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March 28, 2014

A slightly longer distance

Ascension's Robe by Ysabel de la Rosa
Anna and I met at a conference in the Rocky Mountains some 30 years ago. She was the first stranger I ever allowed to hug me. I moved to Denver a year later, and our friendship  grew. Even after I left the Mile-High City to return to Texas, we stayed in touch.

Anna was the first friend of mine to lose a child. Her 23-year-old son died of melanoma. During his illness and death, she faced numerous other traumas. There were complications with her son's insurance. The medical bills mounted. Her job did not pay much. The same week her son died, the bank came to take her car away. Her "personal" banker knew her situation, but cut her no slack. She had to move out of the town home where she had lived most of her adult life, had to abandon the place that held her family's "aura" and resonant memories of her children. During the time that Anna and I were in touch, she went through a host of losses, including her mother, ex-husband, a brother, a sister. One of her sisters had already lost four of her five children. Another sister and her father had died some years ago.

While her son was ill, I called her long-distance every day. This was before cell phones, Internet, or free long-distance calls. I called her every day for two years. She needed to talk as much after he died as she did before. So, every day we talked.

Time passed. Anna met a wonderful man and remarried. I spoke at the wedding. The wonderful man had a heart attack and died a year later. Anna then completed graduate school and became one of the country's finest grief recovery counselors. She was brilliant, compassionate, connected. Determined not to be stopped by grief or sorrow, she survived it all with pragmatic elegance. When there was emotional homework to do, she did it. When there was getting-on-with-life to do, she did that--with grace and a winning smile. In fact, as I see her again in my mind's eye, I would also say that she had a healing smile. When Anna smiled, her green eyes gave off sparks of light, and seeing her smile, I always felt closer to healing. I'm sure others did, too.

We did not visit often after I moved overseas. When I returned to the States, I had losses of my own to face, and the most I did to keep our communication going was to send Anna a Christmas card every year. In 2012, the card was returned. And in March of 2013, she died. I learned of her passing just yesterday.

There was a time when I would have indulged in intense self-flagellation (aka beating myself up) for not having done more to stay in touch with Anna these past few years. But I had my own set of circumstances to deal with, and staying in touch was not on the urgent agenda. Anything not urgent slipped far down the list of things to do. No one would have understood that better than Anna.

Anna and I used to talk about writing a book together. We were going to title it A Friend Through Grief. We didn't write it. We lived it. And I have tried to continue to live this concept. Since the death of Anna's son, I have shared in the process of eight other friends losing children. I never imagined I would know that many people in my own life who would lose a child. I was often grateful for what I shared with Anna, and she with me, at the time of her son's illness and death. It served me well. I believe that it made me more helpful to those other friends, and I know that it served, as Anna herself would say, as modeling behavior. It showed me how people survive the unthinkable. Her journey and her choices inspired, even admonished me to keep going at times when I thought I couldn't. My experience with her made me lose any fear I had about approaching someone who has lost a child.  I know there is no right thing to say. I also know the wrong thing to do is to let that not-knowing turn into absence when a friend is most in need.

I would have liked so much to speak with my dear friend before she moved on to her next life, but I am grateful to be at a stage in life where I know that she is just a slightly longer distance away than she was when I dialed her number every day for two years. I know she knows I love her. I even think she conspired with some other "force" to make it happen that I would learn of her death on the first-year anniversary of her passing.

I have spent the past 24 hours savoring memories of our shared times. I am allowing this new knowledge of her death to bathe me in gratitude for knowing her while she lived. Yesterday I received a lovely, newsy email from a dear friend in Italy. She wants us to have a conversation, she wrote. I will call her this weekend, feeling especially grateful for this opportunity to call a number, hear the lyrical voice of a sister-friend, and be in touch.

Text, copyright Ysabel de la Rosa, 2014.

March 16, 2014

Not a Sad Blog

Ysabel de la Rosa
I invited a friend to visit this blog a few weeks ago. It was her first and will most likely be her last visit to Getting Along with Grief. "It's sad," she said. "I prefer to celebrate." Her words set me thinking. Last week I visited my childhood home town. Like cinnamon and vanilla in a cake recipe, these two elements--her words and my recent trip--have seasoned my thoughts for a few days.

I grew up in a rural Texas town that had lots of potential, but was short on folks with vision. One visionary that did live there was my college art professor. I vividly remember looking at his drawings for the beautiful and architecturally significant place he believed that our town's 19th century "square" could become. I remember the light in his large, blue eyes as he talked about that vision. He did everything he could to share that future with others, even looking for funding sources. This was the 1960s in rural Texas, though. His dream was not realized in his lifetime, but it is alive and well today. I walked the square and saw my teacher's dream completely come to life. People were walking everywhere. There are two wine-tasting venues on the square now, antique stores, art galleries, day spas, restaurants--with lines of people waiting to get in. The church pictured at right is the church that my teacher and his family attended. Today it is part of the "restored" downtown he imagined. Could I experience all this with joy? Of course. Did I feel grief? También. Grief that my teacher was not physically present to see his dream come true. Grief that his vision was not understood in his lifetime. Did the joy outweigh the grief? Yes, it did. Was I sad? No. 

I have been reading a great book by Dr. Bill Stott and John Lee, Facing the Fire: Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately. It is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. Much of what they write about anger also applies to grief; above all, this:  It needs to be expressed. 

Emotion has motion inside. It is meant to move. If we dam a river at the wrong spot, there is hell to pay. This blog is here for the sake of expressing e-motion, and to help us move and then move on--productively. Just as anger, properly recognized and expressed, can motivate us to make important changes, expressing grief can free us to unblock the rivers inside us and keep life flowing within us.

Maybe this expression can do more than keep us moving, maybe expressing our grief(s) can free us to find new kinds of happiness. My comadre, whom I also saw on my trip "back home," lost her son in a car accident 12 years ago. I remember meeting that beautiful young man as a babe in arms. Then, two decades later, he was gone. Last weekend, though, I got to see my comadre with another baby:  her first grandson. What fun we had with him and he with us! Even at four months, his intelligence and sense of humor is evident. Watching him observe the world around him was, as it so often is with infants, a miracle moment.

My friend and I still talk about her son. We always will. We will always grieve him. And somehow that expression helps us open the door to this new joy, this new boy, this new wonder. I can't explain how it does this, but I can experience it.  And be grateful.

Grief is part of the tapestry, but only a part. Expressing our grief does not have to add sadness to our lives just as, Dr. Stott and John Lee explain, expressing anger does not have to bring destruction into our lives, if we can express it appropriately. Blocking such expression, however, can lead to deep sadness that holds us back from living life to the fullest.

I hope this blog's readers will understand that this blog, unlike so many others published today, is not about opinions, "likes," debates, or publicity. It is simply, and importantly, a safe and aesthetic "place," for expression of that deep and difficult emotion that life brings us: grief.

Ysabel de la Rosa

On my trip to my childhood home, I walked through the park where I spent many enchanted hours on the banks of the San Gabriel River. The river is more beautiful than ever, and I felt the same sense of wonder at age 59 as I did at age 9, looking at the roots of the trees that grow by its banks, gazing into the clear spring water that feeds into the river, and touching the odd rock "shelters" constructed around the springs.  Much has happened in those five decades, including many losses, and yet, the river flows. The river--not the same river, as Herclitus wisely told us--but the river and its flowing remain, alive as ever.
Ysabel de la Rosa

So, here's to getting along with its healthy expression, to loss lived, joy embraced, and the beauty that finds us along the way.