A Brief Book Review: Kadian Journal

On a warm and cloudless July evening in Wiltshire Downs, England, Thomas Harding and his son Kadian, bicycles with a group of four others to a family dinner.  At one point, their route ends suddenly and they momentarily lose their way.  Kadian, an experienced and enthusiastic bicyclist, finds another route and leads the way down a new, somewhat steep, route.  As the path descends, Kadian accelerates, but his brakes fail as he approaches an intersection, and a fast-moving van hits him, killing him instantly.  Only a few minutes before, Kadian had looked out across a field, smiling and saying, “It’s so beautiful here. It’s so beautiful.”  Now he is gone.

Harding speaks with raw courage and honesty in his book Kadian Journal: A Father’s Memoir, describing his son’s life and death and the grief that plagued him in the days, weeks and months ahead.  We learn of a fourteen-year-old boy who loved life with a passion, who shared many talents and interests with friends and family, who was curious and creative, unafraid to try new things and delve into new projects.  We learn of a husband and wife, devoted to Kadian and his sister, Sam, who frequently sought activities to enjoy together.  We learn about the grief Harding struggled with and the strength he found in his wife, Debora.

Both tough and tender, this book demonstrates that what is most personal is most universal: our human need for love and the pain we feel when loss occurs.   It is a book I heartily recommend, without reservation.

Reconciling Grief: Choosing Proper Conditions

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Winters are long in Minnesota.  Some years ago, however, winter seemed especially long.  I grew weary of its icy temperatures, sidewalks, and streets.  According to the calendar, spring had come over a month ago, but I was not convinced that it had—or that it would.

Then one day in May, temperatures climbed and the sun beamed.  The first real spring day had arrived!  As I looked around outdoors, I noticed an almost magical transformation around me: hosta plants poking through our backyard soil, buds forming on our red maple tree, and multi-colored tulips adorning neighborhood yards.

At last spring had broken through winter’s grasp!  But spring had been there all along, waiting, poised on the verge of breaking through winter’s hold.  Springtime life could not blossom until the proper conditions of warm temperatures and radiant sunshine had appeared.

When we grieve, we may wonder if we will ever feel good again.  Our grief, like winter, may linger long and become tiresome.  Though our grief will last as long as it needs to, we can facilitate the process toward new life by choosing “proper conditions.”  We too can choose a warm, nurturing climate: a safe, supportive setting of love, compassion, and understanding.

And perhaps we can offer these proper conditions to others—in an encouraging word or a listening ear—and assist them in emerging from their soul’s winter bleakness into new springtime life.

Red Maple 1
Red Maple tree in Minnesota backyard. Photo JStanton

 

The Journey of Grief

Once in a while I read a book that’s more than good or even great.  Over the course of years I’ve read a few books that seemed to have deep personal significance and whose impact usually took me by surprise.

I just finished such a book.  Letters from Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman is a compilation of letters written by daughters whose mothers have died, whether in the past year or more than twenty years ago.  Having lost my mother thirty-five years ago, I was interested in following the reflections of these women.

I could not put this book down.  The letters, written with passionate, emotional honesty and depth, expressed the grief they experienced–and still experience—with their mother’s death, and how it had influenced the future direction of their lives.   Many felt that the choices they made (not always good), other familial relationships (sometimes troublesome), and their own mothering issues were influenced by their mother’s death and the grief that followed.  Their stories testified to the fact that grief is not a linear process, but a cyclical journey. 

One of the most interesting things I learned was something called the “correspondence phenomenon.”  Coined by psychologist Therese Rando, correspondence phenomenon refers to the threshold when daughters reach the same age when their mother died.  Like a spark in the night, this ignited my attention.  I suddenly realized that I’m now at the age of my mother’s death.  I wondered, Is this why I’m drawn to reading this book about motherless daughters?   Is this why, a few months ago, my grief surfaced, unexpectedly, as I sat on my back porch facing the woods?  (See “The Wisdom of the Wild Woods”).

Reading Letters from Motherless Daughters was a spiritual experience that centered me deeply.  My feelings of grief were unearthed, and I usually read with damp eyes, but it was not a sad experience.  Instead, I learned more about myself, and I felt grateful to have discovered the quiet grief—and the continued love– I still carry for my mother.

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The Wisdom of the Wild Woods

One lovely afternoon

I sit on my back porch,

facing the wild woods where

thin

narrow

trees

stand

tall, and

broken, ragged-edged

                                  trunks rest their

sorrow

on the cold, dark earth.

I have no particular thought,

no prayer,

no agenda.

I sit, when an unexpected grief visits me, and

thoughts and memories turn to Mom,

gone too many years now.

 

I sense a longing

to talk again with her, to say,

“How are you, Mom?”

but only the silent echo

of a tear answers me.

I guess the wild woods knows better than me

how much I still miss her.

 

Backyard Woods
Backyard Woods. Photo by J. Stanton. 2015

A Smile As Unexpected Gift

Her head hung low when I first saw her.  She sat among other nursing home residents in a large gathering area, a television game show blaring nearby.

A few days ago, the hospice volunteer coordinator had called me and asked if I’d be interested in visiting Ann (not her real name).  “I’m not sure if she would benefit from visits.  Her son told me that she doesn’t seem to know when he’s there. If you decide to go see her, I’d like your feedback.  Let me know what you think.”

I was willing to try.  As a chaplain, I have sat with people with varying conditions and cognitive abilities.  The fact that she suffered from dementia and was no longer communicative was not new to my experience.  “Sure,” I said.   “I’ll be glad to visit her.”

When I first arrived at Ann’s residence, I asked the nurse to identify her for me.  She pointed to a thin, white-haired woman, sitting in her wheelchair. Her head was drooping low but she was awake.  I spoke her name, introduced myself, and pulled up a chair beside her, but I soon realized that we needed a quiet space if we were to have half a chance at a meaningful encounter.  With the nurse’s permission, I wheeled her to her room.

During our time together I took her hand, offered reassuring words, played music, and read poetry to her.  She did not seem to respond to my efforts.  Her head continued to hang down, and only occasionally did she look up, groan with a soft cry, and return her head in a downward position.

At the end of our visit, I returned her to the large room where I initially found her.  I thanked her for our time together and told her goodbye.  At that point, she looked up at me for the first time and smiled!  Surprised and moved, I felt the warmth of her smile, and I knew that I’d return again.

Sometimes we wonder if it’s worth our time and energy to visit someone who cannot communicate or will not recognize us.  However, I believe that presence has more power to communicate care and compassion than we may realize.  Though we may not speak words or hold a conversation, our “just being there” can be deeply and intuitively felt, alleviating the loneliness of a hurting heart that yearns to be acknowledged and known.

Sometimes, though, our humanness needs a sign or small gesture to encourage us and let us know that the time we took out of our busy day was worth it.  Her smile did that for me.  She gave me a gift that day, a gift that has become a precious memory.

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Befriending Winter Darkness

Thick clouds and gentle rain fell over Charleston yesterday morning.  Though it prevented my early morning run, I felt relaxed and content as I engaged in quieter indoor activities instead.  The damp, bleak environment outside reminded me of so many dark days of winters past, when being indoors and doing quiet things was the mode of the day.  And it won’t be long now until winter will officially be with us.  Nudging us into the warmth of the indoors, the deep darkness of winter invites us to spend more time in quiet activities, to slow down and listen, to become more fully conscious.

It is that season of the year when we have the opportunity to hunker down, perhaps light a fire, brew a cup of tea, and befriend–even embrace–the darkness, where so much is given birth.  It is here in the quiet spaces of our lives that our spirit can deepen and where the light of hope, compassion, and peace can flower and grow.

Poet May Sarton (1912-1995) says it best:

Help us to be the always hopeful

gardeners of the spirit

who know that without darkness

nothing comes to birth

as without light

nothing flowers.

candle

 

 

 

Coping with Grief during the Holidays

When we’ve suffered a significant loss, special days and holidays may be even more difficult. It’s a tall order to feel like celebrating when we’re deeply saddened, working through our feelings, and tending to financial details.  We may feel isolated and alone, wondering if anyone has had the same experience of grief that we are currently experiencing.

Suggestions to Help Manage the Holidays

During these holiday months, memories may emerge without warning. We recall how our loved one did things, what they liked or disliked, and what role they fulfilled during these special days. Here are a few thoughts to help manage these special days.

  • Come as you are.  Remember that you are grieving and you will experience this season than you have ever before.
  • Ask yourself:  What do I need at this time? How do I want the holidays to be?  For example, do you need more quiet this year?  Do you wish to enjoy just one event and let the rest go?  Do you want to experience a heightened sense of hope for your future?  Take time to reflect on these questions.
  • Expect contradictory feelings.  You may miss your loved one and look forward to attending a holiday event with friends.
  • Plan ahead.  If you do holiday shopping, make a list ahead of time and then shop when you’re having a good day.
  • Rework cherished traditions.  Be creative with your traditions.  Adapt them to fit your current needs.  For example, visit a soup kitchen or find someone who won’t receive a visitor.
  • Be aware of expectations.  If you feel pressured to celebrate the way you always have, ask yourself:  Whose expectations are these, mine or someone else’s?  Sometimes our own expectations make the pain more acute.  Be realistic about what you can do.  If others are putting expectations on you, simply say, “Not this year.”  You can always return to old traditions another year.
  • Express your feelings.  Your grief won’t go away because it’s the holiday season.  Find a trustworthy person to share your feelings with.
  • Let the spiritual dimension of the holidays speak to you.  Pray, meditate, or simply sit in a room that brings you comfort and beauty.

A Few Practical Ideas for the Holiday Journey

  • Play music that is comforting and meaningful to you.
  • Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
  • Create a quilt, scrapbook, poem, prose, picture, or collage using colors, symbols, or images that remind you of your loss.
  • Have a moment of silence at the holiday table as a toast to honor your loved one.
  • Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
  • Play your loved one’s favorite game or music.
  • Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Laughter and joy are not disrespectful.  Remember that many bereaved persons do enjoy the holidays again.
  • Plan for after the holidays.

May your upcoming days be healing.

St. Kates Picture 2
St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.  Photo JStanton.