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

 

Can a House Remember?

Can a house, long empty and abandoned,

wounded by nails in its side and

silent, sallow boards over its windows

remember the family who once lived there,

spent their days and nights there?

 

Can a house still smell those early mornings,

when two strips of bacon bubbled

in an old black iron skillet

or hear the friendly voice of Wally Phillips,

daily breakfast guest from WGN Radio?

 

Can a house still hear the clamorous crack

of a mother’s back breaking in a game of badminton

or the silent fracture of a teenager’s heart?

 

Can a house still hear the swoosh

of pinochle cards shuffling, players laughing,

or the clickety-clack of the old Singer,

marching in rhythm,

sinking new stitches into old dresses?

 

Can a house still taste the bitterness

of harsh words spoken too soon

or feel the soothing softness

of a comforting embrace?

 

Can a house remember anything at all?

 

And what do you do

when you stand facing a structure

that was once tenderly cared for,

that you once called home,

where you lived and learned,

sought shelter and solace,

and still today regard it with respect, honor, and fondness,

but now stands cold, stiff, and inhospitable toward you?

 

Do you simply stare at it?

Shake your head?

Say, “It’s a shame?”

 

Or do you ask it, as I do:

Do you remember—

and will you never forget—

the ordinary lives

that once breathed inside your walls

that now remain anonymous? 

 

When Rick and I moved from Minneapolis to Charleston, we stopped at my childhood home in Illinois and found the house abandoned and boarded up.  This poem arises from that experience.

 

Western Avenue, house where Jan grew up
The front of my childhood home, where I lived until I married. This was probably taken in the late 1960’s.

 

Jan on homemade swing
As a young girl, I spent a lot of time on this backyard swing that my dad made for me.
Back yard Western Avenue
Our cat, Twinkle, gave birth to three kittens under this backyard porch.
Western Front
Today the house stands abandoned with overgrown brush and boards all around it.
Western Ave Side view
This is the side of the house with plywood covering the bedroom and basement windows.

These three photos show the backyard as of July 2015.

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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Caregiving: Grief as Self-Care

Each month I lead a support group for family caregivers.  Our discussions cover a number of topics about the art of giving care:  spirituality, ambiguous loss, grief, family dynamics, compassion fatigue.  But there’s one topic I haven’t introduced since the early days of the group: self- care.

Why?  Why have I avoided this important topic?  Surely self-care is an important and necessary facet of avoiding burnout.  Surely the wisdom of self-care teaches us to take respite time, do something enjoyable, exercise, eat nutritiously, link up with supportive friends.

So why not talk about it?

I haven’t talked much about self-care because each person in the group, being the wise and experienced caregivers they are, knows all the typical advice.  And they practice it well.  They don’t need a refresher course.   In fact, they could teach it to others.

But recently I read something new about self-care, a thought I hadn’t considered.  It comes from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom.* She states:

People who really don’t care are rarely vulnerable to burnout.   Psychopaths don’t burn out.  There are no burned-out tyrants or dictators.  Only people who do care can get to this place of numbness.  We burn out not because we don’t care but because we don’t grieve.  We burn out because we have allowed our hearts to become so filled with loss that we have no room left to care. In my experience burnout only really begins to heal when people learn how to grieve.  Grieving is a way of self-care.  (pp.52-53)

I read this to my support group and asked them what they thought about this perspective.  They agreed with Dr. Remen.  And so do I.  Trying on stoicism, pretense, or toughness doesn’t help us work through the myriad feelings of grief. Expressing our grief does.  Grieving is self-care.

The hard work of grieving releases pain and opens up an inner space for the life-strengthening attributes of relief, comfort, and even peace.  While we may not want to be in touch with difficult feelings, or express them, it is by engaging in our grief that connects us to our deeper selves.   And when we do this, we discover a strength that carries us forward into the hard work of caregiving.

Grieving is a form of self-care.

*Published by the Berkley Publishing Group, 1996.