Grief’s Bewildering Reality

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On Sunday it was ninety-eight degrees here in Santa Fe, NM. Monday night I drove home through literal waves as three inches of rain hit the streets, seemingly all at once. A sidewalk by an arroyo two blocks from my house collapsed. There’s debris everywhere. The slushy hail made my yard look like December. Can you believe this photo was taken on July 24th? Definitely bewildering.Santa Fe in July?

But it is grief that is the most bewildering experience I’ve ever had, that most of us will ever have. It jolts at every turn. I reach for the phone to share news, then remember. One heartbeat brings a surge of love, the next lurches us into pain. Everything screams, “Where the hell are you? Why aren’t you here?”

One of the joys of my recent move to Santa Fe (though I sure do miss my hundred mile views) is easy access to powerful films like Carla Simón’s film, Summer 1993, which depicts this bewilderment to perfection. The star is Frida, a child whose widowed mother has died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Frida has gone to live with family in the Catalonian countryside outside Barcelona. The film’s Catalán dialogue (the first language of this Spanish province) is sparse, but when Frida goes outside in the dark and softly calls out for her mother, searching for her among the trees with a flashlight, when she dials her mother’s phone number and waits for an answer she does not receive, when she finds a statue of Mary in a hidden grove and leaves a gift “for my mother, when she comes,” we don’t need many words. At times, I found myself holding my breath, because her sense of confusion was so visceral. When her eyes flinched at a tiny sound, I was inside her, as bewildered as she was, as bewildered as I was after my daughter’s death.BLOG 28 PILLOS PXLS

Eventually the girl asks who was with her mother when she died. And then, quite quietly, she asks why she wasn’t with her since she is her daughter. She is reminded she was with her grandparents, a choice I’m sure was made to protect her. As I left the theatre I was awash with love and sorrow in equal measure.BLOG 28 FACE PXLS

Support from a Zen priest helped playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and her three sons to be really present with their dying husband and father as he sickened, and at the moment of his death, and after his death, when they washed his body, kissed and hugged him, thanked him, and wailed. Gersten-Vassilaros said these moments showed her that her boys would be okay, because “…we made death part of life.” (“How Will You Die?” by Lindsay Kyte, Lion’s Roar, page 56, November 2017)

To protect from the moment of death has no value, because afterward the bewildering loss is still there. Racing a cancer-ridden man off to the hospital, when it’s been known all along he is to die, robs everyone and protects no one. It robs us of the chance to say goodbye. It steals the opportunity to allow our deep feelings to erupt. It separates us from the one we love at the last opportunity for physical connection we will have.BLOG 28 STATUE PXLS

The trick—no easy task—is to allow death to sear us to the bone, to let it shred our hearts to ribbons, to let it show us its awful reality. Two key events of my life, though exquisitely painful, were the opportunities to be with each of my parents at the moments of their deaths. They gave me a wobbly rudder through the awful swamp of bewilderment to come when every part of me wanted to disbelieve that their deaths were real and their deaths were permanent.

To access my podcast conversation on after-death communication with Connie Whitman, Architect of Change, click on: https://bit.ly/2LmboCL

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

What’s This About Besides Suffering?

blog 27 treasure chestAjaan Lee, Thai Buddhist meditation master, said that “Aging, illness, and death are treasures for those who understand them.” Perhaps all loss offers buried treasure when we open ourselves to it. When I’m really hurting I try not to ask, “Why me?” but “What is this about besides suffering?” This acknowledges my trust that the creative force is benign and loving, that loss is not about punishment.

I recall sobbing in a restaurant, unable to eat, as my first marriage collapsed to the ground. I remember thinking, This is what doctors prescribe tranquilizers (now anti-depressants) for, but I need to feel this pain. Giving myself that permission was the beginning of my post-divorce healing, releasing not just sadness, but anger and bitterness and disappointment.

Illness and death and its threat offer different opportunities. A woman, washed away in Katrina’s tidal wave, barely survives. Her damaged lungs keep her bedridden for months. While she heals she mourns the loss of her home and all her belongings. Over time she comes to realize the wonder of the simple fact that she still has her breath; the belongings are insignificant.blog 27 big wave

My friend Scott died three years ago, my friend Anne before that, and Jesse before that. The mirror reveals that the vertical creases running down each of my cheeks are multiplying. When a van deliberately crashes into a crowd on Barcelona’s tourist street, Las Ramblas, soon after I walked there with my family, I cannot shake the vision of my beloveds’ bodies flying and fleeing. As Carlos Casteneda said, death stands at my left shoulder. I regularly hear it clearing its throat to remind me of impermanence.

It was just under a year between my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and her death. During her final downward slide miracles occurred—a conversation that broke the chokehold of her alcoholism, a spontaneous ritual in which my parents’ love for one another was made manifest, and a day on which my father and I told each other, “I love you,” for the first time in my adult life.

Some people hope to die in their sleep or by heart attack. I understand this desire not to suffer, but sudden death robs us of the heightened urgency that occurs between a terminal diagnosis and death itself. This stage often brings healing to life’s deepest wounds. That final, difficult year of my mother’s life was her great gift—a sacrifice too great to expect or to ask for. It’s not that I hope for a long illness to precede my eventual death but, because I know its blessings firsthand, I don’t dread it either.

In 2001, I was so impacted by chemical sensitivities, I was pretty much under “house arrest.” I could not think clearly on a computer or near photocopies, so I could not even work at home. After I lost my job, I retired early. I played Scrabble with myself to re-build lost brain cells. I carefully sewed something elaborate and made it five feet square instead of the intended five by seven, a perfect demonstration of those damaged brain cells.

Seventeen years later, though I still must avoid certain chemical exposures, I have regained my life. I have gained an enormous appreciation for my body, for each breath, for each thing I can do. If I drag for a day, this does not compare with those former days and I know that even if something else were to restrict me, I would survive that too. After all, there’s always Scrabble.

Staying present with my daughter’s death by suicide has been my life’s biggest challenge. I had two anchors—my mantra practice and those I loved who loved me and loved her, yet despair and grief were my bedpartners. They blackened my sky and I was convinced joy would never visit again. To my surprise one Sunday morning a few months after her death, I awoke feeling happy. My husband and I lay in bed talking. I had forgotten how sweet laughter felt. We decided to go for brunch at Graham’s Grill, which had (before it bellied up) the best huevos rancheros this side of Oaxaca, Mexico. I felt blissful as I showered and dressed.

Backing out of the carport, the brakes made a funny squeal. “We should get those checked,” my husband commented idly. My fragile happiness plummeted. The despair returned full bore. The brakes would fail. The expense would be astronomical. The car would be a total loss. My daughter would always be dead.

The day plodded drearily on. Those wonderful huevos rancheros tasted quite ordinary. Nevertheless, now I held a gem in my pocket. I knew I had not lost the art of happiness, even if when it would return was shrouded in mystery.

Seven years later, though still moody (nothing new there), I am content with my life, my health, my age, sometimes happy, sometimes joy-filled, often grateful. And I own the knowledge that if joy could return after my daughter’s death, joy will always return.

I also own the treasure of being much more present with those I love. When I hug my husband as he heads out the door, I’m more often consciously appreciative of our love and partnership. I’m more aware of the need to Be Here Now (as Ram Dass said), because this moment could be all we have. This awareness of the “dreadful” possibilities inherent in the future is not depressing; instead it deepens my capacity to be alive in love right now.

blog 27 jewelsThese are the treasures I have gleaned. They cannot be given to another as comfort or reassurance. They aren’t greeting card homilies. We have to earn them ourselves as we invite whatever gifts loss offers us. Everyone I know who has moved beyond tragedy into a richer life has sought this gold and found it.

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

Love’s Magnetic Pull

Love is as essential to us as food and air and water and shelter. Without love well-fed babies fail to thrive and often die. Without love the lonely elderly wither away. We are born on this earth to learn how to give and to receive love, yet each love bears within it a dark seed—that of potential for the future loss of our beloved.

The phone rings. It is my husband’s brother. His wife is in hospice. They have lived with her cancer off and on for sixteen of their fifty-five married years. We pack hurriedly and drive 400 miles in hopes of seeing her while she can still speak. We are too late. We tell her we love her anyway, believing she can hear us. Her husband sleeps (badly) overnight in a lumpy cot in her hospice room, as does her son, sometimes her sister, perhaps her other son will too when he returns. Her jaundice fades. Her face softens until she appears nearly child-like. We joke that she would have loved how smooth her skin has become. I’m tickled that her finger and toe nails are perfectly polished red. We are told she’s been seeing her deceased mom, a sign of how close death is and of the support she is receiving through the veil.

My sister-in-law possessed the strongest drive to live of anyone I’ve ever known. She kept her sense of humor through mastectomies and radiation and chemo, through falls and broken bones and reconstructive surgery, every ignominy illness and modern medical science could bring. Her hair fell out? “Freedom,” she proclaimed. “No more blow-drying! No fussing! Now I just pop on my wig.” Whether with cane or wheelchair, she traveled, took cruises, never missed a single summer of arranging an adventure she dubbed “Kids’ Camp” for herself and her husband and their grandchildren. When the cancer started in one breast and she was told it would most likely migrate to its next-door neighbor, she said, “Take ‘em both off. Give me new ones.” Checking in to her last hospitalization on a Tuesday, she told the doctors, “I must be out by Thursday. I’m going to Las Vegas.” Her failing organs canceled that trip. Beloved of all the medical personnel who treated her, when she went into hospice at home, her oncologist made her first ever house call. Her transfusion nurses visited after she transferred to the hospice facility.

She’d been reading my book and we’d talked of how she might contact me after her death. I regret that we’d never finalized our plan. He tells me he’s read my preface. I hope it helps him to recognize at least the possibility of after-death communication’s gifts. I hope he comes to understand that our essential nature continues. For now he has the love of his friends and his family as sustenance. That is the one helpful thing we have to offer—our love. There is no fixing his pain, no easing it except with temporary distraction.

Now death’s tender enigma has drawn her through its veil. The serenity of her face belies the suffering of those around her. Had she screamed in agony maybe there could have been an element of relief when body and spirit split in two, but all that remains is grief and the loneliness in her husband’s eyes. Does he look at his older brother with envy because I, his wife, still live? The grateful look my husband gives me approaches awe. I am her age. Someday our turn will come. Will it be him or me attempting sleep on a lumpy hospice cot?

We hug. I think back to our first hug, our first kiss, our first whole night together. We were not that young, in our forties, old enough to have loved and lost, yet we gave little thought to this distant future likelihood that one or the other of us would be left to the stark emptiness of our last years.

She dies on Thursday morning. Her husband tells me he will do some work on Monday so he doesn’t have to think about it. I imagine he means, so he doesn’t have to feel it, and I understand. Large grief must be doled out one drop at a time. He would drown if he felt it all at once. Yet it must be felt. If not, it eats us away from the inside out until our hollow shell crumbles and breaks, as my father’s did so swiftly following my mother’s death.

I do not fear this fate for my brother-in-law. He is making plans. His house is too big. He may move closer to us. If so, his son says he will follow. Love’s magnetic pull will be his healer. The memory of his wife’s strong drive to live will remind him to live. I’m told Kids’ Camp at her sister’s house had been discussed, because it would be closer to home, easier on her failing body. I hope the grandkids do gather in four months. Their resilient nature will help with the healing. I imagine them, two by two, huddling tearfully in corners. In between they will share fun stories of their grandmother, and laugh, remember, and play.

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

A New Way

“Don’t tell” is the embedded language of sexual harassment and abuse. And women often did not tell. We needed and wanted the part, the job, the account, and we kept quiet. Now we’re being asked why we didn’t say anything at the time. So—why didn’t we? Whether we were children or adults we were afraid of men’s power over our lives, afraid of what would happen to our careers and our dreams and our reputations, of what someone would say. We were trained not to make a ruckus, to behave ourselves, to be perfect victims. No one taught us we could say: “No! Stop! I don’t like this! You can’t! I won’t! Don’t touch me!”

I’ve been floating the idea of writing about this ever since #MeToo first appeared. I worried that it was too far off my focus of after-death communication, but when I heard Oprah’s eloquent and empowered Golden Globe acceptance speech (It is worth checking out.), I knew it was time. She used her voice and her platform, now I’m using mine. If every woman were to add her name to the roster of those who are saying “No More”, we would participate in a tidal wave of change. We need a new way.

When I was raped as a child, my parents called the doctor, called the psychiatrist, dealt with the man, but they did not call the police. I doubt it even crossed their minds. They too were trained not to make a ruckus and to keep sexual things out of the public eye. Later, when my mother told the woman psychiatrist, “She seems to have forgotten,” her reply was, “Good. It’s better that way.” Silence all around.

In the 1950’s, as a teenaged soda fountain clerk, I quickly learned to avoid the narrow supply corridor when the older pharmacist was on duty. We girls monitored our behavior—but we neither questioned nor reported how he squeezed himself against us if he passed us by.

Twenty years later, working for an all-male law firm with all-female employees, I attended the office Christmas party. No spouses were invited. There was a lavish spread of alcohol at five, the end of the workday. The catered food was scheduled for 6:30, by which time everyone was ravenous, and nearly everyone was a little or a lot drunk. I watched a usually straight-laced, married secretary exchange sexual innuendo with her married boss. Luckily her close friend pulled her into the kitchen to ply her with coffee.

Another woman, much more drunk, suddenly disappeared. Turned out she was with her boss in his locked office. All the men’s office doors had locks. I knew her well enough to suspect she would have deep regrets. Later I learned that this party’s ploy was an annual tradition, well-known in the local, legal community. In another job, when I turned down sexual advances from a man, he took the business my firm needed elsewhere.

“If you are ever attacked, don’t fight back,” we were taught, back in the day. “That way you won’t be killed too.” These messages and practices and experiences tell women we are weak and without rights. For men, they reinforce their power over us. This used to be a way of life, as was women’s silence, but remember, once women could not vote. Now we can. Once we could not own property. Now we can and we do. Once we thought we could not tell. Now we can. Now we do.

I’m not saying every man who touched a woman without her permission in the distant past should be pilloried and shunted out of his job (though some should). This is not about scapegoating a few men for old actions our culture condoned with turned-away eyes. The casting couch used to be a “joke.” If thought about, it was never funny. Now we are talking about it and it is really not funny. I recently watched “Cactus Flower” a 1969 comedy. Funny? Yes, but between laughs, I kept wincing as Walter Mattheau, the dentist, patted a female patient’s butt, as Ingrid Bergman, his nurse, deftly sidestepped a male patient’s repeated ardent advances. When will the time come when women loudly object to all such behavior on the spot?

We need to establish a new order between men and women. Many men (the ones Oprah calls phenomenal) have always known that non-consensual or coercive touching is wrong. The others must be taught or cajoled or—if necessary—forced into change by those of us who want all sexual touch to be mutual and consenting.

Men, it is time to question any authority over women you think that history, culture, habit, or religion has granted you. Women, it is time to reclaim our authority over our own bodies. Our daughters must be taught they can say no to adults, and later, as adults. Our sons must be taught how to hear that “no.” This shift requires taking a firm and possibly uncomfortable stance. If it requires telling tales, now is the time to tell them.

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a

 

 

 

Surviving in the Dark: Teddy Bears, “Blankies,” and PJs

It’s that time of year when I’m counting the days until the return of the light on the Winter Solstice. It’s that time of year when one bumpy little mound called Guadalupe Mountain that sits on the horizon southwest of our home, gets ravenous for light and devours the sun, gulping it down at 4:30, turning the afternoon into night. It eats the light like there is no tomorrow, which is what worries me about this long darkness—that it will never end.

I need my silly sky-blue flannel pajamas printed with fluffy cumulous clouds and tiny stars, anything to comfort me in the fourteen-hour dark. I can handle snow and cold, that’s what down jackets and boots rated for minus zero are designed for, but the darkness is another matter. When my friend in Alaska posts a picture on Facebook of the last rays of direct sunlight to hit her home until spring, I cannot fathom how she stands it.

Yet this week the days will get longer (at least in theory) by seconds every day. In actuality, Guadalupe Mountain’s hunger for light will have not yet been fully assuaged. The moment of each day’s sunset will be determined by the mountain’s peaks and valleys until finally, when January is mostly gone, it will hunker down, light-satiated at last, and wait, quietly, for its next November meal.

At its best, this darkness is an interior, introspective time, but in combination with December’s festivities it tends to magnify new grief and bring up older ones. This is the season of my parents’ deaths, sixteen days apart, thirty-three years ago. Within recent weeks I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from friends about two mothers, a brother, a sister, a cousin, a friend, and a dog who have died. They slip away, the darkness facilitating their transition.

How do we comfort ourselves in the holidays, when this time of being with those we love brings our missing of them to the surface? Just as how we grieve is unique, so is what we do to comfort ourselves. We can wear our cloudy PJs until they’re threadbare like a woman who wore her deceased father’s sweater until it raveled apart. My widowed friend makes “bed muffins” from her husband’s shirts, rice-filled pillows to heat in the microwave and snuggle against in bed. After her husband’s death, she brought the outside kittens he was allergic to inside to snuggle in the empty bed with her too. If taking a teddy bear to bed brings comfort, I say do it, no matter what our age. Nobody will know unless we tell them.

A grieving daughter decorates a tree in her mother’s home to cheer her as she sells the furniture and pots and pans, sorts through boxes of crumbling photos. After my daughter Randi’s death one of my “blankies” was my mantra practice. I was sure that if I let that go, the dam would break, I’d be flooded not just with tears, but with some muck so unmanageable I would lose my hold on life. The gift? How this strengthened and cemented my spiritual practice. I figure if it got me through her death it is to be relied on for anything that will ever come my way.

I am a glutton for books, but I’m particular about their quality. After Randi’s death the level of my reading material plummeted. Later I realized this was because I could not read anything that successfully stirred up my emotions. Some glom onto books about the grieving process. I read to escape my grief. Others struggle to read at all. Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking that at first, after her husband’s death, she could only read headlines.

I recall accepting an invitation for some holiday meal not long after Randi’s death. Was it Thanksgiving? My memory of that time is so jumbled. When we got up that morning, the thought of sitting at a table full of cheerful people was suddenly terrifying; we canceled. Yet when we’re ready, on those special days, at the holiday dinner tables, we can look for some way to include our dead beloveds. This may be unspoken—a favorite dish cooked, a wreath on the door that was a gift handmade by our beloved. If the death is really fresh we may want to set a place at the table for this person.  We did that the first Christmas after Randi’s death, placing her photo on the plate. It was both bittersweet and satisfying to include her in this manner.

My family celebrated the first Christmas after my parents’ deaths in their home. Before we ate I raised my glass to propose a toast: “To those who are present and those who are… At the word “absent” I broke into wracking sobs. Everybody let me cry. I didn’t jump up and go hide in the bathroom. I didn’t apologize. It was a perfect reflection of the reality that our attempt to celebrate was taking place in the very room where my mother had died one month earlier and that, though life would go on, it would never be quite the same. That toast and my tears were a deep, deep comfort.

May you each find your own particular way to bring light and comfort to these dark days and to your holidays.

You may buy The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil in bookstores, through www.AnnieMattingley.com and through the following sites:
Amazon: http://amzn.to/2zSaTLB
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/2ljjV0I
Indie Bound: http://bit.ly/2gEcr3f
Hampton Roads/Red Wheel/Weiser: http://bit.ly/2gM255a