My very dear friend and colleague of 25 years died a week ago. She was my friend, mentor, role model, chosen sister and professional confidant. She made mistakes and owned them. She knew how to show her love and had a heart big enough to love the world. She loved me and I felt gifted. The space she leaves empty I don’t even want to fill. I want her always in that place of especially high regard. Her name is Liz.
Yesterday I attended a training seminar on working with children who are dying or have a parent or sibling who is dying or has already died.
I am feeling exceedingly vulnerable. My body trembles with feelings of loss, sadness, fear, bewilderment and much more. I am remembering Liz and that space as I sit in this room with many others open to holding frightened and grieving children in their heart…….colleagues who are seeking the wisdom and the information to be able to do a stellar job at being there for vulnerable and bewildered children facing what adults find close to impossible to have to face.
I don’t think I am afraid of my own death so much as I fear the loneliness, the being alone, the empty space, the part of my life that has irreparably ended when someone I love dies. Never to be held or seen or known again by that particular special someone. Liz left this life time unexpectedly. She and her beloved Ian, partner for 60 years, were on an anniversary cruise on the Danube. As far as I know she had no signs or suspicions. She simply, if it is in fact an act of simplicity, had a massive heart attack and died while in a hospital in Budapest, thousands of miles and millions of cultures away from family and friends. Only dear Ian was there to handle the incredible shock and grief and the logistics until more family arrived.
I was shocked, stunned, bereft, and bewildered. I am aching for connection and hungry with the emptiness of her desertion. Dear Liz. I received the news of her death via a phone call on my answering machine from a mutual colleague. What do I do now? Every other Tues for 18 years I met with Liz and Mary Anne to keep the three of us on task with clients, to share and hold each other in love and high regard, to be simultaneously personal and professional.
Rebuilding takes time and for me it also takes quiet and a place where I can retreat from the chaos of loss. I listen to music. I sleep. I read. I think. I go blank and am very still. I seldom cry. I haven’t cried for the loss of Liz. But every day I am aware of the empty space where in the past she kindly and wisely held me. I came to deeply trust and feel a dependency upon Liz’s wise thinking and feeling self. I am tenderly nurturing a geranium from last year’s summer garden because Liz too loved red geraniums and was able to keep them throughout the winter months and bring them to bloom early in the spring. I think of her, her generosity, kindness, wisdom, steadfastness, creativity and courage, every time I nurture and nourish that tiny struggling geranium.
Even as I hold my love and sadness for Liz I intentionally continue to move forward in my life and one of the ways I decided a while ago to do that is to become certified in working with grieving children. Early in the morning of the first day in this class where I am being taught how to simultaneously keep my heart open and my mind engaged, we were asked to think and then to write about the first death we experienced as children.
I didn’t write mine. I could barely pick up my pencil. I became emotionally paralyzed. My ears buzzed, my mind shut down, and I physically froze. I did not feel safe to share what was going on with anyone in that room, including my dear friend Joanie who was attending the seminar with me. I feared I was making way more than what was called for as I held my early childhood memory in my mind. My adult self was chastising the little girl inside of me who learned fear, shock, loss, adult uncertainty and pain way too young for her to know how to deal with it.
The first death I experienced as a child was before I was three years old. It was the death of a sister I was promised but who wasn’t born and instead the birth of a brother who was severely physically disabled. It was the death of my innocence, my trust that my world was safe and my belief that the grownups knew what they were doing. It was also the emotional and spiritual loss of my mother who became very depressed and the perceived disappearance of my father who worked 14 hours a day to bring in enough money for hospital bills.
Sitting in that classroom I felt 3 again, when the world as I knew it was wiped out and I only had Bradshaw to count on. Bradshaw was a friend only I knew. No one else could even see Bradshaw. Up until almost 3 years old, I was the apple of my parent’s eye; I was the centre of their world; I was dearly loved and I knew it. I had been promised a new baby sister to be my forever playmate. For me, life was about as safe and loving and certain as life can only be when we are 3 and well loved.
And then it all changed and I did not understand a bit of what was going on in my world. The always trustworthy adults were filled with what I know now was grief, fear and uncertainty. They had NO idea what to do with the totally unexpected turn of events: my new baby brother had exceedingly traumatic physical problems and even the doctor knew only to take him to a specialist hospital very far away from our small lake side town. In their total not knowing of how to respond to this emergency they left me in the care of a family they knew and trusted but I felt did not want me. Looking back, I now know I felt left out, abandoned, totally uncertain and very frightened. My safe world was turned upside down in a matter of only hours and I was dancing as fast as I knew how in an unsuccessful attempt to keep up with the grown up world I so depended on and was clearly now out of their control.
I did not know all of that then. I can put it together and find words for what I believe it must have been like for me now when I look back from a place of years of life and training in relationship needs and emotional needs. What I did do and knew how to do was turn into my inner word of imagination and fantasy.
I turned to Bradshaw who gently entered my new and unknown world and brought to me an internal knowing that ultimately I would find safety again. Together we rebuilt what had been taken away by surprise and totally unintentionally. Bradshaw and I become inseparable. No one else knew when Bradshaw was around because I wouldn’t tell, though eventually my mother figured it out and supported my fantasy. My mother was an amazingly wise woman for her times and background and she was also completely overwhelmed with the task ahead of years of rehabilitation for my brother. The world I created to keep myself safe worked for her as well as working for me. Mom trusted us- Bradshaw and me. She knew we were good for each other.
All of this felt like way too much to share with a group of people I had only met 2 hours previously who ultimately had come together for the purpose of learning how to take care of grieving children and not a re traumatized adult. The combination of already feeling vulnerable about the entirely unexpected death of my dear friend Liz and feeling totally catapulted into my earliest childhood trauma left me feeling powerless and able to cope only enough that I was aware I needed to protect myself. Or maybe rather, I needed to protect the little girl inside who didn’t feel seen or understood when her world turned so unexpectedly chaotic.
When I was three I turned inward and allowed Bradshaw to help me. As an adult I turned inward and let sleep, meditation, writing, music, long walks with Aimee help me once again become grounded and be able to feel my strength and know I can not only survive, but can thrive and do it with panache
I know I can work with children who are dying and with children whose parent or sibling may be dying. I have to take time to love my own child inside as I am seeing her anew. But I don’t think that will take very long; then I can once again be available to help other children. I have been walking this path for a long time. In the mean time I continue to work with adult children who have experienced loss and sadness in their childhood. I am very close to my nurturing adult and very tender with myself and others. We are all doing the very best we know how to do. Blessed be.