A Remarkable Life Do-Over

There was no doubt my life had taken an unexpected detour when I looked at the two books lying on my night table.  The Wisdom of Menopause by Christianne Northrup and What to Expect: The Toddler Years by Heidi Murkoff were unlikely companions, but a perfect illustration of my life nine years ago.

I was newly married for the second time and 41 years old when I got the news.  I was pregnant.  I WAS PREGNANT?!  I thought all my eggs were dinosaur eggs.  I was wrong!  After my sister talked me down from the ledge, pointing out that nobody was sick or had died and reassuring me that this was good news  I was able to embrace this unexpected, yet distantly familiar experience.  The tiny source of my world being turned upside down’s next oldest sibling was thirteen.

I do believe most people thought I was crazy, but politely kept that to themselves as I continued my work at a small hospital in rural Alberta.  My grandmother was keenly interested in the fact that I was pregnant again and confided in her soft, low voice that I was the same age she was when she had her last baby.  My own mother  (and my husband’s biggest fan) was actually giddy.  My dear husband was thrilled enough for the both of us.  I confess I had my misgivings about the prospect of starting all over.

As I began to resemble the watermelons I was compelled to devour in copious amounts at all times of the day or night, the overwhelming nausea subsided and we prepared for a baby.  Our future was uncertain, as plans to move to southern Alberta turned into a move to the United States.  For three months after our precious little boy was born, we even lived  in my mother’s basement until our relocation south of the border.

 We laughed about it then and marvel now, how at our age, we were treated to a rare and remarkable do-over.  We were making our way with not much more than love and experience.  We were newlyweds with a baby, changing our boy on my mom’s ironing board in the basement hallway and starting over with very little in the way of material things.  Oh, and we were in our 40s. As one of my friends so aptly put it, “…having our own grandchildren”.

As reluctant as I felt at the time, I am equally sure now of the ‘rightness’ of the privilege of having a baby with my dearest love.  I’ve been more relaxed and ‘present’, knowing now how quickly the years fly by.  My oldest daughter and mother of 3 of our grandchildren has remarked more than once that, “Nathan got a way better mom” and she’s right.

I know what things matter (shutting off the computer and going for an impromptu hike, complete with snacks prepared by the boy and safely stowed in his Scooby Doo insulated lunch bag) and what things really won’t amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things (believe it or not, dishes and laundry wait and there are years of yard work ahead on which to dedicate our time).

I know that taking care of myself and being as fit and energetic as possible must be a priority, because he deserves young parents even if they are old(er).  And I will likely color my hair until he’s left the nest, just so he doesn’t have to explain that I’m not his grandmother.  This, of course, is a personal choice and I bemoan the fact I will also likely miss my window of opportunity to naturally participate in the current fashion trend of sporting ‘granny hair’. I would never have imagined how having a child at ‘my age’ would enhance my life and even improve my health.

I have wistful regrets about my youthful impatience, inexperience and imperfections that my grown children will undoubtedly remember.  Alas, going back in time to make it all right is not an option.  I imagine they would probably benefit from a few sessions on a therapist’s couch… because of me.

Because of them, though, I can give their little brother the best possible mother (still ridiculously imperfect, but more patient and experienced).  Because of them, the boy has “a way better mom”.  And because of them, I’m not taking my time with him for granted.

Somewhere along the way, I held each of them on my knee… for the last time.  And there was a last time each of them came to me with a book to read, an ow-ee  to be doctored, a school assignment to be proudly displayed and fussed over.  I don’t know when those times will be for this boy, but I’m not taking them for granted.  Every time is going to be precious.

~Selena Pannell, co-author of 3,000 Miles To Eternity: A True Internet Love Story

Death Decorum – Don’t Ask How

“What happened?”  Or the dreaded alternative, “How did he die?” These are the questions I have come to shrink from in the days and weeks since the death of my 35 year old son –in-law.  I can only imagine how my daughter feels (now a 30 year old widow with 3 little ones under the age of 6 and all on the autism spectrum), when approached by sincere and I’m sure, well-intentioned people with these same questions.

I found out at church I’m not a very gracious griever.  I was approached more than once and asked one of these questions.  I felt like a trapped animal with no escape in sight. Neither answer I gave was satisfactory, either to them or me.  I still haven’t figured out how to ‘do’ deeply personal loss in public right, and haven’t had the heart to check Pinterest for ideas.

“Why do you want to know?” caused a bit of stammering, but a quick re-wording by her brought us back to the same place. “He was so young, what happened?”

*sigh* “His heart stopped.”

An audible gasp with a flash of shock made me realize I’d given the impression he’d had a heart attack.  I didn’t want to answer.  I didn’t want to feel like I had to answer.  I tried again, to clarify without really answering, “That’s what happens when people die.  Their heart stops.”

Still unsatisfactory.  This stilted conversation, no doubt intended to convey concern and compassion, only made me feel more alone.

We all have heard, at one time or another, about the stages of grief.  We know to expect denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We can read ad infinitum appropriate things to say or do when called upon to express a surprisingly awkward acknowledgement of someone else’s grief.  And yet, asking ‘how’ seems to have slipped through the cracks of death decorum.

I know I have done the same thing.  People are curious.  I get it, I’m a curious person, too.  For some reason, it’s not enough to know a tragedy has happened.  We want details. Maybe we feel subconsciously this will ‘connect’ us with the mourner.  Or maybe the raw details feed our primitive need to feel the reassuring relief that it’s not ‘us’ or ‘ours’.  I wonder, though, how many times have I unknowingly magnified someone’s grief by asking one of these simple questions?

Since our own personal tragedy, I’ve been rethinking how I approach someone who has been devastated by the loss, expected or not, of a loved one.  In an effort to help others avoid making the same mistake, and as a PSA for those mourning and just-trying-to-make-it-through-the-day souls, I’ve come up with three ideas.  I hope these will remind us all of another way we can show sincere care and compassion for the newly bereaved.

It’s okay not to know what to say and if that’s the case, say nothing.

One of the most touching gestures I’ve received in the last few weeks was the hand on my shoulder as I settled into my pew at church.  I looked back and saw the face of an elderly woman, with intense eyes.  She didn’t say a word, but I knew in that moment she knew and that she cared.  Not a word, but I could feel her concern. I’m going to remember how this tender acknowledgement of my pain made me feel and try to offer that gift to others.

Being curious is natural, but at this emotionally intense time, it’s not about you.

In the light of day, when no death is imminent, can any of us honestly picture asking this question in good conscience?  We simply don’t know if the burden of grief feels infinitely more intense because murder or suicide, accidental overdose or a fatal error in judgement by the deceased or someone else involved caused the untimely demise.  Err on the side of caution and compassion and focus on the mourner’s feelings, not your own.

Grieving family members may not want to confide in you, and that’s ok.

If you have not been included among the inner circle privy to details, you need to respectfully consider a couple of possible reasons.  It could be that you are not considered close enough to warrant that type of confidence.  It may be those who are suffering through a loss may not feel ‘safe’ to share. Reluctance to trust us with intensely personal information may come from a fear of it being treated as common neighborhood gossip to a deep-in-the-core desire to be loyal and protect the deceased. We may feel like it’s our business, but unless offered, patience would be well advised.  Putting someone who is already mourning in that position can not only intensify their pain but may well compromise your relationship for years to come.  These are the moments that embed themselves in one’s memory.

The very nature of life itself includes death and we will all assume the role, sooner or later, of comforter and mourner.  And we will all face the same tragic awkwardness in each role.  Now you know how.

~Selena Pannell, co-author of 3,000 Miles To Eternity: A True Internet Love Story