Altars, Altar Cloths, and Our Covenant to Mourn

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All images: LDSLacemaker.com

Draped neatly on nearly every Mormon temple altar I have ever seen is a white crocheted covering. I had always assumed that such coverings were a quaint nod to our pioneer heritage, those skilled Irish, Dutch, Welsh and Scandinavian hands that provided delicate handiwork to adorn my faith’s earliest temples. It wasn’t until loss ripped through me with H-Bomb force that my eyes were opened to see a deeper meaning.

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It was a Thursday evening, one week to the hour from the tragic drowning accident that took our eldest son’s life, when my husband Randall and I, weak with grief and staggering under the molten lead weight of shock and sorrow, went to the LDS temple so that Randall could do what is a common but crowning rite in our faith; he would serve as proxy for our 18-year-old’s posthumous “endowment”, a bestowal of supreme blessings and promises conditioned upon faithfulness to the gospel. We happened to also be asked in that session to serve as something we call “the witness couple,” meaning that we represented all others in attendance as we approached and knelt at an altar, the central feature of the room in which temple goers are seated and instructed. Freshly amputated as we felt, we scarcely had the energy to get up and approach the altar or even kneel at it, but managed to by bracing ourselves—torsos against and elbows upon—that holy, lace-covered altar.

I recall crying quietly, head hung. Dark spots of dampness pooled on lace geometry, I can see them still, and I can also hear the Spirit telling me, “This suffering is a similitude.” My heart cramped. “And this,” referring to the altar covering I was wetting with the blood of my soul, “is the community of Saints.” I focused on that handiwork throughout that evening, seeing it all as if for the first time. And in each of the subsequent temples I’ve visited in the years since our life was imploded, I have reflected intensely on the altar covering’s meaning.

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What do I now see in those soft altars and in dainty altar cloths? I see these ten hard truths and endless thunderous power.

  • I see that life is an altar, not a stage, as I had believed before I knew that I had zero control over life. That all my efforts to do the right would not and could not protect me from death in all its iterations. That God does not, in the strictest sense, protect us from life, but provides us with exactly enough strength through Christ that sorrow be transformed into joy, suffering into strength, death—the greatest evil— into life, and even life eternal.
  • I see that our Christian covenant before anything else—before white shirts and ties, food storage, memorizing scripture, hosting elaborate youth theme nights—is one of connectivity, companionship, co-mourning and compassion. It is about stitching ourselves to each other in love. Alma, an ancient prophet featured in the Book of Mormon, offered this distilled truth when he taught that Christ’s disciples live to bear others’ burdens, mourn with them, comfort them, and to stand in for God in all things, times and places. (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 18:8-9)

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  • That any other expression of faith than the self-sacrificial and the other-rescuing risks becoming parochial, nothing more than navel-gazing, and ultimately lacks the substance that will create of our simple single threads Zion, and of our threadbare or shot-through selves, offspring truly like our Divine Parents.

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  • That extending our arms to one another knots — or knits—our hearts together, as we read in Mosiah 18:21. This intertwinedness results in a human fabric where each tatted patch represents a tattered and torn someone who is, through intimate, single stitches, held in our community and in turn in a greater, cosmic cloth.
  • That knitting our hearts to one another doesn’t require that we be perfectly whole to begin with. In fact, those altar cloths provide an aerial view of all our broken bodies and punctured spirits. It’s in our reaching outward to catch others or to be caught by others as if with a fine crochet hook, that we are caught by God. The parallel miracle appears when, in our human reciprocal catching and knitting, God knits and mends our individual broken and punctured hearts.

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  • That our brokenness, while making us feel acutely poorer and more fragile, frayed or shot through, also provides open spaces where we can be caught by God. Sewn closer to God, we are far richer and exponentially more robust than we had been before.
  • That such torn-to-pieces-hood, (William James’ translation of the German, “Zerissenheit”), is what we came to earth to know. We can, in our experiences with torn-to-pieces-hood rail and resist, rebel and rage. But we can also recognize that holes, not wholeness, invite holiness. Spaciousness invites the Spirit, and in His wounds we are healed, made whole.
  • That altars are mourning benches, and mourning benches are places of reverence. When we seek to meet someone in their grief, we are treading on sacred ground. This call to compassion—to suffering alongside another—is not a time for perfection, but a moment of supernal authenticity. Any self-consciousness and perfectionist leanings do nothing to help the grieving. We bond on our broken, not on our polished, edges.

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  • That we ought to bear burdens first. (Mow the grief-stricken’s lawn, wash their car, take their children for three days.) Mourn next. (Jesus wept.) Comfort later. (“Comfort” means con+fortis, or “with strength.” Bring all your strengths.) And witness of God (roll out your sermon) only after you have done all of the above, and for much longer than you had ever imagined necessary.
  • And I have learned that mourning, like kneeling at that altar, requires silence. The Jews sit seven days of shiva. We can begin with at least that. We need only to show up and sit in shared stillness. Indeed, altars are places of listening more than places of lengthy discourses. And real listening is more than a polite or professional act. It is total, imaginative focus requiring physical effort and divine inspiration. Listening to those who are suffering will teach all of us essential lessons in our shared humanity.

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As Nicolas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School theology professor and bereaved father writes about altars and mourning benches:

“What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit [or kneel] beside me on my mourning bench.”

—Wolterstorff , Lament for a Son, 34

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How have loss and grief stitched you to your God?

What have others done for you during times of acute grief that has knit your heart to theirs?

What has it meant for you to mourn with or comfort others?

What is to be learned from the seemingly endless landscape of mortal suffering?

If you are LDS and attend the temple, what has that temple-attendance done for you in your anguish and isolation?

 

 

 

 

 

Global Mom Meets Grief and Grace

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan's Duomo.

Text and images © Melissa Dalton-Bradford 2013. All photos from Milan’s Duomo.

How do you celebrate the birthday of your deceased child?

Yesterday, February 20th, would have been Parker’s 24th birthday. Days like these can be hard and lonely. I have to resist the temptation to self-medicate under feathers packed into three hundred count cotton, and have to turn my back from the pit of quicksand. If I don’t, I’m a gonner.

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Until last year, I thought the suction of oblivion, powerful on certain landmarks like yesterday, was maybe just my fault, the curse of my sensitive nature. Until I came across enough statements – dozens – from other parents, who had the same experience.

Actress and bereaved mother, Marianne Leone Cooper, was frank in her memoir Knowing Jesse,about losing her 17-year-old and only son, and wrote that although she can star in a TV series, laugh til she cries, and host a hundred for a holiday party, there are still difficult days like Jesse’s birthday, when she is overcome with tears and longing and craves an entire day in bed. It’s then that she challenges herself to stay engaged with people. Love them. Serve them. Share her son with them.

Solid advice.

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But I couldn’t follow it yesterday because I had work to do, and my work is writing, and writing is a doggoned solitary pursuit.

So I kissed by kids goodbye at 7:15 a.m. sharp at our front door, waved them off to school, then walked straight to this computer. And I worked.

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And worked.

And I worked for hours. Eleven of them. Straight. One ten-minute break every two hours. All generators running at a low, that constant hum, pushing toward a self-imposed deadline: dinner time, February 20th.

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Let me quickly explain what deadline I’m referring to.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve authored two books, both of which are in different stages of getting out the publishing door. One, an anthology entitled Grief and Grace, is presently stalled a bit in the approval process. I’m desperate to get that work into your hands and can promise it will indeed happen, I just can’t tell you exactly when. I’ve been including quotes from Grief and Grace in this blog since this moment , when, saddened by the senseless killings in Newtown, Massachusetts, I decided to devote as long as it takes on this blog to the topic of loss, grief and mourning.

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Up to that point in the life of this blog, however, I’d been posting regularly on a different manuscript, my other book, Global Mom: A Memoir, slated for bookstores in June. In those entries, I’d taken you along on our family’s journey from New Jersey to Norway to France, had looped back for some extra Norway scenes I thought you would appreciate, and was heading back to France again, (as our family did), only this time to the heart of Paris.

Uh, yeah.  If I’m not mistaken.

(I totally sympathize if you sometimes come here not knowing quite where you are on the world map. It feels that way to live it.)

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What has all this blogging and booking meant? While I’ve been posting every week on Grief and Grace, and while, to my complete surprise also increasing my readership, (thanks in part to this post and the award it received called “Freshly Pressed”, granted by our blog host, WordPress), I’ve been quite busy off-blog, getting Global Mom ready for design lay-out and then publication in a matter of weeks.

Put neatly: my ankles are swollen and other things are flumpy from all this dadgum sitting.

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“Publication in a matter of weeks” means now’s when things get granular: I’m running out of time to condense a tad here, expand a bit there, source-check, send pages to Norwegian, French, German, Austrian, Chinese and Singaporean friends, to make sure that my observations of their cultures stay just on this side of landing me in jail. Pretty soon is when someone, my editor, I guess, yells, “Uncle!”, and confiscates my computer. No more fiddling. And I develop an ulcer over all I wrote but shouldn’t have, all I should have written but didn’t, and why I didn’t think to wash my hair the week those candid shots were taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, one of which, the very last image in this post, will be gracing a book cover. But ah, the rest of my family is so, so heartbreakingly beautiful. . .

Which rambling preamble brings me to yesterday. It brings me – books and blogs and the forces of destiny – to February 20th, what would have been my beautiful boy’s 24th birthday.

As I watched for months the approach of this date, I made a personal commitment a little like Marianne Leone’s: I’d devote that day to being  literally or at least literarily as close as possible with others and my son. I would get this book done-done. For him.

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In the eery soundproofing of Swiss silence, (tell me: can you hear individual snowflakes thawing where you are?), I worked. Head low, eyes swimming, shoulders tensing, ankles spreading, I worked. I read and read and compared versions and tweaked and cleaned and read and read more. My breaks I took only when I’d clicked “send” on the chapter going to my editor. Otherwise, I didn’t budge.

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What was I reading? I was reading the last eight chapters of this 26 chapter book. I have to admit I’d put it off, fearing where it might take me, because it is potent material: the narrative that starts with the last hours of Parker’s life and stretches over the five-and-a-half years of our family’s life without (and with) him in this world.

In other words, I spent 11 hours not only reviewing Global Mom, but reliving Grief and Grace.

I spent my dead son’s birthday with him.  In every line. Filling every margin.

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I revisited the death chamber of the ICU, which spilled over with love and light brought by seen and unseen loved ones.

From Global Mom:

We brought all the waiting family and friends into Parker’s small room and gathered around the edge of his bed. There was such a weight of reverence in that room that the space itself felt denser and more illuminated than the hallway. Walking through the doorway was like moving through a plasma membrane. As Parker’s body had by that time been turned over onto its back, we could freely study and memorize his face during these, our last minutes of private communion with him. As heads bowed, I looked around. I felt that reverence or that illuminating presence, that vibration, only greatly heightened, and realized in an uncanny way for which I cannot account even as I write this, that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be: the shape and placement of the windows; the slant of late morning light on the floor; my own hands so ice cold their nails were bluegray; Randall’s soulful expression like a late Rembrandt self-portrait; Dalton whose bearing and depth was of a forty-five year old; Claire with her open, light-filled stare; my parents, so vulnerable and shaken; the soft faces of friends and family; the sense that others, unseen but real, were there, filling in all the blank spaces. And Parker’s Adonis form under a perfect sheet of white.

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On the next page, I’m standing again in his funeral, where a sea of faces full of compassionate anguish looked at us and sang a closing hymn that practically blew out a Mormon chapel’s walls and roof. Pain erupting in joy.

From Global Mom:

“The funeral,” Randall whispers, “It was. . .just. . .I can’t believe they all came.” I don’t want the children to notice our tears; weeping is almost all they’ve seen and heard and done for two weeks straight.


“They flew across the world, all those people,” I look down at our hands, gripping one another’s. He shakes his head; “How could they. . .? I’m just . . . And the music. . .” We tilt our heads to where our crowns meet. I feel him shaking.


The day of your own child’s funeral is the day you should never live to see. It is, in the imagination of those anticipating it in the abstract or in the minds of those observing it from afar, the hardest possible day of any parent’s life. It is the day when the father should collapse with a heart attack, one thinks, or the morning the mother should do something dangerous in her bathroom. The day you should never ever live to see, you parent. The day you would of course never want to relive.
Yet here we are, The Father and The Mother, bent together in Row 34 of an airplane, aching to relive it frame-by-frame. The day was that brilliant – brilliantly excruciating and brilliantly exquisite – like the sun that seemed to affix itself stubbornly at its peak, a sun that wouldn’t be dismissed from early morning until early evening, perched there on the topmost rung of sky like the high sounds of a bugle’s call, punchy, relentlessly scorching and brassily happy. All those things at once. That was the day.

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In the next chapter, I returned to Munich, the place of our exile, and remembered those who, though stymied in their efforts to connect with us parents, swooped in and carefully cradled our disoriented children. I read of teachers and church goers and work colleagues and utter strangers, I saw friends calling across the globe and emailing at all hours with wise counsel and sorrow in each syllable. I revisited revelation and miracles for which there can be no explanation unless one considers and accepts the reality of a spiritual world. Everywhere, I saw a tall, handsome young man whose highest post-mortal priority was and still is to minister to his family.

From Global Mom:

Somewhere in those half-sleeping, half-waking hours that immediately followed, all the lights went on in my inner dream cinema. Parker was there.

I wrote in my dream journal:

He was standing, smiling and fully in his element, in the center of a crescent shape of five people; two figures to his left, two to his right. He wore a light blue rugby shirt with a collar, white horizontal stripes and short sleeves, faded jeans, and sandals. Both his hands were in his pockets and his head was turned to look intently at the person to his left. That person, carrying some stacked books in her arms and dressed conservatively, was talking quietly to him. The setting was campus-like, with a backdrop of brilliant, glimmering green trees, and there was a neo-classical building like a specific one I knew from my own alma mater’s campus. Behind this crescent of figures, there were just a few other figures, all in their late teens or early twenties, crossing behind Parker and going up and down these steps into the neoclassical building.
Again, Parker was calm, but in no way indifferent, in fact, he was nodding lightly and seemed eagerly engaged. It was clear to me that he was learning something from whatever the young woman to his left was explaining. She was teaching him something, this I somehow intuitively understood, and he was new there in this setting,  being introduced to these people, to their conversation and to their ways.
As well as looking wholesome and healthy, he was radiant, cheerful. There were no multiple and severe head wounds, no swollen eyes, no bruises, no protruding contusion over the left ear, no tubes, no corpselike pastiness. Just Parker among all his friends, as natural as the air. Parker as he’d always been, but visibly serene.
As I marveled at all the beauty and tried to get closer to take a closer look at him and perhaps get his attention and interrupt (why was I not able to run to him, to get closer faster?), he turned his head slightly from the young woman still engaging him in conversation at his left. He looked right at me. It was a knowing, intimate glace, and it lasted perhaps five seconds. He looked at me and said nothing, my heart startled, and I understood these ideas: “This is how it is, Mom. This is where I am. I am learning. I am with my people. You have done with me what you did with the other kids tonight: You’ve handed me into someone else’s care to be schooled further.”

And then he turned his head back to his new friends – ah, sweet Parker; your friends always got more of your time than I did, even in death – and the lights dimmed and the picture washed away.

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I moved on in my reading to Singapore, where there were such warm waves of love, you could have bodysurfed in the foam alone. I was reminded of the countless kindnesses extended to our family, the private remembrances of a son no one there had ever known but were willing to commemorate.

From Global Mom:

There were friends for hiking up and down Singapore’s hilly tropical rain forest, friends for yoga, friends for making music, friends for serving in church and traveling to near-lying Asian destinations. There were, to our surprise, friends to mourn with, friends to remember Parker even though no one here knew us, no one had ever known of Parker. There was the one friend who remembered every single 19th of every month, the day of Parker’s accident. Or another who digitally designed an up-to-date family photo into which she magically added Parker’s 18-year-old face. The woman who, on Mother’s Day, sent a brief but soothing email, “Hey, thinking of you today. How are you doing?” and the friend who spent months painting Parker’s portrait from a photo, one of the last photos ever taken of him while he played a drum solo in his senior class talent show. People were there on every hand, it seemed, enfolding us in more love and compassion that one family can know what to do with.

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I saw in my writing how each of us – Randall, Claire, Dalton, Luc, and myself – had been hugely fortified over time, and how our experience disproved all the  conventional language for grief. We had not “lost” Parker; he was in no way “lost” since we knew where he was, nor had we forfeited him to some random cosmic lottery. And he wasn’t actually “dead”, at least not in the sense we’d habitually used that word. Unwatered house plants, our Internet line, your smartphone connection, they were what we call dead. 

But Parker? He was more alive than you or me or anyone.

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By the time I hit my deadline – I did hit my deadline – I was as bonded to Parker as I’d been in a long time. He was at my elbow, it seemed, nodding, prodding me forward. I had spent the day engaged, if only literarily, in his immortal life and others’ mortal ones. In a small way I was, through my work, serving them by sharing my son’s story with them.

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Stiff but satisfied, I checked email one last time. It was our Claire, with this week’s missionary letter:

Carissimi amici,

I wanted to begin the email by acknowledging Parker’s birthday, which is today. I have been thinking a lot about him, and how often, during my mission service, he has shown me in little ways that he is involved with my work here. This week I saw it in a big way.. . .

Eight enthusiastic paragraphs later, Claire had described in detail her brother’s ongoing presence in her life.

I shut this overworked laptop of mine and let peace move over me.  It was much softer and far more enlivening than any feather comforters and three hundred count cotton sheets. So galvanizing was this day of comfort, in fact, and so complete was my gratitude, I couldn’t even force myself to stay in bed under my fluffy covers last night.

So I waddled back in here, and for some hours and by the light of my screen alone, I wrote this post to thank my God, my Parker, and my friends like you.

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Succor and Mourn; Console and Comfort

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On this Christmas day, one thought overwhelms all others in my mind:

He came.

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Knowing that God came, that He descended from His heaven to our heaviness – and below it – fills and unburdens my heart.

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The truth that He descends alongside all humankind’s sorrows including my own bears up my grief…

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Lightens it…

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…Shining light into its hidden corners, crowding out absence.

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He came, as He promised He would.

“I will not leave you comfortless,” He promises today. “I will come to you.” (John 14:18)

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So the pattern is clear: If we seek to share in His comfort, if we long to mediate God’s love for others, then we must come to them.

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Today I bow low in thanks to a God Who came…

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And to all those who, as mediators of His holy and healing presence, have come to us.

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From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward

**

The original meaning of succor is to run or dash to someone’s aid. How soon we go, how easily we drop everything to help, says something about our esteem for the person in need. Zeal sends one message; hesitation another. The best time and most eloquent way to succor is to do so when need arises. After all, service is seldom convenient.
—Wayne Brickey, Making Sense of Suffering, 104

A physician who lost one of his own children says that before his loss, when he would hear of a child’s death, he would send a card; now he sends himself.
—Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 233

To show compassion means to share in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.
To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonizes. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.
–Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing, 67

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One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: That word is love.
—Sophocles, quoted in To My Soul Mate, ed. Gary Morris, 59

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Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?
Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear—
And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?
And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!
He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.
Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.
Oh, He gives to us His joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.
—William Blake, “On Another’s Sorrow,” The Poetical Works of William Blake, 75–76

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I am not thinking clearly. But I am thinking. I am trying to think.
Our friends arrive shortly after 2 a.m., in one car. Susan and Ron, Jeanne and Dan and their fourteen-year-old daughter, Lily whom Ray and I have known since her birth. When they step inside, and embrace me—it’s as if I have stepped into a violent surf.
Though our friends remain with me until 4 a.m. most of what we said to one another has vanished from my memory. Our friends will tell me that I behaved calmly and yet it was clear that I was in a state of shock. I can remember Jeanne on the phone, in the kitchen, making calls to funeral homes. I can remember my astonishment that a funeral home might be open at such an hour of the night. I can remember explaining to my friends how Ray died––why Ray died-––the secondary infection, the fact that his blood pressure plummeted, his heartbeat accelerated––these gruesome words which I have memorized and which, even now, at any hour of the they day, along with my final vision of Ray in the hospital bed, run through my mind like flashes of heat lightning.
My friends are extraordinary, I think. To come to me so quickly in the middle of the night as they’ve done.
For the widow inhabits a tale not of her own telling. The widow inhabits a nightmare-tale and yet it is likely that the widow inhabits a benign fairy tale out of the Brothers Grimm in which friends come forward to help. We loved Ray, and we love you.
Let us help you. Ray would want this.

–Joyce Carol Oates, A Widow’s Story, 80, 81

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So many other relatives . . . and even close friends—stepped forward and were there for us when we needed them so desperately. . . . These are the people who went with us to the morgue; they brought back personal belongings from the accident scene; they selected caskets; they phoned people, made food, drove us where we had to go. . . . We will never forget all they did for us.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 57

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One compassionate gaze or one affectionate handshake can substitute for years of friendship when a person is in agony. Not only does love last forever, it need only a second to be born.
–Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 72

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No man is an island, entire of itself; Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
—John Donne, “Meditation XVII”

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It is natural, in sorrow, to be consoled if a friend shares our grief. . . .
First, sorrow weighs one down; it is a load which, of course, one tries to lighten. When therefore a person sees others joining him in sorrow, it feels as if they are helping him carry the load, trying to lessen its weight on him; so the burden weighs on him less heavily, just as in the case of carrying physical weights.
—St. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Eileen Geller, “The St. Thomas Guide to Surviving Grief,” Consoling Grace

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What is the difference between grieving and mourning? Mourning has company.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Kayak Morning, 39

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If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
—Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World, 331

The baby was tiny and perfect and purplish. His body showed no clues to what went wrong. We named him Hamish. It is a name we had always liked but was a bit too outlandish even for intrepid baby-namers like us (who wants a child to spend the rest of his life saying “it’s Scottish for James. And it’s a long ‘a’, pronounced HAY-mish”). After the delivery (barely one push) we held our sweet little baby while our wonderful doctor sat in the hospital room with us for almost an hour. Just talking. And listening. He didn’t hurry out and make the nurses deal with it, as doctors are wont to do. It’s hard to say how much that meant to me.
—Jennie Hildegard Westenhaver, “Pictures of the Dead,” Beehive and Birdnest (blog)

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Before you know what kindness really is,
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Kindness”

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Do not assume that she who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. Her life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, she would never have been able to find these words.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Say Hello, 4

A simplistic sounding answer to the question of how to help families face tragedy is that, paradoxically, there are no “right things to say,” nor is there even a need to say anything that speaks of the intellect at a time like this. The need is for sincere human love, reaching in its own unique, spontaneous, fumbling way with a “built-in” message: “Though I don’t fully understand how you feel, I care enough to come to you and to try to share your hurt with you as much as I can, and as much as you will allow me to at this time. I’ll leave you alone if I get any vibrations from you that you prefer to be alone, yet I’ll leave with a readiness to come back when you give the signal you want me to come back.”
—Vern Albrecht, quoted in DeAnna Edwards, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise, 130

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The reality of grief is the absence of God—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart’s in pieces, your mind’s a blank, that “there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away” [Lord Byron]. . . .
That’s why immediately after such tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers—the basics of beauty and life—people who sign letters simply, “Your brokenhearted sister.” In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends—not many, and none of you, thank God—were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn’t face. But like God . . . Scripture is not around for anyone’s protection, just for everyone’s unending support.
And that’s what [you] understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us—minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn’t be standing here were I not upheld.
—William Sloane Coffin Jr, quoted in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 58;
Sloane, a reverend, standing before and addressing his congregation after losing his own child.

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The test, then, of our soul’s greatness is rather to be sought in our ability to comfort and console, our ability to help others, rather than in our ability to help ourselves and crowd others down in the struggles of life.
—John A. Widstoe and Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 265

She used to rock me in her arms, consoling my pain, but not only consoling, for she seemed to take my sorrow to her own breast, and I realized that if I had not been able to bear the society of other people, it was because they all played the comedy of trying to cheer me into forgetfulness. Whereas Eleanora said:
“Tell me about Deidre and Patrick,” and made me repeat to her all their little sayings and ways, and show their photos, which she kissed and cried over. She never said, “Cease to grieve,” but she grieved with me, and, for the first time since their death, I felt I was not alone.
—Isadora Duncan, quoted in McCracken and Semel, A Broken Heart Still Beats, 218;
Duncan’s two young children, Deidre and Patrick, drowned in the Seine.

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We need people who most sensitively mediate God’s love for us.
—Wayne Simsic, Cries of the Heart, 12

When our pain is so deep and real that we can’t see or feel anything else, we need the witness of the saints about us; saints who, on the basis of their own experience of life’s pain, can assure us that though our pain is true, it is not the ultimate truth. In all our pain, and beyond all our pain, always is the beauty, truth, and love of God in Jesus Christ, which never dies, and which will never allow us to die.
—Jeffery J. Newlin, “Standing at the Grave,” in This Incomplete One, ed. Bush, 130

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When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan th’ expense of many a vanish’d sight;
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
—Sonnet 30, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1754–55

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What Does Grief Look Like?

Rocks remember

It has been said that grief feels a lot like fear.

Late August, and late afternoon, the Pont du Gard near Remoulins, southern France

And part of grief does, I’ll agree with that.

There is a part of grief that soaks through our dendrites with the same adrenalin cocktail that comes with acute panic, wild-eyed disorientation, and dry-mouthed dread.

Part of grief shows up like that.  Yessir.

But it’s just a part. A teensy, peripheral, lite-weight part of grief.

At least grief as I’ve known it.

The rest –- and this is the predominant part, the part that goes deeper and lasts longer than you really want to know from me right here in a friendly little blogpost — is an Armageddon-like assault on the body, the mind, and the spirit. A head-first, G-force drilling to the center of the earth.

A joint-wrenching, marrow-draining, jaw-locking, capillary-bursting, limb-flailing catapult into regions of the soul you never knew existed and, once crawled through, ever thought you’d emerge from sane.

Let alone walking upright.

In other words, grief — the out-of-the-clear-blue-decimation kind of grief; the major-loss kind of grief; the grief that naturally follows the sudden and violent loss of your cherished child, for example — goes way, way, so very way beyond fear.

Where does that comparison — grief = fear — come from? Some observers might think the reason grief feels like fear is because they assume the bereaved harbor one specific fear: the fear of forgetting the deceased.

Hmm. Well.

While I cannot speak for the entire human race, the fear of forgetting isn’t anywhere near the root of grief.  I’m not even convinced that that specific fear exists at all.  At least for me, the supposed inevitability of somehow forgetting my son Parker never figured and still does not figure into my grief.

True, I had no idea at the beginning what things would look like years down the road, (if, in fact, I would make it far enough to see that road).  But from the moment of implosion when major grief smashed like a meteor through the crown of my head rearranging my vision and view of the universe forever and allowing me to see things in better-than-Blu-Ray-bazillion-pixel clarity — things as they really are — I knew in one blow and intuitively there was never forgetting.

And now, I’m here. A few years down the road. Five, to be exact.

And what do things look like? What does grief and its (supposed) “forgetting” and (certain) remembering look like from this vantage point?

You’re looking at it.

During that week in Provence, as close as we could get to the 21st (our family’s holy day), we all stood right on what for us is holy ground.

Make that, my men stood.  I sat.  On a rocky outcropping below the Pont du Gard’s eternal arches, I kept my horror harnessed just like my camera strap around my neck, my fear and grief channeled through a telephoto lens, making an effort, (as I know Randall was doing), to be lighthearted and playful with the boys.

Who wants to rein in this kind of explosive joy?

This primal, golden exuberance for sunshine, for flight?

For each other?

For water?

But now I realize that they were probably making an effort to be joyful, too, these sons of ours.  They know, just as we do, of course, that these are the same stones from which Parker always jumped.  And considering how often we came here, that’s a lot of jumping. A lot of his DNA rubbed deep into these minerals.  A lot of our family’s collective memories are pressed with his presence.  Right here.

The summer of his drowning (in some very small, obscure and unmarked irrigation canal in southern Idaho, by the way), he’d been right here first. A month to the day, actually, previous to the accident.

He’d drawn a crowd that afternoon at the Pont du Gard. He’d stood up on a rocky ledge next to his then eleven-year-old (and somewhat pensive) little brother Dalton.  Both were wearing blue swim trunks.  The French elementary school class on the lower tier of the bridge, there for a class outing, began chanting — screaming — at the top of their lungs, “Les Bleus! Les Bleus!!” (“The Blues! The Blues!!”), which is the nickname for the French national soccer team. They wanted the two boys in blue to be the first to jump.

Of course, Parker wanted to make it worth their chants.

He swiveled right to them, to all those little innocent children, and waving those big volleyball player arms up and up again in the air, got them screaming even louder, “Les Bleus!!”

He put his hand to his ear, like, “Can’t hear you!”

Louder screams.

Then quietly and from behind, Dalton, the timid one back then, stepped forward and grabbed his big brother’s hand.  They smiled, Parker whispered something down to Dalton, Dalton pursed his lips and nodded, and then the two erupted with,  “Un!! Deux!!! Trois!!!!!!”

And to the cheering of the children, the two in blue sailed hand-in-hand into midair.

**

It’s all there as I peer through my lens amid shadows that are slinking down the stones of Pont du Gard.  I know my light is fading.  I only have a few minutes to capture these few minutes. Behind my camera, I slowly realize I’m humming “Bookends”, baby Parker’s favorite Simon and Garfunkel song.

(You think I’m making this up for dramatic effect. But I’m neither that strategic nor that good. Ask Glen and Anneli, who survived a round trip drive from Philly to D.C.  crammed into a subcompact with Randall, Melissa, and 18-month-old Parker.  Like a cracked record, our toddler asked — barked — from his car seat, “Time It Was?! Time It Was??!!” We adults, naturally (what was the option? It was a small car and a long drive) complied.  From our cassette player in the car stereo we played that single thirty-second song. Nonstop. Over and over and over again. And over again.)

The lyrics Parker knew by heart and sang all his life long:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was 
A time of innocence, a time of confidences 
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph 
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

**

The boys will appreciate these photos one day. And so will I.  I have no idea — no one does— just how very precious our photographs might be for us one day.

But since I do not agree with Simon and Garfunkel that photographs and memories are “all that’s left you”, because I know that my son has not left me, not literally, and that there is more comfort than to merely revel in memories and scrapbooks alone, that I can have a continuing , non-forgotten relationship with him, — because of all that, I am not fearful about losing my photos. Nor my memories.  Nor my memory.

This is what makes a mammoth difference in my life going forward: I do not remember my son.  By that I mean that I do not simply “re-member” him, not in the pulling-him-back-here, reminding myself, looking back and re-collecting way.  Why not? Because he is here, of course.  A member of us now as ever he was.  Pulled tightly to our sides, not trailing from behind us.  Looking ahead with us.  Collected already in our midst. And as that present presence, I am creating memories with him.  In the here-and-now.

Those who leave us early (and if we really, passionately love them, whenever they leave is bound to feel like “early”),  they take on another shade of vividness, and are just as real, though much harder to share with others who are not willing to pay the price for imagination and faith.  In my reality, Parker is every bit as present as he was when he was last at the Pont du Gard.  But I have to tell you: His realm, superimposed on ours, is much more brightly colored now than any of the darkening waters of this existence.

He is far more radiant now than ever he was when bathed in the shimmering sun slicing beneath Pont du Gard.

Since I know this in my bones — that he is here with me, and with his father, and with his sister and with his brothers and with the countless many who loved him in life and continue to love him in another frame of life— since I do know that he is here and not gone to some nebulous elsewhere, then my task for now is pretty straightforward:

Take the heavy camera off my neck.

Tuck away the lenses.

Call to my beloveds:

I’m here!

And plunge.

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.