All Souls’ Day

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction. Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears are as real as an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like. … Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.” Blessed are they who laughed again when for so long they thought they never would. … Blessed are those who mourn. You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.”

(Some Modern Beatitudes, A Sermon for All Saints Sunday, by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

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My son wants to visit his father’s gravesite today, which seems appropriate for All Saints Sunday, a day to honor the lives of those loved ones who have died. But the excursion is not as altruistic as it sounds. He has the opportunity to do an extra credit project — for Spanish or Religion, I can’t remember which — in observance of El Dia de Los Muertos. He has been given the option either to go to the gravesite of a deceased relative or to attend the festivities based on the Mexican-catholic tradition celebrating El Dia de Los Muertos at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. That scene is as colorful as you might imagine. The shy boy thinks it will be easier to go to his father’s gravesite.

The thing is, the boy has only been to his father’s gravesite once before. To say the experience was excruciating would be a gross understatement. Oh, and there’s this: Sam was neither Mexican nor catholic; he was a cuban Jew.

But it’s for school, and it will be a time for the boy to face into some serious business, and snacks will be involved. So I’m in. Because that’s the kind of mother I am.

His assignment is to decorate the gravesite Dia de Los Muertos-style, so we have come prepared with orange flowers, two family photographs, chocolate and a “double double” cheeseburger from In ’n Out. With fries. Sam loved fries, especially cold ones.

Needless to say, we are the only ones at the Jewish cemetery bearing snacks.

The first time the boy came to this spot was just about a year after his father’s death, for the unveiling of the memorial tablet. The boy was determined not to go that day. He wanted to stay at school instead. I promised him that I would never force him to go again, but I insisted that he join us for the ceremonial unveiling. I wanted him to participate and to see that the place is beautiful and peaceful, with a view of the city his father loved. It’s not morbid or scary like a bad horror movie.

But it is exquisitely sad for a little boy to have to visit his father in this place.

Sam’s name was etched in bronze on a tablet set in the grass, with his years of birth and death, and a quote from a poem I found comforting: “Let it not be a death but completeness.” I chose the word loved, as in “Loved husband and father” because one of the boys thought the word “beloved” sounded so ugly. He heard the word for the first time at his father’s funeral, but he didn’t know what “beloved” meant. No wonder the child thought it sounded ugly.

A few friends and family had gathered for the unveiling ceremony. It was brutally hot, and the young tree close by granted very little shade. The rabbi was late, predictably stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway. On that day, my broken-hearted baby stomped on his father’s memorial tablet. Multiple times. My poor father-in-law flinched, visibly shaken, because his broken-hearted baby had just been the recipient of the stomp. He told me to stop the stomping. I refused, because I thought it was the perfect expression of little boy grief. For the record, it’s not just the kids, I’ve thrown rocks at that tablet myself.

One good thing about this space is that it’s big enough to hold the full range of our feelings, from loved or beloved to reviled and to loved again.

And now we return to the cemetery. It has been several years since I have been here, and even longer for the boy. Initially, we cannot find Sam because there’s been a bit of construction in the interim. Neither of us asks directions, but it only takes a few minutes to find him. We are drawn to the spot by feel.

My son sets out his offerings. I snap a few pictures. We sit together in silence for a while. It is no small achievement for the boy to have arrived here today. This is the child who refused to say the “D” words — dead or dad — for two years after his father committed suicide.

Today my boy does not stomp on the site.

He sits quietly.

He thinks for a long while.

I inhale and exhale. I don’t want to rush. I try not to cry.

Eventually he indicates that he is ready to go.

I ask him whether there’s anything he’d like to say to dad before we leave. He says No. I give him a few suggestions of phrases I’ve said to his father in the course of grieving his death: “I love you? I miss you? What on earth were you thinking? Fuck you?” My boy looks at me and sighs. He smiles and shakes his head. I’m not sure whether this means he really has nothing to say out loud to his dead father or whether he is simultaneously amused and annoyed at his mother’s preternatural impulse to say everything out loud. He wipes the tear forming in the corner of his eye, and we stand up to leave.

The nearby tree has grown several feet and casts a wide shadow, yielding a comfortable refuge from the heat, the bronze tablet has been weathered and darkened, and the young man is thriving in ways that a father hopes for his son.

I think it might have been easier to go to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. To get lost in the general revelry and anonymity with the crowds and costumes and music. Instead, my son has chosen to look squarely into the face of his own grief. He is brave beyond measure. He has found his way to beauty, gratitude and peace in this place of mourning, and, I dare to say, he has been blessed.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And blessings.

Laughter in the Wrong Places

This grief business sometimes surprises me in its absurdity. Today I inhaled a gnat on my jaunt with the dog, and this moment transported me back to the day of Sam’s funeral.

Maybe I shouldn’t have laughed out loud, but honestly, what exactly is the appropriate response when you’re walking from the chapel to the burial site, accompanying your dead husband’s coffin surrounded by several hundred family, friends, clients, clergy and colleagues and you involuntarily sniff up a fly in the midst of a sob? It’s surreal and ludicrous and hot, and if – God forbid – I had to do it over, I would probably laugh again, even though my attendant and one of the pallbearers simultaneously whipped their heads around to glower at me, as though I were a small child (but not too small) laughing in church.

Houses of worship should be a sanctuary for both laughter and tears, but this behavior generally gets the shush in holy places. Personally, I enjoy my children’s laughter in church, but I can’t tell them so; instead, I give them the “mom look,” that is, if I’m not snickering myself. Seriously, if God doesn’t want us to laugh, then that’s not a God I need to spend a lot of time with.

But that fly at the funeral. I covered my mouth to hide the flagrantly inappropriate giggle and to keep myself from gagging up the little insect. Everything was all just so wrong. In the shock and gravity of Sam’s suicide, the overwhelmingness of it, somehow that ordinary fly suffering death by sniffle still strikes me as funny. I have rarely thought about that day at the cemetery since without also thinking about the gnat-snorting incident, a suppressed snicker and the ensuing glares. That little bug gave his life to save my sense of humor, although I was the only one who appreciated it at the time. And even though that moment reinforced how very alone and misunderstood I would feel in my mourning, even though it reminded me that this was a path I would have to walk by myself, the fact that laughter might yet be possible was no small consolation.

On the day of Sam’s death, one of my dearest friends – the first to arrive at my home, in fact – told me, “This is going to sound terribly unfair, but you are going to have to comfort a lot of people.” She was right. It did sound terribly unfair. And it was true, I did have to comfort a lot of people. I held hands and looked into eyes. I assured them that I was ok, that the children were ok, and that they would be ok, too. I reminded them that Sam’s demons weren’t their fault or contagious. Together, we remembered a good and loving man.

But my friend was also wrong. Grief makes people uncomfortable. So one of the ways to comfort other people, naturally, would be to temper my own grief. Which I didn’t always do.

People have a lot of opinions on what grief should look like. Grief should be solemn and wear black. Grief should last one year, or the rest of your life. Grief should say its prayers. Grief should speak when invited to, and then not too loudly, spilling all over and making a scary, uncomfortable mess. Grief should stay home from parties. Grief should not drink too much, or spend too much time alone, or be too angry.

I did all those things. Plus some.

My grief lost her appetite and her train of thought. My grief forgot to pay her bills on time. She said, “At least my husband’s not a deadbeat, he’s just dead.” Sometimes my grief crawled back into bed. She couldn’t focus. Or sleep. She stopped cooking and reading and scrapbooking. My grief got distracted and walked out the room while people were still talking. My grief could not bear the thought of sending Christmas cards. My grief did not always behave herself with grace or decorum. She berated my faith regularly. My grief was foul-mouthed and ill-humored, and worse, she allowed her children to be foul-mouthed and ill-humored. She was chronically late. She gave up on God and mascara. She did a lot of things she had sworn never to do, like running, and Xanax. She laughed on her way to bury her husband.

It was not the first (or last) time judgment and its side-kick, disapproval, would play a part in the process, but that was the risk I would take in choosing to own my experience. That little laugh reminded me that my inner snarky self was still lively under the weight of all that sadness. Slowly, tenaciously, I traversed the strange and perilous road to healing which is grief.

I consider it a profound honor when someone trusts me enough genuinely to grieve a loss in my presence. To laugh and cry and shake and say terribly irreverent things or nothing at all. These are sacred moments, but they are not easy ones. It is agonizing to see someone you love suffer, to stay with them during those painful, difficult times. There is no fix, but the sturdy, loving presence of a friend makes things so much better. In these moments to ask the griever to be the comforter does seem terribly unfair.

But in another sense, my friend’s prediction pointed to a higher truth, one that I did not appreciate until much later: her hallmark faith that I would find and share healing after tragedy. Which is no small comfort.

There’s no blueprint for healing, no one-size-fits-all. There are certainly no right answers, although there are definitely some wrong ones, but the best I could hope for was to find my way with integrity. The most authentic comfort I can provide is not in words or ritual but in experience, having found my own way to a resurrected life, full of love and forgiveness and hope and an increased capacity for both heartbreak and joy, all while honoring my spicy, spirited self.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And wildly inappropriate laughter.

What If?

Sam committed suicide in October nearly eight years ago. There is so much stigma surrounding suicide that it is still strange to say out loud.

One of the boys tells me that sometimes, instead of using the “S” word when people ask how his father died, he tells them that Sam fell accidentally, so they won’t think less of his father. I get that. Immediately after Sam’s death, I expected to be ostracized by my community, my church, my sons’ school, even potentially my own family. It’s the world we live in. A world that criticizes death by suicide. A world that marginalizes the grief wrought by a loved one’s suicide. A world where a young boy feels compelled to protect his dead father’s reputation.

I wasn’t treated as an outcast after Sam’s death. I was held and fed and heard. I think this is a testament to the progress that has been made by raising awareness and increasing compassion toward mental health issues, even in one generation. But we still have work to do.

Sam’s last words to me were “Bye, sweetie. I love you.” What if, instead, he had been able to say, “I need help”? What if he had been able to let me – or someone, anyone – know that he was in a kind of pain that wasn’t addressed by an aspirin and a nap? What if he had been able to articulate that he was in so much anguish that jumping off a parking structure seemed like a rational idea?

I have learned not to get caught in the “what if” loop, because “what if” wasn’t and “what is” is. It might not have changed everything. It might not have changed anything. But there is a place for “what if” thinking; it is the place where we hope to create progress, a place where we provide community and a gentler world for those who follow. We might not have been able to eliminate Sam’s pain, but what if we could have taken away his shame? Maybe he would not have felt so alone in the darkness. Maybe he could have heard my last words to him, “Bye, sweetie. I love you.”

Sam had chronic and debilitating back pain, and he rarely (and then reluctantly) asked for help. Then again, his back pain was impossible to mask, wincing as he got in and out of the car, shuffling along old-man style. In fact, he had a prescription for vicodin left from his most recent back surgery, but he resisted taking the pain-killers for fear of becoming dependent on them. The toxicology report showed that he had vicodin in his system when he died and, as a result, was not likely in any significant physical pain. I found this fact oddly comforting. But what if, instead of reaching for the bottle, he had reached for the phone?

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally, and some of us seem to struggle more with this than others, especially if we fear being judged. When life’s problems do not yield to simple solutions, these are the times that companionship along the journey is especially important, but silence suffers alone. Sam had fewer than ten contacts saved on his cell phone; more than half of those were his favorite places to order take-out. What if he had called any one of the ten? I imagine that even the pizza guy would have wanted to help. It might not have changed everything. Or anything.

Sam didn’t call anyone.

September is the official Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and even though it’s October, the conversation continues. Believe me, I know these are hard conversations to have, but silence makes the stigma worse. What if, by increasing awareness and compassion, we open up the possibility for the kind of world where someone in distress can reach out for help without fear of judgment? It’s a legacy worth talking about.

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Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And possibility.