her sitting on the commode, weak, thin, drawn, lopsided smile, always courteous. And the fetal position she drew into more and more? Why can’t I retrieve the memory of her radiant smile?

Time moves slowly, too slowly as I sit here. I check the time. Later, I check it again. Only three minutes have passed. Yet the march of death once it began went too fast.

In church people ask “How are you?” I find that difficult to answer. People don’t know how to console. Their idea is that grief is like a cold—give it a week and you get over it. I am struggling with guilt and unanswered questions about Christine’s death. I am angry at the doctors for not saying openly, “Christine is dying” until we forced it out of them.

People wanted to help but didn’t know how.  One pastor bounced into her hospital room, with a loud “How are things here today?” hoping for a cheery “Just fine.”  Catholic friends dropped silently to their knees near her hospital bed to be on eye level with her and to pray. A former nun friend sang Gregorian chants and invited death to come. I remember telling her that was okay.

Viktor Frankl’s writing helped me when Walter died. He wrote about the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp:  “One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simple vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.”  Do I have the inner strength to accept the challenge once again to deal with this grief, long expected, never wanted?

June 6 A beautiful morning. I went out and pulled weeds. Yesterday I mowed the lawn. I am slowly moving into a routine without Christine who featured large in my life in recent weeks, going to the doctor, for shots, for visits with her spiritual director. She is gone and I am here.  I give away her things –coats to Inter-Faith Ministries, household effects to the Salvation Army, her car to a charity, her books to friends. My heart says, “Don’t! She will need them again.” My head says, “She’s not coming back.”

This is a different kind of separation from the death of a spouse. Then it was like a part of me, a wing, was torn off, leaving me unable to soar. Now it’s like surgery without anesthetic. My life changes little outwardly. I go to bed and get up. I eat meals alone and arrange my schedule. But I feel a deep wound. A child should not die before a parent. It is a death out of season. Parents who have lost children identify with me. They understand.

I had sent a short biographical sketch to sponsors of an event at which I was to speak. As I listened to it read I noticed I had left in that I have four children. But I don’t. I have two daughters and a son.  There was another one, but she is gone.

June 7 Little stories about the funeral trickle back.  One of my son’s co-workers said when he heard the tribute to Christine and all she had accomplished despite 27 years of ill health, “Where’s a revolver? Shoot me now! I’ll never make it that far!” 

I couldn’t sleep last night again. It bothered me that family members took things they thought they should have –books, CDs, small items. I am overly sensitive.  I keep seeing Christine at the end, weary, in pain, when I want to have my final image of her laughing, singing, planning, speaking, hosting a tea party. Tea parties meant being with friends. But that image of her and her smile eluded me. Finally, I took one of Christine’s sleeping pills.

People feel it is their duty to comfort the bereaved with nice words. I try to be gracious.  I wouldn’t want them not to do this.

Why do the good die young? How do I live with this hole in my heart?  I think through Christine’s symptoms the last time I took her to the doctor: insomnia/ trouble breathing/swelling in abdomen and legs/loose bowels/ weight loss/ extreme fatigue/problems holding food down/ depression/ulcer on her leg that didn’t heal, bruises all over/ tremors/congestive heart failure/ uric acid deposits on her fingers, elbows and feet.  Why didn’t a doctor say clearly this is the end?  Are doctors also afraid to face death?

In  Greek tragedy, one death or suicide follows another, until the protagonist stands alone, but that person has speech, as Fortinbras has in Hamlet.  He turns to the gods, who are silent, to nature, to self.  I have speech. I have language.  I write about my grief.  I wait for my God to speak. My God is not a silent God.  A mourner is someone who has allowed pain to enter her life and, like the psalmist, in the laments, speaks out. God, I am a mourner of a daughter who died too soon. Hear me, hear me.