“The holiest of holidays are those kept by ourselves in silence and apart: the secret anniversaries of the heart.”

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The business of grief is messy.

There is no road map nor survival guide for the layers of emotional chaos and there certainly is no shelf life. The body has far too many hiding places for grief to burrow.

Last fall, countless weavers in my web died. The four memorial services on my schedule were reminders it was time to grieve and yes, possibly expose myself to triggers – the great frenemies.

I am an orphan with six older siblings.

Dad went first and with a bang. Forty-eight hours before he took his last breath, the godmother of his out-of-wedlock child knocked on our door to request that his 8 year-old son come and say good-bye to his father. He was conveniently in a medically induced coma awaiting his final passage while laying in a hospital bed in the kitchen.

Drama and chaos followed…

…as my siblings and mother came to grips with this surprise addition to our family. The night my half brother arrived to see his father evolved into an episode from “The Jerry Springer Show”. Alcohol fueled the flurry of emotion. We were a social worker’s nightmare and soap opera script writers’ dream come true.

We surrounded the bed when he took his last breath while gripping the small dark wooden cross. His purpose in the instance of that breath was crystalized. Each of us had a choice. And it was a choice. Forgive or clench anger and resentment. I’ll never know which camp my siblings chose.

To Forgive?
Or hold on to anger and resentment?

My father’s lie forced me to look within and examine how I wanted to be in relationship with him in spirit form. Forgiveness was necessary albeit, pity clouded the path. The lie surfaced too late and I imagine his spirit felt shackled by the mess he left behind. I will always wonder why he didn’t share the truth with his family once he knew the end was imminent. After sorting and separating the layers of deception and grief I did eventually forgive him.

And regardless of circumstances around the death, the consequences of grief can create pain so deep, it gouges relationships and rearranges order.

My mom’s death proved this twelve years later. Her death in comparison was dignified, somewhat orderly and highly pampered. 

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Perfectly Planned

In her final month, she lay on her snow white California King bed like an empress awaiting her meals, meds, massage and the final honor — passage into what she called the “Kingdom”. 

She held court with dignity, humor and stubborn will.

The vision of her Cosabella tie-dye thonged buttocks waddling to the bathroom with shoulders hunched in pain remains embedded in my mind’s eye. 

While lying in bed with her, she’d say, “Kiss me while I’m warm.” 

This woman was rarely in the dark and often had her finger on the pulse. 

“No pain. No brain,” she’d say to us. Thus, the morphine drip was not requested until 24 hours before her death. She wanted to be as present as possible with each and every one of the people who visited her.

She refused care from a home healthcare agency and instead received care from her attentive sister and her seven children (who for some, were quickly racking up air miles). 

She got what she wanted up to the very the end.

Her pre-ordered casket made by the Trappist monks was delivered and staged in the garage. The food and wine was ordered for the two-day Irish wake. The Tommy Bahama dress hung in the closet waiting to be worn for casket attire. Dad’s ashes were prepped for stow-away in her coffin. The music for the service was chosen — including the final coffin send out song “When the Saints Go Marching In”. And per her orders: sing all verses and sing it loud. A New Orleans style jazz band led the procession out of the church. And the grand finale at grave side was seemingly on cue – a hummingbird buzzed in and hovered over her coffin, staring at us for several seconds before flying away.

She got everything she wanted for her send-off. 

An invisible cloak of finality

Our mother was always the sun and her kids, the planets orbiting around her. We were lost without her and we were officially orphaned. I could no longer call my mom for one of our marathon conversations. Phantom pain from my father’s death tore at my heart. I took solace in their reunion and yet, felt intensely isolated and alone with my grief. An invisible cloak of finality darkened my grieving – the permanent fracturing of our family as a whole. In the aftermath of our mother’s death, many relationships between siblings died with her.

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She really was the proverbial glue that kept us together.

 

As the youngest child (and a closet introvert) in a large family, I loved our gatherings for holidays and birthdays. There is no other group in my life in which I’ve felt more comfortable in my own skin. I developed into the person I am today thanks to my parents and each of my siblings. And so, this multifaceted loss rocked my core and still rattles me to this day during the holiday seasons. 

Even though my parents had polar opposite death and dying experiences, the dimensions of grief remain constant. I don’t take grief for granted when it comes knocking at my heart’s door. I try to welcome it in while being compassionate with myself. Being in stillness to mourn the losses and surrendering to gratitude eventually dissolves the sadness and dries the tears.

 

M. Eileen Hickey

Eileen Hickey is a licensed massage therapist specializing in oncology massage in Portland, OR. She works at Oregon Health & Science University, Nike WHQ and her studio. Her objective: empower her clients to participate in their healing process and feel a sense of wholeness. She’s also a recovering tv news assignment editior of nearly 20 years. Her free time is spent at her cabin amidst the old growth, on the mat or with a good book. She’s still trying to crack a NYT crossword without the help of Google.

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