On Grief and Dying

Posted on Apr 29, 2013 in Featured, Parenting | 6 comments

{I haven’t talked a lot about the details of our living situation here on the farm, partly out of respect for the privacy of the farmers but for other reasons too. Today I want to talk a little about it, but primarily as background information to discuss my current emotional journey.}

We came to the farm in a mutually beneficial arrangement. We were looking for a rural alternative living situation that would be more cost-effective than the urban too-big-for-us houses that we were renting. The farmers were looking for help on the farm. A young couple with a brand new baby, a day job, and a property over 100 acres—they  had a lot on their plates.

We spent several months writing up a lease, through multiple dinner meetings and conference calls (as our respective kids took turns fussing in the background). As if being able to live on a working farm for reduced rent and creating community with another young family wasn’t great enough, there was a bonus. The farmers’ mother was actively involved in farm life.

My heart has been seeking a local wise woman to play a part in our family for some time. We are alone here; no grandparents or other extended family are nearby. Our parenting sometimes feels lonely. I wish our kids had someone local to bake cookies with (in addition to me). I wish I had someone local to ask questions about canning, knitting, or gardening. Oh so stereotypical isn’t it? Still, I yearn for more of a multi-generational influence in our day-to-day life (rather than only in those intense spurts when our families visit).

Not that this woman (with family of her own here) would have become our own personal wise woman, but I looked forward to getting to know her better nevertheless. I enjoyed her presence at our meals as we imagined and fine-tuned the terms of our lease. She is a vibrant, zesty and loving personality and I looked forward to the inevitable familiarity that would develop as our two families ventured into partnership together. I felt so blessed that the couple we had found to explore a collaborative living arrangement with was not another of the many young families that we know who are going it alone.

Then, a month after we signed the lease and began developing the site where we now live, this vibrant woman was diagnosed with cancer. And here we are, a year later, watching helpless on the sidelines as these young farmers, now our friends, go through the final exhausting and heartbreaking days of losing their mother.

We never did get the chance to get to know her. Shortly after her diagnosis, she began her treatments and we’ve seen very little of her since then. I find myself going through a grieving process for a woman I don’t know. I grieve what might have been more than the loss of something I already had. I grieve for all those hopes and expectations that went into writing that lease last winter.

I also grieve for our friends who are in the thick of the process of caring for a dying family member, something that is foreign and intangible for someone like me who has never been through this, who is blessed to have all four grandparents and a step-grandmother still living.

Some days I watch their little boy so they can go care for their mother. I hold him and we wave at the window wishing Mama a good day before I remember where she is headed. The reality of her days suddenly contrasts sharply with mine.

Spring has arrived here. The sun warms our skin now, the flowers are blooming and there are three new lambs in the fields. Yet, there is a certain heaviness blanketing the farm, as the exhaustion sets in. This young couple stay up all night delivering lambs and leave in the morning, for work, and to care for a mother who mostly sleeps and no longer eats. We try to make sense of their grief, of their tiredness, but it isn’t easy from our position on the periphery. In front of us, there is sunshine, seeds to plant, a fence to build. On the edges, there is a mother to mourn.

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It strikes me as odd that as our part of the world tilts back toward the sun, as the Northern Hemisphere lifts its eyes to the sky with all the hope and expectation of spring, that somewhere on the other side of town, a life is ebbing away, one breath at a time. I realize that I am not saying anything new here. It’s the age old expression of incredulity that the world can continue to turn without that loved one in our lives: “How can everything just continue on as if nothing has changed when, in fact, everything has changed?” Though I know  this, it still feels an unnatural juxtaposition from our position on the outskirts of this heartache. Because we aren’t there, because we don’t really know this woman, it is even harder to grasp, except in the eyes and the voices of our friends.

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My thoughts are consumed by all of this: warm earth, new lambs, breaking buds, and of course, fear, loss, and sorrow. I am acutely aware of my own anxiety, terror of, and inexperience with death. I can hear the innocence in the very words I’ve written here, and that only increases my terror. A friend of ours (unaware of any of this) loaned us a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and I immediately skipped to Chapter 11 to read Heart Advice on Helping the Dying. Not having read the rest of the book, I can say nothing about its merits, but I can unequivocally recommend that chapter to everyone, regardless of faith. It is full of practical loving advice for how to sit with someone in their final days and I am grateful to have read it before I even have occasion to use it.

Among other things, this chapter talks of the absolute necessity of allowing the dying to express themselves honestly, of being open to their loss, anger, and grief, and of the importance of resolving unfinished business. It also talks about the need to face our own fear of death, and about letting go. I realize that this experience of being close (at least in proximity, if not in intimacy at this point) to someone who is losing a dear family member is part of the process that will prepare me to face the inevitable as the circle of life closes around me, as I eventually lose my grandparents, my parents, or my siblings.

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I sat on the couch after dinner, devouring Chapter 11, and there in my face, clear as day, was my biggest fear of death, all fear of the unknown and so on aside. My biggest fear at this moment in time is that if I were required to face my own death, now, I could not resolve my unfinished business. My unfinished business, my magnum opus, the work of my life right now is my children. Of course, all death comes with the sorrow of all that we will lose, but at this moment, it is also the sorrow that my children would lose me. Imperfect as I am, they still need me. Children are resilient and mine have loving people around them and a wonderful father, but they would be devastated and confused. As I contemplate my own mortality, in the dark of night as one is wont to do in circumstances such as these, it is the fear of leaving my children behind that consumes me, the thought that in the midst of their hurting the very person that they usually look to for comfort wouldn’t be there.

Honestly, I don’t quite know where to go from there. There is the comfort that, as I am only 35, in all likelihood, we won’t have to worry about that just yet. Though of course we all know that nothing is ever certain. So the only thing left is to turn our eyes to the sky with all the hope and expectation of spring, to plunge our hands into the earth, to feel the sun on our faces, and to admit that the world will keep on turning regardless.

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6 Comments

  1. Great post, Alison. Very thoughtful. I found working on a will, and talking with my family about what would happen if I wasn’t around very helpful. It brought more peace (although not fully) to the idea of the unfinished magnum opus.

    I’d love to read that chapter/book you mention. I’ll look it up.
    Twitter: melaniemcintosh

    • We have yet to take care of those details, and I’m sure it would help in some ways, but we also struggle with making those decisions.

  2. A very honest, insightful post.

    Almost three weeks ago I faced the possibility of the death of my mother, who was on life support for several days and in ICU for 2 weeks recovering. She is still in the hospital and will need more time at home to fully recover. I am hoping that facing her death will help her make peace with some things in her life, and it has certainly made me reassess several things in my life that I have been sweeping under the rug. I have gone through some depression which interestingly enough has come as she is improving.

    What I have found the most interesting is that I have really needed to be outside. My modest suburban garden is expanding quicker than I intended this year because I have been trying to spend as much time as possible digging in the dirt.

    Thank you.
    christy´s last post ..Linky Love
    Twitter: christyrollo

    • I’m sorry that you are going through this too. I’m glad that gardening is giving you some solace. I think there is remarkable power in recognizing the way life goes on through children and in being connected to nature.

  3. “Our parenting sometimes feels lonely. I wish our kids had someone local to bake cookies with (in addition to me). I wish I had someone local to ask questions about canning, knitting, or gardening. Oh so stereotypical isn’t it?”

    I’m not sure you are sterotypical. I often feel the same way and I have yet to find another set of parents, until you, who lament the lack of an older generation in their children’s life.

    When it was just the two of us, I wasn’t sad to live apart from our family. I felt like we were off on our own great adventure! Now that we have a baby I constantly wish my mom was nearby. Someone to work in the garden with, to ask baby questions, to talk with on the porch while shucking corn.

    You make me wonder if instead of being sad about not living in the same state as my parents I could just find a local person. I’m not sure you can just ask to be part of your family, but perhaps I can encourage that type of relationship over time. Something to consider.

    • I’ve actually considered taking out an ad for a surrogate grandmother. (I read a book called The Wishing Year, where a woman did that and I thought it was great.) I figure that there must be people around here whose kids and grandkids all live far away and who would benefit from a relationship with us too. But so far my dragons (inner doubts) have held me back on that.

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