Many religious traditions consider 40 days after a death as the official end of mourning, a time to set aside deep grieving and move on with life. The number 40 has deep significance in those traditions: in Christianity it recalls the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai before receiving the 10 Commandments and the number of days between Christ’s resurrection and his Ascension into heaven. In Orthodox religions, it is believed the soul of the departed wanders the earth for 40 days, before its judgment and ultimate dispensation to eternal rest.
Today marks 40 days after my mother’s death, days I’ve spent riding the roller coaster of emotions that come with loss and change. The roller coaster metaphor is often used in discussion of grief, and I’ve come to realize how apt it really is. There are days when I’m perfectly fine, even happy, able to complete my activities with normal energy and enthusiasm. Other days are like slogging through deep mud, when everything makes me cry and I want to stay in bed with the covers pulled over my head.
Thing is, I never know what kind of day it’s going to be. It IS like riding a roller coaster - but with your eyes closed so you can’t see what’s coming.
In these 40 days, I’ve been learning how to incorporate this loss into the reality of my new normal. I’ve been reading books and blogs; I’ve been talking to people with similar experience. We all agree that grief is not something you “get over,” not something that you pass through and come out clean on the other side. It is instead, something you carry with you for the rest of your days. You learn to carry it, learn to shift its weight on your heart so that you don’t become forever bowed down with it. But make no mistake - it’s there forever.
"The hole in our souls we feel when loved ones pass on does not disappear,” writes Mallory Redmond in her essay Filling the Void. "It doesn’t go away with the passing of time, nor is it ever forgotten. We cannot fill it with an expensive box of bones, cover it with dirt, and then wait for the grass to grow again—making it look as if the hole going six feet under had never been dug. However, the emptiness can be filled in slightly, even if only a little bit-by-bit."
I don’t ride roller coasters in real life, but I’ve heard people talk about a few tricks that make the ride less disruptive on your body. Tricks like pressing your feet into the floor or wearing a tight rubber band around your wrists.
Keeping your eyes open.
During these 40 days of learning, I’ve been keeping my eyes open, paying attention. What helps me? What keeps me grounded when my heart sinks into the pit of my stomach with longing? What fills that hole in my soul, little bit by little bit?
~Connection. I am eternally grateful for all the friends who have called, texted, emailed, invited me for lunch, stopped by my mom’s house while I’m working, and reached out to me in countless ways. The Beatles had it right when they sang I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends. I have and I do.
~Ritual. On the table in my living room is a photo of my mom, a candle, the beautiful orchid her friend gave her for her birthday (that continues to bloom despite my notorious black thumb), and a stack of wonderful cards and notes I’ve received. Each morning when I come down the stairs, I stop and take a few moments to remember something special about my mom, send her a silent message of love, and remind myself that she is still with me in spirit as I go about my daily routines. In the evening, I light the candle as a sign of the way she continues to light my life with her legacy of love.
~Remembrance. Sometimes on those happy, busy days, I find myself feeling afraid. Am I forgetting her already? While I know I’ll never truly forget her, there are real things I do to keep her memory close - like wearing her clothes. She and I were almost exactly the same size, so wrapping her favorite sweater around me almost feels as if I’m wrapped in her embrace. I use her favorite coffee cup, comb my hair with her comb. I’m cooking her favorite recipes, trying to replicate the way these dishes taste, hearing her voice caution me to “take my time” when I’m cooking or baking. “You can’t rush when you’re cooking,” she used to say, knowing that I have a tendency to power through things instead of going slowly.
~Physical Activity. Last week I went for a long walk with a friend -I’m going to call it a “hike” because it stretched my walking limits in a healthy way. That hour of walking (and talking!) in the warm spring sunshine energized me and calmed me at the same time. I’ve been working at my mother’s house too, cleaning out closets and drawers, and while I was afraid this would be heart wrenching, it’s really been therapeutic. And as I’ve written, playing music and other artistic pursuits have been a balm to my soul in so many ways.
~The Grief Bowl. Writer Danna Schmidt also acknowledges the ever-presence of grief in our lives, and suggests we invite it in, even set a bowl at the table for it. “Find a bowl that sings to you,” she advises. It will look empty and hollow at first, and that is as it should be - after all, it is the bowl you have dedicated to hold your grief, the stories, the memories, and the cherished tangible bits. When filled with whatever your ephemera of grief contains - old photos, recipe card, favorite candies, etc. - it becomes a living vessel of joys, sorrows, and lived moments.” Early on, I decided to collect the “ephemera of grief” and purchased a decorative box which I started filling: with the photos we used on the memory board at the funeral home; the booklet I wrote for her service; her eyeglasses and wallet; her handwritten recipes. Having this box comforts me, knowing all these bits and pieces that reflect the story of her life are in a safe place that I can return to and ultimately pass on to my son and grandson.
In all these ways I’m learning to accommodate grief rather than trying to eradicate it. I’m learning to provide it with its rightful place in my heart and my life. That place will always be tender to touch, but less so with time. It’s a place my mother’s legacy will live in my memory. A place that will, like a branch grafted onto a tree, blossom with new energy and strength for years to come.