I attended a Disability and Youth Ministry conference last week. My colleague, Erin Raffety was one of the keynote speakers and my sister, Kristin was on the practitioner panel. I hadn’t put a lot of thought into my attendance personally. I was there primarily to support Erin and Kristin and to learn about the things they treasured. But I was in for a surprise…
In the opening worship service, four people shared testimonies about how the church has influenced, aided and sometimes hurt them as it relates to their varying abilities.
JJ wheeled up to the podium. Before he spoke a word, I began to cry. I tried my very best to hold my tears to a minimum, squeezing them between my heart and my jaw. My face was tense as I fought to maintain control of myself. What was happening? Apparently, I had forgotten that I lived with and loved someone who rolled through life with a wheelchair.
It’s not that I had cognitively forgotten that Pete used a wheelchair for his mobility, it’s that since his death I haven’t been thinking of his disability. When I think of Pete, or when I grieve Pete’s death, I mostly focus on the loss of my closest, dearest friend. I miss his partnership. I miss his touch. I miss having him to come home to at the end of the day. I miss his jokes – well, most of them.
But I don’t miss his wheelchair – or the symptoms that came with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. I don’t miss his fatigue. I don’t miss him not being able to transfer from his wheelchair to another chair so that we could sit side by side. I don’t miss him not being able to dance with me.
Truthfully, since his death, those things don’t describe Pete anymore. For the first several months after his death, I have had “encounters” with him. I have felt his presence walk into a room. In these encounters, he stands just over 6 foot tall. He has held me, danced with me and walked beside me.
So back to JJ. He shared this experience of his journey through life with a wheelchair.
He grew up in a church that did not have an elevator and people used to carry him up the steps so that he could get to the sanctuary. This all seemed just par for the course for him. It’s how they did things. He didn’t go into how uncomfortable it was – although I imagine it was. He didn’t talk about feeling left out – although if no one was around to help him up the steps, he was literally left out. Instead, he said told a story that over time, the congregation began to age. And the pastor called for a capital campaign to raise money to build an elevator. And here was the reason: our members are too old to carry the caskets of our members up the steps to the sanctuary.
The church felt it more important to have an elevator for dead people than they did for JJ.
A damn broke in my mind and I was flooded with memories of Pete’s limited mobility. I remembered trying to figure out where we could go to dinner based on whether they had stairs. I saw us sitting at home, watching endless hours of television because he was too fatigued to go out. And I remembered hours of worry as I monitored his symptoms and questioned what was happening to him.
I had forgotten that living with disability is something that still very much lives inside of me. The needs and concerns of those who are differently abled matter a great deal to me. Their stories remind me of worry, anger, shame, guilt, sadness. And they also provoke in me resilience and contentment, joy and relationship.
Being married to someone with a progressive, debilitating disease forever changed me. I learned compassion and mercy in ways I would never have. I learned to advocate for people who are different than me. I learned to let go of thinking we are in control. I learned to be more welcoming, not just of others but even of myself. Mostly I learned to be aware.
Aware that life is fragile and therefore precious. I miss how living with someone who wheels through life made me aware of others differently abled people. Awareness is a treasure all by itself.
I thought I was going to the conference to learn about the things Erin and Kristin treasured. Instead I was reminded of what I treasure.
I’ve been in my new place almost four weeks. The dust has settled a little bit and I’m reminded again that Pete has died. Although there is a loneliness to that fact, I am not swallowed with grief at all right now. In fact, I believe Grief and I are working together to create a rhythm to my days. While I am enjoying the freedom of living alone, while I am figuring out who I am as a single person, and my next season of life will be, Grief is working its way within me. Grief is sometimes a very silent, yet busy companion.
This past Fall, I read Frederick Buechner’s Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory. In it he was reflecting on what was going on within him after his brother’s death. I have returned to one paragraph from that section several times -
“I also want to get it right about whatever it is going on inside me now. There is a level of feeling where, after moments when the clouds seem to be lifting a little, it is suddenly all I can do to see the hand in front of my face. And there is a level of thinking, thinking back especially over our last few conversations, including the one within only three or four hours of his death when we said good-bey for good. But deeper down still there is a level that I know nothing about at all except that whatever I am doing there, it is absolutely exhausting. It is as if great quantities of furniture have to be moved from one place to another. There seem to be endless cartons of God only knows what to sort through somehow. The earth itself has to be bulldozed and shifted around and reshaped. A whole new landscape has to come into being.”
Buechner speaks truth.
The layers that he articulates must be true because there are days when I am so exhausted – and I’m not sure why. It must be that my internal world has been moving “furniture” and sifting through “God only knows what.”
I slept almost 12 hours the other day. And I went to bed early, 8pm. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore and I was proud of myself for giving in. I thought for sure I would wake early and be able to write or read. But when I opened my eyes, my bedside clock read 7:30am. Buechner must be right; my body was “bulldozing shifting” the earth while I slept.
This “deeper down still” seems to happen without my cognitive awareness. Oh sure, I’m thinking about Pete all the time. Several times each day I wish I could show him something or tell him something. And I leak a few tears, a handful of times each day still. But there is a level deeper within me that seems to take my cognitive grief – the thoughts I have about Pete, or about me, or about our family, or about my new apartment, or about whatever it is I wish he could witness with me - and moves “furniture” or “earth” as Buechner wrote. My passive brain somehow knows when and how to sift through the cartons of “God only knows what” and file things in new places with new labels.
Grief is like introducing an entire workforce that lives within our bodies and minds. My workforce holds its own schedule with one agenda, healing me and ultimately transforming me into a post-Pete version of Beth. I would love to see the daily docket for this workforce. And who is, what is the foreman for this operation?
If I am to truly emerge healed and transformed, there is a tremendous trust I put in my internal self to navigate these deeper levels. I understand why some people might get stuck in their grief – it’s hard enough to do the active, cognitive work of grief but to also allow your the passive, yet heavy lifting work of grief requires self-trust.
So to my silent, yet very busy companion, Grief,
I’m grateful for you.
Hey Pete, I’m in California with your sister and her girls. It’s a sorority house here still. And they love you. And they miss you. If you can believe it, the last time we were here it was 10 years ago. We bought that great picture at the San Juan Capistrano mission. The one I had framed for you. It hung in our kitchen. You said it was a “window into God’s house.”
I am wondering where to place to hang it in my new apartment. I think I want it to be strategically placed. I think; I’m not too sure about much these days. But there is another piece that I believe will set the tone of my new place. It’s a watercolor that I bought after you died. A colleague of mine down in Virginia painted the first half of the “Prayer of St. Francis.” Of course you remember; we used that for our vows.
And if you were alive right now, and if we were moving to a new place, you would hear me ask you this questions, about which you would not care - Should I put shelf liners in the closets and cabinets? I know – not only do you not care but you would have to ask Alexa what shelf liners were. She would tell you that shelf liners are a way to protect the shelves from schmutz. We haven’t used shelf liners in the last two houses we lived in but Faith does it and she’s smart in things like this (things like this meaning “keeping things clean.”) By the way, Alexa is in storage and the grandchildren can’t wait to ask her to tell them a joke. They miss you.
Here’s another question for you – about which you may have an opinion but you’re not here to tell me. I may buy this used kitchen/dining room table. The chairs look comfy but I would want to replace the fabric. So I went with our niece Emily to JoAnn’s fabrics yesterday. I have five swatches of fabric that I like. (I think.) And here’s why I’m talking to you about this – I know, stick with me honey. Between this fabric and the two wall hangings I will create a color scheme and I don’t think I’m good at this. I don’t know if I’m able to tell what will make my new apartment feel like “home.” I can hear you asking, “is there a question in here somewhere?” Yes there is. Peter, what color would you be interested in making the dining room chairs? Yea – you don’t care. You would say something like, “as long as I’m at the table with you, cute girl, the chairs are fine.”
The truth is – that’s my answer too. As long as you were at the table, I didn’t really care what color the chairs were or what color scheme the house had. Sure, I have done my fair share of buying new throw pillows or curtains to change the feel of a room. But it’s not the furniture, the wall hangings, the color or comfort of the chairs that made home for me. It was you and me, and our children – and then their children that made home for me.
Remember how our house would feel the morning after we had a family dinner? I love that feeling. Remember the moments after work where I’d come home with Pho takeout and we’d grab bowls and chopsticks and forks. And then when we sit down and we pause and are grateful for one another and for yummy soup with jalapenos and basil condiments. I love that feeling too. I suppose making a home is about hospitality then. We made a home for one another.
And let’s be honest – you are really good at hospitality. Before we were dating, remember when I came over and asked if you had tea? And you did. And you made me tea and miniature crumb cakes that you happened to have in the house. They were Tastee brand, right? The boys don’t believe this story by the way – that you had miniature crumb cakes and that you served them to me on a tiny plate with tea. I remember; it was the first time you extended hospitality to me.
Whether they remember of not, they have your hospitality gene. They have created, both in their own way, a comfortable place for me to be myself time and again since you died. In their eulogy they made sure to mention your mantra, “if I have a roof, you have a roof.”
So maybe shelf liners and new upholstery fabric for chairs that I haven’t purchased yet is really not what this move is about. Maybe the move is about being hospitable to myself, creating a comfortable place where I can be myself. I have relied on you for that for over two decades. Can I ask you one more thing? If I promise to bring Pho home for dinner, will you join me in my new home?
I’m sitting on the floor in my new apartment. I’ve moved three grocery bags worth of stuff including a candle named “tranquility,” newly framed pictures of my family and a bag of Lindt chocolate that I received for Christmas. This will be the third time I’ve moved since Pete died. The first two were thrust upon me from the outside. Being evicted from my condo because I was not 55 sent me to find home with Dan and Faith. And then they purchased a new place, so I inched down the street with them. New space, new bedroom, same home though. Home is neither the stuff or the space.
During this time, all but my clothes have been in a 10x10 storage unit a few miles away. There have only been three things I missed during this period of separation from my things. First, I packed my guitar practice notebook by accident; that would have been nice to have. Over Thanksgiving, I borrowed a Kitchen Aid and a roasting pan to make dinner. The third thing I missed was my nativity sets, a ritual that I have learned marks not just the season but a movement in my spirit.
That’s it though – everything else that makes up the “stuff” of my life has been superfluous to my existence. There have been a couple times where I almost said something like, “well, my life is a 10x10 box.” But I was wise to edit that thought before it came out of my mouth. Very little of my life is in that 10x10 box. Life is an active word. It’s not static. And it cannot be stored. Almost all that brings me life has been readily available to me in hugs from my grandchildren, meals with my stepchildren and conversations with my friends. I have not once lacked for a place to call home, which I realize is not true for everyone; because of that I feel incredibly grateful.
So as I sit here by the window, next to the heater I am trying to imagine how all of my stored stuff will come to life in this new space. What will fit? What won’t? What will still feel alive when I touch it, move it, sit on it? What won’t? When I placed my stuff in boxes, I was not completely in my right mind. Pete had only just died. I am not sure what I packed, what I tossed, what I donated. While we were packing, tossing and donating, I remember asking myself, “will this furniture be part of my life when I move to my own space?” Will this mug? Will these wall hangings? In what way will this bring me life if I were to enliven it with my body, mind and spirit.
It’s going to be very interesting to open those boxes and find new resting places for my things. I’m looking forward to seeing them spread out from the cramped spaces of their box. I suppose I am looking forward to being reunited with my stuff but I am not expecting it to make me feel at home or for it to help make my life for me.
In fact, the empty apartment already feels very much like home. But I have felt at home at Dan’s for these past several months. I have felt at home on the couch at Joe’s over the past several months. I have felt at home at friend’s homes. I have not lacked for home. This move is not a quest to find “home.” Home was never, and has not been in the stuff that currently lives in my 10x10. No, this is a space for me to enliven on my own. Life is lived, not stored.
Four weeks ago, we (Dan, Faith and I) were stripping our beds and packing the last of the kitchen to move ½ mile down the road. Fueled with a bagel sandwich and an awesome piece of crumb cake, we worked alongside the movers until beds were made and the kitchen was unpacked.
Around 5pm, we sat down as a family around the dining room table to give thanks over pizza. It was then that I “hit a wall.”
That “wall” is probably why I haven’t posted since then. The truth is – I have hardly written about my grief for the past month. Not even in my journal. Instead I have plunged into the FX series, the American. I have slowly worked my way through Frederick Buechner’s Crazy, Holy Grace. And I attended the last several weeks of a Grief Share group.
We also celebrated Thanksgiving, our first without Pete. Two days after Thanksgiving, I celebrated what would have been my 22nd anniversary by distracting myself with friends, art and the Christmas spectacular at Radio City Music Hall.
In have settled into my new bedroom. I have tickled my grandchildren, talked and laughed with my stepchildren, and along the way have happily absorbed as much oxytocin as I’ve needed.
For me, this first year of grief has been one with lots of movement. I wonder if that’s what I needed. Sure, moving is hard; it’s jarring. But I’ve been such a gypsy most of my life (that’s what Pete used to say.) We moved so often when I was a kid that the most settled time in my life has been married to Pete. The last 22 years of my life has been incredibly settled.
But now? Now I feel unsettled. It’s interesting that this is corresponding to the season of Advent, a time in the Christian calendar when we prepare for the coming of Jesus. For me, this Advent has been one of being honest about who I have been and what I have done. This season has been imagining who I am becoming and what I might be about to do. Advent is not just a season of passive waiting for Christmas but rather active living.
Pete, in a world that is not mine, is getting to live the most true life he has ever known. This side of heaven, I am seeking to live the truest life I know in tandem with him… still very much connected and even covenanted to him. (I have been joking lately that “at best, I am married to a dead guy.’) I still feel very much married. And so in response to the life I think Pete has, in response to the beauty that he comprehends, I am putting one foot in front of the other… to live. To live as fully as I know how.
Pete’s memorial ended with a Dixieland band leading us out to the cemetery across the street playing Just a Closer Walk with Thee. The sad drawl of the trumpet and trombone. The constant beat of the tuba. When we arrived at the farthest part of the cemetery, the band leader stopped to let us know a bit of the New Orleans history of the funeral parade. When a musician had died, the band heads into the grave somber and leaves their friend among the dead. But in honor of the music that they made together, they march out dancing. This is called the second line. The second line was what I promised Pete before he died. In the second line, the trumpet transforms leads a new tune, confident and strong. The trombone dances through the bass line as if grabbing hold of our waist, twisting and twirling us as a skilled dance partner.
The most common song associated with the second line is - Oh when the Saints, Go marching in. Oh when the saints go marching in. Oh, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.
We left death behind us that day and we danced on the graves of the saints who have gone before us. It’s powerful to dance on death. Death will certainty have its say in each of our lives but death is only one moment. Death is the moment the breath leaves the body. But who is to say that the breath itself dies?
I have experienced what perhaps is the “breath” of Pete several times since his death. Or speaking theologically, I have been in the presence of the unique breath of God that enlivened Pete Scibienski. In the second version of the creation story, God breathes life into the first earthling, enlivening it with the ruach – the wind, the breath, the spirit of God. Take a breath. Seriously, stop and take a breath. You have it too. The wind, the breath, the spirit of God animates you.
Our breath is a powerful force. With each inhale we are created. At the top of the inhale there is sacred moment of pause before the exhale. With every exhale we let go, clean out, release what was. And again at the bottom of the release, there is another pause where our bodies put to rest the most recent moment and then our next breath resurrects us. Our breath is automated; we don’t have to think about breathing. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that we are being breathed. This is why I tend to believe the breath expire with our bodies. The breath, our unique breath continues – but where? What does the breath animate if not the body?
When I have been in the presence of Pete’s disembodied breath it has felt intact, held together by meaning and purpose. Like last week in church when I imagined him coming to church to share in the communion table with us. His unique breath was still very much him. Even in death, his “life” animated by the Spirit has purpose, a calling. Who is to say that the Spirit that animated Pete in his bodily life does not continue to animate Pete in his death?
This is most certainly an exercise in theological imagination. But let me tell you a secret – all theology is an exercise in imagination. Theology is imagination fueled by ancient words, personal experience, and communal understanding. Theology is not a science. Theology is idea in conversation with others ideas, stirred with hope… lots of hope. And right now, in month six without him, the hope that is stirring my current ideas imagines Pete having work to do even after his body is gone. I am so comforted to think that Pete continues his calling to encourage and love others, something at which he excelled. I am so deeply comforted by this possibility.
Yesterday was the first day that I can remember not crying. I don’t think it was the first day I went without crying but it was the first day that I can remember where my grief was not crowding me. I wonder if this has any correlation to the the imagination of Pete having a “life” to lead after death. By releasing him to the work of the Saints, have I released some of my grief as well?
Oh when the saints… go marching in… it is a dance. It is a stomp your way out of death dance. It is a let yourself loose, swing around with your neighbor, let it go kind of dance. It is the kind of dance enlivened by the breath of God – in life and in death.
Last week was Halloween, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The Christian tradition has often celebrated these three days together, creating a festival of sorts. In my current context, Presbyterians in central NJ, we typically honor the folks who have gone before us on the Sunday after by pausing to name them during worship. There is a connection between the living and the dead that is worth remembering, celebrating, honoring.
This was the first year Pete was among those saints to be honored. I honestly hadn’t made that connection before Sunday and even while we were naming the saints who had been meaningful to our spiritual journey, I didn’t think of Pete. I thought of my grandmother and the first pastor I remembered from my childhood. I thought of a few of the folks whose funerals I had led. It wasn’t until we were celebrating communion later in the service that I thought of Pete.
You see, I have a friend, who is also a pastor; he has been a widower now for 15 years. He remembers looking desperately for his wife to appear during communion, perhaps now appear physically but in the way that Pete has been present for me so many times. Communion seems like it is the most likely place for us to experience togetherness with the dead.
When Christians gather at the communion table, we believe we are seated with all who have gone before us and all who have gone after us. The table extends beyond the barriers of this world. In fact the table resides in another realm. John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation (that has just celebrated its 500th year), believed that we are transported from our current space and time to God’s space and time. It is not that God meets us where we are at the table; we meet God where God is at the table.
So back to Sunday, I’m sitting in one of our fancy wooden chairs up on the chancel, presiding over the celebration of communion. The piano is playing. The servers are passing out morsels of homemade bread and tiny shot glasses of grape juice. I closed my eyes as I was breathing and praying for those in my congregation. And then I had a thought, “I wonder if Pete is here.” And then as quick as that thought came to mind another followed. “Well if you’re here, you better not have come without...”
I opened my eyes in surprise. I looked around the room. Was he here? Were they here together?
I had this interesting notion that Pete had not stopped being my wing man at all… he was just given a different job. He was part of the “church triumphant” - the church that exists above, beyond and outside of the church that exists for us.
I didn’t “sense” Pete’s presence when I had these thoughts as I have at other times. But I believed in Pete’s presence in a way I had before.
I have another story of Pete’s presence beyond this realm that I have held to mostly to myself. Months ago the friend of a deceased friend messaged me about an encounter with a psychic. “I’m not sure if you believe in this but...” someone she knew had gone to a psychic and this deceased friend of mine “visited.” During the visit he said, “I’m hanging out with my good friend Pete.” Nothing was mentioned of Pete during the session with the psychic. The psychic would not have known of the important friendship Pete had with this friend.
I sat with this for a day or two and then I remembered that during this friend’s memorial service, Pete shared about how they had met.
Thirty years ago, Pete had begun to reengage his faith with some neighbors who attended a Presbyterian Church. They invited him to attend when and if he wanted. They kept telling him the church was casual; he could even wear jeans. He took them up on the offer on Easter Sunday, not knowing that this Sunday is the one Sunday of the year where everyone dresses up. Pete would tell the story by saying, “I had one eye on the sanctuary and one eye on the door when someone walked up to me, put one hand on my shoulder and reached to shake my hand with the other.”
When Pete told the story that day at his memorial, he added, “I hope he was greeted in heaven the way he greeted me that day in church.”
For our deceased friend to say, “I’m hanging with my good friend Pete,” speaks to me of this space above, beyond and outside the church that exists for me, for us.
Was Pete in church on Sunday? Did he bring our friend? Were they all there, all the folks who had gone before us? What about all those who will go after us? I don’t know; we can't know yet. That’s what faith is – trusting when we are not sure.
I study and practice Reiki, a Japanese healing art. Through my studies, I have learned to listen to my body, to notice how various places in my body feels, inside and outside. By placing my hands lightly on my own body and turning my attention inward, I can feel the pulsing within myself. Sometimes the pulse feels more like a hum. Sometimes the hum is shaky, even frenetic. Sometimes the hum is shallow, sometimes deep.
The place I am most drawn to lately is the section right above my navel and beneath my breast bone. This section of the body covers digestion, the pancreas and kidney function along with adrenal glands. But it also is where we keep our will power, or personal control. It is in this area where we form our opinions and beliefs and make decisions. This is our gut. And when our gut disagrees or doesn’t feel settled, our confidence, identity and independence falters.
My body feels so good, soothed, comforted simply by placing one hand in the middle of my belly and taking a few minutes to be mindful of myself, inside and outside.
I’m having to learn about myself again, my opinions, beliefs. I’m having to make decisions, be independent. I’m having to find my own confidence and reassure myself in ways I have not had to in two decades. I’m having to set directions, create new disciplines.
My belly, my gut, my middle, also known as our solar plexis is unbalanced and overtaxed. But I am listening to it, being mindful of it, of me.
I was reminded yesterday of a belief that the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth held about the Holy Spirit. He says we are less rooted or standing firm and more like we are being upheld by the winds of the Spirit.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of myself or trying to make myself “rooted.” Rooted feels secure. But this image of being upheld by the Spirit captured me three years ago after Superstorm Sandy.
Trees were uprooted everywhere. But round masses standing on their side with their trees lying beside them. The roots seemed to be mocking us saying, “the world is not near as sturdy or reliable as you thought.”
Perhaps we are not nearly as “rooted” as we think. But rooted feels more solid and being upheld feels like relinquishing control to the wind.
I want to say, put me down. Let me stand on my own. Let me make my own way. Live my own life. Set down some roots. But the wind says, “let go, I’ve got you. I’m holding you, firm. You are much more buoyant than you think. Sway with me.”
And so I place my hand on my belly and I breath, slowly allowing my breath to meet the rhythm of the Spirit’s swaying.
I’ve begun to attend a grief share group. It meets weekly at a local church. I’ve met some wonderful people who are each experiencing the roller coaster of grief, just like me. I’m grateful for the chance to speak candidly about my sadness, my worry, my loss. The big difference with these folks compared to you is that they didn’t know Pete.
As a result, we talk more about the feelings and circumstances of grief rather than the specifics of the people we are grieving.
A couple weeks ago we were encouraged to write a “grief letter.” A grief letter is meant to communicate with your loved ones, your coworkers, your friends, what they can expect from my grief and what I may need from them.
In just a few days, Pete will be gone six months. For me (since grief is so very different for everyone), I am feeling the effects of not seeing him for six long months. 180 days without sharing a cup of coffee. 180 days without talking to him face to face. 180 days without hearing about what he is reading or learning. 180 days without telling him about my day. His absence feels different these days, more real perhaps, like his absence itself is a tangible thing.
Yes, I am sad. I cry several times each day. Usually just a few tears leak out while my jaw clenches. I usually try to take a deep breath to calm myself. But my breath gets caught in the middle of my chest, right where my heart is. But with a second try, I am able to take a deep breath. With this breathing, I am not trying not to stifle my tears. I’m just trying to conserve my energy. Big snotty crying is exhausting.
But at least once each week I have what I call a “full body meltdown.” While it’s happening, I am questioning things like, “how did this happen?” How did my life change so fast? Or I am wondering what kind of life will I build now. And then I go back to how did this happen? How am I having to build a life at 46? I already built a life. And it was a good one. It is a good one. It is… it still is a very good life! It’s just missing one very important person.
And all of those questions, all of that crying and even those meltdowns are happening while I’m going to work. It’s all happening while I text back and forth with friends and family. It’s happening while I read the news and pray for the world and worry about healthcare. It’s all happening while I lead a congregation who is about to break ground on a new sanctuary. It’s all happening while I study and prepare sermons for weekly worship. We are remarkable creatures really, our capacity to keep living is stunning.
That's what you can expect from my grief these days.
But a grief letter is also meant to ask for what I might need from you. This is really hard. To ask for what we need is vulnerable and hard and I’d rather not do it. I’d rather you read my mind… isn’t that true for most of us?!
But here it is, I wish people would talk about Pete more. Or when you think about him or are reminded of him, that you might mention it specifically.
Yesterday my grandson, Mateo came into my room and asked, “Was that PopPop’s birthday?” He was looking at a picture I have in my room and at one point he must have asked what the picture was from. And it was from a birthday party a couple years ago. Many of his friends met us at a hot dog stand. It was almost rainy if I remember correctly. We ate and laughed around picnic tables. Mateo remembered and he asked me about it. I turned around and said, “Yes, the picture is from PopPop’s birthday a couple years ago.” He said, “PopPop is in heaven.” I said, “yes.” And then he went about playing with his fire truck.
I was grateful for him just saying Pete’s name, which of course to him was Poppop. It made me happy. And it reminded me that I am not the only one thinking about him.
So if something reminds you of Pete, would you please tell me.
It may make me tear up. It may not. Our memories are precious. And I am grateful that you are sharing this roller coaster ride of grief with me.
The other day a friend of mine told a story of taking a long train ride, several years after her husband died. For some reason the trip set off her grief in a terrible way. She was undone by what my grief share calls the “ambush” of grief, sometimes referred to as a “wave” of grief. There are moment where grief seems to come at us as a wave, knocking us off our feet and sometimes knocking us over.
I love the beach and I love to swim in the waves. Not all waves are alike. There is the first wash over our feet wave that shocks our ankles with its cold temperature. Then there is the wave that is about two feet out of the shoreline that smashes into our legs, right above our knees. Then only one foot deeper into the ocean is the wave that slams into our middle and splashes up into our face making us look away. A couple feet past that wave is the one that demands we get our heads wet. To this one, we dive under and swim out past the crashing waves and into the floating waves. When I was a kid, I would stay out there floating up and down until my teeth chattered and I could no longer feel my legs for numbness.
But on my way out to the floating, teeth chattering experience, I have to navigate those harsher waves that can easily knock one over. Have you ever been knocked over by a wave?
The first thing that happens is you stumble to the ground with an arm reaching for the sand to steady your body, so you can quickly jump back up to a standing position. Because if you’re knocked over by one wave, another one is right behind it.
And a wave were to knock you on your butt, the tide would now be at the height of your head. So the next wave that is coming fast will not only knock you down but will likely turn you over. And tumbling under the tide is the worst feeling ever.
You lose which way is up and your arms reach for the ground, your legs are taken by the water and seem to be of no use to you. It’s horrible.
When I liken grief to a wave, that’s what I mean. When a wave of grief comes, it is that strong kind of wave that comes up from under you and knocks you down. It throws your arms and legs into a panic to try to “right” yourself.” It’s horrible.
And the more I’ve listened to my own experience, the more I’ve heard stories of those traveling this grief road with me, the more I realize these waves are unique. Waves of grief come with specific memories. And these “knock you down kind of waves” carry sensory data. They come fueled by a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch.
Sensory memory is out of cognitive control. Let me say that again – sensory memory, memories we have saved from stimuli related to our senses are not controlled by the cognitive part of our brain. So we cannot control what sensory data we retain or how we store it or for how long we store it.
Instead this information is controlled by the somatosensory system, which is a 3-neuron system that relays detected senses through pathways of the spinal cord, brainstem, and thalamic relay nuclei ultimately transferring them to the sensory cortex in the parietal lobe.
What I love about that last paragraph is that I worked on it for ten minutes and I’m still not quite sure what it means. What I do understand is that there is an element of passivity in the somatosensory system meaning that the information “sensed” and then “stored” is not done cognitively or intentionally in the same way we “learn” and “store” what we learn.
The somatosensory system detects a sense. So this system isn’t the one doing the sensing, it’s the one figuring out what to do with the senses.
And so back to my friend on the train. The wave of grief she experienced; the one that knocked her over – it came from the movement of the train. You see, she and her late husband used to take the train to work together. And on top of that, her dad worked on the train. So she had a relationship with trains AND her body had stored sensory data from being on trains. Think about how our bodies move when on a train. We sort of jiggle with the cars. Think about a train ride from an auditory sensory perspective. There is a consistent rumble of the train. Close your eyes, can’t you feel it in your body and can you hear the sound of the train?
Somatosensory memory. Somatosensory memory unfurled a wave of grief that knocked her over that day.
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