On March 24, 2017, the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, visiting a dear friend who I jokingly refer to as my “other mother.” Last year, on the second anniversary of her death, Jim and I were in Nashville at the Brentwood Arena along with thousands of other people at an Eagles concert.
Today, on the third anniversary of losing my mother, I am at home with my husband and my puppy. We do all the familiar morning things - drink coffee in bed, read, rub the puppy belly and get puppy kisses in return. We will walk Lacey along her now familiar pathways here in the neighborhood. I’ll make lunch, maybe go into town to the library or wander through Barnes and Noble.
Then I’ll pick up some flowers and drive over to the cemetery. The flowers will not last - it’s still too cold, and technically according to the cemetery rules I’m not even supposed to put flowers out right now. This is the time of year they’re beginning spring clean ups and they don’t want people making more work for them I guess. But too bad. I’ll take them anyway.
I won’t linger long. As I said, it’s still cold here - colder than it has any right to be at the end of March. But the weather aside, it doesn’t help me to be at the cemetery anymore. I remember my mother every single day, I don’t need to stand on her grave to do it.
It wasn’t always that way. Oh no, during those first months after she died, I couldn’t wait to get to that cemetery every day. It was almost as if I expected her to be there, like I expected her to be sitting on the couch in her living room waiting for me to arrive. I’d sit myself down on the ground and just sit there. Sobbing, I wondered how it could be that she was under the ground instead of talking to me.
As time went by, I realized I was doing less crying and more listening to the birds sing, more noticing the traffic going by, more feeling the summer sun beating warmth into my back and shoulders. I stopped going every single day. Maybe I’d go once a week, then once a month, then even less than that.
I drive by the cemetery a lot. It’s on the way to a number of places I regularly go. I can see my mother’s grave from the road- as I drive past, my eyes automatically follow a straight line back from the third row of pine trees to the small maple that stands over her grave. “Love you, Mama,” I whisper, and sometimes place my hand, fingers spread, against the window, as if placing it on her heart.
But I don’t go in very often anymore.
My friend, poet Imelda Maguire, writes of grief in her poem Monday in a way that speaks sure to me:
Sometimes it is like this:
no cars at the cemetery wall.
I am alone and walk the path
slow, to your resting place;
say my prayer aloud -
the one asking that you be immersed
in a sea of grace.
this is how it is:
now - not quite a year since you died,
a year and a day since I last saw you.
I am the one immersed
in the grace of peace,
the low sun slanting across my way,
When I turn at the gate,
my heart is ready to go
not pulled as it once was,
When my mother died, I thought I knew a lot about grief. Her death was the last in a long line of losses for me, losses of people I loved and cared about. But though I grieved them all, her loss cut the deepest. She was, after all, my closest companion for all 60 years of my life. Our lives overlapped day in and day out. At first, the grief was almost more than I could bear.
What I learned - what I’m still learning - about grief is that it doesn’t really end. It changes and softens, its sharp edges taper into rounded corners of sadness instead of razor blades of sorrow. It changes from year to year with the conditions of our lives. This third year feels like it may be harder than the second because current circumstances have left me feeling vulnerable and lost, putting me in need of my mother’s wisdom, compassion, and unconditional love. I acknowledge the possibility of that and prepare myself for it.
“True grief never goes completely away,” writes Mary Pipher in her book Women Rowing North. “We learn to live with it. After a while our friends stop asking and we stop discussing our sorrow. It doesn’t help us much and we realize that almost everyone we have confided in carries grief in their hearts too.”
But when I compare the grieving me here in 2019 to the grieving me of 2016 and 2017, I realize just how much I am finally “immersed in the sea of peace.” I miss my mother, of course I do, but I know life goes on, and I will go on with it.
“When we lose loved ones,” Pipher writes, “we must search for our resilient self who knows how to proceed. This self will not appear immediately, but she lives within us waiting to be helpful.”
I love the image of that “resilient self” waiting inside me to “be helpful.” Early on in my grieving, she began to nudge me toward peace - urging me to start cooking some of my mother’s recipes, reminding me to wear her favorite pieces of jewelry, wrap myself in her familiar sweater. Those were things that helped me feel close to her. I developed transcendent responses that helped me balance the suffering with meaning: every year at Christmas I donate money in her memory to the Michigan Humane Society, her favorite charity, and on the anniversary of her death I donate to the hospice who so lovingly cared for her in her last days. And I write (and write and write) about grief and loss, and I hope that my words and experience might connect with someone who reads them, perhaps help them feel less alone even if only for a moment.
I am even shyly proud of myself for being resilient, for getting out of bed every morning despite the gut-wrenching pain I often felt, for making the coffee, walking the dogs, doing the laundry. “To bend to force and not shatter proves a kind of strength I did not know I possessed,” writes Sarah McColl in her memoir, Joy Enough. In some ways, my mother’s death allowed me to rewrite the story I too often tell about myself - that I’m not strong, that I can’t handle a lot, that I need protection.
Pipher reminds us that “Grief isn’t just something to endure; it is also a reflection of our capacity to love. It allows us to understand the most profound human experience at the most intimate level. Facing our grief requires openness and courage. We must explore it with curiosity and patience and we must allow it to stay in our hearts until it is ready to leave.”
Marking this third anniversary of my mother’s death, I believe deep grief has left my heart. I still mourn her loss now and I will forever, but in a different way than the word grief implies. The dictionary defines grief as “deep mental anguish arising from bereavement,” a definition that perfectly describes the feelings I had in the early months after her death. But to mourn implies the ability to exist in a state where sadness can dwell but not disable, a state where loss is quietly acknowledged and accepted. It’s being immersed in the “grace of peace.”
Now when I turn at the cemetery gate, “my heart is ready to go/not pulled as it once was/but free.” My mother was the epitome of grace in life, and I have no doubt her spirit was immersed in seas of it upon her death. Now, three years later, I am more often aware of waves of it washing over my soul as well.
May we all feel so immersed in seas of peace and grace, today and always.