The Catholic/Jew in me is excited that this year, Christmas and Hanukkah occur together. For those celebrating, have a beautiful, safe, illuminating, and meaningful Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza...or any other holiday you may observe.
I write this post in memory of my late brother, whose anniversary of his passing was December 4th, and late mother, whose anniversary of her passing is December 26th. I experience some ambivalence writing about this topic, as we know that the experiences closest to our hearts cannot be confined to words, or adequately conveyed within them. I write because I believe there may be an understanding for those that are moving through loss, and humbly offer one perspective (a personal one), which is also coupled with professional training. There is a felt sense that when our hearts want nothing more than to see our loved ones, hug them, laugh with them, feast with them, (as I do with my parents especially), but enounter the permanency of non-physical existence, we can move through this longing in ways that honor our own precious lives, and, the best of their lives that they offered to us.
Undoubtedly, the way one dies, the relationship with the person at death, and the spiritual/religious beliefs of individuals impact memory and meaning, and therefore, the process of grief. When we think about memory, it is important to understand that what we remember is influenced by past experiences and most importantly, our perceptions of the experiences. This is to say that we form "mental maps" "schemata," which draw attention to phenomena and interpret experience based on the past. Often this is at the subconscious/unconscious level. Thus, it is important to understand and utilize another component of memory: What we choose to remember can also impact the process of grief. For example, X happens, and the person who survives calls attention to several things he/she "could have" done in his/her perception to prevent the death. The emotion is repeated, stored in the body, and can express itself in emotional/physicall illness. Needless to say, the repeated perception is often one of the harshest self-critiques, and purely speculative with regard to outcome. At its worst, it exacerbates depressive symptoms.
Such depression is often most prenicious if there is not other forms of support. For example, this can be experienced when a parent buries a child and there are other children in the home, who lose one or both of their parents to their parents' suffering. The couple unit may also suffer, if one partner loses themselves and withdraws from the relationship and life. This can happen across familial subsystems and various forms of loss (see writings on ambiguous loss by Pauline Boss). What is helpful here is to muster other forms of support (partner, family, community, support groups, therapist, etc.), which can gently assist the person to remember the totality of their experiences with their loved one who has passed, which is far more than the "should have," "could have" done this or that. Or, in the case of suicide, or a drug addiction overdose to understand the complexity of their loved one's experiences (See post on "Having Courageous Conversations On Suicide Prevention"). Irrespective of how our loved ones die, there is enough goodness in them, ourselves, the world, to support the healing process.
A Personal Reflection: " You will take off that black!"
It was the first time I would see my father cry. I was 17 when my brother died and still forming impressions of life, and trying to take it all in. His death was unexpected and devastating to family (his wife/young kids, my parents, us). I did not know what to feel or think. Dad read widely and flirted with many philosophical traditions, which appeared to comfort him. I would hear many stories of reincarnation from him, and considered it as a possibility, even though it went against my mother's Catholic tradition. Dad normalized our lives fairly quickly; mother would cry a lot. I would hear her crying in the mornings, and wanted to protect her and make her happy. Her tradition (Aramean) of dressing in all black for one year is certainly a visible testament of grief. But, it did not unfold as such as dad recognized a deeper, more functional truth: "You will take off that black!" he declared after some time. Mom adored dad and mostly listened to him. This time he was right, and I am grateful that she did. Sometimes when we encounter a particular type of pain (I imagine the loss of a child would be the greatest), the demonstrations and enactments of resiliency (taking off the black, literally and metaphorically) is the most loving gift to self, to others, and to the memory of our loved ones.
What does this mean exactly? Feeling sadness, anger, loneliness, thwarted hopes and dreams are all ok to feel. Are we not beautifully human? Sustaining life and generating life for self and others is about taking in the gamut of emotions all of us beings feel and being able to sit with them, compassionately and non-judgmenatlly feel them...to listen to them and acknowledge what they want to say, AND, also "take off the black," We must choose to invite other emotions in, which can assuage some of the heavier feelings and at its best, transform them to experiences that bring forth a deeper, refined, and kinder space of love for ourselves and others.
And, is it not true that there are things in life, such as premature death, illness, tragedy, familial pain that we cannot understand, or even begin to attempt to answer even one question- within the cluster of question marks- which our minds beckon us to? And, somehow as we learn to view ourselves, others, and life as interconnected teachers along our journeys, we are lead back to turning inward and trusting within, far beyond the rational mind. Here, meaning is illuminated.
So, for dear bro, I have a fun memory (and picture, somewhere) of him bringing champagne to my 17th Bday, and mom getting mad. He-much like dad-inspires the playful side in me.
For the memory of mom: I remember her for being PURE LOVE-to everyone-and holding a space of care, kindness,and understanding without the desire for even an acknowledgment. Mom would make these amazing feasts for 1 to 10s of 10s-and make it seem so easy. It would be rare to enter our home and not find her creating some meal for you. Mom was also amazingly simple and unpretentious: When dad or my brothers would buy her expensive gifts, she would not want them. She did not like calling attention to herself: cars, jewelry, no makeup. She was so easy to love and taught me that one way to love well is to love beyond the "I," beyond the "me."
Henry David Thoreau's words are poignant and worthy of much reflection: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their grave with the song still inside them." This sobering insight addresses the trappings of modernity with the truth of what it might mean if one does not live life well- with presence, authenticity, and the courage to identify and sing their own unique "song," unencumbered by the weight of expectation or convention. Undoubtedly, the song within us is there; it is accessible! We must first understand how it may lay dormant, and then intentionally awaken it from its slumber and claim it as our own.
There are several things in modern life that condition, impose, and trap our songs. These include messages embedded in popular culture, Western ideas of individualism, "success," untamed and uncontextualized material and physical pursuits, ideas about our body, beauty, age, and intelligence. Consumption, acquisiton, and efficiency have become normative, highly valued qualities, silencing the wisdom within. Along the pursuit, people begin to identify themselves with their things, their status, their perceived "power." Sometimes, they extend it to their children, identifying their children's "success" as their own. Yet, there is more than the doing, the achieving, the acquirinq, which results in what I perceive as Thoreau calling a "quiet desperation." "The masses of men" carry on their days, their routines, their lives not finding the deeper meaning to the gift they were given: Another day at life...Another day to sing their song, which is inimitable, and expressed in their personal life mission.
Our innermost being knows this, she gives glimpses of her truth: It is not what is out there-the external definitions, trappings- that define us and bring meaning. She tries to tease it out of us, delighting us in moments of meaning, salubrious play, and awe: moments of emotional intimacy, authentic selves in conversation, a belly laugh, natural highs, the gaze, longing, familiarity of a beloved, acts of loving-kindness, music, ideas that expand the mind and foster imaginative and cognitive faculties for creativity and noble pursuits, the raw loveliness of nature: her sounds, hues, life. She understands these forms of beauty and asks that we pay some attention to her.
Thoreau approached it this way:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...” (Thoreau: Walden first published 1854)
We need not go into the woods, nor retreat from material existence. The following guidelines might be helpful:
*Emotions are embodied, be attuned to them: What/when/with whom do you feel heavy? What/when and with whom do you feel light, free, generative and playful? Be in the light. Apply this to work, to interactions with others, to places you visit, and you will draw closer to your song. Positive psychology teaches us that when we are content, when we experience positive emotions, we are more expansive, able to make better decisions, and foster additional positive emotions.
*What recurrent thoughts, patterns, happenings do you discern in your life? Do they hold a truth for you? Are they your own, or do they belong to culture, unhelpful family-of-origin, or partner experiences? Is the past asking you to release something; have you found the learning in the challenges? Will you choose to move forward, invite something new into your life? What keeps calling you forth?
*What is life presenting to you now? Are you attending to her, do you notice? Where is presence in conversations? Is taste, texture, aroma, gratitude, focuses of meals, or is it a phone that captures more interest ? What beauty was found today? It is always there- even in our momemts of discomfort, sadness, and ugliness. We must find it, and let it soothe, heal and bless us.
We are never too young, too old, too poor, too affluent, too battered or too blessed by life to sing our songs. Your song is there, it is for you, now, go and sing it!
Nadia Brewart, Ph.D., is a student of life with an insatiable curiosity about what it means to be human, amidst encounters with the human condition.