Category Archives: grief

Surprised, But Then Again Not

It has been  tradition for a good decade and a half now, and this year was going to be no exception.  I had to have a summertime meet up with my very best friend, Mindy, or  Mila as I like to call her.  In years past we have traveled to far away places, each one hotter than the last.  She’s a school teacher, so our travels are limited to the summer months.  So why not go to Costa Rica, Washington, D.C., Memphis and San Antonio in the sweltering, oppressive, god forsaken, hotter-than-balls heat?  Year after year, we’ve been undeterred.

In recent years, things have scaled back a bit as Mindy prepared to send her first born to college.  We have set out on a staggering trail of visits to mediocre-at-best Midwestern towns.  Places like Dubuque, Prairie du Chien, Waterloo, and Cedar Rapids.  Proving, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every city has a little (sometimes really little) something to offer, at least one passable restaurant, and fun to be had if the two of us are there.

Early this summer I had sent a message to Mindy with all of the weekends that were possibilities.  Summers slip past us these days, the velocity and speed intensifying with each passing year.  Wisdom tells me when it comes to the non-negotiable summer musts, it is best to book early.  Summer will be over in the blink of an eye.

So Mindy got tangled up with little things like getting her son graduated from high school and taking a two week trip to Costa Rica with a group of high school Spanish students.  When she returned in early July, she sent a message and inquired, “Are you still free the weekend of July 15-17?”  It was only about ten days away, but indeed I was and I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to see her.  I scanned the map for a new mediocre city, and we landed on La Crosse, Wisconsin.  It was a three hour drive for each of us, and someplace we hadn’t been together.  On short notice, it simply would have to do.

We arrived on Friday night and didn’t miss a beat.  Our time together was comprised of all the usuals – talking for hours on end, Mexican food, booze, raucous laughter and a bit of being ridiculous.  On Saturday, went to the stunning shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, did some shopping, had some lunch, nursed a blister on my toe and took a little nap.  By the time we got showered and ready to find our way to dinner, the sun was dangerously close to setting.  We headed out quickly and made our way to the weekend’s premiere and necessary photo op – The World’s Largest Six Pack.

As is generally always the case in our kind-of-like-an-old-married-couple relationship, I researched and picked the place for dinner.  Situated on a bluff overlooking The Mighty Mississippi, the bar and grill I selected had consistent rave reviews.  It was busy – even though it was later in the evening – so we plopped ourselves down at the bar in order to patiently wait for a table outside.  There were a couple of musicians plunking away in the backdrop and we laughed at their repertoire of music – oldies, then country, then reggae – they had it all. We chatted up the locals and sipped our Spotted Cow.  We were in heaven.

The conversation took one of the more serious turns for the weekend as Mindy and I reflected on her joining “The Club” in the last year, membership indicative of having lost a parent.  Mindy’s dad had passed a little over a year prior, and she had made it through all the treacherous hurdles of The Year of Firsts.  I commented how four days prior had marked the 20 year anniversary of my own father’s passing and how implausible that seemed.  How could something feel like a nanosecond ago and an eternity at the same time, I wondered.  I told her that I always feel his presence with me and she said she felt the same about her dad.  What was strange, I said, was that every year on or right around the anniversary of his death, I hear Dad’s favorite song, Amie by Pure Prairie League.  But I hadn’t this year, and I wasn’t sure what was up with that.

Mindy and I finally got seated on the patio and proceeded to order what seemed to be the best fish I ever ate in my entire life.  No joke.  This was some amazing fish.  I don’t even know what they did to it.  Maybe the fact that I was really hungry impaired my judgment in some way.  Or maybe the fish was really just that good.  Truthfully, I may never know.

With my belly full, I looked down at my plate and had one more piece of this most delicious fish left to devour.  I almost wasn’t sure I couldn’t do it, but who was I kidding?  I could.  I reached for it, and Mindy stopped me.  “Listen,” she said.  “It’s your song.”  And yes – right then, right there, I heard it.  The two-man band inside a riverside bar and grill in La Crosse, Wisconsin was playing Amie by Pure Prairie League.

You can imagine, I’m sure, that a chill went straight through me.  I got goosebumps.  I got tears in my eyes – lots of them.  I grabbed Mindy’s arm.  I accused her of requesting it, even though I knew she hadn’t left my side since we got there.  I said over and over that I was so surprised this had happened.  And Mindy, my soul mate, my best friend, the one who gets me every time, simply said, “I’m not surprised at all.”

For those of you who are grieving, who are hurt, who have lost and not yet recovered –   know this.  Even though you can’t see someone, you can’t touch them, you can’t hear their voice – I promise you this:  No matter how much you are missing someone after they are gone, they aren’t really gone at all.  They are right there with you every step of the way.


My Tribe

A colleague was standing outside my door this afternoon talking to another co-worker of ours.  As he was doing so, he was thoroughly examining the Cutie orange he had just peeled.  He looked at it quizzically, cocked his head, grimaced and choked half of it down.  He swallowed hard, then shook his head.  His most unusual response to eating this delightful little nugget of almost pure sugar generated an inquiry on our part.  I mean, who doesn’t like fruit?  Unless, of course, we are talking about overly ripe bananas (a topic that was thoroughly covered in Bananas Are All the Rage) or papaya (because I think we can all agree, that shit is just gross.)  Otherwise, fruit is pretty awesome.

So when we asked why he was so troubled by eating fruit, and moreover, why he was forcing himself to do it he said, “Oh, I just eat fruit because I have children.” I remarked that it was noble of him to serve as a role model to his children, even when they aren’t around to witness his behavior.  To which he replied, “It’s not that.  It’s that my old man died at the age of 49, and I’d prefer to live to see my children as adults.”

My ears immediately perked up and my posture straightened.  I motioned him into my office and asked more questions.  How old were you when he died? What did he die of? How was your relationship with him?  Do you think his untimely death has made you more aware of your own mortality?  Do you think it has given you fuel for your passions and your drive in life?  He sat down on the couch in my office and answered my questions, one by one.  He was unfazed because he knew  in that moment what I knew, too…we are in the same tribe.

Isn’t it strange how our pain can join us?  And yet, I would offer that there are few things in life that can bond us together more.  I suppose that is true for everyone; I know it is true for me.  I am blessed with more friends than I am even sure I deserve, but the ones who understand the darkest, saddest and most sacred corners of my soul are the ones who lost a parent too soon.  They are the friends who understand that no matter how joyful my spirit is – no matter how silly, how funny, how passionate, how wise I am – I carry with me a well of grief that never, ever goes away.  Ever-present, it’s just there.  I hardly notice it most of the time and for practical purposes, I’ve learned to live around it. But I’ll be the first to admit, there are some circumstances that can tweak me in just the right way and my grief will come pouring out of me with the force of an uncapped fire hydrant on a hot summer day.  My grief is a comfortable, old friend or an angry, jilted lover depending on the day.

As my colleague and I talked through our feelings in an impromptu therapy session of sorts, we concluded by reminding ourselves how reassuring it is to find someone who has had a similar experience as you.  I am not the only one who has vacillated between feeling grateful I’ve not had the same fate as my mother and then wondering if I am on borrowed time.  I am not the only one who sees the beauty of my determination to live passionately, strong, smart, and hard in a way that could only come from an awareness of the impermanence of life.  I am not the only one who wants to make sure I make my best and most important mark on the world as soon as I can.

That is the beauty of finding a member of your own tribe.  You remember that you are not the only one.

A New Pair of Specs

Twenty-nine years ago I lost my mom, and not a day has gone by that I have not thought of her. My life was forever changed, in some ways for the worse, and I suppose in others for the better. This is worthy of re-posting in memory of her.

On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like…

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A Healing Hug

It was a hug I had been thinking about for some time, a hug I really wanted to give.  Yesterday, that hug happened.  It felt extraordinarily sad and cathartic and necessary.  I loved that hug and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

The hug I gave was to Dontre Hamilton’s mom.  Dontre is the young man who was shot to death by a cop in Red Arrow Park a little over six months ago.  There are many varying accounts of what happened that day, and I suppose we’ve all surmised our own truth by now.  My version of the truth is that Dontre was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the audacity to have wrong skin color.  He was sleeping in park located in a segregated city and apparently that’s just not allowed.  My version of the truth makes my stomach turn.

It has also been widely reported that Dontre had a mental illness.  In my mind, there was no need to widely report this, though.  Whether or not Dontre had a mental illness was relevant to his life, but not to his death. I’ve spent many hours thinking about Dontre and his family, my heart hurting so much at times I thought it might burst into a thousand pieces. It is a situation that has been an injustice to end all injustices. It is a situation that has made me weep.

Dontre’s family, in my humble estimation, has been nothing short of inspirational.  They came to the National Alliance on Mental Illness fundraiser walk in May not even one month after Dontre’s death, banded together by their matching T-shirts and their compassion for the people who help those living with mental illness.  They have organized rally after rally to get the attention of the city’s policymakers and to promote peace and resolution. They have respectfully but firmly asked for answers of our District Attorney and the Milwaukee Police Department.  But all the while, they have attended event after event and peacefully participated.  I’m not sure I could do what they do.

So when Dontre’s family showed up to yesterday’s Dia de los Muertos event – an event that had a special focus on those who had lost their lives to violence – it was no surprise to me.  I watched them as they stopped to take in the ofrenda that had been made to honor Dontre, hugged one another and wiped away some tears.  As I was making my way to leave the event, I felt compelled to talk to the family and say what had been on my heart and my mind for months now.

I told them how deeply sorry I was for their loss, and that their pain had been carried every day in my heart since that terrible day in April.  I told them that I had massive respect for their family, for the way they have carried themselves with dignity and grace in the wake of tragedy.  The family members I was speaking to thanked me for my words – words I’m sure they’ve heard from countless others – and pointed me to Dontre’s mother who was a few feet away.  I approached her and said many of the same things, this time adding that I work in the mental health field.  I told her that there are hundreds of people like me in Milwaukee who are working tirelessly every day to make things better for families like hers, and that no matter how big the barriers or how high the stakes, we won’t stop.  What I know, that I hope I conveyed to her, is that we won’t stop because of the Dontres and the moms of Dontres and all the other people whose lives are affected by the stigma of mental illness and its ruthless path. I know that we won’t stop, simply because we can’t.

With that, I got a grateful, tearful hug that felt like the best hug I’ve had in some years, maybe ever.  My passion doesn’t rest very often, but now I’m not sure it ever will.  It got fueled with the best inspiration I’ve had in a very long time.

Dia de los Muertos

I love death.

I know, I know.  It is one of ninety-nine (or more) things that makes me strange – or as I prefer to say, “quirky.”  I don’t mean that I like death in such a way that I am looking forward to my own, or I enjoy the death of others.  To say that I love death is more to say I am fascinated with it, that I am more or less comfortable with it, that I think it should be as much a cause for celebration as it is for sorrowful mourning.

I had friends in town for the weekend and we were looking to fill our 48 hours together with the most unique brands of fun we could find.  In light of that, the annual Milwaukee Dia de los Muertos celebration at Walker Square Park seemed like a good choice.  A group of six of us assembled at the park and took it all in.  The smells of burning wood and incense filled the air.  Many people, young and old alike, were dressed in fancy garb and had their faces painted.  A circle of drummers kept the beat going. Sugar skulls and ofrendas provided colorful, heartfelt and at times somber visual reminders of what the day was about.  It all culminated in a tantalizing sensory overload.

This small, grass roots event was started four years ago by a group of people who just decided it needed to be done.  They believed, and rightly so, that it was a way to bring people into a community that is misunderstood and to unite the city’s citizens with a common thread. After all, what thread is more common to all of us than death?  Many of us, myself included, have already suffered a great many losses and had to find our way through the grief – a grief we may very well carry with us to this day.  All of us, myself included, will have to face our own departure one day.  Death, it seems, is the great equalizer.

As the parade was about to start, a few people shared words of wisdom. One of them, a quiet, soulful man, stood at the front of the crowd and gently told his story of his people who had passed.  In his story, he referenced the feeling he carries with him that his grandparents are always with him.  As he said this, he motioned his hand toward the sky, and at that precise moment two hawks flew in and landed on the tree above his head.   A gasp was let out by the crowd in unison, and tears filled many of our eyes.  It’s a moment that doesn’t even translate well in writing; it was a true “you-had-to-be-there moment.”

We then all walked in the parade together, something that hadn’t necessarily been planned but was the right thing to do.  It occurred to me as we walked that we are all in this together, this thing called life.  And while death is just one part of that, it is the part that reminds us of how important it is to live.

A New Pair of Specs

On January 19, 1986 I got a new pair of specs.  Things have never looked the same since.

The almost seventeen years of my life leading up to this day could hardly be described as normal, and yet our family had achieved its own unique brand of normal.  With my dad’s forever compromised health, there were ample and regular doses of worry and angst.  Even so, like any family we laughed, we fought, we played and we laughed some more.  We kind of had it figured out, in our own weird way.  It worked.

Then seemingly out of nowhere, what started out as an annoying cough for my mom was then diagnosed as bronchitis, then pneumonia and finally mesothelioma – a deadly and rapid growing cancer from exposure to asbestos.  Three days from this diagnosis to her departure – that was all we had.  Three days!  In what felt like the blink of an eye, Mom was gone.  Poof.  Just like that.

The thing was, no one – and I mean no one – could wrap their head around this turn of events.  At just 43 years old, Mom had been healthy, vibrant, fierce, strong.  She was the one thing our family could reliably count on.  It was Dad’s health that was tenuous, not hers.  Like a faithful sherpa who was devoid of complaints, Mom did all the heavy lifting for our family.  It was hard to imagine life could be any other way. Now it would have to be.

So it was on that cold January day when I got this new pair of specs.  I didn’t even know I needed them, and I most definitely didn’t want them.  But they were mine forevermore, permanently affixed to my head.  I’ve always said that my life, simplified, has only two relevant parts:  1)  Before Mom died, and 2)  After Mom died.  Her untimely death created a tectonic shift in my life, a shift ensuring that things would never, could never be the same.  “My name is Jen, and when I was sixteen my mom died.”  The words spill out of me sometimes when I’m not even expecting them.  It is one of the most important ways I define myself.

Clinging to me like moss on a sturdy oak, Mom’s death is a life imperfection that has been simultaneously tragic and beautiful.  It took a while – a good, long painstaking whatthefuckthistotallysucks while – but eventually my new pair of specs helped me see things more clearly. What I could see was this:

Life doesn’t have a single guarantee.

Since I can’t control how much time I get in life, I will surely control the quality.

I, and only I, am in charge of my own happiness.

I will always surround myself with people who believe in me and cast all the others gently aside.

There is no such thing as too generous.

Laughter is the most important measure of my personal success.

Forgiveness of those who have wronged me is always necessary.

Forgiveness of myself is harder, but even more important.

It is wise to say no often.

It is wiser to say I love you often.

Years before my mom died, my dad was in the intensive care unit of the University of Iowa hospitals, clinging onto his own fragile life.  Mom spent her days faithfully at his side until his health was restored.  One day, she took a break in the family waiting room and found a piece of paper someone had left behind that said this:  “The clouds that appear darkest in the distance are the ones the wind blows away.”  So moved by the lesson these words offered her in a moment of deep despair, Mom later embroidered them on a tapestry and hung it inside our front door.  Hauntingly prophetic, it has been a motto for my life.

Twenty-eight years have passed, and a whole lot of things have changed.  A few things have not changed, one of which is that pair of specs I got in 1986.  Do I ever resent them?  Sure, I suppose so.  I am human after all.  But what I know for sure is that without them, I’d be less wise, less loving, less me.  I think I’ll keep them.

Dear Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day, I am sharing a letter I wrote to my mom for Mother’s Day four years ago. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you who have the hardest job on the planet.

Dear Mom,

This weekend marks the 20th year that I have endured a motherless Mother’s Day. Twenty years is a long time –more than half my life–and a lot has changed since I last saw you and you assured me that everything was going to be all right. I think there are some things you should hear from me.

First of all, I want to say you picked a really shitty time to leave me. Granted, you didn’t have a lot of say in the matter, and I know it’s not how you expected things to turn out either. But the time you left this earth was shitty because I was in the midst of what was perhaps my most imperfect state. Sixteen, and had it all figured out. Sixteen, and full hormones and stupidity and false confidence. Sixteen, and angry that you had the audacity to criticize my foolish ways. Sixteen, and unable to see that I was turning out to be you.

But I have turned out to be you, in the strangest and most unexpected way, and I think you would either be immensely proud or completely annoyed. I have your wicked and sometimes bizarre sense of humor. I have your thick, stubborn head (unfortunately topped with Dad’s fine, lifeless hair). I have your big brain filled with big ideas. I am sometimes misunderstood just as you often were. Like you, I believe in all things just and right, and like you I am painfully aware that life rarely offers hearty helpings of either.

I know there are a lot of things about my life that would make you proud. I’ve made a life for myself that is filled with laughter and selectively chosen loyal friends. I have been called and have risen to a life’s work that is more meaningful than almost any other I can imagine, and have made an immense difference in my corner of the world. I am responsible in ways you would have never thought possible. Really and truly, I am.

And one of my proudest accomplishments, one that I know would warm that sometimes steely heart of yours, is that your baby–my baby sister–has become one of my most trusted, cherished and sacred friends in life. The same baby sister I loved the first day she was born, and by the second day figured out she shamelessly stole my spotlight. The same baby sister who I resented for choosing the same cereal as me every morning, and the same baby sister who was the inspiration for the limited-time, one-act melodrama, “Stop Playing With My Makeup You Fucking Little Brat!” The same baby sister I couldn’t comfortably relate to until I could safely assume she’d had her first beer. The same baby sister I look at now and think, “Damn, how did she get here from there?”

You have every right to look me in the eye and confidently state, “I told you so.”

Even if your sudden departure wasn’t expected, it turns out the cosmos were right. Right in the wrong sort of way, right in the way that makes you say, “What the fuck?” and then strap on your cajones and confidently trudge forward to unknowing greener pastures. Right in that, I was afforded the lesson early on that I have the capacity to rise above even the most miserable of circumstances triumphantly. I’ve carried that lesson with me everywhere, and have used it over, and over, and over again.

The truth is, Mom, you may have left the party too early, but before leaving you left many gifts behind. Trust that each gift has been accepted and used in the spirit with which it was intended. And know that even though your stay at the party was too short, it was really great that you were able to show up at all.



Little Lessons on the Prairie

The Wisconsin prairies have entered my consciousness in recent years compliments of a friend who is a self-proclaimed prairie enthusiast. You might think such folks are few and far between, and perhaps they are, but they are a committed group of folks who have a vision for their contribution to the world. The prairies, which once covered nearly all of our midwestern states, are now sparse and rare to find. Prairie enthusiasts know that a return to this form of sacred land has much to offer our world and our future generations. Not only is it preservation of history, it enriches our environment and raises our human understanding of days that long preceded us.

The prairie is a place of peace and harmony, life and vitality. The tall grasses sway gracefully in the wind, and the plants bloom all throughout the season like a perfectly synchronized symphony of color. The birds make serene yet sturdy home, and the grasshoppers, crickets and cicadas sing joyfully, as though the prairie is the stage built just for the opera they themselves composed. The butterflies breeze in and out and all around, abundantly surrounded by the nectar produced by the wildflowers, willfully carrying pollen to our Creator’s intended destination.

And while this scene is placid, rich in nourishment and even definitively divine, it is actually much more complicated than that. By way of God, the prairie has had to learn over and over again that the only way its beauty can be attained is through the occasional burn to the ground. By history and by chance, prairies often started on fire from lightning. As man has made efforts to restore the prairie to its natural state, it has become understood that this ceremonious spring burn is in fact essential to the health, vibrance and longevity of the prairie. The burn chokes out the weeds, and the rich, blackened ground adds to the nutrients in the soil to replenish the plants. This welcomes the sun to drench the earth in a warm blanket, inviting and encouraging the grasses and plants to grow back in the quickest, most robust and healthiest way possible.

It is interesting that such beauty must be tormented by such searing pain in order to truly thrive. It seems this is perhaps symbolic of the human experience, and what we need to thrive as well. Often in life, things are humming along beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that we may not even take notice of the abundance with which we have been blessed. Taking it for granted, it is often called, and it is something that seems to be inherent to the human experience.

Grief has been the spring burn in the prairie of my life. I’ve had my share of loss, and at times it has been the source of incredible pain. Death of my parents, loss of friendship, failure of a marriage. Most recently, it was having to make the decision to euthanize a cat who shared her life with me for fourteen years. Regardless of the loss, the experience and the outcome has always been the same. It has been pain so blistering that it forces me to revisit every bout of loss that predated the one I am currently experiencing. That being said, it has also provided me with a cleansing of sorts. A way to feel the burn, and really let it dig down deep in my soul. A way to let my tears wash over me and drive the cumulative toxins out of my soul. A way to remember that I am human, and only human, at the end of the day. And at the conclusion of each new milestone of grief, I am able to brush myself off and move on triumphantly with life…with a renewed reminder of all that really matters.