Every time I meet someone in grief, I realize they are not alone in the grieving process. And when you’re grieving, you never know when you will receive an unexpected telephone call, a neighbor knocking at the door with several cups of coffee and an offer of companionship, or a sudden FaceTime call from a once-distant relative.
I grew up in a lot of pain that included bullying and humiliation. Yet, I believe bouts of repeated trauma remained hidden straight through to adulthood. As a man, walls and walls of endless silence internally bounded mountains of pain. And just like nature, when the pain accumulated, avalanches poured through personal relationships and rolled through all whom I loved. After being terminated via phone, a decade of hard emotional work allowed me to persevere and understand grief and grieving. Often, it was a lonely experience, and there were many days while walking the Hudson River in upstate New York that I felt truly isolated. My world stopped, yet everyone else’s moved onward.
It’s been nearly six months since my father’s death, and I’ve talked to my mother almost every day. Not so much for my sake, but hers. Throughout these conversations, I understand the subtle truth that grieving makes liars out of many. My mother claims she is ok. But internally, her heart is shattered, and she wondered what ‘moving on’ meant. Everyone wants her to be ok. So, she says it, “I am fine,” or, “Skip [her dog], and I have a few sad days. But overall, we’re fine.” I knew otherwise.
Although she is my mother, I had no intuitive psychic knowledge of her complete thoughts. However, I knew mine. I expected my father’s death for several years. And, I’ve anticipated mine for nearly two. So, as I processed my grief, I suspected hers would burst to the surface, that behind the veil, there was more to come. Although everyone has their process for handling grief, countless hours of reading and psychotherapy provided a reference guide, a Rand-McNally road map, if you will, to survive the pain. And my mother’s tears were a sign she was finally visiting old wounds.
Mom thought of all the ‘what ifs.’ “What if dad did not have to go to hospice? What if I was wrong? What if I took care of him? Maybe if I took care of him, he’d be alive today.” I knew all about ‘what ifs,’ not only from personal experience but from what I experienced working in the healthcare industry. Unfortunately, like nearly every person wracked by grief, my mother forgot all of my father’s health issues, and that as gently reminded her time and again that his trajectory was downward.
“Mom, you’re not alone. Nearly every living person fails to listen to the dying. They tell us all we need to know, but we easily miss it because we’re so busy with our agenda(s). Everyone believes they can outrun, outmaneuver, outsmart death.”
A minute or two silence swallowed the room. I asked my mother to read from her diary of my father’s health issues. The first entry was years ago, “Knee replacement surgery.” She then quoted subsequent, repeated entries: “‘Dizzy.’ ‘Hard to walk.’ ‘Back Pain.’ ‘Fatigue.’ ‘Memory issues.’ ‘Cannot seem to see today.’ ‘Eye droop.’ ‘Cannot hear.’ ‘Hand coordination.’ ‘Needs help with bathing.’ ‘Excessive sleep.'” And so on.
My cell phone rang fourteen hours later. My mother wanted to provide a follow-up.
“W___. After our conversation, I remember how you predicted all this. I refused to see it because I never thought he’d die. I just kept remembering all the things I didn’t do. And then I got angry as I remembered all the times he was out drinking, and I was left to raise you and K____. The silence was an emotional trap. The silence reminded me of all I lost.”
(Somewhere in space between death and grief come regrets.)
“I am so sorry, mom.”
“I kept going over all the things left unsaid and all that should have been. But something happened. I feel like I had a conversation with dad. (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross/David Kessler documented many such conversations.) I mean, W___, he was not physically here, and I did not physically hear his voice, but I believe it occurred.”
“Tell me about it,” I inquired.
“Dad said, ‘I am sorry you had to go it alone while I was drinking. It’s not your fault. My death is not your fault. It is mine. You did the best you could. I should have been there for you. I now know I did not say ‘I loved you’ enough. I will see you soon.”
In the midst of such unquenched grief, we believe at some point, that maybe God ripped life’s love from our soul. When this occurs, we need to understand just how much ‘regrets’ percolates throughout our lives, what little it accomplishes, and how it divides. Post-death (or post-grief) it’s about where love will lead us. How can we become new men and women of Love? How can we reach past the autumn leaves of life, to once again stand affirmed by God’s indelible gift of soul? (borrowed from 2012 post ‘Salvation from Within.’)
After our conversation, I thought for a moment. When we realize our strongest wishes are not powerful enough to push aside death, our fears that we somehow contributed to the end of a loved one diminishes. And with it, so does guilt.
Suddenly, I felt a whisper, “When you do not make amends during your time on earth,” Kanako said. “You must make amends here [in the next].”