When someone dies in my life, I’ve gotten into the habit of writing them letters. It’s a way to keep the relationship going: to say my piece, to work out unfinished business, to keep them up on current events. The letter provides a type of closure for me and a type of opening. It’s an acknowledgement my relationship with the person is forever changed, but not gone.

Last Friday was move day from New Orleans back to Seattle via a month-long, self-guided Civil Rights tour which I hope to document here. Before I get back to the topic of letter writing, a brief aside to catch you up on why we’re leaving New Orleans.

We had fallen in love with New Orleans, so much so, that we had put an offer on a 100-year old, remodeled, creole-style duplex in the 7th Ward. Our dream was to live most of the year here and spend summers in Seattle. We loved our lifestyle. The slower pace, the celebration, the music, the high society mixed with down-home humility, the color, the heat, the charm, the southern hospitality, and God, the food! The lower cost of living and rental income that could flow from the tenant-side of the duplex, would have allowed me to focus on more entrepreneurial pursuits without pressure to bring in stable income for a bit. I had planned to focus on my writing, completing additional requirements towards my healthcare chaplaincy certification, and explore starting a corporate chaplaincy business.

On May 25, we spent our 12th anniversary experiencing restaurant dining post-COVID for the first time since quarantine and welcomed a local musician into our large open living room for a private, physically distant house concert while neighbors babysat our son—a rare treat, on multiple levels, during those early days of COVID. It felt special, uniquely New Orleans. As we listened to the music, we sat marveling at our good fortune, oblivious to the fact that, on the same night, in Minneapolis, George Floyd was suffocating under the knee of a callous police officer.

As protest over George Floyd’s death erupted across the country, my husband felt a strong tug on his heart to go back home. During our many years in the northwest, he had been working alongside communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and to suddenly be so far away from the people in the movement he held dear soon became untenable.

One night he announced that he had a proposition that would “Fuck up our plan.”

Radical shifts to our plan are not uncommon in our household. We are the couple, who, after losing our parents, quit our jobs, sold our house, and traveled the world for 18-months. He announced that he felt called to go back to Seattle and be with his people in this unprecedented moment in history. From my perspective, there was work to do all over the country, not least of which was right under our noses in New Orleans. From my experience, building relationships and getting involved was open and available—at least in comparison to Seattle. But I understood what he meant. As an outsider, one should let the insiders lead. We were not insiders here. The problem was, saying yes to going home to Seattle, would mean saying no to our New Orleans dream for the time being.

Because my husband uprooted his life to make my dream of clinical pastoral education possible, returning the favor was a no brainer, but it was not without cost.

After many days of late-night deliberation and intentional discernment, we backed out of the offer on the house, I rescinded my application for the fall CPE unit at the hospital, I cancelled carefully researched kindergarten applications for my son, I scrambled to apply to other CPE programs in Seattle (they’re all full), and I started saying goodbye to new friends. Even in a short nine months, I had grown roots.

While I believe that going back to Seattle is the right decision for our family, leaving New Orleans is another loss that needs to be acknowledged. I moped around the city for weeks. Initially, leaving felt like a sandcastle washed away by an unexpectedly large swell or like an early miscarriage when you had just started to get excited about the possibility of a baby. When you’re already grieving, everything can look like death.

The fact is that New Orleans is alive and well, not dead in the least. It’ll be here even if I’m not. And, all the ways I changed and grew during my season here will be gifts that keep on giving.

So, here’s my letter to my temporary home to which my relationship has changed but is not gone.

Dear New Orleans,

Thank you for holding such nourishing space for me and my family over the last nine months. From the moment we drove in, you swept us up in a parade of celebration. Over cocktails and jambalaya at The Spotted Cat, we spent our first late October evening toasting the realization of a long-held dream to live within your boundaries. My son wanted to be the “Star Wars Family” for Halloween, so the next day we headed to the French Quarter to get properly outfitted as “Mom Vader,” “Dad Sidious,” and “Kid Trooper.” After filling up on candy and getting a good scare by the local hunted fire station on Magazine Street, we got a good laugh from “bone-a-fide” satire at The Skeleton House on State Street.

For a city that is no stranger to death, we continued the celebration by contributing the names of the deceased loved ones who brought us here—Tim, Dad, Nugget, Mom, Thad, Helga—to the Dia de Los Muertos altars around town. In fact, I spent a lot of time at your many cemeteries contemplating whether the thing I was presently worried about would matter so much at some future point when I would take my place there.

Community Dia de Los Muertos altar at the Healing Center

We swung and swayed with official Second Lines on Sundays. Frequently, Zavi would bolt down the hall to the kitchen where I was cooking dinner, yelling at the top of his lungs, “Mom parade! There’s a parade outside!” as an umbrella-clad wedding party, group of students from the local high school band, or gaggle of musical friends were marching by in front of our first house on Burgundy. We danced to Zydeco music at festivals, attended our first ever Bayou Classic weekend, and caught enough beads to last us a lifetime (and that was before Mardi Gras!).

Your magic brought us an unconventional school for Zavi that challenged us to live more deeply into our values and gave us an instant community of kids and parents. You granted us a beautiful Uptown rental, whose sunlit, breezy, screened front porch provided us sanctuary before and during COVID. Zavi turned 5, lost both his front teeth, learned to ride a bike without training wheels, and can now flip front and backward in the pool and dive down deep to retrieve items. He spent eight weeks at sports camp this summer where he’s more of a sports fanatic now than ever. We flew to Panama from your airport and came home to New Orleans by air for the first time. We sampled King Cake and learned to give into excess at Mardi Gras!

When we moved here, we knew that we were going to have fun, but our spirituality also deepened planted in this fertile soil. I moved here to see whether I was indeed called to be a chaplain. It was an experiment of sorts, expecting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer at the end. Instead, after six days of orientation, I was given a badge that said “chaplain,” and in a public ceremony, commissioned as a minister whether I saw myself that way or not. I would grow into the title. Over the next five months, I would companion hundreds of patients at Ochsner Medical Center and attend many deaths. I would unpack and repack my relationship to faith over and over again; I would define what type of minister I was and wanted to become; I would come to appreciate the unitary lessons that come through pain; I would learn to pray again; and I would solidify my new career direction even if I’m not yet sure what the destination is.

At my commissioning ceremony, Ochsner Medical Center

I started writing too. I had wanted to blog about grief and all our travels up to now, but it took the slower pace of NOLA and the nudge of Tara Mohr’s Playing Big course to help me to leap. I learned to sit still in the Big Easy. I got really healthy too. Thank you for the community at Free to Be Power Yoga, excellent chiropractic care from Dr. Rueben Carter, and a gifted Jungian therapist who helped me to see myself more clearly.

I will miss the long bike rides around town, dodging potholes, and the familiar call of “Hey baby” from friendly locals sitting on their stoops. I will miss picnics at Crescent Park and watching tugboats guide barges along the Mississippi River. I will miss hearing neighbors, Hugo and Sadie, call me “Miss Angeline” when over to play with Zavi. I’ll miss long talks about womanhood, vocation, parenting, marriage, travel, and current events with the King’s. I’ll miss my Dinner Party Table and the brave space we created to process the people we lost.

Dusk at Crescent Park

No, New Orleans you aren’t perfect. In many ways, your scars are on the surface: poverty, segregation, failing schools, lack of infrastructure, hurricanes, humidity, bugs etc. But I loved you just the same. Maybe it was just the honeymoon stage, maybe not. Your charm got under my skin.

It was a beautiful season, even if it wasn’t at all as we had planned. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I hope it’s soon and I hope it’s for more than just a visit.

Another Funeral: R.I.P. Uncle Mike

On Thursday, I will board a plane for the first time since the stay-at-home orders went into effect. What essential travel plans do I have, you ask? My Uncle Mike’s funeral is Friday at 2 p.m. in Virginia. This is the same uncle who I had just spoken with three weeks prior, who sounded happy and healthy, who I would visit every time work travel took me to D.C., and who was looking forward to his future. This uncle was the man who lost his older sister, my mother, only two short years ago. At only 63 and a half, just six months shy of the same age we lost my mom, to the same unexpected turn of events, his sudden heart attack was and is a shock. This uncle is the 8th close family member that has died in four years.

At first, I railed against the absurdity. The day before my uncle’s death was the three-year anniversary of my dad’s death. I had stayed up late writing my dad a letter, catching him up on everything since he died. I was feeling grateful at the progress, finding that I felt closer to my dad than I had in years. Then came the call from my brother about my uncle the next morning.

Really, universe?! EIGHT loved ones in FOUR years? How can this be happening, A-G-A-I-N?! Have I not learned enough with the first seven? Are you out to get me? Do you fucking care? I guess that was the anger stage of grief.

After I hung up from my brother, before even telling my husband, I instinctually walked directly to the cemetery a few blocks from my house. I suppose I needed reminding that everyone dies. So, why not another one of my family members and why not now? Unable to digest the weight of this truth, next came the numbing disbelief.

Within an hour of hearing the news, I sank deep into taking care of everyone and everything else besides myself; I’m in a chaplain training program after all. There was my uncle’s wife, now widowed after 28 years of marriage just days before her birthday, my three cousins 17, 19, and 28 who lost their dad, my grandma who has now lost two of her three ‘children’ in two years, my uncle’s baby sister—my aunt—the only remaining sibling in her family, my brother and sister who were watching our family shrink before our eyes, and then all the calls to extended family. Then there were circumstances that made my uncle’s death complicated and difficult to navigate, like tricky family dynamics, physical distance, and a global pandemic.

Aunt Cheryl, Uncle Mike, and Mom circa early 1980s

I’ve gotten pretty good at attending to other people’s grief, but somehow, it was hard to roll out the same safe, nonjudgmental, sacred red carpet for my pain. I’m tired. Did I mention that he is the eighth in four years? I subconsciously reasoned that if I can make sure everyone else is alright, I can ignore the fact that I’m not. I’ll call that denial. The difference this time around was that I was aware that I was pretending that I wasn’t hurting; I could handle the fact my uncle was dead by ignoring it; I could take care of myself by denying myself. I was aware of this faulty thinking with this one, I just wasn’t ready to do anything about it yet.

As I slowly started to process with friends, I reminded myself that I know what to do when someone I love dies: lean into what Rumi said, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” So, I canceled my plans last Monday night, spooned a generous scoop of coconut milk chocolate ice cream into my favorite Trader Joe’s brand sugar cone, and stayed up late watching A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, the English subtitled drama set in Taipei and San Francisco that I’ve been watching since we went to Taiwan last year—because binge watching T.V. while stuffing my face with sugar will obviously help with my grief. I’m joking here, but the thing is, it did help!

The cure for the pain is in the pain.

– Rumi

The saddest thing that had happened in the show so far were break ups and close brushes with temporary yet ongoing illness.  Of course, just my luck, one of the main protagonists’ beloved father dies in the second to last episode as she looks on helplessly. Nien-Nien spends the next episode wandering around lost, flying from Taipei to San Francisco only to lie in bed despondent for days, having lost her sense of purpose, refusing to eat, unsure of who she is without her dad. That’s all it took. Her fictitious grief unlocked my very real grief. A full week after I first learned of my uncle’s death, I let the tears flow for the first time.  

Nien Nien with her father.

In the final episode of the show, Nien-Nien’s friends and family in Taiwan find a stack of old “death letters” she wrote to herself over the years as she had been a sickly child and wasn’t expected to live past her teens. Fearing that she may be suicidal and alone in San Francisco, her childhood friend catches the next flight out of Taipei, despite being newly married and his wife expecting their first child. The friend cooks Nien-Nien the meal her dad made for her when she was ill, and the soup nurses her back to life. She finally admits, out loud, how much she misses her dad and she cries in the friends arms.

I felt like the show got a few things right: when we lose our person, we’re lost, life feels pointless, we’re not even sure who we are anymore, the void our loved one left threatens to swallow us whole, and sometimes being swallowed whole is preferable to feeling all that we’re feeling. The show also showed how life goes on for everyone else, even though our world is unrecognizable. Yet, when someone stops long enough to recognize our pain, it validates it and helps us to take a step towards the possibility of life without our person in it.

I’m going to my uncle’s funeral because I need to show up for me and our family and look and be looked upon. Like David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief says, “grief must be witnessed”. That witnessing lets us know that we’re not crazy and we’re not alone. Kessler says that grief is what’s going on in the inside of us, mourning is something we do on the outside. While grief will always be a lonely, solitary road that we must walk as individuals, mourning need not be. That’s why funerals are important and why the COVID-induced virtual option just wouldn’t do. But what about after that? Somehow, unless you’re blessed with religious heritage with prescribed mourning rituals like the Jewish practice of sitting shiva, we in the west have forgotten how to mourn. Maybe that’s why it’s been so easy for some to criticize the Black Lives Matter protests—they forgot what it feels like to hurt on a collective level.

In his excellent book, Kessler tells the story of what a Northern Indigenous tribe in Australia does to tangibly show that someone’s death matters. The night someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed since their loved one died—not just for them but for everyone. What a beautiful way to make loss visible—to witness and mirror grief. That’s why so many have been compelled to make beautiful public art to show that we’ll never be the same after the pandemic and certainly not after George Floyd.

Different artists painted each letter in this Capitol Hill protest zone mural. Follow their work on Instagram! B: @kimishaturner L: @perrypaints A: @onesevennine C: @thecurlynugget K:@thesoufender L: @drakesignanddesign I: @stattheartist V: @aohamer E: S: @snekeism M: @moses_sun A: @artbreakerbt TT: @tdubcustoms E: @future_crystals R: @artvaultseattle @thekingafroshow (Aerial photo provided by Dave Durkee of Above It Media LLC) Photo cred: Crosscut Media

Today we mourn publicly on social media hoping that someone else who has been through it will see us and show us that we’re not alone. We write long tributes; we tell the story of what happened; we post pictures on death anniversaries; we join grief pages (David Kessler has an excellent one); we change our profile picture in solidarity with larger movements. And, this is fine and good, because it scratches the itch to do something.

The best I’ve got right now is to be there, because there’s nothing to be done. My uncle is dead. Nothing I do will change that.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned from six months of clinical pastoral education is that a good question, maybe even one of the best questions to ask anyone who is grieving is “what is it like for you?”

Since I first found out about my uncle two weeks ago, this is a bit of what it has been like for me.

George Floyd and What Funerals Taught Me About Race

I had been working on this post about my earliest lessons about grief for a week when George Floyd’s death happened. I needed to stop to attend to this new sorrow and its implications for George Floyd’s family, for the country, for the world, and for me personally. The more I attended to this new sorrow, the more I realized that this sorrow isn’t so new after all. You see, I first learned about grief by attending many funerals during my childhood on both my black and white sides of the family, and funerals were also where I got my first lessons about race.

My maternal grandfather came from a family of eleven kids and my paternal grandmother came from a family of five. When considering my large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins once removed, it seemed someone was always dying. I remember sitting at these funerals feeling sad, not because I would miss the person in the casket up front, as the deceased was almost always a relative that one of my parent’s had grown up with but whom I had only met once or twice, if that; I was sad because I hadn’t had the opportunity to know them like the other people in the room who were beside themselves with grief.

I learned to respect grief as sacred, as something you put on your most somber-looking Sunday best and show up for, something you witness, but I didn’t really get it; grief wasn’t personal (yet).

Because my family was spread out geographically with a contingent still in Los Angeles, another contingent out venturing further into the suburbs of Riverside and San Bernardino, and another contingent sprinkled throughout the country, funerals became stand-ins for reunions. Every time someone died, we’d say “next time, we won’t meet this way!” Then, inevitably, the next person would go. As a young person, I remember looking forward to seeing the cousins who I would only see on these occasions and hoping that I would remember their names. Like an ambassador prepping for a state dinner, I’d spend the long car ride into downtown L.A. getting briefed by my mom and dad about how we were related to everyone, taking care to memorize identifying personal characteristics and tidbits of family history—like how my mom’s grandma would feed the cousins mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder bread because that’s what they could afford or how my dad’s uncle Bob, the prominent surgeon, would carve the Thanksgiving turkey while dictating each precise cut of his scalpel.

Upon arriving at the church where the funeral was to take place, my most visceral memory is being unsure of where I belonged. At a black relative’s funeral, I remember surveying the fashionable church-lady hats, elegant high heels, and the dark oversized chic sunglasses hiding the full display of tears as I hugged relatives I barely knew. Taking my seat in one of the hard pews, stomach already grumbling, I remember scanning the mourners for a face that looked like mine. There were all shades of dark chocolate, mocha, caramel, and deep tan, but often, my brother and sister were the only other lemon custard-colored, curly haired people in the crowd. Though my black family always embraced me as one of their own, the fact that I didn’t look like them, talk like them, share their experience, or love the person we were there to mourn, made me feel “other” at a very early age.

My grandfather with two of his sisters at their brother’s funeral.

Funerals on my white side were no different. We were the only yellow ones in a sea of white faces. Notwithstanding that my dad’s mom discouraged my parent’s interracial marriage by advising them “not to have kids because we would turn out ‘blotchy,’” my extended white family also accepted me. But when I had little to contribute to conversations about recent vacations to far-flung destinations, got tripped up trying to follow the unfamiliar Catholic funeral mass, or found my thoughts about the latest op-ed in some paper I’d never heard of wanting, our class and religious differences made me feel that I wasn’t one of them either.

I was left to navigate race all by myself. Perhaps my parents thought that love would conquer all, as it had for them—at least on the surface. After all, they got married in 1976, only nine short years after the Loving decision legalizing interracial unions. My parents banked on our burgeoning multi-cultural society (particularly in diverse Southern California), and their offspring’s racially ambiguous good looks, personal achievement, and obliviousness to history would somehow keep us safe. And, in some ways it did, but it also kept me ignorant and outside of a fuller picture of the black experience, instead of awakening my consciousness and establishing my belonging in it. That too, I’ve had to do for myself.

And now, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others we are becoming aware of day-by-day, like Manuel Ellis, I find myself at yet another series of funerals for people who I wished I knew but who I’ll never have the chance to know. Yet suddenly, this grief feels deeply personal even if I have no memories of how Ahmaud’s laugh sounded, what George’s favorite color was, or what Breonna would have wanted for her birthday.

Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor

I, along with many of you, found myself screaming at the TV while I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder. I’ve felt horrified, stricken, and so heavy ever since. I’ve been inspired by the global movement of protest in response even as I wish that the actions were all peaceful. Even as I question the use of tear gas and flash bangs to control crowds, I’m terrified for my brother who has been called off of his regular beat as a highway patrol officer and been sent to the front lines of the protests where he’s been yelled at, cursed at, spit upon, and faced personal threats simply because of what his uniform represents. As a mother of a perfectly brown, curly haired child, I’m committed to do everything I can to make his experience different. Yet, while I understand the “us” versus “them,” “you’re with or against us” rhetoric on social media, I’ve felt torn by the way this dichotomy conflicts with my lived experience.

To be honest, I find myself scanning the crowd of mourners just like when I was a kid, not so much for people who look like me, but for people who share my experience of someone who embodies the complexities and contradictions of our collective racialized experience hoping to find someone who knows, at a deeply personal and physical level, that the killing of black people at the hands of police MUST STOP and that what we need is reconciliation rather than revenge.

My maternal great grandmother with my paternal grandmother at some point in the early 80’s.

Perhaps this sentiment arises from the dual burden that I, as a biracial person, feel forced to pick a side and at the same time be a bridge builder between the two.

Picking a side is not so simple. The history of the one drop rule which considers anyone with black ancestry to be black—a uniquely America phenomenon I might add—leaves those of us who don’t “look black” (which is in and of itself subjective, arbitrary, and changes depending on context and region and who’s asking/telling) with the privileged yet horrid choice of whether to “out” ourselves as members of the oppressed group, with all of the benefits and burdens this entails. Many black people, including members of my own family facing systemic oppression and shut out from any other way to assimilate and gain opportunities, counted the cost of “passing” as white as a survival strategy, even if the price was cutting off pieces of themselves and pretending their families never existed. This necessitated a deep sense of internalized racism. For those in my family not light enough to pass, many chose to assimilate to the best of their ability and not rock the boat by differentiating themselves from those who chose a different path. In a recent conversation with a family member who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the Watts Riots about how they felt about George Floyd’s death: “Awful! It’s just wrong what they did to that man. People have a right to protest, but those looters make the rest of us look bad. I’m not a groupie, you’ll never catch me out there marching.” Case in point.

And, as my consciousness evolves, I have to accept that in unconscious, subtle, and insidious ways I passed too because that was what was passed down to me as the means of survival. This moment, however, is asking me to do a deeper analysis of my personal history, challenging me to reconfigure my allegiances, and inviting me into deeper action.

In a speech Malcolm X gave on May 5, 1962 at the funeral service of Ronald Stokes in Los Angeles, who was killed by the LAPD he said,

Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? To such extent you bleach, to get like the white man. Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don’t want to be around each other? No… Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you.

White supremacy teaches us this—that white is right and everyone else is wrong. Unfortunately, neither of my largest influencers in early life, my parents nor my religious experience, disrupted this racist posture, so I had to look to others to fill in this gap.

James Baldwin, wrote this in response to an incident at the 1956 Conference of Negro-African Writers and Artists in Paris, where the French chairperson questioned the head of the US delegation on why he considered himself Negro, since he certainly did not look like one: “He is a Negro, of course, from the remarkable legal point of view which obtains in the United States, but more importantly…he was a Negro by choice and by depth of involvement–by experience, in fact.”

Acknowledging that the way any of us look and that fact should somehow define where we are in the pecking order of power is the very root of the problem, James Baldwin’s definition of “being black by choice and depth of involvement,” certainly challenges me, not to cut off any parts of my experience, but to bring all of it to the struggle for racial justice.

Which then, makes the invitation to be a bridge builder in the spaces between all my identities one that is hard to refuse given the urgency of the present moment. If I learned anything from all those funerals I went to, it is that ultimately, I am from both communities regardless of whether the vestiges of racism make those claims feel incomplete, complicated, and inadequate. I also learned that you show up, you join the mourners no matter what your relationship was with the dead, you cry together, you laugh together, you eat together, you witness one another. This is how we get through.

Apprenticeship with Sorrow, Part 1: Grief, is Grief, is Grief

When I was in cosmetology school, I had an instructor that used to say, “hair, is hair, is hair.” He would repeat this as a mantra to demystify our fear of tackling a hair texture that wasn’t like our own. While it’s true that you can’t take the same approach to baby fine, stick straight hair as you would with thick, corkscrew curls like mine, the same basic theory about head shape, geometry, and chemistry applies. That is, hair is a protein that falls a certain way when cut on a certain angle and it reacts to heat and chemicals in a predictable way too. Some textures are more resistant to being processed than others and require special care, but at the end of the day, it is all the same stuff. I think grief is like this too.

Case in point, my son got a new Beyblade Burst toy last week and then quickly learned a difficult lesson about impermanence—that is, that nothing we love will stay the same. For the uninitiated, a Beyblade is essentially an updated 3-piece plastic and metal spinning top based on a popular Japanese manga show where the characters collect “beys” with different strengths and battle one another by trying to “burst” their opponent’s bey. My son is obsessed.

My son’s new Beyblade Burst toy.

By the end of the day, he lost one of the crucial pieces and it burst his little heart. The depth of sorrow my 5-year old experienced could only be explained as grief. He lost something he loved and it was painful. Thankfully, in this case, it’ll likely turn up, and if not, the crucial piece can be replaced or, in time, he’ll move onto the next prized toy.

As I held my son while he cried, however, I was reminded of my own raw anguish especially in the early stages of grief over my parents’ deaths. While my losses are much bigger and irreversible, the pain in our hearts is made of the same stuff. Like my cosmetology instructor used to chant, “hair, is hair, is hair,” I heard myself saying, “grief, is grief, is grief.” We don’t have to be scared of grief; we just need to learn how to work with it even if some kinds require special care. If we’re human, we’ve had a lot of practice with losing things we loved. To live is to suffer. Yet, somehow, we persist.

Now a week later, the lost piece of my son’s toy is still missing, but he has found new ways to enjoy his toy by substituting pieces from his other beys to compensate for the deficit. It’s not the same; it’s not what he wanted; but somehow it works.

A friend of mine and fellow adult orphan commented that one thing she has learned from her losses is that we’re incredibly resilient creatures! Though its not guaranteed, its possible to rise from the ashes and, like the phoenix, to be reborn as the result of tragedy. Somehow, in the mysterious cycle of life, the gaping void becomes filled again not in the same way, not the way we wanted, but in a way that somehow works. More on what this looks like for me in a future post.

Image by JohannaIris from Pixabay

Please don’t misunderstand me as preaching some oversimplified “all things happen for a reason” or “making lemons out of lemonade” bullshit. Another dear friend who, as a bereaved mother, is no stranger to tragic loss, coined the term “toxic positivity” to explain the things people do and say to wiggle out of facing the depth of our pain by trying to move on to the silver lining or happy ending. I’m not denying that pain is unforgivingly and unmercifully real. What I’m saying, like what Ram Dass said, is that the key is to “open our eyes in hell.” To be with what is, in the moment, letting our shattered hearts teach and transform us. It’s facing the raw anguish, like my son did when he lost his toy and like those of us who have lost our people do every day, that, over time, teaches us creative new substitutes to compensate for the aching emptiness where our loved one(s) used to be.

That same friend and I were comparing notes about Mother’s Day and how shitty it can be when your loss touches it. She started to vent about the painful relationship she has with her mother and all the ways their particular dysfunction was amplified on Mother’s Day, when, upon remembering that my mom is dead, froze mid-sentence and started apologizing for complaining about the very thing I’ll never be able to enjoy again—painful or not. Maybe, under different circumstances, I’d consider her ranting about her mom as insensitive, but the fact is, grief, is grief, is grief.

Having a difficult relationship with one’s mom and having a dead mom are both shitty. Assigning degrees of terribleness doesn’t make either situation easier to bear for either of us. Being seen and held in the specifics of how awful it is, however, goes a much longer way to lifting the burden. Check out Brene Brown’s video on empathy for an amazing 3-minute visual of what I mean.

My chaplaincy training program puts me in touch with all sorts of pain on a consistent basis: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. In one day, I might accompany a patient coming to terms with an unexpected terminal diagnosis, in the next room, another patient in extreme physical pain, only to be called away to attend to the family of a patient who has died, and then to return back to my assigned floor to create a safe space for someone to process their doubts about the afterlife. I’d be lying if I didn’t say some visits trigger my, “if you only knew how good you have it,” while others trigger my “I didn’t know how good I had it,” internal reflex. Thankfully, I’ve been through enough to check those thoughts and remind myself to stay present. When I can get quiet and sink into the moment, the mantra returns, “grief, is grief, is grief.” Then, I can get in touch with my own pain as a well of empathy on which to draw from and be with the other person.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

I’m not saying you shouldn’t balk when, upon hearing that your person(s) died, someone talks about the grief they felt after their dog died by way of comparison. Yet, in doing my own work, I realize that people who say stuff like this are really only trying to connect their limited experience with grief to what is a universal human experience. I’m not excusing hurtful comments, but as I’ve explored my own initiation into this painful truth, I realize that not too long ago, before my people died, “my dog died” was the best I had to offer too.

So, I thought I’d start a series on my own “apprenticeship with sorrow,” as psychotherapist, author, and soul activist Francis Weller puts it, to explore the different layers of grief’s initiation process. It turns out that my first lesson with grief didn’t start when my parents died, and for those of you dear readers who are also bereaved, I bet your initiation didn’t start when you lost your person(s) either. What richness might we find in these early lessons? I hope you’ll journey with me to find out.

Miscarriage and Mother’s Day

Picture: Celebrating the news that we would become a family of four in 9 months!

On this Mother’s Day eve, this is a special shout out to all the mothers for whom miscarriage was part of their journey of motherhood. It was for my mom, it was for me, and turns out it was for countless of my friends. But the thing is, we almost never talk about it. I mean, that’s why we have the “don’t tell anyone until after 12 weeks rule,” isn’t it? Because 80 percent of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, waiting gives us some assurance that we’re in the clear so that we don’t have to share the awful news when things don’t work out and we can walk through the world like it never happened, right?

I broke that rule with my second pregnancy and learned two lessons: one hard, one beautiful. The hard lesson was that I didn’t feel safe talking about miscarriage because I didn’t want to admit that I was questioning whether I was broken; I didn’t want to face the question of when I would try again because, trying again was apparently a given; and I didn’t know who would listen to all the gory details anyway, and boy were there gory details! The beautiful lesson was that when I risked telling someone what happened to me, many times, she inevitably had a story of her own to share. A colleague had not one, not two, not three, but seven, yes seven(!) miscarriages before giving birth to her beautiful boy! Two friends miscarried between their first and seconds and I had no idea.

The fact that there are no societal rituals to acknowledge and mourn miscarriage loss further reinforces our collective silence. There’s no death certificate, no funeral, and often, no burial.

For all the sacrifices we make as mothers, miscarriage was my least expected. As someone who was ambivalent, bordering on hostile at times, about having kids in the first place, the fact that my miscarriage has continued to stick with me, continues to surprise me.

For Mother’s Day, I wanted to share my story and invite you to share yours. Partners that includes you too! I want to be seen and I want to see you. I want us to gather in a collective embrace of one another and create safe places to share our sacred stories.

Here’s mine.

Right around what would have been our second child’s first birthday, my husband and I found ourselves unexpectedly mourning that we had one, not two, kids. We were two months into a three-month sabbatical through Asia focused on grieving my parent’s deaths, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when other griefs showed up too, but we were. Through bullet train rides between Seoul and Busan South Korea, searching for the last sakura blossoms in Kyoto, dips in naked hot spring after naked hot spring in Osaka, eating our fill at night markets in Taiwan, getting lost over and over again in Hong Kong, long bike rides in Vietnam, and finally landing for a month in Bali, grief over the fact that “the nugget” wasn’t meant to be was tucked into our carry-on luggage all along, like a silent little stowaway.

We had arrived in Bali the day before and my husband had been in a sour mood all day. When I probed, my usually self-aware, introspective spouse blurted out, much to both our surprises, that it hurts him that, when asked by an inquisitive stranger about whether we are going to have a second child, I retort by saying “Nope! This womb is closed for business.” Neither of us had realized that we hit a nerve. 

We both brushed off the empty ovum miscarriage when it happened in November 2017 as a sad but normal thing. Honestly, I was a bit relieved. Because there was no fetus, only pregnancy parts–like the tiny, tangled, cream-colored umbilical cord that appeared in my underwear one early evening after most of the blood flow had lightened up–the possibility that these parts equaled a baby didn’t even feel real. But, the consequences of that ended pregnancy have felt all too real since then. 

Every time we pass a two-kid family on the street, we are reminded of the loss. Every time my son asks for a baby sister ‘out of mommy’s tummy’ and I say ‘no,’ a tinge of guilt washes over me. Every time my son asks me to play with him because he’s lonely, I feel sad and responsible. 

The reality is, I was ambivalent about having a second and just let it happen. Which is to say, I participated in the possibility making without putting up a fuss. I was this way with my first one too. I was more scared about the way that a child would change everything: my body, my marriage, my career, my time, my sleep that I couldn’t see the joy and meaning a child could create. It turned out that my son is the most precious gift I never knew I wanted, so I figured it would probably be that way with a second too, though my emotions had a lot of catching up to do.

After the pregnancy happened, my feelings were a record stuck on repeat. I was mostly stressed about how it would affect the job that I was growing increasingly disillusioned with, money, my physical health knowing that a second c-section was in my future, and figured that my microscopic excitement could divide and multiply along with the little fetus so that maybe they would start showing about the same time. 

Right about the time my pants started to feel a little snug was about the time that the nagging nausea suddenly stopped. I remember feeling grateful for the relief a whole 3 weeks shy of my second trimester. The first time around, I didn’t feel good until week 22! My husband and I had started calling the baby “the nugget” and we were getting used to the idea that we would be a family of four rather than three.

Two weeks after the nausea stopped, I had my first ultrasound. After discussing that I was due on June 11, but that we should schedule the c-section for early to mid-May to prevent my uterus from rupturing from my son’s surgical birth, my O.B. asked me to lie back, put my feet in the metal stirrups, and lift up my shirt, so she could place the fetal doppler on my belly to listen for the heartbeat. Shit just got real, I thought.

“Hmmm, I’m having a hard time finding the heartbeat, but 8 weeks is early, so maybe we’ll have better luck next week. Let’s see what else we can find.” She then grabbed the ultrasonic gel from its warmer, squirting some on the end of the probe, she rooted around my abdomen looking for signs of life. “Here’s the sac,” she mumbled more to herself than to me. Pressing harder on my groin without taking her eyes off the grainy black and white monitor, she went on, “I’m still having trouble finding the heartbeat.” Turning to me finally, she said, “It could be that the baby is hiding behind your fibroid (the grapefruit-sized reason that my son had a surgical birth). The machines we have in the clinic aren’t as strong as the ones in the imaging center and I think a vaginal probe would help us see around it. Plus, you’re still early, so let’s get you scheduled for an ultrasound ASAP. Oh, and by the way, you’re overdue for a pap, so let’s take care of that before you leave.”

I tried to relax by exhaling as she inserted the cold metal speculum into my vagina. “Why the hell don’t they make warmers for those?” I grumbled to myself. My cervix is nestled low and deep, which makes it hard to find. After trying a few other ice-cold torture implements of different sizes and lengths, jamming two gloved fingers as deep as they could go and then rotating them in clockwise fashion, and finally the eureka moment we’d been waiting for, the quick swipe of the cotton swab on my cervix was over soon enough. Feeling grateful that I didn’t have to endure that particular indignity for another 3 years, I sat up, wiped off the excess ultrasound gel, pulled my pants up and my shirt down, and promised to pick up my after-visit papers from off the printer on my way out.

The spotting started later that evening. I didn’t think anything of it because I usually spot after pap smears and compared to the big gush of blood I had one night while ironing when I was pregnant with my son, the streaks of crimson on the toilet paper after I wiped didn’t seem like anything to be concerned about.

The imaging center was able to fit me in the very next day. In the waiting room, I guzzled water from my orange hydroflask to properly fill my bladder and hoped silently that I wouldn’t have to pee at the halfway point. A nurse with an eastern-European accent called my name and led me back to my room. I took my cell phone out of my purse and placed it on the bed so that I could take a video for my husband who I told not to come since this all seemed routine. I undressed from the waist down, scooted my butt to the far edge of the table until I felt I was about to fall off (not my first rodeo), then place my socked feet into the cold metal stirrups, and pulled the paper sheet over my thighs. The tech walked back in and we began.

As she slid the slimy doppler across my abdomen, I tried to watch the monitor expectantly, but it was at a weird angle that made my neck ache. I asked for a pillow and then we began again. I clutched my cell phone in my right hand so that I could pounce on the moment we located the nugget. My fibroid came into full view, but no nugget. The tech suggested that we try the transvaginal probe instead.

“A little pressure,” she warned as she inserted the long, phallic probe into me. At least this one wasn’t cold or metal, I comforted myself. The search began again. With each passing moment, the tech seemed to grow more and more distant, quiet, and concerned. I clutched my cellphone tighter and tried to deny the fact that things seemed to take a turn for the worst. My denial spell was broken when the nurse turned the monitor away from my view, pulled the probe out, quickly wrapped it in a towel placing it out of view, and disappeared for what seemed like a long while. When she came back, she asked how long I had been spotting. I told her that I had just had a pap smear and that I always spot after pap smears.

She acted like this was the least relevant information anyone had ever told her and then reinserted the probe. She moved the head of the probe this way and that, sniffing around the nooks and crannies of my womb bit by bit, and then finally called the search party off. Pulling out the probe, which I could now see was covered in bloody mucus, she excused herself to consult with the radiologist.

In the minutes that took the doctor to arrive, foreboding numbness settled over my whole body. Could this really be happening? Wait, what exactly is happening? Clearly this was bad. Clearly this was the end of something. But what exactly? I knew I needed to be prepared for something big and life altering. I quickly cleaned myself up, dressed, balled up the bloody sheet I had been laying on, tossed it in the wastebasket, weighed whether I should ask for a sanitary pad, and sat on the plastic chair next to the examination table.

A short-haired, greying, Asian woman appeared in a white hospital robe in the doorway. With a flat expression, she explained that “I must know what had happened.”

“No, I don’t know thank you. My body might know, my soul might know, but my heart is too busy playing dead, and my mind too numb to see the obvious you bitch. Just fucking deliver the bad news already!” I silently screamed. Out loud I said, “Ummm, I know something is wrong. Can you please tell me what has happened?”

With the bloody transvaginal probe in full view, the doctor explained that I was in the process of miscarrying. That I had what’s called a blighted ovum and that this type of miscarriage was common. I should consider whether I wanted to schedule a D&C or let the tissue pass on its own. She told me to watch for foul-smelling discharge and any sign of infection and call my doctor right away if any of these occurred. With a barely audible, “I’m sorry for your loss,” she turned on her heels and walked out of the room.

Looking apologetic, the helpless tech also backed out of the room and I was left alone with my thoughts and my soon to be empty womb.

I walked out of the Capitol Hill Kaiser Permanent campus and headed west on east John towards the Capitol Hill light rail station to go back to work—because this was my default for dealing with strong emotions: stay busy, stay distracted. I was thankful for the steep downhill slope propelling me forward. Had the way been flat or god forbid uphill, I probably would not have made it. After I passed the Safeway on 15th, I fished out my cellphone and called my husband to tell him that there “was no nugget.” I explained that my plan was to finish out the workday and then we could talk about it later that night.

At first, I felt numb. Then the waves of disappointment started to wash over me. I felt like I had made it to the final round of interviews for my dream job, but they chose the other candidate. Or, like I had lost a big jackpot, even though I had really good odds of winning. My biggest immediate concern was whether the tissue would pass on its own or whether I would need to schedule a D&C.

I got my answer later that weekend when the bleeding started in earnest. The miscarriage itself was like one of the most horrible, crampy, bloody, clot-filled periods I’d ever had. I stayed in bed over the whole first day and barely ventured out of my room the next. 

The worst part, at least initially, was not emotional, but that the heavy bleeding didn’t stop! I bled for 2-3 week stretches every month for the next 7 months! It was if my body was grieving what my emotions wouldn’t, until now that is.

I thought about the possibility of trying again in between trips to the bathroom to change yet another pair of pants I had bled through despite the ultra-sized tampon and overnight pad I had applied only an hour earlier; but my body seemed to be staging a merciless bloody revolution and I wasn’t sure I could beat back the mutiny even if I had decided I wanted to. 

Then, three months after the miscarriage, my mom died. Hemorrhaging or not, whatever emotional capacity I had to sustain the long road of trying, potential disappointments, or exhaustion-filled success, dried up. 

Two months after my mom’s funeral, exhausted, anemic, and grieving, I got an IUD. Thanks to the merciful gods of medical science, my bleeding gradually became normal and then miraculously all but disappeared! The demon monster who took up residence in my womb after the nugget vacated was finally appeased or just tired of tormenting me. 

With bodily sanity restored, I had time and energy to consider my life and I had to admit I didn’t see a second biological child as part of it.

When my husband and I were talking through all these things that night in Bali, we agreed that circumstances, in many ways, had decided against a second biological child for us. In theory, we reasoned that even if I got my IUD removed when we got home—wherever that was since we sold our house—and we started trying again, the reality of my almost 38-year old body, and the no home, no job, no grandparents on my side, and the nomadic lifestyle we were living, didn’t exactly measure up to ideal circumstances. Furthermore, even in the best-case scenario, my son wouldn’t have a sibling (or gasp multiples!) for at least another year, at which point he’d be almost 6 and many years out from a viable playmate, which was part of our motivation for having another, at least in the short-term. If by some undeserved grace we’re spared from all the other horrible risks of “advanced maternal age”: chromosomal abnormalities, another miscarriage, still birth, risks to my life; yes, we’d know what another miniature “us” would look like/be like and my son would have another human to share his experience with his crazy parents. But the physical and emotional price of another biological child felt too high.

For all these reasons, this miscarriage marked the end of the road for us to have a second biological child. Perhaps, that’s why it has stuck with both my husband and I. Considering that “the nugget” was due to be born at some point in May, he or she would have been two this month. Empty ovum miscarriage or not, the nugget is still a part of our family’s story and always will be.

For all the mothers with nonliving children, I know that Mother’s Day can be more complicated than happy. I see you and I honor you.

A Confession

Since we’re going on a grief trip together, there is something you should know about me, dear reader: I used to be a hard-core evangelical. Don’t worry, I’m not one now and haven’t been for a long-time, but so much of my story is wrapped up in wrestling with faith and wrestling with God, that I should warn you about what you’re in for.

I am just old enough that online dating wasn’t really a thing when my husband and I were dating, so I never got to experience that unique and peculiar way of meeting someone. And, I definitely didn’t learn any of the rules! Oh, how my heart cringes for my single friends. Anyway, this confession kind of feels like I’m accidentally revealing too much on the first date. What do you reveal on the first date anyway? Is that a personal decision? Is it imperative that you divulge that you have been to prison? Or that you happen to have been born with three nipples? Or that you’ve decided you don’t want to have children?

Well, I haven’t been to prison as an inmate, was only born with the standard twin set of nipples, and already have a beautiful son. My skeleton in the closet is that I was once one of the worst kind of evangelicals. The narrow-minded, right-wing supporting, hot-button political issue wielding, Bible-thumping kind. I even voted for Bush Jr. twice! I know, I know, so embarrassing, even in light of our current president, who somehow, makes Bush’s faults look like weak sauce by comparison.

Why am I telling you all this? There’s a lot of people who have walked away from their faith for lots of different reasons. So, I’m not one of “those” kinds of Christians anymore. Thank goodness, but who cares? All the people who are also in the process of unraveling their faith and hoping that there’s something or someone waiting for them on the other side, that’s who.

You know who you are. You’re the person who faith used to be a huge part of your identity. Where church functions took up most of your time. The people closest to you were all part of your special religious tribe that seemed to move in unison—most of the time anyway. Your world used to be black and white. You didn’t really have to think for yourself, but somehow you couldn’t help thinking for yourself anyway. At some point, none of this was working for you anymore and you left the fold, maybe on your volition, maybe not. You became a spiritual refugee and freedom seeker, but you also felt alone, and scared, and angry, and lost, and disoriented, and…and…and. While you may have contemplated going backwards towards what used to feel so certain and secure, you learned that the only way was forward even if it meant facing uncertainty, pain, and loss. Yeah, I’ve been there. By some serendipity you’ve found me, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.

I’ve been on the journey of deconstructing my faith for a long time. Since this is a blog about grief, I must acknowledge all deaths, not just the people in my life that died. My faith was one of those deaths and the circumstances surrounding how it died and why it died will likely come up, hence the warning for those of you who might not resonate with the specifics of this part of my journey. That’s ok. Take what serves you, leave the rest.

My faith didn’t stay dead though, just as my relationship with my parents didn’t stay dead either. Thanks to many spiritual midwives like my ever patient husband, Kathy Escobar (Faith Shift), Father Greg Boyle (Tattoos on the Heart, Barking to the Choir), Stephen Levine (The Grief Process), Father Richard Rohr (The Universal Christ), Thomas Moore (A Religion of One’s Own), Mirabai Starr (Wild Mercy), Francis Weller (The Wild Edge of Sorrow) and many others, my faith has also been on a slow, deliberate path of healing and reconstruction. Much more on that later.

My grief journey and my faith journey are hopelessly intertwined. If all things death and all things faith fascinate you as much as they do for me, you’ve found a kindred spirit. For those of you who are curious about a spiritual path, particularly one that is authentic, expansive, unbound by an institution, interspiritual, and experienced-based, I hope you will join me so that we can learn from one another.

Why I’m Here

I’m here because I’ve been on quite the grief journey over the past few years and I needed witnesses to the transformation that’s been happening deep in my soul. My dad died in his sleep in June of 2017, I had a miscarriage 5 months later, and then my mom died of cancer 3 months after that. To say that my world had been turned upside down would be an understatement. It felt like a natural disaster: the earthquake, the tsunami, the flood, the fire. Things would NEVER be the same. I would NEVER be the same.

Maybe because I was a hairstylist for over 20 years, I like to bring what’s happening on the inside into physical form on the outside. Breakup? No problem, it’s finally time to get that short sexy pixie cut you’ve always dreamed of but decided not to because he liked long hair. New job? Great, let’s add some face-framing highlights to show what a confident, beautiful, bad ass you are. First date? Let’s opt for a playful chignon instead of your usual blow out to show off your back in that new dress. Too bad my life couldn’t be fixed with a trip to my stylist…thank God, because I probably would have shaved my head!

Instead, the back-to-back losses felt like COVID: they shut my whole world down. Something deep within me decided I needed to manifest my feelings on the inside out into the exterior world. I started making even more drastic changes than a buzz cut. About this time last year, I quit my job, sold my house, and hit the road with my husband and then four-year-old.

Eight countries, seven states, and over thirty cities later, I’ve learned that grief is a trip. By that, I mean it’s a journey, an initiation, a crucible, an invitation, an adventure, a catalyst, and it is the thing that has most put me in touch with my humanity. Loss has changed everything in my life, but not just for the worse. That’s been one of the surprising things. Grief has changed me for the better too.

This blog is my effort to take all the shit that’s happened to me and make it mean something. Maybe you’re here because you’re turning the shit that’s happened to you into fertilizer too. Thanks for reading. It’s going to be a wild ride.