In eight days we are get married. Married. In EIGHT days. If you can hear the nervous excitement in my words than you are reading this right. I don’t believe that I could have found a better partner for my life, but we are both aware that this is a huge life step. I’ve been thinking a lot about life steps this last month. I’ve also been thinking a lot about those that are not going to be stepping with us … at least not in the traditional sense.
October has been a whirlwind of a month. Just before the crisp air of this month settled in I traveled to Houston to visit some dear friends. I went carrying bridesmaid dresses and spent some time reenergizing. All the feelings of being drained from my internship (which I have since replaced, but that is a story for a different time), those feelings washed away as I sat with my very dear friends and laughed and drank wine and cried and braided hair and laughed some more.
On the Saturday of my visit, my dear friend and sweet cousin accompanied me to R’s gravesite. I hadn’t been since I move from Houston, nearly 8 years ago. I imagine the place often, will close my eyes and pretend to sit next to where her body rests. There was a nervous energy as we drove there – straight there, I remembered it exactly. Sarah brought beautiful silk orchids to place in her vase and Shee brought a bucket and cloths to wash her stone. There was a small toad living in the water of the vase that sits below where her feet rest. He popped his head out and I had to scoot him away just to get the flowers in. He never left though, just hopped two scooches over and waited. It was grounding - between the toad and the mosquitoes chomping on our legs to remind us that we were the living. We are the living. I miss her. I wish she were going to be here next week. But there was laughter and love and support as I scooped up a little dirt from her site to take home.
The next weekend, I boarded a plan with my dad and his girlfriend to attend my Uncle Steve’s memorial service in Olympia. The entire weekend was beautiful: We spent time with my aunts and uncles, who always leave me feeling enriched. We celebrated and learned about my Uncle Steve’s life. We visited my grandparents’ gravesites. We visited Tumwater falls where my Grandma used to take R and me. We drove by the little blue house that we lived in before we moved across the country.
We stood around my grandma and grandpa’s gravesite – my dad and M, my aunt M and uncle M, my uncle G and I all in a circle. I listened as they talked about their parents, the words bounced back and forth over their resting places between their three children, each with a slightly different experience. We discussed my upcoming marriage and the wonderful family I was marrying into. We talked about D’s mom and the legacy she left when she passed two years prior. The moment mimicked that feeling I had at R’s site a week before … I couldn’t quit place it, but it felt right, harmonizing, and comforting.
At my Uncle Steve’s memorial service several friends and family got up to speak.
An old friend of his got up and talked about when they would play music together. He described them turning back to back and beginning to play at the same time – without preplanned music, without discussing which notes to play, and without feeling the pressure of needing to play it right. He said that every time they somehow would be on the same page, they would feel what the other was going to do, and they would create beautiful music. When he asked Steve why that would happen, Steve replied “that’s ensemble.”
Ensemble. That’s it. The coordination of playing a tune together … “All the parts of a thing taken together, so that each part is considered only in relation to the whole.”
When my Aunt M spoke, I could feel my whole heart swelling in pain for her. The loss of a sibling hurts. It hurts in indescribable ways because it carries with it so much of your childhood, your identity, and a lot of the way you understand the world. That irreplaceable feeling of R swept over me. Then I thought about standing at her site with S&S, and earlier at my grandparents, and about the moments with them living, and about the man I was going to marry, and about the friends and family that would be there, and the ensemble kept growing. The musical arrangement of life is awe-some.
When we were little girls, R and I would not have to explain what the other was doing or thinking – not because we did and thought the same things, but because we knew how those fit together, instinctually. Some parts of the ensemble just flow on their own and other parts we practice and rehearse together. Either way, isn’t it worth listening?
We spent this last weekend on my fiancé’s family farm. I love the idyllic rows of corn and soybeans, the quiet mornings interrupted only by chirping, and most of all spending time with his family. Our dogs ran around without a care in the world and we ate more sweets than necessary. Our nieces, big A and little A, ran around, drove golf carts, and entertained us all. It is a beautiful life.
There is a bittersweet tinge in the air because his mom is no longer there with us. But she helped create this safe and harmonious household. More importantly, she ensured that her death was cushioned by an understanding that love doesn’t stop and that life continues on. Her mission was to show us how “to die well.”
I’m continually amazed at how celebratory each event that memorializes her is and how it still allows for grieving. My sister was ripped away from us … we didn’t have time to assimilate how to continue on, how to celebrate, or how to grieve gracefully. Perhaps that is why in moments that we memorialize their mother, I always take a moment to internally memorialize Rachael – to try to grasp on to the idea of celebrating her life.
As we drove by the cemetery this weekend my future-sister-in-law noticed that her mother’s tombstone had become soiled with grass clippings and general weather ware. She asked me to go with her and her girls to clean the tombstone off. Without tears, they piled a bucket and rags and soap in the car and we headed back. The girls giggled and asked who could use the squeegee first.
I can’t remember the last time I was able to even visit Rachael’s gravesite. It’s in an entirely different city than me now. Each visit always felt so crushing – staring at the 18 year time span marker, the empty spaces for my parents one day, and the flowers that were always dead from our last visit. But I do often think of what it would be like to sit with her under the willow tree that is so close by there …
I filled the bucket with water and poured it over the top of Becky’s stone. Momentarily my throat caught and I flashed to Rachael’s site and imagined washing the stone above her bones. Little A said, “What do you think Grandma is doing right now?” and I just looked at her, and without hesitation she said, “I think she is taking a bath right now.”
Just like that. A glorious reminder of connection that exceeds the boundaries of time and space - in her heart Grandma was doing the very thing that her little hands were helping with. That night I took time to mentally wash Rachael’s stone. I’m not there. Not right now anyways. But I don’t know that time or space truly matters when it comes to love.
Last October, my boyfriend’s mother passed away from a long and hearty fight with lung cancer. She was a light that could not be dimmed – even by the grasps of cancer. Through the last two and half years Becky encouraged, prodded, reminded, and prayed that we would all live and love and experience life.
Becky had arranged several trips after her diagnosis: she took all of us to Europe, to Nashville, and visited each of her kids in their homes multiple times. One of the trips she had planned was to take us all to a lakeside resort in Iowa. Unfortunately, we were not able to take that trip with her due to a turn in her illness, but she encouraged her daughter to still plan for us all to go. And Christi did just that.
This last weekend we all packed up and headed to the same cabin with the same itinerary that had been planned before. It was a perfect weekend and it happened to be Becky’s birthday.
In the first year after a loss each holiday can feel like a brick to the stomach. Often grievers will mark the amount of days passed. The unknown of how Christmas or birthdays will be handled can be terrifying. After the first year, milestones like holidays can still be difficult but you begin to have a feel for how to celebrate with your family’s new dynamic. Creating memorials or traditions can really help ease the pain of your loved one’s absence – the subtle shift of just missing them to remembering them with a special memorial can help heal.
We celebrated Becky. We laughed. We rode the pontoon and sat by the campfire. And on the evening of her birthday Christi planned a special memorial for her mother. We each took Sharpie and wrote a message to Becky on a Chinese flying lantern. While drawing a picture for Grandma, Christi’s four year old asked, “Now this is going to make it all the way to heaven, right?” Her 8 year old decided that it was the best the messages were written upside down so Grandma could read them. There were tears shed but there was some laughter too. As the lantern slowly rose through the night sky and the light got further and further away, each of our hearts felt a little bit more connected to Becky – despite the loss.
Memorials are symbols. Some will turn into traditions – like eating crème brulee every year on Rachael’s birthday. Other memorials will be one-time occurrences. Participating in memorials is not a fixation on your loved one; it is not considered being stuck in your grief. These events give physicality to the grief that we feel, but they are also moments of celebration. We conquer death when we continue to celebrate life that was lived. I encourage grievers, no matter how far along in the journey, to continue to celebrate your loved ones. And deep down, I truly believe that they are somewhere celebrating us too.
Hi, I'm Tiffany. I believe in the power of stories to connect us to each other. I write about life after loss and all the love, longing, and learning that comes from it. Grief is big, love is bigger. My newest stories are about motherhood (after both infertility and loss). In my experience, love doesn't get bigger than motherhood.
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