Through the Thicket of Grief to the Light of Remembering Life

Denise Annual Memorial Service

Denise Carson, Author of Parting Ways, gives keynote speech on Grief Journeys at the Annual Hospice Care of the West Memorial Service.

I was invited to speak at the Hospice Care of the West Annual Memorial Service. This is one of my favorite communal rituals that the hospice organizes for their families who have lost a loved one that year. All the families come together to share life stories and share in their grief.  I don’t often speak directly about my grief journey. Admittedly it was a cathartic experience. I was profoundly moved by the other folks who stood during the open mic and shared how much my story meant to connecting to their own grief journey. As I listened to their grief journeys and life stories of loved ones lost, I realized how universal grief really is and that awe-inspiring moment gave me the courage to share this deeply personal story here on our blog. See below…

I’m honored to be with you here today. I remember very clearly my first memorial service at Hospice Care of the West in 2006. I wrote Mom on a rock in ritual of remembrance of her. And, I distinctly recall a feeling a palpable sense of community in my grief that I had never experienced before in a public setting.  As I listened to the life stories and reminiscences of others, I felt a sense of familiar and belonging.

At that time, I had been on a journey to write my book Parting Ways that led me across the country from New York City to California on quest to understand how grief inspires us to celebrate life even in our darkest hours of despair and loss. In retrospect, I set out as journalist but also as a daughter in search of others like me, so I would not have to do my grief journey alone.

I have learned to live with grief, as it is not something that you don’t get over after the funeral, or when you’ve cleaned out the closet or a year or even two years after the death.

The first time I learned about grief, in a college class, the sociology of death and dying, some 10 years after my father died of cancer. It was an unveiling of an invisible handicap for me. For a decade, I had suffered alone bottling this indescribable pain. I felt a physical tearing apart from my father. We did not have hospice because no one not even his own doctors accepted that he would die. Veiled in denial, he battled for two years in excruciating pain until his body finally succumbed to the cancer at 37 years old.

I’ve heard grief being described as a thicket that you cannot walk around but must instead walk down the middle feeling your way through the darkness and thorns to get to the other side.

I yearned to hear the timber of his voice, feel the strength of his hug, see his funny faces at the dinner table that always made me feel like everything would be ok.  I did not realize it at the time but I was constantly cycling through the stages of grief: Denial, Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. This condition that had plagued me for 10 years had a name: grief. But I had never gotten to the other side of it.

I did not fully appreciate that in order to recover from grief, we must find ways to walk through our emotional, spiritual and physical loss until my mother was diagnosed with cancer 12 years later. It was then when the grief of my father’s death surfaced and inspired how my mother and I celebrated her life, even in our deepest hours of despair. It was then that I began the walk through the thicket.

Hospice Care of the West Annual Memorial Service Lunch.

Hospice Care of the West Annual Memorial Service Lunch.

We have an interesting journey through hospice in that we have some indication as we enter the service that time is short. And, that triggers grief that can be paralyzing or inspiring, depending on which lens you’re looking through. The day my mother’s doctor shared that the chemotherapy was no longer working and that hospice was an option started our fast-forwarded journey to her last breath.

Since I had been a journalist at the LA Times, I had begun recording interviews with my mother about her life in a way that I interviewed my sources for a news story. Yet, after the hospice conversation, those interviews took on a new kind of significance. I felt my mother telling her stories with such vibrancy and detail that transported me from her bedside back in time to England where she grew up, her coming to America at 18 years old, traveling across the country in summer 1969 and meeting my father. Yet, when I asked about her career as a banker, she changed the subject.

Until one afternoon, when I asked her if she wanted to do an interview.

She smiled. “I think I want you to clean the clothes out of my closet.”

Usually this ritual occurs after the funeral and marks the acceptance that the deceased will not be returning. Admittedly, it would have been easier to say, “No, I’ll just do it later.” But if I had waited, I might have lost the stories locked in her closet.

I pulled out her business suits and laid them on the bed. She ran her fingers over the skirts and jackets, reawakening the power she felt wearing them in a Los Angeles skyscraper where she was one of the first women in bank management during the 1970s.

“Back then, women had to wear skirts,” she recalled, “Can you imagine the discrimination?” Although she kept her hair short and professional, she declared her femininity in bold royal blue, emerald, red and violet, standing out among the men in black suits.

As she reveled in the past, I realized how much her three-decade career meant. I decided to keep the suits. I’d never really paid attention to her life outside of being a single mom to my younger brother and me.

I pulled out a disco dress, slipped it on and danced around the room. She followed me with her eyes, saying I had my dad’s rhythm as she recounted how they cleared the dance floor when they discoed. They had been divorced, but you wouldn’t know it. At that moment, she was on that dance floor dancing with him in her mind. Just like she was in her childhood home when we talked about growing up in England. Or when she recalled the musty smell of the tent she stayed in during her summers in the English countryside. She had an uncanny ability to transport us to her past during our interviews.

As I worked on her closet, she smiled. “I’m content. I feel like I’m doing the right thing, having you do this,” she said. “One of the hardest things after a person dies is to go through their personal effects… You are learning everything, so in the aftermath, there really won’t be too much to do.”

She succeeded. I feel lucky not to be left with unanswered questions about her life, as I have so many about my father’s. Not long after, we had a living wake at our home. All of her friends and family came to the bedside in her last week of life to celebrate her. She was like a queen, the deathbed her throne, holding court, laughing, sharing stories and carrying on. I knew in a way that she did that for me, so I would not be alone, and to make the last sunset on her life a grand finale.

Something I have never shared publically, that I’d like to share with you now…as it sustained me in those hours after she died, when I did not want to continue living without her. I should say, we are in a very magical time after someone close to us has died. It’s like the walls between this world and whatever is next thin. For a brief time, you are connected to life beyond that which we can see and touch.

I was having dreams about my mother, and a friend of mine, said to me, why don’t you ask her how she is doing in the dream. That night in a very lucid dream that feels as real as you all do in front of me now. I was sitting at Thanksgiving dinner with my mother and family, and she said, ok, time to clean the dishes. I picked up my dish, and consciously followed her into the kitchen. And I asked her, how are you doing Mom? She turned to me and said, Oh, Denise, it is like a reunion here. And I have peace that truly does surpass all understanding. Your father and I, often walk with him in the garden, she said.

I came out of the dream with the deepest sense of gratitude for the time that I had been given with my mother. And I knew then she was ok, and that at sometime point I would eventually be ok too. Since, I understood grief was a very isolating experience, I set out to meet others like me on my journey rather than doing it alone as I had with my father.

While working on my book, I visited my stepmother, my father’s wife for an interview. We talked about his last days, and for the first time we cried together. Then she said to me, Denise, the only thing you remember is his death story. Tears rolled down her cheeks, she left the room. And then returned from her garage with a huge box full of photo albums and pictures. Together, we began looking through the pictures, of our pool parties, disco parties and my father dancing in his Italian tailored suits, and later I watched their wedding video…for the first time I recalled the memories that I had experienced with my dad that I couldn’t because they were blocked by my grief.

Later, I spoke to a grief oncologist. Yes, it’s what it sounds like a specialist in grief brought on my cancer death. It was then I learned that I had complied grief from their deaths. Again, I had a name for what I was living through. But that grief oncologist and many other grief specialists that I interviewed shared that life review that I did with my mother, the cleaning out her closet together and the unexpected joy we experienced from that time was what I needed to hold on to. And her death story, like his death story, I had to let go over. The death is the darkness, the life that we shared with them is light. In our grief, we must go to the light.

It was my mother’s life review, the light, which led me to the Hospice Care of the West through the life review video program as I researched my book. For two years, I spent time at the bedside witnessing patients’ record their life stories in a very raw last conversation that was later edited together with pictures and music. These recording of these life reviews brought families together at a time when they felt like they were being wrenched apart. Through reminiscences, they were transported back to better times, moments of glory, pivotal experiences that inspired wisdom to be shared and passed on to the next generation.

I believe part of the grief experience is to share our stories, as I’m sure all of you have experienced memories from your subconscious mind dump into your consciousness.  It makes us feel a bit foggy, and hazy.

I think this is a life review of the memories we have lived with the person we have had to part with. And it is memorial services like these that inspire us to sift through these memories and make sense of the life we shared with our person. We feel a sense responsibility and urgency to preserve their life story and wisdom to pass on to everyone we encounter, so our person has not lived vein. That is why this memorial service is so profound to me back then in 2006 and even today. It is not just family and friends, but a community brought together through the last season of life.


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