Saturday, November 11, 2017

Love, Loss, and Letting Go By Sharon Brown Keith Author of Mockingbird Moments

Love, Loss, and Letting Go
By Sharon Brown Keith
Author of

My father died suddenly on October 20, 1992. I was shocked, and unprepared to deal with his death and to add to my already high stress level, I was the mother of a busy two-and-a-half-year-old, and expecting my second child in December. I was completely overwhelmed, as I had never experienced anything as devastating as the death of a loved one. I struggled daily with feelings of sadness, inadequacy, and uncertainty, and truly believed I would never feel normal again. After a heart-wrenching couple of months, Christmas was upon us and things didn’t seem any easier. Instead of holiday songs during this most wonderful time of the year, I heard Merle Haggard lamenting, “If We Make It Through December.” That became my theme song. I really believed if we could get through December, everything was going to be all right. The one thing carrying me through each day was the anticipation of my son’s birth. He was my hope, my motivation, my strength. That’s a lot to put on an unborn child, but it worked. It made me focus on the present and limited my visits to the past to a few, fleeting moments of solitary sadness. After Charles was born, I felt a sense of relief. I had survived the two extremes—my father’s death and my son’s birth. I foolishly believed that I had weathered the storm of the previous months, and although I was still heavyhearted, I was convinced the worst of my grief was over. I was completely ignorant of how preposterous this assumption was.
The days leading up to Christmas passed along without much action. I was settling into my new normal, which basically was a rut. I was in a routine, which I liked, but I felt removed from the excitement that the holidays usually bring. I rose at the crack of dawn to feed Charles and get Christopher ready for his day. My husband, Brian, dropped off Christopher at the baby-sitter’s on his way to work, which meant I could stay in my pajamas until it was time to pick him up in the afternoon. I used to mock people who wore pajama-looking clothes out in public. It is a well-known fact that Walmart is a haven for shoppers who dress in this type of attire. I unapologetically deemed these people to be sloppy and slovenly on the highest level. However, after a couple of weeks of enjoying the guilty pleasure of warm flannel gowns, soft fleece pajama pants, and comfortable house shoes, I understood. I could have easily joined and fit right in this group of lazy yet comfortably dressed members of society. Much to my relief, this was before the Internet and the “People of Walmart” photos. I could have been a contender! My newfound indolence didn’t end with my total lack of fashion sense. I carried this “I don’t care” theme into my physical appearance too. I might or might not wash my hair on a daily basis, and if I did, I would let it dry naturally. The result was frightening, to say the least. My stringy hair was accentuated with uncontrollable flips and waves. The last couple of months made me well aware of the fact that I couldn’t control everything, and my hair was living proof of this. As far as makeup went, I slapped on a tiny amount of foundation before leaving the house. That and maybe some eyeliner. The one thing I was a complete stickler about was lipstick. It was mandatory. I may have looked like a hobo in all other respects, but by golly, I was going to have on my red or pink lipstick. As my world crashed around me with my hideous hairstyle, vagabond attire, and pale face, I clung to my lipstick. Lipstick couldn’t solve all my problems, but it was a pretty good start. Applying it daily showed some effort and actually kept me from falling completely apart. Without it, I would have officially let myself go.
Fortunately, in January 1993, I returned to work, leaving behind my pajama pants and lackluster appearance. The new year gave me a new outlook, a sprinkling of hope that the days ahead would be better, or at least do-able. As I got back in the rhythm of being a working mom, days started turning into weeks, and then months, and then years. Before I could catch my breath, the boys were both in school, and my life began changing in different ways. My circle of friends grew as I began to mix and mingle with the mothers of boys’ classmates. There continued to be a feeling of hollowness about me, but over time, I taught myself how to hide the broken parts, hoping others couldn’t see through the facade and realize that inside, I was falling apart.
Throughout my life, I’ve grieved deeply, and in so doing, I have lost and found myself again. Grief changes people. It destroys our idyllic existence, and the flawless lives we all long for; it tears down the ideas and walls we hide behind; it reveals our hearts, souls, and spirits; it forces us to become strong and move forward or, in our weakness, give up and give in. Grief is a thief, as it not only takes away our loved one but also steals our joy. There is nothing fake about grief. It is overwhelming, ugly, and real.
I clung to my grief for too long and wore it like clothing that had gone out of style. In my quest to move forward through my grief, the toughest aspect was dealing with regret. There are two kinds of regret: from things done, or things not done. Regret is a lump in your throat that makes everything life brings you more difficult to swallow. It’s a slow growing tumor that camps out in your body, making simple, mundane tasks difficult to complete. After a while, you wear regret like a badge so the whole world knows you’re damaged goods, and there’s a void or hole in who you are, one that can’t be filled by anyone or anything. It was this deep-rooted regret of leaving things unsaid with my dad that led me to become a school counselor. It seemed people who were hurting were drawn to me, as my loss was still so fresh and real; it was like a magnet for people who needed someone to share intimate details of their lives. A complete stranger once approached me in the grocery store and asked where I found the Wholly Guacamole and in the next breath sadly lamented, “I don’t have to buy a lot of groceries because my husband died and I am alone.” I held her hand as she shared her loss with me. Quite out of the blue at my son’s school Valentine’s party, the mother of another first grader announced to me, “I have a tilted uterus,” as if I wanted to know the inner workings of a complete stranger’s reproductive system. Crazy Bob invited me to his barbecue house to partake in his “D-vorce special,” two sandwiches for the price of one, which would help him pay for his divorce, along with the tummy tuck and breast augmentation he provided for his wife before she left him. In this situation, not only was I the recipient of too much information but also a glass of his sweet tea. Before my dad’s death, I lived life with a sense of entitlement, as if the world owed me something. I now firmly believe that it is I who owes the world whatever I have to give to make it a better place.
Throughout my grieving process, I discovered many things. First, and most importantly, I learned this: grief has no expiration date. Everyone grieves differently, and the time frame varies from person to person. Upon arriving home after my father’s death, I opened the refrigerator to take out the milk. As I placed the container on the counter, I noticed the expiration date: 10-25-92. Who knew something as simple as a date on a plastic carton of milk would move me to tears? The bottom line was this—the milk in the fridge expired after my dad. It wasn’t the milk’s fault, but in my clouded reasoning, this just wasn’t fair. Over the next few months, I continued to count the hours, days, weeks, and months since Dad died. However, I had a huge breakthrough at the end of the summer, when I gave up my futile attempt to keep alive the plants I brought home after the funeral. I spent months being their caretaker, and I was a pretty pitiful one at that. I either over-watered, under-watered, gave them too much sun, or not enough. This added burden constantly nagged at me because I felt like I was slowly killing them with a long and painful death. I wanted the plants to live, since Dad didn’t. And then, one day, I finally let them go and deftly added plant murderer to my résumé. I wasn’t exactly proud of this, but it was a major step. I was learning to let go and move on. Just as I admitted my defeat with living, green things, I also took another big step. Whenever the subject arose about my father, I was able to say, “He died,” and no longer, “He passed away.” To this day, I hate that phrase because it sounds so easy and peaceful. I believe that my father didn’t “go gently into that good night.” I like to think he fought to stay here with us, and he kept fighting until he could fight no more. People don’t just “pass away.”
After many years of being consumed with anguish and feeling cheated by life, I firmly believe that great grief comes from great love; it is the alpha and omega—the beginning and the end. I realized throughout my grieving process that I was afraid, not of death and dying but of living. I felt guilty and selfish about moving forward. The past is necessary, because it is what shaped us and made us who we are. It is from that place that we attain wisdom and grit, but it is in the present that we can make a difference. When it’s all said and done, I know this to be true: my father’s death made me who I am today, and for that, I am exceptionally grateful. It was through death that he showed me how to live.

Additional information on Sharon Keith and her book, Mockingbird Moments may be obtained at


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