Grief: Observing “A Grief Observed”; ‘Think Pleasantly’

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I just finished CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed on the advice of my brother, and some friends. It took about four days for me. I’m a slow reader and I scribble in my books.

It has been five weeks and a few days since Mom died and I think I’m ready to begin a new chapter in my life. The chapter that begins with the words, “We are not betraying the memory of loved ones when we laugh or smile so close after their passing. We are honoring the life we have left to live ourselves and taking them along for the ride.”

Those are my words. Lewis says similar things in his 76-page gem. “H.” is his deceased wife. I have underlined, annotated, starred and bracketed many passages in his book. Every chapter page had something fantastic in it. The thing that’s great about this book is that grief needn’t follow a death. There are plenty of things to grieve over: an unexpected turn in life; a job loss; divorce; bankruptcy; health issues. Grief, and its stages, are universal and omnipresent.

Perhaps the most poignant excerpts of all, for me, at this phase in my grief are these:

Still, there’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. I’ve read about that in books, but I never dreamed I should feel it myself. I am sure H. wouldn’t approve of it. She’d tell me not to be a fool. So, I’m pretty certain, would God. What is behind it? Partly, no doubt, vanity. We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes … (p. 53)

… Passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. (p. 54)

… All that (sometimes lifelong) ritual of sorrow—visiting graves, keeping anniversaries, leaving the empty bedroom exactly as ‘the departed’ used to keep it … was like mummification. It made the dead far more dead. (p. 55)

The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her. (p. 56)

And so I recall the phrase that a matronly, motherly woman I met Sunday, while apple-picking with the team (our first real, happy outing as a family since the funeral), said when we took in the grand vista of the Blue Ridge mountains. She and her husband were a dapper couple, befitting an Orvis catalog and they immediately struck me as familiar. We chatted, they asked about our boys and in 10 minutes, we got to know each other quite well. She and I shared our stories of our mothers’ passing.

Think of her pleasantly and she will come to you.

It was enough of a phrase to jar me, ‘pleasantly‘? Why not ‘lovingly‘? Why not ‘longingly‘? I barely knew this woman and I had not yet read those excerpts from the book. How did she know that pleasantly was probably the most I could muster right now? Even more of a surprise is that her name was “Mary Jo” which is what lots of people thought my mother’s name was when she said her formal name, “Mary Joan,” quickly and being so polite and kind, my mother seldom corrected them. When this woman said her name, I almost passed out.

And it’s true. When I think ‘pleasantly‘ of Mom, I feel her and of course I mourn her, which likely sends the feeling of her away; it becomes about me, not about her. She is free! She is done with this crazy planet! I should be jealous! I know in my heart, she wants me to think pleasantly of her (she probably did all her life…things were difficult between us for years) but not just about her, about life. Afterall, who wants to be around a boo-hooer and Debbie Downer all day? Yikes, not me. Mom lost her parents and her loved ones and I remember her ready smiles not long afterward.

As much as I should feel grief and sadness when I consider her and the psychic state I was in (ready to accept her warts and all) just before God took her from me, I can’t wallow in it. I have three boys who need me and they lift me up. I have a husband I love dearly and he needs me too. My friends understand when I hole up but they don’t let it last long and sheesh, life is for living, right?

I asked my friend about the seeming coincidence of the chance meeting with the Orvis couple. First, this couple lives in the same town of my friend who checked in on me the next day. I called it a lightning bolt and a sign that my sadness, while noble, was doing no one any good, least of all me. My friend (a woman of tremendous faith and Biblical literacy) said,

You were struck by lighting….remind me to tell you the story of the Horse Named I Am.   God does these things for us…they are his gentle reminders to trust Him, walk with Him….He is walking you through the shadow of death right now, but his rod (used for guidance and to point you in The right direction) and his staff, (used for pulling you back from the precipice) will comfort you.  Now go read the rest of it….Psalm 23.  God’s word is complete, and we will find all His answers there…He says, call on me and I will tell you great and unmeasurable things that you do not know….book of Jeremiah.

And so one of these days, I will get on that 23rd psalm. And I’ll peek at the book of Jeremiah. I am a dolt actually — considering myself a writer and not having much familiarity with the best-selling book of all time… I know what Mom would say, “just let it go…” and “be happy…” 

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Lewis basically says he’s out of paper and he’s going to stop,

I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for the purpose. … I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state, but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. (p. 59)

That is what has occurred to me. I have had my first birthday since Mom died. Then there will be the first Columbus Day and the first day after Columbus Day… Christmas, then Boxing Day and then the day after Boxing Day… eventually, and I can hear Mom say this because I believe it myself, it gets to be a little pathetic, a little maudlin, and not a little uncomfortable. Death is universal. It’s the living who make it macabre.

“Cool it, Mimsy!” I can hear her now, smirking. She had a wonderful wit too. One time, when I was upset with her, I had to head out to an event. I was in a long wool red coat that my father gave me and a red felt hat my brother gave me to match. She and I had bickered over something and I couldn’t stay any longer to debate it. As I was leaving the house she said something to the effect of, “Fine! Leave… you … raging pimento!” and those are the moments I want to keep in my head. Not the sadnesses.

Staying in a cycle of sadness also creates more ugh in my life, frankly. I also see some old habits rearing their heads here while I’ve been in my cave. Drama feels lonely so she comes out to stir up shit. Because it’s an old friend, I let her. The hangover is not worthy of my time though. That energy is the vestige of my lifelong concern and decades-long vigilance of Mom. She was a lot of work, but she made me and I am glad to be here and the lessons I’ve learned and likely the most important one she taught me, to soften myself to people, to allow them warts and all has finally been taught. The test, her death, has been passed. The path now is to be gentler to myself and to do the things that bring me joy and value. Thus, I have effectively cleared my slate of unnecessary obligations and duties so that I can focus on the things I like. If I didn’t have a head cold and the sun were out, I’d be on the water today. But it’s 56˚ and cloudy and I feel like crap, so I’m here wrapping things up.

I have no doubt I shall think of her wistfully. I am certain I will catch my breath, and weep and perhaps heave some tears. But I am more eager to think of her joyfully pleasantly. This picture, perhaps my most favorite ever of her because it captures her so completely as I remember her, is the way I will remember her:

This is typical of my parents' in their shots of just them. He's likely talking about politics and she's not.

This is typical of my parents in their shots of just them. He’s likely talking about politics and she’s … not. (winter 1978-79)

I will write next about the faceless chicken, how we selected her gravesite and other gallows humor. I will miss my mother. Yet it is time for me to move on a bit, pleasantly. Otherwise, it could go on and on.

Thank you.

3 responses »

  1. It’s weird to recommend a dearly loved book to someone & then hold your breath and wonder if it will have any healing effect on them like it did for you. Especially when that someone is grieving. (I just love Lewis–his Mere Christianity and Four Loves are quietly waiting on my bookshelves.) I agree with your friend and I might add that I’ve realized God’s “still small voice” is tuned down for a reason. I run around searching for meaning, crying out for purpose, demanding answers to questions, shaking my fist in misunderstanding… and life is such a barrage to my senses that while he’s been there all along, I’ve simply tuned out his still small voice with the loud frantic busyness brought on by our pace of life. When I spend time in conversation/communion, (however you like to call it), that still small voice becomes easier to tune in, and the static lifts over (much) time and it’s quite astonishing I ever thought him silent and even uninterested before. (My journey into the remoteness of a beautiful nowhere in Africa led me to wonder if there wasn’t a massive cell tower on that continent for clear reception to him — when in reality it was the lacking of “stuff” that quieted everything down, which turned him up a couple of decibels.) For me yoga is also powerful because I’m not getting in touch with my inner self, I’m staying in touch with him. If you’re interested, Ann Voskamp’s, One Thousand Gifts, is another book I’ve marked up, dog-eared, given away, and continually return to. I love her voice. Ergh… Look at me! I’ve gone on and on. This is about you. Sending cyber hugs as you continue on your journey.

  2. I love that you scribble in your books.

    There is a lot of truth here. I am reading your posts backwards so I know what comes next, but reading this I see how it was your truth in this moment. I do believe your mom would want you to be happy again and to not suffer too much grief. I believe that because it’s what I would want for my daughter too. I think there is some value in not wallowing in our grief forever. There is a point where our bodies just cannot sustain it. We need a break from our grief. I guess we need time for both, to wallow and to put it aside a bit, so we can be present for other people in our lives or to attend meetings. Maybe that is just part of the process.

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