Working through grief: a view from 4 months after Mom’s death

Much has been written about grief, most of it by people with more experience, expertise, and, perhaps, intellectual interest in the subject than I have.

What I know can be summed up thusly: there are no shortcuts; one must carry on through it, and knowing that fact doesn’t make it any easier to go ahead. Somehow, anyway, most of us do muddle through.

I’ve been muddling for about four months since Mom died.*

As often happens, I find myself abundantly grateful for my extraordinarily blessed life, even at an awful time. Because I am a stay at home parent with a supportive husband whose own parents share our New England home, I had the freedom to spend two whole months with my dad as he grieved the loss of his wife of over 50 years.

Uncountable numbers of friends and family gave generously to support Dad and the rest of us. Mom’s energy and organizational prowess made a difference in so many lives, and people made that clear with their presence and their kind messages. The congregation of my folks’ church, Vancouver Heights UMC, freely provided resources and support far beyond what I would have imagined possible, had I ever been brave enough to imagine planning a parent’s funeral before I was forced to do so.

I can’t begin to imagine how much harder coping is for those with fewer resources. Then, too, losing my mother leaves me exquisitely aware of the universality of this crushing blow. All the resources in the world are a poor substitute for the love of the humblest mom.

Though I tried to be a help to Dad, those two months with him also served as a time apart for me to process my own grief. Oddly, returning home to normalcy hit me with a whole new series of unexpected reminders of loss. For me, at least, lots of things about Mom’s death have been difficult, but the situations I anticipated as particularly challenging have rarely counted amongst the most disruptive or disturbing. Trivial moments have dealt me my most significant blows, perhaps because I couldn’t brace myself for each impact.

Processing grief requires enormous flexibility from its sufferers.

My children, troopers that they are, both spent many weeks helping Grandpa as well. We were all there before the end, Mom’s last days in hospice care being both mercifully and, simultaneously, tragically very limited. The kids needed their own space, their own home, and time to prepare for the upcoming school year, so they headed home to Papa and his parents some weeks before my departure from my parents’ home.

Though I thought often about Really Wonderful Things throughout the summer and fall, I couldn’t find the strength to sit down and commit any of them to the page. Most of the thoughts were disordered; most of the time, my mind played second fiddle to my tumultuous emotions.

Now I know: I’m made exhausted and quite stupid by grief, and also irrationally frightened. I was afraid to approach my own cherished little blog.

Exactly what I’m afraid of is still hard to articulate as autumn decays into winter, but a caring comment from a regular reader did help prompt me to face some of this grief-induced anxiety and scrawl a few words on the page.

If you find this post because you are suffering a loss of your own, I hope my words offer some comfort.

If you’re a regular reader, I hope you haven’t missed my rambling too much. Many thanks for your patience.

*Though I did, in fact, begin this post on Labor Day, nearer the two month mark. An upload failure erased half of what I’d cried over on my cross-country flight home, and I simply couldn’t find the energy to resume until today, in late November.

It turns out that starting my car after school drop off equates in my mind with “call and check in with Mom.” 12 weeks into the school year, the instinct hasn’t left me yet, and it fades so very slowly.

Rushing for life experiences when chronic illness fuels your fears

I’ve had the great fortune to travel regularly throughout my life.

I enjoyed those pivotal vacation experiences of a happy middle class childhood: a couple of trips to Disneyland and bragging rights about having flown on airplanes and crossed a national border or two, if only to near neighbors Mexico and Canada.

I attended college in a different region from Home. I flew cross country at least four times a year because of this one fact. I built my desire to see the world into my educational plans, and it worked out well for me.

I didn’t even mind long distance romances in my youth, because what could offer better motivation for frequent trips? I love having a journey coming up in my calendar.

Later, working as a software engineer, I had the privilege of visiting subcontractor sites in Denmark and Spain on my employer’s dime. At the same time, I was a single, adequately employed young adult during the roaring 1990’s before the dot.com bubble burst.

For as long as I’ve had the option, I’ve traveled regularly, and I’ve enjoyed most of it. I dream of “seeing the world.” I’ll be grateful for every corner that I reach.

Yet, in spite of all this to-ing and fro-ing, there has been a certain rhythm to my rambling. At my youthful peak, I was not a high energy traveler. As a middle aged mother with a couple of kids in tow, my pace is typically sedate, and I prioritize comfort and convenience over the heights of adventure.

Looking back over our family travels, a pattern emerges. Every few years, we’ve had a “grand adventure.” How grand is Grand has changed with our finances and family status, but it’s always been a cycle of plan, anticipate, then go.

Maybe Go! with a capital and an exclamation mark expresses it better.

“But lately something’s changed, it ain’t hard to define…”* Or, rather, it isn’t hard to unearth the cause of the shift. I’m scrambling. I’m rushing. I’m tumbling from one trip to another without enough time to fully digest each experience.

Some of my trips bump up hard enough against the next that I feel more overwhelmed than anticipatory.

I know why I’m doing it, too. I’m afraid.

I’ve been saying yes to one trip after another because I’m afraid it will be my last chance to travel before I’m sidelined by infirmity and pain. Continue reading

Childhood sweets: Russian karovka & Greek pasteli induce circular rumination on parental love

What were the sweetest flavors of your childhood?

Candy Moo Korovka - 1

Pictured here is my husband’s favorite sweet. It’s a Russian candy our family calls “Moo.” Yes, like the sound a cow makes. My husband only likes the brands with polka dots on the wrappers.

It appears he isn’t the only one who yearns for cow candy to bring back memories of childhood and the act of chewing his cud?

I took this pretty picture of candy he received on Halloween because I knew it would be consumed immediately. While I don’t like the stuff at all, my sons have inherited their father’s fondness for this “milk caramel” or “gentle fudge” as I’ve found it translated online.

The candy is called “karovka,” which is the Russian word for cow. More specifically, it’s the diminutive word for “cow” in the Russian language. The Russians are masters of the diminutive!

Like Smurf-ette from Smurf, “karovka” implies a cute, dainty cow, not a regular old karova (корова), which might be a common dairy cow, or, God forbid!, a karovisha (коровище) which would be a gross, overwhelming cow-ishness!*

I knew a girl in college who was called Mary Moo.

When I met her as a wide-eyed froshling, I thought people were calling her “Mary μ,” with μ (mu) being a lowercase letter in the Greek alphabet. Its uppercase corollary, Μ, should be very familiar to all of us Westerners using a Roman alphabet. This casual use of Greek letters seemed very collegiate to my naive self.

Having just done the section in our Physics book about friction**, I felt very cool to have a new friend with a μ in her name. It turns out she was merely a vegetarian with rather bad manners who had often quite literally moo-ed at people while they ate meat in the dining hall the year before.

I learned the first of many lessons about the true nature of intellectual life at even a highly rated liberal arts college that day.

Now, as for candy, I’ll return to my starting point: the sweet memories of childhood. My husband loved karovka; I find myself reminiscing about the taste of sesame-honey candy.

One of my earliest memories of sweets is a sesame confection my mother would allow me to buy at our local, small city grocery store. A search online today tells me it was almost definitely a Greek delicacy, pasteli (παστέλι.)

I’m not sure I knew any Greek people as a child in our city. I wonder if the candy was there at the supermarket because its simple ingredients appealed to hippies (who lingered in Oregon long after they’d been supplanted by yuppies elsewhere), or if this is yet another Greek creation co-opted by the rest of the civilized world?

I’m almost positive that my mother was attempting to give me the most nutritious sweet possible without actually denying me a treat. In the 1970’s, when I was a tot, honey would have seemed a far cry from sugar. And with all those sesame seeds in the recipe? Pasteli is practically health food!

When Halloween comes around, I’m confronted in the sweetest possible way with all that’s different for my kids, here and now, and all that’s the same. My birthplace may be nearer than their father’s, but it’s still thousands of miles away.

The kids said, “Neener, neener, neener” to mock each other where I grew up; here, they tease each other with “Nana nana boo boo!” Don’t even get me started on how silly that taunt sounds to my West Coast ears.

People shop with carriages instead of carts. We get a driver’s license from the Registry of Motor Vehicles instead of the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles.) My kids are growing up in a Commonwealth, not a State.

Harrumph.

But here’s the sweeter side of these differences.

When I was a girl in the 1980’s, I sincerely believed that the USA and the USSR would destroy each other in a nuclear Armageddon. I worried about this. I lost sleep over it.

Sting released his song “Russians” in 1985. The lyrics always haunted me. They include these lines:

“We share the same biology/
Regardless of ideology/
What might save us, me and you/
Is if the Russians love their children too”

Politics are more polarized than ever. Our fears may have shifted from the Communists to the Terrorists, but it is still fear being peddled.

What has changed for my personal understanding of the scenario is the now constant awareness of the fact that, yes, the Russians did love their children, too.

They still do, and they always will. Just like we Americans love our kids, as do the Greeks, together with every other healthy human parent on the planet.

How sweet that is!

*Note that a native speaker of Russian says this would be a highly unusual word to encounter under normal circumstances. If it isn’t obvious to you yet, you should not be looking to me for guidance in correct use of the Russian language. I really enjoy this notion of turning words from diminutives into… what’s the opposite of a diminutive? I’ll go with grotesqueries.†I find them great fun.

†And now even my footnotes have footnotes. I had to look it up. The opposite of a diminutive is, naturally, an augmentative. Read more on Wikipedia if, like me, you must.

**μ is commonly used to symbolize the coefficient of friction.