Thoughts On Grief

Some grief is so deep, so scary, and so dark that we dare not go near it.

Living through and learning to breathe on the other side of intense mourning, requires that you cling to each shallow breath as it gives way to deeper and deeper breaths.

Eventually, it becomes less painful to breathe.

Eventually walking outside to a world and its people in total oblivion to your pain becomes less horrible and alien feeling.

Eventually.

But for those who are in it, time moves slowly, reality feels distorted, and your ability to relate to the world around you is challenging.

It’s been 15 years since my brother died. Grief ached through my body in ways that made it difficult to move, think, or breathe.

Getting to the other side of intense mourning is hard work, and it was some of the most challenging work I’ve ever done.

How My Son Helped Me to Laugh Again After My Brother’s Death

It’s been 16 years since my brother died. It’s hard to believe that 16 years have passed and that I’ve almost spent more life without him than with him. I wrote this story a few years ago, and The Mighty picked it up and published it last year. Here is an excerpt:

Sometimes, on a very rare occasion, my husband refers to me as a chucklehead. I’m always a little surprised when he does. 

There was a time in my life when I was funny and lighthearted and perhaps even a chucklehead. But that was the Jen of years ago; the Jen back before my brother died.

I don’t want to admit that the sadness and heartache and grief have won, but if I’m honest, I realize in these moments that it has.

On December 11, 1981, my brother, Garrett, was born into the world, and for 20 years he filled it with laughter. To read on, join me here at The Mighty

 

The Ranch (The Naked Writing Project Guest Post)

It was right around the summer of 1980 and I was about 9 years old. Like every kid, I was looking for something to do to fill my days now that school would be ending for the year. My mother was a full-time working single mom to two and a part-time alcoholic so it meant she would never be around and it was mostly up to me to fill the time. We lived in a small house in the city. There were two apartments on the second story of the house. They had a separate entrance and it was prime people watching for my brother and I to see who was making their way up and down the stairs. The house was bustling with noisy footsteps above, the distant din of voices, music being played, and a healthy infestation of cockroaches. We were keenly aware of the contents of a government food “basket” but we were too young to understand just how on the brink of poverty our family teetered.

We hadn’t lived in the neighborhood that long and we were “that one” family on the block at best; dirty kids, drunken fights at 3 am and an unsavory cast of characters hanging around. Needless to say, I wasn’t overflowing in the friend department.  My mom was married to a nice enough guy but he came with his own laundry list of personal problems so he often didn’t hold down steady work. I recall that at some point in time he bought a tow truck. In the winter he would do tow runs for money and in the summer he mostly laid asphalt but for two summers he took a job as a “ranch hand.” What that essentially entailed was caring for the race horses that they owned. After much begging, and the realization that I would be alone most of the days, he allowed me to come to work with him.

I have no idea how far away this ranch was. We would leave so early in the morning that most of the ride involved me slipping in and out of consciousness as 6 am is an ungodly hour for a human of any age. Even though things often feel exaggerated as a child, it felt really far. I remember the winding dirt roads, the dewy fields of agriculture, and the globs of fluffy white pollen that would eventually dance their way through the open truck windows. The air smelled crisp, bursting with the scents of nature.  After a few twist and turns of the last dirt road…there it was! This spectacularly large, white farm house.  This was the type of house that I had only seen on T.V. I was reminded by Wade, my mom’s husband, that we were there as hired hands. Even as mixed up and crazy as my family was manners were of the utmost importance. Go figure.

The family was nice. While Wade spoke to them I looked past them all to survey the spectacle of wealthy people. The furniture, carpet, everything, it was all just lovely. I remember feeling like I shouldn’t be there and I never wanted to leave all in the same thought. I deduced by some toys scattered around that they probably had kids but I didn’t dare ask. For the first few weeks I worked out in the barn. Frankly, it was fun. The horses were all pretty gentle and the tasks I had involved things like changing their water, bringing them food, brushing them, and cleaning out the stalls. However on a particularly hot day the wife asked if I wanted to come in to cool off with some lemonade in the air conditioning. I was a kid so I would have accepted the offer of lemonade on the surface of the sun! Sitting in their fancy kitchen, I had questions that I dare not ask. I mean after weeks of working there I still hadn’t seen any kids. Even in my 9/10 year old brain I knew something wasn’t right. It’s summer! Shouldn’t there be kids running around outside playing? After my lemonade she asked if I wanted to stay in and play with their son who, “is about your age,” I was slightly disappointed that it was a boy but was happy to have some fun. As I walked down the hallway to his room it started to smell slightly medicinal. She started to gently tell me that her son had MS. I think she could tell by my blank stare that I had no idea what she was talking about. Trying to break it down in simple terms she said, “he can’t walk and play like the other kids but loves to have company.” I was worried about what I just got myself into but it was too late to back out. The next thing I knew we were standing in his doorway.

What I saw next was beyond overwhelming in a good but weird way. Firstly, the kid had every cool toy known to planet Earth! I mean the best of the best. The floor was just littered with what appeared to be all of Toys R Us. I also noticed this strange canvas type swinging basket attached to a small crane. Later he would tell me that it’s a lift for getting him out of bed and into his chair. He was a great kid. Charming, funny, eager to be friends, and again, he had the coolest toy collect EVER!! For whatever reason, even as I child, I was never put off by anyone that had different abilities. I took them as they were. His condition was of no interest to me after that initial battery of grossly inappropriate and invasive questions that all kids ask. We immediately got over the elephant in the room allowing us to move steadfast into playing. That was that. We were fast friends and I looked forward to going with Wade to work for the scent of dewy grass, the giant horses, and my new friend.

We spent the rest of that summer doing what all kids our age do. We watched movies, played with toys, and ate our way through the kitchen. I have never had so many pudding pops in my life! This was before the internet so we didn’t see each other through the fall, winter, and spring. As the days got longer and warmer, I could hardly wait to go back. We arrived back at his house and it was a break from my life. It was a break from being poor, neglected, and having another year of very few friends. It was an oasis from reality.

Once we arrived you could tell he had a really hard year. His body was being further ravaged by his disease and you could see the angst on his parents face. It was palpable. The air hung thick with worry and anxiety. But regardless we played. It’s fortunate that kids aren’t too concerned with limitations when it comes to play. The following summer we didn’t go back and Wade told me that he had died. As a kid, it was impossible to digest but as an adult….wow.

In my little, non-fully formed brain I had always equated money to happiness. That if we had money all of our problems would disappear. We would be happy. The bitter twist of the situation took me decades to digest. You see my family didn’t have money because of the disease of alcoholism (among others) that plagued it and they had all the money in world but couldn’t fix their son. In hindsight, it was one of the most crushing and devastating lessons I learned as a child. I knew first hand that money couldn’t buy what you need most in life.

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Sonya is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur. She loves to cook great food, garden, travel, and has an unhealthy obsession with coffee. Sarcasm and biting humor are her basic modes of conversation. By day she runs a social media marketing company and fills her nights with family, friends, music, and writing.

What We Could All Use in the Wake of Orlando

I can’t make sense of the words and politics swirling around me on social media these days. Every time I get online, I leave feeling exhausted, discouraged, and tied up in knots.

Forty-nine lives were just cut short in Orlando; taken by a mad man.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, partners, and friends are gone. Those who are left to pick up the pieces in the wake of this horrible tragedy mourn.

While they mourn and press into all of the questions that come when someone you love is ripped away in death; we offer policy solutions, answers, and arguments.

When my brother died, the last thing I wanted to hear were people’s platitudes, personal stories of pain, or emotional processing. I only wanted them to show up and be present. To sit with me. To allow me to grieve. To listen. And to remember.

Shiva is the Jewish tradition of mourning death. I am not Jewish, but this practice is appealing to me on some levels. When people sit Shiva, they gather around the bereaved to show their support and to honor the life of the individual who died.

The way people show up during Shiva is different from anything I have ever experienced. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that “according to Jewish law, there is a particular etiquette for paying a Shiva visit. Visitors are to enter quietly, take a seat near the mourner, and say nothing until the mourner addresses them first.”

He talks about how we are generally unaware of what a grieving person needs; and that by allowing space for silence, we can help to meet that person in one of their greatest times of suffering.

In silence.

When my brother died, everything was thrown into flux. It was horrible and dark, and most days I could barely breathe. I knew grief would be hard, but I didn’t understand the impact others could have on it until I walked through it myself.

My family’s grieving process was often compounded by well-meaning people who showed up with their baggage and unknowingly used our pain as an extension of their own unprocessed grief. They walked right into our space with their poorly thought out words, inappropriately applied feelings, and spiritual reasoning.

I’m certain they meant well. And I’m sure most of us mean well right now too. But meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well. And why is it people offer noise where silence is needed? Why are we uncomfortable with pain? Because pain hurts. And it’s hard.

Those who have experienced the loss of a family member or close companion understand how essential it is to push through the pain, and how dangerous it is to remain stuck in anger.

But wow are we angry in this country right now. We’re angry about guns. We’re angry about religion. We’re angry about bathrooms and political agendas. We’re angry about media bias. We’re angry at our current president, past presidents, and presidential candidates who may never be. We’re angry about using certain words, not using other words; and ironically angry words abound.

We are literally tearing into each other from every angle.

And we are missing our opportunity to honor the lives of the lost with each passing argument.

I want to know the names and faces of the men and women who were murdered. I want to hear their stories. I want to push into that pain to honor them and those left in this wake of sadness.

Looking back at my own family’s mourning process, I wish people had shown up, sat down, and held quiet space. I’ve come to believe that when community checks it’s baggage at the door and comes together to support the bereaved, it can be one of the greatest gifts offered.

I think it’s time for us to set our collective baggage aside and show up. Let’s sit a Shiva of sorts as people in unity and solidarity with all those who are grieving.

Let’s put away our angry words, our pointed blame, and our baggage; and join with the loved ones of the slain, with the LGBTQ community as a whole, and with one another.

I know it’s not comfortable to sit in the silent space between tragedy and solution. And I know many things need to change in this country. But if we fall prey to the notion that an angry word or a social media brow-beating will somehow effect change or represent an act of honoring the lives lost; then I am afraid we are one step closer to losing our humanity.

Crumbled Tower

It was the morning of September 11th. I sat at the table clutching a cup of coffee- praying that the sweet stimulant swirling beneath me would lift the haze of sleep and sadness I had been feeling. As the television buzzed indiscriminately in the background, something on the screen caught my attention. Haze shifted to focus as I turned up the volume and listened.

Peter Jennings was reporting that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center buildings. I remember his voice as he tried to grasp what was unfolding before the eyes of our nation, and the trembling in it as we watched the second plane hit in real time. I watched in horror with millions of other Americans as the first tower collapsed; as people jumped to their deaths; as the wounded emerged; and as the scared ran for their lives through plumes of smoke and ash.

Before these attacks, September 11th was a day like any other for many people. For me, it was not. My twin tower had collapsed a mere 10 days earlier when my younger brother Garrett was killed in a four wheeling accident.

The grief that our nation was experiencing; the loss of life and sense of security that we were collectively mourning, had already paid my family an unwanted visit. I was acutely aware of how short life could be, how awful and consuming grief really was, and how utterly cruel life could be in the wake of death.

Every September 11th I join millions of other Americans in remembering. I am reminded of the fallen men and women and their loved ones, the heroism of everyday people, and the American spirit. But my mind is mostly on my brother Garrett- and the thought that he would have been one of the first to pack up and drive to New York to help.

Shattered Silence

Profound impact is delivered in many ways. Mine came in the form of a movie. How beautiful it is to have film today; to have the ability to join in and bear witness to such emotion, such beauty, and such horror. What a privilege it is to sit comfortably in a theatre or home and take these images and stories in. There is a power in seeing and hearing. I found myself thinking this as I sat and watched the story of Selma unfold on the screen before me.

I was born into a media age, and as such, have little appreciation for the relative newness, power, and role that film has played in our history. I had almost zero understanding of the role that journalists and film played in the civil rights movement, especially when it came to Dr. King. He and those close to him understood the power of the visual story. Where they went, the media followed. A once small and insignificant town would be thrust beneath the glaring eye of media scrutiny when they showed up. The corrupt and abusive authorities who once tormented, terrorized and brutalized African-American’s in virtual anonymity, would then have to carry on in the light.

For those under 40, the civil rights movement is little more than a historical time marked in textbooks. It was a time so horrible and strange that many of us find it difficult to grasp and identify with. We have learned about it through school and media. And while some have been privileged enough to hear stories from family or friends who marched and protested; for many, it is a space in history that has only been further muted by distance and indifference.

Watching this movie was a tremendous sensory experience, and there were times when I felt like the weight of the film would crush me. But I sat, and I watched, and I took it all in- every sight, sound, word, facial expression, and interaction. The emotion was raw and palpable. The story was wretched and beautiful, and both the wretched and beautiful fought to overcome the other. In less than two hours I bore witness to the humanity of a man, the grace and elegance of a woman, and the bravery and determination of countless men, women, and children in the face of unparalleled evil.

At times I found myself nodding my head like a parishioner in the church of justice. Other times I was overtaken by emotion. I sat and sobbed. My body literally shook in grief for all that was done and all that is still done; for all that was fought for and for all that is yet to be fought for. I allowed it in. It was the very least I could do to honor Dr. King, his legacy, and those who have fought and suffered so much.

I watched the screen as a mother held her sons broken and bullet-riddled body after he was shot by an officer of the law for walking in the street. Instead of choking back the tears and reminding myself this was just a movie- I thought about my two sons. My two beautiful sons- children with whom I’ve had the privilege of walking beside during their journey into adolescence; gifts I get to unwrap and experience on a daily basis. If I’m indeed blessed, I will have the privilege of watching them grow into men. What a joy it will be for me as a mother to watch them blossom and grow, to encourage their interests and passions, and to marvel at the men they become. I sat with this weight and contemplated what it must have been like for this particular mother and countless others who couldn’t merely bask in pride but had to fear for their babies lives. And I wept for those mothers who held their babies bodies- bloodied and broken and without breath- lives stopped short because of hate and power and silence.

And it’s that silence that I want to shatter. That silence that rolls its eyes at yet another topic involving racism. That silence that tells us that racism no longer impacts a large number of people, that these are stories without relevance in today’s United States, and that people should just move on. And let’s not be fooled by the idea that silence is passive. It is as active and hardworking as non-violence has and continues to be. It bullies and shames. It feeds, strengthens and emboldens racism. It is the enemy of reconciliation, justice, and peace. And it must come to an end.

It is time to shatter the silence.