My unplanned, unwanted journey.
So what is this thing, grief? The books I turn to offer insight, guidance. Those who have gone before help me recognize myself when there is no other reflection. When the path is so dark, they remind me I need only take the next breath. And the next.
From the instant I saw my son’s body, in his bed in our home, something cemented in me — This Is. I have not argued, not railed against the universe. Some might call that absence of conflict peace. It is not that.
I know much more about what grief isn’t than what it is. It isn’t familiar; it isn’t kind. Nor is it simple. It is disorienting, but it is also connecting — when I remember to remember those throughout the history of time who have mourned the loss of a child. That helps to keep me from feeling isolated, alone with a pain it seems no one else can possibly know.
Once upon a time, that is how it was. I was the same age as my son — 20 — when I lived with the loss of my mother and, with no language, no support, no context for that loss, my pain was mine alone. That is not this.
And yet. When I nuzzle my niece’s newborn; laugh with her two-year old; hike along a path and marvel at the hills that overlap into the distance, there is a weight — a precious and fearsome weight.
It is barely one month. I cannot and do not try to imagine the next month and the next. That is not my job anymore. The weight keeps me here, now. It is what I can do.
“What gives you comfort?” asks a friend. Perhaps she knows that her question, texted across time and distance, lends exactly that via a ping of connection.
Comfort either comes, or doesn’t, in so many guises. Strong arms offer a respite, a reminder to unclench, to breathe a bit more easily. But those same arms can feel like an impossible container — a brittle bulwark against a rising tide of grief that gathers and crashes with impossible force.
There is comfort in a meal prepared when the desire to eat is absent, and in anticipating my morning cup of coffee as if the day ahead might hold some promise.
Comfort can arrive on a breeze, trees that sway to an unseen force to remind me that there is more than I know, so much more, and to let the warmth of the sun, the sweetness of spring soften the hard edges of loss.
But as the season moves on, what, I wonder, am I leaving behind? Those first awful weeks when grief colored every hour in every room, and we looked for nothing else. Within that cocoon was the strange comfort of not yet imagining other ways of being.
Today I bought pansies. Although relatively short lived, they are an irresistible part of the season for me.
My mother planted pansies — she enjoyed digging in the dirt, wearing gloves to protect her beautiful hands. She grew flowers below the stone wall that separated our yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Yates, an older woman who offered my young mother friendly advice as she stood looking down from her side of the wall.
I am not a successful gardener; I’ve tried, but the deer here are plentiful, the soil clayey, and passion never took hold. Still, I plant pansies because they bring my mother back to me.
I don’t yet know what to do to bring Adam back to me. The loss is too fresh, too big. Even writing his name is painful. I’m not worried though. Not knowing what will evoke the pansy connection fits in with everything else I don’t yet know — what to eat for dinner, how to sleep through the night, what I want to do. I am surrounded by a life I know I love, but mostly I move through the day following the memory of things that held meaning, that mattered before.
This is what Pema Chodron calls “the challenge zone.” This is instead of the “comfort zone,” which many of us live in habitually to avoid ourselves and the reality of impermanence. Although for years I have been exploring my assumptions and expanding my awareness in order to embrace my life’s challenges, this particular one is a whopper.
According to Pema, meeting our challenges as learning opportunities doesn’t make us more comfortable, but they can be transformative; they can be where real growth happens — if we view them as precious and necessary. If we stay with rather than run from our heart- and soul-wrenching challenges and meet them with curiosity, the sense of being alive, of joy, can expand.
I get this intuitively. I believe this is so and like to think I am taking baby steps. But mostly, I’m just trying keep my balance, plant pansies and stay open to that which I trust will arrive.
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” These and other similar, well-meaning words make me wonder. What does it mean to be the person whose situation is unimaginable?
By living what every parent has peeked at, barely daring to imagine, I have been given a role — I am the parent who has lost a child. I get it. It’s what we do to make sense when life becomes larger than life.
I have long resisted being defined by the roles I inhabit — daughter, wife, mother; long been wary of having my complex relationships and responsibilities reduced to neatly packaged experiences. I have pushed back, if often only in my own mind, against the small boxes that would limit how I can best flourish in relation to people I love.
And so it follows that I resist what I imagine the expectations of this role to be, about who I am and how I am to move through the world as the embodiment of a parent’s worst fear. That I am fundamentally changed by this most unnatural course of events is undeniable. But it is not, it seems, in the way that others might define me — or in the way I would have expected when I dared to peek at the possibility.
Like motherhood itself, this journey is richly complex, with every hue of every color. There are times when the darkest of darks descend, blotting out the sun. Then hollow exhaustion unexpectedly gives way to the opposite — vivid joy; a sense of the fantastic, of the blessed mundane.
I am learning to cherish it all. I am learning that one day, one hour, does not predict the next. And by refusing to inhabit a role, I choose instead to open to the complexities of this new relationship with Adam, to become whatever he now requires of me.
This particular grief is rife with the kind of bright paradox that Mary Oliver nails in this poem — something I clipped long ago that suddenly, but not surprisingly, resurfaced. Although I’m used to contrasts in my life, now everything is in sharp relief; everything insists on being known.
• It is great comfort and joy to be with people I love. And then every muscles sinks gratefully into time and space alone.
• I eagerly anticipate distraction — a book, a movie — and then crave to be done, to immerse myself in what is with no interference.
• I am reluctant to leave my porch, but I am hungry to hear the birds, watch the leaves on the trees unfurl. I take to the trail to walk the dogs but cannot wait to return home.
• I wake grateful for each day, but at 5 pm, feel the weight of the hours lift. Still, I don’t want the time to slip away, unnoticed.
• I never do not remember. Although I may choose, at a given moment, to back away from the pain of understanding that he will not walk through that door, I have let him go.
And somehow, I also know that he is here.
I was 45 when I discovered I was pregnant with my third child. And it was a discovery. Unlike with the first two, when I eagerly awaited clues, I attributed the tiredness and other unspecific symptoms I felt to menopause — until I didn’t. He was a much-desired surprise. Following a miscarriage a few years earlier, I figured that a third baby wasn’t to be. But the longing never left. I envied women who felt complete; I started to explore adoption.
The reaction from friends and family was, in retrospect, pretty interesting. My uncle is the only one who said what was on everyone’s mind, “At your age!?” I can’t deny that the timing was a concern for me: not about the pregnancy — I felt as good and strong as I had with the others. But I knew I’d be out of sync with most parents of his peers and with friends with whom I’d shared the first wave of child rearing. Also, I was more familiar with kids in clumps; my mother had 4 of us in 8 years. The baby would be 8 and 10 years younger than Ben and Jo; what would their relationships be like?
They took possession immediately. When I offered a short list of possible names, they said, “Adam. He’s Adam.” And that was the end of that discussion. Neither hesitated to do anything for him from the first moment — okay, maybe they drew the line at a messy diaper — but as this photo reveals, they owned him.
Then and now.
I am still so new at this thing — this grief.
Although the notion of “comfort” comes up a lot, I really don’t think there is any to be had. I don’t really look for any. Calibration is more like it. I am continually and invisibly trying to align my emotions with my capacity of the moment, what I feel I can manage, and I seek what might help me do that — a walk, my couch, a conversation, a book.
Calibrating more or less correctly lets me know when to soften and blur my gaze, turning away from visceral memory. It allows me to fall back on habits and routines — cooking, eating, working — that keep me grounded. Calibrating correctly also enables me to turn toward the glare of loss, to feel its brilliance in the core of my being and believe I that will emerge unscorched.
This does not happen on any schedule.
There are many things I don’t want: stories I don’t want to hear; photos I don’t want to see; places I don’t want to go. People tell me that I will eventually have more room for all that now feels impossible, and perhaps that is because my ability to calibrate will continue to improve.
But if that means leaving him behind, there is no part of me that wants that.
In his exquisite book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller counsels us to create a new relationship with grief, “not as an event…but as an ongoing conversation that accompanies us throughout life.”
He speaks not only to those who are enduring a direct hit to the heart, but to all who feel the sorrows of the world. He encourages and describes elements of the “right relationship with grief…neither too far away nor too close” so that it can enlarge and enable us, ultimately, to return to our communities with greater wisdom and compassion.
I get this entirely — with one very small part of my brain. I’ve been doing the kind of “soul work” Weller refers to for years, a deliberate kind of hollowing out, a shedding of what no longer serves in order to be receptive to the next thing that needs to emerge.
These past efforts are helping me now to trust the wild disorder that characterizes my days when little fits or feels right. I haven’t yet put my car keys in the freezer, but I tread carefully, relieved to find things where I expect them, when I don’t burn the toast or forget to brush my teeth.
I fold laundry or walk up a familiar hill as if in another dimension, one permeated by a bright crystalline quality that is both within and outside of me, a by-product, perhaps, of metabolizing loss on a cellular level; preparation, perhaps, for that which will emerge next.
Like so many others, after a year-and-a half of being separated we four Marton siblings finally gathered together under one roof. Over the years, we have often made the time to be together without an agenda beyond strengthening the ties that have stretched to encompass spouses, children and children in-law, a grandchild or two, and other facets of four very full and different lives. But this time was different. Over the last six months, one of us lost a spouse; another — me — a child.
We were lucky to have, as our earliest examples, parents who demonstrated warm, loving relationships with their own siblings, even though we’ve since learned of darker, more complex stories. And we’ve long been aware that, after our mother died when we were 22, 20, 18, and 14 years old, that we had to consciously choose who we wanted to be for and with each other.
Those choices — made again and again and again — have, of course, evolved over the years. We have related to one another differently throughout the different stages of our lives, sometimes with rough patches, always regaining our balance. There’s something immutable born, I think, of loss as much as the want to acknowledge all we share as well as the desire to take it to the next level for ourselves and as an example for the next generation.
And so that is what we did — again. The very act of coming together created a holding place for our new losses. Instead of a thing apart, a rupture, they became part of the complex weave that is who we are. We had nothing to solve or fix; we had only to be, which, despite extra pounds and gray hair, is as familiar as air, that runs deeper than words, that exists outside of time and place.
It is one thing to have your heart shattered. It is another to see the grief of others who share the same loss reflected in the shards, especially when they are your children.
My older son and daughter are both adults — past the tender 20s — for which I am grateful. They both have full, rich lives and a powerful bond between them. During those first early weeks, we huddled together, swathed by layers of family and friends. Devastated and focused, they stood with their father and me to navigate final impossible tasks for their younger brother and to feel our way across the dark, jarring landscape into which we were thrust without warning.
They also kept constant, watchful eyes on us, instinctively leaning in when they thought their touch was needed, or when they needed to fold into one of us or each other. But we all knew that, after some time, they would resume their lives apart from us, again leaving the home they once shared with their brother — the home he occupied in this world, which he so abruptly left.
Since then, when we check in with each other, the gaping wound of his absence has us grappling with unfamiliar language, listening for what’s not being said in an effort to measure how raw it feels for any one of us on any given day. We want to be the salve for each other, but don’t yet know those words. Perhaps they don’t exist. We are all collateral damage, each in our own inviolable way figuring out who and how we are now.
And yet. When they share new music they’ve created or I speak with one of them about a beautiful walk I’ve taken, light pierces the dark and I am able to believe that there is a way forward.
I am mystified by joy, the lightness of being, the delight I can feel in an ordinary hour while, no further than my elbow, the hardest thing breathes quietly, patiently, knowing it lays full claim to my heart. Somehow, I can feel a calm rootedness, grateful and at peace under the same roof where, impossibly, my son’s ashes sit, where he hugged me goodnight and told me he loved me hours before leaving this world.
It is dissonance on every level.
It is not in my nature, but I am learning to allow that which I cannot understand. My usual response to a challenge — emotional, psychological, spiritual, practical — is to read, to research, to try to understand from those more experienced than I. And I’m hungry for that now: I have a stack of books on grief; I listen to podcasts; explore Facebook groups. As when I was the mother of babies and devoured books on child development, I tear through them searching for what resonates and leave the rest.
So far, my biggest takeaway is that I cannot figure this out. It has a life of its own and my job is to be alert to and roll with the contradictions. As one of my favorite characters from my new favorite tv series reminded me, “seemingly opposite things can co-exist in the universe.”
Apparently, this requires that I face more than the reality of loss and the fundamentally altered path of my life. It requires a deeper level of self-acceptance, allowing myself to be — whether with joy or pain — rather than do. And, when out of necessity or desire to do rather than just be — whether with joy or pain.
It requires knowing that while I am immersed in the singular and intimate nature of my experience, so much of the world is on its knees and I am not alone. At the same time that I want only to retreat, fiercely guarding my heart because no one can possibly understand, I am asked to open it, perhaps wider than ever before.
It is the day after Adam’s 21st birthday and I am peering out from behind the wall that serves as a sort of refuge so I can manage the necessary and often beautiful aspects of life.
Buffeted by my sister and daughter; swathed by many tender and loving messages, we approached the day warily, recognizing the need to both be with the moment and somehow protect ourselves. Although more familiar with the terrain of sorrow than we have ever been, we are still newbies, navigating through and around treacherous landscapes. There are times when, with some deliberate focus, I can and must stumble into the hardest, most barren places. And then there are the times when I turn away and slip behind the wall.
There was a lot of navigating when his friends came to visit. I was proud of them for showing up, choosing, along their own precarious paths, to connect with us — the parents — who were for so many teenage years little more than inconvenient presences. When they arrived, I trained my gaze on them in order to see what was there; not what was missing. I wanted to hear their plans, their dreams, but my wall silently and efficiently muffled the sound of their recollections.
Later on, shot glasses in hand, we sat through a zoom, to share the day with other loving faces. The wall stayed strong through dinner, more toasts and a cake that somehow arrived in our kitchen while we were out.
But today the wall is more permeable. It must, at some point, crumble before it again rebuilds, so that I can move further along the path of all that lies on the other side. It is not an exploration I would have chosen, but it is here. It is mine. I want no more than to embrace it.
It’s a cold and gray day for mid-June, a day that started and promises to end with fierce thunderstorms. That’s fine. I’m huddled on the screened porch in my favorite chair, the one that faces the trees and field, a landscape that doesn’t require weeding or pruning, where my eyes can wander while my heart seeks some sort of resting place. Behind me the hummingbirds buzz, dashing to and from their feeder.
I am exhausted, hollow from a weekend with dear friends, people with intelligent hearts and minds. We walked, cooked, spent hours on the porch, laughed, cried. Their love and care help sustain me. But I’m also left with something that is more complicated, more difficult to unpack, something, I suspect, that springs from the singularity of grief.
Because we each face and metabolize loss in our own unique ways, so we are each tasked with figuring out how, where and when we’re most likely to fit in with the people around us. It’s not always evident: I don’t always know what to do with the thing that has transformed my heart even, or perhaps especially, in the most comfortable and welcome of gatherings.
At one moment it’s a gift to be in the mix, connecting with and caring about the things that other people do — to be as if I am who I was. But then, in the midst of that caring, that connecting, a weight descends, and voices begin to feel far away, muffled, incomprehensible. The words are recognizable, but their meaning has no place within my reality, a reality that insists on its own undeniable imperatives.
It can be a lonely place. It is impossible to both be and not be with the most pressing thing. It is paradox and confusion and requires, I suspect, only patience, time and love.
I am a lucky woman. I run workshops where women come to write their stories using photographs from their lives.
They begin tentatively at first and, over the course of the three-week workshops, their voices become increasingly strong. They begin to trust the process of uncovering the past — weaving clear memories with unspoken knowledge and experience — to convey a time, a place, a relationship. Over the course of our time together, they write and share their stories with increasing confidence and authenticity.
And I — I get to immerse myself in their stories, to listen with my heart and my writer’s ear. I help them trust that they know what they want and need to say and watch as they take in the support and appreciation from their fellow explorers and shape narratives that leave us in wonder. It is a privilege.
But then. As we wind down, and prepare to close the zoom, I’m aware that I want to get back to Adam. The fact of my loss is always present. Sometimes it blots my view of everything. Other times, such as when I’m at work, it hovers quietly nearby, waiting for me to return, to get back to him.
That return requires time, space, quiet. It requires averting my gaze from the emptiness — all that is left behind — and touching instead on that which goes beyond my five senses and ideas that I can easily explain, that make sense in the strictly rational world.
I challenge myself: am I seeking false solace to avoid facing what is? That question arises from a fearful place, not from my heart, so I choose not to spend time wrestling with the answer.
I accept that what is, for now, is more unknowable than not. And I go there willingly.
Sponge in hand, I stood at the kitchen sink as the thought descended. “This is a privilege.” I looked down at the messy, soapy pan. I was not the one who left dried bits of egg stuck to the pan that morning, but I wanted to clean up, to ready the kitchen for the next meal. It was my choice to tackle the pan rather than hunt down the cook.
It wasn’t my choice, however, for my 20-year-old son to leave this life, to leave us so suddenly. Although it was often his way to burst into the room, full of energy, to insist on one plan or another, we had no warning that he’d insist that we learn to live with his absence.
Since then, in four of the longest and shortest months, I have been shown so much more than the dull throb, the knife-edge, the tidal waves of loss. I am learning to know mystery, to cultivate a new way of seeing. I am learning to be in a world whose boundaries have been stretched beyond imagining.
But it never occurred to me that I might see this as a kind of privilege. Perhaps because I have a life of that other kind of privilege — where I can choose quiet, choose to see and hear how Adam is still insisting — that I am able to open to something sacred, to be ready for almost overwhelming beauty to envelop me in stillness, a presence, his presence.
It makes more sense that those moments might arrive as they did earlier that morning, sitting on my deck, hearing my older son at the piano; or the evening before, watching the nearly full moon rise, couched in the clouds.
But in that moment at the sink, the suds became the loss which became the knowing that what we have right in front of us — music, the moon, an egg pan, a shredded heart — is where infinite love resides.
Learning to live with a sense of loss that colors my every breath is one thing.
Learning to live without Adam is another.
This sweet little boy grew into a warm, strong, rangy young man with large aspirations for the music he created — and the dedication, focus and talent to match. But I don’t want my longing for either version to blur the particulars of how he struggled in this life — the trials that came fast and furiously in storms of an adolescence attenuated by learning disabilities, a term that so inadequately describes challenges with attention, processing and impulsivity that can bleed into every sphere of life beyond the classroom.
At 6, I could run interference and create the safe haven where he knew he was loved without reserve. At 20, his desire for independence was monumental and at the mercy of a frontal lobe destined to mature years behind his peers. He was easy prey.
From the get-go, my job was to try to help him understand and accept himself despite the many contrary messages he received from a world that prizes speed and offers quick fixes. I decided early on that, instead of worrying, I would focus on the step that was in front of us; I found the programs, classes and adventures that I hoped would help him see opportunity and gain the independence he craved. I prayed only for time and maturity to work their magic so that he could grow into his talents and access the wisdom that shaped his huge heart.
We were both anticipating the freedom post-Covid would bring. After actively parenting for over 30 years — three kids plus a couple of others who found shelter and solace here — I was more than ready to join my friends whose time, space and refrigerator were more their own.
Do I mind the quiet house, the clean kitchen, not worrying about where he is at 2 am? I don’t. But that relief sits incongruously, impossibly, next to the hole in my heart.
Where there were once no flowers blooming in pots on the deck, now the orange, purples, pinks and yellows light up a string of gray summer days. Where it once felt intolerable to think beyond this one breath, I now, tentatively, make plans for places to go, people to see.
I mark my calendar according to what I remember used to matter — how I shaped my weeks and months with ideas of places to go and things to do that, in one impossible moment, lost all meaning. Now, I look ahead by leaning on the memory of what I used to hunger for, and by noticing the friends, music and meals I’ve recently, inexplicably enjoyed, even as loss hovers at my side.
Clearly, this path is fraught with change and paradox and the only sure step is the one immediately under foot. The rest is as obscured as the hills behind this low-lying fog.
That, I believe, is where trust comes in. Trust in one foot in front of the other. Trust that, like the fog which will eventually lift, the weight of my heart will dissipate — not to disappear but to transmute. I’m not exactly sure into what, but if I had to wager, I’d say love.
For that seems to be what this hardest labor is offering: an opportunity for even greater love, the kind I saw when I looked past the defiant stance of the young man, beyond my frustrations, our clashes, and deep into his eyes. He could meet me there and we invariably found the connection that, despite how it shaped-shifted over the years, never wavered. That is who we were. Who we are.
So my task seems to be not to search for what is now obscured but to walk into the fog, stumbling into paradox, all the while trusting that the view will, someday, clear to reveal the new shape of my heart.
“We must accept our reality in all its immensity. Everything, even the unheard of, must be possible within it. This is, in the end, the only courage required of us: the courage to meet what is strangest and most awesome.”
— From Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, a new translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
I was 20 when my mother died. It was a time in a culture and a family that had little language for the immensity of death. Instead, we focused on regrouping and moving on almost as if nothing had happened. Although I was aware even then that I didn’t want to turn my back on my pain, I knew no other way.
There is little of that experience that serves me now. Now, I am determined to show up for myself so that I can show up for everyone I love. This doesn’t mean staring into the wound of his absence without flinching; it is not about becoming grief — ossifying into a version of myself defined by his loss. But neither is it trying to reclaim myself as I was before: That is gone forever.
My short acquaintance with this vast alteration has shown me that it is so much more than just loss, so much more than what our five senses can translate. It offers new realities that go beyond a mind looking to right itself or a heart needing to be soothed.
So far, my efforts to open to the immensity, the unheard of, strangest and most awesome aspects of this journey result in more questions than answers. They require me to learn patience and practice courage while weaving new kinds of pain and joy, which show themselves in every hue, every intensity, into my heart. Sometimes, the wisdom of others like Rilke, help frame my efforts.
“The great secret of death, and perhaps its deepest connection with us, is this: that, in taking from us a being we have loved and venerated, death does not wound us without, at the same time, lifting us toward a more perfect understanding of this being and of ourselves.”
The front passenger-side wheel made a grating noise as I eased my way onto the Garden State Parkway after a visit to the Jersey shore. It was late Sunday morning, and I was driving alone. Before getting on the highway, I had searched local roads for signs of an open garage and, finding none, made the decision to chance the 2.5 hour drive.
The steering, brakes, transmission, and engine felt solid, but I clung to the right lane and barely cracked 60 mph. Although my chest tightened as the noise increased and I envisioned myself stranded in the summer sun on the side of the 8-lane roadway, I didn’t want to spend the whole drive doing battle with anxiety. I reminded myself that I had made the choice to push ahead based on many years of experience and the AAA card in my wallet.
So I searched for a steadier place to settle my mind — and there it was. A kind of calm danced with my awareness of my hands on the wheel, the tires on the road, and the really unpleasant grinding sound.
I made it back, dear reader, and left the car with the damaged axle at the garage. A friend drove me the last leg home.
These days, I spend most of my time in that metaphorical righthand lane, maneuvering cautiously while the rest of the world races by, weaving in and out of traffic. I am on alert, ready to pull over, give in, break down. Sometimes I call a friend or a relative for a lift.
But I am also learning that, even if it feels like it, I am not broken; that I can keep my hands on the wheel and find that steady place to settle my heart and mind. I am learning to trust my own speed and believe that I will arrive safely.
I don’t yet know the destination or even if there is one, but I don’t think that I will ever travel alone. Grief, in its many guises, is my constant companion and it is so much more than just what is wrong. It makes no difference that I have not chosen this journey; it is the one I am on and, when I open fully to it, it can steer me with a light touch, a reminder of joy, the promise of peace.
Adam is following me around the house. I’m home again after more than a week away surrounded by the beauty of the Maine coast and buoyed by the people who know how to care for my heart. I felt the spectacular landscape and the reprieve from the necessities of my day-to-day and soaked them in with the part of me that remembers the gift of those things, the luxury of truly unhooking.
But most of my heart and soul are otherwise occupied, so the magnificent, jagged coast, the expanse of ocean, the intimate coves, the pleasure of having meals and adventures organized by others, had scant place to land. And because I didn’t quite know how to look for Adam in those less-familiar settings, cold, fathomless loss had more space to descend, and it was hard.
His loss is never not present. When it is not sitting squarely in my lap, it hovers nearby. Like him, it is sometimes gentle, other times, insistent. During the last leg of my drive home, I feared that I would walk through my door and run into its hardest, intractable edges. But instead, I searched cautiously for him and settled gradually into home’s familiar contours, as if welcomed back as he would do — with a huge hug and a sense of satisfaction that I was again where I belong so he could get on with things.
I know I don’t have to be home for Adam to show up. In fact, he presents himself in various subtle and less subtle ways to me and others who have an inkling of life beyond our earthbound notions of time and consciousness. But I am new at this, new at straddling this world and this life — with all the joy, pain and potential they offer — and the other plane, where it seems that those possibilities also lie.
So once again, I fall back on trust; trust that I don’t need to really understand that which is beyond understanding to live it fully. Trust that weaving this loss, in all its permutations, will lend hues and textures to the fabric of my life that I would otherwise not know, and trust that he will be with me, wherever I am, in ways I have yet to discover.
There is so much beauty in the goldenrod which makes my eyes itch and burn. And, like the paradox of this grief, it is everywhere.
From the first moment, I had crystalline clarity about certain things, mainly about what I would not do — light candles, talk on the phone, open packages, look at flowers, read condolences, answer the door. As time progresses, I have become willing to widen my focus, but I still step gingerly when it comes to what I will look at, who I spend time with, what I feel capable of contributing to or showing up for.
I am learning to treat myself with a level of kindness and respect for my changing needs that I wish I had all along in my previous life.
Grief is a challenging taskmaster, and it can descend in a fog, dulling me to things beyond my immediate gaze. Then I know I must either greet it head on or relax and allow it to continue to rearrange my being on the most cellular level — not a process that ascribes to a single emotion nor to any timeline I can understand.
But even in the midst of that, there’s gratitude — for the nearly 21 years we had with him and all he taught me; for the safety and support that surrounds us as we learn to live without him. Immersed in the thing that I or anyone would least want in their life, that gratitude highlights how few things really matter.
I am aware that this might sound flimsy, compensatory. But there is no equation here, just a fluid awareness that, despite what we like to believe, we are less the architects of our lives than the recipients of them. It seems that if we choose to receive only some of what arrives and turn our backs on the rest of it, we diminish the whole. It is not an easy practice, but I am, gradually, opening to it all.
I want to say that this picture holds everything. But, of course, it doesn’t; it can’t. Still, the vastness of the ocean mirrors the depth of the love in this embrace, the unquestioned connection between brothers, as much a given as the sea is to the sky.
This photo also mirrors the immensity of the rupture we feel since Adam’s death nearly 6 months ago and, at the same time, like the sea and sky, the infinite love that surrounds us now. It can be hard to know what to do with that immensity, when love and loss feel synonymous, when we are each called on to let him go at the same time as we need to hold that love even more tightly.
I smile when I realize that this paradox — I know I use that word a lot — is much like the boy himself: deeply loving and desperately needing to set himself apart from those who love him. This was so evident during the Teters Family Band concerts we gave from our living room during the height of Covid in 2020 (you can check them out on FB). Adam contributed his musical gifts somewhat grudgingly. But there was no way he would not be a part of it, although he also would have preferred to be almost anywhere else, making other kinds of music.
I can’t yet watch those videos. I can look at photos of the young boy who had already disappeared into an adult body, but not of the young man so recently, so abruptly gone. I know I’m protecting myself again the razor-sharp fact of his physical absence, but neither do I need photos to feel him every moment of every day. In fact, I sense that they would limit me to what was instead of allowing for the shape of our new connection, a connection that calls to me in tangible and ethereal ways that speak to the extraordinary nature of both his arrival and his departure and the mystery of them both.
Write, he said. Write about how tall and handsome I was, how you’d tease me for being buff, proud of the pride I took in my strength, my cooking; how you loved the way I’d flop in a chair and look at you, my long legs outstretched, my eyes laughing, challenging.
Write about how every day you had one ear cocked for the music I made in my room; about the time you spent trying to help me learn how to live in the world and how, at the same time, you struggled to let go, knowing the long road ahead was my own to make.
You can even write about my lying, how angry it made you. How you tried to separate that from who you knew I was, who I am.
Write about how, in an instant, it all disappeared, was wiped away. Gone. But that was just my body. The rest of me remains — and love. That always remains.
Write about how lost you feel without me, how love is so mingled with pain, with emptiness. There is nothing yet to fill the space I took up. There is gratitude for the anchors of family and friends, of walking and caring for the dogs, cooking an occasional meal. There is even relief at the lack of worry, and laughter, pleasure. You loved being with everyone at Sylvie’s wedding, and when joy bubbled up, you cried asking How can it be when there’s this pain?
I love that you’re looking for me, knowing I didn’t just disappear. You’ve received so many of the signs I’ve sent — unmistakable in writing, in music — and it makes sense to me that you’re trying to understand more. That’s what you always did for me. When you didn’t understand what I was up against, you’d try to figure it out, see how I could make it work in the world. That’s what you’re doing now: figuring out how to be with me and in the world.
Don’t worry. Hang on to what you knew when I first left — that my life here was complete. It was. Hold on to all the love you felt from the minute you realized I was coming. Know, somehow, that it’s what I give you now every day. You dug deeper for me than for anyone and you always wanted me to trust that my time would come, that things would work out. They are.
What does it mean to have one’s life transformed? Like the forest and the trees, I can only describe what is in front of me, despite my efforts to zoom out, to view this journey from above without the strictures of right or wrong, better or worse; knowing my embrace must be of all or nothing.
Shortly after noon on Saturday, February 27, 2021, when I found the unmistakably lifeless body of my 20-year-old son, in his bed, in our home, I knew I stood on the threshold of a new existence. I was aware, immediately, of the pain that gripped me, that would define the days ahead. But I also stood outside myself and felt, in the smallest of ways, something else, something more.
Adam did not leave me to wonder long about what it could be, reaching out, sending signs — undeniable signs — the very next day. Perhaps he began immediately, but I didn’t know how to receive them. Subtlety was never his strong suit; he could be so insistent when he wanted to make a point, laying the groundwork and backing into his claim, his request. I knew when he was warming up to something and would often jokingly tell him to cut to the chase. So maybe I missed the prefaces, or maybe he doesn’t need them anymore to come through — again and again and again.
As he did nearly every day of his life on this earthly plane, he calls on me now to stretch myself in ways I never could have imagined: to embrace the transformation of my being through the mysteries of my broken heart and of those I love; to open myself, bit by bit, to a reality that goes far beyond what my five senses, my limited mind, can comprehend.
There is so much I do not understand. But the growing body of research that documents evidence of life-energy beyond this earthly realm, and the messages he sends in a multitude of ways, make it impossible to dismiss them as the wishful thinking of grieving hearts and minds.
And so, I pry my feet of clay loose from the place of my deepest loss to respond to his call, to open to a life that is more expansive than what I can know at this moment, to rise to love.
A friend recently emailed me her thoughts about the meaning of the word “grace,” as something some people have. My experience is more that it is something that can arrive, like a gift — if we can open to it.
When my older son was just six, he asked about a huge creche that we were driving past. I told him the story of baby Jesus and how it was a special time for Christians. I faltered for a moment when I started to explain why we, as Jews, celebrate Xmas, but he didn’t miss a beat. “Because it’s fun!” he piped up from the back seat.
Raised in a time of assimilation by two largely agnostic Jews, Xmas for me and my siblings meant trees with lights, gifts and a day with our grandmother and cousins — all the earmarks of a good time. On Xmas eve, the Sisters from the nearby Maryknoll Seminary would come caroling, singing songs my mother loved.
When my kids came along, we immersed ourselves in my non-Jewish husband’s parents’ food-and gift-ladened traditions, but only after we’d opened the presents Santa left under our own little tree. As everyone grew older and the in-laws moved on, it seemed a bit awkward, but we continued decorating the tree with lights and kid-made ornaments and opening hastily wrapped socks, guitar strings and gadgets before listening to Xmas Reggae all morning.
But this year, the holiday looms. Only 10 months ago, Adam abruptly left this world, less than a decade after his eyes filled with tears, at age 11, when I reluctantly confirmed his suspicion about that magical bearded being. My heart and mind have been on high alert, scrambling for impossible responses to a time when our family was whole. What, now, do we do without him?
Then today, grace descended: I realize that we simply need to stay put, allow both the pain of his absence and the joy of being together. There is no reset, no redo, only what is. We can only turn to grief, in all its simplicity and complexity; we can only open to love and trust in what will come. For now, grace is letting go of the need to know how.
10 months after losing Adam…
When I think about my life and look ahead to the new year and what may be, I don’t see loss. I see opportunity. I just don’t yet quite know what it is. I feel loss; I am that loss, and it is precious to me. But somehow, it has added a dimension, dimensions, to my being. It has not, incredulously, taken something away.
Those new dimensions are born of pain, sometimes deep and searing, sometimes lighter, softer, sometimes infused with beauty; sometimes reticent and sometimes demanding to be embraced, wrapped in my arms.
I am learning how to live in this new reality, weaving possibility with pain, tentatively running my fingers across the new fabric that is taking shape, wondering how to wear the subtle, infinite palette, the complex pattern that is being stitched for me alone.
Just over one year ago, I sat in this chair, at this kitchen table, with my older son close on one side and my daughter on the other, to write a tribute to the brief life of their brother, my youngest son, Adam. The essence of what we needed to say poured out; still we chose with care and clarity the words that felt like the truth of who he was in this life.
During this past year, I also returned to this seat with a sense of urgency to capture my experience, to somehow anchor myself in language that would describe the transformation of my soul — my new life without his earthly presence but with a deep and increasingly undeniable sense of his continued being. Every day, I recommit to trusting and allowing the unfolding of this dual path.
I have learned that grief moves through our bodies, hearts and minds in ways that are unique to each of us; its pace and presentation are singular. I know that mine has a life of its own that requires me to be more generous, more compassionate and patient with myself than I have ever been. I have learned that to open to the hardest thing is to open to life. To deny it is to shut down. Realizing that I am just one mother throughout all of human history suffering the loss of a child has given me a seat at the table, a place to realize that however lost I felt, I was never alone.
At the same time as I am learning to live with this loss, another path calls me. Adam repeatedly sends messages to us in the form of dreams, concrete objects, texts, sheer knowing and other ways we could never anticipate. Although it seems that these would help assuage my pain, sometimes the feet of clay that bind me to this life stand in painful contrast to the greater reality that I am being called to recognize.
I understand that over time I will better integrate these contradictions and I’m grateful for those who are dedicated to studying consciousness beyond what we think of as death. I lean on them and counter my doubts with the story of Galileo’s telescope, which many eminent scientists and philosophers of the day refused to look through because it challenged their fundamental beliefs about the nature of the universe.
Did you know that?
Every morning, from my couch, I search for the kernel of trust that I have clung to for the past 13 months — trust in whatever it takes for this life, eviscerated from outside in, to find its new shape.
I know that at one time my days were filled with necessities — writing deadlines and the myriad activities that come with three kids. Now, there is only one: to keep my balance, to not feel as if I’m falling through or flying off this earth. If it takes, as it does most mornings, two hours on the couch to reckon with the day by gazing past the tree with its newly budding leaves; to steady my heart by putting pen to paper while sipping another cup of coffee; to find the space to meditate after the dogs have been let out, fed, let out again and settled for their morning nap, that’s what I do. I trust that somehow, my heart is being knit back together and that, at the same time, I am making my way to him along a path that is more foreign than any place I have ever traveled.
When he died, the couch was a deep forest green with over two decades of life — of play, sorrow, joy, struggle, celebration, pain. Its cushions supported friends and family, dogs and jumping children, afternoon naps, the occasional overnight straggler. It held us as we talked, read, played music, ate, drank, opened gifts. For a few years, I turned the cushions to hide the small holes that appeared and covered the arms to disguise fabric frayed by the angry or curious jabs of a child with a sharp item.
When he died, the deep green couch absorbed the shock that reverberated through my heart into my bones. It embraced the tears that fell in sobs or silently, as we huddled together days, weeks and months later.
The couch is where I return each morning. But my back, weighted with grief, needed more support than its sagging frame could muster. More practiced at letting go than ever before and trusting that there was nothing more to be lost, a new couch arrived — sturdy, firm, jewel-blue — to hold me as I look out at the field, as I live the essence of the loss that is who I am, as I come to know the new dimensions that weave themselves into my being, dogs nearby, notebook in hand, watching the branches release red buds into new, green leaves.
May 21, 2022
The young crab apple tree in our front yard is in full bloom. It is small but bursting ferociously with deep pink flowers and I work hard to try and remember when we planted it. Last year? The year before? Dates, times, events swim dimly in my brain. So many memories without the solid representation of say, a newly planted tree, are lost; others barely come into focus.
Those that I am able to pin down fall starkly into “before” or “after.” Before or after Adam. I bristle at the words that others use to complete that sentence. How dare anyone try to give voice to the thing that is at the core of my being?
Today I am angry — at the world; at him. I try to remember that I don’t always feel this way. Yesterday, I was happy to visit with friends who passed through town after picking up their daughter from her first year of college. We ate hot fudge sundaes in town and rummaged through a second-hand clothing store. I went home to meet online with women in the memoir workshop I run and hear their wonderful writing. The night before, we ate burgers with our son-in-law and watched tv, laughing at the hysterically funny routine of a stand-up comic.
But today is different. Today it is hard to move. I am gripped by the thing that I will never quite fathom, the thing that brings me to my knees, that calls on me most hours of most days to reach beyond my limited self for something far greater. But today, all I can do is gaze at the new green of spring, almost gone now as the trees come into full bloom. Their leaves, the crab apple blossoms, along with the sky, a brilliant summer blue; along with my anger, my tears, my laughter, my need to be in the world, and to walk alone — all are aspects of the same deeply bruised heart that cries out as it swells and bleeds, as it seeks a new shape, a way to continue beating.
May 27, 2022
My niece texted me that she found another picture of her with Adam. She knows not to just send it to me unbidden; that I haven’t wanted to look at any photos of him since he so abruptly left this life 15 months ago, three months before turning 21. This is not the case for Adam’s father or two older siblings. They gravitate toward pictures of him, to the music he made or the music he loved.
I don’t want any of that. But I’m also deeply familiar with the damaging effects of grief denied from when my mother died in the 1970s, the we-don’t-talk-about-it era, so I question if I’m protecting myself from what I don’t want to face. I know it’s not that. There is not a shred of me that wants to hide from what is. My instinctive avoidance of sounds and scenes of the past has arisen to help me recognize his new form more easily; to stay open to the way he presents himself to me now; to tap into the essence of what has always been.
Adam is like the sun: always there. I don’t need to feel its noonday heat for it to permeate my being, be the source of my energy. Sometimes it is hidden behind a gentle cloud while I engage in work or with a friend. It follows me throughout the day, slanting sideways or barreling full force through a window, reflecting off the underside of a leaf or setting every blade of grass in a field ablaze. It is there even when it seems to be dark.
Still, that knowing is young and when I forget, the dense chill of his absence descends. At other times, when I cannot help but turn my face toward the bright, shining orb of loss, I am blinded by what cannot be undone. Then, when the full force of the heat or the ice recedes, I return to what is and feel how that warms, lifts and expands me.
In those fragile but undeniable moments, I understand that he is everywhere, waiting for me to connect to the elusive awareness that there is no beginning, no end. There is only love that, like the sun, is inseparable from life.
June 26, 2022
I have heard myself utter unthinkable words that couldn’t be more true: the first year following Adam’s death was, perhaps, the most beautiful of my life. I accede to the “perhaps” only because memory is tricky; my mind, especially in the last nearly 16 months, is unreliable.
Not so, however, my heart.
That first year was the only time in my adult life that I allowed my heart to lead, to fully guide me without argument, leaving expectation behind. Succumbing to the force of nature, I gave myself permission to open to what was, to gently explore what arose — the grief, the joy, the confusion — in all its simplicity and complexity, not just occasionally but most of the time on most days. It didn’t occur to me that I should do, be, think or feel something other than what was.
I examined the past with the lightest of touches and scarcely looked to the future. I allowed the essentials things to define my days — fixing a meal, walking the dogs, cleaning the kitchen, writing — grounding, important activities. In that first year after Adam left, I had little energy for anything but the things that would allow a new foundation for a new way of being to grow.
It felt not unlike the first weeks after childbirth when the affairs of the world shrink in proportion to the depth of focus new life requires. The demands are different, but the urgency, the clarity of what matters and the need to attend, is similar.
I put my trust in my experience, in the way I unfolded each day to the shock, the pain, the love; the way we continue to expand individually and as a family to meet Adam where he is now, opening to the ways he’s reached out to find us, searching for what our relationships can become.
What’s different now, 16 months later? A year ago, the world didn’t interest me. It’s not that I didn’t care, but I knew I didn’t have the capacity to connect to things beyond my necessities. My eyes couldn’t see that far; words that strayed too far from my immediate experience sounded muffled, distorted; I walked only the closest, most familiar paths, narrowing my external world to allow for the expansion of the internal, as trees lose their leaves to conserve energy for winter.
Now I am more pulled outward. The boundaries that were solid and clear — where I would go, who I would see, what I would do — have become more permeable. I feel less a thing apart and more a part of things, although not in the way I once was. Old habits of being more easily assert themselves — my interest in people and events — but my responses feel inadequate, as if I’m leaving out something crucial. Conversations or decisions that that were once easy require different, more effortful calibrations. I bump up against seemingly familiar circumstances that remind me just of how changed I am, how changed I want to be.
And with those distortions and discomfort come my judgements, mostly of myself. Although driven by the hardest thing, the freedom I felt during that first year from my habitually judging mind was a gift. I saw more clearly than ever before how silently and relentlessly I have always lived with those demands, judgements, and expectations as a matter of fact, and saw, in contrast, how right I felt without them. Now, as they have begun to creep back in, I understand what Buddhists call the “second arrow.” The pain of life is inevitable, but suffering is what we add on top of it, what we do to ourselves.
Adam has always required a lot of me. To be his mother meant trying to understand the world in ways I never had — through his very different eyes — and learn my place in it, with him. It’s what I still need to do.
July 29, 2022
There is a lovely young man outside doing some chores that I find too difficult in the summer heat. He’s doing a fine job sanding some chairs, digging holes for new garden shrubs. But he’s not the young man who should be there.
That would be Adam. He would be rushing through his assigned tasks, eager to get to his music, to go somewhere, anywhere, with his friends. I pulled him in when I could, as I did my other kids, to make them feel a responsible part of the home and family that cares for them. I don’t often let myself drift into this wanting — wanting his rushing, grumpy self, his resistance, wanting him instead of this lovely young man who is so willing to do the hard work for $20 an hour.
My longing for Adam lives side-by-side with my acceptance — inarguable acceptance of what This Is. Those two words appeared as if in front of me from the very first moment and my soul spoke, telling me to forget nearly everything I once thought I knew.
And now, 17 months later, the dense clouds of loss have given way to a wider horizon and a steep path on which I, somehow, encounter it all — the multi-hued veils of grief; a nascent sense of self that is emerging into life; the awareness that there is so much more than what I, as a human, can possibly fathom.
We have heard from him in so many ways, so many times, often unexpectedly and sometimes in response to requests. Some of his signs come in the shape of a heart on a dirt path that, when my eye catches them, land with an absolute knowing. Then there are dreams, and the seemingly random songs that, on heart-broken days, answer my pleas. Others, like his number inexplicably showing up on my phone or the license plate with his name and the date he transitioned — the day after I asked him to show that he was with us during a family gathering — are as literal as he.
Yet, as my heart opens to learning, to experiencing, to feeling him, my mind can turn back on itself, shedding doubt where there needn’t be any. I accept this, too, knowing as I always have that this new version of our always profound connection is built on the same foundation of fathomless love and will grow in ways that are impossible to foresee.
September 15, 2022
My darling daughter was married last month in a wedding that so thoroughly celebrated the bond she and her new husband share — from the words that were said and the music that friends and family performed throughout the night, to the joy that poured forth from everyone who was there.
It was 18 months to the day from when we lost Adam.
Planning this wedding with Joanna was a gift. My mother had been gone for 14 years when I married and the intimacy of creating something so meaningful with my own daughter was profound. I was pleased at the way my often-distracted heart and mind found solid footing, brought perspective, and focused on the countless details a wedding and the week-long events surrounding it required.
But I was also afraid of how what can feel like my broken self would show up for such an outpouring of love, a celebration of life. I sewed Adam’s bar mitzvah tallit to make the chuppah under which these beautiful people would stand to consecrate their love, hoping it would exhaust my tears.
The moment I understood that Adam was gone, I realized that the world as I knew it had vanished. But even in those earliest days, I sensed that our family’s singular and collective life force would, somehow, prevail over our devastation; that our shattered hearts would alchemize into something we had yet to experience; that I would become someone else I had yet to even imagine.
Over the past 18 months I have moved cautiously, wobbling into that new reality. I have been incredulous at the experience of joy, erupting only a hair’s width from searing loss; at the beauty of a rainy day that could still make the world seem impossibly perfect. I felt the future beckon with promise, even as I clung to the memory of those first weeks and months for fear that time and distance would separate me further from him.
Imagining my daughter’s wedding, I worried that, during a time when I wanted my heart to feel so open, I’d close off as I often do when I’m with people who talk around that most difficult thing, not knowing how or where to land. I feared that in order to be who she needed me to be for everyone around us, I would have to turn my back on a most bruised and precious part of who I am.
Then I remembered that just the opposite would be true: that this wedding, and all of the people it brought together, would encompass everything — the hardest and the most beautiful aspects of this life. And that, somehow, there is scarcely any difference between them.
October 12, 2022
It is not news that grief is complicated and has a life of its own. It can be assertive, blocking my view; then quiet, edging aside to make room for something else to come into focus, only to once again double down and insist on being front and center.
There was a time when I was the grief. There was no difference, no separation between me and Adam’s sudden, unexpected departure from this life. I clung to that overwhelming reality as if to him when, during soft moments he — tall, lean, solid — would almost imperceptibly sink into my bones and let me hold him.
After he left, the rupture, the pain, was all I needed to know. I hungered to find a new way of being with that at the center — a way that aligned with the prayer my older son, Ben, read night after night during those first weeks that spoke of the “holy mystery of which we are all a part.”
For many months, my craving for the holy mystery to contain my grief blotted out the noise of the world. At the same time, it seemed to heighten the most precious and mundane things — a cup of coffee, a tree blazing in autumn, the ability to breathe in new, wholly unfamiliar air. Now, I still seek out the holy mystery, that precious knowing of all that exists beyond my discursive mind, but it is elusive compared with old habits of thought and the solidity of the material world that insists that what’s gone is gone.
Although on most days, the rupture of Adam’s leaving has dissipated: the vortex of pain that once commanded my attention has now seeped into every cell of my being, altering, it seems, my very DNA. But grief’s more quiet insistence doesn’t yet fit with the older, more habitual parts of my being. As familiar ways of engaging with the world assert themselves, as I become less a thing apart, I feel I am more nowhere than before — like a puzzle whose pieces are poorly cut, that almost fit together but not quite, so that the image, though recognizable, is distorted, off.
It seems that my task, then, is to rest in that very uncomfortable place where I’m no longer so guarded from life, but neither am I fully part of it. There is no point in trying to dodge or force, only to meet whatever aspect of grief presents itself at each moment, trusting that I am learning to live with it, with the holy mystery and, somehow, in this relentlessly beautiful world.
November 16, 2022
This old Toyota Matrix hit 200,000 a day or two ago. I wasn’t there to see the numbers switch over but I’m taking note nonetheless.
Since I first learned to drive in a nearly indestructible 1966 Chevy station wagon, cars have marked chapters of my life, become part of my story. I was never interested in new or fancy cars; I want practical and it has to fit, to feel right. I’ve always made sure to get a pretty good deal and unless there’s an unfortunate accident, usually with a deer, we drive our cars — the wagons, minivans, sedate sedans; dented, scraped, with faded old bumper stickers — until they no longer make sense.
But when they go, a piece of our story goes, too. Adam drove our Toyota Camry, mostly legally, and once or twice that we know of when he shouldn’t have. That car, 6,000 miles shy of 200K, met its end last summer with an unfortunate deer. So we now have a newer car, one that has no history with him. Although he rode in it a lot, Adam never sat behind the wheel of the Matrix because it’s a standard shift. I got it well before he started driving, with relatively low mileage, and was thrilled to find both a standard and a small car that could still accommodate the full-size upright bass that he played. We needed it as much for him as for anything.
That car hasn’t served him or his bass for some time now. I think less about how I don’t need to talk him into learning how to balance the clutch and the accelerator, convince him that it’s a fun way to drive. When I pull into a busy intersection, cautions I want to share come less and less to mind. Although a box of his childhood drawings and schoolwork sits under his bed, there’s no one thing in particular that I cherish, that would hurt to lose. That hurt is already a part of my being and there’s no thing that can change it, make it better or worse.
But the car holds a story, of time that rolls on, of needs met and those no longer necessary. Of ways that we were together. As the mileage continues to add up, like it or not, we move further down the road from the most painful loss of all, and that too becomes part of the story.
December 7, 2022
Twenty-one months ago, it was impossible to imagine this peaceful, expanding heart.
Since losing Adam, I have mostly been wary of keeping my heart from contracting. Mostly, all I have felt capable of is guarding its deep bruises, the wound that sliced through my being, that is being knit back with stitches and in patterns that can be difficult to recognize. Although often awash in gratitude for the safety and solace of home, family and friends, peace mostly arrives as an elusive and momentary absence of pain.
But this morning is different. I fed the dogs, lit a fire in the woodstove and, somewhat disheartened by how the rain will interfere with my daily walk, sat as I do nearly every morning with my coffee, my journal, a book, when I felt it — something more rooted, tangible. I peeked cautiously within, as if lifting a cover, to look for Adam, momentarily hidden, wondering if summoning his absence would rough up the smooth layers. I find him and I find myself, anew. We are both fine.
Many of the books I have leaned on during the past 21 months, written by practitioners of spirit, of grief, have spoken of this place of “healing,” a word I resist and still resent. I don’t want my heart to heal; I want it to grow, to cocoon the bloody, raw devastation that his unexpected leaving caused. I want it to feed and encompass a previously unknown depth of connection, of creativity, of love and, calling on a new level of compassion for myself, I have had to learn that this may or may not happen and only in its own time.
And I feared, with panic and the greatest of sorrows, that time would draw me further from him — from the sound of his laughing voice; how his sometimes platinum-dyed, red-brown hair spikes in a soft mass; his strong hands, with fingernails bitten to the quick; his fathomless, loving brown eyes.
Today, I realize that that is not possible. While grief will likely cause me to turn again from what I know, I am learning — learning that Adam is as much a part of my being as are others I love, others who also may be temporarily out of sight. I realize that he, like they, lives at the core of this bruised and expanding heart, where anything is possible.
January 3, 2023
A new year can beckon like a shiny package full of possibility and promise. I occasionally catch a glimpse of that, but mostly I’m aware that every day brings us one step deeper into the time of year, the month, the day, the hour when Adam left us here to redefine life, to recalibrate our connection to our own souls, to him, to each other.
As I travel the long tunnel to February 27, two years after he unwittingly left this earth, I search for perspective, for what I have gained amid this loss. I search for words to describe all I have learned when I realize there is no summation. I am no longer a newbie, shell-shocked by grief, but neither is it comfortable, a place I easily reside. I no longer bushwack my way through my days, but neither does there seem to be a smooth trail, with predictable bends and turns, or a destination.
Although I sometimes feel and heed the pull to become more a part of the world, I still eagerly anticipate a return to my perch on the living room couch from where I can gaze at the field, tune into my silence, and listen for him. From the outside, the places I go and things I do are recognizable, usual, but sights and sounds can still feel off. The pieces of this puzzle that make up my life, even the most familiar ones, have clumsy edges; they approximate but don’t quite fit together.
And so, I ask, what do I want from this new year? I feel more keenly than ever the raw devastation of those who travel treacherous paths, as refugees from political and economic violence, but also those facing pain no matter the reason. And so, I want what we all want for ourselves and for the world — peace, love, joy.
The way to that, for myself, I am learning, is simply to allow what is, allow my sadness and confusion to unfold as they will; to gently silence the voices that tell me that I should, somehow, by now have tamed the ferocious, messy beast that is grief. And to trust that by tuning into the silence where I find Adam, I will find myself anew.
April 14, 2023
A least two of our three new birdhouses seem to be occupied by bluebirds — the males of which are a round handful with iridescent blue feathers and orange breasts. A female, less vibrant, is proudly perched on the center pole of her new abode.
I’m not a birder, but these give me a thrill every morning as I watch from my own perch on the couch or the porch. And now, the third spring without my third child, my youngest son, Adam, I realize that it’s a thrill that fills all of me, not just a part, as I have become accustomed to over the past two years. I am realizing that instead of noticing life from the sidelines, taking in small bits as I could, carefully guarding my heart from too much of anything, life seems to have taken up residence almost with a sense of abandon, from all directions.
I am, quite frankly, amazed. As we reeled from the shock of his accidental overdose, his fatal experimentation with pills, I knew that our family’s life force was strong, that we would more than just survive this blow to our hearts. But I couldn’t imagine how, and the last two years of wandering through the dense forest of grief lent few clues. Yes, there was joy, but it was only as if an occasional clearing along a barely light-filtered path. Now, there seems to be clearing after clearing. It is, perhaps, because of the bluebirds and all else that is — and all that doesn’t seem to be, but also is.
The dense woods remain, and I know that I will, at some point, lose my way along a strangely familiar path. But for now, the hundreds of times I think of him throughout the day, I can choose to pause, look back at the dense thickets or turn toward the clearing ahead, which beckons so strongly. And it is not, as I once feared, that I am turning from him. Instead, I feel him more strongly than ever turning, so gladly, with me.