What is dying, Nina?

Cool sunrise over a fake lagoon in Chandler, AZ, oasis in the desert. A November day here will turn hot and we will go jump in the community pool. I have brought my teacup and journal to a little veranda to write and think about my mother who lies dying in the nursing home that has tended her this past year. I am in Arizona. She is in British Columbia.

My reverie is sweetly shifted by the arrival of my six-year old granddaughter. She is watching me closely this week as I am tracking with my sister & brother who sit at our mother’s side. In the vacation rental house where we are all staying during a reunion and family Thanksgiving, there is a flickering candle altar with photos that honor my mother and also her Uncle Brian who died three years ago. In this same three-year period she has also lost her great-grandfather and her other grandmother, her father’s mom.

altar2

She is twirling my hair, sitting on my lap. “What is dying, Nina?” she asks. “People get dead and then they’re gone.” I take a breath, she’s trusting me to give her something she can understand.ns

“People have two parts that make us who we are: the soul, and the body. I recognize you because I know how you look, and sound, and feel. And I recognize you because who you are shines out from inside you. When you are in your mommy’s womb, the body and the soul come together and you are born in one piece that is both physical and spiritual.

“Then you live your life—one beautiful piece of body and soul. Dying is when those two parts separate again. The body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to spirit.”

“Is that heaven?”

“Yes, heaven is one name for where the spirit goes.”

“Why is your mama dying? Is she hurt? sick?”

“She’s dying because she’s so old her body is tired and her soul needs to be free again. I am happy that she is going to be free, and I cry when I remember all the things we’ve shared and learned from each other.”

We look across the lagoon, and there is the metaphor made visible. “Look at the palm trees, Sasha… see how they are reflected in the water?” She nods. There is the tree that we see growing on the ground, and there is the tree that is reflected upside down in the water. The standing tree is like the body, the reflected tree is like the soul.”

Body & soul.

Body & soul.

“Oh… okay. Can I draw the picture in your journal?”

She takes a pen and begins to draw palm trees and us on the veranda. The day moves on. My mother still breathes. We wait in vigil, both near and far.

PS: The afternoon of this posting, November 27, 2016, my mother Connie died peacefully with my brother and sister present. Now she knows the “big secret”of what is dying. Hallelujah.

Half-mast in sunlight

Friday afternoon in my little village by the sea. Second Street is closed for a summer market: flowers, vegetables, crafts, bread, the stalls are lined up and people stroll through. Dogs on leash are everywhere. Two friends have a new puppy they are carrying in arms. Sunshine and a refreshing breeze off the water.

My father and I are sitting at a patio table in front of the Commons coffee shop chatting about his upcoming 96th birthday. He wants a pizza party on our patio with his four children, three in-laws, a friend or two. He wants this—all this: a village around him, a street full of familiar faces, people waving to us, some stopping to say hi, to bring their own story into the ones we are telling each other. He wants this—his daughter, his daughter-in-law at the next table talking with friends from our decades of work and travel. We all want this—peace amongst acquaintances, friends, strangers, the earth’s abundance spilling over our shoulders. Ice cream cones and coffee. Our corgi, Gracie, wanders back and forth under the two tables seeing who might be eating something, who might have a dog biscuit to share or a cookie crumb. Safety. Peace. A couple of young musicians playing acoustic guitar and familiar songs about love.

It is a moment of complete refuge and beauty.

On the other side of us a group of several women and a man are finishing ice cream cones. One gives her waffle-tip to Gracie to finish. The man asks, “May I pet your dog?” Gracie snugs her back up to his legs and he begins massaging her: both of them blissed, his fingers in her luxuriant fur. A few minutes later when they are ready to stroll, he speaks to me again, “Thanks for letting me pet her.”

We really look at one another. I reach for his hand, strong brown fingers, in this moment his eyes bright with ease in a dark face. I am a seventy-year-old Caucasian woman: he is a middle-aged African-American man. We are in the village together. There is sunshine. Refuge. Beauty. I say back to him, “She loved it. You take care, now. Have a good day.” We smile. He’s gone.

My father and I look at each other. Tears rise in our eyes. What is happening in our country? In the world? In the unspoken chamber of my heart, I want to shelter this friendly stranger, be ready to push him under the table, wrap him in my white skin. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t drive too fast or too slow or with a tail-light out. Don’t get shot.” In various ways, my father has worked for social justice all his life. My first memories are of living in downtown Indianapolis where he was a social worker in what was then called a “neighborhood house.” It was the early 1950s, Negroes were streaming North from the rural South looking for work and needing to learn the ways of the city. My brother and I, at four and two, unaware of race or skin tone or poverty, were just kids on the block, racing around in summer heat, days like this. Eating ice cream cones, our mother would strip us down to our white carter spanky pants so that she could just hose us off afterwards, not have to do a load of clothes. Little half naked kids, vanilla and chocolate, all sticky chested.

The seed of my gesture, white hand and brown hand, resides in those days. So do the seeds of our current violence. We talk about then, and now. I am facing the end of my work life. He is facing the end of his life-time. We have done and are doing all we can.

IMG_6408We walk slowly through the middle of the market toward the post office. The flag is at half-mast. Orlando?—where 49 died and 53 were injured dancing at the Pulse? Istanbul?—40 dead and 230 injured? Baghdad market?—where nearly 300 die from a truck bomb? This week’s police murders of black men: Baton Rouge? Suburban St. Paul? The sniper murder of five police in Dallas? The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken for the world.

Social trauma at this scale is incredibly hard to hold. We are surrounded by problems for which there are no resolutions. How do we help one another not go mad? Not get utterly lost in despair? Find moments of sweetness such as this summer afternoon?

These moments exist in every life: when we trust the friendliness of public spaces, when we pet one another’s dogs, smile at one another’s children, hold one another’s gazes, smiles, and hands. This is what I call a stackable moment: a choice to remember something, to stack it into our memories. We can stack trauma: we can stack healing. We can stack violence: we can stack love.

I choose to stack this moment, to savor it, roll it around and around in my mind until I can call it back to sustain me. There was sunshine. There was my father alive in his stories. My beloved was next to me. There were friends. Dogs. Fruits and flowers. There was a kind man who trusted to put his brown hand in my white hand. We were in the weave together and the world was whole and holy.

The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken—and open. This is how I stack the day.

 

My life is a full-time job

Just before heading back to airport.

Just before heading back to airport.

I emerge from two weeks of “Grandma Camp” and family time, and realize that it’s April and I’m about to turn 70 years old! The world is greening around me— asparagus is up, tulips are peaking, and our flowering crab apple tree is having a glorious bloom after soaking winter rains. I am profoundly thankful to be surrounded by this beauty; and I know it is impermanent, and I know I am impermanent.

The old tree still blooms

The old tree still blooms

Turning 70 is a big deal—and a privilege. Not everyone gets here… mortality is more real to me than in the decade behind me when I jokingly said, “Every year is like a speed limit—life seems to be moving faster and faster.” Well, 70 is a shift into the larger mystery. I intend to use it well—the day, the year, and (with health and good fortune) the decade.

Last August, when my friend Barbara Borden turned 70, I began thinking of the nine months preceding my own 70th birthday as a gestational time. Barbara and I proclaim that she was born on the day I was conceived, so I anticipated a period to reflect, assess, and set goals. I imagined the winter of handing on The Circle Way as a moment of breath and redefinition, exploring how our educational company, PeerSpirit might articulate its own transition. I began a correspondence with several friends in the turning-70-cohort exploring the meaning of this passage for us. I thought I could hang on to this thread, but life happened and took up all that contemplative space. Mom-care and other family concerns, the work and complex communication required to serve on the neighborhood association board as we face repairing the bluff/beach access, the ongoing transition needs of work, and and and…

It seems there   is no easy fix to anything anymore.

I want to think of this coming decade as a golden era in which I can bring together my two life passions of activism and story. I want to be a walking/talking/writing antidote to the frenzy of tweets and texts and fractured sound-bytes that stream off the devices we now carry with us everywhere. I seek opportunities every day to practice transforming experience into story and making a narrative that leads to greater civility and cooperation. Hey let’s just be us: listening, speaking, framing a world we can stand in together.

I am writing a book because the story keeps welling up inside me in spite of everything that calls me away and pulls at my time and attention. These characters are my birthday present. I don’t know what will come of it, only that I am dedicated to this particular story. I want to live long enough to tell this tale. I don’t know why it’s important beyond my own creative fantasy, just that it is.

When acquaintances ask, “So how’s retirement?” I don’t know how to answer. The word seems irrelevant and meaningless to my actual life. I don’t know what to say because saying anything is a much longer story than they may be expecting in a brief encounter, so I just smile and tell them, “I’m not retired. Being myself @ 70 is a full-time job.”

This blog entry is the beginning of a longer story that I intend to dip into this year: what does it mean to turn 70, to stand in the privilege of age and aging? What do I choose as I face into a decade that may well be my last full-on shot of contribution and energy? What remains mine to do now in regards to the larger issues around me? How will I expend and celebrate the strengths I have and admit the fading of strengths as I notice them? How do I come home?

Self @ 69...

Self @ 69…

To begin, Ann and I are heading into a five-day birthday retreat—off line, just us and Gracie, and a nearby island to explore. Alone and together, in silence and circle, turning a funky beach cabin into sanctuary. My gestational imagery returns… along with the labor of giving birth to myself in the new now.

 

 

Stardust, Black Holes, & Fog

Our mother always loved the open road. In the 1950s with three, then four, small children and not much money, she would pack us in the car and head west from Indiana or Minnesota to various family homes scattered throughout California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Two-lane blacktop in the era before Interstate highways and no air conditioning. Our father would stay and work, taking the bus to Montana to meet us at his parents’ homestead and drive home.

Now, her gypsy adventuring is confined to Chemainus Health Care Centre, and the only road ahead of her is the last stretch before dying. In the midst of her short-term memory loss and physical frailties, we who know her spirit are trying to help her make this stretch meaningful. Based on the rows of books on progressive theology, social justice, and conscious aging that I sorted out of her apartment, she was planning on navigating this passage with full mental faculties and an ability to educate those around her.

Instead, we deal with stardust, black holes, and fog. When embedded in long-held routines, she functions with surprising clarity as her church friend emailed: “Connie participated fully in the service.  …There was no doubt she felt happy and I was surprised how many people she knew by name.”

She knows these names and routines because they are encoded far enough back that she has a memory link for them. Memories have to make it through the fog, not get trapped in the black-hole, and then maybe turn into stardust—a point of remembering. Meanwhile, it’s a hard adjustment to live in the fog of new surroundings, routines, and people.

Later that afternoon, she managed to dial my sister’s phone and Becky emailed: “Mom called an hour ago confused about a lot of things… We talked again about the process that brought her to Chemainus. That it was her goal to be back among friends. That where her bed is not the important point. What is important is that her home is her community.

“Obviously she was very tired. She may be able to do well in the mornings but she gets more confused as she fatigues. She told me, “And I’m cold here.” As a nurse walked by she yoo-hooed out to her. When the nurse asked what she needed Mom asked me, “What did I need to tell her?” So I said, “tell her you’re cold.”

In a jumbled reality capacities are jumbled as well : she can delight her friends with glimpses of the dynamic woman they have known for 25 years and she requires constant repetition to frame what has happened to her. Her sequencing behavior is nearly gone: being chilled she can’t remember that the lap robe beside her could be wrapped at her shoulders. She has fallen 3 times just moving around her 8×10 room, forgetting to use her walker.

Yet, even under these conditions, she seeks to find a daily purpose: Why get up in the morning? Why breathe? How do I make it down this last stretch of road?

Every day I send her this message telepathically—it works as well as any other delivery method—“Mom, you can work around your foggy brain and find your reason for being. Bring bits of kindness to those around you—hold a hand, listen, help—and receive all these things in turn. Make music. Notice beauty. When you forget, just do it all again. You are safe now to wander in mystery from one moment to the next.”

The last day she was in her apartment, she woke from dozing in her chair and recited a poem she’d made up in her sleep:

“You see me sitting alone in my chair,

You think that I’m here, but I’m really out there—

Communing with angels, I’ll be with them soon,

Just after I learn how to jump over the moon.”

 

Learning to jump the moon—that’s a purpose. And however she makes that leap, she will be a teacher and way shower for her family and friends.

The photos here show our journey: 1946 to 2016… 1946

2015

 

 

 

 

and the video shows the journey moment of her soul.

Standing in Stardust

Until last Monday, my mother was living in Nanaimo, BC in a nice apartment in an independent senior housing community. She had moved there in May 2013 from her townhouse in Ladysmith and from her church in Chemainus… both small towns about 35 kilometers south on Vancouver Island. Though her impetus was to “take in more city culture,” the past three years have been a spiral into diminishing capacities: increasing short-term memory loss, decreasing mobility, breast cancer. As we, particularly my sister Becky, worked across the US/Canadian border to bring care around her, she was wobbling in a widening gap of services.

In early October 2015, she had “a frontal lobe incident.” Her health aides put her in hospital: her friends called for help. In the past four months I have spent 30 days in Nanaimo with my sister, my brother, or brother-in-law. In mid-December she started falling: cracked her forehead on the corner wall, to hospital for sutures; delusional and disoriented, to hospital for observation; hand puffed up, to hospital for diagnosis of cellulitis; burn on her shoulder blade, to hospital for culturing.

Early January, a Health Services committee cleared her for referral to government subsidized complex care. No one was making any prediction as to when this would happen, or where she will be sent. She was in the queue along with hundreds of other vulnerable seniors. As my sister, brother-in-law and I headed north, again, and I suggest to Becky, “prepare to stay on.”

And then a miracle occurs: a place opens up in complex care. The place is in Chemainus Health Care Centre, her first choice. All her friends live within a few minutes radius her church community is 6 blocks away.

And everything starts to flow! We are standing in stardust. Her friends prepare to welcome her home. We bring mom to see the place, trying to explain this move to a woman with almost no “now.” She does remember volunteering here and playing piano for the residents. Her former neighbor is the activities director. Everyone starts telling us how stable the staff is, how happy the place is, how good the care. We are gulping sighs of relief.

All weekend our mother asks, “Is something big about to happen to me?”

We say, “Yes. You are moving back to Chemainus. You are moving into nursing care, mom. You’ll have what you need to keep safe, and it will be a big adjustment.”

“What will happen to everything?” she gestures to her apartment.

“A few things will come with you to make your new home. The rest we will take care of.”

Sunday we take her for a long drive in the countryside up the coast. She’s too cold to get out of the car, but we enjoy vistas, get cake and coffee, and drive home to her apartment for a last dinner in the dining room. Mom and her daughters sleep in the apartment together one last time.

Monday—she goes “into care.” First night, she’s in a temporary holding room and looks at us like a baby bird peeking out of a nest. Walking away is heartbreaking. My sister and I hold hands and cry and drive north to take apart her household.

The next day she is moved into her own room, 8×10 feet, with a picture window—ocean view. We bring her clothes, artwork and photos, television, CD player and one small box of classical CDs. She has a room that is the right size for her brain and body, and a view that is the right size for her soul.

Over the years, she has read 20 books on conscious aging and dying. There is no reason to sugarcoat what is happening. We repeat and repeat until something gets through the fog that surrounds her and lodges in her mind on the other side of short-term memory dementia.

“Is this my forever room?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I don’t have to move again?”

“No mom.”

“This is where I will live until I die?”

“Yes.”

“This is where I belong?” She stares out the window a bit.

“Yes. Your children will come visit and all your friends are nearby.”

“You can find me?”

“We know exactly where you are.”

“Who pays for this?”

“It comes from your pension. You don’t have to worry about money anymore.”

As I post this blog, it’s been a week. She is guided down the hall to play piano. She is taken to church among friends. She has a chair with view to heaven on earth. She is re-embedded in community.

She is tired and grieving and settling in—so are we all. I come home knowing she is still on her soul journey—that the mind and the brain work with each other, and sometimes have to work around each other. She asks, “What is my job now?”

I tell her, “Your work is to let love all the way in and to offer love all the way out.”

And so it is for us all.

 

A room the size of her brain, a view the sizze of her soul.

A room the size of her brain, a view the size of her soul.

 

Welcoming the stranger

In 1952, when I was six years old, my parents scrambled together a down payment on a chicken coop. that’s what we called the strung together shed-like building on half an acre in the flood plain of the Wabash River at the edge of Indianapolis. Linoleum floors, drafty fireplace in a small living room, funky kitchen, big yard, a few climbable trees. My parents put in a garden, bought real chickens for eggs and meat, and we began subsistence farming while my father worked two jobs, and my mother managed the harvest, the chickens, and sewed clothes for three little children aged 6, 4, and 1. We got new underwear for Christmas and one real toy. I thought it was paradise.

In the wider world, I was oblivious then to McCarthyism, Stalinism, nuclear arsenals, the Cold War, the subjugation of women, racism, etc. etc. I was a child in a pocket of relative safety in a difficult age. We all just held on as best we could. And then the Hofmann’s came to live with us.

In that tiny house, we absorbed Doktor and Frau Hofmann, their daughters ages 13 and 17, and their 20-year-old son. I was just learning to read and came home with my picture dictionary, seating myself between these big girls and teaching them basic English vocabulary and pronunciation. They had been living in a displaced persons camp since the end of the War—7 years in a railroad car. Dr. Hofmann had stood up against fascism and spent the war imprisoned and tortured; his son Christofe was so mentally traumatized he required the full-time attention of the Frau. Gisela, the older girl, did housework helping my mother, while Angela occasionally came with me, crammed in a tiny school desk, learning to read. Refugees.

Our family, borderline poor by American standards, was borderline rich by theirs. My parents, stressed and unsure how to make their own way in life, sponsored this family’s immigration and integration into American society. Soon they had an apartment downtown, clothes, second-hand furniture. Eventually the family moved to Iowa where Doktor Hofmann got a job as a medical assistant in a mental hospital, and, hopefully, help for his son. We got Christmas cards over the years, always thanking us for saving their lives.

I don’t know what happened to them (and their names are changed here for privacy). They were part of my childhood. They remain unforgettable teachers who opened my early awareness to the realities of the wider world. And it is through this intimate experience that I watch the current refugee crisis in Europe.

I acknowledge the social, political, economic, and religious complexities regarding what is happening there. I understand this unstoppable influx is overwhelming even the most welcoming countries and raises important questions about what it will mean to be “European,” as the continent becomes more and more multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-worldviewed. The consequences of centuries, are swirling around: shall we increase the razor wire or increase the dialogue?

Our friends in Europe are on the lines in Austria, Slovenia, Germany, handing out food, helping to maintain calm among exhausted, stressed people who can barely speak a few words of common language, who are looking into one another’s eyes to grab a bit of trust and courage to stay on the path.

I have no idea how my country, state, or community, would react to 10,000 people crossing over the nearby Canadian border every 24 hours, walking down the Interstate desperate to get somewhere…anywhere…safe.

Even if there is “no solution,” there is choice in how we respond. We have turned into a new age and I believe we can show up for this!

What I know is that welcoming the stranger into our homes and communities makes them not a stranger. Six years after WWII, a German family needed help: they got it. They were no longer the enemy. Now people who are largely Muslim, largely from Syria and Africa need help: it is up to us, the white, privileged folks, to stop seeing them as the enemy, and to react with so much kindness that our actions breakdown barriers and misunderstanding.

I am well if you are well.

I am safe if you are safe.

I am home if you are home.

Dr. Hofmann, Frau Hofmann, I hope you had good lives. Christofe, may your suffering have been alleviated. Gisela, Angela, somewhere you are women in your 70’s, may you remember the little girl on the couch earnestly teaching you first grade English. I remember you.

 

For more information:

This video helps explain and calm some of these fears about immigration into Europe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvOnXh3NN9w

If you want to HELP– support the World Food Programme of the United Nations: wfp.org. They are desperately in need of money to keep feeding the millions of people displaced in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is not the time for them to go broke.

 

*** BESTPIX *** HORGAS, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 07:  Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary on September 7, 2015 in Horgas, Serbia. Thousands of migrants crossed into Hungary today from Serbia near Horgas. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

*** BESTPIX *** HORGAS, SERBIA – SEPTEMBER 07: Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary on September 7, 2015 in Horgas, Serbia. Thousands of migrants crossed into Hungary today from Serbia near Horgas. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called ‘Balkans route’ has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

 

 

Summer sweet & sorrow

Picking raspberries on a Sunday, early evening. The sun is coming through the leaves of the plants, creating a golden green, the veins illuminated, infused. This is how it happens: the Earth doing her earth-thing, providing us with what we need, and more… It is a zenith moment, high summer… just before the first tip toward autumn.

We have pulled the peas that our grandson planted last March, visiting us on his spring break. They were wonderful Jaden, and we thought of you with every bite! Earlier this day, we planted another row of lettuce and spinach, hoping for the garden harvest to extend long into the cooling days. I love this tending–such an antidote to all things digital.

I am entranced in my task, eating as I pick. Our little corgi is sitting at my feet, waiting her share. Her dog lips gently pluck the offered berry from my extended palm. I am a smile–my whole being is happy and running with juice.

IMG_22761-225x300A couple of newly married neighbors walk down the gravel road that is our shared string of homes. They are holding hands and talking softly–their almost daily ritual at the end of work: he in the local shipyard, she at the local grocery store. They wave. I walk out to meet them.

“Cup your hands,” I say to them. And into their empty bowls of flesh, I pour a mound of raspberries for each. We stand in our delight. They move on, their conversation punctuated by raspberry sucking. I go back to my happy harvest.

Earlier today I was fashioning a memorial card for next Sunday’s gathering on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth when Brian’s Minnesota family and friends will spend the day remembering him. We remember you every day, Brian… Eight months into this passage, I am the stage of grief where I find myself calling out to him from my heart, “What an amazing journey, this grief walk… Your mother and I have learned so much… and we miss you so much. I am sure you are learning wondrous things over there on the other side of the garden, your being infused with golden green. Could you come back–just for an evening? Let’s sit on the patio in the high point of summer, sit where we sat last summer and did not know it would be the last time, please…. I have raspberries, and so much I want to tell you and hear from you!”

The “dead” respond as they can. I hear his voice in my head. I receive him in my dreams. I look at his photos. I watch the raspberries turn to rubies through the prism of my tears. I look up– The white stag who lives in the neighboring woods is walking down the road. He stops, unafraid, turns and looks directly at me. We hold one another’s gaze.
I move quietly to the patio, Ann and I stand arm in arm… I feed her berries. The deer regards us still, then moves on, hoofs tapping lightly on the gravel. The dog has not barked.

WS1-300x225This is how it is. Sorrow is sometimes sweet and juicy. Grief can be infused with light.

You who are freshly suffering–know that the juice returns. Know that magic happens, that the veil is often thin. Hold out your cupped hands and they will be filled with what you need to get through this moment, and the next. This is how it is.

Fist to the heart–Five Months Later

It has been five months since a midnight phone call pulled us into the emergency of our 33-year-old son’s dying. We were on our way to the airport by 3:00 AM, and by 6:00 AM I had sent an email to extended family and friends asking for prayers and articulating what was happening as it unfolded. We flew to Denver. His sister arrived. His father arrived. Friends surrounded him. He hung onto the thread of life with a ventilator, and after this day of being loved by many who knew him, his heart stopped at 8:07 PM, all his organs in failure due to prescription drug interactions and post-surgical complications.

For the next two weeks I continued to send emails that communicated the complex information and heartfulness of these first days. Exactly a week after his death I had four hours alone on a plane and I wrote in my journal, “The story shatters…” I then documented moment by moment that 24-hour passage from the phone call to the strange, exhausted slumber in a Denver motel. I have hardly written since.

The story really did shatter—and the hardest question of the whole winter has been people’s inquiry, “How are you doing?”

How should we know how we’re doing? By what measurement does one respond?

In my book, Storycatcher, I say, “Words are how we think, story is how we link.” Life story is developed by attaching a new experience to an old one, like putting two children in line together and saying, “Hold hands. Don’t let go. Help each other cross the street.” A previous experience, which we have already transformed through the narrative function of the mind into meaning , serves as a tutor to help us absorb a new experience and begin to integrate it.

But when the new experience is extreme in some way—we can’t link it. This is called shock. The world right now is full of shocks. And what observers call “news”—a missing jetliner, a deadly mudslide, a sinking ferry with hundreds of teenagers on-board, Sherpas carrying their dead off Everest, etc. etc.—is individual, familial, and community survivors experiencing breakdowns in their capacity to integrate what just happened into what has happened before: shock on a massive scale.

Narrative is our life-line. The psyche goes into free-fall when our attachment to meaning is broken. I had my hand on Brian’s chest when I saw the heart monitor go flat. For most of the past five months, when people ask, “How are you?” I have internally re-experienced that moment, and realized that in many ways “I” am still in that room where we took an emotional fist to the heart that will influence our lives forever.

I have started to blog a dozen times these months, and not had the energy to complete my thought process. This entry signals me that linkage is starting: I am beginning to hold hands with Brian’s death in words as well as in raw experience. Because restoring narrative is essential for wholeness and well-being, I will write more about this as I learn my way into language.

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Brian and his nephew Jaden

Meanwhile, I pray for all those I see grieving on the news, and for patience from the rest of us who do not understand why they are so fixated on the downed plane, the mudslide, the tipped ferry, and millions more private traumas. How are they? They don’t know. Just don’t abandon us—however you come across people in the aftermath of sorrow, trauma, and travail—hold our hands until we can hold the hand of story.