As someone who writes about grief and death, I wish to express my deep gratitude to NPR's Scott Simon for live tweeting from the bedside of his mother's vigil. Little did he know it, but Mr. Simon, and his mom, have started somewhat of a revolution.
The thing is, we all have two things in common, each and every one of us. We are all born, and we will all die. Truth.
I spend a lot of time writing about grief. Initially, when I started this here blog in January 2011, it was a release from grief. Having buried my daughter fifteen months earlier, I was ready to write about something other than loss and the sadness I felt.
This blog was my ticket out of grief. There is more than coincidence to my choosing the name Mary Tyler Mom to write under. "You're gonna make it after all" is the theme song that I needed at the time. Still do, truth be told. I was ready. 'Forward motion,' I told myself.
But then, six months into writing about working mom stuff and dishing on Gwyneth Paltrow, I knew I wasn't being authentic. For better or worse, I am a grieving mom. It's my thing, you know? Do I wish it were different? Abso-freaking-lutely. It it heavy sometimes? Yes sir, it is. Do I feel better when I write about it and share the sadness with a virtual room full of supportive readers? Yep, I most certainly do.
So thank you, Scott Simon, for shedding light on grief and loss. Thank you for sharing that death, like life, is multi-faceted, beautiful, full of wonder, and sacred. There is no mystery here, folks, and nothing to be afraid of. I wish more of us understood this.
Before cancer, before writing, before both my mother and daughter died of brain tumors, I worked as a clinical social worker. The folks I worked with were older adults and I was beyond lucky to find a position in a fancy pants retirement community on Chicago's North Shore. I used to get in trouble for calling it "Disney World for older adults," which was flip, yes, but also meant to be complimentary. The people I worked with were well off and lived in a beautiful environment -- the best that money could buy.
But death, as we've agreed, is the great equalizer. No matter how fat your wallet or portfolio may be, death is still gonna come a-knocking. None of us are exempt. A few years into my position, the community started its own in-house hospice. I was named Bereavement Coordinator, a position I lobbied hard for after helping dozens of my clients through the last hours of their lives. And I was good at it. Damn good.
Turns out, I had a great capacity to help people during their last hours of life. The most important thing I did was sit with older adults and their families. Sit and witness and share their stories. Those hours, those experiences, are something I am immensely privileged to have shared. They prepared me, I think, for my Mom's illness and death, and, yes, for my daughter's, too.
I learned that death is not always easy, but it can be, when you stop fighting it. I learned that in those moments of extreme vulnerability, people are often at their finest. Or their worst. I learned that there is beauty in the last stage of life. I learned that if you were open to it, life-changing lessons were there for the taking.
There is so very much that death can teach us about life.
Ha! Talk about having my finger on the pulse -- as I write these words, Scott Simon is being interviewed about his tweets on NPR. I hear his voice wafting in from the kitchen radio as I sit at the dining room table. Here are a few snippets of his wisdom:
- "I found it very natural for someone to hold a thought for someone else in deep pain."
- "We're all afraid of dying, but that doesn't mean we don't do it."
- "We should be afraid of dying, but there obviously will come a time . . . where I will let go of her, we let go of one another."
- "This was a way of taking notes for me, my children, her grandchildren."
- "I didn't do anything that violated my mother's privacy and dignity."
- "It was all part of a son's love to share with the wider world."
- "I feel obliged to help keep that light alive and shining in people's hearts."
I get it, understanding every word and motive that Mr. Simon describes above. He has done in Twitter form what I have attempted to do with words in Donna's Cancer Story, and my friend Angelo has done with photographs at his blog, "My Wife's Fight With Breast Cancer." Letting people into our grief does not cheapen or exploit it (as Angelo and I have both been accused of) -- it allows us to share it. Grief is one of the most basic of human emotions, and yet, we are taught, and teach our children, to bury it. Pun intended.
Social media, Facebook and Twitter and the Internet, have brought us back to the practice of sharing our grief, publicizing it, putting it out on the proverbial table for others to see. Historically, grief was always a shared experience. There is nothing odd about that. To the contrary, it is natural to seek support and company in times of loss and sorrow. Social media, as this excellent New Yorker article explores, simply gives a new venue to do that.
Let's not be ashamed of our grief. Perhaps if we are allowed to share it, and have it acknowledged by others, it will have less of a hold on us. I certainly have found this to be the case. I shake my head as I remember a therapy visit I had last year. In preparation for adoption, our agency was concerned that we never sought professional treatment after the death of our daughter. Before we could be approved to parent again, my husband and I needed to be seen by a therapist.
You do what needs to be done in adoption, so we went. I so distinctly remember telling the therapist that I grieve every day. Her eyes widened and she corrected me (in the business, it is called re-framing, but it is really a correction), "You remember every day," she said. Sigh. No, actually, I grieve. Every day. Changing the language does not change the reality.
I grieve every day, and it is okay, because grief is a part of life. And when you look hard enough and get comfortable enough with it, you will see the beauty and wonder in grief, because grief is nothing more than the evidence of loving. Thank you, Scott Simon, for reminding us of that.
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