A Grave Tender

Earlier this week, I met a friend as we gathered for a hike. She gave me a little hug and asked, “Doing better?”

I thought she was inquiring about my mobility, so I gave an update on stretching suggestions she gave me earlier. Then she asked, “How was the cemetery?”

“Did I tell you about the cemetery?”

“You mentioned that it was the anniversary of your son’s birthday and that you and your daughters were going to place flowers on the grave later that afternoon.”

I don’t usually talk about grief or tough anniversaries, so the realization that I breached my superficial stoicism and mentioned the day caught me by surprise. Of course, I was headed to a cemetery to maintain a self-imposed tradition, and that was also a contradiction.

A grave tender

I was raised to believe that when you aren’t hanging around the planet anymore, the place where your bones end up doesn’t matter. Then I put my son, J.C., in the ground, and my views about neglected earth changed. Not rationally, just emotionally.

Each year, the anniversaries of J.C.’s birth and death are occasions for my husband and IMG_0401me to travel to the Union Point Cemetery where three family members are now memorialized. But this year, Micahel was out of town and the thought of facing J.C.’s anniversary alone had me in unexpected disarray. 

After a hike with friends, I planned to travel to place flowers and clean the headstones alone. The trip probably would have been one of those occasions where I considered my grief and picked at a scab in the exoskeleton that protects me. Then after I let it bleed a bit, I’d allow it to dry and toughen up to sustain me before I drove home.

Then plans changed.

Group effort

My three daughters each live within two hours of my home. The girls and I are very different critters in terms of taste, interests, and to some extent, values. But we all get along and can appreciate one another’s companionship.

I know that makes me a wealthy woman.

When word got out that I would be alone on J.C.’s birthday, each daughter arranged to be away from work and planned to tend graves with me. I worried that the girls’ sadness in remembering J.C. would only add to my guilt and sense of responsibility for the brother they lost. I was tempted to insist that I would go alone and spare them a long drive through Portland’s notorious Friday traffic. But, that would have caused me to miss out on time with all three daughters, and that loss would be a silly price to pay to avoid a little grief.

When we arrived, the rural cemetery was bathed in broken sunshine as the grounds crew worked to spruce it up. While we waited, we ate a picnic lunch that one daughter prepared. It was a time of comfortable remembering without recrimination. When the mower moved on, we took care of our tasks and snapped pictures to remember a meaningful afternoon together.

Ta-da

When my children were young, I didn’t openly grieve the accident because I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t accept God’s will. More importantly, I didn’t want to believe J.C.’s death was anything but God’s hand. Sometime in the future, I will be saying a lot more about my distorted thinking. Now I will only mention that my children have had varying amounts of therapy to cope with their upbringing, while I’ve had some counseling to deal with an occasional current issue. But in those problem-solving sessions, I never mentioned the particulars of the accident because I couldn’t own them.

Even to a therapist.

The “no duh” observation of this little ramble is that the trip I planned to make alone with my grief became a day of comfort because it was shared. Not with people who said they thought I needed their help, but with daughters who said they would enjoy going with me.

After our visit to Union Point, a daughter stayed the weekend with me. She is 18 months younger than J.C. and survived the accident that took his life. She posted a picture on Facebook of her sisters gathered together in front of her brother’s headstone. (A photo that I won’t use because I avoid putting identifying images in this blog.) As comments came back from former classmates or friends who admired J.C., she relayed the solace and comfort to me.

As the day ended, I reflected on how shared heartache can soothe our souls, and I realized that I need to get back to digging and writing about my past. When I started this blog, it was all about being honest. But in writing, I’ve found I can be comfortable writing about my foibles in the present. It’s the past that is tripping me up.

But after getting a brief hug from my friend, and remembering the afternoon of goodwill from my daughters, I realize that sharing may not be as painful as I fear.

I just need to trudge forward, look back, and write.

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Koop

After hiking with you today and now reading your blogs, which I knew nothing about until today, I love your very personal writing and now share your grief. Thank you for sharing!