Category Archives: Grief

Two Steps Forward; Five Steps Back

The medical center I work for has been going through some changes the past couple of weeks. My boss resigned and then, a week later, her boss resigned. Three of our nurses moved on to other jobs and two of our doctors were let go. Other staff throughout the clinic was also trimmed back. As the face of health care changes so, too, does the medical center I work at. I am grateful to still have a job but we are all a bit on edge and feeling the loss of those people that are now gone.

I’m telling you this because one of the other Practice Managers has stepped up to oversee things while we are going through this transitional time. Last week she brought over one of her new Patient Care Representatives to be cross-trained on our front desk procedures so he can help out when we are short-handed. I worked with him a bit each day helping him set up his desk and printers, showing him where our break room was – little things like that. I found that every time I was around him for a few minutes I’d feel a lighter sense of peace inside and I’d walk away from him smiling and feeling better than I had in months. As he left for the day on Friday he came to say goodbye and to thank me for helping him and I found myself wanting to reach out and give him a hug – and that’s when it hit me like a big, wet towel: His mannerisms and pattern of speech were identical to my brother’s. For the first time in nearly two years, I felt like I did when Johnny and I were together.

I woke up this morning and couldn’t stop the tears from falling. I missed Father’s Day brunch with my family this morning because I can’t stop crying. I feel every bit as bad as I did the week Johnny died – the wound, fresh, raw, and gaping again. Saying goodbye to so many people at work and then being around this young man seems to have triggered something at an unconscious level until the pain could no longer be suppressed: the losses weren’t just at work – they were here, too, in my immediate family.

So, today, after months of moving forward in my grief for my mother and brother and feeling like I was going to be okay, I find myself in the pit again. And I know this too shall pass.

I know that we have to grieve in order to let go.

I know there is a purpose and a plan in place.

I know. I know…

But today I am grieving for all the men I’ve lost instead of celebrating the men who are still in my life. To my “Gramps”, John Kenward, my “other” dad, Rich Mahoney, my friends who would have made great dads, Jack & Tim, and especially to my brother, Johnny: I thank you for all of your love.

You are so deeply, deeply missed.


The Kitchen Sink

Something happened over the holiday weekend – something that took me by surprise. Instead of spending the four days away from work lounging on the deck, sipping margaritas with a good book in hand, I found myself motivated for the first time in months to deep clean my home. It started off innocently enough: I would get up from the computer to go make a cup of tea and I’d find myself putting things away while the water came to a boil. When I got up to let the dogs out, I’d stop and sweep the kitchen floor. The next thing I knew I’d be on my hands and knees next to a soapy bucket of water, ready to tackle the grungy corners that seem to always get missed when wet mopping the floor.

About halfway through the weekend I realizing just how much I had been avoiding caring for my home these past months. I’d been doing enough cleaning to be able to stand living there but I had let other things take a back seat to sleeping and playing mindless rounds of Internet card games.

As the weekend drew to a close, I found myself becoming a little bit weepy. Emotions began to well up inside me and erupt in small, quiet corners of the house. A tear would run down my cheek here and there at the oddest moments. A sadness would rise and fall inside me as I lifted things and moved them about. I even noticed I was dreaming more vividly at night, waking up wanting to be comforted but not really knowing why.

By Monday afternoon, knee deep in shampooing the dining room carpet, I stopped to take a short nap. I quickly fell asleep and began to dream of my old dog, Emma Woo. She was running across a field, full speed ahead, hurrying to run into my arms with the full weight of her enormous Sheepdog body. We collided in my dream, her knocking me to the ground, licking my face, pawing my shoulders, prancing like a 100-lb. puppy at the sheer sight of me. When I awoke from the dream, I had such a mingling of emotion surface all at once.  It was a cross between deep joy from getting to see her again and an even deeper sadness that came from knowing how much I had been missing her these past fifteen years.

I rose from my nap and dug back into the process of cleaning, rearranging, and reorganizing my home again. I walked over to the living room to put a candle on one of the shelves when I came face to face with the last portrait my parents had taken together before my mother had died. Suddenly, the weekend all made sense. After six months without my mother, I was finally coming up for air – ready to start putting my house back in order – literally and figuratively. It was time to stop standing still in the midst of my grief and begin, instead, to move forward into the path of my life again.

This afternoon I continued on that journey, sorting through all the junk that had accumulated in the hallway bookcase and then reassembling my dining room now that the newly shampooed carpet had dried. I let the dogs outside this evening right before the sun went down and made the rounds filling up all the bird feeders while they were enjoying the great outdoors. When I came inside, I went to wash my hands at the kitchen sink and, taking a quick look around, realized this was the cleanest my kitchen had been in a very long time. I flipped the bottle of Dawn detergent over and squirted a little soap onto my hands, washing away not only the dirt of the day but also letting a little more of the grief I have been carrying around go down the drain as well.


The Long Goodbye

Four months after my mother’s passing, we finally held her memorial service.

Yesterday was a very long and hard day but we all made it through to the end. It had some highs such as seeing the friends of my parents from when I had been a child – many of whom I haven’t seen in a good 30 years but I still knew them when I saw them. The funniest thing to me was how I was now taller than all of them – even the ones I remembered as being such tall men and women.  (I guess I grew a few inches and they shrank a few?)  The day also had some lows such as hearing my father eulogize my mother’s life, his voice shaky and cracking at times.  I found if I looked down at my purse instead of directly at my dad I could listen to his words instead of his heart and that helped me make it through without totally falling apart.

My father will soon be traveling to David, California to have yet another service for my mom where the friends who knew her for the past 30 years can say their goodbyes. I am glad I cannot make that trip; it was hard enough to hear him eulogize my mom the first time around.

The bonus to my weekend was that I got to see my nephew – so much like my brother, Johnny, that it was like getting to spend time with him again. He has my brother’s mannerisms and most of his personality, although he is his own distinct and wonderful person.  My heart lifted and lit up from the inside every time I saw his face.  It went a long way to easing the grief over my mom and brother.

Thank you to all of you for the strength and prayers yesterday. Several of us went down to the Kauffman Garden after the service and spent an hour walking among the flowers – my mom loved it there. Hundreds of tulips were open and dancing in the breeze and it left us all feeling renewed.

Last night we celebrated her life at 54th Street Grill and Bar – something that has become a new family tradition. I thank those who contributed to the gift certificate that helped pay for our meal – it was a beautiful and thoughtful thing to do.  Our friends and family took up most of their tables but we did our best to run up a decent tab to make up for it.

Today, we woke early to have breakfast together before putting my Uncle back on a plane and sending my sister back to St. Louis.  My nephew and sister-in-law took off very early to drive back to their home in Houston as well.  I came home and went back to bed, will do a little laundry this afternoon, and then plan to take it easy the rest of the day. Monday, I will put my best foot forward and “keep on keepin’ on” – just as my mom did every day of her life.

If there is one thing I have learned from all these years of photographing nature, it is that no matter what (or who) dies away, evidence of their being here on earth is always present in the new life that continues to flourish. I will do my best to represent my mother’s life on this world in the days, weeks, and years to come.

We will remember her often and miss her deeply.


To Grieve or Not to Grieve

My parents would go to our local Barnes and Noble book store almost every Thursday to pick out a new book to read and then they’d go have lunch together.  It was no surprise to me to find a good hundred plus books all tucked away in the nooks and crannies of her sewing room after she died.  I came upon a stack of Anne Lamott books there and, having read “Traveling Mercies” years ago, I snagged the other Lamott books and threw them in my quickly-growing “take-home” pile of knick-knacks, quilts, and jewelry.

It’s been five weeks since mom passed –and four days after that was my birthday – one that I decided against celebrating.  Instead, I spent most of the day doing what Oprah used to refer to as “the ugly cry.”  Basically, this is when you can’t hold back your emotions no matter how hard you try.  Tears spontaneously bursts out of you while your face contorts and twists in unimaginably ugly ways, all the while your breath hitches and sputters like a backfiring old pickup truck.

In other words, I totally lost my shit that day.

But then the oddest thing happened.  After that day passed, I felt a huge load lift off me.  All the months of seeing mom deteriorate one day at a time right down to the last moments of her life – the stress surrounding all of that vaporized.  With them went the tension that was tightly woven into my being my mother’s daughter – that pull of never living up to her expectations or her dreams for what my life would be like.  I was supposed to be feeling overwhelming grief but, instead, I was feeling deep and abiding peace.

The more the peace settled in around me the more I began to wonder about it – was this denial (for which I’d pay dearly down the road)?  Was it my mind giving me a break after a solid year of grieving the loss of my brother?  Or, was this something else entirely?  Guilt began to push its way in – taunting me with its patronizing backlashes.  I wondered: should I feel this good this close to my mother’s death?  Am I the worst daughter ever?  What would people think if they knew I wasn’t devastated by all we’d just been through with her?  Something inside told me to keep going and to enjoy the peace while it lasted – and so I did.

I returned to work the following week and began reading “Grace, Eventually” during my lunch breaks.  I immediately remembered why I love Anne’s writing style so much: she’s truthful about the life she’s led (warts and all) and she uses the occasional word that even I have to go look up.  (I love an author that increases my vocabulary!)  Most of all, though, she writes in short snippets that I can easily digest but her words stay with me.  I think about what she writes long after I read it – and that’s my gauge for a good read.

I was most of the way through the book this week when I came upon a chapter titled, “Mom, Interrupted” and one paragraph into it I realized that this is one of those God moments where the entire universe lines up so you can know in your heart and mind that this whole “God thing” is not some giant fairy tale that is meant to appease those of us who find life too difficult to live at times.

Anne writes, “For a long time after her death I didn’t feel much of anything – except relief…”  She goes on to write, “I felt much more spaciousness in my life after my mother died, partly because my phone did not ring every several seconds….”  She goes on describing her mother – how she was a handful and how she was both imperious and had no self-esteem at the same time.  Her mother was “controlling, judgmental, withholding, needy, and desperate to be loved.”


A few pages later she writes, “It wasn’t until her death that my mother stopped exhausting me…Now, here it is three years later, and I am beginning to miss her.”

And there was my answer: the guilt about not feeling deep and ongoing grief over her death got up and skulked out of the room, and that peace I’d been experiencing in my heart slammed the door shut behind it. I was not the world’s worst daughter after all.  Anne Lamott said so. 

I threw the book in my lunch bag that evening and was driving home when it suddenly dawned on me that it was my mother who had purchased that book.  She bought that book and left it on the shelf in her sewing room where it would be easily seen.  Then I, being the only one of her three remaining children interested in such things, picked it up and threw it in my sack of stuff to bring home, and then I read it.

In other words, because of something my mother did before her death, I was comforted by her one last time after her death.  Just thinking about that makes my face contort, my breath catch, and the tears start to flow.

Here I go again…


The Final Score


After a surprising three weeks of experiencing hardly any grief, I woke in the middle of the night and felt a sudden sadness overtake me. I cried softly for a short time and then turned to look up at the alarm clock overhead. It was a few minutes past midnight – officially making it a month since the day my mother died. “Ah…that’s why the middle-of-the-night crying jag blues,” I thought to myself.

I got out of bed, wiped my eyes, and drug my weary body down the hall. I stumbled into the kitchen, turned on my phone, clicked on the gallery, and there she was, in her final days on earth, a photo of her taken right before we moved her to hospice. I don’t know why I didn’t remember I had taken it until that very moment.

Suddenly, all the questions I had been wrestling with for the past month were put to rest. Looking at her in that photograph I knew we had done the right thing. The woman I saw in that image – that was no longer my mother. Her eyes were drawn up into tight little slits, almost as if her body knew her eyes were preparing to close for the very last time. Her face was ashen in color, and her cheeks slack jawed and deflated from having gone so long without food. I let my fingers trace her outline, turned off my phone, and said goodnight to the ghost of a woman hanging out in my memory.


I’ve lived long enough now to have more than a few deaths in my past. I’ve been down this road of grief enough times that it almost feels like a familiar trail I have walked on a cold and overcast day. The first time you experience loss and grief it can be so totally overwhelming. You wonder if you will ever feel like “you” again. The answer, of course, is no…you won’t. But, with time, you will feel a new sense of normal and you’ll find yourself petting your dog one day and you won’t see the faces of the dogs you loved before it looking back at you with those big, brown eyes. It is possible to move on – to live your life without those that mean the most to you. If death is the worst thing you ever experience in this lifetime then moving on after it happens is, perhaps, the biggest miracle.

Having lost both my mother and my brother in the past 15 months, I am beginning to understand death in a way I never did before. Having back-to-back losses really sucks you down into the muck but it also leaves you with clarity about life you couldn’t get any other way. I was telling my friend last week that I was surprised how I seem to remember only the best and the worst of the people I’ve lost; all the middle ground gets diffused into a mental fog that never clears. Occasionally a normal, everyday “nothing special” moment will float up to the forefront of my mind but, for the most part, it’s really the highs and lows that stand out. It reminds me of the refining fire they talk about in the Bible. Everything that meant nothing gets burned away and all that’s left is the most important part: what you did for others that came from a place of love and what you did to others that came out of a need to hate.

It’s a solemn thought, really: that I’ll be gone and those left behind will be tallying up those two columns, trying to decide if having known me was an asset or a hindrance to their lives. If that doesn’t make you take stock in who you are, I don’t really know what will.



All Quiet on the Home Front

It’s been a very quiet weekend around my home – exactly what I needed, actually.  I’m still putting away all the items from my mom’s life that I took from my parents’ home (e.g. jewelry, cook books, etc.).  Little by little, I have integrated the things that were once hers in with the items that have always been mine.  They will now coexist with the things I have from those other family members who have passed on – my grandmother’s metronome that sat atop her piano; my grandfather’s pepper mill – he loved fresh cracked pepper; dishes that belonged to my great grandmother, Julia.  My cabinets and shelves are full of mementos from lives now gone.

I spent the morning updating my living will, Last Will & Testament, and my Power of Attorney.  After watching what we went through with my mother I wanted everything to be in place when my time came.  I named my sister as the person in charge of making all my medical decisions because she has the best grasp on when to say “enough” out of all my family members.  She was the first to realize (after me) that we were only prolonging the inevitable with my mom.  When you’ve tried everything you can think of, it’s time to let go.  She gets that – so she gets to be my voice when I can no longer speak.

As part of the process, I allocated some of my possessions to friends and family.  It’s daunting to give away your things – to think about who would want the things you consider so special that you’d rather not live without them.  I was stumped on who to give my camera equipment to as nobody else in my family would really want it.  Truth is, it will be so out of date by the time someone gets their hands on it it probably won’t matter much.  It’s hard to believe it will be meaningless to everyone else when I consider it to be the most precious thing I own.

I’ve always known in my heart that things are just “things” – that the house could burn down or the tornado could sweep through – and you have to be able to let it all go and move on.  But, now that I’m older, I see where people can become attached to their possessions.  I realized that the first time I raised that camera to my eye.  It would be like taking off my left hand at this point – something I would never be able to fully comprehend how to live without…but I’d make adjustments and find a way, I’m sure.


My dog, Gracie, turns 11 tomorrow.  I don’t know where all the years have gone but I kiss her head every night and I thank God she’s been here with me through the last decade.  She and Petee not only keep me company in an otherwise empty home, they have taught me so much about myself.  I see the best of who I can be – and the worst – in their eyes.  I try to do right by them and to love them as unconditionally as they love me.  I don’t always deserve their love and affection, but I always take it in, nonetheless.

Gracie sleeps on an afghan that my mother crocheted for my bed years ago.  (At some point I changed my color scheme and the afghan became the dog blanket.)  Some would think that was a terrible thing to do with a keepsake from my mom but she would have loved it.  She loved her dogs like she loved all of us kids.  She was especially fond of Grace and always looked forward to coming over to see her.

I know the dogs don’t know why I am bringing new items into the house and I doubt they can comprehend why I’ve been crying more than usual but I know we will all get through this time of grief.  It still hasn’t fully sank in that my mom is gone but I look at her wedding ring that now sits in my jewelry box and I know that its true.  Possessions can be a blessing or a curse in this day and age; I try to only hold on to the ones I see as blessings.