“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
So C. S. Lewis begins his book, A Grief Observed, about the death of his wife, Joy.
A few weeks ago, traveling down a country road between speaking engagements, I received two phone calls in the space of an hour. One was from my dad’s sister and youngest brother, to tell me of the death of their oldest sibling, my Uncle Joe. An hour later one of my brothers called, to tell me of the death of our mother.
It was a Saturday afternoon. My mom had just gone to the ER on the previous Monday with shortness of breath. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. A CT scan showed it had spread to the bones. She seemed upbeat when I talked to her on Wednesday. And on Saturday she was gone.
Ironically, we had the plane tickets for the following Monday already. We’d moved my mother-in-law to Houston, and had planned a trip to Vermont to prepare her recently sold house for the closing. We were to fly into Hartford, joining my mom on a visit to my dad at the nursing home before heading up to Vermont. Now, the primary purpose was for her funeral. And to tell my dad (he didn’t seem to realize what I was saying). And to clear out both my mom’s apartment and my mother-in-law’s home.
To top it all off, we couldn’t go home right away because the Houston airports closed and our flights were canceled because of Hurricane Harvey.
Two sensations have dominated for me. One is shock, at the suddenness of it all. And the other is weariness, at the way grief has piled onto grief. The sudden losses are layered onto those that are drawn out, delayed, postponed. And to this is added the dawning realization that this is what life will be like from this point onward. There will be more funerals (I also lost two mentors from grad school and seminary this week). More “empty chairs at empty tables.” Fewer people who can recognize the photos in the family albums, and tell their stories, and laugh at recalling their jokes or their idiosyncrasies.
I’ve written of this time of life as being “in between.” Because while this is going on, we still have the wedding planning. We anticipate the birth of a niece’s child. We see glimpses of happy futures, of new possibilities, of stories that are just beginning.
I read an article recently that said “Millennials” don’t want the artifacts from their grandparents’ homes. “Nonsense,” I said to myself (and maybe loud enough for people nearby to hear). My own “Millennial” children took an active part in the separation of wheat from chaff. They wanted their share of photos, and t-shirts, books and DVDs, postcards and refrigerator magnets, treasures—sacred relics, almost—that are a tangible way to stay connected to those they mourn, to keep their memories alive, to keep a piece of them close.
They laughed at the stories told by their aunts and uncles, family friends they never knew. They patiently went along for my customary tour of old houses and graveyards, old schools (and vacant lots where they once stood). And they asked questions. They asked for stories. They asked for the meaning of different objects, different places.
And I realized that this now becomes our role in this in-between time. We have to step into the role our parents and uncles and aunts once played. To be aware of our position as standing in between generations. To be caretakers of stories, media of meaning, namers of relics and shapers of the future.
It is step beyond the feelings of fear of which Lewis spoke, to claim our role as bearers of light in the Shadowlands.
Thanks Bill for a posting that both moved me and caused me to reflect on my own role in my family. I am the youngest son of a youngest son and my two older brothers and I are the last surviving members of our generation. We are trying to keep the stories alive and my daughter, now aged 34 is doing the same. She is connected to her cousins, across thosands of miles, through Facebook, a tool for the modern age to keep the memories alive.
I’m so sorry to learn of your multiple losses, all of them in short order. At the same time, I’m touched by how you frame your story in a larger context — emphasizing the importance of family ties across the developmental life span, highlighting the value of symbols in keeping memories alive, and honoring the loyalty that drives us to care for those who have passed on by respectfully managing the belongings left behind. Thank you, Bill.