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.

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Grief Poem #5

(inspired by Canto de Obsidiana by Gerardo Suter, MACO exhibit, 2013)

Obsidian Shard

In the length of a phone call
it entered my flesh
pierced my chest through and through
my world torn off its axis
skin, muscle, ventricle, auricle, tissue, vein
penetrated by needle-thin volcanic glass.
I do not make peace with it.
I do not accept it.
There is no resolution, no closure.
I allow. No thing more.
By now its presence is not felt
until the sound of violin, tenor, or harp
splinters its strange reality
and fills me with old shadows.

Afterward, as if melted by memory’s furnace
it re-forms into the most slender of slivers.
In the night, I caress it for comfort.
Like a genie in a bottle
rubbed the right way
it brings the precious history
restores the unbroken umbilical cord.

I begin and begin again
and in her ending my beginning
grows fiercely forward
like the saguaro grows taller, stronger from lack.
I shed my black mourning, receive the sun. 

© creativecommonsstockphotos / Dreamstime Stock Photos

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Pre-order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound. Find out more on my Book page at www.anniemattingley.com/books

Grief Poem #1, 2011

13 Moons, Since

Somehow I have managed
to weave her a nest
from bits of bone
my fallen hair
her ash, the shredded pages
of her old IRS forms.
I’ve knit these together
on the beams of the 13 moons,
since.

I can—most of the time—
keep her tucked in this corner of my heart
where the spirits care for her.
I don’t trip over the anguish
nearly so often now,
now mostly only when I choose.
Mostly.

I can’t recall the last time
I broke down after dialing
yet one more 800 number
to have her name removed
from yet one more mailing list.
We’ll need her signature,
one hapless call-center guy replied.
That will be difficult
I re-explained
since she is dead.
Oh, he said.
I’ll take care of it, he said.
Would that you could, I thought.
I open her mail: “Order now,
we’ll give you free shipping for life.”
And, after her mail is forwarded to my house,
“Welcome to the neighborhood.”

I am forced to say she is dead
over and over again
to write deceased across forms
to declare myself
the personal representative
of her Estate, to ask
do you need the Letters Testamentary?
a Death Certificate?
will a photocopy do?
Each action, each word spoken
another letting of blood.

Yet without these burdens
I might have wandered
the labyrinthine hallways
of disbelief for an eternity.
Only as her mail shrank
my official duties withered
could I begin to glean
that what remains of my daughter
is this one bittersweet bundle
nestled here within me.

© creativecommonsstockphotos / Dreamstime Stock Photo

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.
www.anniemattingley.com