It was a very busy weekend. The Sonoma International Film Festival was in full swing. We have festival passes so we were scampering from It’s such a buzz to walk around town from film venue to film venue watching films and also hearing interviews with writers, actors, directors, producers.
What was really fun is that I got to share it with my best friend from high school, Patricia. She was out for a ten-day visit from Minnesota. Our weather did nothing to spoil her. It was rainy and cold! But nothing could dampen our busy and good times together.
Not even the anniversary of Mother’s death.
It was this past Sunday. We went out to Della Fattoria in Petaluma and had brunch. It’s a tradition to gather at Della on these anniversaries. We toasted our almond milk lattes to Mother and spent the rest of the day keeping her front and center in our thoughts. We checked out the fairly new Robindra Unsworth Home store on Kentucky Street in Petaluma. It was interesting to see the macrame wall hangings for sale. They weren’t very good but I only have Mother’s macrame art to compare them with. She was so crafty. She designed intricate pieces and had the immense patience to carry them out to perfection like she did everything. Oh, I wish I had them now. I wonder what happened to them.
Leading up to March 25th, I’ve had Mother on my mind and also grief. That’s a topic that was front and center for me for especially in the first two years. This third year has been gentler. Here are some observational snippets about grief.
Rilke on mortality
Rainer Maria Rilke, the German-language poet (1875-1926) wrote, “The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.”
What has surprised me about my mother’s death is how very much she lives on. My relationship with her continues to deepen. It’s in her passing that I’ve learned so much more about her. When I was the daughter interacting with my mother we had a certain dance. Everything I experienced or reacted to was from our mother-daughter relationship. But when she passed, I saw her as a completely unique woman which I couldn’t do when she was alive. All the while she was my mother, my dad’s wife, a daughter, and sister, she was Alma JoAnn Borgeson. That’s who I want to know, the core of her. It’s an interesting project but things come to me through letters, her poems, and accounts from her friends.
Complicated grief and uncomplicated grief: there’s a difference
I was with my client who as a therapist has spent her whole career specializing in grief. She asked how my dad was doing. I told her what he’d said on his 92nd birthday:
Brenda, I have nothing to complain about and everything to brag about.
It nearly stunned me to hear him say that because I remember the pure agony he was in up until about a year ago when I started to see some changes. He was coming back to himself. You can read about that healing spirit of his in this post.
I felt helpless. I couldn’t take away his grief. All I could do was say, “Dad, the incredible gift you had was 64 years with the woman you loved. And that gift is now your immeasurable sorrow. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
My client said, “When people have loved each other as your parents had, grief is not complicated. It’s deep loss and you can’t take that away. It’s incredibly sad. But you can come back from sadness. When relationships have been complicated that’s when grief is complicated and it’s hard to ever recover from complicated grief.”
And that all makes sense. He is recovering from his sadness.
I understand the difference. The grief I have over my brother’s death at 53-years-old is complicated grief. The grief I have for my mother is uncomplicated.
Comfort food is very comforting
This same client who works with people going through grief had an avalanche of bad luck after falling and breaking three bones in her foot. She was on crutches and her shoulder got dislocated. Then a nerve in her neck got pinched and she couldn’t sleep in her bed for six weeks. She had to sleep sitting up in a chair. Oh, and she was scheduled to be on a long trip to Antarctica so now that was all up in the air. Needless to say, she was bummed, totally bummed. She said, “I used food to comfort myself for those six weeks.” The super cool thing about that is she didn’t say it in any disparaging way. She wasn’t making a thing out of it or putting herself down for it. She was just stating her coping method of choice.
I did the same thing for a few months after Mother’s death. After a while, I decided I needed to retrain myself about eating. I was ready. I decided to go back to WeightWatchers. Because I hadn’t been there in years, I stayed afterward with another woman to learn the new tools as they change something about the program yearly. We were to tell the leader what had brought us back to WW. I said the words out loud that I didn’t say to strangers which were, “My mother died and I’ve been comforting myself with food.” The other returning person jumped in to say, “That so does not work and it’s not sustainable.”
She couldn’t have been more wrong. It worked very well. Food was comforting when nothing else was. And I could have easily sustained that way of eating until I found other ways to comfort myself. The pain was so unbearable. Getting temporary relief from time to time with ice cream or saltines and peanut butter or bagels and cream cheese helped me stay in my body when all I wanted to do was run away.
I went to about three WW meetings, but then I stopped. I wasn’t ready to be in public with strangers.
The difference each year makes
Fresh grief stays fresh for weeks and months. It’s like in the movie Groundhog’s Day. You wake up each morning and realize your loved one is still gone. Each day you have to pull yourself up off the ground and face the whole entire day with the full knowledge that she’s not here. The sorrow for me in that first year was relentless. It hurts so much because I loved so much. It makes sense to cry and cry. Who wouldn’t?
My friend Mariann is 11 months into the death of her beloved husband, Michael. She said with each day “I’m surprised all over again. I still think he’s going to come up the driveway with the groceries to make something wonderful.”
After a year of Groundhog’s Day grief, the novelty of the death is gone. It’s no longer fresh. The real work begins: living life each day bravely and courageously in spite of the loss. It’s no longer a daily shock. Now it’s about finding a graceful way to accept that loss will live alongside life.
By that second year, others aren’t thinking about your loss. They see you in action and they’ve forgotten about what you’ve been through. Birthday parties and celebrations continue. Work continues. To those on the outside, it looks as if everything is normal. But it’s not normal. I’m still busy with grief while being busy with life. That’s when it’s super important to have close friends around you who haven’t forgotten. Or maybe a counselor who knows more about grief than the average layman or laywoman.
Year three is bittersweet. The pain is no longer relentless. Energy has returned. When I wake up from a dream about Mother, I luxuriate in the details. It feels like she’s come for a visit and I cherish it. It gives me a buoyancy throughout the day. It puts a smile on my face. In most dreams, I realize she’s not well but she’s still Mother. She’s appreciating beauty and loving her family. In the dream, I can see that she’s going to pass but for now, she hasn’t and I let the joy of being with her consume me. When I wake up, I’m not sad. I’m so happy she came to see me.
For those of you who have experienced grief, I invite your wisdom! For those of you who are in the middle of it, I sure do have compassion for you. Grief is a powerful, poignant, amazing thing. I encourage walking through it.
Please share your stories, okay?