Accessible help for grief

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My refurbished Christmas star.

When my mother died two years ago, the last thing I wanted to read was a well-meaning but too-much treatise on grief. Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Healing the Adult Child’s Grieving Heart, with its 100 practical, one-page ideas for things to do or think about, was exactly what I needed during those first weeks and months.

Its user-friendly format also makes the book easy to revisit, as I did recently when the holidays brought a fresh load of “Crap … I should be doing better with this.”

Grief is a process, not a destination. I know this. The Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year stretch is cold and dark in this corner of the world, and the holidays add another layer of challenge to whatever we are facing. I also know “shoulds” hurt more than they help, and they’re so not in the spirit of God using the humblest, darkest circumstances to show the greatest love.

51u5HQKtEoL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So I took the slim volume off the shelf and opened it — right to No. 68: Prepare yourself for the holidays. Wolfelt’s top bullet point on this page is, naturally, the sadness felt over no longer having your parent around to share these special occasions and gatherings. Having lost both parents, as I have, makes it feel all the more sad and strange; we are orphans no matter how old we are.

However, Christmas is about memory as much as it is about the here and now. Wolfelt notes in his second point: “Your family’s holiday traditions were formed decades, sometimes centuries, ago and resonate with layer upon layer of memories.”

He’s spot on about the layers. In addition to the happy, quirky Christmas memories that reside in my consciousness are ones of my mother’s terminal diagnosis two days before Christmas and her passing two days after. In between was a blur of travel, consultations in poinsettia-bedecked hospital hallways, the beep of monitors, relaying information to other family members, waiting for doctors, talking with Mom, sharing Reiki energy to ease her transition, and almost, but not quite, forgetting about the holiday.

The following Christmas, I had the tree-topping star that has graced a Crowe tree since the 1950s refurbished. It doesn’t twinkle and blink like it used to, but the blue circle around it glows in a way I swear it never did before. It casts a new light in some of the darkness, which is what Christmas is about in the first place. It also lets the happy memories begin to re-layer themselves over the sad ones.

This year, for another layer of memories, I dug out my dad’s favorite Mannheim Steamroller Christmas music and let some of the meditative tracks underscore my yoga practice.

And I flipped a little further in the Wolfelt book, finally landing on No. 96: Let go of destructive beliefs about grief and mourning. Such as: “I need to get over this.”

Your grief is your grief, Wolfelt says: “It’s normal and necessary. Allow it to be what it is. Allow it to last as long as it lasts. Strive to be an authentic mourner — one who openly and honestly expresses what you think and feel.”

I’m still working on that … and following yonder star.

 

 

 

Saying it with flowers

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Does a peony mean “anger,” or does it mean “shame”? (Photo courtesy Foter.com)

It’s one thing for a modern young person to develop a knack for growing things under the direction of a parent, grandparent, teacher, or other important adult. It’s quite another to also become versed in the meanings of specific flowers — rhododendron (“beware”), white poplar (“time”), snapdragon (“presumption”), mistletoe (“I surmount all obstacles”), and more. This is the the language of flowers, which in Victorian times was used to convey a surprising range of sentiments.

1431616332717These are the gifts with which Victoria Jones goes forth in Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s novel, The Language of Flowers (Random House, 2011). On her eighteenth birthday, Victoria ages out of the foster care system and is turned loose in San Francisco to figure out the next step. Isolated and mistrustful, she does little to help herself — but she does plant a garden. She eventually finds work with florist Renata, who is quick to recognize the young woman’s gift for helping people choose flowers for the people and special occasions in their lives based on their meanings.

Her work in San Francisco’s floral world reconnects her with flower farmer/vendor Grant, the nephew of her former foster mother, Elizabeth. Vineyard owner Elizabeth had been Victoria’s mentor in horticulture and the language of flowers. She also wanted to become Victoria’s adoptive mother. This is where the chapters begin to alternate between Victoria’s present-day reality — her work with Renata and her developing relationship with Grant — and the 10-year-old Victoria’s time with Elizabeth. You know something drastic is coming, because Victoria ended up back in foster care; and plenty of changes are unfolding in the here and now that are going to bring those old chickens home to roost.

Such as: the annoying tendency of any language, even the language of flowers, to not remain static and free from contradictions. Victoria visits San Francisco’s Main Library more than once to pore over every volume she can find on flower meanings. She has either been presented with a flower whose meaning she cannot decipher or is looking for a precise botanical response to Grant, who is also flower-fluent. The books are old, crumbling, tucked in between the Victorian poets and gardening books, but it doesn’t take long before she is confused and frustrated anew by multiple, often contradictory definitions of a single flower. She had given her caseworker peony to convey “anger,” but now she finds the flower also means “shame.”

“If peony could be misinterpreted, how many times, to how many people, had I misspoken?” Victoria wonders. Soon, she and Grant begin working on a flower dictionary of their own (it’s included at the back of the book).

Though I was fascinated by the way this young, contemporary character employed the Victorian-era language of flowers to express herself and, ultimately, to help herself and others, some of her behavior is inscrutable, even considering her history in foster care. I also felt disappointed and angry with Elizabeth, who was supposed to be the grown-up. But maybe there’s a reason the foster care system is the setting for stories like this … the actual as well as the fictional.

 

 

A riot of harmony

While though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.

Fifty years ago this month, my mother watched news coverage of the war zone her hometown had become. My grandmother, in her 70s, still lived alone in the same house there on Cruse Street. Detroit was burning — with arson fires, July heat, and years of anger stoked by injustice and fear. Mom was hours away in Indianapolis with a 6-month-old baby (me), and I don’t know how long it took before she knew Grandma Flossie and the rest of our family and friends were safe in a city that suddenly and frighteningly wasn’t theirs.

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My grandmother, Flossie Egan Craig, in front of her home on Cruse Street in Detroit, probably in the mid-1940s.

Only later did Mom learn that while the worst of the action was happening outside her door, Flossie played hymn after hymn on the piano, singing at the top of her lungs.

Her African American next door neighbors, who were hiding under their beds, could hear it.

Half a century later, I can see it — a bright bubble of protective energy around Flossie and the piano, expanding with every note to surround her modest brick house and those nearby.

We humans have always known the power of sound and song to heal and unify. Whether it’s a lullaby to a child, a protest song belted through tears, or a hymn or patriotic song sung by many voices in unison, music raises our vibration and creates a powerful energy around us. Does it stop bullets or put out fires? No. But it sure can change the climate that produces and responds to bullets and fires.

That’s why, instead of riot footage, I chose Enya’s “How Can I Keep from Singing?” for this post. I don’t know if this was one of the hymns my grandmother offered up to God and the world at large during these trying days … but as I listen to the lyrics, I think it fits.

May we, in today’s tumult and strife, hear and join in that “real, though far-off hymn” — loud enough for the neighbors to hear.