The Love That Remains
I wished someone prepared me for grieving. I’ve learned how to live, how to stay motivated, how to train my mind for happiness and health. I’ve been taught through my faith how to believe and hold firmly to the unseen and to be sure of miracles.
But I wish someone had taken me aside in a hallway or in my kitchen and said, “Let me prepare you for the fault line that will explode through the middle of you, splitting you into two people; one you’ll dress in the morning, taking her to work to complete your tasks without breaking down in front of your colleagues. And the other one you will privately cry with in anguish.”
I longed for someone to look me in the eyes, place their hands on my shoulders, and say with a knowing heart that only experience can offer, “I know it hurts. It’s a pain there are no words for. I have lost too, and you’re not alone. You will survive.”
We don’t know how to grieve well in this country and we rarely talk about it, even though so many of us experience it. Grieving doesn’t hold a sacred space in America as it does in other countries, and that’s a shame. I was born in Serbia, and when someone grieves the loss of a loved one, it’s normal to be openly sad, wear black, and cry in front of others for a long time- because the pain lasts for as long as it lasts. In fact, we need friends who will cry with us without trying to cheer us up, I did anyway.
When we grieve, it isn’t the time for pretending that you are fine with friends. We shouldn’t feel pressured to bury our true emotions because they aren’t positive or even worse, because we are afraid we’ll seem like we are lacking in faith. “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” is a weighty verse to me. Even Jesus wept with his hurting, grieving friends, he wept with them, demonstrating empathy and His willingness to sit in it with them.
Americans are known for positive attitudes and can-do spirit, so where do real emotions go when we are expected to always seem put together and happy? They go within and cause mental, emotional, or physical suffering through depression or disorders when not allowed to be expressed.
I began grieving mom before she even left. I think that the grieving process begins when we watch a loved one slowly fading right in front of our eyes. For mom it was cancer, and we agonized watching that monster steal her from us in a slow, leaching of her extraordinary life. We grieve who our beloved was in their most vibrant essence.
Sometimes we go temporarily crazy- I did, and now I realize that crazy was my normal reaction to the most abnormal event in my life.
I lost a huge part of myself when mom left. I lost my soul’s companion, the one who defined much of who I was most of my life, she was my spiritual inspiration, she had my back and I had hers. She trained me for survival and spoke wisdom and faith into my bones, and I used those skills along with God’s power to rescue her from violence one night in our kitchen. I was lost for a time after she died. But it was okay. Because of love, the lost are always found.
When My Wheels Came Off
On a typical sunny Florida day, when the sky was impossibly turquoise and the fuchsia Frangipani trees too perfumed, I decided to open my mom’s box of ashes that I had held for five years. I never understood people who kept ashes in their home, I thought they were eccentric, until I had mom’s ashes, then I got it.
I felt like she wanted to be free and wild, just as her spirit was in life regardless of her circumstances. I walked alone to the beach, waded into the warm Atlantic, and dropped most of the billowing ashes into the olive green current. I watched her grey remains as they swirled into the frothy tide, reaching back towards me and hugging my legs, then finally letting go of me and drifting out to the horizon. Mom requested that her ashes would follow us to Florida and be set free into the endless ocean where nothing could contain her.
I then balled up a small clump of ashes left into the plastic bag to carry back home where I decided to do something irrational that shocked me but didn’t stop me. I crouched alone in our back screened porch over the open patch of garden soil for planting, and I poured the small amount of her left in the baggie onto the soil and stared deeply into the grey pile, searching for her. I sifted through her ashes first with a kitchen fork, and then my fingers, looking for a relic of her that would be a sign that she is not really gone, and that she defiantly rose from the fire of cremation to say me, “Nothing will keep me from you.”
I found a few remnants; a fake tooth, a teaspoon full of minuscule bone pieces, and a metal looking crown that looked like oxidized copper. I lost track of time, but at some point, I realized that Tod was home after all, and when he checked on me, I imagined what I must have looked like to him; a savage person hunched over the dead and practicing some pagan ritual of honoring her ancestor in a deplorable way for a modern, US citizen.
I laughed at the absurdity of myself through my tears, ironic laughter at my lunacy. But in the same moment, I felt a mysterious composure as I embraced myself as I was. Mom and I connected in a spiritual way, and in that moment, I linked to her “who gives a damn what anyone else thinks” attitude, so my insanity felt perfect to me. By the way, she swore in Serbian and her choice words make English cussing anemic in comparison.
After separating the pieces of her from the dust, I released her remaining ashes in a secret place just between us, and I put the fragments back into her plastic baggie with the document from her cremation. I discovered the baggie again recently after our move and it strangely made me smile. You will smile again.
Mom and I share a crazy secret of ashes that I have now shared with you. My one regret from the day of sifting through time with her is that I didn’t think to save ashes for my family, which I know hurt someone I love. I just wasn’t functioning as my usual self. I felt like she was telling me to get her out of that box and set her free immediately. I can share my relics I found in the ashes, I now know she’s not in them anymore, she’s in me and our girls, and their future kids, and so on and so and so forth.
I Lost Myself for a While
It takes time to find yourself again after you lose your beloved. When she left, I felt like I burst into a million sub-atomic pieces, and my invisible atoms were blown outward into the dark universe, leaving just a vapor of who I had always known myself to be. She was the star that exploded leaving a dark void inside of me where once was glorious, luminous life. I wondered if all of me would ever return and ground me again, or would I always drift through space?
But I have un-grieved her too, it is possible, it does happen. It will happen. It’s a process that’s unique to the makeup of each soul. Allowing ourselves to fully feel and seeking help when we get too dark is important. It’s okay to seek a professional, it’s a very good thing. Maybe when I was sifting it looked like a sign that I should go talk with someone, but for me, it was a natural act where I suspended the rules of ‘normal behavior’ for my crazy comfort and laughed at myself which was therapeutic. I didn’t hurt myself or anyone, it was my ritual.
It was my journaling the years of grieving that helped me, writing was cathartic. Tod’s support and sharing the experience with our family was also helpful. I focused my bible study on seasons of grief and God restoring our joy again. And friends who showed empathy were dear to me.
If I couldn’t function, couldn’t work or study for school, or be present for my loved ones, I would have sought professional help for depression or other issues as well. If Tod encouraged me too, I would have listened. I have sought support with depression in the past, and it helped me tremendously. If your relationships are suffering, or your health or work, or you are losing sleep, they may be signs to see a doctor. Suffering can be eased with outside help.
Finding Myself and Mom Too
It’s been ten years now, and the most amazing thing has happened. I feel her and experience her presence more than I did in the first few years after she left. I believe that it took me years to let her physical presence go. I missed her body being here with me kneading bread dough with the girls in our kitchen, digging in my soil and weeding next to me, taking up the entire sofa during her power naps, eating her delicious, comfort foods with her, and her voice, her cackling bombastic laughter. I took a long time to accept the lack of her physical presence. A transition had to occur within me, where I let her body go, but sought out her presence in a different way.
In the last couple of years, she’s come back to me through her other self, her authentic essence, her spiritual presence. Now that I no longer expect her physical being to be with me, I am stunned by the intense feeling of her near me in all my memories of her. I see her hands when I chop onions and feel her next to me when they hit the flaming hot pan and sizzle, releasing that aroma of her in my kitchen. When I walk through nature I think we are both admiring the flowering orchid trees and we are both giggling when wild Canada Geese approach me in curiosity. Sometimes I say aloud, “Mom, I know you’re here with me and I love you so much, thank you.” I feel perfectly sane doing this.
I think this what the end of mourning feels like for me. I still tear up at times longing for her stout and soft body next to me on a morning stroll. We would hold hands and in her free hand, she would twist a little greenery or flower within her fingers. Now when I walk I do the same and feel her with me. I have more moments where I feel the joy of our connection that flows through our spirits between this world and the next. We are still each other’s soul mates.
I share her with others, so she can still bless people with her indomitable spirit and joyful presence. We talk to each other in dreams and she has helped me overcome fear and reach a higher level in my life whenever I was stuck.
While grieving and frustrated that I couldn’t verbally express the words of my heart, I found a beautiful Portuguese word that can only be translated with a paragraph- I love words like that. It is Saudade (n); a nostalgic longing to be near again to someone or something that is distant, or that has been loved and then lost, the sadness of loss and the joy of ever having experienced it at once, “the love that remains”.
If you are grieving someone you love, understand that your process is sacred. Give yourself the space and time to experience it without shame. Death, grieving and mourning are a natural part of life, like love. They go together. I want you to know that one day you’ll wake up and not feel that blanket of sadness over you when you are reminded of them not being there, you will be coming back to yourself, and they will return to you in a different way too.
You will experience your loved one in your memories and through the smells, sounds, and sights that connect you to them. You are still connected, and when your mourning begins to fade, you will find that the parts of you that were lost, blown out into the universe, will return to you, and you will be whole again, filled with the love that crosses over to eternity.