This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother, Ruth Metzler Longenecker. To say I miss her is an understatement of the highest order. Technically, I could be considered an orphan with both my mother and father gone. However, with my own extended family and considering my age, I doubt that such a designation applies.
Is there a word for my status without a living mother or father at my age? I wonder.
Mother lived a full life with many happy moments and good health until a few days before her death on July 28, 2014. Over her lifetime, she had seen phenomenal changes in American culture, including technological ones as shown here:
Anna Catherine (Herr) Houser was speaking/listening on this candlestick phone in 1919 at the time Mother was a year old. Credit:Mennonite Women of Lancaster County, Joanne Hess Siegrist, 1996, page 89.
The last photo I snapped of Mother with her finger hovering over my iPhone captures the moment she looked up momentarily from “paging” through photos of her grand-children and great grand-children.
David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea
The death of someone closest to us is always a form of salutation, a simultaneous Goodbye to their physical presence and a deep Hello to a more intimate imaginal relationship now beginning to form in their absence. (46)
A “deep Hello to a more intimate imaginal relationship”? We’ll see . . .
Have you experienced the death of your mother or grandmother? If a mother, is there a word for one’s status now, bereft of a mother and father? Your suggestions always appreciated here.
Coming next: The Longenecker Sisters’ Road Trip, Part 1
January 28, 2014 – It is six months to the day since Mother passed away. I feel melancholy now. Maybe the cold weather has something to do with it, but more and more I miss the warmth of our Saturday morning long-distance phone calls and sitting around her dining room table, the tingly warmth of homemade vegetable soup in my belly.
Elaine Mansfield too has experienced loss – of her mother and of her husband both in a 13-month time span. She eloquently records the loss of her husband in a memoir entitled Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief (October 2014)
Elaine and I definitely differ in our world view and philosophy of life, hers based on Jungian psychology and meditation, and mine with a distinctively Christian perspective. Yet pain is pain, and we share the intimate, human experience of grief.
Here is our conversation about Elaine’s unique journey:
MB:How did your mother’s passing in 2007 affect you and Vic?
EM: My mom had Alzheimer’s Disease for twelve years. Her body was curled in a fetal position and her eyes were closed. She had been unresponsive for years. She died quietly during a lull in Vic’s cancer treatment, so grieving for my mother merged with anticipatory grief for Vic.
MB:Why did you write Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey Through Grief?
EM: At first, I wrote to digest and understand what had happened. When times are rough, I pay attention to life’s lessons. Writing was my way of doing that. During Vic’s illness, I kept journals so I could remember every detail during an emotional time. Five years after his death, my experiences became a book to help others deal with love and loss. I also hoped to create an engaging memoir that would interest any reader.
MB:What is the main theme of your book?
EM: The book is about a strong marriage and the initiation of losing a trusted partner: dissolution of the old order, then a period of confusion and despair, then a slow return to new life and possibility.
MB:In the book you promise your dying husband of 42 years, “I’ll find a way to be all right.” What lies behind this statement?
EM: Vic and I shared every joy, sorrow, and dream. We’d had an intimate relationship since I met him when I was 21. He was concerned about leaving me and concerned about my grief. Even while I did all I could to help him live, I felt determined to find a way to make life work after his death. He was relieved when I said so. Of course, I had no idea how challenging that would be.
MB: Just like in your blog posts, you use poetic language in your book to describe bereavement and your slow recovery. For example, you describe a group of dolphins as “luminous revelations leaping from the great unconscious sea.” What other descriptive lines from the book are you especially proud of?
EM: “Our first kisses taste of tears and the knowledge that our time together is finite.”
“Mostly he sleeps, but when he’s awake, he whispers words of sweet gratitude.”
“Despite my better judgment, hope floats in, ethereal and transient as a feather.”
MB: What will readers learn from the book? What is the take-away?
EM:Everyone loses things they love—people, jobs, homes, health, dreams. It’s natural to grieve and long for what we cherish. I’ve learned that facing our losses and sorrows makes us more realistic and open-hearted human beings. We understand what matters in life and see that everyone suffers. In this way, sorrow leads us to kindness.
MB: Your book attracts readers who have dealt with or are now dealing with loss. What is your best advice to them?
EM: Experiment and find what comforts you: solitude, friends, nature, music, therapy. The smallest rituals helped me. I left flowers at the gravesite and said prayers there. Writing brought me daily comfort.
Watch for small signs of joy and hope. A bird chirping. The first spring flower. A child’s laughter. Grief is part of life. Give yourself time to feel what you feel. Open to grief and let it open your heart to love.
“Reading this beautiful memoir of love and loss and triumph felt to me like a sacred journey into the very heart and soul of the courageous woman who writes it.” Marty Tousley of Grief Healing.
“Not only a touching and courageous memoir about love, illness, death and grief, Elaine Mansfield’s Leaning into Love is a manual for healing that offers us the emotional and spiritual tools needed to grow and even flourish through Life’s deepest crises.” Dale Borglum, Living/Dying Project
Jane Martin Walters never attended a single Elizabethtown High School Class Reunion, and Dr. Norman P. Will no longer attends college graduations as a president emeritus at Florida State College at Jacksonville. Yet, they both linger in my memory though Jane died in her mid-twenties and Dr. Will in his late-fifties. I have vowed to get rid of memorabilia in anticipation of down-sizing one day, but I can’t – I just CAN’T – part with the pieces of paper that attach their memory to mine.
Jane was smart, very smart, and excelled in college prep track classes in high school. Unlike mine, her learning appeared to be effortless. And her home life quiet and orderly too. After a snow day off from school one winter Jane remarked that she loved snow days because her Mom would pop popcorn, and she and her family would sit by the fireplace and read or play games. In contrast, after the thrill of sledding on traffic-free roads passed, our house was noisy, no hearth for refuge in sight.
You might get the impression I felt envious. But I didn’t. Jane was poised on a pedestal in my eyes, and I admired what appeared to be her calm cadence through life. When I heard she married and worked at the Library of Congress in the Congressional Reference Department, I was pleased. Maybe I’d visit her in Washington D. C. some day. But some day never came. She died of cancer shortly after after her marriage and at the beginning of a promising career. Aunt Ruthie told me, “She ate a nice dinner with her family, said her goodbyes and died in her sleep that night.” I was devastated.
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I admired Dr. Norm Will too, though in a vastly different way. An English professor had become a college president: All’s right with the world! College operations purred along smoothly with Dr. Will at the helm. He advocated free thought, offering friendly evening colloquia for faculty on diverse topics like current ideas in neuroscience and the health of Florida’s St. Johns River. But on the first day of Convocation in 2005, Dr. Will did not appear. He had died the night before while sipping wine and reading The History of God by Karen Armstrong, a text I later happened to reference in my paper for The Oxford Roundtable.
In her piece “Dealing with the Dead” (The New Yorker, October 11, 2010), Jennifer Egan discusses the deaths of three close family members and observes that she has kept an article of clothing from each: her grandmother’s 3-tiered necklace of fake pearls, her father’s navy-blue wool V-neck sweater, and her stepfather’s gray and burgundy argyle sweater. Though the pearls eventually broke as she rounded a corner in the East Village, Jennifer vows to wear the sweaters “until they unravel into shreds” because she likes their feel against her skin. Author Egan shares wisdom gained from loss as she opines:
“Wearing the garments of a person I loved was like being wrapped in a protective force field.”
“When the clock stops on a life, all things emanating from it become precious, finite, and cordoned off for preservation.”
Keeping items from those who have passed on “is a way of keeping them engaged in life’s daily transactions—in other words, alive.” [Italics mine.]
I will add a quotation of my own from Shakespeare’s King Richard III: So wise so young, they say, do never live long.” And then from Scripture:
“So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” Psalm 90:12 KJV
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Have you experienced loss? Is your story like any of the stories I tell or very different? Here’s the place to share it.