Doodling

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

I’ve been staring at his handwriting for an hour now. He had a book of lists, you know, to do lists.

I found some of his journals in storage, and I pore through them every so often. I take my finger and trace the shape of his letters, caress the loops, linger tenderly on his punctuation, and stare deeply into the intent of his doodles.

My precious boy.

If I were a medium I would say that his Spirit was in the room, that he was trying to communicate with me from the “other side.”

I would try to comfort the grieving Momma through the mercies of little white lies…

And maybe that’s what I’m doing for myself right now, comforting my grieving heart with little white lies.

But I cannot shake my sense of him in this book of lists, this book in which he made plans for the day, for the week…

I’m a realist generally, with an overarching need to believe, but I won’t seek out proof. It’s enough to “feel” his Presence…in that part of me that can suspend my disbelief, and transcend a world that believes only in things that can be measured.

As you all know, when you lose a child, your entire worldview is shattered. Nothing makes sense anymore, and you wonder if it ever will again.

There is a benefit to being lost though; there are then infinitely many paths to being found. It will be 28 months next Tuesday for me and my boy. And the road is wide open before me. Reluctantly I go.

As I hugged his journal to my chest, I thought of the Akashic Records, and I let Rikki be my guide to possibilities, and he said, “Momma, what kind of relationship do YOU want to have with me now, one of pain, or one of peace?”

I will sleep on this tonight with his journal under my pillow. Perhaps he’ll come to me in a dream, or whisper “I love you” while I sleep.

Previously published in GRIEF DIGEST, 2017.

Spiraling Upward

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

So, what do you do when you’re really happy? Things are going well. The sun is shining. Spring is almost here, and you made it through another angelversary, and even though you’ve lost someone you really love, your days are looking brighter, and your nights are calm. Sometimes we feel guilty because we’re able to move forward. Sometimes we think we are not being loyal to our loved one’s memory because we’re able to go on and make new memories. I find myself having moments of pure joy now. My son has been gone for four years and one month. I remember the early days after my son died. I cried for days and days and months and months – and then I started reading everything I could get my hands on about grief. I knew if I was going to heal, I had to learn how to normalize my pain; I knew that would take some work.

Normalize pain? Well, it’s an absolute given that one must swim in the ocean of tears after the death of a loved one. There’s really no healthy way of getting around it. I cried a blue streak every day for a long time. One day I woke up, after months of research into grief, after doing my capstone project on grief for my university, after working my process for four years, and all the years leading up to my first true day of joy.

We have a grandson, my son’s son. He brings me great joy. He made me laugh at my son’s Celebration of Life. The ability to laugh on that day, in and of itself, should have been the first indication that healing and living in the moment were possible. One day your heart is broken, you feel lost, you’re in tears every day. You’re in intense emotional pain that truly does feel physical, and then you awaken to all the life that is happening around you. You begin to reconnect with relationships with people you may have neglected during your acute mourning phase. And you dust off your public self and put her back out there – among the living.

I know people who have never truly healed from the loss of their loved one. Some go into such deep grief they become bitter. Some never heal because they never find the rhythm of their grief process. Clichés become so because there is generally some truth to them, e.g. the only way out of the pain is through it. As trite as that may sound when you’re in agony, it’s true, at least it has been for me. I groveled before the God of my understanding begging for relief from the visceral pain over losing my son. I did it for as long as I needed. Grief is one of those emotions that must be expressed. Some do it through art, e.g. writing, painting, singing, dancing, or the spoken word.

I get messages from people who share their pain with me, and of the people who share with me, it is a small fraction of those who go into complicated grief and who need professional help, which I always encourage. For the most part, people want to heal, and dependent upon what kind of baggage we’re loaded down with, the process can be navigable or very difficult to navigate, and the latter is particularly painful. Some people, however, have developed some sound resilience.

My mother loves butterflies, roses, and Jesus. My theology, as a matter of course, has changed – a great deal, but I have always ridden on the coattails of my mother’s unshakable faith. Even though her life has been very difficult, she has maintained her relationship with Jesus. He got her through the painful moments in her life. She is incredibly resilient even though she’s been beaten down for most of her life. Resiliency is a gift, and if you didn’t have it modeled for you as a child, it’s still available to everyone –with a tremendous amount of hard work — after an initial moment of clarity.

I don’t know when acceptance arose from the pit of grief I was peering into every day, but one day it did. I had that moment of clarity and I said to myself, “This can’t be the rest of my life.” There aren’t adequate words in my native tongue to describe the depths to which I miss my son. He is still in my every thought and in my actions, and in how I now live my life purposefully. How do you find joy again? You find it in small steps in the beginning, and as you work your process with professional, shamanic, spiritual help, or with your own sheer determination to be whole again. I once took an anthropology class with the greatest professor alive, Dr. D, who shared with us this fact: “It is the duty of every living organism to survive.” I’d like to do better than survive; I’d like to thrive.

I encourage you all to learn to shine through your loss. This light doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process to find your way back to the living, but it’s possible; finding your way back to emotions that make us feel good is necessary in order to live full lives. My faith tradition encourages me with the hope I will see my son again. I will wrap my arms around him and tell him how much I love him – for all eternity. Knowing this gives me great comfort – and it gives me the sense that joy here will unfurl into the joy to come when my son and I can laugh together again.

Everyone must find her way to what will bring comfort. How do you find your way to joy? You work for it – and when it presents itself, you allow yourself full immersion in it. You find ways to be grateful each day. My son was the most amazing human being. He was beautiful. Oh my God, he was so funny! We laughed ‘til our sides hurt. I remember the things that were joyful about him – and I try to take that joy with me everywhere I go.

Just think about how blessed, lucky, and loved by the God of your understanding you are to have been given such a gift of your loved one, and how they are a part of you forever. I find joy in sweet memories of my son. I could choose to ruminate on the tough years during his illness or our rough beginning as mother and son, but I want to smile, and so I make the choice to imagine his smiling face and his hardy laugh.

Think of things that bring you joy – and hold on to them if you can. Life is uncertain. We never know when we are going to lose someone or our own lives. In the interim between life and death, there’s a lot of joy out there – and it’s yours for the taking.

Random Thoughts on Grief

by Sherrie Ann Cassel

After losing someone with whom you were very close, grief becomes your constant companion. You eat, breathe, and sleep with it. You’re always just a hair’s breadth away from the guttural feeling that can be awakened by a song, a scent, almost anything, and you never know when the grief will awaken, sometimes even after months of emotional balance. Sometimes it knocks the wind out of you and then it knocks you on your ass – and sometimes the sudden overwhelm of emotions stemming from your grief can lay you out for some duration.

We each find ways to get through those times. Some seek an external source for easing them through the rough patches, those times when grief seems to suck the life out of you and leaves you exhausted from the wrestling you must do to navigate the flood of emotions and still function in your everyday life.

Of course, in the early days of grief following your loss, you may have time to deeply examine your pathway to healing; the goal is to heal from your loss. I know there is some debate as to whether one can heal completely from a devastating loss. I’m of the opinion that one can. I have my days when numbing is my modus operandi. Numbing is not always a bad thing. Perhaps calling the process a postponement of the overwhelm until a more opportune time to meltdown, would be a less pejorative term for waiting it out, i.e. the weekend, after work, or in your car while you are safely parked.

My family lost five people in eight months. My son in January, my husband’s mother in March, my husband’s former student a few days after that to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, a dear friend a month after that, and my brother in August. Some years are just shitty – and that year was about the shittiest I’ve ever had, and I hope to never have another year like it. Life is uncertain on the best days, however so I’m muddling through and I’m still standing — and I am being realistic about losing loved ones; it happens.

I had the luxury (sort of) of being unemployed during the times of those losses, so I was fortunate to have the time to pour myself into the grieving process. My husband had five days of bereavement for both our son and his mother. Five days?! Are you kidding me? Sometimes we have good benefits that allow for bereavement time and I suppose that five days is better than no days at all. My husband had PTO for bereavement; not everyone is so lucky.

After he returned to work, I was left alone to really lose it and cry for hours on end. I screamed. I wailed. I wept until it was difficult to catch my breath. I did this for a few months before acceptance came eking into my life. My husband said that what seemed to me like an entire year of heavy-duty grieving was not actually one year. He said that my expression of despair was actually about six months. An outside perspective is good to have.

I began reading about grief about six months after our son died. I spent money we didn’t really have to buy books about grief and how to heal from the visceral pain. I was hoping the pain could be normalized and I would be able to shake it sooner rather than later. My husband knows me; and he said he felt relieved when he saw me doing research into grief – in between those times when I just allowed myself the deep groans of grief, unabashedly. The fact that I wanted to know about how to heal from grief was a good sign for him. He was hopeful I would begin to heal.

The books helped me. The research helped me. Getting back out into the world of the living helped me. See, grief work is not easy, but it is necessary. I thought time was all I needed to get to acceptance, and it is true, time is a major factor in distancing yourself from the devastating loss in order that the work toward acceptance is possible.

I know Kṻbler-Ross’ model is linearly ordered, although most grievers come to the conclusion that there is no particular order in the grief process.  Acceptance is a vein that runs through even the worst losses, i.e. losing a loved one to death. I came to a place in my process where acceptance was more liberating than holding out for the answers to the tortuous whys. My son died and he wasn’t coming back. The finality of death is a blow to your worldview, to your theology, and to the totality of your sense of safety in the world.

All emotions during the acute phase of grief are intense and all-consuming. I encourage you to read everything you can get your hands on about grief and the healing process. I’m not saying doing so will  make you feel better – immediately, because it won’t. We need time to immerse ourselves into the full impact of our loss. Feel. Scream. Cry. Purge – and then exhale with the determination that you will come through the process, stronger, wiser, more empathetic, and able to reach out to help others, because you are on the pathway to healing.

Who knows what the right amount of time is to muddle through the acute phase of grief? I can speak only for myself, and three and a half years passed before I began to feel truly alive. Everyone has his or her own timetable. Each of us has a varying amount of emotional resources, a network of supportive people, health insurance to get emergency grief therapy, and family of origin issues that may make it more difficult to navigate the grief process.

I will periodically post books that have helped me. There are some books written by both private citizens and grief experts that are hugely helpful. I must caution you, however, there is a danger of what I would call grief saturation which can happen when we are so focused on grief that we neglect our personal care. I have done this very thing. I read and read and read some more about grief and loss, to the exclusion of reaching toward hope. What happened to my hope? I couldn’t see past the collective despair of all who were hurting like I was – and so, I took a little longer than some people to get to a place where I wasn’t at the mercy of uncontrolled emotions.

Gaining control of your emotions is not to say that one should dismiss them as they arise; it just means that you are aware of how you can take breaks from the pain, catch your breath, and then get back in the business of life.

We’ll have tough days, for sure, from time to time, but grief does not have to be the only emotion, or the primary emotion for all the days of our lives. Emotions, and grief is no exception, are all temporary states. Our grandson made me laugh at my son’s celebration of life. This was an early indication that healing was possible.

I’ve discussed a few things in this post. Grief is inevitable. Grief is a process that must be fully examined and fully experienced. Grief hurts. Healing from the pain of grief is possible and is, although in the acute phase, you will find it difficult to believe. I’ve discussed the strategy of scheduling opportune times when you may fully grieve. I’ve encouraged you to research grief and the many other strategies that are available to help you grieve and still function in your daily life.

I remember a childhood term elbow grease – or the saying, nothing good comes easily – or the comment for those things that are monumentally difficult, no pain, no gain. As much as I hate platitudes, sometimes they are spot on.

My hope for you today is that you will be open to the possibility of healing and be realistic about all the work it entails. I was desperately searching for a way out of the pain. I wanted to bypass the trip along the conveniently linear path of Kṻbler-Ross’ model. But – as our diagram illustrates, grief is not neat; it is not linear.

Grief is spastic until we get a handle on it and can normalize it to something manageable. Feel the pain. See what it has to teach you. The journey blows in a hundred different ways, but in the midst of a spell of utter sadness, you can also exhale, and take charge of your process; and you can heal.

Grief as a Color

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Punxsutawney Phil is my hero, and I’ll tell you why.  He mercifully did not see his shadow self on this palindromic Ground Hog Day, and so, we can look forward to an early spring. I trust the animal kingdom, as long as I am not prey.

I’m thawing out, as it were. I’m from Southern California where a sweater is merely a suggestion during a San Diego winter. Acclimating to my first high desert winter was not easy for me. San Diego is just about as perfect as one can get. Let the sun shine.

One day of a foggy, gray sky is essential for artists, two days if you resisted its beckoning the first. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), however, is a documented phenomenon which does nothing to assist with deep grief. I grieve; I probably will ‘til I am no longer living in this body.  I just no longer mourn, you know, like when you’re at the mercy of a deep longing that consumes you.

Grief doesn’t come in a nice little package wrapped prettily with a perfectly tied bow. I’ve read an astounding number of books on grief. I’ve read academic articles on grief. I’ve explored other cultures’ grief rituals. There really is no perfect way to do grief. The infinitely many and diverse descriptions of grief all merge at a singular point: the point where it just fucking hurts.

I’m not a medical expert so I can’t tell you the physiological reasons why your body hurts when you’ve lost someone. I can tell you I ached as physically as I did psychically.  I know hormonal fluctuations coupled with triggering life events can fan the fires of anguish. As a matter of fact, in the Twelve Step program(s) there is an acronym that is an effective tool in a Stepper’s kit: HALT. The letters stand for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. Any of these emotional and physical states can cause a person in recovery to relapse. I watched it with my son over the course of 10 years.

I try to apply the same acronym when I’m faced with an important decision, or when I’m in conflict with another person, and now, tragically, I must remind myself of this helpful tool when I am hungry, angry, lonely or tired —  and when grief becomes overwhelming. For me, and I speak for only myself, if I’m not vigilant about my grief process or if I don’t pay attention to my emotional landscape, I can easily get swept away into a funk of some duration. Grief was unrelenting the first year; it has become less so as the years have passed.

When I could finally catch my breath after a solid six months of meltdowns, I did, and I don’t mean this is the right way or the right length of time for anyone else, but I did wake up one day and say, “Okay. What now?” I had a revelation, one that suggested I could be healed. I’m a book nerd. I read everything I can get my hands on, and in no trending genre. I read what answers my questions about life and the universe. I was desperate for answers about my broken heart and how I could begin to heal.

I began to do research on parents who’d lost a child or children to addiction. I spoke with parents across the globe and we helped each other through some of the worst days of our lives. My research in the beginning was very specific and could not be applied to grief-at-large. Once I began to read about the different configurations of relationships one can lose to death, the frozen sea inside of [me] began to melt.

I encourage those of you who are early in your grief process to take advantage of those moments of clarity and read everything you can about grief, complicated grief, healing, and finding peace. I’ve found the best resources come from books and fellow grievers.

January was a rough month for me. I did my best to keep my chin up and bravely face the angelversary of my son’s death. I managed. I muddled. I metamorphosed. You see, we can take devastating losses and let them teach us something about ourselves. I’ve learned I’m monumentally stronger than I ever thought I could be. I’ve learned that through my devastation’ I can reach out to others and share with them how I’ve managed to get through the darkness of death’s effects and make my way to the sunrise of a new day.

Sounds simple, right? Well, for those of you who’ve been working your processes for many years, you know it’s not a simple formula that gets you from point a to point b. The journey of a thousand miles is in between those two points. I believe the first step of liberation from the anguish of grief is the most important step you’ll ever take to realign yourself with the living.

I wore dark or drab colors for the first year after my son died. I’m not sure why. I just didn’t feel very much like donning bright colors, and just so you know, my favorite color is orange. I just couldn’t rev up to wearing bright colors. I didn’t feel bright. I’m sure Freud and Jung would argue libidinal or archetypal shaping of my consciousness, but – colors just seemed disingenuous after losing my son.

Four years later…and four years of hard labor…my wardrobe color scheme has changed. I have blue hair. I have colorful frames for every day of the week, vestiges of my love for early Elton. I withdraw from the world when I am not handling my grief well – and drab is the color of the days leading up to my emotional funks. Some of us do our best grieving alone. I reach out when I know it’s what is best for me – even if my voice shakes. But for the most part, I want to be alone to do my grieving, to sob uncontrollably without someone trying to fix things.

I had an out-of-body experience for three and a half years, but in May of 2019 I woke up and I saw the bright colors of springtime. I moved to the desert and I’m able to stand in awe of our sunsets and the grandeur of the landscape. I have clumsily reentered life and reached out to make friends in our new home. Grief is a natural outgrowth of losing someone. There will be darkness for some time and there’s really no escaping it. Keep your lamp lit and see what’s in there and what it has to teach you. I’m still learning. I’m still growing. My transformation is ongoing and then one glad morning…the transformation of transformations.

The past week the sun has risen to the occasion and rescued me from SAD. I felt the warmth on my face as I spent time outside with friends. I felt the sun enliven me and give me hope that spring is near. I love the springtime. I love the signs of  renewal. Renewal for a griever is a stupendous accomplishment.

When I read about Punxsutawney Phil’s momentous prediction I put on my jeans, pink t-shirt,  pink glasses, and pink Doc Martens–  and this blue-haired, tatted 57-year-old woman went to church hopeful for my future, where I was greeted by an older gentleman who shook my hand and said, “You just exude happiness” – and this time I wasn’t acting.

Healing: In no particular order

By Sherrie Kolb-Cassel

Grief is grief.  How many times have I heard this? How many times have I said those very words? Many. But as I carve out my own trajectory toward healing, I find that each of us expresses our grief in different ways and for many different reasons. For example, one may lose a child, a spouse, a sibling, a limb, a job, a home, etc., and everything — from methods of coping to duration of methods chosen are unique to the individual and her particular experience with dying, death, and grief.

I want to offer my humble opinion, in no particular order, that the Kubler-Ross Model, the Five Stages, is the best model we currently have for explaining how we navigate the grief process. I found myself cycling through the stages spastically, tossed about by mood shifts that are dependent upon the day’s events.

Grief is grief, but its expression throughout the masses is scads different from one person to another — and in infinite permutations. Everyone grieves differently, cross-culturally, with or without emotional soundness, in response to one’s socioeconomic standing, and worldview. I tend to think those cultures who mourn loudly, in communities that weep and wail, rend their clothes, shroud themselves in black for a specified number of months – have the right idea. I wonder if they move on more quickly than those of us who ride out a few years of stoicism before we truly began to move on.

I know there is currently a movement of stoicism in America. If one can buck up and get to the end of the grief path and win the race in a short amount of time because her stoicism is her strength, that’s awesome. In my travels through the grief culture, I have met many wonderful and wounded individuals who share their grief and the methods, including those who choose stoicism, they use to help them through painful moments. They are ingenious in how they navigate each rung on the ascending ladder toward authenticity, healing, and wholeness, and the ladder is not necessarily a straight one, more like a ladder after it’s been run over by a big rig. I have learned so much about my own grief through the wisdom of others who are ahead in their process by many years — those who are struggling — those who are newly grieving– and those who manage to be quick healers. All are teachers.

I recently did some research for my Capstone Senior Thesis class about grief and online support for parents who have lost a child to addiction. One of the things I found during a meta-analysis of the current literature on grief is the ranking of types of death and how they are met with either compassion and respect, or with stigmatization and avoidance by others — for certain types of death, for example, those whose loved one died from overdose, addiction related illnesses, or suicide.

The perception appears to be one of dismissal when a person dies by her own hand, and one may argue that accidental overdose and addiction related illnesses are types of suicide. I can speak for only myself, but my son knew at an academic level that if he continued to use, he would die, and his death is exactly what came to pass. I had one hell of a time finding just the right type of support group. I tried Compassionate Friends in my area, but most were there because they had lost a loved one to a respectable death, i.e. not addiction, addiction related illnesses or suicide.

I decided to try my luck with online support groups, and I was very disappointed in what I found. There is a quite popular site for those who are newly grieving and for those who have been grieving for some time; however, its tone is grim and hopeless, in my opinion. The site is open to any relationship with the one who has passed.  I knew, even though my pain was great, I wanted to heal. I wanted to get through the stages and find joy again. I didn’t know it would take so long. Everyone grieves their losses differently.

I wanted to find a group of parents who had incurred the same type loss I had. I wanted to help, and I wanted to heal, so I created After the Storm and then after I began to heal, I created this blog. After the hell I have risen above through the grief process, I wanted to rediscover joy in my life. I wanted to move forward and still live a productive life and make positive contributions to our world. Most of all, I wanted to offer hope of healing to those who were hurting after the loss of their child. I wanted hope above all.

We who have similar losses are treasure troves of shared coping skills and of sharing how and when to use them during our journey toward transformation. I’m amazed at the healing I see taking place every day at After the Storm and some of the other sites I visit. I’m amazed by my own healing.

I started grieving long before my son died. I had lost him and his beautiful mind to the opioid death epidemic and to alcoholic cirrhosis, and I watched his descent toward his death over several years. He had a terminal illness: addiction. I know those of you who have lost a loved one to a long-term disease also grieve throughout the time your loved one is dying, long before your loved one passes.

I want my healing process to have purpose, to help someone else see the potential for her healing, and to see the very real possibility that transformation from a person who is devastated to one who is inspired and inspiring is forthcoming after much hard grief work. I’ve been called to the mat a few times because I believe total healing after a loss is possible. I’ve been admonished by some for being unsympathetic or insensitive to those who have struggled with their grief and who have found little healing. I reject the claim that we are broken for life. We aren’t; it just takes some time to find our way out of the grief cycle and back to the ability to live full lives again.

I think there are ways to grieve efficiently — in ways that teach me how to be more humane and that also compel me to share my wisdom about the things that are healing me. For example, I am intrigued by people who smudge their homes by burning wild sage and let the smoke waft throughout their homes. I don’t think that would work for me, but it does for millions of other people, and it is effective for them. I have had to find my own methods of spiritual purification as I grieve my son.

I choose to go out to Joshua Tree Park and take pictures or just listen to the wind blow and watch the desert ravens soar above. Being out in nature helps to heal me. Another thing I do, although as a rule, I don’t smoke, but my son loved his wine flavored cigarillos, and occasionally, I’ll go into the backyard and take a ceremonious puff in his honor. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I don’t.

I don’t think grief is linear, at least it has not been linear for me. My grief process has been peripatetic at best. I try to grab hold of grief and tame it, but just when I think I have a handle on it, the sunset will have a gray streak and I think about my son whose favorite color was gray and I find myself in an emotional funk for a while. You never know what’s going to remind you, even though you are doing well, that the glistening of your eyes or a torrent is  always two seconds away.

If you have found a successful method for grieving, please comment below and share it with the readers who come here in search of hope they too can heal.

Everyone grieves differently. Grief is universal in its impact on the human heart; it is just expressed in line with the culture of its people, among other behavioral norms, mores, and death rituals. What do you have to teach someone about your grief and how you navigate your process?

Someone needs the hope only you can give her. Dig deeply into your grief and share the pearls of great price you have buffed to perfection through a tumultuous internal grief process.

I want to make my grief count for something and so I express it through my writing … sometimes jumbled, but always well-intentioned. I appreciate the readership – even when I make little sense. Trust me, I push myself to write my grief, but nothing comes easily, or in a systematic manner. My words often arrive like lysergic acid diethylamide-laced alphabet soup, causing disorientation to both me and my reader.

My words are my legacy to a hurting population. I’ve been so blessed with amazing people in my life, both online and in person through this terrible-wonderful time, the least I can do is share my experience, strength and hope with those who still struggle.

I miss my son and there are no words, even for a writer, that can adequately define my pain. But I’ll keep trying to help others cope with theirs; it’s become my mission, my purpose, my calling, which I could not possibly have imagined I’d ever be capable. We each have gifts that are to be used for the betterment of our world. Sometimes we don’t discover those gifts until we’ve gone through some turbulence in our lives. My son’s death rocked my world. I get to decide how I will manage my grief and my healing process, however, and I choose those who are struggling as my target population to be of service to. Being of service is my legacy. I share my grief so you know it’s navigable. You will be okay at some point too, if you work your process.

I promise you, transformation will be your reward, and you’ll want to share it with those you see who are hurting like you were. You get to be a beacon of light — and the promise of hope.

Unpacking

By Sherrie Ann Kolb-Cassel

I feel the chill of his giant gray t-shirt on my face as I inhale his scent, his cologne, his deodorant, the scent of his wine-flavored cigarillos — or maybe it is just my imagination. We are unpacking our garage, even though we’ve lived in our new house for over one year. The boxes clearly marked “Rikki’s things” have remained unopened until this morning, four years after his death. Some grievers take longer than others. I threw myself into university work and into the creation of a blog I share with some wonderful parents called After the Storm.

We all second guess ourselves retrospectively after the death of a loved one. Did we tell them we loved them enough? If we were ever unkind, did we say we were sorry? And the list goes on and on.

Dependent upon your faith tradition, spiritual inclinations, or your humanistic leanings, death is a finality or, it is a transition. Each style of grief provides us with lessons that teach us how to live more fully and we must grab hold of that brass ring as it presents itself to us – and, after a time, it will.

I try to remember what my son thought about death and/or an afterlife. During my fundie days, I assured him there was a heaven, and I still believe this, although there are other things about fundamentalism that I reject absolutely; that’s a topic for another time, however.

One of the boxes I unpacked this morning was one my son had packed and then I put some of my stuff in the box when we moved. I find this fusion comforting.

I found a lot of his vast collection of eclectic music — some he borrowed from my collection throughout the years.

I found books he meant to read. I found papers with his handwriting on them, and I held them close to my heart. I allowed the systemic pain to rise to the surface and I had to stop and catch my breath through the tears. But it was release and I needed it.

You see, even though I am bereft about the 3 and a half years I lost through hardcore grieving and intermittent numbing, it was time to unpack – many things – and find a way to move quickly and appropriately forward.

You can never get moments back after they have passed. Bitterness is always an option, but it makes you old before your time. Ever see an elderly person with wrinkles so deep they lead you to want to know what they have experienced in this life. There are some wrinkled wise ones who can smile broadly and the wrinkles just smooth out and they are suddenly young again. So let the world enfold you and lead you into the land of milk and honey, a metaphor for an age-old home remedy that helps make skin new again.

Transformation will fill us with wisdom that will carry us through the rest of our lives – where we can walk in the warmth of the sun.

How do you touch and hold in your hand a belonging of a lost loved one and not have his or her spirit, energy, or memory flow through you? Yes, it’s bittersweet, but it’s a connection to your loved one.

Everything I see in this world reminds me of my son and it brings to the forefront the realization that I cannot share beauty with him anymore.

Sure, we talk to our loved ones – sometimes we even believe they hear us. I think we commingle our consciousness when we remember with our entire bodies. I feel the loss in my chest. I sometimes get vertigo when I feel the full impact of my loss. When my son first died, I thought I would die if I felt my son’s absence wholly – sometimes I welcomed that possibility because his death created a void in my world of the greatest magnitude and maximum emotional pain. I didn’t want to feel anymore.

Last week was a very difficult one because it was the fourth angelversary of his passing, and I was, quite frankly, an emotional wreck. I couldn’t stop the day from coming – and despite my best efforts to keep my shit together, I didn’t. I did make it through another year though.

As my husband moved boxes out of the garage and into my home office, I opened one box and I quickly closed it. I told myself, I’ll wait until tomorrow, so I did. I got up this morning and went through the motions, coffee, shower, hair, makeup, and then walked gingerly into my office as if I was going to awaken an unpredictable sleeping giant.

I took a deep breath and I dove in, just as I did as his mother. I dove in, heart first to fall in love with him. Just as I did for all his milestones, dips and victories. I wanted him back and I told the God of my understanding, Lazarus was dead for three days; if you’re a miracle worker, bring him back to me.

I’ve spoken about wishful thinking. When you lose someone, it can become desperate wishful thinking, unrealistic wishful thinking, and worst of all, flights of fancy and lapses into unreality.

For those of us who are doers, we just know that we must remain busy, active in our processes — in the present. Allowing ourselves lapses into fantasy and bargaining with the Divine brings only more pain and more desperation.

What can I do? Please God, the Universe, Creator, medical technology, bring her or him back.

Acute grief takes one temporarily out of consensus reality. We’re alone out here, even with tremendous support from loved ones and/or professionals; it is we who must take that first step into healing. Acceptance expedites the process.

I resisted healing for 3 and a half years, and then I woke up one morning and even though I was still in pain, the grief fog began to lift and I could see clearly what I needed to do; and I could see clearly what I had missed out on during my mourning stage.

I have returned to the resilient woman I was prior to my son’s illness and eventual death. Resiliency is within each of us. In the early days, I wanted my pain, and I resented anyone who tried to rush me through the process.

Leave me to my grief – I don’t want to feel better just yet.

There are actions we can still make to hold on to happier times, to help us to remember things about our loved ones that made them amazing, to comfort ourselves enough to be present in our lives now.

My son was an avid reader, and he eagerly insisted I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m grateful I did so before he died so we could discuss what the important points he wanted to share with me were.

Our discussions were rich and of some mad longevity. His favorite book was The Count of Montecristo. He bought himself a leather-bound, gold-leafed copy and it was one of his prized possesions. He read a little every night to his son. I’ve been afraid to pick it up for four years. I found it…and I think I’m ready to delve into my son’s heart and soul. I want to know him – like I knew him in life. His stuff brings me closer to him, to his Spirit, to the memories that put a smile on my face — even as they tug at my heart.

I have more boxes to go through, but it’s really not about unpacking boxes, is it? Reluctance, hesitancy, fear of how we’ll feel touching their things, resurrecting memories, both good and bad are all extensions of Kubler-Ross’ 5 Stages toward acceptance and making meaning. Grief is something that creates a battle in our lives, one for our lives, against the potential for self-destruction through complicated grief.

My heart will let me know when it has had enough of unpacking and then I will follow my head which will encourage me to move to another task, one not so emotionally charged, — and I will imagine that  my son is telling me, “Momma, the sun is shining; winter is over – and you need to get outside and tend to the season’s new roses.”

And in his great big gray t-shirt, I will listen.

Evening at the Improv

By Sherrie Ann Kolb-Cassel

You never think it will be your kid who will die from the consequences of substance use disorder, alcoholism, opioids, fentanyl, addiction. You can’t fathom death even though your child is hemorrhaging in his legs, he is gasping for air, and he has completely lost his ability to fight for his life anymore. I watched my son with each labored breath walk to his deathbed. He struggled for years with his disease, and in the end, his disease took another beautiful life.

I knew my son was dying, and despite my desperate words and ceaseless tears, I made no impact on him. I remember the very day I came to accept, sort of, that he was going to die. He was shuffling very slowly toward me, bandages on his legs, and breathing erratically. I remember saying to the God of my Understanding, “Oh sweet Jesus, you’re going to make me bury my son.”

He would be dead a few months from that day. I don’t know how he held on so long. His heart was compromised. He had cirrhosis. His brain was beginning to be less clear and less him as each day wore on.

Love is an irrational phenomenon. Perhaps we do sublimate the need to survive – through offspring, through creative endeavors, through leaving behind a legacy that will find its way back to the memories of your loved ones of all that you accomplished – maybe that’s why we create,  so we’ll be remembered, or maybe just for self-fulfillment. But love is its own reward, regardless of how illogical it is to put your heart out there – in a world that is sometimes unsafe and oftentimes scary – and more often than one can imagine, is filled with its share of painful moments.

I loved my son more than I love myself, and that is a telling sentiment. I love my son still. He was my only child and I watched him spiral very quickly to his death. He tried heroin when he was but just a teenager. He wasn’t on it long. I made him leave the home we shared because I was not going to allow him to kill himself in our home. My decision led to a year of estrangement, our first of two.

He was able to kick heroin on his own – somehow. Alcohol called to him next, and it was what apprehended his body for the longest period of time. He was going through an ugly separation from a woman with whom he formed an unbelievably toxic relationship. My son’s heart was broken from the guided missiles fired at him in the breakup, and he never recovered from the heartbreak and all the things that happened prior to his death. Ten years of emotional hell was his experience; that last challenge would require everything he had to survive. He didn’t make it.

I’m not a medical expert, but from the research I’ve done into the literature, I do believe addiction is a disease. If the reader is not familiar with epigenetics, or pre-, peri-, and post-natal insult, and you’re currently struggling with a child you adore who is deep in the clutches of the disease of addiction, this information is wildly helpful. I found the literature incredibly healing.

After my son died, I lapsed into a depression that lasted three years. I sat and stared into space from the safety of my couch. I stayed there for three years … not growing … not healing … not moving forward.

I started a grief site on Facebook 10 months after my son died. The site is for parents who have lost a child through the disease of addiction. Together we have saved each other’s sanity and stopped the bleeding when we experience our own overflow of visceral pain.

I saw therapists, with no experience in grief counseling. I tried talking to clergy, also who had very little experience in grief. Death should be easy, right? You do the “ashes to ashes” – “for everything there is a season.” You say your goodbyes or see you laters at the Celebration of Life and then you begin to pick up the pieces of your own life. The reclamation of your Self is the journey of a thousand miles, labyrinthine, dark, with a pinprick of light that is so faint it may not be visible right away.

If you keep clawing your way to the light through working your grieving process, you’ll emerge on the other side a whole person again, older and wiser. The goal is to not emerge so toughened that nothing can reach the soft tissue of your heart. The pain you first felt will become less intense, and other happier feelings will fill in the gaps. You’ll have a greater understanding into the heart of humanity. The potential toward the greatest empathy for others which you will become capable of is nothing short of miraculous, however you define a miracle.

So, what do you do in between the initial heartbreak and the first epiphany that wholeness is possible?

You improvise.

My husband taught theatre arts and is himself an actor, for over 50 years. I enjoyed going to the auditions for his different productions and seeing the kids, some full of confidence, and others terrified to be seen. I can relate to the latter but wish I would have related more with the former.

Watching his students jump into character during the improvisation exercises was always a treat for me. The kids were so inventive and such quick-change artists, that the scene would move seamlessly from one act to the next.

Life off-stage is much different, however. Life can be splintered and disjointed. You might think that I had prepared myself for my son’s eventual death since I had four years of being in the center of the maelstrom with my son. I watched him kill himself. But even then you’re never really prepared. As a parent you hold on until their very last breath. My son was dying right before my eyes, and I knew what the doctors were saying about his prognosis. I knew he was too far gone into his disease. I knew I was going to lose him, but still, there was that pinprick of light, maybe it would burn brightly for my son, perhaps he would see it before it was too late. He didn’t.

Grief is not a seamless scene change in a high school improvisation exercise either. Grief is messy, messier than you can possibly imagine. Kubler-Ross fleshed out the Five Stages of Grief for us, and for the most part, it is a terrific model, and in no particular order, the stages have been accurate for me. I have dug my heels into the bargaining stage so often that they bleed through worn and weathered shoes.

I may never find the end to this black, white and gray rainbow. Maybe grief ends only when our lives come to their own final conclusion.

Until then – I improvise.