The Brick In their Pockets: 6 Insights for Understanding Those who are Grieving

Bricks     Death has always been an acquaintance of mine.  It was someone I knew of distantly,  but as I grew older, I watched as it grew closer and closer to those I knew well. When I was in college, a close friend lost her brother in a car accident. I remember shrinking away, feeling ill equipped to help her battle something that I’ve never experienced.  But last year, death aggressively became better acquainted with me. Its suffocating presence became my roommate, moving into my mind space. After it intruded, I met grief.

Last year on December 28, 2014, my mother unexpectedly died of cancer. She routinely went to the gym, tried to eat right and walked everyday. But one day, she started to experience debilitating breathing problems. After being admitted into the hospital multiple times, her doctors found blood clots. They began conducting a month’s worth of exploratory procedures. Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Four weeks later, she died.

I felt like the ground shifted from beneath my feet and I’ve been falling ever since.

I’ve learned that it’s true when they say that you don’t know how to care for those who are grieving until you’ve grieved yourself.  I’ve noticed many of my friends display the same uncertainty that I did in college. Hopefully this piece can offer insight to those who don’t know what grieving feels like.

1. Loneliness = Invisibility

There is a loneliness that comes when you are without some one’s physical presence. But then there is a much more difficult loneliness that comes without having some one’s emotional empathy.  I remember returning to Atlanta after caring for my mother and being in a room full of friends. My mind was adjusting from IV drips, the stark lights of the hospital, funeral arrangements and then closing my beautiful mother’s casket. It was surreal; the ease of my friends’ smiles and conversations seemed so misplaced in the midst of what I saw inside.  They didn’t do anything wrong but they couldn’t relate to how I felt and that was and still can be lonely.

This loneliness can at times make you feel invisible.  That is how I felt the day after my birthday.  I went to church, I worshiped, and I listened to the sermon. At the end of service I exchanged customary pleasantries.  But I felt so detached. I smiled as people offered birthday wishes. But all I could think about was the absence of my mom’s handwritten cards and thoughtful gifts.  I pictured her long fingers and soft brown skin and how those same fingers were left emaciated during her last days alive. I was not at church. I was in Philadelphia in my mom’s bedroom and then by her hospital bed at Temple University Hospital, fighting to be present.

But then at the end of service someone tapped me on the shoulder, embraced me and whispered in my ear,“I know it must be hard, you don’t have to be strong, she is looking down on you and is so proud”.  I wept on her shoulder because someone saw me. Someone realized what I was carrying and I no longer felt the pressure to be “okay”.  Someone honored my mom by acknowledging that I must be thinking about her. That acknowledgement shattered my invisibility . It shattered my loneliness.

2. Lost Identity

I’ve heard that you feel like you lose a piece of yourself when you go through a break up. The same is true when someone dies. When you are close to someone, you share daily rhythms and routines with them.  This may be morning phone calls, kisses on the cheek, hugs,  texts or emails.  Then the sudden absence of a person can leave all of these moments feeling hollow. This hollowness is crushing and can be a daily reminder that  you lost a part of your life, a part of yourself.

3. Hopes Deferred

You never know how much another person is a part of who you are until you lose them. That is very true of my mom.  I loved my mom so much that I felt very responsible for her happiness. I saw how she loved and sacrificed for me, and I wanted to repay her, I wanted to give her, her happy ending. My biggest dream was for her to move to Atlanta where she would have a better quality of life and be near people that truly loved her.  She was actually set to move three months before she passed. With a broken heart, I realized that I could never provide her with the material stability that I worked so hard for. Losing her eroded a huge part of what I thought my purpose in life was.  Proverbs 13:12, says that a “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life”.

4. The Grieving Process is Best Addressed by Letting it Run its Course 

A step in the process of grieving is shock. During this step all of your feelings are suppressed and you exist on autopilot. You are numb to the pain and do what needs to get done. This is very much the case for the weeks following my mom’s death. I planned her funeral, hosted family and began looking for new jobs. The gravity of what I’ve witnessed didn’t hit me until a month after her funeral. The sadness would drown me during a car ride, while watching a movie or just seconds after laughter. Grief does not discriminate where or when you feel it.  It is also important to know that it is best addressed by letting it run its course. I’ve learned not to fear those moments and that by being present and okay with “just being” is healing.

5. The Road to Healing is Constant  

Grieving is a process that never ends.  I recently watched the movie Rabbit Hole (2010), and heard the best explanation of this lifelong process. When asked how grief changes one of the character responds:

“ I don’t know… the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and … Carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you… you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and – there it is. Oh right, that. Which could be awful – not all the time. It’s kind of…[deep breath] not that you’d like it exactly, but it’s what you’ve got instead of your [your loved one]. So, you carry it around. And uh… it doesn’t go away. Which is…fine”.

I know why it’s fine. It’s fine because my mom meant too much to me to not acknowledge the imprint her life left on my own. And if I can’t be reminded of that imprint by her physical presence then I’ll proudly carry a brick around in my pocket.

Even if grieving wasn’t a long process sometimes the experience of losing a loved one is extended, especially if you are a caregiver.  You may have to settle matters of their estate, request autopsies and handle other various legal matters.  These are very blatant triggers that are associated with a loved one’s death that can last months or even years after they have passed away.

6. Losing Someone is Traumatic

This is the toughest part to write. Because mainly I relate to the trauma that I’ve experienced in images. Even as I write this sentence my chest tightens and a knot rises in my throat. I see my mom losing weight. I see my mom crying out asking, why God has punished her. I see the pain in her eyes until I see only their absence while her chest heaves up and down, powered only by the defibrillator.  I remember looking at the side of her face, the rise of her cheekbones and the pattern of her moles, I’ve spent my whole life memorizing.  She was so beautiful and this is never a place, never a circumstance that I would imagine looking at her.  She was my queen, she was my world…my motivation. And there I was half praying that her heart stopped on its own because I knew she’d never wanted to be on a breathing machine and I didn’t have the heart to grant her wish. This is trauma.

Many times there is a disappointment that is so crushing that I liken it to trauma.  For instance, I fasted, I prayed but most importantly I had faith that God is a healer. Even after my mother’s heart stopped beating…I told God that he could raise her like Lazarus.  The seconds after that prayer were deafening.  I realized he could, but didn’t.  I was disappointed in God.  I was also disappointed in myself; did I fast long enough? Were my prayers strong enough? Was my faith pure enough?

A Note to Those who Carry Bricks in their Pockets:

You are amazing. Even in your weakest moments you are amazing. Your courage to face each day is inspiring. You’re not crazy. You don’t need permission to feel the way you do. You don’t need to shield anyone from your lows or strive to make others feel comfortable. Take the time and space that your heart requires to heal. This process may take away your joy and make you resentful but I pray that those changes are only temporary.  I pray that with each day that passes you can take all that you’ve lost and gain something beautiful.  It’s okay to not be strong…you are amazing anyway.  

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I Don’t Trust God

Okay, I’ll admit it.

I don’t trust God.

Woooohhh, I stare at that barefaced statement and for a second…let it settle. And when it does, so begins my internal dialogue:

Did I just write that?

Yup.

Am I blasphemous?

Nah…I’m just telling the truth.

Am I exposed?

Yes, definitely. But who’s really coming for my God card anyway? As if confessing this diminishes my credentials?

I’ve been confused by the symptoms. Wondering how I have such a strong belief in the idea of God but when it comes to the very real and practical everyday areas of my life, (like work, friendships, time management, etc) I flounder for solutions.

Case in point: This morning I went into crisis mode. My husband and I found out that some money we were expecting to get will be delayed by a month. As I am in between jobs and we are living from one income, a month’s delay seemed like long nights of questions, scraping up and struggling. When I heard the news, that reality slapped me in the face. So I began emailing contacts for jobs (after applying to quite a few already) then refreshing my email every five minutes (literally), checking credit card statements and making mental plans and agendas. All the while, my husband was staring at me with a quite peaceful look on his face and then said in a placid but revealing tone: there you are, trying to fix it yourself again.

I stopped and I felt like the Coyote when the Road Runner foiled his plans and the Coyote is left being hit by a boulder on the ground with stars rotating around his bruised head.

Coyote-wall

Only instead of stars, I have emails and agendas floating around my head. They crashed to the ground when I came to myself and answered, you’re right.

Then it came to me. I don’t trust God.

There are some things in my life that I am so used to fixing myself that I don’t invite God to help me. Or some things I am so ashamed of that I keep myself from surrendering. For instance, there was a time when I saw my mom struggle financially. I vowed that I would never be in that situation. Now here I am front row, first class ticket on the struggle bus. Or, I am a Spelman grad, how did this happen to me? I have to Olivia Pope my way out of this situation quick fast and in a hurry. I imagine myself strutting in the Pope and Associates office in my mind, my elegant coat whipping at its coattails, hammering out orders to myself. And meanwhile God is leaning on that big distressed wooden table looking at me like “Are you done yet”?

Yes. I say as I think about how foolish I must look.

Yes. I say now, as I know I have come to the end of myself.

I am not saying that I am going to stop all of my pursuits of looking for a job. I think that would displease God. I am saying that I am not going to make a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and maybe remember to make God a Plan D. I will put Him back in His rightful place as Plan A. Praying to Him, asking for His strength and trusting that He will lead me to the place that is best for me. Putting God as my Plan A also means letting go of the constraints I have made by deeming this season I am in as unacceptable. Regardless of where I come from, where I have been and even how I got here…I am here. And I need to remember that God’s grace and love always meets me where I am.

So there you have it. I just wrote myself out of my crisis mode. And I am committing to trusting God as my family’s Provider. I’m not going to lie and say I am not going to freak out again or even that this won’t be hard. But I am going to say that I am inviting God to do His thing, leaving room for my own surrender. If I don’t know anything else, I know the end of this will be good.

This comes from one of my favorite scripture's -Ecclesiastes 3:11
This comes from one of my favorite scriptures Ecclesiastes 3:11

My Sky Brown Momma

June 8, 2013
June 8, 2013 – She is so beautiful!

I remember the first time I read the phrase sky brown momma

Penned by Toni Morrison, I knew who she had in mind.

The sky isn’t brown, no

But the word sky is not to denote a color but more so a feeling

The sky is expansive

And so is the rise in your cheekbones, high enough for the sun to kiss

Gilding your face

Your light umber skin, stretched smooth across those cheek bones

Alighted with dark brown moles

The sky can take your breath away

And so you took mine.

I would sit and look at you,

Your hair, your skin, your laugh, your beautiful almond eyes, your full berry stained lips

And praise God for your beauty

Because not only did I see it,

I felt it

The rise in your cheeks as you smiled, your smell, your presence as encompassing as the sky

Filled me with warmth

And still does

As I sit where you sat, walked where you walked.

The sky humbles me

And so do you.

The pain you went through is overshadowed by your unbridled resilience

Brilliant you are

You thought a little differently

A little brown girl who no one understood, who people wrote off, mistreated and undervalued

Became an Ivy League Graduate, Published Author

And one hell of a Mother

But what melts me from the inside …

Was that heart of yours

Bruised and stitched

But pumping harder than any other I’ve ever met

Washing over every encounter with generosity

Every stich of your needle,

Words that were said,

Presents on my bed,

Unrelenting belief in me

Was so delicately wrapped in your thoughtful and unyielding love.

You’ve filled me with a lifetime’s worth

And I have to remember this when I miss you

Your gentle stroke on my scalp will always be felt

I will hear you tell me I am beautiful on my worst days

And see your sky brown face when it rains

You will forever be the most precious gift God has given me

I will fulfill both your dreams and my own

Your heart in me will be your legacy

I promise you.

Before writing this,

I set out to write my best piece of work for you

But no words can memorialize the love you have given me

So my life is my poem to you.

I love you in all that I do, 

My Sky Brown Momma

 

Spending Christmas in the Cancer Ward

Seeing someone you love suffering, is excruciating. Maybe it’s the helplessness you feel. Maybe it’s the acute awareness that you feel fine and they don’t and you can’t help but ache at how unfair it seems.  It is crushing to the heart. That is exactly what I feel when I sit besides my dear and beautiful mom. I am still. And so very present in each moment I am with her, there are no distractions just prayer and a constant consciousness of her suffering. That is probably why I have heard God so clearly these past few days. And I thought that these little nuggets were too beautiful not to share. 

There is always something greater beyond suffering

I chose to write this first because to me it’s the most convoluted. Some may question the type of God that uses suffering to teach lessons. I feel especially cautious because I am speaking on behalf of the suffering of someone who I love beyond words. But I know deep in my heart that there is something great beyond the suffering that my mom is withstanding. It may be endurance, hope or strength ( Romans 5:3-5, I Peter 5:10) but I know it has transformed me. I have never prayed as much as I have in the past three months and I have never witnessed God’s faithfulness as I am now.   I have never been so determined to live as unapologetically me (as my mom has always encouraged me to do) as I am now. Tiptoeing around the preferences and perceived judgment of others, no longer holds gravity in my decision-making. Being who God intended me to be is far more important.  I am blinded by and transformed by the things that truly matter and for that (dare I say) I count this season as joy ( James 1). If God has changed me in so many ways I cannot imagine what the Lord has for my mom after this is all over.

God is Faithful

Unequivocally. Matchlessly. That is why I haven’t questioned Him. I know that his sovereignty makes Him wiser than me and I trust Him. I trust Him with my mother’s life.

He Shows You How to Love Others

One day when my mom was a little confused from all of her pain medicine she said something that I will never forget.  In between some whispers I could not understand, she murmured, “I want presents, no one ever gives me presents“. I knew that no matter how much medication she had, those words came straight from the heart.

Immediately I thought of how she shows me love.

Every time I came home from college, my mom would always have a bouquet of flowers waiting on my dresser or a little present wrapped sweetly on my bed. When I was away she sent me gift packages and found a way to always show me that she was thinking about me. When thinking about my reciprocity, I remember always thinking about all the different gifts I could get her for birthdays, Mothers’ day and just because days, than dismissing those thoughts because I thought I couldn’t afford them. Or I didn’t prioritize the steps needed to make or buy and then send or give those gifts. As soon as she said those words, I rushed down to the hospital gift store and bought her everything I thought she would like. I couldn’t help but regret how I let all those moments that I was inspired to get her a gift pass me by because of money, time or simple inconvenience. I didn’t know it then, but I believe that I was inspired to do exactly what she needed. God was giving me urges to love her in a way that only they (He and her) knew would impress on her heart.

I vowed that day to never let an inspired moment of desiring to affirm someone with my words, buy a gift, or offer them service be dismissed.

I never want to miss the opportunity to love someone 🙂

Mother

Thank you for listening as I unpacked my thoughts.

Thank you for your prayers.

If you would like to help my mom, please click on the link below:

http://www.gofundme.com/msimmons

With All of My Love and Gratitude, 

Sam