Portals for Grief: Befriending Pigs, Peonies and Other Personalized Gifts

May we be mindful of what moves us throughout this sharing- to laughter, tears, what is resonant or dissonant in us. For such are said to be sacred movements, worth staying with a while longer, later.

I remember hearing somewhere once that “people may die, but relationships never do, they simply change.” I’ve come to realize that since January of last year when my mom died, and really, since this past November when my dad also died, I’ve been in a time of feeling my way through to a new way of being in relationship with them. It’s been a tender time of moments of missing their physical presence. Moments like a weekend in June, when I heard the music from The Greatest Showman, staring Hue Jackman, pop up on my younger daughter’s playlist while she and her husband and I drove down to my older daughter’s graduation from UC Irvine. Dad loved that musical and especially loved having an excuse to watch it over and over, much to my mom’s chagrin. He’d ask anyone visiting if they had seen it yet, and if the answer was “no” – I both personally witnessed and heard stories from one daughter of how mom next to dad on the couch would say, “Bill, you just watched it yesterday!” As the first measures of a song from “The Greatest Showman” started that weekend, my daughter and I were carried into a flood of those memories I just described. We laughed. We shed a few tears. We were taken then, of course, into other memories as we were again awakened and thrown into the fact that dad/grandpa is gone. Some call this, “Hijacked by grief”. Eventually I said to my daughter, “It’s almost easier not to remember.” To which she, of course, replied, “Oh but we need to remember mom.” I both knew that, and was simply stating the truth right now.

Another tender time came a couple months ago, when Russ and I finally made the tough decision to have our over fifty year old cherry tree cut down. It was sick for a while, and hollow pieces of branches as limbs were cut down were a nice confirmation of the decision. But the day the men came into the yard with saws and ladders, the process barely started and I could not be out there. First of all, I had a personal long term relationship with that tree. I loved seeing her gorgeous red, orange, and yellow mixed sap. (Even as I learned it was a sign she was sick.) I had even written two Haikus about her: “Cherry tree seeping – orange, yellow golden glow. Endless Love weeping. And, Cherry – seeping sap, crying ancient tears, you model healthy grief – blessing.” Second, I started remembering so many times picking cherries with family and sharing them with so many persons and groups. I remembered a friend’s husband coming over to get a branch to graft onto their tree. Then I remembered my mom and dad and Russ’ mom being here for one of my girl’s graduations at cherry harvest time and a branch coming down, and all of us sitting in the yard determined to get every last cherry off that branch, which we did and thoroughly enjoying eating them later. The loss of the tree was enough, and then it served as a portal for grieving other losses, too. That was rough, and a gift. A lot of emotion, yet clearly facilitating a recognition that things had changed and were changing still. And, the release of the tears somehow comforted me into a deep sense even in the sorrow, of gratitude and the knowledge that it was/would be o.k.… These are just two of the many stories from my life these days that illustrate well a universal transition in process, I think, the organic movement from one way of being in relationship – with someone, or something – one way of being together, to a new way. Someone who moved through a big transition from one place to another once said, “Change or transitions of all kinds can end up beautiful in the end, but it’s sure hell in the hallway.” Most days it is bittersweet and on the whole ok, being in the transition from a relationship where I can be with my parents in person, or through a phone call or text to another kind.  But some days, it’s hell in the hallway. 

Yet, many days, even now just 8 months since dad’s death and even 18 since mom’s, I see beautiful gifts that I have gained that came with the pain of their loss. After mom died last January and dad finished cancer treatment last May, dad realized he could no longer physically live in the house he and mom had for 46 years. He always wanted to live by a lake, but mom’s constant fear of change would never allow for that, and she was specifically convinced they would have to worry about flooding. We helped dad sell their house in the north west suburbs of Illinois and find a fabricated home by a lake in a 55 and over community not too far from the old house. Although dad was only there not even three months, and spent nearly a month of that in the hospital, I ended up befriending dad’s neighbor, Alice Spencer. Alice’s mom was also frail. She died not long after my dad. When I came back to Illinois at Christmas after dad died in November, Alice and I visited. When I came back this past late January for a conference, Alice, and I got coffee before I left. We emailed in between, jokingly calling one another our “New Forever Friend”, something I said flippantly in the first email. I found out Alice’s dad was an author, wrote and published mystery stories. He and Alice were to write one together, but he died too soon. So Alice wrote it herself. Alice has met her new neighbor now. We continue to email as pen pals… I told Alice to keep an eye out for dad’s iris’ and a piece of his favorite yellow peony I tired to bring over from the old house … Alice has been a gift.

Maria is from Romania and her husband, Balazs, is from Hungary. My mom collected pigs and had probably thousands. After mom’s death we searched for a long time as to what we might do with all those pigs, I found Maria through someone pointing out a “Pig Collectors Page” on Facebook. We eventually arranged for she and her husband to come from New Jersey and pack up all mom’s pigs. My husband and I decide we should be there to oversee it with dad. It took all day with Russ and I helping. Dad was delighted to learn that in Hungary, pig – pork, was what the people survived on during a war ages ago, and so Pigs are revered in Hungary. It is Maria and Balazs’ dream to build a museum in Hungary and fill it full of pigs. They have thousands so far in storage of which mom’s are a part. Our family jokes about how cool it would be to take a trip to Hungary one day to go to that museum and see mom’s pigs … Maria and I stay in touch, and she has sent me pictures from recent Balazs’ trip to purchase the land for the museum. Maria has been a gift. All the beauty and gifts that came alongside and after the loss’ has brought to life psychologist, author and trauma surviver, James Finley’s words, of how out of trauma or great loss, there is great pain that needs to be honored because it is real…but… that is not all there is. And over time, if we are paying attention, Finley says, or maybe a bit lucky, as we heal, we eventually get to realize that. Perhaps even celebrate it. All the stories I’ve shared thus far, have been part of the “that’s not all there is” for me. So much companionship and portals for grief to be shared or released.  So many glimpses into realizing how my relationship with mom and dad is shifting into a new way of being. 

Some final pieces in hopes of you being able to see this organic shifting with me that you might recognize it in your self: First, I kept some pigs, of course, of my mom’s that especially spoke to me. One thing was this key chain. (Show and press). Funny thing is, no matter how I seem to have it in my purse, it oinks at the darnedest times! I eventually just started saying, “Alright, mom…” Second, similarly with a small set of chimes a couple lovingly sent for my yard after mom died. I couldn’t figure out where to put them yet, so had them hanging, crunched over on the high knob of a dining room chair.  It seemed no matter how much I thought I had cleared those chimes, at various times I’d go by and they’d gently ring out. I just started saying, “ok, mom!” 

Then also, this past Mother’s Day, my oldest daughter was on a trip with her fiancé and I really thought my younger daughter would be with her mother-in-law. Yet I unexpectedly ended up at her home in Santa Rosa and we eventually ended up at a local nursery. I had been occasionally thinking of getting another peony since Russ and I have enjoyed the one we have so well. When we walked into the nursery, immediately on the left, were several gorgeous peonies. Then I noticed two were yellow ones, a color I rarely see at nurseries. And when I checked the pictures on the plant tag, one looked so familiar. I couldn’t believe it when I looked up the pictures on my phone needing to be moved off it, and there was the exact same blossom on dad’s favorite peony. We had enjoyed the blossoms together for the last time during his cancer treatment before he moved to the lake house. I bought and brought the peony home. Russ and I found a special place where we felt best about the mix of light and shade and planted it. It had nine blooms on it and every one opened. We enjoyed it from the front porch glider. A perfect view. In the front and especially back yard, just in the process of being back home tending my yard the past several months rather than still in Illinois tending people and yards there, it’s been really curious just to realize what is happening there without any particular plan to make it so. Needing something to hang the chimes given after my mother died, we bought two tall, wrought iron double hooked hanging plant holders. Once inserted in the yard in different places throughout, mom’s chimes finally had a place to hang on one, and we figured we’d just hang a plant on the other side. My husband’s sister had also gotten us a set of chimes when dad died  in memory of him, with a poem of some kind on them. We decided we could hang those chimes on the other wrought iron hanger, and put a plant on the opposite side from the chimes, as with moms. Then a package came from the lovely couple that sent the chimes after mom died. It was a beautiful glass hummingbird feeder. What better to go on the other side of mom’s chimes rather than a plant. Now, we already had giant chimes in the yard besides these two little ones, in another area of the yard. As a matter of fact, they are the exact kind as in the fellowship hall here. I was blown away when I then remembered that my husband’s mother, who had died several years back now, had given them to us as a Christmas gift one year… All these chimes of different sizes now, the hummingbird feeder, the yellow peony in front, paired with how much mom and dad loved working in their yard each spring getting it ready to enjoy for months … One person recently said to me: “Looks like you’ve got your self a memorial garden in a way one just coming to be on its own … She was right … New, colorful, gentle, present things for feeling the presence, of the parents no longer physically present.

Friends, loss and grief are universal experiences. We lose loved persons and loved pets. We lose jobs – work we loved. We grief lost times in our lives, earlier years when our children were younger or around more….. earlier years in congregations or fellowships, when things were just different “and so great”. Retirement can bring a sense of loss and grief.  We grief the loss of mobility in different ways – as we age; sometimes due to accidents or illness. With all forms of loss, our own “pigs, peonies, people and other personalized gifts and blessings” serve as portals for the pain, and facilitate healing, transition and transformation, in precious sacred ways … gently moving us forward in increments so small we may not even realize it … carrying us, if we are lucky, into realizing there is more than the pain … carrying us to one day recognize we’ve been carried into a new relationship with what we’ve lost, and perhaps with others …. and with our self. The pandemic brought a particularly difficult time of loss and grieving. Even beyond the horrific loss of life, most around the world are still feeling and grieving the loss of a way of life that was already changing too fast for some. Perhaps now more than ever it is important to share our stories and connect as human beings there,  allowing vulnerability to be a portal to healing and transformation …. allowing us time and space to name the pain and find more than the pain, as James Finley talks about. For in finding that, we find and maintain hope. A hope that is critical for good grieving, and so, good living, into a new way of being. May it be so with all your places of loss … Blessed be.

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