Tag Archives: family

Thoughts on Grief

A year ago I drew this labyrinth in the sand on my favourite beach.

Dragging my fingers in the barely-warm April sand felt wonderful after having spent three days in a nursing home. My mother was struggling so overwhelmingly. The only thing I really knew how to do was play the piano for her and sing the hymns she liked. (During those moments I was very grateful to her for forcing me to take piano lessons so many years before.)  She was a very good mom.

At the moment I drew this little spiral I did not know that a few hours later I would watch my mother leave her earthly body. That morning I just drew something very familiar, a small Cretan labyrinth. Into the centre and out, one path. Death is sort of like that. Just one way in and one way out. I will spare you the selfie I took of me laying beside her in the bed that spring evening as she struggled with her last few breaths. My need to crawl up beside her was more to comfort myself than for her benefit. I kept whispering to her “Don’t be afraid mom”. Whether or not she heard, I do not know. People say that hearing is the last to go. I felt privileged to hold my cell phone up to her ear as I called her grandchildren near and far and had them say their goodbyes. From many miles away her daughter-in-law sang a hymn to her over the phone and her son recited her scripture. Her son-in-law prayed on the phone as she took her last breath while her other daughter-in-law held her hand. 

It was a good death. And a good funeral.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about both.

When my husband was a clergyperson I loved it when he would take some sand or earth and make a the symbol of the cross on top of the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. I reflect that putting my hand in the sand that morning was a sort of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ kind of moment for me.

These moments are necessary. This last year of grief has been good. 

from The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the community of Care by T.Long & T.Lynch.

 

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On Ceremonies, Cloth Bags and Grief

One of the most powerful moments of my mother’s committal service was seeing my brother and sister-in-law placing her ashes into the ground. They knelt down on the grass beside the small hole. Gently her arm went all the way to the bottom of the soil floor, over a metre down, like a final caress.

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Families who are not given the opportunity to partake in rituals such as, funerals and memorial services, religious or not, are missing out on chances to fully mourn, experience their grief and have that grief witnessed, a vitally important function. All of the great religions feature rituals around death, for good reason.

I increasingly hear about individuals requesting no ceremony after their deaths. This is troubling to me. We have rare opportunities for collective emoting, not just for joy but especially for grief. No wonder grief sometimes takes the form of huge displays after public tragedies. When our grief is denied expression we gunnysack it and it comes out in other ways, like anger and depression.

Public displays of grief are important and necessary, such as state funerals, processions, piles of flowers. Why do we deny ourselves the right to grieve when it is our own loved ones?

Ceremonies are not for the dead, but for those who need and want to remember and mourn. They help us to face our own mortality. Of course not all families and cultures need to do things the same. Nor do individuals need to grieve the same. But pretending that nothing is going on, by bypassing these rituals, does not support good grief.

I felt privileged that my brother had asked me to make a fabric bag to house my mother’s earthly remains. I put off making this bag for weeks until I just couldn’t procrastinate any longer.

It took a couple of attempts before I came up with something which satisfied me. I started with a piece of batik fabric in teal colour and held it in my hand for about 20 minutes. Nothing came. I then went rummaging through a special drawer I have of old pieces of fabric, tapestries and recycled cloth. I came upon a piece of old quilt on which I had already started a kantha quilting on years before and never finished. THAT was it!  The fabric just jumped out at me. Pick me, pick me. This old quilt, no doubt fashioned by a woman many years ago and well worn with loving use was in the perfect colours.

bag – Version 2

I felt a tinge of what artisans (no doubt slaves) of King Tut must have felt to fashion things for his royal tomb, grand things, like a gold chariot, that they knew would never be seen again. When I finished the embroidery, and embellishments of costume jewelry selected from her jewelry box, including a butterfly/cross pin which symbolized the Faith At Work movement, I knew my mom would have liked it. 

Then when my sister-in-law read a poem entitled “Butterfly” at the graveside, a poem which she had written immediately after Mom died, it was like a mind meld had happened that I had included the butterfly pin on the side of her bag.

Faith At Work symbol

The Faith at Work cross symbolizes death (the cross) and resurrection (the butterfly) and the lifestyle Sam Shoemaker urged: “Get changed (cross); get together (circle); get going (butterfly).”

Beautiful.
Light as a feather.
Translucent gossamer wings
shimmer in the sun.
She flits from blossom to blossom,
gently touching all in her path.
She imparts the blessing of mercy
with each delicate touch,
leaving the fragrance of beauty 
to linger lovingly
long after she has gone.
Unaware, 
she drifts into a lurking cage.
She is frightened,
cannot find her way out.
She struggles, throws her fragile body against the 
prison bars
again and again.
She cannot escape.
Bruised, battered,
confused, and bewildered,
she collapses on the floor.
And she waits.
Kept alive by a few random raindrops that fall
into her prison.
Slow death awaits.
Those who come and stare cannot release her, 
this she knows.
Yet somehow she imparts her gift of loving kindness and mercy
to each one.
The sheen of her gossamer wings has faded now.
Translucence transformed
into dull lifeless grey.
Unable to fight it any longer,
she rests, releases her battered body after years of struggle.
That beautiful body, now at peace.
Spirit soaring now to heights unknown,
to beauty never before realized.
She is finally free of the fetters
that bound her for so long.
She is in the sparkling diamonds on the river.
She is in the tender young buds on the tree.
She is in the timeless sweet song of the robin I hear.
She is in the tiny any scurrying along my path.
She is in the sweet squirrel
staring curiously at me from the branch above.
She is in the beautiful butterfly
who lands beside me,
on my bench by the river.
She is finally free.

-Sheri King Ward, 2016

Perhaps one of the greatest compliments I have ever received as an artist (and daughter) was from my other sister-in-law who said something to the effect “it’s remarkable how you were you able to get a piece of fibre art to look like someone”.

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Few of us will ever get the chance to see human ashes, or touch them. Of course, it was me who had to transfer the ashes from the temporary box provided by the crematorium into the bag; a job which was difficult, enough in itself, to perform.  Again, this was a healing moment of grief.

Cremation isn’t for everyone. If you have quandaries about cremation, I recommend listening to this podcast on End of Life University, https://lessonsfromdying.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-cremation/. Even though it comes from an American perspective there is much to gain from it.

I know my mother isn’t ‘in’ that bag. But the act of creating the last holding vessel for her ashes was profoundly healing. And seeing it placed into the ground gave me a finality which, even though ripped my heart out, was necessary.

Later we all joked about me making this “griefcase” and how I should be selling them on Etsy! But it was a ‘one of’.

I honestly don’t know how families who are denied these rituals cope. Ceremony is necessary. Rituals are important. Creating your own as a family is wonderful. Please do not fear these times. This is where the healing lies.

 

Sitting on the Edge of Patriarchy

“Say ‘goodbye’ to Patriarchy,” said my husband as he passed me the captain’s chair.

captain's chair

1977, a very special wedding gift from my parents. A suitably expensive Roxton maple dining room set; 4 chairs and a table. We have gathered around that table for the last 39 years.  We still love the table.  Whoever designed the chairs sure didn’t factor in how difficult the spindles would be to clean and how the knobs dig into the back of your hips.

About 4 years ago we bought new dining room chairs, finally giving up the uncomfortable chairs. We stowed them away in our garage. I hung onto them because I ‘didn’t want to break up the set’. Old thinking.

Only one of the chairs had arms. The Captain’s Chair. That’s where the Daddy sat. When my husband said “Say ‘goodbye’ to Patriarchy,” I had to laugh. We had had those chairs for nearly 40 years and that small fact of that one chair being the preferred chair hadn’t hit me so poignantly until just today.

Today I said goodbye to old thinking and sitting on the edge of patriarchy.

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100 Things About Me

Although the title sounds slightly narcissistic, this little trendy blog idea has been a good exercise for the soul. Read it, if you care. Thanks Jen for the idea.

In no particular order:

100. I was born in Winnipeg on the Canadian prairies.

99. When I worked as a professional organizer I once handled over 20 mounted, taxidermied trophy heads of African animals, some of which were extinct. The experience was a mixture of repugnance and holiness.

98. I hate shopping for shoes.

97. Campfires are special to me because it gives me time to ponder.

96. The most claustrophobic moment in my life was climbing up inside the pyramid of Khufu at Giza, Egypt.

95. I performed with Len Cariou and Catherine McKinnon in My Fair Lady at Rainbow Stage. I ‘painted’ in a cleavage for a ballroom scene with a décolleté gown.

94. I worked beside Jimmy Carter on a Habitat for Humanity worksite.

93. I eat sweetbreads (organ meat, beef pancreas to be exact). (See #16).

92. I can play guitar and I can lead a really good campfire singalong.

91. I’ve read every Maeve Binchy novel but not every book of the Bible (even though that was one of our assignments at Bible College).

90. I like to knit.

89. My favourite thing to do is shore walking and beach combing.

88. I wore braces on my teeth for seven years.

87. I like entertaining.

86. I am a sonic mystic. I sing improvisationally. I like to call it sacred jazz.

85. I’m one of the few people in Canada who play church tower bells.

84. I build little natural artworks or ‘land art’ for people to find. I wish I knew Andy Goldsworthy.bowl

83. As a teenager I collected leather Lee jean patches by ripping them off the backs of my friend’s pants.

82. I suffer from Raynauds syndrome which means one or more of my fingers can loose all its circulation for up to half hour.

81. I designed and helped install two 70 foot stone walking labyrinths at two retreat centres.

80. I worked at the famous Scott Mission in Toronto for three years.

79. I took New Testament Greek in university. It’s all Greek to me now.

78. In the village of Sipesipe in the Bolivian highlands I visited the home of a very poor woman who knitted alpaca sweaters.

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77. I am an artist, or as my son says, a creative hoarder.

76. I had a detached retina. It was very traumatic.

75. I’ve given birth twice. Both times were amazing and the results were too!

74. I hate Hallowe’en.

73. I was married to a Baptist minister for over 20 years. I’m still married to him but he’s not a pastor anymore.

72. I have had the same amaryllis bulb for over 25 years. And it still blooms (and it had a baby).

amaryllis

71. I have no body piercings or tattoos, not even pierced ears.

70. I absolutely loved my first car which I named “Molly”. She was a 5-speed standard Mazda Protege.

69. Two pieces of my mixed media art hang on the set of the CBS sitcom, Mike and Molly.

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68. Until 4 years ago I was deathly afraid of dogs. Then our kids got a dog and that cured me. I now have a grand-puppy named “Molly”.

67. I have, as my grandmother Winifred would have said, widdled numerous times in Lake Winnipeg. It’s a big lake.

66. I worked the counter at a donut shop.

65. I am terrified of climbing mountains but I did climb a glacier in Norway.

glacier

64. I know how to pronounce Islendingadagurinn, the name of the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba.

63. I wash out and re-use ziploc bags.

62. I’m addicted to potato chips, kettle-cooked please.

61. I have a passion and gift for facilitating creative events and creating nurturing space for people.

60. I witnessed my father’s death and it was one of the most sacred moments in my life.

59. I have trouble telling jokes and getting the punch lines correct.

58. I have lived in the same house for almost 28 years.

57. I attended Grade Two in Albany, CA while my Dad attended U of C (Berkeley).

56. My husband and I facilitate a self-help group for married couples because there is just not enough support out there for “the marrieds”.

55. I love winning Scrabble or UpWords against my husband.

54. I know now that I will never be famous. So I just try to ‘show up’ for my own life and bloom where I am planted (that was a poster in my childhood bedroom).

53. I have two older brothers who couldn’t be more different.

52. I don’t do well with practical jokes.

51. I collect books to read to my grandson.

50. When I was nine I voluntarily peed the bed at my BFF’s cottage because I too cozy in my sleeping bag to get up and go to the privy. The sleeping bag wasn’t cozy any more. Forgive me Helen.

49. I snorkelled on the Australian Great Barrier Reef, despite my paralyzing fear. I had to hire a private instructor/guide just to get me through it. That’s her hand on the lifesaving ring.

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48. I’m compelling to pick up every heart shape stone I find.

47. When I played tooth fairy for my kids I kept all their teeth. (I still have them).

46. I get S.A.D. and I sometimes loathe myself for being an H.S.P.

45. My first job was as a driver for a speedy messenger company, RoadRunner Courier in Winnipeg. I only got one speeding ticket.

44. I was on the basketball team in Junior High school.

43. Once I smuggled a goldfish over an international border. My kids named it Clifton from Cleveland.

42. I value deep conversations.

41. It was only three years ago that I learned to play tennis. My brother says I’m pretty good at it. Coming from him, that’s a real compliment.

40. I adore making soup from scratch.

39. I try to keep informed about social action and justice issues, except I feel I’m never well-read enough. I do what I can locally to help in small ways.

38. I bought fair-trade coffee years before it was trendy.

37. Finding unexpected treasures at thrift shops nearly takes my breath away.

36. I like photography, but dislike cameras (SLRs).

35. I prefer Taize chants to unsingable, theologically shallow, me-focused ‘praise and worship’ music.  I tolerate Country and Western but, I’m sorry, rap music just makes me puke.

34. I feel way too lucky to have been born in Canada, almost guilty.

33. I buy myself an inexpensive little potted hyacinth every winter because it cheers me up and the fragrance transports me. Then I let the bulb dry out and plant it in my garden.

32. When I sing to people and they say it’s like tripping out on drugs (I would’t know).

31. Ice cream at Gimli Pier. The best.

30. I here confess that I intensely disliked my High School French teacher, Miss Merlevede, but felt deep compassion for her. Everyday she wore the same white Peter Pan collar on her dress.

29. I am allergic to most perfume.

28. Sometimes I feel like a fraud.

27. Badly placed furniture makes me want to scream. I can barely hold myself back from rearranging rooms in some of my friend’s houses.

26. My spirituality infuses everything.

25. I dig out dandelions by hand.

24. My father taught me composting and recycling since way back in the 1960’s.

23. I am proud that in 1942 my father started the first public health laboratory in Winnipeg and in the 1980s was the Director of the Department of the Environment for the Province of Manitoba.

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22. Being a prairie girl, I know nothing about tides.

21. My niece’s husband is the famous selfie guy.

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20. I am extremely proud of my children, both of whom earned Iron Rings in Engineering. But especially because they developed into independent, beautiful, caring individuals who are productive members of society and live soulfully. I would love them anyhow.

19. I listen to the Queen’s Message every Christmas Day. Even though she was born into it, I think Elizabeth is an amazing woman with pluck and wisdom.

18. At our wedding reception I sang a song as a surprise to my groom, Bert, from Mary Poppins, Oh, It’s a Jolly Holliday with you Bert. Unfortunately he had never seen the movie so the significance of the song went right over his head. Who hasn’t seen Mary Poppins!?!

17. I was once kicked out of a MacDonalds for being too rowdy (a long time ago).

16. My favourite breakfast is hand-picked saskatoon berry pancakes with real maple syrup, bacon and fresh coffee on my cottage deck. My favourite special breakfast is mixed grill Butcher’s Breakfast. (See #93). Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day.

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saskatoon picking with my grandson

15. I am attracted to the spirituality of the Enneagram and I wish I could figure out what number I was but I’m sure I’ll get it wrong so I’ve never studied it (that should be a clue).

14. My favourite card game is Racko or perhaps Countdown but always at holiday time with family.

13. I like lots of choice for my carrying and organizing tasks so I have a huge collection of baskets some of which I make myself.

basket

12. I’m afraid that if I say something I’m fearful will happen it may come true just because I said it.

11. I hated taking piano exams.

10. My husband reads Bill Byrson to me in bed at night and sometimes we laugh so hard we can’t breathe.

9. When I find a typo on someone’s website I actually write and tell them.

8. I have been a guerrilla pruner.

7. My college roommates hung my shoes out the window because I had such bad foot odour.

6. My favourite movie is a tie between Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. Both affected my outlook on life and theology, both positively and negatively.

5. My oldest brother is a clergyman. Ours was the first wedding at which he ever officiated. He had to get a special dispensation from the Province of Manitoba in order to do it.

4. I suffered from benign positional vertigo for 16 months. It was one of the biggest challenges of my life.

3. Breaking through the burnt sugar topping on creme brûlée. Ah!

2. I wore my mother’s wedding dress more than once. At numerous fashion shows, as the bride in my high school Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Trial by Jury, and at my own wedding!

wedding00081. I was taught never to let the sun go down on your anger and that is something I’ve try to practice in my marriage.

Christmas Past

One of my favourite pictures, circa 1963, is this one of me and my Mum in front of the Christmas tree. It’s badly taken, that’s for sure. Probably from my Grampa Percy’s camera.

When I went to touch it up in photoshop I noticed that my Grandmother Winifred appears reflected in the living room window of my childhood home. Kind of spooky, considering my mother now looks exactly like her.christmas0001(A four generational picture if you take into account that when a girlchild is born all the possible eggs waiting for fertilization and subsequent progeny are within her.)

This picture gives me much joy. My mother always made sure I had a lovely dress to wear on Christmas. Something, no doubt, she herself had sewn for me.

On the tree is a Santa Claus ornament made from a recycled toilet paper tube and cotton baton. Original tinsel which was painstakingly placed piece by piece (no throwing in our family). And taken off the same way, individually piece by piece and stored carefully for the next year.

My mother always took great effort to make a lovely Christmas for us.

Today I’m taking down our real cut Christmas tree. It has been a perfect little tree, not dropping nary a needle over the time it has adorned out house over the festivities. Forty dollars, a small amount to pay for a little Christmas cheer and to support Ontario agriculture.

And as I pack away the treasures of family ornaments I can’t barely keep from crying knowing that my mother’s experience of Christmas is immensely diminished due to advanced dementia.

Even though she is but a ghost of who she once was I am eternally grateful for the memories she gave me of Christmas.