My mother died. Those three words are hard to write, let alone process. For me, the finality of never hearing my mother’s voice again or having the chance to talk over old issues or discover something new about her childhood — these possibilities are all swallowed up in a black hole of mystery that is beyond me now. Game’s up. No more chances. It feels kind of brutal and unfair.
But she was elderly and ready to go and died peacefully in the night, the way we all wish to go. I did not anticipate any earth-shaking emotions. Oh, how wrong I was! How was I to know that a whole plethora of feelings would suddenly rise up like a chaotic music video filled with intense images and colors and rhythms, a kind of hodgepodge of noisy regrets and bittersweet memories and intense sadness and forgotten angers and irrational bouts of guilt?
I would prefer to turn off the whole grief experience, or at least decide how it goes. But that’s the weird thing about grief: it just does its thing regardless of our preferences. While I would prefer a quiet, gentle Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings kind of grief experience, I get rap instead. The quiet sadness is punctuated by the rude and repetitive bursts of “if onlys” and “should haves.” So, for me, grief at this point in the journey is a jumble, a mashup of emotional tonalities that have a mind of their own.
Richard Rohr defines suffering as "whenever you are not in control." Mourning our loved ones feels like this, a humbling of all our attempts at control. We hear, too, the ancient whisper in our ears: Memento Mori (Remember, you shall die.) Just as death comes when it comes, so the grief process is something we cannot control. But we can be partners with it. And herein lies the good news.
When my mother was failing, I was reading a book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert says that the creative process is like a road trip, with fear always acting out in the back seat. I discovered that grief is like this, too, an open-ended journey with a mélange of ever-changing feelings as traveling companions.
As for my own road trip, I’ve got my regrets rapping in the backseat, pelting out words that grate and disturb and cover up the orchestral strings I’m playing on the radio. I can tell the backseat regret-rappers to shut up, but they can’t hear me for all their shouting, “If only, If only” and “You should have, You should have” in maddening repetition to a beat which gives me a headache. I wish I could dump them on the side of the road and speed off with tires screeching; but alas, for the grief journey to work, I must make room for them and offer them a little compassion. So, I muster my patience: Okay, you guys, I’ll listen for a little while and then you really do need to shut up.
But my other traveling companions — gratitude and forgiveness and loving memories — get to sit in the front seat and read the map and choose the radio station. I can work with these guys. I’m not sure where we’re going, but I just keep driving because it feels like the thing to do because movement helps. I want to be open and engaged to whatever healing might emerge in the journey.
Mourning can be a kind of creative, open-ended journey toward transformation, that is if we are willing to let all our feelings ride along with us in honesty and acceptance. My friend, theologian and pastor Bruce Epperly, affirms this in a beautifully honest passage from his book, From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure. He describes his own experience of finding his brother dead.
“I still vividly recall finding my brother’s lifeless body in the mobile home we purchased for him in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I still go over our relationship, lamenting missed opportunities to be more supportive of him in facing the challenges of mental illness and loneliness. I had been a supportive brother, yet I still experience a sense of guilt at sins of omission that might — although in reality probably wouldn’t — have made a difference in his quality of life.”
I found great relief in this story because it reminds me that regret and guilt — irrational though they may be — are universal, perfectly normal in times of grief, not something cooked up just for me. They are part of the journey.
And the journey is hard. But the journey can also take us places we didn’t even know were on the map — unexpected landscapes of mystery and awe and beauty. This happened to me. Although I was not present at my mother’s death, I was told that shortly before Mother passed in the wee hours, her roommate heard her talking to someone, but no one was there. My mother spoke these words into the darkness: “Okay, Mother, you can come in now.” She died shortly after.
It was as if her own mother — long passed — had been standing at the door of another existence with outstretched arms, eager to usher her daughter into the loving embrace of eternity!
This news touched me deeply, jolting me out of myself. I quickly changed gears and drove my car named Grief, packed with a motley crew of emotions, up to a high peak. There, overlooking the unfathomable ocean of eternity, I paused and looked into that Great Mystery with humility and awe, contemplating the hope of connection and healing and reunion and further adventure inside the heart of God’s embracing love.
I like to think of death as a widening of the soul, like spreading wings, where the self is not extinguished but rather enlarged: a spectacular transformation which breaks through the walls of the chrysalis-like ego, ushering us into a spacious, interconnected, transcendent Beauty. Perhaps, then, death itself is the Great Adventure.
My present adventure, this journey in grief — chock full of ever-changing emotions — is just beginning, but I know it will continue to transform me and teach me about love and life and eternity. Just as heaven, in my mind, enlarges the contours of our souls in relational healing, so grief will stretch my earthly soul with its new landscapes carved out of sorrow and beauty. And I will learn something of my own mortality, too, and of savoring wild flowers and caresses and sunny days. Perhaps, then, I can snatch glimpses of heaven, and of that Great Love that embraces us in life and death.
Perhaps, when the time comes, my own mother will be waiting at the door, eager and ready to usher me into that next adventure.
I hope so.