Grief is a sacred journey

A Good Hurt: Choosing to Remember Those We Miss

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May Ritual of Remembrance for Jim

…there comes a time when, long after loss has been well-lived…, a small melody of love always returns.”  Dreamwork with Toko-Pa 

For the seventh year, I gathered candles and evergreens for a Solstice Ritual. My son, daughter-in-law, and I built an altar and shared what we hoped to release and create for 2017. We lit candles and told stories about David’s dad and my husband Vic. We laughed and wept.

When David and Liz left a few days later, I descended into gloom. Exploring the feeling, I remembered I hadn’t lit a Solstice candle for my brother Jim who died in April. I hadn’t put his photo on the altar or shared a story. Instead, grief stayed buried in my belly.

How could I exclude Jim?

Visiting my sick brother, 2013

Visiting my sick brother, 2013

2013

2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the months before Jim’s death, I spent days in his hospital room. Our conversations were deep and honest. I knew he was dying, but no one else in his nuclear family, including him, could face that possibility.

Holding hands the last day

Holding hands on his last day

After his death, his family got on with life and avoided “drama.” They didn’t share tears or stories. My mom had handled grief this way when my dad died, so I knew the routine.

But that’s not my style, is it? Haven’t I learned to turn toward grief and find comfort there? Hasn’t sorrow led me to deep connection with those I miss?

In May, soon after Jim’s death, I felt him slipping away from my thoughts, so I asked friends to join me for a quiet ritual to honor and remember him. In July, I spoke at his memorial service and let my feelings show. After that, I rarely focused on his absence except on Sunday mornings, our usual time to talk on the phone.

After the holidays this year, I searched for hidden love in old family photos. I found Jim as a smiling big brother in 1945. Jim who supported me when our dad died in 1959 and when I was in college. I also noticed long periods of time when there were no photos of him.

1945

1945

With Jim, 1948

With Jim, 1948

Between 1968 and 2000, I rarely saw my brother. He focused on career while I focused on inner life and family. When he had a family crisis around 2000, I showed up, even though he said I shouldn’t come. I’m glad I ignored him.

with Jim, his wife when Vic was going through chemotherapy, 2006

with Jim & his wife when Vic was going through chemotherapy, 2006

When Vic was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, Jim called frequently and tried to help. When I wrote Leaning into Love, my accomplished brother celebrated his little sister’s book and book award as though I’d won the Noble Prize.

When Jim was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, I spent as much time as I could with him. He lived eight hours away, but I drove there often. I was tired, but never sorry.

There may be other hidden reasons this grief slides underground, but a few are obvious. I’m exhausted with caring for my husband’s mother. I’m also challenged by Meniere’s Disease symptoms which worsen when I’m stressed.

How many times have I told a griever that it’s never too late to work with sadness and build connections? Now I tell myself: It’s not too late. 

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On New Year’s Eve, I found a favorite photo from 1965 and re-arranged the Solstice article. I leaned my brother and me against a small statue of Divine Mother. I lit candles and wept for Jim and the part of me that’s worn down by grief and care-giving.

Knowing Jim would forgive me, I forgave myself.

***

If you’ve read my blog this year, you know I’ve wrestled with grief over my brother’s death. Do old photos help you work with confusing feelings? Or do they bring more memories than you care to face? For other posts about sibling grief, see Waiting for Another Dance or Soul Care in Hard Times.

 

28 Comments
  1. When my father died in December, the family gathered the night before the funeral to share stories about dad, grandpa, great grandpa. When I mentioned this to friends, they were surprised but thought this was a great idea. It brought the family together. We heard stories we hadn’t heard before. And then the next day we cried.

    • Beautiful, Mark–and I’m sorry your dad died. It sounds like your family did a great job coming together in love and grief. I’m so glad those stories were told. I’m sure you had a hand in that.

      It was natural and spontaneous to do both family and community rituals when Vic died. Our family and community were enthusiastic, so it was easy to keep remembrance going and my heart open. My brother’s family wasn’t interested in the sort of ritual I’m used to–or any sort of ritual except for a formal memorial service. My usual approach to grief hasn’t been available with them. That doesn’t mean I can’t do more myself.

  2. Dear Elaine,

    Thank you for sharing your commitment to staying present to your pain and grief as long as it takes. Thank you for reminding us that It’s not too late. That we can forgive ourselves for not being as present as we think we should be. For being human. This message alone….that we are who we are, and do what we can, and that’s okay and enough….rings through your posts like a tuning fork and it’s always reassuring to hear it again. Pitiful, idealistic creatures that we are, we think self-blame is noble. It’s not. Nobility and wisdom lie in forgiving our real selves and in extending forgiveness to the humanness of others. Blessings, Jeanie

    • Thank you, Jeanie. I can be the Queen of Self-Blame (I know there are many who claim this title), and it’s paralyzing. It’s important to tune into the small things that help me remember my brother and stay in relationship to “Jim in me.” He carried my animus projection before I met Vic and we became so close in his last years. I want to keep that sense of intimacy and support and I know it’s possible if I don’t let grief sink into the unconscious.

      I’ve thought about the Brother-Sister Archetype in Apollo and Artemis. My brother was certainly Apollic and, as an older woman, I see how aligned I am with Artemis.

  3. Sometimes it becomes overwhelming when we feel our hearts being tugged with too much stress and grief to carry, even grief that we may feel we have deal with. But some feelings never go away.
    I’m glad you found the photo that helped you reconnect with the love you shared and the loss you felt for Jim. You needed that connection remembered again.
    Here’s hoping this year will be good and better for all of us Elaine. 🙂

    • Thank you, Debby. I find it best to grieve in community and with family, but that didn’t happen with my brother. Yes, I’m worn down by caring for Vic’s mom. Recently, she asks questions about my relationship to her many years ago, such as, “We got along well, didn’t we? We were always all right, weren’t we? I always loved you, didn’t I?” I affirm her because there’s no point in doing anything else, but I note a little sense of introspection and life review going on. Yesterday, she said something like, “I tried to be nice to you, but you never took care of me.” She said I never took care of her a few times in a pleading sort of way as though asking for forgiveness. I forgave her long ago, but it woke me up when she said repeatedly that I never took care of her. There are times when a grinning shoulder shrug is the only appropriate response.

      • Wow, that’s a lot to process Elaine. It sounds as though Virginia wants to repent on one hand, but on the other, brings herself back to her old self where she chooses to be back to her ungrateful side. I suppose aging and approaching the other side takes the mind to different aspects of their lives in different time frames. You’re so right, just shrug it off because you’re not going to teach a very old dog a new trick now. 🙂

        • There is a sweetness in her wanting to make things right, but there’s no where to go with it. This old dog is also learning how to let things go.

  4. It’s never too late is it Elaine .. the tears are cleansing and refreshing. Thank you for this lovely post, a reminder to permit the grief that so often we repress …

    • I don’t think of myself as a grief represser, Susan, but I had to face my actions rather than my ideas. It’s natural to avoid pain, but I’ve learned that facing the pain brings a different level of resolution and big rewards. I’m glad to be back on track thinking about my brother because not remembering makes me feel alone. One way to remember someone is to write about them and then say more in comments. Therapeutic blogging! Thank you, Susan.

      • You illustrate this lesson so well and poetically in your writings, of the necessity to feel the griefs and how they bring about different levels and big rewards, and gently encourage us to do the same, acknowledging the hard work therein. Thank you again Elaine 🙂

  5. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for this wonderful article, and the deep sharing of your heart. In reading your family storyline, of how grief was often brushed to one side, it makes sense to me that even decades later (and despite differing beliefs) we still respond in similar ways to our parents and fall into the same unconscious patterns. One way or another, we simply forget, until we remember.

    I love your pictures! None more so than the one of Jim standing beside you in your Moses basket. A truly moving account of you both and an honour to read. Aha! ‘Leaning into love’ with you and your brother leaning into the Divine Mother herself. Plants that blossom despite having braved much extreme cold in their lives. Beautiful, beyond words really. Much love and light, Deborah.

    • Thank you for noticing the leaning, Deborah. That was deliberate since it was easy to lean into my love for Vic. Jim called himself an atheist. As I watched his death process, I saw that he truly believed that there was nothing after this one life and one ego. He was a tolerant and curious atheist, always interested in my perspective and never dismissive. He told me his visions in those last weeks and one dream. His visions were beneficent, mainly of days of preparation for a wedding in India (even though he had traveled widely, he’d never been to India where I’ve been three times). His images were beautiful and poetic. In the one dream he shared, “Elaine is standing on a boat going across a huge body of water. She has to cross a border in order to be with me.” We talked about that as much as he could talk. The symbolic significance seemed so clear and perfectly stated by the unconscious, but he was a man of will and rational science to the end.

      I’m grateful to find new family photos in boxes left by my mother who died ten years ago. I’m sorting through her photo collection for the first time and find jewels mixed with lots that needs to be recycled. Thanks again for your loving response.

  6. You know from my blog how old photos have helped me process grief. And you are wise to “search for hidden love in old family photos,” particularly at year’s end. I like all the sentiments expressed and notice how brilliant colors bookend this post.

    I think care-giving is taking more of a toll on your emotional energy than you realize. “When will the other shoe drop?” I sometimes task in my own situation.

    May you find 2017 filled with abundance. What an encouragement you continue to be to so many who struggle.

    • I do know that, Marian, and thought of you and your explorations when asking the question. I also agree that care-giving knocks the stuffing out of me (as my Missouri grandma would say), but I don’t have much choice. I’m also tied to exacting financial record keeping in case she decides to live another five years and we run out of money. I wish us all abundance, kindness, and peace in 2017.

      On that note, I read a comment on a blog (not mine) that was unnecessarily aggressive and nasty. The sense that we can unleash anger on each other over any small thing worries me–and worry does no good. So I will focus on giving everyone I meet an extra dose of kindness. That’s easy with you. Sending you loving kindness.

  7. Sending heaps more back to you to cancel the negativity in the blog you read. Only small people do that. Loving kindness still wins!

    • Thank you, Marian. I’m gathering it all in a big basket. I’m glad the nastiness wasn’t toward something I wrote, but felt sad on behalf of the author and every writer. I think back of my article “Only Kindness Makes Sense”–title came from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.

  8. I remember your writing about your brother and I’m glad you had the time to reconnect with him before his death. I’m wishing you a gentle new year for 2017. You are dealing with a lot.
    As you know, Elaine, I love those old photos, and working on them in Photoshop is like caressing the people I’m missing. Going over the photos and the stories is my way of celebrating the ones I love, and acknowledging my own story which, as in everyone else’s, is colored by love and loss.

    • You met my brother, perhaps only briefly, at my book launch in 2014. He had already been sick a year then, but was doing well. Thank you for your kind words. You’re also dealing with a lot in a very different way.

      I love your image of caressing people through working with old photos of them. The powerful mandalas in your recent work give me a portal to other worlds.

  9. This was a beautiful post, Elaine. Old photos have helped me untangle confusing feelings in the past on more than one ocassion. There’s something soothing about looking at all of the little details in them like what kind of clothing people are wearing or what their body language is like.

    I hope you find a lot of comfort in your old photos, too.

    • Thank you, Lydia. I’m trying to sort out piles of photos–my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and now my mother-in-law’s. Big job to find the treasures. I found photos of my brother and me that I’d never seen before and also photos of my parents in happier days before he became sick when I was 2 1/2. Their hope and obvious love for each other was very comforting. I enjoyed your post about meditation at the mall. The comments were closed, so I’ll let you know that here.

  10. Dear Elaine,
    My admiration for you grows each time you share your true self with us. This article, the photos and the loving comments fills me with a sense of love and compassion. So much that I am lost for other words. Love & warm hugs to you.

    • Patti, it’s such a pleasure to read your comment. Thank you. I’m glad we’re back in touch and you’re sharing photography again. I hope you’re writing, too. You have powerful stories to tell. Sending you love.

  11. Thank you for this article. Shortly after my daughter died, I began trying to connect with family members. I felt very disconnected from everyone I knew. It has gone terribly, and I began to understand only recently why I felt disconnected in the first place. (They are not people who connect through compassion and conversation. In short, they connect through things, gifts.)

    It is a totally new idea for me to focus my energies on connecting with my daughter… instead of them. Perhaps that it was I neees first.

    Thank you.

    • Anna, my heart breaks for you. You’ve had to deal with so much. I wish you deep connections with your daughter.

      I was lucky to know that I wanted to stay connected with my husband and brother. For me, grief and remembrance led to a wide ocean of love that comforts me. In my book and my TEDx talk, I talk about how I encouraged that connection. It wasn’t about feeling my husband was still here on the earth, but it was about opening to my own heart and the love that hadn’t gone anywhere. You’ll find the TEDx talk on my blog page in the right column, but I put the link here, too. It might be helpful. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBzEwf1k59Y). It’s best to come up with your own ideas, but you’ll get hints from what I did and do. Remembrance can be so simple.

      It’s never ever too late to nourish these connections because the love is eternal, especially for a mother and child. You aren’t clinging to the past, but you are noticing and encouraging the powerful love you still feel. Most every culture encourages remembrance for the dead, but somehow we decided we should forget. For me, that’s not possible or desirable. I wish you well in all ways.

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