So Many Ways to Grieve

Mirabai Starr is a local writer acquaintance whose daughter died nine years before mine. I read her most recent book, a memoir, Caravan of No Despair (, just before the fifth anniversary of my daughter Randi’s suicide, then set the book aside.

Recently I went to retrieve the manuscript for my own book The After Death Chronicles after Mirabai had read it. I felt chagrined when she referred to my knowing about her daughter’s after-death contact from her book, because I could not remember this. Eighteen months after my first reading, I read Caravan of No Despair again.

Now I could see how unprepared I had been for reading about her grief process and her daughter’s death. How could I have “forgotten” the strange sense of peace that permeated Mirabai on the night of that death—before she knew? How could I have “forgotten” the radiant encounter with her father on the night of his death—before she knew? Despite after-death communication’s profound significance to me, her stories had been too emotional for me to hold onto then.

Mirabai wrote that she could only read literary fiction in the immediate wake of Jenny’s death. I could not bear to read anything that touched my heart. Mirabai described the piercing choice to push the button to ignite the crematorium’s fire. I had asked to see my daughter’s body before it was turned to ash and nearly collapsed when I did. There are so many ways to grieve.

When I read that Mirabai had never met a bereaved mother who did not crave death, I wondered why I didn’t fit this pattern. I believe I had no space for craving death when my granddaughter Chelsey became my surrogate daughter. I had never considered living to be really old a worthwhile goal; suddenly I yearned for long life. Eighty-eight would take me past that vulnerable year in Chelsey’s life when she’d reach the age—47—her mom was at her death. But I did the math wrong. I’d have to live to be 98. Could I make it?

Mirabai wrote of the possible “suicidal despair” of grieving mothers, another pattern I had sidestepped. Knowing firsthand how suicide tortures those left behind, I would not subject my beloveds to that pain. Yet when she wrote of the holy fire of her pain, I burned with the compassionate sisterhood of our shared experience as mothers, no matter the external differences in our grieving process.

I experienced odd hits of synchronicity in the book. At fourteen, Mirabai’s daughter planned to be a doctor. My daughter had been a doctor. On the day that Jenny would have turned 25, Mirabai adopted a dog they named Lola. On the day after my granddaughter Chelsey turned 25, she gave birth to a daughter they named Lola. Why this made me cry when I read it and again as I write this, I don’t know. Maybe it’s simply that same sense of grief’s shared sisterhood.

On May 23rd I was on a train in Spain with my family, including Chelsey and Lola, the trip a college graduation gift for Chelsey, partly funded by her inheritance. This would have been Randi’s 54th birthday. I spoke of what I always share on my daughters’ birthdays as I relive the days of their births, of telling Randi about being awakened early by contractions, leaving in the dark, her toddler sister Rowena drowsy in my lap—no seatbelts in 1963—dropping her at my parents’. By noon I was putting my second-born to my breast, kissing her soft spot.

I will always honor Randi’s birthday. Without it my heart would not have cracked open 47 years later, but I would not trade away this day to avoid the day of her death. A broken open heart is like a seed that can burst into new life in damp soil. It was Randi who told me—after death—that I would be transformed by our connection and by all those I interviewed who had similar experiences. She was right. My will to live and my awareness of Spirit’s constant support have never been stronger. As Mirabai says, though tragedy doesn’t guarantee transformation, it does offer the opportunity for it.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July.

A Chair for the Dead

An odd little chair used to sit in the corner of my weaving studio, more in the way than useful. I can’t recall how it came to be ours, but someone had cut down its legs so most people found it way too low, though it fit my five-foot frame perfectly.

When I read about the practice of placing an old chair in the yard as an invitation to include a deceased family member in our ongoing lives, I took this chair out near our picnic table for my deceased daughter Randi. Later I moved it away from easy view under the shade of a huge juniper tree. The next summer I sat beside it often as I wrote. Somehow it was solace just to be near that chair.

The backstory of this practice began in the 19th century, post-Civil War southern United States where African-Americans, many of them former slaves or their descendants, had a long history of suppression of their cultural and artistic expressions. Not to be restrained, they found a way to create art in their yards from cast-off objects that appeared, to outsiders, to be just plain old junk.

This junk has hidden meanings encoded into it like a secret language and yard art is often used to commemorate beloveds who have died. What looks like only a wrecked pedal sewing machine rusting away in the rain, to the family honors their grandmother. An assemblage of broken-handled shovels and rakes, a blackened wrench, half a pair of pliers lying about in an apparently random pile may have been carefully arranged as a memorial to a hardworking father.

And a chair, with its cane seat sagging or broken rungs or wobbly legs, is an invitation to a beloved’s spirit that says, “You are welcome here. We love you. We still heed your words and your wisdom.”

Nestled up against our latilla fence, Randi’s chair could be seen from half my house. I worried that someone might sit in it, though no one ever did. It stayed there for a year, until I felt called to move it further away. I wondered if I was putting it in the shade to protect my daughter’s fair skin, as if that could matter to her anymore. Now I can’t see the chair without deliberately visiting it, which I did frequently at first and seldom do anymore. I’ve noticed its paint is peeling. This all seems to reflect the evolution of my grieving from a constant and pressing awareness to a more occasional one.

I like the secrecy of the language hidden within this chair. I like that no one asks why it’s there, that it’s simultaneously public and quite private. It holds another layer of secret meaning as well. Because of its African-American roots it honors the multi-racial mix of our family. I am Caucasian, as was my daughter. This chair commemorates her choice to partner with an African-American man and the mixed-race arm of our family line they began together.

If you have ever driven through the southwestern United States you may have seen small white crosses along the highways. Some are elaborately decorated. Some have names or dates painted on them. These crosses are called descansos (descanso means “rest” in Spanish). Each one commemorates someone who has died in an automobile accident, yet another way of honoring the memory of the dead. It is touching to drive by as families gather to refurbish these crosses or to add a circle of stones.

We humans want and need to maintain connection with and to honor those who have died. My personal experiences and the research for my book show me that the dead also want to keep in contact with us. Whether we put an old rocking chair in the yard or a small pebble by our apartment door or a descanso by the road, any of these can help to keep the connection with a dead beloved strong.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July.