Yellowing Photographs

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

In the early days of grief, attempting to enumerate the infinite characteristics that made my son my favorite person in the whole world, hurt, almost mortally. I would listen to his voice mails over and over until I hurt so badly, I would curl up into a ball and weep – and until I was gasping for air. Who knew one could feel pain all the way to her soul and still survive? But here I am writing about grief, healing and transformation – five and a half years after the death of my son and only child.

There is an air of bittersweetness that infuses every breath I will ever take again on this planet. But I can talk about what made Rikki amazing — without weeping and wailing now. I have a hard time with people who knew him because they carry memories too, and commingled with mine, they weigh down my eyelids with tears and place a lump firmly in my throat. I know it’s been five and a half years, and maybe some people are stoic about their grief sooner or later (or maybe even never) than I am. I never could be stoic. I can keep my shit together now (right time, right place), but I still have the occasional sucker punch to my heart. And in the early days of grief, months, first three years, it is fair to say I was a hot mess, rightly so, and I couldn’t detect an undefeated bone in my body.

Time brings you to a greater distance from the loss and from the gruel of the preliminary steps toward healing, all of which are pretty gnarly experiences, and tragically, all of which are necessary. For example, I can now watch videos of my son and not be crushed. Maybe once you’ve been crushed, you can never be crushed again, at least, not in the way that prevents you from ever recovering yourself or from reshaping yourself from a flattened cardboard box after being processed in the recycling box crushers, to a brand new human being, full of life, love, joy, and wisdom – and best-case scenario, full of the desire to be a benefit to the world, to live purposefully, and to grab hold of life with zeal – even after losing someone you desperately loved.

There are some things in life that are neither fair nor unfair. Most significant events in our lives happen at the whim of random chance. They are neither merciful nor unmerciful. They happen and we are left to reshape our lives; emotional fragility can seem eternal, but I promise, it’s not. We flap our injured wings until they are strong enough to help us take flight into a world without our loved one. I wasn’t all that enlightened prior to my son’s death. We learn to grow … even if in the beginning we must force the seed of hope to germinate in our hardened husks.

As Hemingway said, “The sun also rises.” The darkness may envelop us for a while, but in the morning, daylight, warmth, and possibilities. Sometimes chance knocks us on our asses and sometimes we rise from the ashes of our decimated dreams following the death of our child, spouse, dear friend stronger than we ever dreamed we could be, complete with the creation of new dreams. There will always be bittersweetness – especially on some of our best days.

I’ve graduated to the point where I can celebrate my birthday (59 next week) with friends and family, loud music and alcohol without carrying the crushing weight of grief on my back. I know grief is part of who I am now, but as I’ve said before, I control the duration and the intensity. I didn’t have that kind of control in the beginning. I was at the mercy of pummeling grief, and I had no strength to tame it. Over the past five and a half years, and if truth be told, for my life thus far, I became resolved to fight to come back to a life in which sadness didn’t rule.

I wake up with the sun. I know there’s so much living to do and I try to accomplish joie de vivre from the first hint of light ‘til the moon is covered by the clouds. If you’re hurting today from your loss, I wish you a rush of peace for no apparent reason at all, a chance to catch your breath, and moments of hope. You’ll be in a very difficult place for a while as you find your way to being whole again.

I can speak to only those things I know from my own experience and/or the experiences of credible others. I know the work involved in healing yourself. I can tell you; it gets better. You will always miss your loved one. Some days will stab you in the heart and others will make you smile as you remember something wonderful about your loved one, bittersweetly.

I have photos of my son all over my home office. I have paintings he did adorning my other prized wall hanging, my Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. I have his journal notes and a yellowed God’s Eye he made in the second grade. I had packed them all away when we moved; I always knew which boxes they were in, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. I had his clothes packed away and one day, when I was strong enough to open them, I pulled out one of his t-shirts; it still smelled like the aftershave he wore, the cigars he smoked, his own earthy scent. I hugged it for a long time with my face pressed into it. I wept silently and then I folded it and put it back in the box. One shirt I took out and wore it around the house for a while. I washed some of his favorite shirts and I folded them and put them in drawers of clothes I’ve forgotten about. I run across his shirts from time to time when I’m looking for something I haven’t worn in years. My heart is no longer looming large on my sleeve, but there will always be a sliver of it peeking out, unprotected from triggers. I no longer live my life in anticipation of the next emotional shoe to drop, however.

I live for me and in a weird way, I live for him too.

He loved gray; it was his favorite color. He had the hardiest laugh, and oh my, how he laughed. We laughed together all the time. His eyes were big and dark brown. He had an amazing wit, biting, but never unkind. He was intelligent. He loved to read all the up-to-date news and most recent scientific findings. He was amazed by life, and he never lost his sense of wonder. His ability to forgive those who hurt him was humbling and inspiring. He had deep concerns for our species. He was articulate. He wrote poetry I found after he died, and yes, I’m his mother, but I was deeply moved by his eloquent heart. I miss telling our stories together, each one of us with a variation on a theme, some major, some minor. We had a life together. My relationship with my son’s memory has changed from one of deep sorrow to one of deep joy.

I feel like it’s taken me a lifetime to get here.

A New North Star

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Many years and a dead child have caused me to become introspective — to a fault. Coming from confusing, dictatorial, and frightening Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic roots, guilt was my north star for much of my life. There are some things I should feel guilty about, and I do, but wallowing in it because I get some desperate pleasure from rescuers rushing to my side to assuage my guilt through positive vibes and caterpillars transforming into majestic monarchs in Hallmarkian memes, does not serve me well, nor does it serve well anyone with whom I am in relationship. But then I have become more realistic in the second half of my life.

People are people and we all fuck up.

I think the notion of original sin sometimes gives us excuses for when we are bad. If I can assign my bad behavior to an entity representative of a satan, i.e., his demons/minions, then I have no responsibility for my high crimes and misdemeanors, or sins, if you will.I want to say that I have concluded that I am responsible for my personal development. If I stagnate, it will have been because I have become lazy. There is so much to be excited about in life. I have a spiritual Base that informs my life and my behavior. My “spirituality” is a private matter; I am fed by a supernatural being, and that is that. I will not try to save or compel you to attend church with me; to be honest, I don’t attend church either. I’m so afraid that the pastor is going to say something that offends my relationship with and my understanding of my Creator. There’s a lot of biases and misinformation in churches today, and in their theologies. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is a verse used by extremist zealots when they are being judged, but summarily dismissed when they are those in judgment.

But again, people are experts at one thing for certain and that is: fucking up. Crimes/sins of omission and of commission are easily mastered even by those considered to be paragons of virtue. Some things “just come easy” and blowing it is one of those things. There’s a little too much truth in that last statement, I’m afraid. I’ve been working diligently and compulsively to be different than who I was the first 44 years of my life.

Undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder would claim too many years of my life and it would wreak havoc on many of my closest relationships. In my grief process, not the perpetual one for my son, but the one in which I grieve the loss of time, time which would have been better spent in therapy learning to love the way I wanted to be loved and unlearning survival skills that I no longer need, i.e., I’m not the hardass I used to be. Paradigm shifts lead to acts of conversion, an exercise in transformation, and they are absolutely essential if we are to grow into fully actualized people.

I grew up with a punitive God, but as I’ve aged and studied sacred texts and researched the latest scientific literature on the biopsychosocial character of human beings, I’ve learned and even been liberated by a more expansive understanding of the God of my understanding.I don’t know if this is a logical fallacy — at least, I’m not sure if it’s one of the major five — but in the interest of an argument in my own brain, the Judeo-Christian Bible states in 1 John 4:8 that God is love, and in my need to *know*, I ask myself, “If God is love, can God be *only* love, or can God be love and some characteristic that *subtracts* from love? But then that makes it a lesser type of love, so then, is that “not” love? Right? Then Who or What is God?” This permutation of a developing thought in my brain morphs and trans-morphs exponentially. Medication has made my brain less spastic, but mental illness is the thorn in the sides of millions of people, one that is for the duration of our lives. If we’re fortunate to have gobs of money or excellent insurance, your mental illness can be managed, and you can have an amazing and emotionally sound life. Sometimes people don’t have what they need, even in America, and so we see them broken in the streets, addicted to drugs, homeless, and lost.

I wasn’t fortunate soon enough. I was a single mom who made minimum wage while going to school to try to make a better life for my son and me. I didn’t find psychological/psychiatric help until I was in my late 40s. I’ve fucked up in so many ways with people I love, and if truth be told, my feelings have also not been spared, especially by my next of kin. But then, in my family, we all grew up bullies by adaptation.

I could allow myself to fall prey to a victim mentality and feel sorry for or bad about myself for all the mistakes I’ve made. I could fall prey to the theology of a punishing and vengeful god. I could even blame my mental illness on the *devil* — and not on chemical imbalances for which God has provided us with logical science and technology to help us rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of untreated mental illness. I could blame it on a lot of things that would be copouts. But I won’t. In my early life I had models of dysfunction and mental illness. My son did not fall far from the tree. His addiction was to self-medicate for his mental illness; he also had bipolar disorder.

I’ve had to learn to forgive myself for all the ways I made messes of my life and sometimes the lives of those I loved. If God is love, and I believe God is, then I am loved beyond all comprehension. What is love? Is it energy? Is it a brain secretion? Is God love? You wouldn’t know it to see how some proselytizers have misinterpreted the Great Commission to include a nice big sledgehammer and an anvil upon which to beat you into submission to their understanding of the punitive God with whom I grew up.

I’ve had to learn to forgive others and I’ve learned that forgiveness like grief is a process. One step forward, two steps back. I think I know a little about the addiction from which my son suffered. There were glorious days in recovery and then there were relapses. That dynamic is not exclusive to those who struggle with substance use disorder; recovery and relapse occur for many reasons for many persons, from cookies to cocaine.

We each have pinnacle moments and desperate lows, recovery and relapses., good days, bad days, great days and days filled with sorrow and life’s assaults. Life isn’t fair. Random chance hits us and sometimes it misses us. Because I know this, I can grab hold of life to a greater degree. I met my current husband when I was 44. I was in school and I was in therapy, mostly because I would have periodic meltdowns because of my statistics class. 😉

My husband was and is everything no person had ever been in my life. He is kind. Compassionate. Loving. Brilliant. Exciting. Safe. He and the God of my understanding taught me how to love because they love me so completely. I was in and out of therapy intermittently for 20+ years trying to figure out why I hated myself so much; it wasn’t until the bipolar diagnosis that my life and emotional soundness began to emerge, like the scent of eucalyptus in the rain. I began to heal through hard work and with medication.

The 9th Step in the 12 Step program(s) is the one in which a person must make amends to those who she has wounded or been unkind to. You don’t know how to change things until you know what the issue is with your thought processes. Change does come with self-awareness; I know this to be true because I am a different person now, whole, happy, and at peace. Guilt rises from time to time, but it is largely because of my uber-religious background. The God of my understanding understands me and loves me anyhow.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a [wo]man, I put away childish things. For now, we see though a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:11-13When we are damaged, we don’t develop in maturity or emotional soundness, sometimes for years, sometimes ever.

If you find that there is a little too much drama in your life, if you find that your behavior is hurting you or those you love: get help, from clergy, psychologists or psychiatrists. There is hope beyond guilt, shame, regret and churning ruminations of your past mistakes.

Along with grief and sorrow are awesome wonders. I want to look for them. I want to love the God of my understanding and know that I am worth God’s love, even in all my fumbling glory. We learn the language of forgiveness, but it takes us years to achieve it. If my God is love and God loves me even with my myriad human foibles, then if I am taking my argument to its logical conclusion, then I must forgive myself and my fellow imperfect brothers and sisters.

I have bipolar disorder. I am *not* bipolar disorder. I blew it with every single person in my past. My husband has only experienced the person who is well. He never knew the person who would go off the rail. I am so grateful for our psych doctors and for medication. I am so grateful for the sacred texts and the scientific texts that urge us toward letting go of things that hurt us and that cause us to hurt others.

I will be an interfaith chaplain in two years. After coming through the most significant loss a person can endure: the loss of my son and only child, I have allowed myself the self-aware journey toward healing. I know that the gift of helping someone to heal is a calling. It’s time. I’ll be 59 in 10 days – and through the grief process from losing my son, and from allowing myself the time to grieve over time lost from things that broke me temporarily, I have found my purpose.

Life takes us interesting places, sometimes places we can traipse happily in, others are not so good, and sometimes, for some, unfortunately, there is only horror. But people can heal. Don’t ever give up on yourself or those you deeply love.Caliban in the Tempest thanks Prospero for giving him language through which he achieved self-awareness. Every time we have new knowledge is an opportunity for us to grow. I feel like Caliban in that I am grateful for the language that explains the historical trauma in my family, the mental illness that challenged us since time immemorial. I am grateful for healing ourselves and our relationships.

It’s time to stay firmly planted in the brave new world of emotional health and the acquisition of joy. It’s ours you know; it just takes hard work.

Recovering nicely

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Google images, 2021

There are some junctures in the grief process where there are really only two options to healing from our grief: Choice A will lead you on the wildest and most amazing ride you could ever imagine, and Choice B will keep you stuck in the mire of grief. Seems like my path included the latter choice before the former was squarely in my face.

I have mentioned here and elsewhere that my grief journey, the intense part, lasted for three and a half years, and then Choice A and Choice B presented themselves to me. I had chosen Choice B for three and a half years; those are years I will never get back. I don’t know what is the appropriate time that should be allotted for grief, i.e., asking about how soon will an emotional resurrection take place? How much pain and for how long? When will I stop hurting? How can I go on?

I took a while in my hardcore emotional distress to get to a place where I could catch my breath. When I say I sobbed, I mean I sobbed – inconsolably. We lived in a suburb of San Diego at the time and there was very little space between us and the neighbors. I’ve often wondered what they thought about the woman next door who sobbed loudly every day for three and a half years.

I’ve read the inspirational quote (sometimes attributed to Einstein) many times in memes and on refrigerator magnets that says something to the effect: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I was in such all consuming and ever-present pain after I lost my son that I did the same thing over and over again waiting for a chance breeze to carry me off to a land where pain was not – ever again.

We all know the drill when someone with whom we have been emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes genetically tied to dies. Kübler-Ross still has the best model for the grief process, and for the most part, the stages are spot on, but there are stages on the periphery of standard grief that are unique to each individual’s life experience.

I grieved until I could grieve no more. I read in one of the many, many books I read on grief in the early days of my process, that there is a significant difference between grief and mourning. Grief is what we feel; mourning is what we do. I believe I am truly healed from my son’s death; however, I will grieve when I think of him, his face, his laugh, ad infinitum. Every memory now bittersweet. My heart longs for and is warmed by each thought of him.

My mourning phase has passed. I wore my emotional shroud for three and a half years. I had a tiny spark in me that compelled me onward, and one day, I was strong enough to take my first step. The name of this blog is Grief to Gratitude: Rediscovering Joy… As those of you who follow this blog may have noticed, my highs are Peruvian, and my lows are further south. I grieve. I mourn. I live. I laugh. I cry. I weep, and sometimes I sob. I cried so hard during Life is Beautiful that my date became quite concerned that I would hyperventilate. I like to think I’m tough, but I’m just not the hardass I used to be. Mourning made me softer, grief more aware of how to apply that softness in my life, my life without my son, a life I must live now in a world without my best friend. Life lasts such a short time. I will be 59 in one month. My son was only 32. Life zoomed past us before we knew what hit us.

But that’s how life is anyhow, with or without a loss of great magnitude; isn’t it? Every awesome day has an end point, and in between our births and our deaths are infinitely many opportunities to grieve and/or to celebrate. Life is a series of static events to which we bring our own dynamism. I’ve lived what seems several lifetimes, each phase chockful of experiences, good, bad, horrid, heartbreaking, and mystical. Even the leitmotiv of mediocrity that plays through my life from time to time has yielded emotional and spiritual growth in retrospect.

The point is to grow, perhaps toward Maslow’s self-actualization, to live our best lives in spite of the fact there are ups and downs in life. I was afraid to love deeply again because losing someone you love requires a total demolition of your old and fearful self, and that hurts! The goal in life is to grow toward a person who can claim joy more often than not. Trust me, I didn’t think I’d ever truly feel joy or get excited about all the possibilities that already exist for me tomorrow. But then one day…after a very long time (who can say for sure if it was too long)…

Ruminating over the losses in our lives until we’re blue in the face from holding our breath until the feelings pass or sleeping for days in a depressive state does not serve us well in our process. Cry, certainly. Mourn, definitely. But ruminating? I think it prolongs pain, at least, that was my experience. Life is just so monumentally short, and when you can muster the strength to look ahead at all you’ve got to look forward to, take that giant leap of faith in the God of your understanding and in yourself.

One last observation about why I stayed in mourning for so long…

The sound is always the same, whispered shouts, “You’re horrible.” “You blew it.” “If you’d loved him better, maybe…” I’m talking about the sound of regret. The one out of key violin that is the only thing you hear at the symphony – the symphony in all its grandeur. When we allow regret to play on repeat in our heads, we lose sight of the magnificent things in life, even the magnificent moments with our loved ones.

Life, the Universe, and the God of my understanding, are magnificent. I wish my son was here to share in their magnificence with me, but until we meet again, I’ll just have to enjoy them myself with others I am able to love deeply again. Life goes on; it just does.

The Battleground of Grief

By Sherrie Ann Cassel nėe Gonzales

Dedicated to Daddy, Macedonio M. Gonzales, a Marine of Marines

Several lifetimes ago, I strove to de-combatisize my lexicon. I thought the combat genre could be relegated to the furthest reaches of the archives in our collective consciousness. Once again, I was proven to be incorrect in my assumption, or I was wrong, if I must.

The human condition has been fraught with wars since time immemorial. I think it is when we are at our most base, in light of the fact that we are in a post-pre-verbal world. The primitive draws his sword over even the slightest infraction; the self-aware wants cooperative camaraderie, e.g., to not be alone, peacefully, and hence, they will always find a way to achieve that goal.

Warring continues, however, through militarized combat with other countries about the noble effort du jour over which one may fight to the death to defend.

We are funny people.

As I’ve continued moving forward accompanied by a broken heart, I’ve had the opportunity to search deeply into the jagged pieces of the mirror of my soul, each sliver an emotion I can’t name.  Grief leaves us breathless and emotionally depleted. There are many landmines triggered (how’s that for a combat term?) along the way, especially right after the loss. Each time we step on a landmine, our balance is blown to bits, and we find ourselves picking up the pieces and putting them back in their places, misshapen and war torn.

I share the same shellshocked facial expression with my fellow grievers. The lines around our eyes are older than age. Perhaps we even peered into the face of God as we’ve intellectually and spiritually contemplated eternity or for some, annihilation. Death changes us; it reshapes our thought process; it corrects so much of our thinking, it’s difficult to explain to others how we battled with the darkness of grief toward victory: the reclamation of ourselves and the acquisition of a subset of new behaviors stemming from a deep and intimate introspection with ourselves.

I have never had a closer relationship with myself until I lost my son. A return to some semblance of who I was before the loss. I’ve always worked hard to be sane. My childhood was a battleground that took years to overcome. Thank God for therapy.

My husband and I erroneously took a wrong turn on a hiking trail in Joshua Tree National Park. We thought the trail was one mile; it ended up being five. We were not dressed for a five-mile hike. We had two bottles of water between us. By the time we realized we had taken the wrong trail, it was too late to turn back. There were hills that we climbed; some I had to slide down. I cried along the way because I wasn’t prepared physically for a five-mile hike. When we finally made it back to the car, we were beaten down, but not defeated. We survived.

Grief is comparable to inching our way to an unknown and unplanned for destination. Where will we find ourselves after the war? We battle with the person we long to be. We can’t ever go back to who we were before the war began. Our hearts hurt. Our bodies hurt. Our souls hurt.

Grief drags us through the mud and the barbed wire. We are traumatized after the death of a close loved one. We are battle fatigued. We will fight for the prize: healing toward joy. Five years have passed since I lost my son, and I have fought hard to not lose myself on the battlefield of grief. The war needed to be fought. I’m grateful from what I learned through it.

My father was a Marine, tough as nails. He fought in the Korean War and had PTSD for the rest of his life. He never fought for himself. He never tried to find his way back from the grief of having to reshape his personal worldview. He had been forever changed by the battle, but he was defeated and had no fight left in him.

I don’t mean to lessen the experience of our military, only to use the language of combat as a comparison of the gruel and the grit people who grieve exert in our own personal wars. I got tired of side-stepping landmines and dodging shrapnel from the missiles I shot at myself: missiles of guilt, blame, or resentment but I pushed on through the mud in the sweltering heat and through the bitter cold.

I hate to see the battlefield with the wounded and those whose lives died with their loved ones. There’s a way out of the chronic pain, but it will take the fight of your life. You deserve to find joy; it’s on the other side of the thornėd bramble. I know you can see it. Reach for it; it’s there.

Lemonade

By Sherrie Cassel

Google images – 2021

Life isn’t fair; I don’t know why I’ve thought all these years that life should be, that after all I’ve been through, life should be kinder to me, and that somehow, I was entitled to fairness (in lieu of justice, of course). Instead, I developed a hateful persona who hurt a lot of people. I asked my beloved if he thinks I am a nice person. He, of course, answered in the affirmative. He didn’t know me during my anger phase. He is a kind man. He possesses the type of kindness I want to emulate. Life finally provided me with a wonderful man, despite the socks I find on the floor by the side of the bed each day. Love makes you overlook some things about your partner. I’m sure he overlooks my many imperfections. Maybe life can be fair as, retrospectively, I consider all the paths we had to cross to find each other; we are perfect for one another. We are well-suited, after 15 years of living together, married for 11 years. Nothing good comes easy.

I think of the lifetimes I’ve had, different seasons, transformation as I continue morphing until I lose my faculties or die. What a somber proposal. We die and, wisdom, I think, should be doled out at the beginning of our lives, not the inevitable end. But then again, life isn’t fair.

One of the greatest books I read after my son died was, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, by the Rabbi Harold Kushner. He also lost a son, to progeria. His son was only 14 years old. Rabbi Kushner blamed no one for the death of his son. He said it was the luck of the draw. Of all the people in the world, a certain number will die from complications of progeria; a certain number will die from alcoholism and heroin use. Some die in accidents. But we all will die.

Where we live is in between our birth and our death. I have lived fully for some time now. If you knew my “story”, you’d understand a few of my personal epochs, but in the keeping with the topic of life isn’t fair, it’s not and I’ve stopped wishing for it to be so. I handle catastrophes differently than I used to. I have better tools and more prosocial behavior. Best-case scenario, we take our life experiences as they come, both painful and painless, and allow them to shape us into better people than we had to be when we were in a performance mode, and when we were in survival mode.

Life isn’t fair, but we still have mystical and magical, dare I say, supernatural experiences that move us and that inspire us to be greater than we thought we could be, and to create from the wellspring of awe.

Where are you in your life right now? Are you high on life or are you deep in grief? The errant belief that we should never suffer does nothing to help us grow; we only get stuck in resentment stemming from the belief that our *entitlement* wasn’t quite forthcoming. Sometimes we become mired in resentment, so much so that pro-social personal development is deterred, sometimes for years sometimes for a lifetime.

Think of your happiest memory; feel it; immerse yourself in it, and let it inform how you approach life. I’m not saying that we get to *choose* to be happy when our world is crashing down around us. We will have hard times; there’s just no two ways about it. “On everyone a little rain must fall” (Allan Roberts (lyrics) and Doris Fisher (melody). There’s also no way to *prepare* yourself for chance’s random hits.

The best we can do is work on our personal development, so that when we are torpedoed by chaotic and painful moments, we’re strong enough to handle them with grace and courage. I’ve said it myself, that the length of time for grief is indefinite. I thought so early in my grief process, and I believe I took longer than was healthy. Now that I can siphon all the love from a happy memory, my days are more joy-filled than when I was deep in the throes of chronic emotional pain. Certainly, I have had days when I need a good cry because I do so miss my son.

I’ve learned that while life’s random offerings are inevitable, I can handle whatever comes hurtling out of the cosmos. With an acceptance of our loved ones deaths comes the liberation from hurtful ruminations over which we never, if we ever did, have control. With acceptance of the unfairness of life, there is liberation from guilt, resentment, and self-destruction; it also shortens the amount of time you will grieve to the pits of your souls.

I wrote a paper in college, when I was very young, in which I demanded that change was not a good thing for me; I came from chaos, so order was very important to me. The kind of controlled order that presupposes I had the power to stop the world from spinning. I didn’t then and I don’t now. Facing my 60s, the ability to let go of blame when life doesn’t give me roses, forces me to tend to my nasturtiums, morning glories, or some other living entity I can pour my love into, and I move on to the next step that will lead to a life of as much joy as I (we) can glean from life experience.

I went through hell to get here, for no rhyme nor reason; it’s just the way life played out for me. I accept responsibility for how I’ve handled myself through the catastrophic moments in my life. I accept responsibility for my emotions and for their duration. I accept that joy is flighty, and so we must grab it when it flies overhead. Joyful moments are just as unpredictable as catastrophic ones. We will know joy and we will know sorrow, and the entire spectrum of emotions, as we currently understand them.

No, life isn’t fair and once we let down our guard enough to let others back into our lives, we become vulnerable again to loving others and making new memories even as we hold on to our old ones — and we also open ourselves up to further loss followed by temporary emotional pain. But if we are truly a hedonistic species, then it would make sense that we strive toward pleasure, and happy memories feel so much better than bad ones.

A Tall Order

When I first began this blog, I was a hot mess. I spilled my guts, grief in every entrail. Sorry to be so graphic, but those of us who have ever lost someone to whom we were intensely and emotionally tied, know that it hurts more than there are words with which to describe all the phenomena that grief brings to our lives.

I remember it all so well, and there are times, albeit very few and far between now, when I get choked up. It’s been quite a while since I sobbed all day. I’ve been fortunate to have had a long spell of really wonderful days. I used to fear when I had such a long spell that the other shoe would drop, and I’d lapse into depression for a few days (which I hate). I seriously used to bone up for what I thought was inevitable. My son’s angelversary was on January 22. I miss him more than I would ever be able to adequately express.

But…

I knew I wanted to feel better. I knew I didn’t want to hurt anymore. How long is too long to be a mess? If I wanted (and I did/do) to have a life where joy was possible, where I could reclaim my life, and where I could rejoin the living, the hustle and bustle of our common experience and manage a life of purpose in spite of my forever-aching heart then I would have to work for it. You all know what if feels like putting one foot in front of the other, one moment at a time: it’s painful; it’s exhausting, and yet so very necessary.

How can you experience joy if you’re stuck in the deepest part of grief for perpetuity? You can’t. I don’t know if I truly did, but I feel I wasted a lot of days and nights being numb before I realized it was my responsibility to heal myself. What I said to myself became more important than all the advice I’ve ever received combined from others. This moment was a rude awakening to me. I had to decide to learn and to grow or to stagnate and atrophy psychologically and emotionally.

I remember early in the grief process saying that I would never accept that my son died. Is grief rational? Maybe. I know I said a lot of things in early grief as I’ve traveled the road to emotional health and a full life. But even when people aren’t in grief, we all say things at each stage of our lives that make sense to us at the time. I said I didn’t think I would ever heal from the loss of my son, and yet, here I am, revving up for my next adventure – without my son to share in my joy anymore; that smarts.

Five years have passed since I lost my beautiful son; it seems like a flash in the pan. I still feel the tugs at my heart. But I don’t sit idly by anymore and ruminate on all my regrets or the last years of the harshness of my son’s life. I find some comfort in knowing he’s no longer suffering in this rough terrain. He had smooth sailing a few times in his life; I saw it. We laughed a lot. We cried together. We loved each other fiercely.

I try to think about those times; I feel closer to him when I’m laughing over a memory of something funny he said, something silly he did, and all the ways he was remarkable. I used to not be able to remember a happy time without a harsh follow-up memory. The other day I thought of something funny and I, as the kids say, laughed out loud. This gave me an opening to talk to my son, to tell him how much I miss him, to ask him if he remembers the happiest times of our time together. Sometimes I go months without a dialogue with my son. I know to maybe someone who’s not yet had the opportunity to grieve, having a dialogue with an angel might seem irrational, but I guarantee it helps. There were times my son would not listen to me and he was such a passionate conversationalist I would scarcely get a word in edgewise. I have his undivided attention now, only…the answers to all the questions I have are my responsibility to answer. With each milestone in my life,  I see things differently. I see things, perhaps, in a more real way than I did before I lost my beautiful boy. I’ve learned how deeply a person can be wounded and still make it to the top of the mountain … for a victory.

I have rejoined life, social gatherings, opened myself up to being vulnerable again, and grabbed hold of joy and I will never let it go. I’ve been told that my son wouldn’t want me to sit around sad all day. I know that when he was alive he loved when I laughed. We would laugh together until we couldn’t breathe. I don’t laugh as often as I used to, but I sure laugh more than I ever thought I would.

My last therapist told me that the recipe for happiness is to:

Have someone to love.

Have something to do.

Have something to look forward to.

Find those things that will make your life purposeful. You deserve joy. The grieving process is inevitable. It just has to happen. But you will find your center again.

Grief as a Vehicle

By Sherrie Cassel

Five years have passed since my son died; this is to say, it has been five years since I hugged my son, stood on my toes to kiss his forehead, or heard his voice, his laugh, tended to his tears, knew he was just a phone call away. Five years is a long time to be without your only child, husband, wife, sibling, friend…

The intensity of the early days, indeed, the first two years, has dissipated, although I still gasp when I think back on the absolute mess I was back then. I haven’t written for some time. Graduate school kept me busy, a marriage kept me focused on my most important relationship, an ailing mother redirected my focus temporarily as I began to become aware that at my age, parents begin to go “gentle into that good night”. Our focal points are mutable and as we live our lives constantly in flux, our trajectory’s destination is always a near hit, but never quite targeted exactly. How can it be?

After you lose someone with whom you had an intense love relationship, your vision for your future shifts in crashing tectonic movements. Death leaves a lifelong impression on your brain. Pain is chemical too; I imagine. Our hearts must find a way to move past their deep ache and return to a functional homeostasis. We will never be the same. I encourage you to listen to Melissa Etheridge’s song, “I Will Never Be the Same”; it accurately depicts the powerful effects our loved ones had on us, indeed, have on us.

Best case scenario in our lifetimes we have the opportunity and the freedom to be touched by others and to touch others at the level of the heart, the mind, and the soul. My son touched me in each of those elements of my humanity. We had the same tonal inflection, the same sense of humor, the same interests. We shared a life together for 32 years. There is a gap infinitely many miles wide which now separates us from that life. I do not wish to be dramatic, but the gap still hurts like a son of a bitch. He touched me. His death hurt me, but it has also inspired me to be a better person, an intentionally finely tuned and consciously passionate director of my life.

How has the death of your loved one changed you? Are you more passionate about life? Have you accepted or peacefully resigned yourself to the loss? I will admit, it took me three and a half years to come to grips with the fact that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines licking my wounds waiting for my heart to not hurt anymore. Death is a wound straight to the ego as well as a detonation to your life. There is not an adequate descriptor to metaphorize the depth of your loss.

Five years have passed, and I don’t believe I’ve successfully made anyone aware of how much pain the death of my son has caused. As Ms. Etheridge sings, “I will never be the same” (emphasis mine).

With all the regret I have over not always being emotionally present for my son because as John Lennon intimates, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” I hope I gave him enough attention to have made him feel special. I think I did. He was special beyond all reason, so I must have done some things right. Because of regret, however, which I argue is not terribly beneficial to a successful grief process, I have learned how to be more present in the lives of my living loved ones. One can fall prey to rumination on the person who has died, and for a time this is expected, but we must rejoin the living. Staying indefinitely in the rumination phase is self-torture.

I believe my mourning phase lasted a bit longer than is healthy. My deep mourning phase and fear of reestablishing my relationships, indeed my relationship with the world, lasted three and a half years as I’ve mentioned before. People grew and changed. People had babies and lost loved ones. Friends broke up or began new relationships. People lived full lives while I ruminated.

So, five years, five years(!) have passed and I am forever bereft that my son is gone; but he is, and I’m still here. I have lived, even in grief, in those five years. I have grown and changed during this time. My life was happening all the time I was preparing to emerge healed from my loss, which I’m not sure truly happens. I have learned to handle my grief, to redirect my steps toward the living. When my son died, I bought many types of cremation jewelry to put my son’s ashes in so I could wear a piece of him around my neck or on my right ring finger. My psychiatrist told me that I needed to stay with the living and not hold on the death of my son.

I realize now she was right.

If anything has taught me that life is exponentially quick, a flash in the pan, a moment of substantial brevity, it is the death of my 32-year-old son, the death of a baby, a child with cancer, a young soldier killed in battle, ad infinitum. Life is short and in between random culminations of our lives, it is where we live, and I hope it is where we truly live.

I’ve reclaimed my life and I now allow the death of my son to open doors for me. I’ve asked the God of my Understanding to give me courage to go through those doors and to be blessed by what awaits me on the other side. And I have been blessed.

A balance of grief and joy await us while we’re busy tending to our broken hearts, while we’re “busy making other plans”. I don’t want to diminish anyone’s early days of intense grief, because unfortunately, one must traverse the preliminary and seemingly unnavigable terrain.

Transformation is absolutely doable; it is a conscious effort, however.

I didn’t waste time grieving, even though it was for longer than I expected it to be. I did a fair amount of emotional bloodletting during my intense grief period. Grief is a dynamic process; it requires our full attention, maybe for perpetuity. I am constantly aware that I have lost a child. The knowledge never leaves me be. I will never be able to shake the shock of his death. Grief is a constant readjustment to life – life, the one that is fleeting, as elusive as a deep emotion you can’t escape, but also know you can’t stay in. We’ve got to loosen our grip on grief if we want to reach for life and renewal of relationships neglected largely by our absence while we nursed ourselves back to emotional health.

We just had the fifth angelversary of my son’s passing. I did things differently this year. I did my level best to not think about the night my son died. I was mostly successful. Each time a memory arose, I brushed it aside and replaced it with another thought, task, song…one that warmed my aching heart enough to get through the day.

I choose to think of how he lived before the bottom fell out for him. I choose to think of his joy over his own son. I choose to think of all the amazing things about him, and I choose to celebrate his life — doing so is the best I can do. Oh, even beautiful memories are double-edged, bittersweet, and unpredictable in their effects on my heart.

Ah, the heart, it heals slowly, but it does heal. I allowed myself to be entombed for three-and-a-half years before I allowed myself to thaw, before I allowed myself to be emotionally touched again. I’m not the same person I was during my son’s illness and ultimate death. I believe in some ways this is a good thing. I’m less selfish. I’m more present in my life and so, in the lives of others.

I’m learning to love myself and to give myself a life of quality, intermittent joy, and acceptance of the fact that loss is the luck of the draw. No one is to blame. When your number is up, your number is up. Our loved one’s life ends, and we’re left with big gaping holes where he or she used to be. What we fill it with is the most important lesson from our losses.

Even in deep, guttural grief, we are capable of inculcating lessons that will transform us, if only we can wipe our eyes long enough to see them. Life proceeds with or without us. The life train has made many return trips without me getting on one. I don’t want to miss the next one.

The Poetry of Dissonance

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I haven’t written a poem in years. In language is where I thrive. I once fancied myself a poet, and I definitely have had some winners, but by and large, I’m no Amy Clampitt or Mary Oliver, I’ve had some true WTH was I trying to say here moments too. I think we each have places where we shine. I’d love it if you commented under this post and shared yours.

In January, it will be five years since my son died. I never know how I’ll be on any anniversary or birthday, holiday or because the sun rises.  With my grief, acuteness is a crap shoot and a lightning strike. Mostly I’m present in the moments of my life, but I still get that knot in my stomach when an event, place, word, song, scent remind me that my son is gone.

Even in grief, and maybe especially when I’m in grief, I tap into my resiliency, resiliency I learned from my family of origin and primary caretakers, a fancy way of saying, my parents. Sometimes detachment can be a good thing. For example, in order to function well in the world, I find I can’t be chronically attached to my grief. I also don’t need an umbilical cord to help me find my way back to it when I find I’m just a little too happy.

You see, grief is in the last rose bloom of summer, the first snowflake in winter, a song I have on repeat, or any number of sensory and/or supersensory experiences; it’s omnipresent. Grief is a newly untrained puppy. She wreaks havoc, eats shoes, your favorite pair of glasses, and tears up your physical world. There is, however, an eventual return to a pretty consistent emotional homeostasis after a modicum of training is in place. I just had to work harder than I could have imagined. Ask anyone who knows me, if you look in the dictionary for the word resilience, you’d see my picture. I’ve done a few revolutions around my crazy maze in my 58 years. Life experience has taught me many hard lessons which I’ve spun into brilliantly colored incidental patterns.

Where grief once consumed me as it tore through my soul, it now is a color on my palette, from which I will smatter my paint upon a canvas worthy of Pollock. Rikki created a collage when he was in rehab. There were four colors, one for each person he loved. He paid attention to what his loved ones loved; he was the kindest person I know. The largest swaths of tissue paper were orange, my favorite color; I am honored.

I can have moments now when to remember no longer slays me. I feel the clutch in my chest. I breathe through the moment, and sometimes – I weep. I do still schedule days when I can mourn and not have it affect my ability to function in the world, or prevent me from attending to my relationships, or keeping focused on coursework, or experiencing the joy of having a lot on my plate. I still need boosts of adrenalin and I have no problem amply providing them for myself.

The taglines for a griever from those who want us to sprint through the pain are many and mostly cliched, but of course, well-intentioned. Even five years in people I love are still uncomfortable with my losing it. My husband of nearly 11 years and partner of 15 has held and calmed me during some of the worst breakdowns since Rikki died. My younger brother has held me as I sobbed into his chest. Few people have seen me in that dark place where I allow myself to lose it.

I’m open on my blogs and on my personal Facebook page. I pour out my words in an effort to commingle grief and hope with other travelers. I’m not afraid of being vulnerable in the field of the written or spoken word, but those haphazard tears out of seemingly nowhere? Those are not for public display. There are some people with whom it is not safe to open up the floodgates because the fear of the intensity of your feelings makes them uncomfortable; find people who can sit in the dark with you.

No, there are still some things I’m not revved up enough to do quite yet. But I think of all the accomplishments I’ve made since my son’s death. I created a community of fellow grievers who I love and with whom I am most vulnerable online and whose courage inspires me daily. I completed my bachelor’s degree and now I’m finishing up my first semester of grad school. I’ve moved to a new area, a place where I don’t hurt so badly because of all the memories, and because participation in life can be painstaking. I maintain this blog although I don’t have the time to write on it like I used to. I’m grateful I had the time to share this morning –. Remember to give yourself kudos from time to time.

My husband has Brahms playing from his home office this morning; the music is soothing, not frantic or despairing, not Tigger or Eeyore, but Owlesque, older, wiser, more centered. This music is celebratory, and I chase the notes toward a good and productive day. There is no shortage of homework to do. On a lazy Sunday of a COVID weekend after a historical election year and the culmination of a brutal campaign period, I rest.

On January 22, 2021, 5:55 p.m. I will do what needs to be done, whatever that may be. Today is what I have to work with and all the moments therein.

Maybe I’ll write a poem.

Grief on the Run

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I’m thinking, which is not always a good thing, about facilitating a women’s Bible study on the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is called A Woman Overwhelmed. I think we all, mothers and fathers, especially in America, overwhelm ourselves. Sometimes, as we know from losing a child, life throws us curve balls of overwhelm, and sometimes we dive in headfirst to overwhelms of our own making. I’ve been straddling the fence of both. When I lost Rikki, I didn’t think I’d ever have a “life” again. I thought I’d be one giant, tangled ball of grief for perpetuity. And grief is a garment I wear every day. There really is no separation between me and grief anymore. I miss my son and no matter where I am, or with whom, or what I’m doing, grief and I will be together until I die and get to dance with my son for all eternity. I know as a Christian I should be thinking about meeting Jesus, but seriously, I’m a giant bundle of love for my son, love that is all directed toward my son. Does that make sense?

My faith has gone through several metamorphoses over the course of the years, from Rikki’s illness while he was alive through his death and beyond. I have been angry with God, rejected God, cried out to God, and returned to God. I wish I could explain my journey more succinctly, but even with my love for language, I cannot. We each have our own trajectories through grief. Those of us who have been at it for years now, know about resuming life amid the worst kind of pain one can feel.

I felt like I was in an inescapable black hole for three and a half years. An analogy: I’ve mentioned here that I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. If a person with this diagnosis is misdiagnosed with depression and given an antidepressant, the medicine will cause a bipolar patient to go into full blown mania. I was misdiagnosed and on norpramin for five years. I raced through life at breakneck speed. Much of the events during those five years I don’t remember; that is a tragedy, because those are years when I was raising my very healthy and vibrant young son.

Hardcore grief has had much the same effect on me. There are three and a half years I did not participate fully in life and in my relationships. My loved ones waited for me to return to them, after being in that intense grief space knowing there was nothing they could do or say to help me travel to the other side where I could re-immerse myself back into life and back into those relationships. I am not the same person. I thought maybe I would return to myself, but I now know that is impossible.

I am Rikki’s mom. I will always be Rikki’s mom. I am Rikki’s mom in a different way now. He is in my soul keeping me alive until it’s my time to go. Can a Spirit have a gestational period? I believe it can. I am separated by time and space from my son, but not even death can separate our spirits from one another. I saw my reflection the other day and all I could see was Rikki’s face. I could see his eyes, his nose, his lips, his cheeks, and I made a facial expression that was one he made all the time. I closed my eyes, and I felt the longing for him wash over me. I braced myself against the bathroom sink. All this after an amazing day of busyness and feeling purposeful.

You see, grief never quite leaves you, and I mean never. I have had busy days since grad school began, and we’re up in the air about buying the house we’re in, and we may be facing a potential move during the busiest time in my life, and Louie will be here for Christmas, after our possible move, and I have a marriage to a wonderful man I am always working on, and, and, and…I am grieving the loss of my beautiful Rikki.

“Wild Horses,” by The Stones is playing on the radio right now. October weather is making me miss my Rikki to the core of my being. I am three months away from the five-year angelversary for my precious Rikki. And I am busting my ass in graduate school…but nothing takes away from the omnipresent grief that comes from losing a child.

I stopped wishing the pain would cease; it never will. But I no longer believe grief is love with no place to go. I believe grief is love from our children being infused into our lives, lives they would want for us. I am doing my best to be present in my life, to be present for those I love and for those who love me, to be purposeful in the contributions I still have the ability to make in our world, and in the rebuilding of a life that has been shattered by loss.

I live my life intentionally now. I stop for moments when the loss is felt so strongly I must brace myself and I wonder if people can sense how much pain I am in at that moment. People’s understanding used to matter, but it doesn’t anymore. Grief is my old friend now. He’s my new dance partner, one step forward, two steps back, a twirl, and a dip, to music only I can hear — music for me and son.

I miss you, my son. Until we meet again I will be strong and live purposefully and live my life to honor you.

Intellectualizing Pain

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

3:45 a.m. seems like a good time to write. For the most part, those who are in PST zones are sound asleep. I used to romanticize about those wonderful folks who work at 7-11 during those hours some of us occasionally find ourselves awake. Do they have great stories? They are at the front line if you think of life as a battle. They are salt of the earth if you have the insight to be conscious of others’ economic realities. They are on the cutting edge of where life, in all its goriness and glory, happens.

These are the things I think about when I’m trying to not think about losing my son. Where before, the fetal position and great guttural sobs were my reality, I’ve progressed to the ability to intellectualize my pain for longer periods of time. Please don’t think I choose to not remember my son; that is impossible. What I can do now, however, is control my meltdowns, when, where, and how much time I’ll need to purge sufficiently.

Sometimes I think I sound so clinical about grief, but that is not my intention. The pain of losing someone increases exponentially in the beginning of the grief trip, and it is a trip. Who knew the endless places a mind could wander? I didn’t — until the greatest loss of my life brought me to stare squarely in the face of chance.

I’m doing the only thing I can do if I’m to have a life of quality, with rich relationships, wonder, awe, and personal growth. I had my heart ripped out and I recovered it and started to help it heal, but first, I hurt systemically, and I hurt at the level of the Soul.

Really, there is no word that adequately defines the kind of emotional pain the death of a loved one brings up. I had no idea the depths we must plumb to emerge a stronger, more insightful, more conscious, and a person more in love with life. Maybe he or she was always there, but for that damnable luck of the draw.

I know why and how my loved one died. I have played his life repeatedly in my mind.

It doesn’t help to know that you’re so far away […] ~Carol King~

And I’ve turned over the minutiae and the magnificent. How does one begin to adjust to the presence of permanence? This too shall pass is obviously a myth. There are some events or emotions whose effects are monumental and that will affect us for the rest of our lives.

I’m in a master’s program, at 58 years old. I have always wanted a Ph.D., and so, maybe when I’m close to 65, I’ll finally be finished with school. I have a voracious appetite for knowledge, and I’d forgotten this during the long trek back to the realm of those who live full lives.

I know some strong people who’ve lost someone extraordinarily close to them, traveled through the visceral and emerged on the other side victorious. I will never get over losing my son. I’ve learned to live with the constant readjustment to him not being here. I still want to pick up the phone and hear his voice, his living voice, with all its inflections and the deep booming sound that I could feel in my Soul. I have some videos and old phone messages he gifted me with. But I don’t watch or listen to them every day.

As a matter of fact, I can only watch or listen to them when I’m feeling very strong and maybe a bit weepy. I still have days when the most mundane thing can send me into sobs, but as of late I haven’t cried in weeks…and before that, it had been months. I was too much of a mess in those early days to get that the magnitude of pain would become less throbbing and intense – or that one day I would be living a life of purpose with flashes of joy.

I need to share with you all: the intensity lasted for three and a half years. For some it takes a shorter span of time, for some longer, and then there are some who never heal from their loss. I can speak of healing now. I can tell you how great I feel now. I can even tell you how I got here, but I can’t tell you how you will get to a place where grief no longer doubles you over in pain; nor can I tell you how long it will take you to get to that place. Grief is harsh, but it is we who must master it, and I am a firm believer in wrestling with the angel for a blessing.

There is a blessing despite our soul-wrenching experience, and later we’ll see, there is a blessing because of our soul-wrenching experience. Healing doesn’t just happen; it takes an enormous amount of work and a willingness to run that gauntlet of the many excruciatingly painful emotions and thoughts that run through our hearts and minds after a loss.

Grief buffets us from all sides with hurtful thoughts and varying emotions and in varying degrees of intensity. We must let go of those hurtful thoughts and that pain that inhibits us from growing and developing into that person who is full of passion for life again.

Garnering the courage to release the hold grief can have on us is necessary in my estimation to stay on the path toward healing. Somehow life goes on – and even in our grief we must go on too. I told a 7-11 clerk one time about my loss and he was palpably empathetic and then he gave me a cup of blueberry coffee — such a huge surge in my Soul for such a small token. Or maybe we do get to choose our perceptions of phenomena as they arise, how we will respond, react, or rebuff.

Ah, but there I go again: thinking is far less painful than feeling.